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'Thirtysomething' Withstands The Test Of Time

Twenty-two years after its debut on ABC, the iconic TV drama about yuppie family life is back — in DVD form. Critic David Bianculli reviews the first season of thirtysomething, and reflects on what made the show both infuriating and fascinating.

06:21

Other segments from the episode on October 7, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 7, 2009: Interview with Michael Chabon; Review of the ABC drama series "Thirtysomething."

Transcript

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Michael Chabon: The Pleasures, Regrets Of 'Manhood'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Michael Chabon, is best known for
his novels “The Yiddish Policemen's Union,” “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier
& Clay” - which won a Pulitzer Prize - “Wonder Boys” and “The Mysteries of
Pittsburgh.” But he’s also written personal essays, and some of them are
collected in his new book, “Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of
a Husband, Father, and Son.”

Chabon writes that he derives a sense of strength and confidence from writing
and from his life as a husband and father, but those pursuits are subject to
endless setbacks and a steady exposure of shortcomings, weakness and
insufficiency - in particular in the raising of children.

Chabon is married to the novelist Ayelet Waldman, who wrote a memoir earlier
this year about her life as a mother. Chabon and Waldman have four children:
two boys and two girls.

Michael Chabon, welcome to FRESH AIR. I’d like you to read the opening of one
of the chapters from your new book, “Manhood for Amateurs.”

Mr. MICHAEL CHABON (Author, “Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of
a Husband, Father, and Son”): Great, I’d love to. This is “William and I.”

(Reading) 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 20-month-old in one arm and unloading the shopping cart onto
the check-out 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.

GROSS: What struck you as odd or baffling about the praise you were getting for
being such a good dad in the supermarket?

Mr. CHABON: Well, because I wasn’t doing anything. I mean, I was literally
doing nothing, but, you know - and then in fact, as I go on to say in the
piece, I think if you stepped back and looked at me critically, I was probably
making a few errors in parenting at that point. Like, my kid was chewing on one
of the twist ties for the produce bags, and, you know, and his face was dirty
and his hair was a mess.

I mean, objectively speaking, even by my own standards, I was doing kind of a
lousy job at that moment. I certainly wasn’t doing a good job, and yet there I
was begin given this gift of praise and so much credit, and it was clearly, and
is often – as always the case – or often the case, anyway. It’s just because
the mere fact somehow that I’m just there, you know, holding onto my kid.
That’s, like, enough. That’s all it takes to qualify sometimes.

GROSS: Were you brought up with a specific idea of what manhood was?

Mr. CHABON: Oh, I think unquestionably - maybe more than one idea, but I kind
of just came out the way I came out. I mean, I was raised through my early teen
and teen years by a single mom who went back to work, first went back to
college, then went back to work, you know, who told me when I was 14 years old
that if I wanted to eat a hot meal every night, I was going to have to cook it
myself. And then so then I became responsible for cooking for the family every
night, and so I had to take over that burden.

So, you know, some things just, I had to deal with. I had to become a man
however I could. My dad was out of the house, and there were these sort of
competing models of how to be…

GROSS: What did your mother teach you about gender differences?

Mr. CHABON: I suppose I’d have to say she – my mother was a - and is to this
day - a very level-headed, sensible, determined, focused, quiet person who kind
of decides what she’s going to do and then goes about doing whatever needs to
be done to make that happen. And, you know, there - I think there is a very
strong illustration for me in the fact that she decided to go back to college,
which she hadn’t finished because she had had me, then went on to law school,
then got a job as a lawyer, worked for the government and kind of remade
herself and reinvented herself.

You know, I think more than anything else I ever heard from the culture about
what women could do or be or how women, you know, were equal to men or could do
just what a man did for the same amount of money, I had this very powerful
object lesson in my home.

GROSS: You tell a great story in the beginning of your book about trying to
start a comic book club and how your mother rented, like a multi-purpose room
in the Wild Lake Village Center for $25, and you put an ad in the local paper.
And your mother got a conference table and folding chairs in the room and left
you there while she ran errands. And then what happened?

Mr. CHABON: And then nobody showed up. I was sitting there with this – I had
this very carefully typed, this newsletter for the comic book club, and, you
know, it was insane trying to type, to do page layout on a typewriter. I’m sure
you remember with columns - and it was so, such a painful moment for me to
realize that nobody was coming. And then finally, this one kid showed up with
his mom, and, you know, they kind of took one look at me sitting there with my
glasses behind this table and this big stack of newsletters and an empty room
and nobody there. It was – you know, I just must have stank of failure, and
they fled as quickly as they could.

