Novelist Michael Chabon: 'My Family And Kids Have Been My Gang'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is writer Michael Chabon. His new book is a collection of personal essays about being a father and a son. One of the essays went viral when it was first published in GQ. It told the story of how Chabon took his 13-year-old son to Paris Men's Fashion Week because his son loves to create his own street fashion. It turned into a surprisingly moving piece about his son finding a world he fit into. The concluding essay in the book is about Chabon's relationship with his father. Chabon's parents divorced when he was 11.
Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his novel "The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay," which begins in 1939 and tells the story of two young men in the early days of the superhero craze who decide to create their own superhero. Marvel comics and superhero movies are still among Chabon's passions. His 2007 novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," reimagined another chapter of history based on the premise, what if Israel collapsed in 1948 and, in the wake of the Holocaust, part of Alaska was set aside as a temporary refuge for Jews? Chabon's new collection of essays is called "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces."
Michael Chabon, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to start with a reading from your new collection. And I want you to set it up.
MICHAEL CHABON: OK. Well, thanks. I'm really happy to be back. And this is from the introduction to the book. And in the introduction, I open by telling - remembering something that happened to me when I was just starting out, actually before my first novel was published. I went to a writers' conference. And there was an older writer there who kind of took me aside and, you know, for reasons that were not clear to me at the time, just decided to give me the benefit and sort of distill all of his wisdom into this one all-important rule that he then, you know, bestowed upon me.
GROSS: So here's his advice.
CHABON: Don't have children, he said. That's it. Do not. The smile faded, but its ghost lingered a moment in his blue eyes. That is the whole of the law. I was due to marry my future ex-wife in under a month. My book would come out the following spring. It turned out that this conjunction of circumstances, in the view of the famous writer, was cause for alarm. Now, marriage is fine. In fact, all of the guy's books were dedicated to his long-suffering wife. But if you were not careful, you would run a serious risk of damaging your career. After this one, he patiently explained, there would be a second novel to write. And second novels were notoriously thornier and more unwieldy than debuts.
Following the inevitable sophomore screw-up, if I were lucky and stubborn in the proper measure, I would go on to tackle the magisterial third and fourth novels, then the quirky fifth, the slim and elegant sixth, the seventh that in some way would recapitulate and ring the changes on all its predecessors, and so on for as long as my stubbornness and luck held out - unless, of course, I made the fatal mistake of so many would-be young hotshots before me. You can write great books, the great man continued, or you can have kids. It's up to you.
GROSS: How was your reaction in the moment?
CHABON: Well, first of all, I was sort of dizzied by the way he had conjured up this entire career that I could possibly have.
CHABON: You know, all these subsequent books that I was going to be writing. You know, I hadn't really thought (laughter) that far ahead. And, you know, I - since I didn't have kids yet, and I wasn't even married yet, and we had just sort of had a few kind of almost playful conversations, my future ex-wife and I, about having kids, it was all - it all felt so unreal to me. I just - I didn't quite know what to make of it. But on the other hand, it definitely - once I began to have children and, you know, began to encounter the unquestionable difficulties that children can present to a writer trying to get his or her work done, then I was - I had reason to remember his warning.
GROSS: OK. So you not only had, like, a child or children, you had four children. (Laughter) So how did you decide, like, how many to have?
CHABON: The idea of having four children actually in some ways, for me, it predated my ever, you know, being married or having children at all, in that I - when I grew up in Columbia, Md., there was this family. My best friend had three siblings. He actually had two boys and two girls in his family, which is what I ended up with with my family.
And this family was just - it was kind of a magical household to me. And I was - you know, I would go over there. There was just always something going on in that house. There was always - you know, a play was being written and produced, or they had gotten into taking jars to the stream behind their house and trying to catch tadpoles or whatever it might be. They did a lot of kind of collective activities as kids. And I - that really did create this wish in me to have that. You know, if I couldn't have it for myself, then to sort of - to have it for my own children.
GROSS: So did your children end up being good friends and playing together?
