Manhood for Amateurs, page 1
To Steve Chabon
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.
* * *
* * *
[ I ]
The Losers’ Club
[ II ]
TECHNIQUES OF BETRAYAL
William and I
The Memory Hole
The Binding of Isaac
[ III ]
STRATEGIES FOR THE FOLDING OF TIME
To the Legoland Station
The Wilderness of Childhood
The Splendors of Crap
[ IV ]
EXERCISES IN MASCULINE AFFECTION
The Hand on My Shoulder
The Story of Our Story
The Ghost of Irene Adler
The Heartbreak Kid
[ V ]
STYLES OF MANHOOD
Art of Cake
I Feel Good About My Murse
[ VI ]
ELEMENTS OF FIRE
Looking for Trouble
A Woman of Valor
[ VII ]
PATTERNS OF EARLY ENCHANTMENT
Sky and Telescope
[ VIII ]
STUDIES IN PINK AND BLUE
A Textbook Father
[ IX ]
TACTICS OF WONDER AND LOSS
The Omega Glory
The Amateur Family
[ X ]
CUE THE MICKEY KATZ
Daughter of the Commandment
About the Publisher
[ I ]
I typed the inaugural newsletter of the Columbia Comic Book Club on my mother’s 1960 Smith Corona, modeling it on the monthly “Stan’s Soapbox” pages through which Stan Lee created and sustained the idea of Marvel Comics fandom in the sixties and early seventies. I wrote it in breathless homage, rich in exclamation points, to Lee’s prose style, that intoxicating smartass amalgam of Oscar Levant, Walter Winchell, Mad magazine, and thirty-year-old U.S. Army slang. Doing the typeset and layout with nothing but the carriage return (how old-fashioned that term sounds!), the tabulation key, and a gallon of Wite-Out, I divided my newsletter into columns and sidebars, filling each one with breezy accounts of the news, proceedings, and ongoing projects of the C.C.B.C. These included an announcement of the first meeting of the club. The meeting would be open to the public, with the price of admission covering enrollment.
For a fee of twenty-five dollars, my mother rented me a multipurpose room in the Wilde Lake Village Center, and I placed an advertisement in the local newspaper, the Columbia Flier. On the appointed Saturday, my mother drove me to the Village Center. She helped me set up a long conference table, surrounding it with a dozen and a half folding chairs. There were more tables ready if I needed them, but I didn’t kid myself. One would probably be enough. I had lettered a sign, and we taped it to the door. It read: COLUMBIA COMIC BOOK CLUB. MEMBERSHIP/ADMISSION $1.
Then my mother went off to run errands, leaving me alone in the big, bare, linoleum-tiled multipurpose room. Half the room was closed off by an accordion-fold door that might, should the need arise, be collapsed to give way to multitudes. I sat behind a stack of newsletters and an El Producto cash box, ready to preside over the fellowship I had called into being.
In its tiny way, this gesture of baseless optimism mirrored the feat of Stan Lee himself. In the early sixties, when “Stan’s Soapbox” began to apostrophize Marvel fandom, there was no such thing as Marvel fandom. Marvel was a failing company, crushed, strangled, and bullied in the marketplace by its giant rival, DC. Creating “The Fantastic Four”—the first “new” Marvel title—with Jack Kirby was a last-ditch effort by Lee, a mad flapping of the arms before the barrel sailed over the falls.
But in the pages of the Marvel comic books, Lee behaved from the start as if a vast, passionate readership awaited each issue that he and his key collaborators, Kirby and Steve Ditko, churned out. And in a fairly short period of time, this chutzpah—as in all those accounts of magical chutzpah so beloved by solitary boys like me—was rewarded. By pretending to have a vast network of fans, former fan Stanley Leiber found himself in possession of a vast network of fans. In conjuring, out of typewriter ribbon and folding chairs, the C.C.B.C., I hoped to accomplish a similar alchemy. By pretending to have friends, maybe I could invent some.
This is the point, to me, where art and fandom coincide. Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever at one but which maintains chapters in every city—in every cranium—in the world. Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.
After I had been sitting at that big empty conference table for what felt like quite a long time, the door opened and a woman stuck her head in. I can still see her in my memory: her short blond hair parted in the center, her eyes metering the depth and density of the room, the tug of disappointment at the corners of her mouth.
“Oh,” she said, seeing how things were with the Columbia Comic Book Club.
