In This Episode
On her podcast, “Death, Sex and Money,” Anna Sales has delved into topics most people avoid, but what she learned has to do with the questions you ask and not the answers you want. We also discuss her book, “Let’s Talk About Hard Things.” ALSO: Musician Moby introduces his #adorables nominee, Candace Bergen Bagel.
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox, and welcome to With Friends Like These. There are no topics more interesting than death, sex and money, and there are no topics more radioactive in actual conversation. That’s why Anna Sales created a podcast that always goes there. It’s called appropriately Death, Sex & Money. And it’s all about hard conversations. And if you’re listening to this podcast, you really should listen to that podcast. Her book: Let’s Talk About Hard Things adds family and identity to the mix. The book is part memoir, part instruction manual and part a meditation on the questions that these topics bring up. One constant, and we’ll be talking a lot about this, is making the decision to focus on the relationships you have over being right or wrong. You’d be surprised how many hard conversations get resolved by asking: what do you need from me? Anna Sales, host of Death, Sex & Money, coming right up.
Ana Marie Cox: Anna, welcome to the show.
Anna Sales: Thank you.
Ana Marie Cox: So . . . you have a podcast, Death, Sex & Money. You’ve written a book sort of exploring those topics and a couple of others. But I actually, my, the very first thing I wanted to ask you is: which of those topics is hardest for you?
Anna Sales: Right now it is money and it’s been money most of my life. But I wanna put a little asterix that I’m sure it will change, depending on what happens in my life. Yeah, money for me is a, money for me and a lot of people I noticed, it’s hard because you, figuring out even the vocabulary to use is hard because I don’t, there’s not a very robust public vocabulary for everything from making decisions about what to do in a money kind of dilemma, question: how do I spend this money, what should I do, what do I do if I don’t have enough? And then also I have not historically, and I’m trying to become more aware, like really had a language for explaining all of the really intense feelings I have about money and stability and survival. And basically for me all of my life, if I’m going to be anxious, usually it stops first at money, because that’s the place I go.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s funny, I had so much trouble reading the money chapter. [laughs]. It was the hardest one for me, and I want to talk about it more, but we probably should talk about your book, make sure we talk about the book. So Let’s Talk About Hard Things: it’s kind of, it’s not, it’s not the podcast. It’s more than the podcast.
Anna Sales: Yes. Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: Tell us what it’s not? Because you have some really specific things that it’s not.
Anna Sales: Yeah. I mean, when I was figuring out, I was like, huh, I want to write a book about talking about hard things, but I don’t want to have any bullet points in it, which were like sort of like go to scripts which you find in a lot of really helpful books, whether they are in the business section or whether they’re in the self-help section or even sort of like, you know, the kind of gift cards, gift gift book section, where it’s like a little book and it has little scripts for how to write a sympathy card or something. I didn’t want it to be that. I also wanted to be clear that, like for me, when I talk about having a hard conversation, it’s a, it’s a relational experience. It is being respectful of the person you are speaking with and doing your best to honor their dignity. So I say in the intro, it’s also not a, it’s not like a manifesto for radical honesty. I’m not for like everybody just saying the thing that’s been unsaid without regard to the harm that that may cause. This is a book more about really like there’s a set of challenging hard things in our lives that all of us will run into in one way or the other, where we can feel stuck, ashamed, isolated, stigmatized when we run into them. And it’s sort of a call to say, instead of waiting until you can talk about it in the past tense and a presentation of what you have figured out on your own, that when you choose instead to sort of go to someone in your life and say: I need to tell you something that’s going on with me that I’m not sure you understand, or there’s something that I just, I’m curious, like I’m noticing this, like, can we talk about this, about you, like what’s going on? And then to see what happens. And because I argue like that actually is a very, it’s a generative process. You create more support and company and honesty and love, even, when you do that, then when you hold back.
Ana Marie Cox: Another way it’s not like the podcast is that you’ve added a couple of categories to, to the hard things that we talk about. The list should probably be longer than five even. There’s, there’s probably an exhaustive list somewhere, but we’ll keep it to the five that you explored. You added family and identity. And when did you realize that those were going to have to be categories that you included?
Anna Sales: I actually started with a bigger list and then edited. You know.
Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] What did we miss? I’m curious, what did we miss?
