‘3 Michaels’ talk writing, inspiration and Berkeley quirks

Michael Lewis, Michael Pollan, Michael Chabon, and moderator Sedge Thomson on stage at Berkeleyside’s “The Three Michaels: A Berkeley Conversation,” at Berkeley Rep, Monday Dec. 10, 2012. Photo: Pete Rosos

In an evening designed to focus on the “Berkeleyishness” of Berkeley, and raise money for a great cause, three of the city’s most renowned Michaels kept hundreds of local residents laughing for the better part of 90 minutes with their wit, charm and candor. [Listen to the podcast of the evening.]

Writers Michael Lewis, Michael Pollan and Michael Chabon — all of whom live in Berkeley — answered questions from West Coast Live host and Berkeley native Sedge Thomson, who moderated “The Three Michaels: A Berkeley Conversation” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre on Monday night.

This was the third public forum Berkeleyside has put on, part of its commitment to providing quality conversations and debates on issues that matter to Berkeley, both on- and off-line. (Scroll down for a slideshow, courtesy of Pete Rosos, from the forum.)

The evening, a fundraiser for 826, a writing program that will open in Oakland to serve East Bay youth, opened with a question about how each man landed in Berkeley with his family; after Lewis and Pollan shared that former UC Berkeley journalism school dean Orville Schell was “the same midwife” responsible for their residence in town, Chabon quipped that the first home he and his wife moved into south of campus happened to be owned by Schell.

As an aside, Lewis and Pollan told a story about their first meeting, which involved a car crash into Lewis’ office at his home in the Berkeley hills: “One of the best dinner parties we ever had,” Lewis said.

Michael Lewis, Michael Polan, and Michael Chabon share a moment of hilarity on stage at the Berkeley Rep. Photo: Pete Rosos

The conversation on stage moved quickly into writing in Berkeley, and how each man balances family life with professional work, and schedules that demand travel and focus.

Living in Berkeley has posed certain challenges, as all three noted the experience of being pigeonholed due to their residence here. It’s a city whose reputation often precedes it.

“There’s so much baggage living in Berkeley,” said Pollan, after Chabon said it was impossible to write letters to the New York Times noting his Berkeley, CA, residency.

“When I go out of Berkeley, people think they know what Berkeley’s like,” said Chabon, noting that the city’s diversity and disparity are “much more complicated” than the stereotype. “There are many different nuances people aren’t aware of, that’s part of what I love most about Berkeley. When I travel, it’s always a relief to come back.”

Poking fun at the stereotype was also a topic of conversation, however, as Pollan shared his “only in Berkeley” moment, about an older woman at a book event at Cody’s who scolded Pollan for calling insects “pests” rather than a more PC term such as “associate species.”

Michael Pollan on stage at “The Three Michaels: A Berkeley Conversation,” organized by Berkeleyside. Photo: Pete Rosos

Said Lewis: “It’s amazing how many people here think you want to hear their political views; you can’t get away from it.”

Thomson asked about the role Berkeley plays in each man’s writing life.

Lewis likened writing about Berkeley to “pissing in your drinking water,” but noted that living in the Bay Area provides ready fodder for storytelling.

“I wanted to live somewhere where there would be enough material so I wouldn’t have to travel,” he said. (His popular 2003 book, Moneyball, was set just over the border in Oakland.)

“I don’t want to write about Berkeley,” Lewis said, though he drew big laughs when he referred to one of his first pieces of local writing, unfinished, entitled: “Why does my City Council have a foreign policy?”

Lewis, a father of three, said it can be a challenge to balance home and work: “Books do not go well with family life. You gotta find so much space to do it.”

Chabon, a father of four, concurred.

“It’s hard to get immersed in a project when I’m home doing my share of parenting,” he said. “I have to go away to get work done.”

