After many years of not reading for pleasure, I began last year to read novels and books of all kinds. You can see my reading lists (have read/want to read) here if you want proof. I know how some of you are.
So I've finally discovered the work of Michael Chabon. Oh sure, we had a brief flirtation when I listened to approximately eighteen minutes of The Yiddish Policeman's Union (read by Peter Reigert who I loved in both Animal House and Crossing Delancy) on an audio book. MathMan was listening to it during his commute and allowed me into that secret world one day.
The other day at the library, I picked up Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of Husband, Father and Son. First let me tell you that I can be both enchanted and chagrined by this piece of nonfiction art. On the one hand, I'm compelled by Chabon's side of the story when it comes to telling how it feels to be a guy (in every sense of the word) in today's world.
Born in 1963, Chabon's reminiscences of childhood are very familiar to me. I was born in 1965. I remember the days of Wonderama and Wacky Packages and long, winding days covering the town and adjacent countryside on my orange Huffy bicycle with the "banana seat, sissy bar and apehanger handle bars."
It's only through the backward lens of time that I realize how lucky I was to grow up at that time, in that place. The town was small, along the Ohio River and backed by a hilly rural landscape that always seemed to offer a pleasant combination of security and adventure. And adventure we did. Those were still the days when kids were turned loose on a summer's day. There were no bike helmets, no water bottles, no insect repellent. Childhood hadn't been robbed of its fun by overly cautious adults who were willing to trade their last scrap of sanity for control over their children's lives down to the most minute detail. Shoot, we took off and only came back for lunch and dinner and then, finally and reluctantly, we'd heed our parents' demands to come in and take a bath before bedtime.
Sometimes we bothered to stop in and say hi to my mom at the courthouse where she worked. But more likely than not, we didn't bother. She was busy and we were doing our kid things.
Some days we rode to the other end of town to visit Mamaw Hewitt. You might find her sitting snapping beans or shelling peas on the back porch glider. If you were lucky, she'd offer you a couple of Chips Ahoy cookies. If you were super lucky, you got a half a Three Musketeers bar and an icy cold Coke from one of those little bottles she always bought at the Kroger. Coke is just right served in the aluminum tumblers.
On your way out, you stopped by the barn to see Papaw who would be tinkering around with his lawnmower repair business. You passed the time of day for a few minutes, fetched whatever tool he requested and collected your quarter.
Yes, we were pretty dang lucky.
Now the negative part of reading Chabon is this: I read his beautiful prose and fret about my own writing. I realize that it's all stylistic differences, but I worry that my own stripped down writing will be too lean, too stark, too See Jane. See Jane run. Run, Jane, run to ever actually get published. Like any writer, Chabon isn't every body's cup of tea. I understand that. And I know that any future audience I might have will read my writing for what it is - lean, stripped down, loaded with dialogue, vague on descriptions.
Could I be any more arrogant to even compare my own style to that of a Chabon? I'm so ashamed.
Now you're wondering about that word Tristeza, right? Or maybe not. Well, I'm going to tell you about that anyway because it's from a passage in Chabon's book that struck me hard. It's a great word. It's a theme, actually, for a lot of things. It's the ribbon that binds the book I'm working on right now.
Having studied French, I recognized it immediately (triste: sad) as the Spanish or Portuguese for sadness, but like many of the words in Chabon's work, I wondered about the more nuanced meanings of it. Unlike some of the words (irascible or execrable, for example) that I looked up in the dictionary to get their complete meaning, the nuance (those kinds of words - you generally know what they mean, but you're not completely sure), Chabon saved me the trouble. In reaction to a college friend telling him that he lacked tristeza, Chabon decided to go out and get some. He was good enough to describe just how he could do that:
A study of the available literature - or part of it, since the available literature occupied half the world's library shelves and three fourths of the attention of its poets - seemed to suggest that one indispensable precursor to the production of tristeza was regret. There were others - grief, exile, loss - and along the way, I might reasonably expect to acquire them or at least get a few leads on their whereabouts. Bu regret was the one prerequisite for heartbreak that I could hope to ensure a steady supply of. All I needed to do was start making mistakes, but I must do so diligently and clearly, taking full advantage of all my opportunities. I must put my trust in unreliable people, take on responsibilities I could not hope to discharge, count on impossible outcomes, ignore blessings that were right under my nose while expending my youth and energy in the pursuit of dubious pleasure. I must court disappointment, miscalculate, lie when the truth would serve better and tell the truth when the kindest thing would be to tell a lie. Above all, I would have to stick to a course of action long after it was clearly revealed to be wrong.After I picked myself up off the bathroom floor (really , people, where do you think I do most of my reading?), I wiped the tears of laughter from my eyes so I could reread it. Did one have to work at tristeza? That someone would seek out those things seems ludicrous. I'm a magnet for them. I've elevated gaining tristeza to an awkward art form. Or maybe a science?
If that passage doesn't describe the last few years of my life, I don't know what does. But then, no....it really describes an entire life of missteps, bad decisions, firebreathing consequences, acquiescence to fear, denying realities, succumbing to inertia, intellectual laziness, and adventure. Yes, adventure. Because this life has been that, too.
Oh, I don't mean the get on a plane and go touring adventure. That would require some level of sophistication and financial means, of which I've never possessed. No, instead, it's been more of a pack your things and move without knowing where you'll live adventure. The oh looky! we have some garbanzo beans, bran muffin mix dated 2005, some left over canned peaches and a bit of horseradish in the fridge. I can make dinner from that.... kind of adventure.
As much as it's been a commercial disaster, my life has provided me with plenty of homegrown entertainment over the years. Here's hoping that the publishing world will see it that way, too.