Chloé Cooper Jones, EASY BEAUTY

Chloé Cooper Jones, EASY BEAUTY

“I’m human like anybody else. I’m susceptible to all these bad narratives that I both internalize about myself or can turn on other people.” Pulitzer Prize finalist, professor, and author Chloé Cooper Jones joins Zibby to talk about her memoir, Easy Beauty, which documents her global exploration and life with a disability. The two discuss misconceptions about motherhood, how Chloé dismantled the weight of society’s judgment of those with disabilities, and her love of Roger Federer. Chloé also shares what her relationship with her son looks like today and how she’s handled criticism from those who still choose to disrespect disabled mothers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chloé. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful memoir, Easy Beauty.

Chloé Cooper Jones: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I will admit, we almost did this two weeks ago. I just hadn’t had enough time to properly read and prepare. I knew I would love the book and wanted to read the whole thing. Thank you for letting me postpone. Now I have read the entire book. It was really beautiful and moving. Thank you for sharing so many of these intimate experiences and thoughts and your analysis of everything and all of it. It was really great. Thanks.

Chloé: Thank you. That’s very generous. Thanks for taking the time to read it. I know everybody’s very busy in their lives, so it’s a great honor when anybody gives me that gift of their time.

Zibby: It was a pleasure. Could we start by talking about Roger Federer? You have a whole section. My husband is a former tennis player. He still plays tennis, but he taught professionally and coached and all this stuff. He is a massive Roger Federer fan. We watch everything all the time. I loved reading your whole section about your ode to Federer and the beauty of his one-handed backhand, which I hear about all the time. You said, “I try to make everyone watch tennis with me. Bobby relents, and we spend hours on the couch half watching the matches but mostly talking about his adventures on Tinder.” Then you go on. Wait, let me find what you said about Federer. You said, “When I saw Roger Federer play for the first time all those years ago, a strange thing happened. My perception was sharpened briefly allowing me a heightened moment of noticing. Federer’s backhand was beautiful, and I didn’t need anyone to explain that to me. I could see it. He opened a door and let me in. The more I watched him play, the more I learned. He became my teacher, my translator, and so I became devoted to him. I sat at all his matches. I began to hate his rivals. I moved forward learning more nuanced aspects of his game. I watched videos of his footwork. I listened to people analyze his kick serve. I found out was a kick serve was. I felt an urgency to be in his presence, a summoning. He inspired nearly deranged reactions from his fans. I was fascinated by the awe I saw on their faces when the camera panned to the stands.” You and Roger Federer, discuss.

Chloé: I got into tennis because I would — I didn’t know anything about tennis. I never played. I would watch tennis at a bar with a friend of mine who’s a bartender who would just see so many things in the game that I couldn’t see, so many nuances of the game. He would understand how points were constructed. I didn’t see any of that. I just saw a ball going over the net. One thing that kind of links a lot of my interests is perceptual experiences that seem, at first, very opaque or confusing and then through time or patience or education or a great teacher or mentor, a previously opaque or difficult experience becomes — you can see it. You can have real perceptions about it. Sometimes when we think about geniuses, often, what we’re locating, not always, but often, what we’re locating is people who give us the ability to change our perceptions about something and to see something. That passage you read about Federer is such a good example because he was somebody that when I watched him play, I thought, oh, I’m seeing something else here. It’s not just somebody knocking a ball over a net, which is impressive and something I can’t do, but I was seeing somebody really play at a different level. I love that. Maybe you’ve had that experience, like watching the Olympics, watching some sport you don’t know anything about, and then the best person plays. You’re like, oh. Have you had that experience?

Zibby: I can’t think of a specific moment, but yes, I know what you mean.

Chloé: In general, that’s so fascinating to me.

Zibby: Swimming. I feel like diving and swimming.

Chloé: Totally.

Zibby: I’m like, I thought I swam. This is swimming.