CHABON: Yeah. I mean, we're - ours weren't as closely grouped as that family that I remember from my childhood. They were all within - the eldest was only maybe 6 years older than the youngest. And we had them in two clumps, two groups. We had two, and then a gap of about four years, and then the two younger ones, who are very close together in age, 22 months. So it was tough when they were younger for them all to do things all together because the older one was so much older than the younger one. But to see them as they become adults and start to forge a kind of collective identity as four young people, four young adults in the world, it is very satisfying to me. And I do feel like they will have each other, you know, forever once my wife and I are gone.
GROSS: One of the essays in your collection "Pops" is about your son Abe, who loves fashion, textiles, buying clothes, wearing clothes, combining garments in unusual, really fun, attention-getting ways. And for his bar mitzvah gift when he was 13, you took him to Paris Fashion Week. And you had a writing assignment from GQ to write about Fashion Week. So you took him to a lot of the shows. And, you know, he got to meet some of the designers, which was huge for him because - this was so exciting to him - one of the top designers kind of singled him out for how terrifically he'd put his outfit together.
So when it was time to go home, he was really unhappy about leaving and about leaving behind the people he'd met there. And you react to it. You write your reaction in this essay at the very end of the essay. And I'd like you to read that part. And you can set it up in any way that you want to to get into the reading part.
CHABON: Sure. Know that it was time for Men's Fashion Week to be over. And, you know, I expected that he was going to be a little, you know, melancholy about that. And in fact, he was very melancholy. And, you know, I was - frankly, I had been pretty bored the whole time. You know, Men's Fashion Week really didn't mean anything to me like it meant to Abe. And I was ready to go home. And, you know, I was somewhat impatiently trying to just - you know, the way that you do when you're, you know, trying to help your kid and when they're feeling melancholy, just try to name what exactly it was that he was feeling. So I'm like, yes, it's been really fun. You know, no, it's not that. Well, I know it's going to be, you know, very sad to be leaving Paris. It's such a great place. No, it's not Paris.
And, you know, I'm trying to sort of guess or put a name to this somewhat inchoate, you know, feeling that he's having. And I kept guessing wrong. And then finally I guessed correctly. And it was being among the people that he had been among all week - you know, fashion professionals, retail - salespeople, store owners, buyers and especially the editorial staff of GQ magazine, who had sort of been our hosts and had been really looking out for him. And he got to spend a lot of time with them. And it turned out to be - it was that group of people that he was so sorry to have to say goodbye to.
GROSS: Do you want to read that excerpt?
CHABON: Sure. (Reading) You are born into a family, and those are your people. And they know you, and they love you. And if you're lucky, they even on occasion manage to understand you. And that ought to be enough, but it is never enough. Abe had not been dressing up, styling himself for all these years because he was trying to prove how different he was from everyone else. He did it in the hope of attracting the attention of somebody else somewhere, someday who was the same. He was not flying his freak flag. He was sending up a flare hoping for rescue, for company in the solitude of his passion. You were with your people. You found them, I said. He nodded. That's good, I said. You're early.
GROSS: So what was your mix of feelings when you realized that? Because on the one hand, it's so great that your son found his people. He found the people who are as obsessed with fashion as he was. At the same time, he's, like, leaving the sense of family as being, first and foremost, his people.
CHABON: I mean, it's - you know, it's very painful. I'm not going to lie. It's hard in your sort of deepest, most unreflective, emotional mind not to see that, not to feel that as, in some way, a rebuke, you know, as a rejection. But it's - you know, as a parent, sooner or later, you - for your own sanity and for the sanity of your child, you have to realize - you have to come to terms with the fact that they are going to leave you, that they're supposed to leave you, that that's your whole mission.
That's your whole purpose as a parent, ultimately - is to create a fully formed human being who can go out and stand on her own two feet. And there's a certain resemblance between what a parent feels for an adult or an almost-adult child and unrequited love. It's not unrequited in the sense that your child doesn't love you back. But it's - ultimately, it seems to flow in this one direction. And that's the purpose of it.
GROSS: It must have felt good to see the validation that he got at Paris Week...
CHABON: Oh, as...
GROSS: ...Paris Fashion Week because it showed, like, oh, this isn't just, like, an eccentricity or a way of getting attention. Like, he's good at it. People admired him for it. And he fit in with other people who are equally absorbed in fashion and clothing.
