On this episode, we talk to journalist Bonnie J. Rough, author of Beyond Birds & Bees, about the difference between the American and Dutch approaches to sexuality and parenting. Then, Kristi Coulter talks about her essay collection, Nothing Good Can Come From This, which tackles alcoholism and sobriety. Finally, KCLS's Older Adults Program Coordinator Wendy Pender shares her picks for books that address death, dying, grief, and memory loss.
A transcript of this episode is available at the end of our show notes.
In addition to the books below, listeners can find more titles about sexuality education for children on Bonnie's website. For more books on subjects that can be difficult to discuss, check out Emily's picks and Britta's picks.
If you'd like to get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Desk Set is brought to you by the King County Library System. Most of the audio heard on the podcast was recorded at the ideaX Makerspace at the Bellevue Library. The show is hosted by librarians Britta Barrett and Emily Calkins, and produced by Britta Barrett. Our theme song is "I Know What I Want" by Math and Physics Club. Other music provided by Chad Crouch, from the Free Music Archive.
Emily Calkins: You're listening to the Desk Set.
Britta Barrett: A bookish podcast for reading broadly.
Emily Calkins: We're your hosts Emily Calkins.
Britta Barrett: And Britta Barrett.
Emily Calkins: On this episode, we're talking about books about topics that can be difficult to discuss.
Britta Barrett: Up first, we talk to author Bonnie J. Rough about her book, Beyond Birds and Bees, that looks at the differences between sexual education in the Netherlands and the United States.
Emily Calkins: Then, we chat with writer Kristi Coulter whose essay about alcohol culture and women in the corporate world went viral a few years ago and led to her book Nothing Good Can Come From This about her own drinking and eventual sobriety.
Britta Barrett: Finally, KCLS's own Wendy Pender, our older adult specialist, shares some of her favorite books on difficult subjects like death and dying and memory loss.
Bonnie J. Rough: My name is Bonnie J. Rough, and I write nonfiction. Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality is my third book and a departure from my previous work, which is mostly literary memoir. This book reflects my ongoing interest in families, health, parenting, and culture. I also write, especially recently, for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic, all about nurturing healthy sexuality in children from zero on up.
Emily Calkins: Your book takes readers along for the journey back and forth with your family between the Netherlands and the United States. Can you tell us about your experiences in both places?
Bonnie J. Rough: Sure. Specifically, as it relates to sexuality, or ...
Emily Calkins: Yeah. I think generally, but related to the book too.
Bonnie J. Rough: Sure, definitely. When our oldest child was still our only child and just not even quite two, my husband, Dan, and I had an opportunity to leave Minnesota, where we were living at the time, even though we're originally from the Puget Sound area, and live in Amsterdam in the Netherlands thanks to a job change for Dan. We left the U.S. not knowing what lessons life would have to offer us, but when you're in that stage of parenting, you're really watching everywhere for signs and clues and hints about how to do this parenting job. What are the other moms and dads and grandparents and nannies and babysitters up to out there?
Bonnie J. Rough: My example shifted quickly to a Dutch example, so I noticed all kinds of things that were similar and different about the way parenting is approached in the Netherlands in general. A little more relaxed I could say, so that was a nice shift. But, I definitely started to see things jumping out at me that I thought were a little odd about the way the Dutch approached teaching young people about bodies, love, and relationships, sexuality for sure. That ranged from simple little things, like you would see a lot more comfort with nudity. You might see lots of kids just splashing around naked in the neighborhood wading pool or more comfort in the all-genders locker room at the neighborhood pool.
Bonnie J. Rough: In general, I was just seeing this line between every day non-sexual nudity and erotic nudity. Seemed sharper in the culture where I was living compared to what I was used to in my American life. So, that got me curious about exploring that line and if maybe it needed to be a little clearer even in my own family. That's one example, but there are many more of how basically the Dutch approach ... It took me a long time to figure out, to be honest, what I was seeing. I didn't know the incredible value of what I was witnessing until much, much later. In fact, not until after we moved back to the U.S.
Bonnie J. Rough: Some of the other - just quickly - things I would see is a lot more gender neutral styles, which gave me opportunities to question even just in myself my attention to gender and noticing that parents seem to want their kids to be perceived as kids first. The first question, you know - they didn't want people to look at their kids and think, "Is it a boy or a girl?" They just wanted people to look at their kids and think, "It's a kid." That seemed to be emphasized in kids' style of dress and fashion. Those little things were things that I brought home with me and certainly, I could share many more examples.
Bonnie J. Rough: Ultimately, it all added up to an approach that normalized bodies, love, relationships, sexuality, reproduction for kids from a very young age. Ultimately, I got back and looked around me and started to see my American culture with fresh eyes. I'm not someone who ever took a gender studies class. I'm not a trained sex educator. I was a mom and a journalist looking around and seeing, "Wait, this is really different," and noticing the differences in the things that we tend to offer boys and girls from an early age once we moved back to the U.S. This was just after a year and a half living in the Netherlands.