Chloé: All of a sudden, you see exactly how complicated that incredible physical art is. With Federer, I just really admired him. He became a teacher that helped me understand a lot more about tennis. Then I went on the tennis tour. I wrote about tennis for GQ for about a year. This is not in the book, but I will say I did get to know Federer while I was on the tour. He’s everything you want him to be. He was so gracious, so brilliant, so smart, so good with everyone. We would walk around the tennis gardens, and he would know everyone’s name. He would know things about them. It would be journalists, coaches, other players, obviously, but also security guards, people that did the players’ laundry, people who did transpo, who restrung rackets. That’s his world. That’s his home. He treated everybody on the tour with so much respect and genuine curiosity too. He always was asking lots of questions. He’s a rare figure that I thought lived up to the hype, or at least is unbelievably good at performing these social acts, but I think they were quite genuine. If your husband is a big Federer fan, just say Chloé thinks it’s justified, highly justified.

Zibby: I’m going to just have him listen to this whole thing. Any other private Federer things he should know before we move on to the rest of the book?

Chloé: This may seem like a small thing to some people but was very telling and moving to me. Once, I was interviewing him for a piece about Juan Martín del Potro, about a completely different player —

Zibby: — Who I love, by the way. Love all the spirit and the crowd reaction. Oh, my gosh.

Chloé: Del Potro’s amazing. I wrote a profile of him for GQ. That’s my favorite tennis piece, probably, that I wrote. Federer was like, “I want to talk about him,” just was so generous with his time to be a secondary source on a profile that had nothing to do with Federer. He’s in a lot of that profile. One detail that I left out is when I was interviewing Roger, we were in a hallway outside of a press room. We were moving together. I was asking him questions. He just went, “Hold on a second. Let’s stop.” Then he was like, “Come with me.” He found a place for us to be — he was like, “I just want to sit where we are eye to eye.” I’m much shorter than him. I’m much shorter than everyone. He was like, “I don’t want to stand above you. I want to sit somewhere.” He ended up basically doing a squat against a wall, like a chair sit, so that he could be eye to eye with me and then talk to me, would only talk to me like that. I thought, wow. For a very short lady, that’s a very classy move.

Zibby: Wow. That’s amazing. I don’t think that’s a small moment. I think that’s big. I think it’s particularly big in light of other terrible things that have happened to you in similar alleyways and confined spaced by men who are the exact opposite in how they’ve treated you and your body. To have that as a counterfoil — I think that’s the right word — counterbalance to those experiences is really uplifting. You shared a lot in the book about comments and insults and all the complete disregard for your feelings, which is, as I kept reading, more and more not only just unconscionable, but so juvenile. I just kept thinking, who are the people who — who could be so insensitive to someone else’s feelings? There are those people. Anyway, I won’t rant about that. Basically, you said even after some of these insults or whatever, you wouldn’t even want to involve your husband because you didn’t want to bring your stuff onto him. Tell me a little bit about that and if this book has changed that.

Chloé: One thing that’s important is just that I do talk about moments in which people have said cruel or unkind things to me, often strangers, sometimes not, sometimes friends, sometimes people very close to me, but I think that the point of sharing those is, one, it’s very common. None of these things are surprising. This is kind of a constant state of things. I think the reason why, or at least a large reason why, is that all of us are moving around the world with our knee-jerk concepts, and so we’re seeing, all of us, every single — it’s not the rare jerk or something. All of us are moving around the world with certain embedded concepts about other people. Because our brains need to process things very quickly, we’re sometimes reflecting back those first sometimes bad or stereotypical concepts wherever we are. Then usually, if you’re a person of conscience and compassion and the ability to have critical thoughts, you’ll override those bad narratives or those bad concepts. You’ll have second and third and fourth and fifth thoughts about people. Often when I’m in public, other people don’t have time to do that because they’re as busy as me. What’s often reflected back to me is not their innate cruelty, but I think more so the fact that we live in a world in which narratives around disability are still really bad and really backwards. What I see a lot is just people’s assumptions about my weakness or my inability or my lack of agency.

