Book Title: My Dead Pets Are Interesting
Author: Lenore Zion
Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, humor
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because my dead pets are also interesting, and because this is probably my most self-indulgent discussion to date.
Availability: Published by The Nervous Breakdown Books in 2011, you can get a copy here:
Comments: When I finished reading Stupid Children by Lenore Zion, I knew I’d need to read everything she’d ever written. She writes neurosis so well that it was alarming how well she pulled it off. Now after reading My Dead Pets Are Interesting, it’s clear Zion is writing from a place of experience. I’m pretty calm and well-adjusted these days, or at least I look that way. A lot of the time I play up my quirks as I write, but it’s undeniable that as a younger woman I was a complete basket case and that even now I’m a bit more nervous and loopy than the average woman. I sit on the OCD spectrum (contamination and cleanliness and I’m certain Mr. OTC will die in a car crash if I don’t give him a goodnight kiss every night before bed), am depressive and have a sleep issues that would kill you if you had them. I’m not exaggerating. On the upside, pictures I’ve posted online about my soul-crushing inability to sleep have been used in articles about insomnia, so I’ve got that going for me. That’s how I know I’m better now – I can see the upside from time to time. Plus when you get older the shit that tired you when you were a kid no longer has the power because you’ve endured it long enough and now know it’s just one of many potential personality types and that neurotics are far thicker on the ground than anyone realizes when they are in their twenties.
Zion herself is a neurotic, and engages in a lot of the same behaviors I engaged in when I was younger, behaviors that seem pathological and inexplicable to the balanced person, but make utter sense to those of us who have the albatross of obsessive anxiety hanging from our necks like… well, like an albatross. I get what she has to say and find the humor in how she relates her mild hysteria to her readers. For those of us who are fellow travelers in neurosis, there is a truth and compassion in Zion’s writing that reminds us that we are both not alone in our affliction and that, in retrospect, almost everything is funny if you look at it the right way.
My Dead Pets Are Interesting consists of autobiographical sketches and is divided into four parts: “I Hate Myself;” “Just a Bunch of Kid Stuff;” “I’m Not Entirely Certain;” and “Dead Animals.”
I barely know how to start because basically every line Zion writes is either funny, trenchant, sad or moving in some manner. But I think the best place to start is literally the beginning – how obvious – the first line from the first article in the first section. From “What Not to Do About Rat Mites:”
My dermatologist was explaining to me that my problematic mole was likely going to have to go, but I wasn’t listening much because I was focusing on the fact that I couldn’t remember his name, and also because he was looking at me funny and I got the distinct impression that he was flirting with me, and I thought it was an odd time to choose to flirt with me, being that I was wearing only my underwear and he had just moments ago finished inspecting me for cancerous growths.
Zion’s neurosis seems to have contamination and fear of sickness as key components – she was at the dermatologist because she had an almost invisible bump on one of her fingers that she was convinced was caused by a possible rat mite infestation in her apartment. He’s instead worried about a mole on her face he wants to remove immediately because he fears it’s cancerous. She is certain the doctor is both trying to pick her up and also is picking up on her nervousness. She’s certain she is not behaving properly, that there is a human element of relating to the doctor that she doesn’t execute properly and that when she laughs a bit too long at one of her doctor’s jokes, she scares him away.
I was sitting there, basically naked, under profoundly unflattering light, complaining of rat mites, receiving a recommendation to remove my questionable, yucky, possibly diseased mole before its roots took hold and formed a personality of its own, and then I started smiling at my doctor like an idiot, because for some reason I thought that all of this might have left him feeling sexually attracted to me.
And this, I believe, is why he changed his mind and suggested that we “just watch” the mole instead of removing it. “Never mind, it’s not so bad. I gotta go, but don’t worry, I’ll send the nurse in.”
And he fled the examining room, leaving Zion now worried she has a cancer on her face. A bog-standard neurotic would just be worried now about rat mites and cancer but Zion is a professional. She takes it one step further.
So, I want you all to know that if this disgusting mole kills me, it’s because I managed to put my doctor into a situation so uncomfortable that he was willing to take that risk, if for no other reason than to ensure a speedy exit from the room in which he was trapped with a creep.
I am a creep.
And it’s killing me.