And then my mom came back, and, you know, I don’t really remember what she
would have said to console me at that moment or how she handled it, but, you
know, we packed everything back up and we left.

GROSS: I should mention, one of your novels is “The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay,” which is about comic-book creators. So people who read you
know how into comic books you’ve always been. But I love this story. And you
say in my heart, to this day, I’m always sitting at a big table in a room full
of chairs, watching an empty doorway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And then you say: My story and my stories are all, in one way or
another, the same: tales of solitude and the grand pursuit of connection, of
success and the inevitability of defeat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that the way you feel?

Mr. CHABON: Yeah, definitely. And, you know, I mean, that longing for a sense
of connection is so powerful, and, you know, to have – the fact that it’s a
longing implies a certain inability to connect to or sort of a feeling somehow
in prison or wanting to get out of the box that you’re in, into another, bigger
world.

I think that’s a very – in writing that piece, I came to see what a present
motif that is in my fiction. And, you know, to be a fan, to be a part of a
fandom like that is an expression of that same kind of longing for connection,
that you want to be with people that will understand you, that will get you in
some way. And, you know, for me, having a family, being married to my wife and
having our children together is, in a sense, it was a kind of a creation of a
kind of a fandom in the sense that, you know, my wife and I are the sort of
central texts.

We’re the “Star Trek.” We’re the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” And then the kids
are the sort of the fans that create this shared world together that is somehow
predicated on the original world that my wife and I created, but in another way
becomes this much richer, denser, multiply foliating thing that takes on a
total life of its own.

And, you know, I was an only child for the first five-and-a-half years of my
life, and I think that sort of fundamental sense of aloneness, of solitude,
even though my brother came along and we’re extremely close and, you know, I
think of myself as having grown up in a family with a sibling, there is still
this original experience of being alone that I think, you know, has both always
been a source of comfort to me, and it’s the reason I love to write because
writing is something that you always do alone. But it’s also been a source of,
you know, of wistfulness, of longing, of regret, and I’ve always had that
experience of sort of feeling like, you know, everybody else was off having fun
together and they forgot to invite me. It’s self-pitying. There’s no doubt
about it. I’ll be the first person to say that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, there’s that moment in “Stardust Memories,” a Woody Allen
movie, where he’s riding that train, and that other train goes by with Sharon
Stone and all kinds of other beautiful people having a good time on it. And,
you know, no matter – I mean, that isn’t the reality by any means, and I have
lots of friends, and I am not this sort of lonely boy sitting behind the table
all alone in the big, empty room. I know that. And yet that boy is still so
strongly present in me, and, you know, I don’t want to get rid of him because I
think he’s also the source of a lot of - you know, I’m not sure what I would
write about otherwise.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon. His new book is a collection of personal
essays called “Manhood For Amateurs.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
“The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and the bestseller, “The Yiddish
Policeman’s Union.” His new memoir is a collection of personal essays called
“Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and
Son.”

You and your wife are both writers, and I’m always so interested when writers
are couples, in part because there’s an element of writing that includes a
certain amount of betrayal because whether you’re writing a memoir or fiction,
there’s something you’re going to be revealing about people you’re close to -
you know, whether it’s transformed through fiction or whether it’s, you know,
straightforward through personal essay or memoir. And when you’re both in that
position, it’s something that I assume you really understand about what each
other needs to do.

I don’t know if it makes it any easier, though. And most of your writing has
been fiction. Most of your wife’s writing has been fiction, although her
previous book was personal essays, as is yours. And so I wonder what it’s like
for you when she writes really personal things that include things like how you
decided to terminate a pregnancy after amniocentesis, that she had considered
suicide for a moment. I mean, there are so personal things that, you know – is
it hard for you to read that? Is it hard for - are there reverberations in your
life that are unexpected from things like that?

Mr. CHABON: Well, yes. I mean, you know, it’s not like, you know, a scene in a
movie where, like, you know, the guy, Spencer Tracy, like picks up his morning
newspaper and there’s this, like, thing his wife has written about them – and,
you know, and like what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, I mean, we share work with each other as it’s coming out
of the printer, you know. So if she’s written a piece or I’ve written a piece
that is in some way personal or in which one of us says something about the
other, you know, we’re each other’s first reader.

So, you know, let’s use her as example. So say she’s writing something, you
know, a piece about the genetic termination. You know, I mean, she was sharing
– first of all, she was sharing it with me as she was writing it, and she was –
she - I knew she was going to write it. And then she wrote it, and I read it.
And, you know, at that point for her or for me, I think each of us implicitly
feels that he or she has the right to, you know, to say I’m not comfortable
with that, or I wish you wouldn’t write about that.