I have to ask myself, where does that come from? It comes from the way that, quite often, disabled bodies are talked about in the world around us, that there’s something inherently lesser. There’s something inherently desexualized about the disabled body. I think of it always as the Beth from Little Women model where the other sisters get to be smart and have romance and have lives and have agency and have really complex personalities, whereas Beth is frail and an angel and perfect and then dies to help — spoiler alert. She dies in Little Women. If you haven’t read Little Women, she dies. Her death sort of signifies the realness of other lives. That’s a narrative we see all the time surrounding disability, that we’re tragic figures, that we’re weak figures, that we’re figures that exist for other people, realer people’s inspiration. That narrative, that’s what I actually see reflected back. These moments of “cruelty” from others I find are really linked up to bad social narratives that they’re just not thinking very critically about or checking themselves or trying to have a second or third thought to transcend that first negative stereotypical thought.

A lot of the work I feel so committed to in this book and a reason why I wanted to be so honest about a lot of these experiences is to try to, in some ways, shift that bad narrative even by an inch. If my book does one tiny little dent in that narrative, then all the time and work will have been worth it. I also think it’s really important to acknowledge that I can do the same types of dehumanizing activities. I’m not exempt from it. I’m human like anybody else. I’m susceptible to all these bad narratives that I both internalize about myself or can turn on other people. The thing I’m asking others to do in the book for me, I also am very explicit about recognizing that I have to do that myself for others. That was maybe a long way of me not answering your question, but felt like I have to address it. Then with my husband, I think — I’m curious how you feel about this. In any sort of intimate, close relationship, whether it’s with your partner or your kids, your mother, your best friends, there always sort of an awareness in me of not wanting to spill all my pain onto them or my hurt or my frustrations with the world. Yet those are the people you need to share those things with in order to feel truly close to them in a way you don’t feel with strangers. That balance is just really tricky in life. I still think about it a lot, where that threshold is between intimacy and that responsibility to not put everything on someone. Does that make sense?

Zibby: It does. Maybe I’m just too selfish because I end up sharing every single bad thing that’s happened to me with my partner all the time. I should probably take a page from your book, literally and figuratively, and probably zip my mouth shut a little more.

Chloé: No, I think I went too far the other way. For a long time, I was holding my true self back from everybody, including the people I needed to actually — it’s just a balance. I don’t think I’m any better at it. I think I’m just on the other end of the spectrum sometimes. Although, I think I’m a little better now.

Zibby: I probably should’ve started this episode — I didn’t even have you explain what this book is even about. I just went right into the tennis. Sorry about that. Maybe you should give your one sentence about what the book’s about for people who now have analyzed backhands and their own inner relationship monologues.

Chloé: For a certain segment of your fans, “learning to Roger Federer” is a good tagline.

Zibby: You know, the conversation’s not usually had.

Chloé: The present of the book takes place over an eighteen-month period in which I’m traveling the world, mostly for journalism and other research projects. As I’m doing that, I’m trying out an experiment within myself to see if I can make some changes in my behavior, most specifically, around my own concept of my body, my disability, how disability is seen in the world, the way that other people have seen me, how that shapes my own behaviors, and most specifically, how it shapes my own ability to be a present member of my family for my husband and my son.

Zibby: Good. Now everybody knows what it’s about.

Chloé: It’s a quest that involves seeking advice from Roger Federer and Beyoncé and sculptures and stuff.

Zibby: I have to say, I love the image of you laying outside of the Bernini sculptors with one leg across stretching your hips. I’m doing this, like anyone can see, but laying on the grass, looking up at the blue sky and stretching after the stressful, difficult navigation of the museum or whatever else. Just that you’re like, you know what? I’m going to lay here as long as I need to. I’m going to make my hips feel better. I really don’t care. I was like, go you. That’s so awesome, seriously. I, in an able-bodied or whatever you want to — I don’t know what the right word is. Just in a regular whatever, I would be really self-conscious to lay down in the grass and stretch, unless, I guess, I was in my workout clothes and I was like, people might think I’m stretching from a run. If I were just to do that for fun, I feel like I would have all these censors just being like, what do people think? Honestly, who cares? Who cares? I feel like you’ve achieved this — even the way you answered that question about the insults or whatever, you analyze the other people. You analyze the situation. You’re very rational about it. Ultimately, you almost just don’t care because you found your space for yourself. You’re going to live your life that way, and that’s the way it is, in the most respectful way possible.

