SAMANTHA IRBY: As a kid, I think I thought like 40 was like your like big age, like your adult age where you know stuff, and like taking inventory of what I know and can do at this age, I’m like, "Ooh, I wish I had learned more so I would feel more grown up." But like my body has been falling apart since like forever. So all of that stuff feels right. Like my knees have been hurting.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
The day before I called writer Samantha Irby, she’d found out her newest book, a collection of comedic essays called
SI: I was talking to my agent yesterday, like he called to congratulate me, and I was like, "I gotta hurry up and put together like six more book pitches so we can ride this wave." [Laughs] I don't know if this is going to happen again.
Sam’s writing first got notice on her blog, “Bitches Gotta Eat.” Her first book
These days, Sam, who's now 40, lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her wife Kirsten and Kirsten’s two teenage sons.
And calling her at home while she's in isolation was a really fun way to spend a morning. She told me—for her—this time of quarantine doesn’t feel that unusual.
SI: My general routine is like, get up and wander around the house and try not to, uh, let any outside air touch me. And [laughs] it’s, it’s the same! It’s, I truly was built for these times. I have an inside job that's not really a job that I can do whenever. Um, and I have filled my house with things that I like, like books and screens, um, and cozy clothes. So the—no, my routine hasn't changed that much.
ANNA SALE: Has, has all of you being at home during this time, has it led to any kind of change in the division of labor in your household?
SI: Um, oh, I gotta be honest because, uh, my wife is currently, I'm looking out the window at her, uh, dragging the, uh, recycling bins in from the sidewalk [laughs] and, uh, no, she does the most stuff. I will - I cook, I do some cleaning, and the kids, when they're here, they split their time between our house and their dad's house. When they're here, they do absolutely zero jobs, because, like, when a kid does something, you just have to do it over or you have to, you have to stand there and watch them to make sure they do it right. So that's like a double job. You may as well just do it. You know what I mean?
AS: Does your house, how different does your house feel when, when your wife's kids are not with, in the house and when they're in the house?
SI: Now that they are sullen teens, um, it's almost like they aren't here because they are like TikTok-ing or, like, playing music in the basement, or like watching TV in the basement. There's almost no difference except at meal time when, like, you have to cook three times what you would normally cook. Um, have you ever tried to feed a child? Jesus, oh my God. We had to join Costco. This was the year we had to join Costco because it was like, well I'll tell you what it was. I bought some fancy cheese and there was a friends over day in which, you know, these savages ate, like, all of my overpriced cheese. And I was like, listen, the string cheese from Target was right there. Why did you, why did you eat like my special Gouda or whatever it was?
AS: Has living with teenagers made you think about your own teenage self in a different way at all?
SI: No. Well, no, I do, I do, like, I think, have more patience than I would have expected. Because I very easily can, like, tap right back into my 13-year-old misery. And like feeling how I felt just sort of overwhelmed and like I wasn't getting anything right. Everything is hard, even when like from the outside, it doesn't look that hard. Uh, I, I do have to resist being like, you know, do you know how I grew up? Do you know what I didn't have? You know, like I don't want to be that person. Also they don't care. I mean they would just, like, walk away and be like, shut up. Um but—
AS: [Laughs] You’d, you’d get all going on your speech and they wouldn't even care.
SI: Yeah. They'd be like, "We get it! You were poor. Great, we see you’re black. Great. Bye, shut up."
Sam grew up in Evanston, Illinois, an affluent suburb outside Chicago, but her family didn’t have a lot of money. Her dad struggled with alcoholism, and was in and out of her life. Sam lived mostly with her mom, who had multiple sclerosis.
SI: We were living together, um, in this like really crappy apartment and like she couldn't afford for us to have a phone. When you are a kid like having a challenging life, the, the sort of mundane teenage stuff, you don't just forget about that. Like it does, you're not, like, absolved of that. So no one's like, "Hey, your mom's dying. We're not going to tease you about not having the right shoes," or like, "Your mom's dying, you're not going to have crushes on people who don't like you back," or you're, "We're going to let the fact that you didn't do your homework slide," right? So all the teenage, uh, movie stuff, all of the crushes, and the cliques, and the this and the that, you have to - I was going through all that stuff while also coming home to this woman who was like rapidly decaying, and couldn't take care of herself and certainly couldn't take care of me. Like, going into high school and kind of navigating all of that stuff and trying to keep it together in school while also like coming home and having the insane responsibility of living with a person who couldn't take care of herself. Especially because, like, I truly could not like let go of the, "Hey I want to make a tape for this person cause I like him." Like I was, I had no - you know, like you want to think that kids are like super, can be super serious, and maybe some people can be super serious and like cast aside all of your childish things and like focus on, you know, changing your mother's like bed pan or whatever. That was not me. Like I did all the bedpan stuff, but I also was like I cannot believe that, uh, this boy whose locker I slipped a note in has not written me back.