CHABON: It was. It was - you know, it did feel like I had taken this little house plant that had been growing in a pot in the corner, you know, and had only sort of been capable of achieving a certain amount of growth in those circumstances and then sort of transplanted it for a week in a completely different kind of soil, an environment where it began to grow flowers that it had never grown before of a size that we had never seen before. It just was - there was something miraculous about it and also bemuse - you know, I was bemused by that because it's something I so don't understand.
He was speaking a language I don't speak. I would - it must be, in some ways, similar to how a parent of a, you know, chess prodigy feels if that parent is himself, you know, not particularly a good chess player. To see him not just, you know, and not just - it's not just about how he was dressed and how he carried himself and how it gave him the opportunity, in a way, to sort of be himself in - to a degree that he hadn't been able to do before.
But there is knowledge. There is expertise. There is, you know, an eye that sees - that takes a look at someone's clothes and kind of analyzes them and breaks it down and then begins to apply the lessons learned to - you know, to the stylistic choices that, you know, the person makes going forward. And I just got to see a - I didn't - until we were in Paris, I didn't fully understand just how much he knew and just how - and not just how much he knew but how he was able to apply that knowledge and how quickly he could sort of absorb new lessons.
GROSS: So the article that you ended up writing for GQ about taking your son Abe to Paris Fashion Week became a famous article for you. It got a big readership. I think the article went viral. Is that the article you expected to write? Like, what were you expecting the article would be? What was the assignment that you landed? Was it about taking your son there, or was it about just going to report on fashion week?
CHABON: No, it was about taking him there. I mean, it was this - I just had this idea. I wanted to do something for him for his bar mitzvah that would, you know, both be special and memorable but that would also...
GROSS: Have a payoff for you? (Laughter).
CHABON: Well, that, too. But it would also, like, acknowledge him, in some way, to sort of a gift that would say, you know, I see you. I see what's important to you. And, you know, here's what I - here's how I'd like to acknowledge this part of you that I'm - that is clearly so important to you. So, you know, I came up with this idea. And I pitched it to GQ. I said, I'd like to take - my son's kind of a - sort of a, you know, he's a maven, a young maven. And I'd like to take him to Men's Fashion Week. And they thought that sounded like it could be a good article.
So, you know, it was a way to essentially - to be honest, to get this trip paid for, something I wanted to do for him but probably otherwise wouldn't have been able to. It wouldn't have been seen my way clear to doing just because of the expense of it. And then, you know, once we got there, the whole time we were there, I honestly had no idea. In fact, I was a little bit anxious about, like, what am I going to write about? Like, what is this? I was taking notes. And, you know, I'm not a journalist. I'm not a reporter. It's not, you know, my - I like to be able to make things up.
And if I need something to happen three times and not two times, I can say it happened three times. And having to stick to the facts and get it all right - that just produces anxiety in me to begin with. And then to think, like, what do I know about fashion? And how am I going to write about Abe in a way that's both, you know, sensitive and accurate and hopefully will say something that's worth reading about? And I was just kind of a mess the whole time, worrying about this. And then I found suddenly that by putting myself into the third person - seemed to do the trick, that by writing about myself in the third person in this way, seeing Abe's minder was always, you know, running five minutes behind Abe. Somehow, that gave me the proper tone.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Chabon. And his new book is a collection of essays about being a father and being a son. It's called "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Michael Chabon. And his new book is a collection of pieces about being a father and about being a son. It's called "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces." So we were talking about your son finding his people at Paris Fashion Week when you took him there. When did you find your people, and who were they?
CHABON: That's a good question. I mean, I think the most honest answer to that question might be it wasn't really until I started having children. And my family and my children have very much been my gang, for me, at least for the - in hindsight - relatively brief period, but felt like a long time while it was happening, that we were all six together living in the same house. We were a club, and we did things as a club. We had passions, manias, obsessions as a club. And those kids, my kids, very much became my people...
GROSS: Did you...
CHABON: ...Maybe in some way for the first time in my life.
GROSS: Did you feel like your - the family that you were born into was like a club for you?