Anna Sales: Yeah, well, I had like a whole work chapter. I had a friendship chapter. I had mental illness, addiction. I had just kind of like big categories. And then I was like, well, maybe we can pare back. And in thinking about maybe we can, maybe I ought to, maybe I ought to pare back and death, sex and money, they are big things that all of us, all of us run into in a variety of ways. I think family and identity really also have that sort of like universal, that very specific and particular way of confounding us. And I wanted to give a special look to both of those. Family because I feel like it’s, it’s interesting to me that it’s a, it is a hard thing, the relationships in our family, like even if you have the most functional, healthy, communicative family, those relationships will change just with the passage of time. And that can cause things that you need to talk about. And it’s a setting in which you have those conversations. So it’s not just talking about family, it’s talking within families. And then I wanted to add identity because mostly I was just like, if I’m, if I’m writing, if I’m, if I’m really offering this book up to the world as something that’s acknowledging what’s hard and can cause people to feel paralyzed around, it would be a huge dodge if I left out identity because I find as a white woman like that is where [choke sound] I have that feeling the quickest is like [choke sound] am I out, like out of my depth? How do I, what are the words? How do I do? You know? So I wanted to have a special look at that as well. And I found interestingly, you know, we just talked about money, like as I was working on the money chapter and the identity chapter, there’s a lot of similarities in those chapters because in both money and in identity, what can become so tricky is you’re talking around, you’re going to run into difference. You’re going to run into ways that you can’t intuit the experience of someone else, and a conversation is not going to change those differences. Like, so the opportunity in the conversation is like, how do we acknowledge, like: oh, my grandma gave me a bunch of money and that’s why I have this house and I realized you’re saddled with student loans. And I probably like, as we, as we get older and you can see how my life looks different than your life and we don’t talk about money like that, that’s cause tension within us. That’s the example in money. And in identity, how you are oriented towards the question of like which spaces you feel belonging in and which you don’t really affect the way you move through the world and those are not differences you can sort of just with good intentions, come to understand one another completely.
Ana Marie Cox: As a recovering Marxist, like there’s a temptation [laughs] for me to just be like, well, the reason money is so hard to talk about is because it’s the biggest structure, like capitalism is the structure we all live in it. It causes all the other inequalities, [yells]. Anyway. I won’t go there.
Anna Sales: Well, I think the reason the money chapter was so hard, I was like, what am I even talking about? Like, am I going to write a critique of our entire economic system? Is that what I’m saying people need to talk about? Because like, kind of. But also you have to decide how to talk about whether you want to buy a rug with your partner. You know, there’s like so many things.
Ana Marie Cox: It is, so I mean, I still believe, like, it is this enormous structural system that creates a lot of, and exacerbates the other inequalities that we have to talk about, right? I also believe that money is a collective delusion [laughs] as is debt. These things do not exist in the real world. We have to create them and make them exist. They only exist because we agree upon them. And when I was struggling with the money chapter, I was like, is that it? Is that why I’m having so much trouble with this chapter, is because I think it’s an imaginary category. And then I realized, well all these other categories are kind of imaginary, too. [laughs]
Anna Sales: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s like something can be totally made up and also incredibly consequential and the effects on our lives. Like hello, racism. Like, made up system.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Anna Sales: Has real effects, you know?
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. And in fact like maybe there’s some ways that talking about money helps us talk about those other things too, right? Like especially if we really have to get into inequalities when it comes to money. If we start to try and do that around money, then maybe we get better at talking about identity, right? Because we become more comfortable talking about inequalities in general. And I was really fascinated about the ways that the categories you talked about talked to each other, and the pieces of advice—sorry, I shouldn’t say advice. [laughs]
Anna Sales: No, it’s advice. There are useful, I hope that there’s a lot of useful prompts in the book. Like was intentional.
Ana Marie Cox: Promps I think is actually better. Let’s say, prompts, because I don’t want to hang advice on you. Right? But you do have some useful prompts for, for all the categories. There are some questions that you offer, some statements that are ways into these conversations. And I started to think about what which of those you could use on which, you know, like could you pick up, cut and paste? And the one that I kept coming back to is like the ‘ur’ question is: what are you into?
Anna Sales: Oh, that’s good. Oh, my God.
Ana Marie Cox: So talk about that, and then maybe we can, maybe we could try to play a little game of, like, applying that to all the other categories.