Michael Chabon talks with guests at the Champagne Reception held before the show. Photo: Pete Rosos

Chabon said he also has to be vigilant about distractions from his own wandering mind, noting a web application called “Freedom” that blocks the internet to help him focus on writing. If left to his own devices, he said, he’s likely to let a tiny distraction take him down the rabbit hole, starting on a work-related query related to, say, spark plugs, and ending up three hours later reading about the Partridge family.

In response to an audience question via Heather Flett from 510 Families, each Michael shared his favorite Berkeley traditions to do with kids. Chabon said the hobby shop under Ace Hardware, and eating at Cheeseboard pizza, are on his list. Pollan said eating, especially pizza at Arinell and Gioia, is among his son’s favorite activities with the family. And Lewis gave a shout-out to the Albany Berkeley Girls Softball League (where one parent keeps score but no one is allowed to know it, he added, and no team is allowed to win a majority of the games).

Michael Lewis, Michael Pollan, and Michael Chabon with moderator Sedge Thomson, host of West Coast Live. Photo: Pete Rosos

An audience member also asked each Michael to share his predictions for the city.

Said Lewis: “Berkeley politically is going to get much more interesting. It might even get a Republican mayor in my lifetime.” (An audience member shouted: “There already is!” drawing laughter.)

Chabon said he hopes the city will continue to support small businesses and resist chain stores.

And Pollan predicted the end of an era: “The left-wing resistance to change will give up at some point, I hope,” he said, adding that he’s never been to a Berkeley City Council meeting. He asked Lewis and Chabon if they had, and both shook their heads.

After a pause, Chabon piped up, “Let’s do it!”

You heard it here first, folks. The three Michaels are taking their show on the road, coming soon to council chambers near you.

Berkeleyside’s “Three Michaels: A Berkeley Conversation” was supported by One PacificCoast BankListen to the podcast of the evening.

The Three Michaels of Berkeley: Supporting, supported [12.10.12]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • thank you for organizing this. sounds like it was a wonderful evening. looking forward to the podcast :) … and speaking of rabbit holes…. 826, 1 PC Bank, west coast live…. good thing you didn’t also linked spark plugs and the Partridge family. I’d have been sucked in all day :-)

  • Howie Mencken

    “I wanted to live somewhere where there would be enough material so I wouldn’t have to travel,” – Michael Lewis

    “If Swift had lived in Berkeley, Gulliver would have never have left town.” – Me, two days ago on B’side’s “bee” article. Great minds…and all that.

    Michael Chabon looks great. He’s always been charming. We held hands once…sitting in a circle on the floor with our daughters saying the prayer for Shabbat in the old Beth El pre-school at Arch and Vine.

    Well Done, Berkeleyside!

  • ladylike

    One line that I thought was really funny – Michael Chabon, discussing the general agreement on political topics that obtains in Berkeley and the woes that betide those who step outside the lines of orthodoxy: “Berkeley – the Plimouth Plantation of the Left”.

  • Trotsky

    “And Pollan predicted the end of an era: “The left-wing resistance to
    change will give up at some point, I hope,” he said, adding that he’s
    never been to a Berkeley City Council meeting. He asked Lewis and Chabon
    if they had, and both shook their heads.”

    It’s witty to disparage the people who actually care and get involved. It’s a real sign of status to boast about having a strong opinion based on ignorance. The poors — they are for laughing at. And besides, what have leftists ever stood for besides resisting change.

  • serkes

    The people, sans humor, will never be elated.

    Ira … trying to be an associate species

  • Howie Mencken

    Trots…A superb example of “policing solidarity”!

  • Mbfarrel

    If you’re glad BART is underground in Berkeley, you can thank a Republican mayor.

  • I remember voting for the bond measure that buried the Bart tracks. I can’t remember who was mayor then, but I’m sure it was enlightened citizens that made it happen.

  • Mbfarrel

    Wallace Johnson was mayor and deserves much of the credit. The City acted as General Contractor, and the project finished under budget and ahead of schedule.
    Shortly after BART began service I rode at the very front of a train and chatted with the operator, who had his door open. He said the Berkeley section was the best, and one of only two sections of track where they would run the train at design speed.