AS: Yeah. Well, thank god you made those mix tapes because it—
SI: I know.
AS: you're writing about them 25 years later, right?
SI: It really like had an, uh, a lasting impact on me.
AS: I was also born in 1980 and so I think there were probably moments of time when both of us were laying on a bedroom floor listening to CDs.
AS: And doing the press and record and stop. Yeah.
SI: Do you remember, I mean, do you remember when, like when Mazzy Star came out—
SI: And it was just like, boy, I'm just gonna, like this is my personality now. Like laying down and feeling forlorn while listening to this music is my identity. Oh my God. Well I feel like as, you know, as, like, weird as I feel about some aspects of my childhood, I do think that, like, growing up when we did was just like an amazing time for sulky teenage-ness, especially as a girl.
AS: Yeah, it made it like it was, it was like cool and maybe even a little sexy to be sad in moments in some of that.
SI: Oh, oh, yes. I was like, oh my God, this is it. I do not have to be happy. I can be miserable and like, I'll, I'll feel like an artist rather than like a loser.
Coming up, Sam talks about the deaths of both her parents, and how finding a job at a bakery helped her work through her grief.
SI: Like from TV, you think it's like, you know, somebody like sitting depressed and not eating uh for months and then, until they, like, emerge from a cocoon, um, like all healed. I certainly didn't have that kind of thing. I probably grieved with, like, cake scraps and uh, frosting and like day-old danishes or whatever. Um, but like working all the time, like, really I think helped me get, at least like get my life started.
We’ve been asking you about this time of physical disconnection. Lack of touch, lack of proximity to so many people we love and how you are noticing all that in your life and your relationships.
We're gathering your stories along with the podcast Love + Radio and one thing we’ve heard so far is how the suddenness of this break from the normal has complicated and changed already complicated things.
A listener named Caitlyn, who's 29 and lives in Boston, was living with her partner when they broke up a couple months ago. So now...
CAITLYN: We are both living together, working from home together, in a two bedroom apartment that’s like 500-600 square feet.
And Caitlyn says that’s making her new online dating ventures definitely feel awkward.
CAITLYN: Everybody wants to have conversation and talk on FaceTime, WhatsApp, Messenger, which also makes it super difficult to have a conversation while also being sensitive to you know my ex-partner being in same room as me, in the same house, and you know trying not to put it in his face too much I guess you could say that. So just chaos all over!
But you also told us virtual dating isn’t all chaos.
We heard from a listener, Nico in Toronto, who, just before everything shut down, had an incredible second date that ended back his place. “We haven’t seen each other since, but it wasn’t a one night stand,” he wrote. They're now getting to know each other over long conversations on Zoom, because they're “denied the lusty physical intimacy that we would surely be enjoying.” ”I have a call in 5 minutes," he wrote, "and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Share your story about relationships and intimacy with us and Love + Radio for an upcoming episode. Write us an email, or record a voice memo, and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And we are tracking all of the different ways you are experiencing this strange, stressful, uncertain time in our newsletter. If you're not getting it yet, subscribe at deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
After high school, Samantha Irby enrolled at Northern Illinois University and her first year was really tough.
SI: My dad died in February of '98, so we had winter break, came back to school. I turned 18 on February 13th and my dad was found dead the next day. And then I had a, like a little bit of a - a breakdown. I just was so overwhelmed. 'Cause like, you know, it was on me to like pick the funeral stuff, and you know, it just, it was a, it was a lot. And I started seeing a therapist and I got on Prozac and then that felt a little better, but I did not take any like real time to grieve.
Sam got through that first year of school, and that summer, she got a job at a local bakery. Then, Sam’s mother died.
SI: My mom died like a month after I started, and I was like settled in the job and I really liked it. They were good to me. And that was part of the decision to like, to not go back to school is I was like, oh, I like it here. They pay me on time. Uh, why not just stay? And so I stayed and worked there for three years.
AS: Were you aware of that at the time, that you needed space to take all this in?
SI: It sort of, like, hit me then that like, you can't just keep going, you know, and like, and I knew that I could keep working, right? 'Cause you know, you, I'm taking cake orders and like boxing up cookies like that, that I could do. But I was like, figuring out loan stuff and getting back and forth to school and then trying to learn—that I cannot do. And so I think I worked through the grief and it's, I would not recommend it for anyone else, but it worked for me. It felt good to have a purpose and to be making money and like, you know, trying to get an apartment and like have a real grown up life. Like, 'cause it, I mean it truly, there's no better way to feel like you gotta grow up then for your parents to uh, be gone. Um, so I don't know that I—I didn't do any traditional, I mean, what is traditional grieving, right?