In practice, it doesn’t really happen that often. I think, you know, it’s –
that’s where – we do have a recognition - a fundamental recognition that that’s
where writing comes from, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. So I try to be
philosophical about it. And, you know, but there’s still - there are unforeseen
consequences, and there are things, you know, she wrote - that now kind of
infamous piece that was published in the New York Times, and it had initially
just been written for this little anthology. So…

GROSS: I’m going to stop you and quote it so everybody knows what you’re
talking about.

Mr. CHABON: Okay. Oh, God.

GROSS: She said that she loved her husband more than her children, and then she
said if I were to lose one of my children, God forbid, even if I lost all my
children, God forbid, I would still have my husband. But my imagination simply
fails when I try to picture a future beyond my husband’s death. So that was,
like, the real controversial thing that she wrote.

Mr. CHABON: Yes, right. And, you know, so from my point of view, reading that
piece, first of all, that’s just Ayelet. That’s what she says. She’s been
saying that for years.

You know, I - by the time she got around to writing that down, I had been
living with that kind of expression of her feeling for a long time. It just
didn’t even - it just really kind of blew over me without my even paying that
much attention (unintelligible)…

GROSS: Yes, whereas a lot of readers though, like, what kind of mother is she?

Mr. CHABON: Exactly.

GROSS: She loves her husband more than her children. How can any mother say
that? So that’s what made it so controversial.

Mr. CHABON: Right.

GROSS: So anyways, go ahead.

Mr. CHABON: Yes, and I mean, I didn’t even – you know, I’m just, like, yup,
that’s how you feel, honey. I know that. Thank you. You know, it’s sweet that
you’re so devoted to me, and I love you, too. I mean, that was just sort of a -
you know, to me, what caught my attention more in that piece was that she was
writing about sex and not only, you know, our sex life - not that she was
really going into detail, but she was at least acknowledging the fact that we
do have a sex life, and then, you know, talking about her - you know, women she
knows and their sex lives.

I mean, to me that was what I thought the piece was about, and that’s where I
thought the sort of buzz in it might come from. But then it was just going to
be in this little anthology and nobody was going to read it, and by circuitous
means, it ended up being in the New York Times. And, you know, that was one of
the moments, maybe the single greatest moment where suddenly, you know, I had
not really anticipated what the reaction would be or what the response would be
or how that might play out.

So I was getting, you know, emails from people saying hey, sex god, and, you
know, and just – and it was not – you know, I wasn’t ready. I had not been
prepared in that sense, even though I knew, as I said, I already knew what was
in it and had approved it, you know, tacitly.

GROSS: Does that make you think twice about revealing personal things in your
writing or saying yes, go ahead and publish it when your wife shows you
something personal that she’s about to publish?

Mr. CHABON: Not really. I mean, it’s - look, that’s the stuff that you make
writing out of, whether you fictionalize it or whether you present as
nonfiction. That’s the stuff that you make good writing out of. And the stuff
that you know for sure is working is going to connect, is going to make
somebody want to keep reading it, is the stuff that makes you feel
uncomfortable as you’re writing it, always. And that’s - the ultimate sign to
me that I’m on to something is if I’m squirming a little bit as I’m writing
about it. If it’s making me feel uncomfortable, if I feel like I’m verging on
things that make me nervous. And I know I’m…

GROSS: Give me an example of something that made you squirm that you wrote.

Mr. CHABON: Well, they tell a story - I tell a story in this book about a woman
who was a friend of my mother’s who I had sex with when I was 15 years old. And
that’s a story – until I wrote it down, that was a story that I had told very
few people, two maybe, or three in my whole life. And so, you know – and it had
been suggested to me that I might – I’d never tried writing about, you know, my
first sexual experience, and I decided that my first sexual experience wasn’t
that interesting, but my second.

There was a story there, and I knew it, and I had lived with it for all of
these years without ever telling it in any really detailed way. So, you know, I
started writing this piece, and I got that sense right away. It was like wow,
am I really going to do this? Am I really going to write about this, you know,
partly – not because it’s really that shocking or controversial. It was almost
just the fact that I had held onto it so tightly for so long that it felt
strange to kind of open up that jar finally and let it out.

But, you know, that was – as soon as I had that sense of unease or hesitation
or a feeling of, like, maybe I should come up with something else, that was the
moment I said to myself: Keep going, because this is where stuff comes from.

GROSS: Okay, the story about having sex with your mother’s friend, so you felt,
you know, that squirmy feeling as you wrote it.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. And right now sitting here in my chair, I’m having it all
over again, as you’re preparing to ask me the question.

