Nora McInerny, BAD VIBES ONLY: (and Other Things I Bring to the Table)

Nora McInerny, BAD VIBES ONLY: (and Other Things I Bring to the Table)

Nora, a repeat guest on Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, talks about her latest (and first!) collection of essays, Bad Vibes Only: (and Other Things I Bring to the Table), her struggles with an eating disorder, her fabulous podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and the role of competitive parenting that she wasn’t prepared for. Zibby loved her previous books No Happy Endings and It’s Okay to Laugh: (Crying is Cool Too).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nora. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Bad Vibes Only (and Other Things I Bring to the Table): Essays.

Nora McInerny: Yes, and I bring very little else to the table. People should know this.

Zibby: It’s just all the books. That’s it.

Nora: Have me over for a literal meal. I will intend to bring you a hostess gift. Then I will forget it at home. I will literally come to the table emptyhanded. I just will.

Zibby: The thought is there, so that’s okay.

Nora: The thought is there. Hopefully, it’s the thought that counts because I have so many of them.

Zibby: So many thoughts. That’s great. That’s all you need. Tell listeners about this latest collection.

Nora: This is my first book of essays. An essay is how I started writing. Whatever I would call my writing career began in the early 2010s. If listeners can take a trip back in time with me, the early 2010s were such an interesting time on the internet. We were all on one algorithm, so one thing could go viral at once. All of these websites were popping up, xoJane, HelloGiggles, all these websites and a thousand others like them that were geared towards women aged twenty-five to thirty-four. They were almost all first-person essays. While I did not get paid hardly anything to write those pieces, I was really good at it. I was really good at it. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. My dad always told me that good writers write what they know, which is a tragedy when you don’t know anything. It’s a tragedy to hear that when you’re nine years old and be like, but I don’t even know long division. What am I going to write about? You know what every person knows, Zibby? You know this. Every person knows their own story. I loved writing about things that were seemingly unimportant. In 2010, to write a piece that said “Are leggings pants? This writer thinks yes,” that was a bold statement, a strong opinion. Gen Z, who are walking around in their little Lululemon leggings with a crop top, you have me to thank. You have me to thank for paving the way to believing that those were actually pants and not a layering piece, which they were in 2010.

This is my fifth book. Most of my books are in memoir. Most of my books are wrestling with the fact — digesting, picking apart the biggest story of my life. Everybody has a main story of their life. Everybody. If you were to ask anybody, “What’s your deal?” they’ll tell you. They can probably list it off in bullet points. They can tell you what their story is. Since 2014, my story has been that in 2014, my dad died, my husband died, and I lost a pregnancy in a six- or seven-week span of time. Those are life-altering losses if you even have one of them. All of mine happened at once. Most of the books that I’ve written have been figuring out what all that meant, which is not nothing. Those things just happened, but what it means to build a life in the wake of those. Bad Vibes Only is a collection of essays exploring all of the other things that make up a person’s life story, all of the other thoughts and situations that add up to who a person is, especially when that person, me, is knocking on the door of forty years of age, sliding feet first into middle age. What happens at this age, you really, really cannot help but look back and pull apart these different situations that have contributed to who you were. Trust me, since I was a little kid obsessed with my parents dying, I have always had bad vibes. I have always been a somewhat off-putting weirdo.

Zibby: You are not an off-putting weirdo. That is not the narrative you should — no.

Nora: I’ve always been a person who’s like, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know, guys. I don’t know. I wanted to write about all this stuff. I wanted to write about all of this stuff that isn’t simply grief and loss, but explores grief and loss through other things, like the realization that your life is finite, that those former selves who were sort of clipped at the vine still exist somewhere. They just aren’t you anymore. It was a lot of fun to write. It was excruciating to write. This is the end of three weeks of being on tour and meeting thousands of people who have interacted with other versions of my work who are coming into this version of my work. It’s just been wonderful and amazing. You asked me one question. I have no idea how long I talked. I’m so sorry.