Anna Sales: OK. I really love that. I mean, “what are you” is, the context in which it comes up is from its history of being of in gay cruising culture, you know? Kind of someone sidles up to you and says: what do you go into? And then there’s, you know, it’s kind of an opening to say, like, are we going to do this? You know? And it came up in the sex chapter I was interviewing a guy named Tom Mitchell, who’s a writer, and a porn performer, and a sex worker, who’s a gay man and he sort of brought up that question. I wanted to talk with him about, like, how do you talk about sex in all these various contexts, and what have you found comes up in each, like when you’re at a job and you’re performing for a client who’s paying for you, paying you like versus with your long-term partner who he’s not monogamous with. Like, how do you talk about what you’re going to do? And he just was like, he basically was like, look, all sex is a transaction. And that sounds really sort of curt and romantic, but like, think about every sexual interaction—sometimes I’m getting pleasure out of it, sometimes I’m getting pleasure and money out of it, sometimes I’m getting a sense of safety and security when I’m with my boyfriend. And that the person you’re having sex with may be getting the same thing, but might not be, but if you’re agreeing to what the terms are and it’s consensual, that’s OK. And so I really liked like: oh, like, what are you into. Like, what are you up for? Like, it’s just such a nice question about like, what’s your pleasure? You know, that like it feels really open and non judge-y and also curious about your partner. And also within that question is the idea that you might hear an answer back that is different than what you want, which is what I talk about. The stakes in a sex conversation are there because in any conversation about romantic entanglement where physical intimacy, there is that risk of like, am I going to get rejected or have to reject? Like you’re, you’re trying to work out are we in agreement here to do this? So I feel like that “what are you into” is just such a great opening into all of those things.
Ana Marie Cox: And in that chapter, I think it’s you explore a little bit that that question does open up a lot of other things. Right? Like if you can, if you think of it as “what are you into” it is such an open invitation. That’s is what I love about it. Right? And that it’s also about consent, you know, and about expectations and it’s not assuming a set of expectations at all, right? So I think in some ways, like you could go into a relationship, even if it’s not about sex, right, and ask like: so what are you? Which you may change the words.
Anna Sales: Yeah, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Maybe if you’re just starting a relationship, it’s more like, so what do you want from this relationship, right?
Anna Sales: Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: Like and the, that way of opening up a conversation, that open-endedness to me is one of the themes that’s in the book, right? Like that’s why I think “what are you into” is sort of a joke as maybe applied to money [laughs] but at the same time, it’s like one of the clearest messages I got from you was to go into these conversations as an invitation, and as a request for more information, right?
Anna Sales: I really love that. I mean, think about what you can learn, like, I mean, if I, you know, I write about how money in my marriage is something that we’re like, you know, we’re mulling over all the time because we have different kind of assumptions about what we want to do, you know, just like what we’re comfortable with in terms of spending, because I don’t like to spend money, which can be complicated when you have to spend money, and like, what are you into is such an interesting way of being like: oh, you like a nice car? Interesting. That’s different than me. I like shoveling money into savings accounts and still pretending like I’m not safe! You know? [laughs]
Ana Marie Cox: Right. I, it works. It totally works. Like what are you into when you, when it applies to money. Like, well I want to be rich, you know. That’s, that is what I want out of money, right?
Anna Sales: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Even the answer like I want to travel is different than I want to be rich right? Like, want to do with your money? What are you into with your money? Right?
Anna Sales: Mm hmm..
Ana Marie Cox: And I just the love that, as starting almost again, almost any conversation. Family, let’s think about it. I think you can still do it with family.
Anna Sales: OK. Give me an example. At the Thanksgiving table, who would you ask that question to.
Ana Marie Cox: Well, I think it can’t be “what are you into?” Although starting there, who knows? Right? Especially is like all our olders, our elders are now like boomers who supposedly, you know, went through a period of letting it all hang out. Kind of like hearing what Grandma thinks of sex might be kind of interesting.
Anna Sales: True. Yeah, it’s true.
Ana Marie Cox: But I think, there it has to be the translation has to be some kind of idea about expectations. Right? Like I’m trying to think the exact way you might phrase it. This is a fun puzzle. I think, what do you, what do you want?
Anna Sales: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: What do you want from me in this relationship?
