The Unspeakable

UnspeakableIn the introduction to this essay collection, Meghan Daum writes that our societal discourse is “largely rooted in platitudes” and that her goal in the book was to get beyond the platitudes to discuss “the unspeakable thought many of us harbor—that we might not love our parents enough, that life’s pleasures sometimes feel more like chores—but can only talk about in coded terms.” The topics she takes on—marriage, children, pets, music, identity—have been written about over and over, and her position on them is not necessarily new or original. But she writes with such platitude-avoiding skill that I ended up enjoying this collection (mostly) very much.

My favorite essay, “On Not Being a Foodie,” appears late in the book. It starts out being just what the title says, an essay about not caring much about food, and turns into a contemplation of something I often struggle with—the constant drumbeat that tells us to step out of our comfort zones in order to be our best selves. Daum writes,

Having lived most of my life firmly within the confines of a very specific set of interests and abilities, I can tell you that the comfort zone has many upsides. It may be associated with sloth and cowardice and any number of paralyzing, irrational phobias. It may be a dark abyss where misunderstood people lie around in fading recliners listening to outdated music. But I’m convinced that, when handled responsibly, the comfort zone can be as useful and productive as a well-oiled industrial zone. I am convinced that excellence comes not from overcoming limitations but from embracing them. At least that’s what I’d say if I were delivering a TED Talk. I’d never say such a douchy thing in private conversation.

She goes on to discuss how she hasn’t bothered to improve at things she’s bad at or learn to enjoy popular pastimes that she doesn’t. She lives in her comfort zone and doesn’t feel bad about it. “The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone,” she says. This is a sentiment I can get behind, although I wonder what the world would be like if everyone lived this way. Maybe there are times to step beyond our comfort zones. Surely, though, we shouldn’t do so just because society has deemed a certain activity cool—and that’s a lot of what Daum is talking about.

From “The Dog Exception,” I also share Daum’s annoyance yet complete inability to resist the “Rainbow Bridge” poem about how we’ll see our beloved pets again when we die: “The Rainbow Bridge poem makes me cry because as much as I want never to see it again I want even more for it to be true.” Yes. This is exactly the kind of sentimental glurge that I generally find unbearable, but when my Sophie was dying on my lap last fall, I told her that if she was in pain that she could go and that I would see her again someday at that bridge. I needed that story. Somehow my pets do that to me. Sometimes platitudes work.

One of the things I liked about these essays is that Daum is willing to show less than flattering pictures of herself. This was certainly true in “Difference Maker,” which chronicles her work as a mentor for teens as part of Big Brothers/Big Sisters and then as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate for foster kids. She tied her interest in doing this work to her ambivalence about having children, making the essay more about her than about the kids she was helping. Although, to be fair, she was not allowed to reveal much about any of these kids. And I appreciated that this essay didn’t turn the often messy and tedious work of helping kids in need into a fairy tale of trips to the zoo and balloons and ice cream cones. It’s more often about trips to Target or the courthouse and learning to shrug it off when an expensive gift goes unused. And it’s something she can leave at the end of the day and go home to her quiet house with her husband: “Whether that’s was fundamentally sad or fundamentally exquisite we’d probably never be sure. But who can be sure of such things? And what’s so great about being sure, anyway?”

I didn’t always like or agree with what Daum had to say, but most of the time I could appreciate her ideas. I was a little annoyed with “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” because it turns out I like all the “wrong” Joni Mitchell songs and haven’t even heard the “right” ones. But whatever. And despite being only a couple of years younger than Daum, I was exasperated by some of her comments about the Gen X/Millienial divide in “Not What It Used to Be.” I did, however, appreciate her nostalgia for a past “feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”

Although I could find something to appreciate in most of these essays, even those I didn’t love, one, “Honorary Dyke,” stood out as particularly bad. You can imagine from the title. Most of the essay chronicles Daum’s efforts to understand her own gender identity and sexuality. She wants to identify with lesbians in how she presents herself, but she is a straight woman. And so, in the essay, lesbian women seem like props against which she can measure herself. It’s unfortunate, to put it mildly. The thing is, this essay could have been interesting if Daum had gone a step further to examine the ways women present themselves and the assumptions we make about each other based on those presentations. She gets at a kernel of that toward the end:

There’s more than one way to be a person. Actually, there are more than two or three ways. You’d think that was obvious, but I find that often it is not. The world is essentially a collection of teams. Life is a process of deciding which ones we’re going to join.

I would have loved for her to scrap a lot of the material leading up to this and dig into the idea of how the human need to join up with teams rubs up against the fact that our teams do not define our whole selves. That would have been great, but this essay was both a mess and a missed opportunity.

Most of the essays, however, aren’t messes at all, but enjoyable musings on difficult topics. These essays include none of the reportage that fills Leslie Jamieson’s The Empathy Exams. Enjoying the essays will probably require enjoying Daum’s own personality and often privileged perspective. This is not, in short, a hard-hitting collection about how life ought to be; it’s one imperfect woman’s musings on how she experiences the difficulties of her own life. These are personal essays, and include all that’s great and not-so-great about the form.

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12 Responses to The Unspeakable

  1. Thank you for an interesting recommendation! I’ve reserved it at my library… :)

  2. It’s cool that she takes up this comfort zone question. The standard I try to go by is that if I’m staying in my comfort zone because I’m afraid to try a thing I want to try, I should definitely try it, and see how it goes. (Usually, rough at first, better with practice.) But if it’s a thing I genuinely have no interest in, I don’t feel compelled to try it. I don’t think I’m limiting myself that way, just saving my energies for activities and experiences that call to me.

    • Teresa says:

      I think that makes a lot of sense. I take a similar approach, but I also tend to factor in what I might have to give up to pursue this other interest and whether my interest is strong enough to give up that other thing. (So, for instance, I’d like to do community theatre again sometime, but I’m not interested enough to upend my whole schedule right now if I did get a part.)

      Daum talks less about fear and more about preferring to do things she’s already good at than things she finds hard–it happens that she most enjoys things she’s good at. I’m kind of similar in that I need to have a baseline level of ability to enjoy doing a thing, or it needs to be a thing where natural ability doesn’t enter in. I’m not great at yoga, for example, but I enjoy it because the goal is really about learning to work with your limitations. Swimming, on the other hand, is no fun for me because I’m so bad at it that I can hardly do any actual swimming, and I don’t enjoy the conditioning process enough to make an effort to improve.

  3. lailaarch says:

    I’ve had my eye on this one for a while… you review makes me want to pick it up for sure!

  4. priscilla says:

    You may have convinced me to pick this up. My only previous experience with Daum was reading her novel The Quality of Life Report, which I didn’t like at all. I’m especially interested in the comfort zone essay and the one about the kids (being in a childless couple by choice), but Joni Mitchell honestly kind of works my nerves. There. I said it.

    • Teresa says:

      I like some of Joni Mitchell’s songs (the dumb and obvious ones accordingly), but if you don’t like Mitchell, Daum’s essay won’t make you like her any better. Neither she nor Daum come off very well in that essay.

      • priscilla says:

        To be fair, I can manage “A Free Man in Paris” and “Help Me.” I’m sure those are the wrong songs, because they were on the radio when I was a kid. :)

  5. Stefanie says:

    I’ve heard good things about Daum, usually glowing, which has made me want to read her. I like your measured response. I still want to read her but now I won’t have such high expectations!

    • Teresa says:

      There were enough good essays here to have made it worth my time (and the bad ones were enjoyable in the way exasperating essays sometimes are).

  6. Matthew ( says:

    This sounds really interesting – you had me at the first paragraph! Wishlisted :)

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