GROSS: I can understand that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But I guess I’m wondering…

Mr. CHABON: I brought it up.

GROSS: I guess I’m wondering what the value you see in it as a story is. I
mean, we’ve established it makes you uncomfortable. It’s something you’ve held
onto for a long time. It was kind of a secret, except for a few people. But now
that it’s out there, now that you’ve found the words to tell it, now that
you’ve been able to make this event in your life into a story, what does it
mean to you as a story?

Mr. CHABON: I guess ultimately, it says something to me - it helped, if that’s
the right word, create, in part, the template for sex in my life so that, you
know, there was something – there was a difficulty there. You know, the first
experience was sort of a much more typical kind of teenage first experience.

The second experience was this brush with the adult world, a kind of premature
brush with the adult world, with an adult, with an adult life, you know. And I
think it sort of – it pushed me up against the seriousness and the actual kind
of emotional power of sex.

GROSS: And complications.

Mr. CHABON: Yeah, in a way that I wasn’t – you know, I just hadn’t ever – I was
15 years old. I mean, you know, it was Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard
Light” was, you know, kind of what I thought the sum total of sex would be, you
know, avoid getting the girl pregnant and enjoy yourself.

So, you know, it was - it was a strange thing to do at that age, and to
suddenly be presented with a sense of, like, there’s a lot of weight and power
and sort of sadness even that kind of lurks in the sexual relationships between
people. And, you know, what my reaction to that was was to kind of close that
door and say, you know, I’m just not ready for that yet. I can’t handle that. I
don’t want to know that now. But it - you know, I think that did shift my
perspective on the subject.

GROSS: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I could see how that would definitely,
you know, complicate things for you. Did your mother know before you wrote the
book?

Mr. CHABON: No, no. She didn’t. She didn’t know until, you know, she read the
piece as it was published. And we had a relatively brief and sort of
emotionally neutral exchange of information about the piece. You know, I
satisfied her curiosity, and in her kind of characteristic way, she shrugged it
off, and, you know, it didn’t seem to - I don’t know. I honestly don’t know
what she thought when she read it or how she felt when she read it, and I
didn’t ask.

GROSS: Michael Chabon will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
is called “Manhood For Amateurs.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Michael Chabon, the author
of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and the
bestseller "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." His new book is a collection of
personal essays called "Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a
Husband, Father, and Son." In his essay, "Getting Out," Chabon reflects on the
attempt to escape from the pain of life, which is one of the themes of his
fiction.

David Foster Wallace, the writer who was a friend of yours, committed suicide
and...

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. I should say, we weren't - I didn’t know him very well. I
mean I wish he had been a friend of mine. I always kind of wanted to be his
friend but I only met him once.

GROSS: Oh, okay. And, you know, your wife had, you know, mentioned in her
writing that she came close to suicide once.

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you think about that.

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You reflect on that in your book and you write: The world, like our
heads, was meant to be escaped from. They are prison, the world and head a
like. And then you quote David Foster Wallace as saying: I guess a big part of
serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of
marooned in their own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I think it's a really beautiful description...

Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...of both the human condition and the - why we respond so well to, you
know, to books and movies and music, too. But I'm thinking like when you’re a
writer it's maybe more of being trapped in your skull than being released from
it as you’re in the process of writing.

Mr. CHABON: Not when it's going well. No. I mean when it's - when my writing's
going well, when I'm writing, you know, a work of fiction, when I'm writing a
novel, I'm there. Wherever I'm - whatever I'm writing about, whoever's head I'm
in, I'm not in my head anymore. I'm in the head of the character. Or if it's
sort of an omniscient third person narrator, I'm in the head of the narrator
who's not me, who is this much more intelligent, precise, open-souled, open-
hearted being than I am. And that in itself, just being a narrator is - there's
a sense of release in that.

And then, to imagine the world you're describing in the physical world, the
place, the house, the buildings, whatever it might be, it you know, it's all so
vivid in my imagination that, you know, it’s very much like the experience of
getting lost as a reader in a book. I'm sort of having a double experience of
both sort of almost being in the actual reality I'm trying to create and then a
millisecond afterwards reading about it. And, you know, I think that's part of
the reason I love doing it so much is because it does provide me with that
sense, that same sense of escape and also connectedness because you’re writing
to, you’re always addressing someone.

