A collection of essays from writers explaining their paths to childlessness. Some stayed on the path their whole lives, some tried and failed to conceA collection of essays from writers explaining their paths to childlessness. Some stayed on the path their whole lives, some tried and failed to conceive and ran out the clock, some found childlessness thrust upon them late in life and accepted it with contentment, or even relief. The essays were all interesting, if a bit navel-gazey, and generally a lot of the same.
There are a lot of repeated justifications on offer. Again and again we read that someone is a writer at his or her core and could not produce if children demanded attention nearby. Maybe, but these 12-hour writing binges of which they speak seem a bit romanticized. And were the toilet to overflow during that time, wouldn't they still step away to deal with it? I guess that doesn't happen every day. Many of them are teachers (because so many writers are also teachers--being a writer is not, it turns out, the prescription for a financially stable life) and write about how they feel confident they are touching lives and creating legacies through their profession instead of through reproduction, and I buy that argument.
So many of them, especially the teachers, enthuse about how much they LOVE children, how precious their students and nieces and nephews and friends' kids are to them. How they prefer the company of children to the company of adults. The women write about having to fight the stigma of being a childless woman--being told they are cold, selfish, etc.--but they contribute to the stigma by protesting so vehemently.
I think only Tim Kreider, in "The End of the Line," comes right out and says he hates children and everything associated with them. He writes with a lot of dark humor, some of which lands and some of which does not, but I liked his essay overall because he brought some interesting philosophy into it. Some of the more intellectual essays (Kreider's, Lionel Shriver's) delve into fear of death, and present not having children as fighting against an innate impulse to breed, although, disappointingly, nobody gets deeply anthropological. It would have made a nice change of pace to have one or two essays really looking at the topic from that perspective. I recently read Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology, a similar collection of essays except they're all about being fat, and there were a wide range of perspectives in that collection that I appreciated more after reading this.
Other repeated themes are dysfunctional childhoods, and chronic mental or emotional disorders. These writers chose to remain childless, and in some cases, single, to avoid continuing destructive patterns or introducing another person into an unstable environment. Elliott Holt writes how she could not subject a child to her recurring depression, but that having a dog works to get her out of bed in the morning. I could not agree more! The dog represents the perfect level of responsibility for someone prone to depression or narcissism or interiority.
For this category of the childless (childfree, if that's how you prefer it), nobody puts it better than Danielle Henderson, in "Save Yourself":
I negotiate the terms of my life every day and work hard to maintain an emotional status quo that I had to create from scratch. That's hard to do with a child in tow.
An interesting read, though maybe not to be read all at once....more
I enjoyed the book, but I have to quibble with a major component of it: the characterization of Oswalt’s compulsive moviegoing as an “addiction”—and hI enjoyed the book, but I have to quibble with a major component of it: the characterization of Oswalt’s compulsive moviegoing as an “addiction”—and he uses the word literally, and not flippantly—is really not an apt one, at least as far as he dissects it. He lives a functional life while it is going on. He claims that relationships are damaged—he describes losing at least one girlfriend—but if there are any substantive personal losses that he incurred, he does not share that. His career thrives during this period, whether or not he feels he is working at the height of his creative powers. And when he decides he needs to “get out of the dark” (figuratively and literally), he just does.
I see movies compulsively, the way Oswalt details in the book. His era was the 1990s, so he was checking off titles of the movies he’d seen in books, while I’ve used the internet. I download lists of movies to see (the AFIs, Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, etc.) and track my progress in painstakingly nerdy spreadsheets. My boyfriend has an entire movie room in his apartment. We see all the Best Picture Oscar nominees every year. My point is that you can want to check things off lists and still be OK. Certainly, we should not compare ourselves to people who agonize, wither, and sometimes die over real addictions.
Looking past that, it was really a great read. The book is funny-ish, but not typical of your average comedian memoir because Oswalt has got grander ambitions, and strives for poignancy first. He also has a grander vocabulary than most comedians and shows it off grandly. This bothered me more at the beginning than later, so either it started out somewhat overwritten and then settled down, or I just got used to it.
The behind-the-scenes of the entertainment world is quite satisfying in some places and less so in others. He does not write much at all about King of Queens, which is fine with me as I do not care about it, but if that’s what you’re looking for, take note. He also tells some unflattering stories about famous people but gallantly refuses to identify them, which irritated me every time. Maybe I wanted him not to draw attention to the fact that he is not identifying them—or maybe to just go ahead and identify them, because one bad story in a Patton Oswalt memoir is not going to ruin anyone’s career, and probably everyone on the internet already knows anyway.
