The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

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9780374280444: The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

Winner of the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction

"Daum is her generation's Joan Didion." ―Nylon

Nearly fifteen years after her debut collection, My Misspent Youth, captured the ambitions and anxieties of a generation, Meghan Daum returns to the personal essay with The Unspeakable, a masterful collection of ten new works. Her old encounters with overdrawn bank accounts and oversized ambitions in the big city have given way to a new set of challenges. The first essay, "Matricide," opens without flinching:

People who weren't there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family. This is technically true, though it was just my brother and me and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hillary Clinton in the December 2009 issue of Vogue.

Elsewhere, she carefully weighs the decision to have children―"I simply felt no calling to be a parent. As a role, as my role, it felt inauthentic and inorganic"―and finds a more fulfilling path as a court-appointed advocate for foster children. In other essays, she skewers the marriage-industrial complex and recounts a harrowing near-death experience following a sudden illness. Throughout, Daum pushes back against the false sentimentality and shrink-wrapped platitudes that surround so much of contemporary American experience and considers the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor―that we might not love our parents enough, that "life's pleasures" sometimes feel more like chores, that life's ultimate lesson may be that we often learn nothing.
But Daum also operates in a comic register. With perfect precision, she reveals the absurdities of the New Age search for the "Best Possible Experience," champions the merits of cream-of mushroom-soup casserole, and gleefully recounts a quintessential "only-in-L.A." story of playing charades at a famous person's home.
Combining the piercing insight of Joan Didion with humor reminiscent of Nora Ephron's, Daum dissects our culture's most dangerous illusions, blind spots, and sentimentalities while retaining her own joy and compassion. Through it all, she dramatizes the search for an authentic self in a world where achieving an identity is never simple and never complete.

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About the Author:

Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth. She is also the author of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House and The Quality of Life Report, a novel. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, and other publications. She has also contributed to NPR's Morning Edition, Marketplace, and This American Life. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

MATRICIDE

 

People who weren’t there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family. This is technically true, though it was just my brother and me and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hillary Clinton in the December 2009 issue of Vogue. A hospice nurse had been over a few hours earlier and said my mother was “very imminent.” She was breathing in that slow, irregular way that signals that the end is near. Strangely, I hadn’t noticed it despite listening for the past several weeks (months earlier, when her death sentence had been officially handed down but she was still very much alive, my mother had casually mentioned that she’d noticed this breathing pattern in herself and that I should be prepared to walk into the room and find her gone at any moment) but apparently it was here now and when I reached the third paragraph of the second page of the Hillary Clinton article (this remains imprinted on my brain; I can still see the wrap of the words as my eye scanned the column; I can still see the Annie Leibovitz photo on the previous page) I heard her gasp. Then nothing more.

“Mom?” I called out.

My brother got off the couch and called her name, too.

Then I said, “Is that it?”

That was it. I found suddenly that I wasn’t quite sure how to identify a dead person—it didn’t occur to me in that moment that not breathing was a sure sign—so I picked up her hand. It was turning from red to purple to blue. I’d read about this in the death books—Final Gifts, Nearing Death Awareness, The Needs of the Dying—that I’d devoured over the last few months. Medically speaking, I’d found these books to be extremely accurate about how things progressed, but some put a lot of emphasis on birds landing on windowsills at the moment of death or people opening their eyes at the last minute and making amends or saying something profound. We weren’t that kind of family, though, and I harbored no such expectations. I had been slightly worried that when my mother actually died I’d be more grief-stricken than I’d anticipated, that I’d faint or lose my breath or at least finally unleash the tears that I’d been unable to shed all this time. I thought that in my impatience to get through the agonizing end stages I’d surely get my comeuppance in the form of sneaky, shocking anguish. Perhaps I would rage at the gods, regret all that had gone unsaid, pull an article of clothing from her closet and hold it close, taking her in. But none of that happened. I was as relieved as I’d planned to be. I picked her hand up a few more times over the next two hours while we waited for another hospice worker to come over and fill out the final paperwork and then for the men from the funeral home to take her away. I did this less for the sake of holding it than to make sure she still had no pulse. She’d chosen cremation but had said once that she feared being burned alive.