Bonnie J. Rough: Whether it's books or toys or clothes or subjects or sports, all of those things I realize, those are the little things that start to contribute to those big divides that give us these differences in power and status for men and women in the U.S. and the damaging ideas that our human genders make us more different than alike. That's when I got really curious and went back to the Netherlands and really dug into my research after, unfortunately, I sort of missed my chance the first time. So, we've regularly returned there for me to take a look at not just the wonderful sexual health outcomes that the Dutch enjoy, some of the best in the world, and not only the fact that the Dutch are also enjoying life in one of the world's most gender-equal societies, but really digging down into finding out what it is that parents and teachers are doing and saying around young children from an early age to actually build that incredible atmosphere.
Britta Barrett: Even before you discovered the hows and whats of making that possible, in the book you speak to how it felt as an adult moving through that society. Could you tell us what you noticed as a grown up?
Bonnie J. Rough: Yeah, thanks for asking about that. I had no idea what I was experiencing while I experienced it or where it came from, but aside from all those other little things ... In Dutch preschools the way teachers would use accurate body terminology in helping children learn to use the toilet and the way, since that starts in kindergarten, and the way Dutch parents have a more accepting attitude about teenage sexuality, for example. I also noticed something else that was really different and it was me. I found myself feeling more comfortable in my own skin than I could remember feeling in my entire adult life. I was busy at that time chasing a toddler, finishing my first book, but I did try to give that some thought. What was going on? Why did I feel like I could look up and make more eye contact and feel more connected and free in my day-to-day routines out in the neighborhood? I realized one thing that was really missing, wonderfully so, was that sense of male gaze. That's what we call it here in the U.S. and something that I think most American ... I shouldn't say American, but girls and women who live in the U.S. or grow up in the U.S. really get used to living with is this sense of being watched, judged, evaluated. Evaluated for your looks or what your apparent decisions are. That sense of being watched was comparatively missing for me living in Amsterdam.
Bonnie J. Rough: You also didn't see other people looking at each other in such a way. It was an incredibly freeing sense and, again, I didn't know quite where that was coming from. Why no male gaze? Why no catcalling? Why no street harassment? I didn't know until much later when I was doing my research finding out about those great sexual health statistics and also learning that the Dutch are third from the best ranked currently and were, at the time, for gender equality worldwide. Here in the U.S. we just jumped up three spots from 43 to 40. So, we've got work to do.
Bonnie J. Rough: I realize that's when I learned that gender equality isn't just something that we measure on paper and that researchers come up with indices and numbers. It's so much more concrete than that. It's something that I could feel in my everyday life. It's a kind of freedom and a sense that you're worthy and that you belong, something I think most of us probably could remember from when we were kids. Yes, my body belongs here. I'm on Earth. You just feel like, of course, and unapologetic, but also it's almost just more fun, a sense of community that we're all here taking up space together as opposed to needing to jockey.
Bonnie J. Rough: Yeah, so that was a real eye-opener for me was realizing that that number, having some of the highest gender equality in the world, was actually something that I could feel and a social atmosphere that gets built from the ground up, day-to-day, in families and in schools and in a wider society that values individuality and knows that an egalitarian mindset and way of life is better for everyone.
Emily Calkins: Can you talk a little bit more in detail about how the sex ed that Dutch kids get starting very early actively contributes to that?
Bonnie J. Rough: Yes. Starting at home is one thing, and definitely, that would go back directly to using accurate terminology for bodies. One thing we learned from our daughter's preschool teachers ... Because we were just taking our cues, again, left and right from the people around us. They wanted to make sure that when we were helping our daughter learn to use the toilet and getting her out of diapers that we were using neutral, not just accurate, but also neutral or even positive language for body parts and body functions. We wouldn't say the diaper is dirty or stinky or messy. We would say the diaper is full or wet or dry. Just little simple things, very aware, though, of the power of language to form a person's idea of whether the body is something a good thing to be proud of and take care of and enjoy and communicate confidentially about or something to be ashamed of and embarrassed about and to hide and be fearful of. Those are really active efforts by parents and teachers from an early age around language.
Bonnie J. Rough: Then, also just this little preschool was a great example. They had one bathroom with a little row of potties. No matter what a child's sex or gender, they're all using the toilets, in and out of the room, side-by-side if needed, watching each other trying to figure out how to get this skirt back down or overalls back up, whatever it is. Getting used to one another's bodies. Again, that sense of normalization that this isn't weird and it's not gross and it's not really funny. It just is. Just like you get used to seeing your classmates face and hands when they're doing their work outside the bathroom, you can get used to seeing other parts of their body too and it stops being that interesting in a way that's really healthy, that normalization. That continued right up into kindergarten.
Bonnie J. Rough: Dutch kindergartners, actually, start at age four, so what we would consider preschool age. They get sex ed starting in many schools a week a year all the way on up. When I first heard that I was like, "Yeah, right. What could that possibly look like?" Because I had no idea I would eventually, since my daughter was too young for it then, have the opportunity to go back and actually see that in action. I'll tell you, the things that kids can learn from an early age. I remember, I actually got sentimental or somehow just really touched, I would say, watching those lessons. I watched a lesson for first graders where their teacher was just teaching them about body differences, giving them language for body parts, and also clarifying when it's necessary to use this language and when it's not. Because, of course, the kids were about to run off to recess and I thought, "Now, what are we going to do?"