Chloé: I think that’s goal. I don’t think I’ve figured that out all the time. The book is largely about me struggling to do exactly that. Some chapters, I’m doing a little better. Sometimes I regress a little bit. Sometimes I get brave and can handle things. Other times, I feel afraid of what it means to really try to — I think the way you said it is nice — take up the space that I actually take up. That’s a really hard thing that I’m still evolving on and trying my best to figure out. I do think it just seems like the most necessary project for me as a mother. Anybody who’s a parent has probably had this experience. There are all these things in me that I wanted to hide from — all the worst parts of myself that I wanted to hide from my son. I didn’t want him to be like me. I didn’t want him to be afraid in the ways that I was afraid. I kind of thought, I’ll just tell him not to be afraid. I’ll just tell him to be kind to other — I’ll just tell him to not be dissociated from strangers. Of course, that doesn’t work. You actually have to model these things for your kids. It’s so infuriating to me as a mother that I have such an unbelievably observant, smart child. Children are just like that. They’re such sponges. A lot of this book is me struggling with that sense of confidence or peace within myself so that I can then authentically model it for my child, who is worth everything, is worth any sort of personal struggle or change that I could do.

Zibby: The part where you talk about getting pregnant and how you didn’t know you were pregnant until you were five months along and how your whole life you’d been told you couldn’t carry a child — the whole time you were carrying the child you were worried about what might happen to the rest of your body as a result of that pressure. Then even after you have the child, the worry that continues and the judgement where people are like, should you have a kid? He’s running down this pier. That was another one of these highly visual scenes where you’re immersed as a reader, your son running, and you can’t catch up with him, which, by the way, is one of those classic — my kids scooter sometimes. Then they’re out of your control. You’re just like, I’m back here. I see it all. I can’t do anything. Ultimately, that is literally what it is to be a mom in general. They’re going on ahead of us. Even though we want to and we care, sometimes we just can’t be there to stop everything from happening. It’s such a perfect mothering moment that you had there, a fear.

Chloé: That’s so nice that you say that because I think a lot of the point of that is, everybody was so worried about me as a mother. They were so concerned. My OB was like, “Is this even an ethical thing that you’ve done, to get pregnant?” even though I didn’t mean to. Whatever. It was an accident. Everybody around me was like, “Are you really fit to be a mother?” in a way. That feeling really kept me from experiencing, in pregnancy and in the early years of motherhood, a feeling of being a part of something larger than myself, that feeling of being a part of a tribe of mothers who were doing a difficult but valuable job. That social reflection of worth that some mothers might experience where strangers are like, “That’s amazing. You’re such a loving, caring –” I never got that. I only got this reflection of, “I don’t think you should procreate,” which is, of course, also the basic of eugenics, is a belief that a body like mine should not ever procreate.

Of course, when Wolfgang’s running away from me on this pier and I can’t catch up to him, it feels like, in that moment, this validation of everybody’s worst fears, that, in fact, I personally should not have been a mother. In reality, it’s exactly what you’re saying. That is just the experience of motherhood, that constant awareness that you cannot and never will be able to fully keep your child safe. You can only do the best you can and love them as hard as possible. I’m so glad you are saying this and picked up on this and are responding to it. In a weird way, that’s actually the moment that I felt like I was just a mother and not a disabled mother because it was like, yep, that’s right. I’m going to do the best I can. Some of these things are going to just be outside of my control. That’s yet another one of the great pains of being a parent.

Zibby: Another one is that people will always judge you. There will always be people on the outside thinking something about the way you’re doing it, whether it’s —

Chloé: — Totally.

Zibby: It’s just part of parenting. No one really knows what they’re doing. I think everybody feels compelled to just rain on everybody else’s parade. Look at her. I would be able to catch that kid, they might say. You know what? You might not have either. You might be able to run, but that kid might be running away from you in a few years. Maybe you’re too — you just don’t know. Unfortunately, the two go hand in hand.

Chloé: So true.

Zibby: Parenting. You write really beautifully about your son. He seems like a really awesome guy. How old is he now?