CHABON: No, not really, not so much. I mean, my - but maybe partly because there weren't (laughter) enough of us. You know, there were two - Mom, Dad and two kids. And my parents were divorced when I was in my very early teens, and my father moved away. You know, my father and I had a - I mean, if a club can have two members, that - there was a certain degree of that in my relationship with my dad growing up that did continue even once he moved away to a degree, but not at all in the same degree, and in some ways still continues to this day.
GROSS: I would guess that one of the things that made you feel like a club with him is that, like you, he had a passion for literature and music and comic books. So you had that to share.
CHABON: Yeah, very much. And in fact, I really do feel I owe my love for those things to him and to his influence, and above all, I mean, in his, like, lowercase-C catholicity, you know, that he didn't really distinguish between high culture and low culture or pop culture and, you know, serious culture. He - I wouldn't say he loved everything. But the things he loved, he loved without real regard for whether other people considered them to be high or low.
So you know, he loves serious classical music. You know, he introduced me to, you know, Schoenberg's music and at the same time, you know, had me sat down to watch, you know, "The Man With The X-ray Eyes" with Ray Milland, like - and to tell me, like, both of these are incredibly important things that you must know, and you - and if you really want to, you know, earn my favor, you must also love as much as I do. So you know, that - it's not just the love of art and music and literature and so on, but the sort of ability to set aside the kind of cultural biases that a lot of art, you know, has suffered under that I am very grateful to him for it to this day.
GROSS: The last essay in your collection of essays, "Pops," about being a father and being a son, is about your father. And he was a doctor. He's not practicing anymore, right?
CHABON: No, he's not.
GROSS: Yeah. And was he a general practitioner, an internist?
CHABON: No, he was a pediatrician. He practiced as a pediatrician.
GROSS: Oh, OK. So sometimes he took you with him.
CHABON: Yeah. He - well, when he was really young - and this is, I think, fairly - still to this day, happens fairly often, is he would supplement his pretty meager medical student income by doing insurance physicals, like, physicals for insurance companies. And when he had one of these physicals, you know, to do, he would very often take me along with him.
GROSS: And you had a toy blood pressure cuff (laughter)...
CHABON: Yeah. I had a whole little kit or...
GROSS: ...That you...
CHABON: ...A whole little plastic bag. Yeah.
GROSS: Little doctor bag (laughter).
CHABON: Yeah. With the blood pressure cuff and the candy pills, which, of course, I ate all of immediately. So I was unable to prescribe them to any of my patients thereafter.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon. His new collection of personal essays is called "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces." We'll talk more after a break. And TV critic David Bianculli will review the new version of the classic "Rocky And Bullwinkle" cartoon series. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael Chabon. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay." His other novels include "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," "Telegraph Avenue" and "Moonlight." His new book, "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces," is a collection of personal essays about being a father and a son. He has four children with his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman. When we left off, we were talking about his relationship with his father, who was a pediatrician. That's the subject of the book's concluding essay.
In the essay, you compare your father's bedside manner with actual patients to his bedside manner with you, his son, when you were sick or when you were injured. And make that comparison for us.
CHABON: Well, it was unquestionably the case that whatever was wrong with me - you know, he's seeing me - let me set the context - he's seeing - at this time when I'm writing about in this essay and for many, many years thereafter, you know, he's seeing really sick kids. You know, he's treating - at this time, he was a doctor at the Indian hospital, as it was called, in Phoenix, Ariz., at the time in the mid-'60s. And for the rest of his career as a pediatrician, he dealt with battered children and children suffering from terrible terminal illnesses and all that kind of stuff, in addition to the garden-variety fevers and diarrhea and all that kind of stuff. And, you know, for whatever reason, my own sufferings and - you know, thank goodness I never had any serious injuries or ailments. It was - nothing was ever more serious than a broken arm. I guess, in some ways, it just didn't measure - they didn't measure up.
