Meghan Daum wants to write about the things we don’t talk about as a society,
the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor – that we might not love our parents enough, that ‘life’s pleasures’ sometimes feel more like chores…”
and in her essay collection The Unspeakable: and Other Subjects of Discussion she mostly succeeds. I was simultaneously entertained and irritated by her, which I take to mean that she’s reached her aim of being authentic about her feelings and experiences. She writes about everything from her lack of desire for children to attending a party thrown by writer/producer Nora Ephron where she played charades with Steve Martin and Larry David.
As with most collections of essays, some work better than others. The two most affecting are “Matricide,” a searing examination of Daum’s relationship with her mother both in life and while she was dying, and “Diary of a Coma,” in which Daum recounts a scary brush with death through a random and strange bacterial infection. Wisely on her (or her editor’s) part, they bookend the collection.
I didn’t connect with the essay about Joni Mitchell, “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” mainly because I honestly haven’t listened to that much Mitchell myself. I also skimmed “The Dog Exception,” because I have a hard time reading sad things about animals. (I will say that Daum gets points from me for her deep love and appreciation for dogs.) And as other reviewers (on Goodreads in particular) have mentioned, the essay “Honorary Dyke” is weird and problematic.
My personal favorite, though, was “On Not Being a Foodie.” Like Daum, my husband is the cook in the family. She describes not being able to read a recipe all the way through before getting started, which is a trademark of my cooking attempts. She chooses pans not on suitability for the task but rather on her ability to hoist them from cabinets with her weak wrists. I particularly love this quotation:
(Cooking) takes me chronic impatience, divides it by my inherent laziness, and multiplies it to the power of my deepest self-loathing.
It summarizes perfectly why I’m not a very good cook. I, too, am impatient, lazy, and paralyzed by anxiety in the kitchen. (Except when I bake. For some reason I really enjoy baking. Go figure.) If I came into sudden wealth one of the first things I’d do would be to inquire about a healthy meal delivery service.
The point of this essay is not to dwell on her kitchen failures, however. She uses it as a way to deconstruct the idea that we’re all supposed to be regularly doing things outside our comfort zones and that there’s something wrong with us if we aren’t. This notion is prevalent in our YOLO, live-your-best-life society. Daum contends that
…the key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of our comfort zone. Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible. If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it. If you can’t cook and refuse to learn, don’t beat yourself up about it. Celebrate it. Be the best noncook you can be.
What a freeing notion! How much anxiety and second-guessing could we save ourselves if we decided to play to our strengths and stopped thinking we might be missing out by not learning to surf or knit or paint watercolors? I’m all for trying new things, but I’d love to leave guilt and self-flagellation at the door.
Overall, I enjoyed this collection. Meghan Daum is refreshingly candid and engaging, and occasionally just a bit annoying. But she’s real. She’s laying it all out there, and I can dig it.