Bonnie J. Rough: He made the case that these are the names for our body parts. These things are normal and he said, "These things are important and we speak of them when necessary." Such a simple, beautiful lesson. But, also at that age, kids start to get lessons about consent with a little lesson about doing different sensations on their own arm and then finding out from a neighbor and those around them if everybody likes the same things or not and learning that they need to observe those differences and respect them. They also get lessons really early on about how to recognize gender stereotypes.
Bonnie J. Rough: First, they just find out the ones they themselves have. The teacher's drawing pictures up on the board and asking the kids, "What should the boy have? What should the girl have?" Just shows them the differences that they hold and then eventually starts to give them exercises, little games, toy sorting, clothing sorting, questioning gently, and then more and more as the kids get older about really why can't that be for a girl. Why shouldn't this be for a boy? Along with those lessons, encouraging kids to make and maintain cross-gender friendships right out of preschool and through middle childhood. I saw young people maintaining those friendships so that they didn't have the strange, awkward, hormone-laden clash of reconnection in adolescence, but in like a, "Oh, you again. I know you. I know how to talk to you. I've known you all my childhood."
Bonnie J. Rough: Again, those lessons just build. I got to see third graders getting lessons on love, crushes, and how those are normal, healthy things that most people are ... that it's perfectly expected to have those things. Not everyone has to, but it's not something to tease about and it's never something to be ashamed of to have feelings of romantic love. They give a lot of credence to the emotional lives of children in ways that just really struck and inspired me, which is why I went from being a mom who moved to the Netherlands never thinking she'd even put the words kids and sex into the same sentence to one who's now got her latest book out with both those words right on the cover.
Emily Calkins: You touched on this just a little bit. A lot of the examples that you give are from your own life and from your interactions with your own children, but a lot of the way that kids learn about relationships and sexuality and their bodies happens outside of a family setting. So, parents have some control over their own interactions with their kids, but much less over what's happening at school or general cultural messages. What are some steps that people can take towards broader social change in this area?
Bonnie J. Rough: I'm so glad you asked that. Well, first of all, I do think the piece that starts at home that I think lots of parents are especially tuned in to now and then even more so thanks to the #MeToo movement, is a sense of wanting to raise young people without body shame, without shame. I hear a lot of parents say that and I know that was really important to me too. That begins with normalization at home. Those little things we can do. If we've been treating a child like their naked body is a normal thing from the time that they're born, then that delays that moment when they get the message that, "Hey, your naked body's not a normal thing." And, it gives them time to build up a sense of confidence and even belief around, "Well, yes it is. I believe it is."
Bonnie J. Rough: I think giving them that time and buffer at home. Yeah, so things about nudity, being accepting of children exploring their own bodies, those kinds of things are things that we can do from the very beginning in a way that lets them know that ... and actually, giving accurate terminology too. For a while, I tried to be on board with the idea of telling kids, "Now, I'm going to tell you all about how reproduction works. I'm going to tell you all about these body parts, but make sure you don't tell anyone once you know. This is an at-home conversation." I'm really over that now. I'm sorry or you're welcome for the warning, whatever it is. I think the more accurate terminology that young people get the better. You know who backs me up on that is organizations such as the World Health Organization, others that have for decades recognized that comprehensive sexuality education for people of all ages and all genders is a human right.
Bonnie J. Rough: I'm happy to have young people feel like they can be proud and confident in the knowledge that they have and in the bodies that they're going around the world in. Then, yes, by the time they're older, a little older, out in the world having teacher influences, other families that they're hanging out with, I think one of the most important things we can do aside from talking with our children is this: finding ways to talk to one another as adults about the messages and experiences that we want our young people to have about bodies and love, sexuality and relationships, gender as well. For us to have those conversations with each other.
Bonnie J. Rough: The drop-off for the play date, if I happen to know that my child has been playing doctor lately, maybe it's time to check in with the other parent about what rules they have for that game and see if our rules line up or not and make a plan about that. For whatever reason, we would rather tell our children, "Now, I'm going to tell you this stuff, but when you go to so-and-so's house, don't mention it," than to check in with so-and-so's parent and say, "Hey, this is some stuff my kid knows, presuming it's probably the same at your house, but I wanted to just let you know that this knowledge is in the air." We put it on the kids sometimes to protect our discomforts that we have between ourselves as adults. Don't tell grandma you know how babies get made, right? Just let's leave that here.
Bonnie J. Rough: To me, it's like we're more interested in protecting sometimes other adults' discomfort and we ask children to hold that burden for us. That makes me sad to think about that, so I hope this book can change that and just open up the conversation in book clubs and schools, the places that I visit. If communities are reading together and talking about it, it naturally invites people to talk about these things.
Emily Calkins: I'm wondering why you think it's so hard for American parents, in particular, to talk about bodies and love and relationships and sex with our children?
Bonnie J. Rough: Because nobody was nice enough to do that with us. Really, that's the first thing that I realized is the first thing that I would hope that every adult who's uncomfortable with that can do is just sit with that for a minute in compassion for themselves. Because chances are if they're thinking about trying to offer their child something new, something shame-free, the opportunity to be unembarrassed about themselves and express themselves as who they are, chances are that they're trying to figure out how to do that in the absence of having had someone do that for them, to offer them early, open, accepting, compassionate start to their life as a sexual person, which most of us probably are.