And so whatever I would come to him with - if I didn't feel good, if I had hurt myself, if I had cut myself or whatever it might be - always the response from him was the same, which was, looks like we'll have to amputate. And, you know, I guess I knew he was kidding. But what he was serious about was - you know, you don't seem like you're really that sick to me, and I have a much higher standard of concern than the one you are currently measuring up to. And I guess I've gathered from things people have told me when this piece came out - I think it was - James Fallows tweeted, you know, that his father was a doctor and had very much the same kind of attitude toward his childhood injuries as my father. I don't think it's that uncommon an experience for the children of doctors to have that sort of disregard.
GROSS: Nevertheless, I thought he was being a little nonchalant - like, underplaying it a little bit when you broke your arm. And he fixed it with whatchamacallit tape.
CHABON: An Ace bandage.
GROSS: With an Ace bandage, yeah.
CHABON: And an ice scraper.
GROSS: And an ice scraper from the car - like the kind of thing you'd use in a car to clean up the ice.
CHABON: He was so proud of himself too. I can still remember to this day like how the...
GROSS: Was that until you went to the hospital? Or was that like - that was the fix?
CHABON: No, that was it. He set it. He put it on that.
GROSS: So you're walking around with an ice scraper in your arm for how long - for weeks?
CHABON: Well, I don't remember to be honest. I was pretty little. I was about 4 years old. And, you know, I guess it wasn't in his judgment a particularly serious fracture. And, you know, I mean a splint is a splint. He splinted it. So a splint might have been this big flat piece of - I don't know - metal or wood that you would then possibly even use an Ace bandage to do. And he didn't have a piece of flat metal or a piece of flat wood, but he had this plastic ice scraper. He went and got it out of the car. And that's what he used. And, you know, it's almost like a...
GROSS: Were you in a remote region like alone in the woods or something where there were no emergency rooms?
CHABON: Yes, we were in distant Flushing, N.Y. - in the wilds of Flushing, N.Y.
GROSS: OK. Did you ever talk to him about that?
CHABON: Oh, yeah, he laughs about it still to this day. And like I said, he was proud - like, he was proud of his - you know, how there's this thing with con men where, like, con men will go to these incredible lengths and go through incredible difficulty to avoid working. It was a little bit like that with my dad - like, he would - his ingenuity in avoiding a trip to the emergency room was probably, in many cases, just as difficult as a trip to the emergency room would have been. But there was something that he took pride in having - in kind of MacGyver-ing it in a way that avoided us having to go to the emergency room.
GROSS: So how did your experiences with your father who - your parents were separated I think when you were 11. How did that affect your view of what it meant to be a father and if you wanted to be a father yourself?
CHABON: Well, I think it had a profound impact in a lot of ways. The divorce wave that crashed over American families in the 1970s very much coincided with developments in women's liberation. And at that same moment that my dad took off - you know, went, moved out and then eventually met my stepmother and remarried and moved pretty far away - at that same moment, this document is emerging in culture which was incredibly important to me. And I'm talking about "Free to Be You And Me," Marlo Thomas's record album/television show. You know, that presented to me an utterly convincing picture of equality in families, equality between the genders. Women can be railroad engineers, and men can, you know, knit and be like Rosey Greer. And I bought the whole thing.
GROSS: You mentioned that when your parents divorced it was at the time of the renaissance of the women's movement. And you also write about your mother and what she went through after the divorce and how you watched her dating men. And you say, my mother had her share of heartache at the hands of ladies' men. What were some of the things you learned about what men do that are things that are really offensive to women, you know, from watching your mother and from hearing her talk about her relationships?
CHABON: Well, I mean, I think the things that really were burned into me by the experience of seeing how unhappy she could become - I guess the primary things were disloyalty - you know, men running around on her. If it was someone that she felt she was in some kind of committed relationship or, you know, they were going steady - whatever the term was at the time - you know, they were supposedly monogamous. And then, you know, she would find out that wasn't the case - and then just a sort of un-gentlemanliness too. I mean, I know that's a really antiquated term.
I can remember - I never forgot my mom saying to me, you know - so she was waiting for some guy to call. And he'd said he was going to call, and he never called. And days went by, and she's waiting for this man to call her. And I can remember her saying to me, you know, when you grow up, and you're dating women, and you tell one of them that you're going to call her, you call her. You know, it was - I really did have this sense that I was getting an education. I wanted to learn from this experience. I was very attuned to the idea - maybe probably partly because my mom placed it in my head by saying things like that - like this is how you - you're going to learn how not to be by watching how unhappy I'm being made by these, you know, jerks that I'm forced to choose among because that's what's in the pool.