A woman worked for us during the last two months of my mother’s illness. She must have found us appalling. A week or so before my mother died, my brother and I started packing up the apartment right in front of her. I know this sounds grotesque, but we were hemorrhaging money and had to do whatever we could to stem the flow. It was late December and her lease was up on the first of the new year. If she died before then and we didn’t have the place cleared out, we’d not only have to renew the lease and pay another month of sizable rent, but we’d also have to then go on to break the lease and lose her sizable security deposit. She was unconscious, so “right in front of” is a matter of interpretation, but her hospital bed was in the living room and we had to crouch behind it to remove books from shelves. My mother had a set of George Kovacs table lamps that I liked very much, and every time I look at them in my own house now, three time zones away in a living room she’s never seen, I think about how I had to reach around her withering body to unplug them, after which I packed them into their original boxes, which I’d found deep in her coat closet, walked them over to the UPS Store, and mailed them off to California.

“You have to start sometime,” said Vera, the woman who worked for us. I’m almost certain she said this because she had no idea what to say but felt some obligation to validate our behavior since we were paying her $17 per hour. Vera was a professional end-of-life home health care aide, referred to us by hospice. She was originally from Trinidad and spent a lot of time listening to Christmas music on headphones. I assumed she’d known every kind of family and witnessed every iteration of grief, though later I learned she’d worked for only one other terminal patient in New York, a man who was dying of something other than cancer and whose daughter apparently cried all the time and threw herself on his empty hospital bed after he was taken away. Our family, as my mother might have said, had “a significantly different style.”

*   *   *

My mother died the day after Christmas. She was sixty-seven years old. She lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she’d moved three years earlier after retiring from her job as a high school theater teacher and director in New Jersey. She had an exquisitely decorated one-bedroom apartment that she couldn’t really afford, though, true to her nature, she had a number of business and creative projects in the works that she trusted would change her financial equation. These included theater coaching for Broadway hopefuls as well as potentially mounting a play she’d written (her first literary endeavor) that she told me she felt could hit the big time if only she got it into the right hands. But in January 2009, after months of complaining of pain in her side and being told by her doctor it was probably a pulled muscle, she was found to have gallbladder cancer. This sounds like the kind of thing you could easily cure by just removing the gallbladder, which everyone knows is a nonessential organ, but it turns out the disease is not only extremely rare but barely treatable. Not that they weren’t going to try.

The week of my mother’s diagnosis, her own mother died at age ninety-one. This wasn’t as calamitous as you might think. “I don’t really feel anything,” my mother said when she told me the news. “I lost her so long ago.” Technically she was referring to the dementia my grandmother had suffered for several years but we both knew that the real loss existed from the very beginning. My grandmother was tyrannical in her childishness. She was stubborn, self-centered, and often seemingly willfully illogical. Though she didn’t overtly mistreat my mother, I’m fairly certain that my mother saw her as a neglecter. Not in the sense of failing to provide food and shelter but in the sense that is knowable only to the neglectee, and even then maybe never entirely. I’m tempted to say that my grandmother damaged my mother on an almost cellular level. But then again maybe some of my mother’s damage was her own. She freely admitted that from the age of fourteen until she left her parents’ house after college, she stopped speaking almost entirely when she was at home. In the outside world, she won piano competitions and twirled the baton, but inside the house she offered nothing more than an occasional mumble. I think the idea was that her mother was so unwilling to listen to her that she was no longer going to waste her breath.

As a very young child I’d taken the requisite delight in my grandparents; they had candy dishes and cuckoo clocks, plus they lived far away and I saw them only once a year at the most. But as I grew older and my grandfather died and my mother lost what little buffer had once stood between her and her adversary, the more I came to see the pathology that swarmed around my grandmother like bees. She was a mean little girl in a sweet old woman’s body; she spoke about people behind their backs in ghastly ways, sometimes loudly just seconds after they’d left the room. She spoke in a permanent whine, sometimes practically in baby talk. My mother, whose life’s mission was to be regarded as serious and sophisticated, recoiled from this as though it were a physical assault. She often said she believed her mother had an “intellectual disability.” For my mother’s entire life, her mother was less a mother than splintered bits of shrapnel she carried around in her body, sharp, rusty debris that threatened to puncture an organ if she turned a certain way.