Bonnie J. Rough: Yeah, it's hard because we don't have great examples. It's hard because in many cases we don't have good information or we think we don't have good information. It's definitely difficult because we probably feel extra pressure to get it right because we don't know for sure if school is going to back us up whatsoever. One wonderful thing that does happen in a lot of our schools and increasingly, even without medically accurate information about sexuality until kids are arguably a bit too old, maybe fourth and fifth grade or even older, at least many of our kids are getting more social-emotional lessons at school about empathy and decision-making and breaking down stereotypes.
Bonnie J. Rough: More and more I know that teachers want to be talking with kids about consent, so that's half or more of what makes comprehensive sexuality education world class sex ed. Without even necessarily meaning to, we are getting some of that to our kids. Yeah, we probably have that extra pressure because we don't know what or if our kids are going to get sex ed-wise at school, and then, the truth is ... I know this is true for me ... I think my values, my intellectual values are always a few paces ahead of my gut feelings about things. I know what I think is important. I know what I believe in, and I'm always shaping and trying to be evolved in my mindset. But, that doesn't mean that even the 10th time my kid asks for a clarification about what's your vulva and what's your vagina, which is which, that I don't sort of have to take a quick deep breath and relax because it's just we don't have the practice, we don't have that normalization.
Bonnie J. Rough: The other thing, they're actually are worried about several reasons why this is. We definitely have that cultural background, but also, we have a really peculiar thing here in American culture where we think that giving young people information about life, let's say, sexuality, is potentially damaging for them in some really scary ways. We think that it might make them go do that behavior, which is actually just a logical fallacy. There's no evidence that giving young or older children information about sexuality is the same as giving them permission. Not only that, giving them autonomy with their bodies is also not the same as giving them permission, interestingly. Yet, it feels like we're telling them to go do something that we don't believe they ought to do. Secondly, we also fear sometimes that giving, especially children, information about sexuality ... and, this is deeply cultural and unique to us ... is a way of taking away their childhood. We say we're taking away their innocence.
Bonnie J. Rough: Yet, what I've observed and what experts have shown me is that children actually are able to in some ways enjoy their childhood longer and security that they know what they need to know about themselves to be comfortable and safe and to communicate and also to enjoy and take care of their bodies. To not have that magical thinking and gaps that, in a traumatic way, have to get filled properly later. Yeah, I think we have a lot that we're up against. It is a big challenge and the one thing I love ...
Bonnie J. Rough: Actually, two things I love to tell parents is, first of all, I know when I see something that I want to change, I want to just make it all better right away. There's a teacher here in Seattle, a wonderful writer, Priscilla Long, and she has this great way of encouraging herself or her students to make changes. She doesn't say, "Go fix it." She says, "Can you make a 5% improvement in that direction?" I just think that's wonderful because real change really does come in small step by small step.
Bonnie J. Rough: Then, also, we as parents ... I have heard from expert after expert, we don't risk what we think we do. You don't have to worry that you'll tell your child too much and hurt them in some way. As long as you're trying to educate them, they'll tune you out when they're done listening. We also are incredibly skilled already at communicating with our little people about complicated things in life. We talk to them about health. We talk to them about faith. We talk to them about mortality when that comes up. We talk to them sometimes when some crazy political thing comes out of the radio and they ask, "What's that all about?" We find the words. We're experts at that already.
Bonnie J. Rough: Finally, I also think that it's good for us to know that even if somebody didn't do this for us, even if we're all mixed up about how we feel emotionally or psychologically or physically about sex and sexuality, that doesn't mean that through that we can't still give our kids a healthy, wholesome, shame-free message. We do that all the time. We put a little space between the things that we know we need to work on for ourselves and may or may not ever get to and the fresh, renewing, hopeful messages that we want to give our young people.
Bonnie J. Rough: In this case, their message is that not only help them to be healthy and happy and whole in their bodies but also we'll give them the tools to help build gender equality and support social justice, which is something we all want for our kids to do in their generation.
Britta Barrett: Well, there's so many paradigm-shifting opportunities in your book. I hope everyone who listens reads it.
Emily Calkins: Yeah.
Bonnie J. Rough: Thank you.
Britta Barrett: I'm curious, are there any lessons you have for non-parents, child-free folks to join in this discussion in creating a more egalitarian world?
Bonnie J. Rough: Thank you for asking that. I've had many folks without children, child-free, however, or maybe hoping to be future parents, but not yet, reach out to me after reading this book and to say thanks. I think the reason that people who start reading keep reading and who also this applies to are children, are young people who are reading the book. I've heard of a lot of adolescents and older teens whose parents say, "Go ahead and read this," and who actually pick it up and stay with it. It's because it gives all of us the opportunity to reflect on the lessons that we have been brought up with.
Bonnie J. Rough: There are so many things, so many tweaks that I've decided through learning some painful lessons along the way that I want to make in the way I interact in the world with other people. So, a lot of that has to do with gender, for example, and changing the way I initiate conversations with people and trying to not have that be a gender-specific or appearance-specific entreé into conversation. That's just one tiny example, but we're all ... I've heard from many readers that reading this book has given them an opportunity to rethink the way they were raised, and to reflect differently on their own bodies and their own relationships with their bodies in a way that they found very hopeful and welcome.
Bonnie J. Rough: I would hope that any reader could have that experience at any age and whether or not they're directly involved with raising children, I think we're all directly involved with changing the gender dynamics in our society and supporting a more socially just world for everyone in it.
