Michael Chabon on Becoming Bored and Briefly Amusing Your Children
I first met Michael Chabon at last year's Notes & Words event, a big blowout party at the Fox Theater that brings together authors and musicians to benefit Children's Hospital Oakland. He told a story included in his collection of nonfiction, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, about the first time he spoke with his kids about smoking marijuana. He told the tale with as much candor as he'd shared with his children; Chabon is very charming and often quite funny, and spoke with wisdom and eloquence about being a parent.
photo courtesy of Michael Chabon
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author is doing a benefit for Oakland's Park Day School this Wednesday night, and was kind enough to talk by phone. When I brought up the story, he laughed, responding: "I forgot about that one. I had no idea, man. That was just a little tiny appetizer of a conversation at the start of a long and often surprising banquet." His kids had taken him off guard, of course, and he'd handled the situation as best he could.
Chabon and wife Ayelet Waldman have four kids, the oldest of whom is a freshman in college; their youngest, ten, attends the K-8 Park Day School, where the other three are alumni.
If I were going to talk with kids I wouldn't even know how to address their relationship with literature right now. I feel like it's changed -- how they're engaging with it must have changed so much since I was in elementary school; can you talk about that?
There's no doubt it's really in flux right now. I think everybody's relationship to the printed word is in flux right now. And I don't think anybody really has a good handle on just what it all means; I certainly don't. But it's my impression that our kids are definitely increasingly digital entities; parents, even younger parents, still tend to be analog, at least to a certain degree, and parents I think tend to have a strong relationship with books, printed books on paper. I think at least through the earliest years when it's story time -- when kids are being exposed to texts -- they're still being exposed to picture books and their parents read to them from books. I'm sure there are plenty of parents who are reading to their parents from iPads, but even so they're reading them eBooks, which is just a digital form of the same thing, with illustrations and words on the page. So, I think kids' initial exposure to literature is still more or less what it has been for a while now. I think as they start to hit the fourth grade, fifth grade and into middle school -- that's when it might start to get a little more confusing, from the point of view of an old person like me, but by then I think there has been a foundation laid for a relationship with books and literature.
But, you know, it could all be changing; I really have no idea. But I know kids love stories and they love to be read to. A child of 2013 loves being read to by an adult every bit as much as a child of 1967 did -- I don't have any doubt about that -- and beyond any benefits to the kid's intellect, to the kid's ability to process the chaos of the world through the power of narrative and by trying to make a coherent narrative out of all the random information; beyond helping your kid get a leg up in school by being able to read and so on and so forth, there's this fundamental connection that gets formed between a parent and a kid around reading, around being snuggled in bed with a book at nighttime when it's time to go to sleep that there is no... that's just purely analog; there's no digital version of that experience.
How has it changed in the time between raising your oldest and youngest?
It's changed in so many ways. Like, now you go out to a restaurant and you look over and two parents are sitting there, doing whatever they're doing -- often they're on some kind of device -- and then you look at the little kid in the stroller and he's holding an iPad, happily tapping away on the screen and moving stuff around. I'm not making any judgment on it, because I don't have a basis for doing that; I don't have any evidence one way or another, and God knows when my kids were two years old and I was trying to read a newspaper or something in a café and had the kid in the stroller -- you know, you had to have this sort of endless supply of plastic little doodads and toys, and you just keep -- OK, you exhausted that one in three and a half minutes, here's the other thing I happened to bring with me, and now I'm out of toys, so here: here are my keys. Now you're done with my keys; here's a shoelace. It was often a desperate struggle to come up with some lame-ass things that you could briefly amuse your child with, and iPads, for example, seem to be much better for that purpose than anything we had when my kids were little.
On the other hand, maybe there's something to be gained from the experience of becoming bored, exploring something until you've figured it all out, and then becoming bored with it and then having to start over again with some completely different configuration of things to get bored with.
How much time do you spend on the Internet every day?
It varies. A few hours, at least. Definitely. There's also no question: those are hours I used to spend watching television, for sure. Because I watch a lot less television -- a lot less -- than I used to. I think I get a little more out of the Internet experience than I did out of the TV experience, so on the whole I'm not too worried about it.
Chabon will be in conversation with Park Day School's Zach Wyner this Wednesday night at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley, 7 p.m. $20-$25.