You’re writing to a reader. You know, you have an ideal reader, an imagined
reader out there that is the person who will just understand all of your
references and who will understand the emotions that you’re trying to, you
know, bring forth and who will appreciate your every joke and, you know, who
will see the care that went into crafting this three-part metaphor that takes
place over five pages. And, you know, you’re creating - that's a part of the
imaginative act itself is to create that reader and address the work to that
reader. And that again, it gives you that same illusion of connection that is,
you know, I think another thing that keeps me doing it - that made me want to
do it in the first place.

GROSS: Did you have that imagination and that ability to get lost in somebody
else's narration before you were actually a writer and before you could, you
know, use it as a novelist?

Mr. CHABON: I think I must have. I mean I think we all do. I think it's a
fundamental human - both out of human talent and a human need, the talent to
imagine a connection and the need for the connection in the first place. And
you know, I mean I really do think things like fandom, you know, I think fandom

is kind of the ultimate metaphor for what we all are trying to do, not just me.
Not just that lonely kid sitting in the big conference room in front of, in an
empty room, but all of us are looking for people who will get us and who will
love the same things that we love.

And, you know, I think reading, getting lost in a book provides you with a - as
soon as you were able to do that as a child it provides you with this immediate
fulfillment of that longing and that desire because you get the sense of
connectedness to the author and you have that sense, you know, the books that
you love best as a child, you have that sense of that this book was just
written for you, just for you, and that you’re engaged in a kind of dialogue
with its author, even if that author's been dead for a hundred years.

And then, at the same time, you have that urge to share it. You know, you want
to talk about it. You want to be with other people who also love it, and that’s
part of being a reader too. So yeah, I mean I think just learning how to read
and learning how to love books and stories sort of, it primed me to want to
then turn and try to make them myself, which is also a fan impulse and that's
where fan fiction comes from. It's like well, I love this stuff so much I want
to make more of it.

GROSS: I want to quote something else that you write in your book and this is
in describing your wife Ayelet Waldman and you say: This woman has dragged,
nudged, coaxed, led, stirred, seduced, finagled, or carried me into every
instance of delight or sorrow, every debacle, every success, every brilliant
call, every terrible mistake that I have known or made. I’m grateful for that,
because if it were not for her, I would never go anywhere, never see anything,
never meet anyone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why?

Mr. CHABON: I'm just - and I have a kind of inertia, you know? I like being
where I am. You know, it's not always a bad thing and I adjust to circumstances
quickly. So if you do dislodge me and you put me in a new environment, I will
accommodate and adjust and begin to enjoy it very quickly. You know, I think
I've fallen in love with every hometown I've ever had. You know, every place
I've ever lived in my life, and I've lived in a lot of places, I've found a way
to fall in love with it.

But on the other hand, it does mean once I get into a place, or a way of being
or a mode of life, it is hard to dislodge me. And a lot of times that does not
serve me well at all and I'm missing out on things. And I can often be acutely
aware that I'm missing out on things and just not know how to get out and how
to move.

And my whole life I've, you know, I've sought out people who would help me in
that way - the people I have chosen to become friends with, the people that
I’ve, you know, fallen in love with often tended to be, you know, straws that
stir the drink, you know, people who kind of make things happen, who cause
chaos or who get expeditions up, you know, because I'm not that way myself and
you know, I wish I were. I'm attracted to that. I would like to be a kind of a
troublemaker. I'd like to be a person - I'd love to be, you know, Gene Simmons
with you, Terry, or Bill O'Reilly...

GROSS: Oh, I hope not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: ...and you know, just like, but, you know, to cause trouble in that
way, to have that, sort of, that ability to sort of just, I don’t know, stick
your stick in the blades of the fan and make a big noise is just something I've
never been able to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm just trying to think of you as being that person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: I don’t really want to be either of those two gentlemen, I have to
quickly add. But there's a kind of a, I don't know. I guess I'm a more orderly
person and therefore, chaos has its appeal.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Michael Chabon who's best known
for such novels as "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," "The Yiddish
Policemen's Union," and "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh." His new book is a
collection of personal essays, which is called "Manhood For Amateurs: The
Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son."

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon who's known for such novels as "The Amazing

Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." His new
book is a collection of personal essays called "Manhood For Amateurs."

Well, we’ve been talking about some pretty heavy things so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...I thought we could end with a story that I found like really, really
entertaining and funny and it has to do with your diaper bag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Oh yes. The murse.

GROSS: The murse, which is what, for male purse?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: Or man bag, as some people call it.

Mr. CHABON: Right. We're struggling to come up with anything we can say that's
not actually the word purse - is what we're looking for.

GROSS: Yes. Uh-huh, or pocketbook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yeah. Oh, pocketbook. That's a good one. I haven't thought of that
in a long time.