Emily Calkins: Thank you so much for coming.
Bonnie J. Rough: Oh, my gosh. What a pleasure.
Kristi Coulter: My name is Kristi Coulter and I am a writer. I'm the author of the essay collection Nothing Good Can Come From This.
Emily Calkins: You drop hints throughout the book that there are lots of other things that you could have written about - a difficult childhood, your love of music - but you chose to focus this first collection on drinking and sobriety. Why?
Kristi Coulter: Well, I think it's partly because it was such a huge change in my life getting sober in my early 40s. I hadn't seen a lot of stories that were really exactly like mine of someone who didn't have that hard bottom that we associate with people drinking. I didn't have a DUI, I didn't end up in the hospital, that kind of thing, but lots of people do. It was fascinating. Most of all, what I found is that sobriety was extremely interesting and there's not a lot about that in the recovery space. It's often, "Well, I drank and I drank and I drank. Something terrible happened. I got better. Everything's fine now."
Kristi Coulter: I thought, "No, there's so much more to say about it." So, I wanted to write a book that really focused on that side of it, about how interesting things were. Because the book takes so long to write, you want to keep yourself interested, so I thought, "Well, this could keep me interested for a while." Yeah.
Emily Calkins: You draw a line between being a woman, particularly being a woman in the corporate world, and drinking too much. Tell us about choosing not to be a 24-hour woman.
Kristi Coulter: Ah, yes. Well, I didn't realize that I was one for the longest time and it wasn't until I stopped drinking that I started looking around. Anytime you leave a culture, you see that culture more clearly. It's like when I lived in Italy in my 20s for a little while, I could see American very clearly. I started looking back and seeing just how much pressure I had been putting myself under to be perfect at all times. I think I made a life that I could only get through with drinking. I thought, "Well, that's no good."
Kristi Coulter: If I can't drink anymore, then obviously either my life's going to be intolerable or I have to change it. That's when I started to ... I didn't make dramatic changes. I didn't quit my job or anything like that, but I started to just pull back a little bit and think about what I needed, how I was feeling, not just about pleasing other people all the time. Another thing about when you quit drinking and you think you can't is you realize, "Well, there's probably lots of things I can do that I think I can't." Things like being more outspoken. I'd always been shy about that, but I thought, "Well, I'm good. If I quit drinking, I can do anything."
Kristi Coulter: I just started to look at what the pressures women were under, especially in the corporate world. Drinking was painted as a manifestation of feminism. I actually went back and read about the flappers and how they were known for drinking and smoking. It was considered an explicitly feminist act. I thought about ... you guys are probably too young to remember this ... but, the Virginia Slims woman of my childhood. She was smoking a cigarette and it said, "You've come a long way, baby." An explicitly feminist ad. We know now that it's not great. That's not good for you. Of course, you don't know about if smoking is good for you. A little drinking is okay, I guess. But, I thought, "You know, are we just following that same path of we have a right to self-destruct just like men?" That doesn't mean that we have to do it.
Britta Barrett: You wrote an article that went viral.
Kristi Coulter: Yes.
Britta Barrett: Got passed around a lot of the internet I read. Can you tell us a little bit about the reaction to that?
Kristi Coulter: Yes. That was such a funny story. I had been working with my agent to put together a book proposal that became this book and she said, "You know, for the package, would you want to write something that expresses anger?" I remember it was a beautiful day kind of like this, and I thought, "Huh." I was feeling good and I thought, "Okay, at least I can try." I went home not knowing if I could do that, and this essay, Enjoli came out, which was very angry. I thought, "Huh, that was a lot of anger there." I just put it up on the internet to see if maybe some people would see it. I had no expectations. I think three days later, I was on Radio Scotland. I mean, it just took off like wildfire.
Kristi Coulter: I would say most of the reactions I got were really supportive. A lot of people said they felt very ... this is such a cliché phrase ... but they felt seen. Some men wrote to me to say, "I think I've been that guy." I wrote about some men on a panel at work who were very condescending to me, and they go like, "I think that's me." I also heard from people who were very angry at me. There was the usual men who just don't like feminists. Whatever. I don't care, but there were a lot of women who felt like I was saying any woman who ever had a glass of wine was both an alcoholic and a tool of the patriarchy and were pretty upset about that - as I would be too if that had been what I was saying.
Kristi Coulter: Some of them were so defensive that I thought, "That's interesting. If you're that mad at me, then maybe you want to look at yourself and your own life." Yeah, there was a sense that I was trying to take some fun away from women that they feel like they should be able to have. I was talking about myself. I wasn't really trying to take anything away from anyone, but it was an amazing reaction. I got letters from every continent except Antarctica. It was just like your life was taken over by this maelstrom. It took months to pass and it really changed my life.
Emily Calkins: I was struck by this line about how you finally quit drinking. You said, "The difference was that I had been trying to kill the want and now I was just saying no to it." To me, that actually sounds harder. The idea that you can say “I want something and I'm just going to say no,” instead of trying to say, "Okay, I'm going to stop wanting this." Can you talk about that a little bit?