Anna Sales: Mm hmm. And I like that that, you know, that’s one of the big things in the family chapter is like, I think where we get so hung up and hooked in family conversations is it can be so hard to just admit that you are, your relationship has changed, even though obviously children who were once children become grown adults and have to sort of figure out what is their relationship to their grown, to their aging parents. Like, obviously there’s change, but just saying it out loud can be a little bit like: oh am I signaling something about some problem? Or instead of just admitting that’s how family works, you know, that we are continually sort of renegotiating our relationships to one another and what we need from each other as we as time passes.
Ana Marie Cox: And I’m going to attempt to borrow from the sex chapter one more time with this.
Anna Sales: OK.
Ana Marie Cox: With the “what are you into?” Because I think within the context especially, I think you’re right and gay culture asking that question, from what I know, you don’t just ask it once.
Anna Sales: Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: You keep asking it of the same person because you understand tonight it might be one thing, tomorrow night, it might be another thing. Right? And in families, we also have to keep asking those questions. What do you, what do you need from me? You know, am I giving you what you need? Because those things change All the time, right?
Anna Sales: Yeah. What do you need from me and what do I need from you? Like, yeah, it’s interesting. So much of that goes unspoken. Like as someone who’s like become a parent in the context of my own family of origin, like what I expected each of my family members to do to help support me as I became a parent was like very emotional. I knew it, but I didn’t say it to anybody else. So then when they don’t meet your expectations, you’re like: hey, I I wanted you to love me in this way or show up for me in this way. And they’re like: oh, well, I was trying to do this other way of showing up for you or supporting you or giving you space. You know, that kind of thing. That’s interesting.
Ana Marie Cox: I also like the way that that way of thinking about a relationship or conversation just short handed as “what are you into” keeps us in the present. Because while it’s important to talk about the past and all of the cases, all of the categories that you’re talking about, it’s also too important to kind of have it be the past. You know? And that because you, so you can ask of someone “I needed you, what do you want from me? Well, what I need you from now is X, Y, Z. Right? And I also need you to, in this moment, acknowledge that what I needed from you I didn’t get.
Anna Sales: I like that. Yeah. I really like that because it allows you to when you’re thinking about what is the conversation, what is the intent of the conversation, it’s like, am I going to want to tangle with them, like re-litigate in a family context, for example, something that happened years ago, or am I going into it wanting them to know something that happened to me, or in some way, I experience something for them to understand, for us to have, because it affects our relationship now. That’s a very interesting, I like how you say that. I think of it that way, too. Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: Speaking of money, please consider frequenting our valuable sponsors.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m so curious about this translation, right, of the, of the podcast into a book, and I wondered as I was reading you have these two new categories. Did you learn more exploring those new categories? Did you did you feel like, or did you at least feel like you had the other ones? Like, you kind of knew what you wanted to say. And then with the others, you maybe didn’t know?
Anna Sales: Maybe I can see why, but no. Because I feel like when you’re an interviewer, and that’s the work you’re doing, you know, so much of my work on the show has been just trying to pull out people’s stories and narratives and internal monologues of how they’ve thought about moments in their life and things that have happened to them. And I never, I didn’t have to. Like I, and I like to sort of leave it there, like that’s the episode. I don’t do sort of like. And thus, did you hear what the lesson of this podcast episode was? You know. So because I never forced myself to say, like, oh Anna, what did you hear in that episode and why, why really did you think that was so interesting? And how does that build on this idea of, you know, this framework for how you think we ought to talk about money, for example? Like, I had never forced myself to do that work, and that was really hard. It was new thinking for me. It required new reading, a new sort of what do I believe and where is my line of, you know, we want to hear what everybody has to say and where’s my line of like: no, but principles require this kind of line. So it was all, it was new in that way. And I feel like family and identity have so much been a part of the interviews on death, sex and money, just not like named in the title of this show, but like they just come up. They’re just in part of the dialog about anything that comes up, really.
Ana Marie Cox: I think you touched on another question I have, which is: I wanted to know if you had any surprises as you were writing this book. Things you didn’t think would happen or things you didn’t think you’d learn.