Zibby: You could just do the whole thing this way. I’m tired. I’ll just sit here. This would be doing me a favor.

Nora: And another thing…

Zibby: Go ahead. I’m actually just going to keep asking you questions. This is how it’s going to go, as a matter of fact. First of all, vintage rom-coms, did not know that was a thing in terms of #aging, Runaway Bride, The Object of My Affection.

Nora: I would just call those rom-coms. Don’t worry. If you have a teenager, they’re going to be like, do you want to watch a vintage rom-com? You’re like, you mean a contemporary film that just came out twenty years ago? What are you talking about?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re so funny. I need to talk to you about this weight loss thing. You may not know, but I also went to Weight Watchers for many years. I was a receptionist. Then I became a leader. I led meetings all over the place. Tell me about your experience. There were so many similarities, even the sad part of how eating disorders even play into dieting and all of that.

Nora: I came of age in the late nineties, early two-thousands. Like every woman in history, even to this day — maybe they’re slightly, slightly cracking away at this. The best thing a woman could be was thin and beautiful. If you can’t be beautiful, at least you can be thin. For generations and generations, that has been part of the pursuit of perfection, of self-mastery. I didn’t know this when I was younger. Every bit of pop culture played into this. Being five years old and watching ads for Jenny Craig and being like, oh, an eight-ounce shake can be a meal, watching ads for Weight Watchers, watching magazine covers in the grocery store and seeing how a woman can gain ten pounds and be on the cover of a magazine with that being commentary about herself, learning so early on that your weight and your beauty is intrinsically tied to your worth as a person, it turns out that does do a number on you. I was also raised by people who I think would think of themselves as above that narrative. I wasn’t allowed to have Barbies as a kid because my dad said they perpetuated a negative self-image in women and an unrealistic beauty type. I was like, okay, well, I’m five. Thanks for this dumb knock-off baby doll from Shopko. Wasn’t allowed to have Barbies. Didn’t do ballet because my parents were like, “No, it gives you the wrong sense of yourself and your worth.” All of that stuff seeped in anyway. When I was in college, I gained the freshman fifteen. You know this, the freshman fifteen. You go to college. You have unlimited access to an ice cream bar and cereal. You learn that no one’s going to stop you from putting cereal on your ice cream. Three meals a day. I’m six feet tall. I’m a little taller than six feet tall. I went to college 120 pounds, which is extremely skinny. I probably came back 140, 150. Whatever it was, it was still extremely thin.

I went to Weight Watchers. If you are listening to this and you want to crack your phone in half, I don’t blame you. I don’t blame you. I don’t blame you at all. I had crossed some threshold in my mind. Even among the people who knew me, nobody was alarmed that I was going to a weight loss meeting at all. That program has been so helpful for so many people. People I know and love were helped by that program, felt really good about themselves afterwards. It unlocked something that was already burrowing into my brain anyway. It unlocked something else that was already in my brain. It just taught me how to have an eating disorder. It taught me every trick I knew to have an eating disorder and to treat myself horribly and to truly experience the addiction of self-control, which has been a part of my life for years afterwards. Again, why was I there? Why was I there? The idea of being fifteen pounds heavier and falling squarely into whatever beauty standard existed, even in the day when people were declaring Lindsay Lohan scary skinny but also being like, but did she wear it best? — of course, she did. She wore it best. She’s the sexist skeleton you’ve ever seen. I still felt compelled to be there, as though the best thing that I could possibly be doing with my time was making myself smaller. Making myself smaller, yikes.

Zibby: How did you pull yourself out of that?