On the positive side, the establishment of the Largo as an alt-comedy mecca is given a lot of ink, and is one of the best parts of the book. He writes about it with reverence for its place in the field, with nostalgia, with warmth. The story of Oswalt staging live readings of The Day the Clown Cried is also a terrific little anecdote about trying something creative to launch a career (and also as a process tale about entertainment and copyright infringement). And personally I loved the entire Down Periscope section, both as an insider’s account of how that particular flop came to be, and also for Oswalt’s unembarrassed observations about his own naive aspirations. I read a celebrity memoir for just that kind of thing....more
A collection of nonfiction essays about being fat and the attendant issues: self-esteem, politics, health, sex, etc. I’m a comfortable fatty myself, aA collection of nonfiction essays about being fat and the attendant issues: self-esteem, politics, health, sex, etc. I’m a comfortable fatty myself, and I picked it up warily, but I found it to be mostly a good read overall.
Here’s what you need to know: in one of the earliest essays—I believe it’s Natalie Kusz’s “On Being Invisible”—the author recalls a group of women having a meal together and a thin woman declaring that she’d eaten too much, that her midsection was growing out of control (pinching it between her fingers to demonstrate), and that no man would ever want her if she continued. A much larger woman was part of the group and asked, reasonably, “so I guess no man wants me, either?” The thin woman deflected, saying she didn’t know her friend was looking to date. This is one of the many illustrative stories included in this collection that demonstrate the ways that fat people are minimized by others; they are treated as though they are failing, lacking, unfinished, unworthy people, people who don’t have (couldn’t possibly have) other struggles, other thoughts, other priorities in their lives that take precedence over their weight and their appearance.
If that anecdote, or my reading of it, doesn’t resonate with you—if it seems petty or self-indulgent—I would not recommend picking up this book, because everything this book wants to say is detailed in incidences like this one.
The essays that meant the least to me were the ones about the nagging of hunger and the shock of crash diets, about the shame cycle of losing and gaining. That has never been what we might call my personal fat experience. I liked the ones about people who were striving to meet emotional, intellectual, and even physical goals that had nothing to do with weight or size; the people who have accepted themselves as large people and live appropriately large lives. Pam Houston’s “Out of Habit, I Start Apologizing” was lovely and well-written. Cheryl Peck’s “Queen of the Gym” described a similar revelation I had at the gym one day: if I’m the fattest person here, I’m doing something right. I’m also fine with the ones where a fat person attempts to be cool with themselves, such as editor Donna Jarrell’s selection “Fat Lady Nuding,” in which she reluctantly attends a nudist New Year’s Eve party. They are all stories about how we can be interesting, multi-faceted men and women, but most people, when they look at us, think they know something fundamental about us: that person hates themselves and wants to lose weight. But then sometimes they are not thinking that; sometimes we are thinking that they think that. It’s all very complicated.
Those are the best stories from inside the fat cave. Some others come at it from different angles: journalistic, medical, psychological. Sarah Fenske’s selection is fairly outrageous: a journalist, she meets with some men who habitually pick up fat women in bars to sleep with them and then compare notes about who bagged the biggest hog and talk about how gross it was. She successfully walks the fine line between showing how absolutely odious they are, but also how pathetic they are, and how damaged in their own ways.
Atul Gawande, a major name in the medical humanities, is always worth reading; here, he profiles a man who has surgery to correct his morbid obesity, and Gawande shows the continuing battle beyond the surgery. A book about fatness cannot not include a story about the damage that can be wrought upon a body by it, and Gawande is one of the most impartial observers we have to write about it. From another angle—a fundamentally judgmental one—there is Irvin Yalom’s “Fat Lady,” about a shrink who struggles with the fact that he hates his overweight patient. And I hated him at first, for this, but over time, as his patient labors to lose weight, and he labors to connect with her, something pretty moving comes out of it.
The biggest names in the collection are David Sedaris and Anne Lamott, but both of their selections are forgettable. I knew from them being public figures that neither is an overweight person. Lamott’s essay suggests that she has grappled with bulimia, and is beautifully-written, as she does, but not particularly incisive about the trials of fatness....more
In one letter, a man writes in about being torn between a “crazy” ex and her best friend, and the weird romantic triangle that has sprung up amongst them. (Looking at its placement online, the question appears to be the first one that Strayed answered, taking over for the original Dear Sugar.) In her response, Strayed lays out the situation for him as things he knows, things he knows he doesn’t know, and things he doesn’t know he doesn’t know, the most important of which is that neither of these women are the right choice for him at this time. But she also diverges briefly to interrogate his description of his ex:
How can it be that so many people’s ex-girlfriends are crazy? What happens to these women? Do they eventually go on to birth babies and care for their elderly parents and scramble up gigantic pans of eggs on Sunday mornings for oodles of lounge-abouts who later have the nerve to inquire about what’s for dinner or is there some corporate Rest Home for Crazy Bitches chain in cities across the land that I am unaware of that houses all these women who used to love men who later claim they were actually crazy bitches?
However, she also ends by promising the letter’s writer, “You are loved.” The crazy ex-girlfriends interlude is a scolding, but not a mean-spirited one. She wants everyone to learn. If you believe what she has written (I do), Strayed has seen in her life more than her own share of horrors, but she has made peace and wants others to make theirs. If she is a bit precious about the way she expresses this, I'm OK with that.