The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum



Three stars, read in November/December 2015.

There are a few things I have in common with Meghan Daum that I’ve never known another person to share, at least not to the same degree (and they’re things about which degree really matters). Most of her essays contain some opinions that I find obnoxious—like the many actually sexist comments and assumptions that pepper “Honorary Dyke”—so I can’t just point to any of them as wholly representative of how I feel. But it’s really exciting to hear someone else express ideas I’ve always felt alone in thinking.

When I try to make sense of my honorary dykedom . . . I can’t help but think it’s at least in part a reaction to the gaudy, petty horrors now endemic to what we’ve come to call “women’s culture.” By this I mean . . . the fetishistic attention paid to makeovers and diets and weddings and baby showers and enormous walk-in closets as proof of a husband’s love for his wife. I mean moms who are obsessed with their motherhood and single women who are obsessed with their singleness. I mean most romantic comedies and most novels with stiletto heels or martini glasses on the covers and every yogurt commercial ever made . . . I mean the hair and eyelash extensions that have become commonplace. I mean the fact that there is nothing unusual about seeing businesswomen walking down the street in six-inch heels. Gone are the 1980s, when women tucked their pumps into their briefcases and commuted to work in power suits and running shoes. Gone are the 1970s, with their conspicuous body hair and unapologetic strands of gray pulled into unkempt buns held up with leather stick barrettes. Here in the era of bosomy, spray-tanned, baby-crazed bling, femininity has become a cartoon version of itself. It is at once exaggerated in its presentation and reductive in its implications. It’s enough to make a butch out of anyone who just wants a comfortable pair of shoes.

I think I’ve been circling around this concept for a long time without knowing what name to put to it, and now, here it is—I am totally an honorary dyke! (And I hope this is an acceptable term, because I have almost no knowledge about insider LGBT culture and I don’t think you can just Google whether or not you’re allowed to say something. Same with “soft butch,” which she also uses.) I don’t wear heels or skirts, I rarely shave or wear makeup, I’ve set foot in any kind of salon maybe four times in my life. My wardrobe is almost exclusively greens, blues, blacks, grays, and jeans. I hate—and suck at—shopping, cooking, cleaning, and most crafts. I don’t decorate for holidays. I don’t like romance books or movies, or anything sappy. I’d rather drink whiskey or beer than wine or a Cosmo, and I will never order a salad as dinner. I don’t want to have children, and if I did, seriously ninety percent of the reason would be so I could have a girl and flat-out refuse to allow a single dress, pink toy, or princess book to enter my house for her entire goddamn childhood. I just don’t like that stuff, and if I were allowed to not like it without being treated like a freakish rarity, I wouldn’t care about anyone else liking it either.

“Honorary Dyke” segues quite well into “On Not Being a Foodie,” so although they’re not next to each other in the book, I think they should have been.

But contentment: that is something to strive for. My goal in life is to be content. By that I don’t mean “fine” or “basically satisfied”. I don’t mean settling. I mean, for lack of better terms, feeling like I’m in the right life. Contentment, for me, would mean living in a place where I felt like part of a community, doing work that feels reasonably meaningful, surrounding myself with people I enjoy, respect, and in some cases love. It would mean spending as little time as possible doing things I don’t want to do . . .

The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your 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. When asked to bring a side dish to a dinner party, go to the supermarket and get the nicest prepared dish you can afford . . . If [the hostess] says, “This is wonderful, did you make it?” you can say, “I made the money to buy it,” or “I made the five-mile trip from my house to the store.”

Again I don’t agree with her on everything, but there’s a concept here that I really like—and I think my hesitation is more about her wording than anything. We’ve all been conditioned to hear the words “comfort zone” as negative, meaning that you are ruled by fear and never try anything new. Why does that have to be the definition? When I think about it, to me, that means doing only things I want to do, and not letting myself be forced into anything. Cooking is not in my comfort zone, not because I haven’t tried it, but because I have tried it a lot and I don’t like doing it. “Stay in safe waters,” that sounds like the fear-based thing. But you could just as easily say “stay in comfortable waters, and don’t do things just because other people say you should.” I am very into the idea of being the sole ruler of my own life.

As has been well established in these pages, such blatant displays of sentimentality are almost unheard of for me . . . But for every rule there is a hulking exception and the exception I make to my rigid antischmaltz policy is for dogs . . . I winced, remembering suddenly the rawness of my feelings for animals. I loved them too much [as a child]. This love got in the way of things. Every day on earth is a minefield of animal tragedies, of baby birds fallen from nests and insects smacking onto car windshields and roadkill of all varieties leaving lumpen streaks across the pavement. When you suffer from hyperempathy toward animals, the entire day can be an exercise in averting your eyes, trying to shift your thoughts, holding back tears.

I’m learning a lot of new words thanks to Meghan Daum, words that I have been needing to know how to describe myself. “Hyperempathy” is one of them. The way she described her response to animals is the way I feel on a regular basis about people. Reading the news and driving past a homeless person are incredibly risky behaviors for me, and will frequently result in gasping, sobbing tears. I hate romantic comedies, but will cry my eyes out if pretty much anyone else starts. In eight years I’ve never written my husband a sweet anniversary note on Facebook, but I wrote intensely intimate and emotional posts about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner (not Tamir Rice, because I still can’t handle the panicked rage that starts when I think of him). My emotional response to pain is entirely out of control, and Meghan Daum is the only person I’ve ever known to describe the same feeling.

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