Nora: I don’t know if I have. I have in many ways. I’ve gone to all kinds of therapy. I really have. In a lot of ways, I think our health and wellness culture, all of these extremes that exist, I’ve always been attracted to. I just found other ways to dress it up or hide it. For periods of time, that would be like, oh, I just run. I just run. I run five miles a day. Why are you running five miles a day? Mentally, I was using that to cancel out things or to balance some sort of invisible scale. I don’t have a scale in my house, but do I still count in my mind, everything that I’ve ever eaten? Yeah. I would say I probably stopped that sort of mentality only in the past year. I would find other ways. When I first got a Fitbit, I was like, now I will make sure that it never ever goes below ten thousand steps, ever. I have an Apple Watch. Now I can close that ring. I can raise that bar so that ring doesn’t get closed unless I do a crazy amount of activity. That, I can dress up as wellness. I can say this is for my health. It is for my health. What is the way that I best measure my health? It’s how skinny I am. This is horribly embarrassing to say out loud for me.

Zibby: It should not be embarrassing. Although, I do understand how the comfort of the page is a little bit easier than sometimes discussing —

Nora: — Even typing it, though, it’s like, aren’t I supposed to be a good feminist? Aren’t I supposed to be evolved past this? When I say bad vibes only, I have always been a person who understands her own contradictions and struggles with that. I can say that was borderline insane that I went to Weight Watchers at that weight. I think it’s absolutely insane that they accepted me and were like, yeah, you should be here, for sure. To me, it’s sad that I’m almost forty, would not want any of my children to feel this way, and I still feel this way.

Zibby: Gaining control over your inner thoughts and feelings, that’s a toughie.

Nora: Yeah. Can someone fix it? Can someone figure that out, please?

Zibby: Wouldn’t that be nice? The problem with eating stuff is it’s so visible too.

Nora: It is. You need it too. There’s no other addictions — you can craft a life where you’re never around alcohol. You’re never going to have a life where you’re never around food or physical activity. How do you learn to deal with that stuff? The most honest answer I have is TBD.

Zibby: Did it help to write it? Does it help now that it’s out there for everyone?

Nora: Yeah, it does. It does. It helped to write that out. It helped to have my husband read that, to have my mom read that, to have my sister read that. My sister had a very different experience in Weight Watchers. Our experiences were similar. Our experiences were similar because when she lost weight, she became so much more beautiful to some people. She got a whole different kind of attention, even within our family, which always made me sad as a kid. People would say to me about my sister, your sister’s so beautiful if she could lose weight. Isn’t that horrible? You hear those things when you’re little. You hear, so I’m okay now because I’m not there. If I did, then what would that mean about me? What does it mean that my cousin is beautiful but she has big bones? What does that mean? I hope people are more conscious about the way that they talk about that in front of children, in front of other people. I also do know that we’ve all only evolved so far.

I do have a kindergartener who’s like — a little girl in his class — he came home, and he said, “She was crying all day.” I said, “Why was she crying all day?” He said, “Because this other kid said she’s the fattest person in our room.” I was like, “What does that mean?” He was like, “I guess she has a bigger body.” I was like, “Did he say it in a nice way, or did he say it in a mean way?” He said, “He said it in a mean way. That’s why she’s crying.” I was like, “Right, but do you think it’s bad that her body is different from yours?” He’s like, “No.” I’m like, “Okay.” It’s so difficult to even talk about it with a child, to be like, look, we both see that everybody’s body is different, but what if you didn’t care about it? What if you didn’t comment on it? Here’s why you wouldn’t comment on it, because she would feel bad. Why would she feel bad? Because some people think it’s bad, but is it bad? It is so tangled. It’s so difficult. It’s 2022. That girl’s five years old, and there the cycle continues. It just continues.

Zibby: Depressing.

Nora: I know. I’m sorry.

Zibby: Hopeless. Depressing. Maybe not. I will say, when I was working at Weight Watchers, you had to pass a certain weight threshold. Maybe they changed it. That was in the two-thousands.

Nora: Was it height and weight?

Zibby: Yeah, height and weight.

Nora: Weird. I don’t know.