GROSS: Yeah. So, you know, as you point out, a lot of men feel like everything
that they have to carry, and that's a lot, the wallet and all the other stuff
has to be in pockets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Yes.

GROSS: And so you had these overstuffed pockets until you started carrying the
diaper bag, and then what?

Mr. CHABON: And then, well then, you know, just out of convenience I started
putting more things into the diaper, like I always had this diaper bag with me,
you know. And I struggled with the diaper bag too and it took me a while to
find the right diaper bag that wasn’t you know, too girlie, that wasn’t too
babyish, that, you know, so I found this sort of functional black vinyl, or
some kind of synthetic material diaper bag and little by little, you know, I'm
carrying The New York Review of Books around under my arm, why don’t I just
stick in the diaper bag?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, and then I might as well put my keys in the diaper bag
too. And then, the next thing you know, and this is the big step, this is when
you’re really cutting the tether is when you put your wallet in the diaper bag.
Because taking your wallet, if you’re a guy, taking your wallet out of your
pocket and putting it anywhere else, you know, whether it's your hip pocket or
your vest pocket or your jacket or wherever you keep it, to put it into a
something - a bag, and not have it on your body, it's a scary moment.

You know, your wallet is you when you’re a man. I don’t know. Maybe it's true
for women too, but it kind of, it's like in those fairy tales where the wizard
puts his soul into, you know, like a tree or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: ...or a chair or something like that. It's like your wallet kind of
holds your soul in it and to then just take it off your body and put it in a
bag was a scary moment. But I did it, and you know, because having kids is
basically an endless series of breaking you down and getting you to do all the
things you never, you know, you thought your dignity would preserve you from
ever having to do. And once I didn’t need a diaper bag anymore, I didn’t want
to put all that stuff back in my pockets. It's stupid to carry stuff around in
your pants pocket. It hurts. You sit down, you can give yourself a condition.
It's called fat wallet syndrome. It's a back condition from sitting on your
wallet and...

GROSS: Really?

Mr. CHABON: Then it's...

GROSS: What's the condition?

Mr. CHABON: That's what it's called, fat wallet syndrome. The piriformis nerve
of your back, it's irritated because you’re always sitting on your wallet and,
you know, your spine is crooked I guess or something, and it causes this
painful condition.

So I had to find a bag and then the quest, you know, began for like the same
thing. But even more intense, it's like what is this going to say? Am I going
to look like, you know, Sven from Norway and the next thing I'll be wearing
Clogs and, you know, because we see guys with man bags, they always seemed to
be these European guys with - who are really tall and they have those little
svelte bags they carry things around in, and - or what? Like what? And, you
know, then there's the backpack and the satchel and they're all these sort of
options out there but what everyone's really avoiding is the fact that what you
need is, you know, is a purse.

GROSS: So what'd you get?

Mr. CHABON: A friend - finally I was, you know, talking to this friend of mine
about this whole question and she sympathized with me. And we tried to sort of,
you know, figure out what the needs were that needed to be met in terms of the
visual appearance. We didn’t want to look like, you know, a Jamaican bike
messenger and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: You know, and then a couple weeks later, this bag showed up that
she had found. She lives in New York and she found this bag and it was small,
but not too small. It would hold plenty of things and it was, you know, it was
not overtly feminine looking. It had a kind of masculine styling to it. It was
however a purse. I mean there was just no two-ways about it. I started carrying
it and, you know, now - I just realized very quickly that I don’t actually
care.

I don’t care what people think about me. I don’t care what - if they think it
looks goofy or weird or effeminate or that I look like I come from Berkeley,
California, or whatever it is people might think, or that I imagine they might
think of me because it's probably mostly in my head and probably people don’t
really even...

GROSS: Care?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: ...look at me in the way that I'm imagining? No, they don’t care.
I'm not the center of their world. I'm only in the center of my world. So, you
know, I just got over it and. And now - I might call it a purse now, because my
kids, that’s what they called it, your purse. Daddy, you forgot your purse, so
that’s how I refer to it now and it’s sitting right here on the floor.

GROSS: So what do you carry in your purse now?

Mr. CHABON: Oh, let’s see, I have some - you know, the usual, keys and wallet
and I have an iPod and my glasses, but I also have a couple of little plastic
pet shop pal toys and three different flavors of sugarless gum. I have a first-
aid kit in there that I’m very proud of…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: …in which I’ve actually, you know, I’ve been called upon to use for
total strangers a couple of times and that was – I felt very –then that gives
you that sort of masculine cover that you need.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Like here I’m with my medic bag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Do not worry stranger.

GROSS: You probably have a book in there, too, something to read.

