Chabon, Michael. Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, 2009 Quoted passages are on pages 200-203.
The seventies have always been prone to more ridicule than their twentieth-century cousin-decades, without anyone giving sufficient notice to the fact that it was the seventies themselves that originated the teasing (Annie Hall, Nashville, "You're So Vain"). At the time I remember dancing on the tops of tables in the schoolroom to "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever." It was like dressing up (I'm a little younger than Chabon). The Bicentennial was the same way. I went as Uncle Sam to see the D.C. fireworks. Of course I looked ridiculous. To get at Chabon's point here, compare You're So Vain (1972) to I've Never Been to Me (1982 -- actually written earlier, but nobody cared until 1982). Carly Simon is smiling, even now. Charlene Duncan makes paradise sound like the DMV. It required no retrospection for the occupants of the zone now understood as the seventies to acknowledge the goofiness in all their pieties and solipsisms, and it is a mark of our own naivete (at the least) to suppose that a straightfaced young tax attorney going out on a Saturday night in 1974 wearing platform boots, glitter mascara, and his hair combed up into a two-foot Isro, for example, did not realize that he looked pretty silly. I remember grown-ups doing all sorts of non-silly things in the decade, of course, but those are not the things that became the seventies in memory, the notion that everybody became so self-absorbed that they let the country go to hell while they were tripping over their wingtips. It's just that looking like a fool was correctly understood to be a likely if not an inevitable result of the taking of risks. Saturday Night Live. Apocalypse Now. Fear of Flying. Free To Be You and Me. All had moments of intense silliness. The sense of liberation that resulted from such risk-taking, however conventionalized or routinized it became, was felt for a little while to be well worth the price in foolishness. It is amazing to me the number of people who will make total idiots of themselves out of fear of looking like an idiot.
We are crippled in so many ways today by the desire to avoid fashion mistakes, to elude ridicule -- a desire that leads at one extreme to the smiling elisions of political candidates and on the other to the awful tyranny of cool -- that this willingness is hard for us to sympathize with or understand. I don't agree with any of that. "Smiling elisions" were as rampant in the seventies as in any other decade, as was the "tyranny of cool," and while I think there is a general reluctance to see things from the point of view of a different person, I'm not sure the seventies the greatest victim of this near-universal solipsism. But I do agree that there is a humorlessness about the hilarity that people find in the decade. In this age of Gawker.com, we have forgotten the seventies spirit of mockery that smirks at the pretensions and fatuities of others in a way that originates with and encompasses ourselves. I've been watching reruns of Saturday Night Live, and this statement describes the humor. Steve Martin's humor depends on the idea that he is a bit of an ass. Ditto Bill Murray's lounge singer. Gilda Radner is more earnest, but the central conceit of her characters is that they are fundamentally silly, and she is brilliant for her full embrace of the lunacy.
Atom for atom, we are made of exactly the same stuff as all the stars and galaxies. I love this essay. It's about Voyager and the seventies. It's called, "Like, Cosmic," and in it Chabon meditates on the recording that is traveling with the Voyager spacecraft beyond the limits of our solar system. It includes whale songs, Brandenburg concertos, heartbeats. It's an attempt to marry science and Crunchy Granola Suite. And it hits the fundamental paradox of the seventies, one that continues to shape the way I see the world -- the tension between the constantly repeated "You are special," and the equally true "You are just like everybody, everything else." That is one of the cosmic, Warlock worthy facts that I learned in the seventies. Chabon's a sci-fi guy. I identify with him, but I imagine he's even more on Keifus's wavelength. Actually, let's see if Keif has found him already. Yup!. If you drop the S in cosmic, you arrive at the understanding that vanity, pomposity, and foolishness are at once communal and individual, like stardust. Million year old carbon. Joni Mitchell, baby! And, while we are on the subject, Blue (1971) and So Far (1974) may be my favorite albums of all time, and saddled me with the illusion that the failure of romantic love is the key to all genesis, as long as you manage to maintain some kind of sense of humor.
I'm skipping ahead a bit now... I might as well say that this essay comes from a collection titled Manhood for Amateurs. Every essay in it was a revelation to me, an account of what had been happening by somebody who found a language that I had been longing for.
What happened in the seventies was that, as at no other time before or since in our history, Americans -- especially American women -- were, for better or worse, free. I'm not sure "free" is the right word here. "More free?" "Relatively free?". Liberated, we cast aside the laws and limitations of the old familiar system to sail like Voyager out into the interstellar medium beyond. You can see it on the album covers of every band of meaty bohunks from Cleveland or Sheffield -- the Raspberries, the Sweet, Aerosmith -- who ever appeared with their hair piled high atop their heads and their masculinity fully, if amusingly, intact. One of the things that shocks me about the original Saturday Night Lives is their totally casual sexism. Carrie Fisher has written about the same attitude on the set of Star Wars, but I can't find the essay. So I don't want to go overboard here. But Chabon's book is largely about how it has been to be male for those of us whose mothers were the first generation of readers of Ms. magazine. We've been trying to figure out how to be sons, fathers, and so forth. And Chabon and I are both aware that we've inherited a lot of the bad of the seventies as well -- Chabon in public, and I in private, cringe at innumerable instances of either direct misogyny or idiotic attempts to avoid sexism in ways that just wind up being both sexist and idiotic. I make no claims to have moved beyond, or learned, or grown.
But look: playfulness is also a legacy of the decade, a kind of playfulness that we thought could resonate The personal was a mantra of seventies feminism, but the spirit of the age, embodied perfectly in the interstellar voyage of Ann Druyan's amorous EEG, might be The personal is universal, or The personal is fucking cosmic, baby! And so now, I find, I am an amateur man. I have, as a legacy of my boyhood, more ways of being male than my father had (You want evidence? Consider the lifetime count of diapers changed. august: about 2 a day for two years, so call it 730. Father of august (and august's brother): 0.) I don't know that this makes me a better person, or wiser, or anything else, except that it has meant that I have had more to figure out, more choice and also more confusion. Part of the equipment I have brought to handle those rolls is a sense of humor. Fatherhood is zany. In my version, it's a lot like Bill Murray's lounge singer, or a Chevy Chase pratfall, or a scene from Star Wars, or a muppet.
Originally I was going to say more about politics and political memory, and about the ways false claims about the seventies support political myths now, but it's hard to follow up on the muppets. One of the most amazing things about Season 1 of Saturday Night Live is how unfunny the muppets were. Also: Franco is not as dead as I would like him to be.
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