GROSS: So what did you learn about sexism by watching your daughters grow up? And by the way, I love what you say about men who stand up against sexual harassment because they have daughters - you know, as the father of a daughter. And you're right. The implication is that unless and until a man has a daughter he remains incapable of mastering the empathy required to grant women full status as human beings whose rights and integrity must be respected.
CHABON: Right. Yeah, you know, that's a bemusing one to me. I mean, from - I guess from my daughters what I've learned is how hard it is - like how even with all of the best intentions in the world and with a - and truly believing that women are absolutely 100 percent equal to men and have equal rights and, you know, deserve respect and are not to be violated in any way or harassed in any way - like, even deeply believing all that in my heart, I still mess up sometimes and not in any - like I don't think grave - super grave ways. But on the other hand, the culture is still there to support you in making those kinds of statements and judgments to the degree that - you know, like when I had - our oldest child, when she was little, really little - like 18 months old - I bought her a set of trucks, right?
So I'm doing just what "Free To Be You And Me" told me to do, right? I bought her a set of Hot Wheels trucks and construction equipment. And I give it to her. I set her up. I'm down on the floor with her. I went vroom, vroom driving and showing how the earthmover works and all these things. And she's like, God, this is great. You know, she's loving it. She thinks it's awesome. She starts to play with them. And I move away to let her play with them. And she goes, this is the mommy truck, and this is the daddy truck. And these are the baby trucks. And the baby truck is sick. You know - right? And I'm - and when I would tell that...
CHABON: You know, right? So, like, that's what we're up against on one hand. But also, when I would tell people, other parents that story, they would all have similar stories like that. And there was a very seductive, easy way to be like, well, what are you going to do, right? It's like it's wired into us. You can't fight it. It's just there, like, with all the best intentions in the world. And I would really try hard to resist that, to fight against that sort of - the way that the culture will sort of warm your bathwater for you if you want to sink into cultural stereotypes like that. The culture is sort of there for you, ready to support you.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Chabon. He has a new collection of essays about being a father and a son. It's called "Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Michael Chabon. His new book is a collection of essays about being a father and being a son. It's called "Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces."
You've written some about Jewish culture in your books and, you know, in fictional settings. What has the place of Judaism been in your life and how has that changed over the years from your childhood to now?
CHABON: Well, it's changed many times. Since I was a kid, you know, I grew up in a kind of very strongly Jewish identified, somewhat observant but far from - you know, far, far from Orthodox household where, you know, we observe the holidays in our fashion, and we went to services on the high holidays and did Hanukkah and Passover and Purim and so on. And, you know, but we also ate bacon and oysters. And, you know, it was kind of not strongly religious. Religion was never the important part. It was always the culture and the sense of cultural connection to the ancestral culture and to my family, my immediate family, my grandparents and great-grandparents and so on.
You know, I had a bar mitzvah. And after that - not very unusually - I completely lost connection after that for many, many years. And it wasn't really until after the collapse of my first marriage and the wake of that that I began to try to reconnect to Judaism - that I had a sense that I was missing something or that I had sort of thrown everything overboard. And maybe I should've been more careful about what I threw overboard. And maybe there were things I had thrown overboard that I could still use or need or that I needed. And...
GROSS: Why did the collapse of your marriage lead you to that conclusion?
CHABON: Well, I think in part because whenever my ex-wife and I would talk about having kids one day, we would always get into this argument with - which was my fault - about how they would be raised and, like, what religious tradition they would be raised. She was not Jewish. She was from a Protestant denomination and - which she was not at all, you know, observant in. But that's how she had been raised. And, you know, and I would always find myself just very dogmatically saying, you know, my kids would have to be Jewish. Like, they'd be raised Jewish. And my ex-wife would very reasonably ask me, like, how am I supposed to know this is important to you when it doesn't seem like it's important to you at all? And I had never had an answer for that.