Kristi Coulter: Sure. It is harder. I tried so many things to make me want to stop drinking because, of course, it's much easier when you don't want to do something anymore. But none of them worked. I got the point where I thought, "Okay, let's just say no to it." That's really hard, but at least it's a definitive thing I can do. It's like if you had diabetes and your doctor said, "Well, you can't have simple sugars anymore." You would just be like…you'd still want them, but you'd think, "Okay, do I want to live? Do I want to be healthy and get better or not?" So, you'd say, "Okay, I'm giving them up."
Kristi Coulter: That's how it felt to me only more in my soul and in my body. It was actually really helpful because once I decided that was my path, it was just like flipping a switch. Okay, we're going to say no to this. All my energy for a couple of weeks just went to saying no. If I kept trying to trick myself into quitting, I'd probably still be doing it today six years later.
Britta Barrett: A lot of the paths to recovery do involve complete abstinence and how you achieve that over some kind of moderation. Much like you were talking about, there's a traditional narrative arc for stories of recovery, there's a similar a similar “This is how we get sober.”
Kristi Coulter: “This is the way.” Yeah. I tried moderation so many times and I realize now that if you have to try that hard to moderate, you really should just quit. Because who people can moderate, they just moderate. Maybe they feel a little deprived the way I might feel deprived not eating ice cream on a certain day, but it's not a big deal. I’ve known people who - I believe in harm reduction. If you're an alcoholic and you can drink less, that's something. I'm a big believer in that kind of thing. For me, just quitting was 100 times easier than moderating because it takes all those decisions off the table. It's just like, "Well, I don't do this anymore."
Kristi Coulter: I immediately started saying to myself if I wanted to drink I would say, "But, you don't drink." I didn't say, “You quit drinking five days ago.” I just started framing myself as a non-drinker. That really, really helped just saying it.
Britta Barrett: Much like the people who were prickly in their reaction to your story, you describe maybe some resistance when people either see themselves in there. Can you talk about maybe the way that you talk about being sober?
Kristi Coulter: Yeah, for a while, I didn't tell many people just because it was easier for me to just handle it on my own. I think that's pretty common. I was lucky in that most of my friends ... and it might be because I was a little older ... most of them just said, "Oh, that's great," or they just didn't really care one way or the other. It's like, "Fne." There are, I think, always people who are resistant. I got some, like, "But, I drink like you do and I'm not that bad." I would just say, "Well, but this is for me." Because you can't really judge how someone else is drinking. There's definitely a sense that people say, "Now, I feel bad drinking in front of you," even if you say, "It's fine. It's fine. This is me." They feel very self-conscious like you're counting their drinks.
Kristi Coulter: I always think of it as if someone's gluten-free. I'm not, but I'm not monitoring them. They're really not inconveniencing me. So, when I talk about sobriety, I say, "This is just my thing. I'm an alcoholic. You don't want me to drink, believe me." Mostly people just take it in that casual spirit. I do let people know sometimes if I'm going to ... I'm going to a conference next week and there's all these social activities. I just said, "I just want to let everyone know, I'm okay being invited to bars." Because people don't know and they're kind and they don't want to make you uncomfortable. So, I just said, "Just so you know, I'm fine." Not everyone is, but I'm okay going to bars.
Emily Calkins: You were sober for 18 months before you went to an AA meeting and uttered “the phrase” even when you had known for a long time - it's clear in the book that you had known for a long time - that it was a problem and even when you had stopped drinking, naming it was still hard.
Kristi Coulter: Yeah, I think it's hard to say I'm an alcoholic. Or, it was. It doesn't feel hard anymore. There's such dire imagery associated with it. It's like, "Who wants to say that?" It's really admitting that this is poison to you. I think when I finally started saying it, I thought, "Well, it's whatever I am, so I'm not someone in terrible straights. I'm not a desperate person, so maybe it's not such a bad thing to be." I also think naming it is up to the individual. I have friends who quit drinking and they certainly would be what anyone would consider an addicted drinker, but they don't use that word. They just say, "I don't mess with alcohol anymore. It's not good for me."
Kristi Coulter: I think it's all in how you want to frame it, but I also think we need to change the picture of what alcoholism is because it's so common. One way we can do that is by talking about it and owning that label.
Emily Calkins: We chose the book for the episode because addiction and sobriety can be hard to talk about like you just said, but I was also struck in the book by how frankly you write about wealth and privilege and having those things in your adult life. There's a post on your website where you worry a little bit about what the reception is going to be about that aspect of the book. How did you decide what to include and how has the reception been?
Kristi Coulter: It was really interesting. I wanted to write an honest book, and the truth is that I worked at a tech company that you all know for 12 years and I made a lot of money there. That's just what happened. I had noticed that women don't write about money a lot and women don't talk about money a lot. Probably people don't, but women especially. There had been some pushback to my viral essay about the fact that well, you're privileged. You seem to make money. You're white. How can you even think you have any problems? Well, of course, that rubbed me the wrong way because I knew I had problems. Show me someone without problems.
Kristi Coulter: I also thought this was not a sociological book or a sociological essay. It was about my experience and I wanted to be true it. It was really from that wanting to be true to my experience that I decided I had to include some of that stuff. Because it drove the way I drank and it drove the way I got sober. My life, in some ways, because I had a fancy job and I wasn't punching a clock and nobody what monitoring me, I could get away with stuff that somebody who is working in a hotel laundry or something couldn't, who's being watched more closely. When I got sober, I had more resources available. I didn't go to rehab, but I could have. I have insurance. I had therapy and things like that. But, I wanted to show that it was a double-edged sword and also a little bit of what getting to that point in my life did to me, that that kind of privilege does not come without a cost.