A moment later, her son pushed past her into the room. He was a kid about my age, blond like his mother, skinny, maybe a little girlish. For a moment he stared at me as if I puzzled him. Then he gazed up at his mother. She put her hands on his shoulders.
“I have a newsletter,” I said at last, sliding the stack across the table.
The woman hesitated, then urged her son toward me, figuring or hoping, I suppose, that something could be salvaged, some kind of club business transacted. But the boy pushed back. That multipurpose room was not anywhere he wanted to be. God knows what kind of Araby he had erected, what fabulous tents he had pitched, in his own imagination of the event. A wordless argument followed, conducted by the bones of his shoulders and the fingers of her hands. At last she gave in to the force of his disappointment or to the barrage of failure rays that were pouring from the kid across the room.
“One dollar,” she said seriously, considering the sign I had taped to the door with the same kind of black electrician’s tape that was holding my eyeglasses together. “I think that might be a little too much for us.”
I don’t remember what kind of shape I was in when my own mother returned, or how she comforted me. I was a stoical kid, even an inexpressive one, given to elaborate displays of shrugging things off. In looking back at that day, I see now how much the brief existence of the C.C.B.C. had to do with mothers and sons, what a huge, even overwhelming maternal task is implied by that worn-out word encouragement. In spite of whatever
Though I derive a sense of strength and confidence from writing and from my life as a husband and father, those pursuits are notoriously subject to endless setbacks and the steady exposure of shortcoming, weakness, and insufficiency—in particular in the raising of children. A father is a man who fails every day. Sometimes things work out: Your flashed message is received and read, your song is rerecorded by another band and goes straight to No. 1, your son blesses the memory of the day you helped him arrange the empty chairs of his foredoomed dream, your act of last-ditch desperation sends your comic-book company to the top of the industry. Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you always knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club.
[ II ]
The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low. One day a few years back I took my youngest son to the market around the corner from our house in Berkeley, California, a town where, in my estimation, fathers generally do a passable job, with some fathers having been known to go a little overboard. I was holding my twenty-month-old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto the checkout counter with the other. I don’t remember what I was thinking about at the time, but it is as likely to have been the original 1979 jingle for Honey Nut Cheerios or nothing at all as it was the needs, demands, or ineffable wonder of my son. I wasn’t quite sure why the woman in line behind us—when I became aware of her—kept beaming so fondly in our direction. She had on rainbow leggings, and I thought she might be a little bit crazy and therefore fond of everyone.
“You are such a good dad,” she said finally. “I can tell.”
I looked at my son. He was chewing on the paper coating of a wire twist tie. A choking hazard, without a doubt; the wire could have pierced his lip or tongue. His hairstyle tended to the cartoonier pole of the Woodstock-Einstein continuum. His face was probably a tad on the smudgy side. Dirty, even. One might have been tempted to employ the word crust.
“Oh, this isn’t my child,” I told her. “I found him in the back.”
Actually, I thanked her. I went off with my boy in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other, and when we got home I put a plastic bowl filled with Honey Nut Cheerios in front of him and checked my e-mail. I was a really good dad.
I don’t know what a woman needs to do to impel a perfect stranger to inform her in the grocery store that she is a really good mom. Perhaps perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks’ worth of healthy but appealing break-time snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr. In a grocery store, no mother is good or bad; she is just a mother, shopping for her family. If she wipes her kid’s nose or tear-stained cheeks, if she holds her kid tight, entertains her kid’s nonsensical claims, buys her kid the organic non-GMO whole-grain version of Honey Nut Cheerios, it adds no useful data to our assessment of her. Such an act is statistically insignificant. Good mothering is not measurable in a discrete instant, in an hour spent rubbing a baby’s gassy belly, in the braiding of a tangled mass of morning hair. Good mothering is a long-term pattern, a lifelong trend of behaviors most of which go unobserved at the time by anyone, least of all the mother herself. We do not judge mothers by snapshots but by years of images painstakingly accumulated from the orbiting satellite of memory. Once a year, maybe, and on certain fatal birthdays, and at our weddings or her funeral, we might collate all the available data, analyze it, and offer our irrefutable judgment: good mother.