And after that - it's not like the marriage didn't end at all because of that. But in the aftermath, I would think of that and think, well, what does it mean to me? Like, what does being Jewish mean to me? And let me try to find out. And let me try, like, going to services and lighting candles on Fridays and, you know, trying various things that seem to be able to connect me. And it also included, like, plunging more deeply into Jewish culture, Jewish history, Jewish literature kind of across the spectrum - trying it all to the extent that I felt comfortable doing and seeing, in a sense, what took.
And then once I met - Ayelet, my wife, who's Jewish, came from a very staunch atheist, secular, Labor Zionist kind of background - you know, we tried to make a Jewish house in our way. And we start - especially once you have children, as my ex-wife and I had suspected, it becomes a very important topic. And so I tried to connect for a long time. But, you know, eventually, I became, again, just very strongly disconnected now as I remain now from the religious side of it, even though I did give it my best shot. And I think more than anything else, it's just the rise of extremism, the rise of fundamentalisms, not just Jewish fundamentalism - Christian, Muslim, you know, Hindu, Buddhist fundamentalisms.
And we see them all over the world. And it just - the whole thing became tainted for me in a way that makes it impossible for me to allow myself to experience that side of things. I just feel like the whole thing is poisoned by the crimes of, you know, extreme believers. So looking at the, you know, Haredi in Jerusalem throwing stones at little girls because they're on their way to school - and this is something that is...
GROSS: And the Haredi are the ultra-Orthodox.
CHABON: ...Yeah, the ultra-Orthodox. Yeah. You know, I see that item on the news. I see it. You know, I watch the footage of this. And then maybe I go to services, and I'm looking at the very language that seems to condone that kind of behavior. And at some point, I just - I didn't have the stomach for it anymore. I just couldn't do it anymore. So it's come back to this place where, culturally, the narratives of Judaism - both historical narratives and fictional narratives, the legends, the myths, the beliefs, folk tales, my family story - all of that stuff is incredibly central to my way of looking at the world and understanding the world. And, you know, one of - I think, the good thing about being Jewish is, you don't have to be religious to be Jewish.
GROSS: Because it's as much a cultural identity for you.
CHABON: Certainly. For me and, I think, for a lot of Jews.
GROSS: Well, I want to get back briefly to your new book, which is a collection of essays about being a father and being a son. And it's called "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces." Your book is getting published shortly after Mother's Day and before Father's Day with enough time for people to buy it as a Father's Day gift (laughter) as, I think, probably the point.
CHABON: The perfect Father's Day stocking stuffer.
GROSS: I'm just wondering if you celebrate either holiday or if you see both holidays as being more a kind of retail holiday where people buy cards and gifts.
CHABON: Yes. But - yes, we do. I mean, you know, it's - it may be a retail holiday. It may be a Hallmark holiday. But it - especially, Mother's Day - and in fact, there's this really funny line. You know that show "black-ish"?
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
CHABON: They had this line. Something - it was something like, Father's Day is the Hanukkah of Mother's Day.
CHABON: And it was - that was so true and so funny. I mean, Father's Day is not so meaningful to me. But, you know - and I think it's partly because as a father, you get so much credit for doing so little. You know, whoa, you're such a good dad because you, like, took your kid grocery shopping with you or whatever it is. But women - you know, mothering, I think, is a much more invisible, a much more - you know, women - I wrote an essay many years ago where I said, like, I don't know what it would take for someone to come up to a woman in a grocery store and tell her she was obviously a really good mom, but it's probably, like, doing an emergency tracheotomy on one of her children while also buying healthy, nutritious snacks.
And, you know, for women, for a mother to have a day where everyone says, you know what? You're a great mom, and you do a really good job, and we all love you and appreciate you - I think it's only - it's appropriate. And it's needed. And it's a good and a beautiful thing even if it does sell - even if it does move units and sell greeting cards. I still think it's something that - you know, women's mothering is too invisible, and they don't get the kind of credit that they deserve. And that comes so easily to a man.
GROSS: Michael Chabon, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
CHABON: For me, too, Terry. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.
GROSS: Michael Chabon's new collection of personal essays about being a father and a son is called "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces." After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review the new version of the classic "Rocky And Bullwinkle" cartoon series. This is FRESH AIR.
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