Kristi Coulter: The reaction has mostly been fine. It wasn't nearly as bad as I expected, but there are people who were like ... They'll literally say, "One more white woman writing about getting sober," and it's like, "Well, I'm sorry." That's who I am. We need to hear those other stories. I'll do whatever I can to amplify the voices of women of color, people of color, people who didn't have my kind of resources, but I'm not the one to be writing those stories.
Kristi Coulter: One other thing about the privilege question, which is from a literary point of view, I wanted to take the risk of writing a narrator - it's me, but I'm a character - that people might not like. There have been a lot in the media in the last few years about unlikeable female narrators and I'm like, "Oh, my God. Is that terrible?" So, I was like, "You know what? I can pretend to be like Debbie from carpool or I could write who I am." I saw this come into play in Hillary Clinton's presidential run too. People said, "She's not everywoman." And, they said, "Well, no. She's not. She was Secretary of State, she was a senator." So, that came into it too. I thought, "I want to write who I actually am just to challenge that idea that I have to be likable."
Emily Calkins: What's your next book about?
Kristi Coulter: It will be…I can't say too much yet, but it's on the theme of ambition and what it is to be an ambitious woman. I've always, my entire life from my childhood, been someone who wanted big things, who wanted to do big things. The world's kind of weirded out when women want to do big things. Weirded out is the nice way to put it. So, I wanted to write a memoir that explores that, what it's like to be someone with stars in her eyes and a world that's, on the one hand, saying women can do anything, but once women want to do those things, there's always a reason they shouldn't. I'm just in the early stages of that.
Britta Barrett: Do you have any advice for aspiring people who have something scary that they want to talk about in their writing?
Kristi Coulter: I say just tell the story. First of all, you can always write it and decide much later if you're going to show it to anyone. I will also say that everything I've ever written that I was terrified to say, what I found out it is there's so many people who have the same story, and you are helping to normalize your experience for those people. You're letting them know that they're less alone. My friend, Eva Hagberg Fisher ... This book I read recently, she wrote a book called How to Be Loved, it came out about a month and a half ago. She had these really catastrophic, rare illnesses that tore her life apart. She writes about those, but the context of the book is that's how she was broken down to the point that she had to let herself be loved and let other people take care of her.
Kristi Coulter: She says, "I didn't write the book for the hundred other people on Earth who've had this combination of symptoms. I wrote the book for anyone who's felt like they couldn't be vulnerable or couldn't be loved." You don't have to be broken down like I was to get to that point. I think that's the value in writing about your own experience is that it takes the shame away. You take anything out into the light, and the shame goes away. People will relate, and it will help people. I didn't write my book necessarily to help people. I wanted to tell an interesting story, but knowing that it has, that it's made people feel less alone, or made them feel like sobriety isn't the end of the world, that's huge.
Kristi Coulter: Yeah. People confuse writing with publishing. Write it and decide later. You could take years. Write it anonymously. Just do something. Getting it out of your body is helpful, I think.
Britta Barrett: Thank you so much for sharing all of that.
Kristi Coulter: You're welcome.
Kristi Coulter: Thank you for having me in. Yeah, it was a blast.
Emily Calkins: My pleasure.
Emily Calkins: Instead of having Britta and I talk about books about difficult topics, we thought it would be fun to have another KCLS librarian join us and talk about some of her favorite books about difficult topics. We have Wendy Pender with us today who's our older adults specialist. Wendy, tell us who you are and what you do at KCLS.
Wendy Pender: Great, thanks, Emily. Thanks, Britta. I'm the Older Adults Program Coordinator. I work in the Service Center at Issaquah, and I work throughout the county with the local librarians, connecting them to resources around again, around death, around issues that affect us in later life. People are always like, "Well, why do you need an Older Adults Coordinator?" When you think about it, adulthood is a long part of our lifespan. In our 20s and 30s, we're concerned with choosing a career, choosing a mate, whether or not to start a family. That whole universe of concerns is quite different from when you're 50, 60, 70, 80. You might be thinking about end-of-life concerns, grandparenting, retirement. We all have to face social security and Medicare. That universe of concerns is where I live for programming and services.
Emily Calkins: You touched on there a lot of the topics that you're thinking about in your everyday work life are things that people don't always feel comfortable discussing.
Wendy Pender: Yes, that's true, and I'm so grateful for this opportunity to tell you about some of my favorite books about this because there's a lot of help out there. I'll start with one that I think many people will have already read, but if you haven't, I want you to put it on your list, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. He is a surgeon in Boston and he wrote this book about five years ago, which is what I think of as a cultural change agent. This book really opened up the conversation around end of life and dying. One of the things, it's not discouraging to read books about dying. I want to comfort people because every book I've read about dying is really a book about how to live, really about how do we live in a way that is meaningful, that is in accordance with our values. We communicate our wishes.
Wendy Pender: So, I want to help people feel comfortable around those end-of-life discussions. And, Atul does an amazing job in this book. It's a great book discussion book if your book discussion group hasn't already read it. I really want to encourage you to get your hands on it and go through it with your group, your tribe, your family.