We didn’t need to have my grandmother’s funeral right away, my mother said. It would require travel to Southern Illinois, a ragged, rural place out of which my grandmother had seldom set foot and from which my mother, despite having left at twenty-three, never felt she could totally escape. Like me, my brother lived in Los Angeles, though unlike me, it was hard for him to get away from work and no one expected him to just drop everything to attend his grandmother’s funeral. My father, though sort of in the picture in that he also lived in Manhattan and was still married to my mother, was not in any picture that would have required him to make this trip. My parents had been separated for nearly twenty years, beginning around the time my mother began to self-identify as a theater person and potential single person, though they’d never bothered to divorce. The rest of us, though, would go the following month, when my brother could request a few days off and after my mother was recovered from her surgery and had gotten in a round or two of chemotherapy. It would turn out to be the last trip she ever took. At the memorial service, she addressed the small crowd of mostly eighty- and ninety-somethings about how far she’d moved beyond Southern Illinois but how she still appreciated it as a good place to have grown up. This was entirely untrue, since as far back as I can remember she’d blamed a large portion of her troubles on her hometown as well as on her mother. Also untrue was the notion, which my mother had let grow in her hometown some years earlier and never bothered to tamp down, that she was single-handedly responsible for the career of a famous actor who had gone to the high school where she’d taught. In truth, the actor had dropped out before she began working there, but my brother and I nodded and went along with it.

In our family, being good children did not have to do with table manners or doing well in school but with going along with my mother’s various ideas about herself and the rest of us. Mostly they amounted to white lies, little exaggerations that only made us look petty if we called her out on them so we usually didn’t. Or at least we didn’t anymore. There was a period of at least fifteen years, from approximately age eighteen to age thirty-four, when every interaction I had with my mother entailed some attempt on my part to cut through what I perceived as a set of intolerable affectations. The way I saw it, she had a way of talking about things as though she wasn’t really interested in them but rather imitating the kind of person who was. What I always felt was that she simply didn’t know how to be. She reminded me a bit of the kind of college student who’s constantly trying on new personalities, who’s a radical feminist one day and a party girl the next, who goes vegan for a month and doesn’t let anyone forget it, who comes back from a semester in Europe with a foreign accent. Not that she actually was or did any of these things. It was more that she always felt to me like an outline of a person, a pen-and-ink drawing with nothing colored in. Sometimes I got the feeling she sort of knew this about herself but was powerless to do anything about it. She wanted to be a connoisseur of things, an expert. She wanted to believe she was an intellectual. Once, among a group of semistrangers, I heard her refer to herself as an academic. Later, when I asked her about it, she told me she appreciated college towns and academic-type people and therefore was one herself. When I asked her what she thought an intellectual was, she said it was someone who “valued education” and preferred reading to sports.

What was my problem? Why couldn’t I just let it go, laugh it off, chalk it up to quirkiness rather than grant it status as a legitimate source of my barely contained rage? For starters, her need for praise was insatiable. And around the time of her emancipation from her old self, when she moved out of the house and seemingly took up permanent residence in the high school theater, that need redoubled. We never gave her any credit, she said. We always put her down, didn’t take her seriously. And now that she “felt really good” about herself (for dressing better, for going blond, for losing weight, for having a career), we couldn’t bring ourselves to be happy for her. That she was completely right about all of this only added to my rage. We couldn’t give her any credit, at least not enough. She just wanted it too badly. She’d ask for it outright. In heated moments, she’d practically order me to praise her as though I were a child being told to clean my room. “It would be nice if just once you’d just say, ‘Hey, Mom, you’re really good at what you do,’” she’d tell me. “If you’d say, ‘You do that so very well.’”