Chloé: He’s ten years old. He’s the coolest kid in the world. He’s skateboarding outside right now. He’s just amazing. He’s such a funny child and now is my best travel buddy. I just had a two-month tour, basically. He went on a lot of the tour with me and was like, “This is the best thing ever.” He loves even waiting in airports like a wild human. I don’t know any humans that love all the logistics of travel. When we got home from tour, he was like, “Let’s leave our apartment and just get an RV and travel around the country all the time.” That’s his dream scenario right now. He’s definitely picked up my travel bug, which is nice.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Go do it. Just do it. Take a year.

Chloé: I know. We’re going to try to go to Europe this summer. I was going to take him in 2020, but some things came up that year. He’s never been to Europe, so I think that’ll be our next. We’re going to go to some museums together, look at some art this summer, hopefully.

Zibby: That sounds nice. We’re thinking about doing something similar.

Chloé: Good.

Zibby: We’ll see. My kids also have the RV dream. They slept outside in an RV at this family birthday party where they didn’t have room for us inside. After five of us in an RV for the night, they were like, “Okay, fine. We’ll go back to bedrooms. Thank you very much.” Are you working on another book? What’s coming next? Yes? What’s going on?

Chloé: Yeah, I have two books, actually, that I’m somewhat working on simultaneously that are — in some ways, I think together, the three of them with Easy Beauty form a triptych, is what I keep calling it, just because trilogy implies that you would need to read them in order. These are three separate books, but they all are sort of linked by a specific underlying philosophical question. The first one’s obviously about beauty. The second one that I’m finishing now is about devotion, the nature of devotion and some history and philosophical ideas around devotion. The third is about kinship. Right now, I’m thinking through these three ideas and how they’re connected and how I process them specifically through experiences with art.

Zibby: Maybe it could be Easy Beauty, Difficult Friendship.

Chloé: Difficult Devotion.

Zibby: So-So Devotion.

Chloé: Yes, please. I don’t have titles for these other books. I just have the material. If you have any ideas for titles…

Zibby: That would be funny. You could have an easy, medium, and hard. Medium Devotion, Hard Friendship.

Chloé: Beginner, advanced.

Zibby: Exactly. You could do the ski run, a green and a blue square and then a black diamond or something.

Chloé: Black diamond. These are good. I’m going to take these suggestions. Thank you.

Zibby: These are not good, but go ahead. What is your advice for aspiring authors?

Chloé: Great question. Here’s my advice. This is something a writing teacher said to me a long, long, long time ago. I think about it almost every day that I sit down to write. She said to me, “Imagine that you’re sitting down at a piano. You’re looking at the eighty-eight keys. You know that they have been played over and over and over again in all these different configurations and that for hundreds of years people have been playing these same eighty-eight keys.” She said, “Now your job is to look at these eighty-eight keys and play the note that only you can play.” Of course, there’s something inherently impossible about that. That’s kind of the point of her analogy. At the same time, whenever I think about that when I’m writing a sentence, I’m always trying to say, is this a note that only you could play? Is this a sentiment only you could express? Is this a way of writing that only I could do it? The more I ask myself that question, the harder I push into my own experiences and my own mind and the way that I process things and things that I’ve read and my own lens on the world. I try to sharpen through that advice, sharpen the specificity of that lens with the hope that when somebody reads my book or reads any of my writing, they go, wow, she’s really playing music only she could play even though she’s still using the same eighty-eight keys that we all have to use.

Zibby: We only have twenty-six, really.

Chloé: We only have twenty-six?

Zibby: Well, we have twenty-six letters.

Chloé: Oh, letters. Yes.

Zibby: Even harder for us.

Chloé: Yes, I know. We have it harder than piano players. It’s true.

Zibby: Lightweights over there.

Chloé: I love that advice. I think about it all the time. I think the paradoxical nature of that advice is actually kind of lovely and helpful in a way.

Zibby: Completely. Chloé, thank you. This was so interesting and fun. Thank you for the time and for letting me have a redo.

Chloé: I’m so glad. This was so lovely. Thank you for reading my book and for having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care.

Chloé: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Chloé Cooper Jones, EASY BEAUTY

EASY BEAUTY by Chloé Cooper Jones

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