I need to go to a dermatologist and engage in some activity called “mole mapping.” It sounds hilarious and awful and I’ve been putting it off for over two years because I know these stupid little bumps are these things called cherry angiomas and they’re harmless, mostly, and that if I get everything mapped out, I will know how many of them there are and will want to remove them. I look in the mirror and demand that Mr. OTC tell me if the little pinpoint of red on my neck or (god help me) between my eyes was there yesterday and he always says no and sometimes he’s not just saying that because he knows it’s what I want to hear. They really do pop up overnight. And if I know where they are, how many there are, I will want to get them lasered off and that will be super expensive because it will be an elective procedure because none of this is cancer. So best not to know. Best to avoid engaging in my own freakout at the dermatologist because I won’t worry about cancer at the end of it – I won’t even have the luxury of that sort of gravitas. I’ll spend thousands of dollars to remove little red dots from my body that no one else sees because once I know for sure that new ones are sprouting up and that I am becoming a lumpy flesh bag covered in tiny red spots, I’ll have no choice but to drive us into penury getting them removed because assigning a number to anything makes me aware of it and when I am aware I am often anxious.
So you can see why I don’t make the appointment.
The next story in “I Hate Myself” is “In the Name of Watermelon” and Christ… Just, have you ever decided you wanted so much terrible food at, say, a taco franchise, that you order two sodas so that the overworked clerk who takes your drive-thru order doesn’t mistake you for the subject of a future TLC show about a shut-in who plans to eat herself into immobility but rather sees you as a fun, generous girl who is picking up take out for herself and a friend? If so, you will understand this story. Basically, Zion had a spell where she ate a watermelon a day and felt really judged by the bagger at the supermarket who always seemed to notice her purchasing melons, and came up with bizarre stories to explain herself rather than just tell the rat-faced kid to shut up about her purchases.
But the story isn’t about the weirdness of desiring some specific food constantly. It’s about the shame, the sense of knowing that normal people (hahaha) don’t eat this way and that probably everyone you see is judging you. Food becomes your enemy because it makes people look at you like you need an intervention or that you are insane.
Right now I am completely preoccupied with white cheddar popcorn. I have been thinking about white cheddar popcorn for about five months. I frequently have to make trips to 7-Eleven in the middle of the night to fulfil my white cheddar popcorn requirements. Purchasing multiple bags and stocking up isn’t helpful, because I will eat every bag I buy on the day it is purchased. I don’t care if I am sick because I’ve eaten too much. If it’s there I’m eating it.
White cheddar popcorn is my enemy.
And I’m so ashamed. The guy at 7-Eleven thinks I’m a freak. I’m there every day buying this shit. Most people who go to 7-Eleven are getting items that are actually addictive. Cigarettes. Alcohol. I’m there getting white cheddar fucking popcorn.
Good news, Lenore! I’m older than you and I promise you that this will stop being a problem. Not the weird food obsessions. In that regard you’re fucked. Rather, you will one day stop caring what the people who take your money for weird food think of you.
I always drink way too much diet soda. Diet RC to be specific. One place in town carries them – Target. Last summer I was also into these little dark chocolate bars that also could only be purchased at Target. Lindt HELLO Cookie dark chocolate candy bars. They are thin and long, divided into six segments and cost a dollar a piece. I would be forced to go to Target to get both of these items – I require the diet RC to function because I don’t drink coffee or energy drinks and the candy I was obsessed with because I could eat three segments for 100 calories and blah blah suppress chocolate craving when dieting. Instead I would eat two bars for 400 calories and skip dinner because why not?
But I always seemed to land on the same cashiers who always remembered me because I’m short, very polite and because who the fuck else grabs every 12-pack of diet RC because she doesn’t know when the next shipment comes in and isn’t risking a weekend without caffeine? The teenagers were baffled – “What kinda soda is this?” they would ask. I’d explain patiently that this was what their grandparents drank before Pepsi and Coca-Cola sold carbonated piss in cans and called it diet soda. But diet soda banter with people who have only known three presidents plus Trump isn’t so bad. The kids are generally very sweet and have no real idea that before the 1980s there was a world of soda that conglomerates shut down and that soda hegemony has diminished the human experience.
Ask Mr. OTC about how diet RC ruined Christmas. Maybe he’ll explain in the comments. Keeping this shitty soda mainlined into my aorta has become a grim task for both of us.
The real problem came with adult reaction to the candy. I hated it when I got one older woman when I was going on a Lindt run, too. “A dollar for a candy bar that little?” she’d always say. Once she said, “You got company coming?” as she scanned my skinny little candy bars. I pictured breaking all the Lindt bars up into their respective six segments, sticking decorative toothpicks in them and serving them to party guests. Honestly, that sounds like the best party treat ever but it was weird that was where her mind went, that these candy bars could not be for one person, that I must be hosting a huge party, that I could not be this gluttonous, devouring bars and bars of mid-range chocolate, chased by old-fashioned diet RC. The condemnation was obvious – I was a ridiculous human being consuming candy that would sate a horde of party-goers and she hated me for being so hedonistic. I wanted to tell her that there was no party, that I planned to shove the candy down my throat with both fists in a solo orgy of caloric decadence and that she was welcome to join me if she brought her own soda.