SI: And I don't ever mean to say any of this stuff, um, callously because everyone like processes death and their parental stuff differently. But, like, growing up my entire life, I had old sick parents and like I never had a break from that and from them. And so like when they died it was like they, they both died in like sad ways and probably not how you'd like to see your parent finish their life. But there was like a relief too. I don't even think I got to really have a childhood. Um, and so like once they died, it was like I grieved, but I also was like, "Ooo-kay." You know?
SI: Like I can take a breath without worrying about, you know, my, my homeless dad or my mom, you know, in her wheelchair like leaving the nursing home to go like get cigarettes at the gas station down the street. It was like, oh, I can just, like, think about me for a change.
AS: I mean a bakery sounds like a wonderful place to be when you're rebuilding. It's happy to be in a bakery.
AS: It's productive, like it’s -
SI: Yeah. Yes.
SI: Yeah, and it’s, it, everything is like clockwork. I mean the assembly line of it all is very helpful, you know, because it's, it truly is like, this gets made at this time, these orders go out at this time, this wedding cake gets delivered then, and so, and it truly was like, I do not mind at all being like a cog in the wheel of, of a thing bigger than me. It wasn't as, like, Hallmark movie as uh, as you'd think. Like any sort of food service is like low-key disgusting [laughs] and—
SI: Uh and like customer service is, you know, like the tenth circle of hell. So it, like it, I did like get yelled at sometimes about things where I was like, "Are we still just like talking about croissants?" But for the most part, it was great.
Sam never went back to school. She stayed at the bakery for three years, and eventually she started her writing career by blogging and doing readings and comedy shows in Chicago.
Even as her profile rose and she started publishing books, Sam kept a day job. For 14 years, she worked in reception at a veterinary hospital. She didn’t quit that until 2016, when she got married and left Chicago for Michigan to live with her wife.
AS: Was it hard to step away from having a steady paycheck?
SI: Yes, I think about it every day. Um, I do not like, I mean when you start working at 18 and it's just every other week, I get a paycheck. Every other week, I know where my money comes from. I know how to budget for that. I know that unless something calamitous happens to me, I will have this money and be taken care of. I do not like this feeling of uncertainty.
AS: Uh huh.
SI: Like once every other week I do, well at least before the pandemic hit, I'm like, "I need to go get a job application at Walgreens or something." I just do not trust this very fickle lifestyle that I have chosen. And I refuse, refuse, can I tell you, RE-FUSE. Spell it out. I refuse to do that, like, desperate thing where you can tell, like, somebody’s career is, like, kind of over and, but they're like, you know, scraping and scrabbling to try to, like, stay relevant and try to keep selling things. The minute this feels like it's over, I'm going to be bagging groceries or like working at the gas station or working in another animal hospital. Like whatever my limited skills will allow me to do, I will be right back there doing that 'cause I'm not so desperate to keep doing this that I'd ever embarrass myself to do it.
AS: Will, will you tell me why, why is pride, like why is that so, when it comes to a creative, your creative work, you're like I'm not going to scramble, but when it comes to earning money to take care of yourself, you do what you have to do?
SI: I, I mean for me there's like no shame in any sort of like rote, uh, hourly work. Um, I have like extreme secondhand embarrassment sometimes and I don't want, nothing to me is more humiliating then watching people trying to, I mean all of this stuff has a shelf life, right? I mean the personal essay from a 40-year-old, like, perimenopausal gross out lady, I don't know how long people are going to want that. I assume not much longer. So I gotta be ready for the day my agent is like, "No, bitch, we couldn't sell it." And then that day I will gracefully bow out. Also I have the kind of friends who everyone needs who will roast me mercilessly if they see me doing something that looks like desperate and tragic.
AS: Uh huh. I’m glad you brought up friends because I, I was really, um, I really connected to what you wrote about the difficulty of, of making new friends at this stage of life. So, you're, all of a sudden you're married, you're living in a state where you haven't lived before in a community where you haven't lived before, um, do you feel like you have a community of friends now, there?
SI: I feel like I have my wife's friends who I can call my friends and I feel like um... like, like they're not just humoring me, you know? Like they actually like me and want to be my friend too. But I don't have, like, an established community yet. You know, I don't have my, like, place I go, that's only mine and my friends that are only mine, but I, uh, I do feel like at home here now for the most part.