Zibby: I don’t know if they used to do that. I was in Weight Watchers 10.2. I don’t even know what you want to call it. This loops into your essay on parenting and different types of parenting. Oh, my gosh, you were so funny writing about the whole thing. Give us the little Cliffs Notes on different parenting types and competitive parenting and all of that.

Nora: Oh, my god, I just was not prepared for the way that parenting would feel like a competitive sport. It feels that way because for so many people, myself included, unless you are very conscious of it and you stay conscious of it in every moment, becoming a parent is a projection of what you wanted or what you didn’t have or what you hope for your kids and all these unmet or unsaid or even unrealized, unaware expectations, all these expectations. When you become a parent, you are suddenly thrown into this group without even signing up and being like, okay, I guess we’re all parents now. We’re all parents. We are all parents. We are all wildly different people who have nothing in common. Now all our kids know each other. We got to go to a birthday party and stand around and be like, uh-huh, uh-huh. People’s parenting ideologies become almost like a team. I imagined this essay as — there’s a sports league. It’s called the Competitive Parenting Association. Within there, you can join different leagues depending on your — I obviously don’t know how sports work — depending on what your interest is. Are you going to be a crunchy parent? These are mostly moms, obviously, because to be a dad is to be celebrated even if you are just present in any way. The bare minimum, people are like, what a dad. Can you believe it? He is holding his baby in public. People lose their minds. My husband flies with our children. People say things like, what a beautiful family. Do you need any help? All of our kids can walk. They’re all wiping their own butts. People are like, oh, my god, look at him. I fly with our kids, and people are like, they can’t sit by me. The whole temperature changes.

There’s all these different kinds of parents that you meet once you become a parent. Some of them are free-range, screen-free, organic parents. Some of them are sports parents. Some of them are — now I’m blanking on all the other kinds of parents I’ve interacted with. Some of them are very intense academic parents. All of it is so fascinating to me because it’s not even as though we are always parenting the children we got. We become the kind of parents very easily that we want to be. It’s just very, very interesting to me. I’ve been a lot of different kinds of parents. Now I’m just kind of a lazy one. I think that’s the best kind to be. I just lower the expectations for my kids and for everyone around me. I’m like, you know what? You’re going to get a zero on that worksheet today. That’s what you’re going to get because Mom doesn’t know how to do fourth-grade math either. I’m not going to cry about it. You’re not going to cry about it. We’re going to give up. You’re going to go back to school, and you’re going to ask some questions because I don’t know why they’re asking for a word problem when they already gave you the answer. Do you know these math things? You’ve already been through this with your kids, right?

Zibby: I have.

Nora: I don’t understand. When he opens up the book, I’m like, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t help you.

Zibby: My daughter’s like, “We’re doing algorithms in math.” I’m like, algorithms? I was like, “Just refresh my memory on what that means.”

Nora: You tell me what you think it is.

Zibby: Then she shows it to me. I’m like, “Oh, you’re just doing subtraction with carrying the ones,” or whatever. She’s like, “No, it’s an algorithm.” I was like, “Since when?”

Nora: Since when? You’re borrowing a one. You’re getting it over to that neighbor.

Zibby: That’s all we’re doing.

Nora: That, I can help you with. When it’s like, describe the addends — I don’t even know how you say it. I was like, I will not do that. I won’t do it. I will not.

Zibby: There is one part of one of your essays that — not just one, but this particular piece, I keep thinking about. You have this moment with some of your girlfriends. You’re saying, we’re never going to be glamorous people, or something you said similar to that. Guess what? We aren’t now, and we aren’t going to be in the future. This is what we got. I feel like there’s something so profound about that level of acceptance and the shock of acceptance, actually. Oh, my gosh, I’m never going to be this really cool, hippy-dippy — I’m not that now. I don’t see a path to that.

Nora: Yeah, and so I’m just going to be this version of myself. Will it change? Yes, but the core elements will not. Therefore, I can let go. I can let go of the nine J.Crew pencil skirts I bought. I work at home. I have since 2015. Who was I shopping for? What version of myself?