I didn’t say this. Because she’s near retirement working at Target’s checkout lanes and was just making inane conversation because you know the kid who is her boss gives her shit if she doesn’t make stupid small talk with customers before pressuring us to enroll in Target’s 5% back program. Sometimes one’s common sense rises forth to tamp down the self-driven food shame. Sometimes.
But equally distressing to neurotic people who feel food shame is how we handle it when we feel like we are, in fact, being judged and should feel bad or strange about how we eat. Lenore’s attempts to evade the young female employee she was sure was holding her in contempt for her continual melon shopping rang so true to me.
About a month passed, during which time I consumed between twenty-one and thirty watermelons. Then one day it came to my attention that my habit had not gone unnoticed.
There was a girl who worked at the grocery store. She had her bangs dyed purple and she wore a dog collar and she had a skull and crossbones ring on her middle finger. If I were her mother, I would have told her she looked fucking stupid, but I was just a grocery store customer, present only to buy a brand-new watermelon every day or so. My watermelon came rolling down the conveyor belt, and the girl looked up at me.
“Boy, you must really like watermelon,” she said.
The little bitch. She said it like she was disgusted. Like I was doing something wrong. The subtext was: Boy, you must really like watermelon, and that is a quality that makes me think less of you as a person.
Lenore decides that the reason this weird little girl noticed her purchases is because she comes in so often, buying one watermelon at a time. She decides to try to evade observation. She walks into the supermarket, doesn’t see the invasive clerk so she decides to buy two watermelons in order to extend the time between visits so she can avoid the clerk even more but when she goes to the checkout lanes, there the purple-banged inquisitor stands, defeating our heroine’s attempts to buy melons without condemnation.
She walked slowly toward me and my two watermelons, a hint of malice sparkling in her eyes. She cracked her knuckles, one by one. I interpreted this as some sort of exaggerated hand preparation for the bagging she’d be doing for me, lifting those heavy watermelons and all.
“More watermelon? Hmm.”
The “hmm” was what really annoyed me. What did it mean? Had she just gotten the proof she needed to justify some sort of consumer hypothesis? What did it mean? I panicked.
The panic is what gets you. The panic is what makes the stupidness fall out of your mouth before you know what you are even saying, before you realize you are even talking at all.
“Well, my kids really love it,” I said.
Again, I was twenty-two. I didn’t have kids. Still don’t.
“You have kids?” she asked.
“Yes, three of them,” I said. Shit, I thought. Why did I say three? One, maybe, but three, definitely not.
“Wow, three kids. You look so young,” she said, trying to back me into a corner.
“I’m thirty-five,” I said. Thirty-five! I was consistently told I looked younger than my age, and here I was, claiming to be thirteen years older than I was to justify my watermelon to the little bagger punkette.
And it gets worse from there. On a subsequent trip Lenore encounters the bagger yet again and the bagger snidely tells her she should bring her kids in with her when she shops. Lenore tells her that two have terrible disciplinary issues and the third is in a wheelchair and doesn’t like sunlight so it’s easier to leave them at home.
I enacted this scenario when I was a bit younger than Lenore was when she was in thrall to watermelon, and, worse, I did it even though the clerk waiting on me was perfectly nice and there was zero judgement implied when she spoke to me. It was the panic of being found out, you see. The panic, like I already said, gets you every time.
Once, when I worked selling shoes at a mall in Irving, I bought a necklace on a whim at the nearby Dillard’s store. I didn’t know why I wanted it, I don’t think I ever wore it, but I decided to buy it. I didn’t wear much jewelry then and I don’t wear it now, not even a wedding ring. It was a pointless purchase made for reasons that I’m sure years of psychoanalysis could uncover. As she rang me up, the counter girl asked me some innocuous question, like was it a gift or where did I plan to wear it and the question filled me with panic because it was an impulse purchase I should not have been making and somehow I felt she knew this and was subtly trying to let me know how much I sucked for buying something I didn’t need and probably didn’t want. She was just another woman working on commission trying to be friendly but my paranoia was sharply honed.
But instead of saying that I was just buying it to buy it, I blurted out, “It’s for my daughter’s piano recital.”
She looked at me and said, “For you or for your daughter.”