If you asked me what my central grievance with my mother was, I would tell you that I had a hard time not seeing her as a fraud. I would tell you that her transformation, at around age forty-five, from a slightly frumpy, slightly depressed, slightly angry but mostly unassuming wife, mother, and occasional private piano teacher into a flashy, imperious, hyperbolic theater person had ignited in her a phoniness that I was allergic to on every level. I might try to explain how the theater in question was the one at my very high school, a place she’d essentially followed me to from the day I matriculated and then proceeded to use as the training ground and later backdrop for her new self. I might throw in the fact that she was deeply concerned with what kind of person I was in high school because it would surely be a direct reflection of the kind of person she was.

Thanks to my own need to please others and draw praise, my life in high school became a performance in response to my mother’s performance. When I saw her approaching in the hall I’d grab a friend by the elbow and throw my head back in laughter so she’d perceive me as being popular and bubbly. When I did poorly on a test I followed her advice and didn’t let on to anyone. Meanwhile she copied my clothes, my hair, my taste in jewelry, so much so that I started borrowing her things (they were exaggerated versions of my things: skirts that were a little too short, blazers with massive shoulder pads, dangling, Art Deco–inspired earrings) because it seemed easier than trying to pull together my own stuff. In the years to come, my mother would become the go-to teacher for the sexually confused and the suddenly pregnant. But in the nascent stages of her coolness, I wasn’t allowed out past ten o’clock. She found it embarrassing that I had a boyfriend. This was beneath me, an unserious pursuit, especially since he wasn’t involved in the arts. She didn’t want to be known as someone whose daughter would have a boyfriend in high school. She liked when I waited for her at the end of the day so she could drive me home, even (perhaps especially) if it meant my having to pace around the theater while she finished up her business.

Kids whose parents are teachers in their schools are members of a special club. They have to build invisible fences. They have to learn to appear to take it in earnest when their classmates tell them how cool the parent is. They have to learn not to take it personally when th...

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Descrizione libro Farrar, Straus Giroux Inc, United States, 2014. Hardback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Nearly fifteen years after her debut collection, My Misspent Youth, captured the ambitions and anxieties of a generation, Meghan Daum returns to the personal essay with The Unspeakable, a masterful collection of ten new works. Her old encounters with overdrawn bank accounts and oversized ambitions in the big city have given way to a new set of challenges. The first essay, Matricide, opens without flinching: People who weren t there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family. This is technically E true, though it was just my brother and me and he was looking at Facebook and l was reading a profile of Hillary Clinton in the December 2009 issue of Vogue. Elsewhere, she carefully weighs the decision to have children - I simply felt no calling to be a parent. As a role, as my role, it felt inauthentic and inorganic and finds a more fulfilling path as a court appointed advocate for foster children. In other essays, she skewers the marriage industrial complex and recounts a harrowing near death experience following a sudden illness. Throughout, Daum pushes back against the false sentimentality and shrink- wrapped platitudes that surround so much of contemporary American experience and considers the unspeakable E thoughts many of us harbor - that we might not love our parents enough, that life s pleasures sometimes feel more like chores, that life s ultimate lesson may be that we often learn nothing. But Daum also operates in a comic register. With perfect precision, she reveals the absurdities of the New Age search for the Best Possible Experience, champions the merits of cream of mushroom soup casserole, and gleefully recounts a quintessential only in LA. story of playing charades at a famous person s home. Combining the piercing insight of Joan Didion with humour reminiscent of Nora Ephron s, Daum dissects our culture s most dangerous illusions, blind spots, and sentimentalities while retaining her own joy and compassion. Through it all, she dramatizes the search for an authentic self in a world where achieving an identity is never simple and never complete. Codice libro della libreria BTE9780374280444

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Descrizione libro Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. Condizione libro: New. Combining the insight of Joan Didion with humour reminiscent of Nora Ephron's, Meghan Daum dissects our culture's illusions, blind spots, and sentimentalities while retaining her own joy and compassion. Through it all, she dramatizes the search for an authentic self in a world where achieving an identity is never simple and never complete. Num Pages: 256 pages. BIC Classification: 1KBB; 2AB; DNF; DSB. Category: (G) General (US: Trade). Dimension: 152 x 217 x 23. Weight in Grams: 384. . 2014. Hardcover. . . . . . Codice libro della libreria V9780374280444

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