AS: You live in a house with, the other people are all white. Um,
AS: Who, who do you call when you need to talk about living in a house with all white people?
SI: Well my, so this is so funny that you're asking me that, because my friend Cara, who is black and married to a w, a white man texted me yesterday and was like, "Uh, can we jump on the phone to complain about these white people?" But her com, it wasn't truly a complaint. Um, she wanted to tell me how much her credit score had improved [laughs] since being with her husband. God, let me tell you, having, I mean, I dunno if it's her whiteness, but like having a wife who like has perfect credit and you know, has not had to, you know, has a loving family um that took care of her, it, like seeing the differences in how we are, based on those things, is like incredible! We went to lease a car, well we were going to get a different car, but we ended up getting a lease, and like watching how they just fling the doors open for this person with her immaculate credit is like, I, it's like, man, we don't even have a fucking chance! I mean it’s just like how, how do you compete, how do you compete with that? You don't even know what life on the other side is like until you get a front row seat.
Um, all of these bootstrap narratives that we get as marginalized poor people, it's like no one tells you that truly other people are starting on second base, if not third, if not already at home plate, until like you're an adult and you've already been like disenfranchised by how life is kicking your ass. Like I felt, for a long time, felt so bad that I didn't, that I couldn't like tough it out and get a degree, or I couldn't like hang in there and do this or that. And it's like, well no I couldn't do those things because uh, I started on a, you know, I started outside the stadium, let alone on any of the bases. So, there's like a limit on what you can do, and I'm realistic about what I'm capable of, and what's available to me, and I rarely give myself a hard time about accomplishments because of it.
AS: Hm. When you made the decision to get married to your wife, and you thought about what your life would be like together, what was exciting to you about how your life would change with her?
SI: Um, okay. Here, I'm going to say one terrible thing and, uh and then a good thing. [Laughs] So - I’m a shithead. I'm so sorry. Okay so the first thing, I was genuinely excited about the chance, like the opportunity to kind of leave my life, right? As much as I love my friends and love Chicago, um, it was getting harder and harder to say no to all the stuff people wanted me to do. Uh, and now being two states away, that's an automatic no. I can't do your show for free at 11pm on a Tuesday night because I live in Michigan, rather than, [laughing] rather, you know what I mean?
SI: And it like feels exciting to move and change your life, right? Um, and the exciting thing about being, uh, about like getting married to her is it is nice to have a cozy life with someone. This is gonna sound funny but I mean it, it, it is truly, I don't know that "exciting" is the right word, but it is very cool to be with someone who is, like, invested in all the, like, homesteading kind of stuff. You know, like canning her little tomatoes, and making her jams and her pickled vegetables. Like I'm not going to eat that shit, but it is very cool to, to see someone who knows how to do all of that stuff. It is like a thing I was like really, uh, really ready to get into, you know, like my years of eating Chinese food over the sink, I was ready to experience this kind of pioneer woman, uh, life. I'm sure she's upstairs now like, fuck you, I cook with those tomatoes all the time, stupid.
AS: Well I, you know what, hear-, like now thinking about her pushing the recycling bin outside the window, like which you described at the beginning of our conversation, like your whole, your, you know, from, from being a teenager up to when you were in your mid-thirties, like you were taking care of, taking care of things for other people.
AS: And so I love, like to think about that you get to live in a house right now where you don't have to push the recycling bin to the curb -
AS: is wonderful.
SI: It is, it’s ver, it's very cool. I do trade, I will say that the trade off is, you know, I made some book money and paid off her debt and like -
AS: You're like, I do do some stuff.
SI: But you know, I got a little royalties and was like let me, "Let me take care of that, the rest of that college loan that you mostly paid off," or even you know I buy her a lot of shirts and stuff. So that, that’s gotta count for something. [Laughing] This bitch is going to kill me in my sleep. [Laughing] When I, listen, if I end up murdered tonight, you know who did it.
That is Samantha Irby. Her new book is called
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
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And if you missed it: in our last episode, we answered some of your questions about student loans right now, in a special collaboration with NPR’s Life Kit podcast. Sam told me, when she thinks about it now, she feels just fine having left college without a degree, and without owing a lot of money.
SI: For me it was like, okay, I'm, I want to have like a door I can lock where only I live there. And like maybe I have cable, and like a decent TV, and I can like order a pizza occasionally. Like since that was what I wanted, or like what to me felt like happiness. I shouldn't say what I wanted, but what I felt like a life that I could have was, and it's a life I did have for a long time, I didn't need to get into thousands of dollars worth of debt for that.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.