In the intervals—just ask my wife—all mothers are (in their own view) bad. Because the paradoxical thing, or one of the paradoxical things, about the low standard to which fathers are held (with the concomitant minimal effort required to exceed the standard and win the sobriquet of “good dad”) is that your basic garden-variety mother, not only working hard at her own end of the child-rearing enterprise (not to mention at her actual job) but so often taxed with the slack from the paternal side of things, tends in my experience to see her career as one of perennial insufficiency and self-doubt. This is partly because mothers are attuned, in a way that most fathers have a hard time managing, to the specter of calamity that haunts their children. Fathers are popularly supposed to serve as protectors of their children, but in fact men lack the capacity for identifying danger except in the most narrow spectrum of the band. It is women—mothers—whose organs of anxiety can detect the vast invisible flow of peril through which their children are obliged daily to make their way. The father on a camping trip who manages to beat a rattlesnake to death with a can of Dinty Moore in a tube sock may rest for decades on the ensuing laurels yet somehow snore peacefully every night beside his sleepless wife, even though he knows perfectly well that the Polly Pocket toys may be tainted with lead-based paint, and the Rite-Aid was out of test kits, and somebody had better go order them online, overnight delivery, even though it is four in the morning. It is in part the monumental open-endedness of the job, with its infinite number of infinitely small pieces, that routinely leads mothers to see themselves as inadequate, therefore making the task of recognizing their goodness, at any given moment, so hard.
I know there’s a double standard at work; I suppose if I’m honest, I would have to acknowledge that in my worst moments, I’m grateful for it, for the easy credit that people—mothers, for God’s sake—are willing to extend to me for doing very little at all. It’s like pulling into a parking space with a nickel in your pocket to find that somebody left you an hour’s worth of quarters in the meter. This double standard has been in place for a long time now, though over the past few decades a handful of items—generally having to do with cooking and caring for babies—have been added to the list of minimum expectations for a good father. My father, more or less like all the men of his era, class, and cultural background, went for a certain amount of spasmodically enthusiastic fathering, parachuting in from time to time with some new pursuit or project, engaging like an overweening superpower in a program of parental nation-building in the far-off land of his children before losing interest or running out of emotional capital and leaving us once more to the regime of our mother, a kind of ancient, all-pervasive folkway, a source of attention and control and structure so reliable as to be imperceptible, like the air. My father educated me in appreciating the things he appreciated, and in ridiculing those he found laughable, and in disbelieving the things he found dubious. When I was a small boy, tractable and respectful and preternaturally adult, with my big black glasses and careful phraseology, he would take me on house calls and at-home insurance physicals along with his stethoscope and Taylor hammer. When he was done being a father for the time being, he would leave me in my corner of his life, tucked into the black bag of his affections. At night sometimes, if he made it home from the hospital, he would come in and lean down and brush my soft cheek with his scratchy one.
If the lady in the rainbow tights had seen us walking down a street in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1966, with me swinging my plastic doctor bag full of candy pills and deneedled hypos and trying to match my stride to his, she probably would have told him that he was a good dad, too. And she would not have been saying very much less or more than she was saying to me.
My father, born in the gray-and-silver Movietone year of 1938, was part of the generation of Americans who, in their twenties and thirties, approached the concepts of intimacy, of authenticity and open emotion, with a ce
In 1974 I saw a musical cartoon called “William’s Doll.” It was a segment in that echt-seventies, ungrammatically titled children’s television special created by Marlo Thomas, Free to Be You and Me. The segment, based on a book by Charlotte Zolotow, was about a boy who begs his bemused parents to buy him a baby doll, a request to which they are nonplussed if not, in the case of William’s father, outright hostile. William is mocked, scolded, and bullied for his desire, and his parents try to bribe him out of it. But William persists, and in the end his wise grandmother overrules his father and buys him a doll.
Even as a boy of ten, I could feel the radical nature of the mode of being a father that “William’s Doll” was holding out to me:
William wants a doll
So that when he has a baby someday
He’ll learn how to dress it
Put diapers on double
And gently caress it
To bring up a bubble
And care for his baby
Like every good father should learn to do.
I was moved by the sight of the animated William reveling, grooving, in the presence of the baby doll that his grandmother placed in his waiting arms. There was a promise in the song and the sight of him of a different way of being a father, a physical, quiet, tender, and quotidian way free of projects and agendas, and there was a suggestion that this way was something not merely possible or commendable but long-desired. Something was missing from William’s life before his grandmother stepped in and bought him a doll, and by implication, something was missing from the life of William’s father, and of my father, and of all the other men who were not allowed to play with dolls. Every time I listened to the song on the record album, I felt the lack in myself and in my father.
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