Zibby: I’m always like, you never know. You never know. I might need a suit.

Nora: You never know. I do know. I can file away. I will not be a person who remembers to put makeup on every day. I just won’t be. Good for me. I can let that go. My friend Brandy said to me, “Isn’t it crazy we’ll never be elegant?” I was like, “What?” While I’m wearing dirty hair, dirty sweatshirt, and bike shorts, I was like, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “We just won’t be.” I was like, “Holy shit, dude. You are right.” Oh, my god.

Zibby: It’s so funny. Oh, my goodness. You do so much to promote other authors. You have a whole other Instagram where you’re talking about different books and all of that. Tell me about that and books that you’re loving or why you’re doing that or all of it.

Nora: I just love to read, just like you. I love to read. I need a place to put them. I have not posted in a long time because I also am not a person who can — that would just mean me managing something. I’m not a good manager for myself or anybody else. I post when I remember to. I only post the books I like, just like I will only talk about a book that I like. Taste is so subjective. For me to be like, “This book was bad,” no, it wasn’t. I just didn’t like it. Do I need to put that out in the world? I don’t think so. I don’t think I need to put that kind of energy out in the world. I also like to read such a weird variety of things, too, that I just wanted a place to put them. I love listening to books. That counts to me. That counts as reading. I’m not a person who enjoys — I can’t watch anything thrilling, even vaguely. No suspense can I stand on TV. None. I will google how an episode ends so I can just enjoy it. Not good. I have to talk through everything. My husband’s like, “Please stop.” I’m like, “How are they going to get out of this?” He’s like, “I don’t know. It’s the first episode. They have a whole season, so I think she’s going to live.” I’m like, “Not sure.” I love listening to thrillers lately. I love listening to thrillers. I’ve been on a deep Paula Hawkins and Alice Feeney kick. I just love it. I love it, love it, love it. I love it. I could never write anything like that because I’d be like, I don’t know. Then it all worked out, and everything was fine. Actually, no one died. It was all a joke.

Zibby: Guess what? It’s not a thriller. Actually, a comedy.

Nora: I’m going to explain to you why things are happening the whole time so you don’t have to be nervous.

Zibby: Whoops. You know how you suspected it? You were right. Let’s move on.

Nora: She heard a bump. It was nothing.

Zibby: What next? Are you working on another memoir? I feel like you were touring all over the place. You’re like a one-woman show over there. What’s coming up?

Nora: Nothing. Nothing’s coming up. Nothing is coming up. My podcast is independent now, which is really exciting and wonderful.

Zibby: What does that mean, it’s independent now?

Nora: That I own it. I’m not on a network. I am just making it myself, which is ideal for me and wonderful. I’m no longer a part of public media. I am just making something on my own. I love it. That has been my goal for six years. I have that. I don’t know if this is my last book, but it might be. It might be. I’m just enjoying this process and enjoying having it out in the world without all of the stress that has accompanied every other book launch because they’re just so stressful. They’re inherently stressful. You make a thing. You hoist it out into the world. You’re like, I hope you catch it. It’s so far out of your control. I have always been onto the next thing, always been onto the next thing, and never enjoyed anything. I’ve made a very deliberate choice this time. I’m just going to enjoy it. Then when the next thing comes to me, if it does, I’ll be here. If it doesn’t, I like this thing.

Zibby: I like that. Wait, so can you go back for two seconds? “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” used to be part of public radio. What can you do now that you couldn’t do before? Why did you want it on your own?

Nora: I’ll tell you that off record.

Zibby: Okay, great. Nora, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Bad Vibes Only.

Nora: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I loved getting to know you better through your essays and, of course, chatting with you.

Nora: Thank you.

BAD VIBES ONLY: (and Other Things I Bring to the Table) by Nora McInerny

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