Emily Calkins: Great. What else?
Wendy Pender: Another one, another universal experience is grieving. Another thing that affects us often in later in life, we have more losses. We lose friends. We lose jobs. We lose the structure that we are used to. Our children grow up and leave often an empty nest. There's lots of loss and adjustments that we have to make as we age. A book that guides us wonderfully through this is called It's Okay That You're Not Okay: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand by a psychotherapist named Megan Devine. One of the things I love about Megan's book, she's a psychotherapist who helped people through these transitions for years and she writes in her introduction, "I wish I could go back and apologize to all of the people that I've helped because I had no idea what they were going through."
Wendy Pender: Her partner dies and then she's like, "Oh, now I get it. Now, I'm walking this walk." So, she finds that we are lacking in tools in culture. We are so oriented toward, "Oh, yeah. I'm fine. Things are fine." Push it away. Get over it. This is a book that's very full of empathy about how do we accompany ourselves and each other through this universal experience of loss. It's getting a lot of press now. I think it's going to be one of those cultural change agents like Atul Gawande.
Wendy Pender: When you think about it, let's get away from end of life. Let's go to birth. In the 50s, you went to the hospital for two weeks. They put you under. You had a baby by a miracle and then came out and came home. Now, we share birth videos. We talk about it. What are you feeling? How you hanging? All that stuff. I feel like we're at a place in our culture where we're ready for these conversations about these difficult topics, so thank you for putting it on the 10 to Try game plan for the year because we're ready.
Emily Calkins: Well, I think there's something too about books as a tool like you're saying. It gives you a place to start. With something like grief, for example, where if someone you know has suffered a loss, it can be really scary to even know - you want to be there, but to even know how to start. Sometimes just having an author or a book say, "It's okay and here is something you can refer to," or, here is a piece of equipment, essentially. The door is open and even if we're going to stumble through it, at least we’re stumbling.
Wendy Pender: Yes, exactly. They're tools for the journey. I feel like that's how I go through life. Every conversation I have with someone, here's a book, here's a book, here's a book. It's like these are our friends, people who have walked the path that can show us the way, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. I tend to read nonfiction, but there's a lot of fiction out there. It's like, "Oh, finally somebody gets me." Yeah, we've all had that experience. It's the great thing about books.
Emily Calkins: And, you have one more pick I think.
Wendy Pender: I do have one more. Well, if I don't have time for 16 more, yeah, I have one more pick that ... I've been a librarian for 25 years. I have my library degree from the University of Pittsburgh and I also have a gerontology certificate from the University of Washington. I live in that world of aging and one of the dynamics in that world right now is the increase of people with dementia. Many of us, if we don't encounter it ourselves, will encounter it in our families, in our neighbors, in our coworkers, in our friends. Fortunately, the news is good that the rates of dementia may be declining, but because so many of us are getting older and being older is one of the primary risk factors in getting dementia, we need to learn how to navigate this in our society.
Wendy Pender: Again, something we don't want to talk about. Again, we used to feel this way about cancer. We'd lower the voice. “She has cancer.” It was very quiet. Now, there are parades and t-shirts and ribbons. It's something we talk about. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, memory loss, we are at that cultural tipping point and the book that is so great for dealing with this is called Creating Moments of Joy by Jolene Brackey. I meant to give you context - I've been a librarian for 25 years. I've been talking to thousands of people about thousands of books over the last couple of decades. More people have come to me about this book than all other books combined.
Wendy Pender: People will come to me and say, "I bought a copy for every nurse who is taking care of my mom. I bought a copy for every family member who deals with grandma.” It's so helpful in all the little things. It's just two pages per topic and the topics that come up are, for instance, helping a visitor feel comfortable when Uncle Bob isn't how they remember him. Uncle Bob gets distressed because who is this person in his room. You know that Uncle Bob's known this visitor for years.
Wendy Pender: How it related to me was when I ... I wish I had this book 30 years ago with my grandma. She would say things like, "Well, nobody showed me this stack of photographs that are here on the coffee table." I immediately would feel defensive. “We just went through those this morning. What do you mean I didn't show them to you?” Had I had the tools in this book I would have realized just go through the photos with her. Just say, "Oh, I'm so sorry, Grandma. Let's look at them together. Here you are. Here's the place we used to live." Whatever.
Wendy Pender: I didn't know. When we know better, we can do better, and this book, it's by a hospice nurse in Montana. She wrote such a helpful guide for navigating those challenges. What do you do when somebody refuses to change their clothes? What do you do when somebody's saying, "I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home," and they are home? How do you handle those typical, typical heartbreaking situations? And, a lot like the book, It's Okay That You're Not Okay, the answers lie in being with the person. We cannot solve these issues. We don't cure them. We accompany ourselves and others through these life conditions.
Wendy Pender: Those are toolboxes for every family, every community, that are really, really helpful and I hope you'll pick up one of them.
Britta Barrett: Thanks for listening. You can find all the books mentioned in today's episodes in our show notes.
Emily Calkins: The Desk Set is hosted by librarians Britta Barret and Emily Calkins, produced by Britta Barret, and brought to you by the King County Library System.
Britta Barrett: If you like the show, be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us on Apple Podcasts.