“Oh for her, I think it will look nice on her.”
“How old is your daughter?”
“Oh, she’s 11,” I said, desperate to leave, wondering if I could just run back to my store and hide. I should mention here that I was maybe 21 when this happened.
“Wow,” the clerk said, giving me a sharp look. “You look so young to have an eleven-year-old daughter.”
“Yeah, she’s my step-daughter,” I said. The clerk then looked at my ringless left hand and just put the receipt in the bag for me and I raced away, red faced and certain that nowhere on this earth existed a bigger asshole. Later I had another wave of panic wash over me when I realized I worked in the same mall with this woman. She might see me working one day while she was out on her lunch break and would pop in to ask me how my daughter’s recital went or something. What would I say to my coworkers (like they didn’t already know I was not entirely sane but whatever)? Why was I such a moron? What the hell was wrong with me? Luckily I never saw her again. Sigh…
Okay, I don’t even know what to do anymore where this book discussion is involved. I’ve spent more words reacting to the first two essays in this book than Lenore Zion used to write them. But that is what happens when you find someone whose inner workings mirror your own and isn’t afraid to put it all out there – you channel that relentless internal jabbering into a bizarre book discussion that any sane person stopped reading 2000 words ago. I guess I should stop.
I really don’t know if you want to read this book but I can assure you that even if you are not a neurotic American woman, there is so much that is hilarious and strangely poignant in this book that you may well find yourself identifying intensely with one of Zion’s essays. She discusses battling the depression that happens to all industrious intelligent people who wonder how to fill the time between one accomplishment to the next, engaging in the grind necessary to succeed while not slipping down into misery. She tackles the terror of relaxation to the perpetually nervous (she knows too well why I do not sleep and why I will never be able to sit through a manicure), the tendency of the serial fantasist to create a far worse fantasy life than her own real life (I like imagining I was in that plane that crashed in the Andes and how I would handle the inevitable cannibalism), how civic-mindedness and great intentions always seem to end with you trying not to offend someone who lost his nose or worrying about whether or not you depressed the people at the nursing home even more by visiting…
Life sucks so much sometimes because my brain is always churning through weird ideas and tiring situations. When I don’t have something terrible going on I need to dissect, I create something terrible (or really, just embarrassing – not a lot of terrible things happen to me, which is why I have the energy to be neurotic) or I fantasize that I am about to become one of those eternal corpses on Mt. Everest or that a plague has swept through the land and I am one of those who are immune who must take care of the sick, or something equally melodramatic and demented. If you have a nervous, anxious friend who doesn’t sleep much, this book will tell you in detail what is happening in that person’s head.
Mr. OTC is going to have to help me edit this and I can already imagine him nodding grimly as he remembers the terrible Christmas diet soda incident or the time I went completely unhinged, crawled on top of him and demanded he explain why a Zippy the Pinhead cartoon mirrored an exact conversation we had regarding the Oscar Mayer wienermobile. He remembers the angst I feel when I get that weird cashier at the supermarket, the one who also wears a dog collar but is otherwise remarkably prosaic in appearance and I always wonder why this girl who wears pink Nikes and styles her long, blonde hair in a tidy french braid is wearing a dog collar. It makes me nervous, the way she is expressing two very different lifestyle choices in her appearance. I also think she is pregnant. And at the end he will say I’m not as tiring and tiresome as I fear I am, which then makes me wonder what sort of fucking headcases he dated before he met me.
Because it’s not a good thing to realize that I may be a saner choice, comparatively. Seriously. Weep for the world if Mr. OTC looked at me and said, “Well, at least she’s not as bad as the last one.” Which I admit is full of self-deprecation because I do bring a lot to the domestic table, which I worry isn’t clean enough when I serve dinner. The relentless internal jabbering of the neurotic is always close to our surface, influencing how we see ourselves. My life is far more orderly, calm and productive than my messy internal dialogue would indicate. I just buy more diet soda than most people.
So I recommend you read this book. If you’ve made it this far you really should because the book is shorter than like ten of my entries here. Zion has me beat cold in terms of being able to control her neurosis and word count. That control allows her stories to come across more humorous and wacky than dithering and upsetting, and she has a capacity for introspection that shows she gets it. It’s all a joke until it isn’t and she remembers that while she is struggling with her humanity the rest of the world is struggling with theirs too. I sense that like me Zion plays her strangeness up a bit because that’s what writers do – we take the truth and make it something that works for the story – but I also sense that she, like me, has a core of roiling irreality that makes her inner life very interesting. Read it. Come back and tell me if you identify with any part of the book.