Mr. CHABON: Today I don’t have a book. Normally that’s another great thing - I
brought, you know, my book with me, so I don’t have …

GROSS: You knew I was going to ask you to read from it.

Mr. CHABON: Yes, exactly. But, yeah - no and that’s the great thing and I can
remember reading, you know, Stephen King, years ago, said something about how
it’s just crucial, you cannot get through life if you don’t have a book with
you. And I was not in the habit of taking books with me places, which I thought
was kind of strange since I love to read and it, in fact, does make almost any
experience more bearable if you have a book. And then, you know, well, the
problem was where would I carry a book?

You know, I’m not going to walk around holding it all the time. So, now that
problem has been solved, too. And, yes, I usually do have something to read. I
tend – I keep a book in my bag, usually that’s something that I don’t – it’s
not what I’m currently reading so much as a book that I will be happy to pull
out at anytime and dip into and enjoy even if it’s just for like five minutes
while waiting in line.

GROSS: Okay, my final purse question: Does your purse have a separate
compartment for your cell phone…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …that’s easy to grab?

Mr. CHABON: No, it’s just swimming around in there with the, you know,
everything else. But I have - to further demolish any tattered shreds of
masculinity that might still be clinging to me, I have a pink rubber cover on
my cell phone so that it stands out. I can see it very easily because of the
pink cover so I can always find it in the maw.

GROSS: That’s your cover for having pink, that’s your explanation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHABON: Right. It’s not that I love the color pink.

GROSS: Michael Chabon, it’s great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. CHABON: Oh, thank you, Terry, I really enjoyed it, too. Thank you.

GROSS: Michael Chabon’s new collection of personal essays is called “Manhood
For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son.” You can
read an excerpt of the book and hear a recording of Chabon reading from it on
our Web site, fresh.npr.org.

There’s a new father-son kind of recording by Ricky Skaggs called “Songs My Dad
Loved.” Let’s hear a track from it. This is the Ralph Stanley song, “Little
Maggie.”

(Soundbite of song, “Little Maggie”)

Mr. RICKY SKAGGS (Singer): (Singing) Over yonder stands little Maggie, with a
dram glass in her hand. She’s drinking away her troubles, while courting
another man. Oh, how can I ever stand it to see them two blue eyes a-shining in
the moonlight like two diamonds in the sky. Pretty flowers were made for
blooming. Pretty stars were made to shine. Pretty women were made for loving.
Little Maggie was made for mine. Last time I saw little Maggie, she was sitting
on the banks of the sea with a forty-four around her and a badger on her knee.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
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‘Thirtysomething’ Withstands The Test Of Time

TERRY GROSS, host:

The ABC drama series “thirtysomething” which premiered in 1987, and spent four
years telling its stories about a group of young professionals living in
Philadelphia, has never been released on VHS or DVD until now. Our TV critic,
David Bianculli, takes a second look at the series, a series that took him a
while to embrace the first time around.

(Soundbite of song, “thirtysomething” theme)

DAVID BIANCULLI: It’s been twentysomething years since the premiere of ABC’s
“thirtysomething,” 22 years, to be exact. Shout Factory has just released a box
set of season one. It took that long because of the music. The series used a
lot of popular songs on the soundtrack, songs whose rights were expensive to
secure for home video. But they’re all in there. So, what you’ll see and hear
when you watch this complete first-season set is what audiences saw and heard
back in 1987. That’s the good news, but it’s also the bad news.

I vividly remember hating “thirtysomething” when it premiered. I was
thirtysomething then and married with two young kids of my own, so I should’ve
loved it, many of my friends did. But to me, these yuppie characters were
either too noble or too whiny. And all of them spent far too much time talking
about their feelings.

But I also remember not giving up on the show, and eventually being won over.
Not long into the run of “thirtysomething,” as both the characters and their
problems became more substantial, I was hooked. Eventually, one of the
characters got cancer, another died in a traffic accident, and others went
bankrupt and had to work for a satanic boss at a large corporation.

Looking at the first season after all these years, supports both of my initial
impressions. Series creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, who went on to
have enviable careers in both TV and movies, started awkwardly but were fast
learners. Despite some solid performances and funny scenes, though, the first
three episodes of “thirtysomething” are just as off-putting as I remembered
them. Honestly, when one of the big conflicts is having to postpone a
reservation to play squash, I don’t want to embrace these characters. I want to
slap them.

But in episode four, a conflict at a dinner party between two of the
characters, the long-married couple Nancy and Elliot, is re-enacted from four
separate perspectives, each with a distinctly different take on what happened.
It’s a very clever episode, and a very ambitious one. And from that point on,
“thirtysomething” keeps getting better and better. The conflict between Nancy
and Elliot, for example, is explored fully rather than solved and tucked away
after that one episode.

They spend much of the season sniping at each other, subtly but constantly,
until they finally decide to go see a marriage counselor. Their sessions play
like an ‘80s version of HBO’s “In Treatment,” with small complaints eventually
leading to big observations. Here are Patricia Wettig and Timothy Busfield as
Nancy and Elliot, with Marshall Herskovitz, the show’s producer, as the
therapist who listens patiently before offering his own observation.

(Soundbite of clip “Thirtysomething”)

Ms. PATRICIA WETTIG (Actress): (As Nancy Weston) I just think in these days you
don’t quit a job when you’re making really good money to start your own company
which might ruin us. I mean, Michael and Elliot had no experience doing this…

Mr. TIMOTHY BUSFIELD (Actor): (As Elliot Weston) Wait a minute, wait a minute,
wait a minute, wait a minute. We had won two awards, two awards and we have
three separate accounts that were promised us. I mean, that’s a great start.

Ms. WETTIG: (As Nancy Weston) They were local awards.

Mr. BUSFIELD: (As Elliot Weston) Oh, excuse me they forgot my Clio this year. I
mean, what have you won lately?

Ms. WETTIG: (As Nancy Weston) No, I’m just saying that it’s a risky thing to
do.

Mr. BUSFIELD: (As Elliot Weston) You know, you didn’t have any faith in me.
That’s what it was.

Ms. WETTIG: (As Nancy Weston) No, no I was worried about the mortgage…

Mr. BUSFIELD: (As Elliot Weston) You did not have any faith in me.

Ms. WETTIG: (As Nancy Weston) No, faith has nothing to do about it.

Mr. BUSFIELD: (As Elliot Weston) What you mean faith has nothing to do with it?

Ms. WETTIG: (As Nancy Weston) …I can’t figure…

Mr. BUSFIELD: (As Elliot Weston) That’s the whole idea of what we’re doing in
this. Wait a minute, am I crazy? I mean, am I crazy? I mean, I’m doing
something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time, but you think so at all…

Ms. WETTIG: (As Nancy Weston) …I’ve had the same car for seven years.

Mr. BUSFIELD: (As Elliot Weston) …because you enjoy being cheap, Nancy…

Ms. WETTIG: (As Nancy Weston) No, no that’s what not it is…

Mr. BUSFIELD: (As Elliot Weston) …don’t lay that on anything else.

Ms. WETTIG: (As Nancy Weston) …you have to have everything you want when you
want it. That’s true.

Mr. MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ (Actor, Producer): (As Therapist) You know what’s
interesting is that for every accusation there’s a counter-accusation and each
one seems plausible in its own way. I guess it could go on that way forever.

Mr. BUSFIELD: (As Elliot Weston) What’s - what’s that mean?

Mr. HERSKOVITZ: (As Therapist) It could go on that way forever and neither of
you would be any closer to getting what you want from each other.

BIANCULLI: This sort of scene and discussion was rare on broadcast TV then.
It’s rare on broadcast TV now. Dramas about everyday life are as few and far
between in the start of this century as they were at the end of the last one.
So even though it took the show a while to find its true voice, give
“thirtysomething” credit for looking for inspiration and meaning in the little
things.

Where the show also deserves credit, and this is much more clear in retrospect,
is in its eye for talent. Some of the regulars have starred on other terrific
shows. Ken Olin on “EZ Streets,” Tim Busfield on “The West Wing.” And almost
every episode in this first season serves up a surprise. The ditsy receptionist
at Michael and Elliot’s ad agency, she was played by a very young Faith Ford,
pre-“Murphy Brown.” And that’s Terry Kinney, who went on to HBO’s “Oz,” as
Ellyn’s boss and eventual boyfriend. And that extended salute to Hitchcock
films in which Gary falls in love with a woman for the first time? That was
written by Paul Haggis, who went on to create “EZ Streets,” as well as to write
the movies “Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash.” And the enchanting young woman,
she was played by Dana Delany, before the rest of us fell in love with her on
“China Beach.”

The closely bonded young adults of “thirtysomething” paved the way for such
subsequent television series as “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” for example, but
those were sitcoms. As a drama, “thirtysomething” was, and is, something
special. The series definitely has its place in TV history and deserves a place
on your home video bookshelf, as well.

GROSS: David Bianculli writes for TVWorthWatching.com, and teaches television
and film at Rowan University.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: you can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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