Anna Sales: Yeah. I mean, I had a lot of surprises. I had never written a book before, and I was surprised how hard it was [laughs] and I was surprised how hard it was of just like because it was like, what do I what, what, what are you doing Anna. Like what is this work? You know, and to be, to have been making this show since 2014 and I feel like it has a pretty clear style and voice and implied mission statement and even sometimes explicit, like it was surprising to me that I still was like why, why should we have these kinds of conversations and what, what is the quality of the conversation that I’m arguing for. So that was surprising and useful. It was, I feel so much clearer about the intention behind my work because I just hadn’t stopped to write it down. And then I was surprised, I was also surprised, you know, this book is a combination of reported interviews with people who I found and picked because they had gone through interesting moments and then it’s also memoir parts. And that was surprising that—one cool thing about that whole process was like I made the choice that for people in my life who I wrote about, I was going to share the pages with them as I wrote it and let them know and interview them and those conversations about things that I thought were like fixed facts in my personal history and then you share pages with, you know, your sister or your ex-husband, and then you’re like, oh, that’s my version, you know? That was nice and surprising and clarifying. And just that reminder of like, oh, that’s, I’m moving through the world with my Anna Sale sort of view on things, and there’s certainly lots of other ways to have experienced things and thought about things.
Ana Marie Cox: The only category we haven’t touched on is death. So what was that like in terms of, I’m curious about how exploring that topic might have been different than other topics? Because there is these other things that we, that you talk about, there is a lot of structural inequality built in, right? But is a loss, a loss, a loss? You know?
Anna Sales: Yeah. I think yes, but I also no. I mean, I did, I found it the least, it’s I, it was just, it was, that chapter was the least hard to find the people and figure out the arguments that I wanted to make. Because once you say I’m writing a chapter about death and why we avoid conversations about death, it’s pretty clear why that is. And that’s because we don’t like to look directly at our own immortality, and talking about people you’ve lost, figuring out how to put words to that is painful. You’re describing pain and unfixable pain, a pain that you could get used to, but it’s not a fixable thing. So I think that, like, it’s a, it is an equalizer in the way that death, the fact of death and what it means, someone was here and now they’re gone, that happens no matter who you are. Of course, we die in different ways.
Ana Marie Cox: So I said something about how maybe the inequality isn’t built in to to death, but I now have to remind myself that one of the main characters or sources in that chapter is Alicia Garza, who’s one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. So there is definitely some structural inequality built in there about how death works for different people.
Anna Sales: Yeah, I mean, not just like, was this person murdered by, I wanted to include that for a lot of reasons. One was I wanted to know from Alicia Garza, like what is the language that she has chosen, like how did she come to the words that she uses to describe death in different contexts? And she talks about in a really beautiful way, she describes like the euphemisms that we use for death are not unlike the euphemisms that we use when we’re afraid to, like, say something is racist out loud, like we’re covering up. We’re papering over some very essential factors. I also wanted to know for her, when your work is pointing out how people die, unjust deaths, like how does she talk about that and how does she witness that? In her own life, you know, like does that mean that to look at the fact of how someone died, you must watch the video, you know, of a graphic death of someone at the hands of police, the state. Like is that, are you called to do that? And she has said she said, I don’t watch the videos anymore. I have to choose. I have to choose what I expose myself to. And she also told me, and this really beautiful story, not about an unjust death, but a sudden death when a friend of hers from college died in a car accident suddenly, and it wasn’t about her political work, it was more about how she works as a human that I just liked knowing and hearing. She was, she was a friend who she got the first call that this friend, Joy de la Cruz, who was a poet, died in a car accident. And then Alicia became the person who had to tell all the other people who knew her. And she opened up her home in Oakland and they had this gathering, memorial gathering with people who had known her. And then people just stayed for a week. And then it became this like annual thing that they gathered in recognition of their friend, but also in recognition of kind of the way that grief kind of sticks with, was something they shared. And she described how people fell in love and people, like relationships started because of those, those annual get-togethers. And I thought that was pretty beautiful.
Ana Marie Cox: As we’re talking about it, I’m thinking of the ways that death is like the other categories, and one of those things is that a loss is a loss is a loss. And what the problem is, is that we don’t always recognize all these losses as being the same amount of weight for people. We don’t always give credit for Black people dying at the hands of police. You know? Like there’s not always the same amount of grief that’s recognized by other people—not the people in that immediate family, right—but like some lives are worth more than others, basically. And we don’t always acknowledge that as a culture.
Anna Sales: Yeah. We don’t.
Ana Marie Cox: And the equipment to deal with death, the resources we have to deal with death is not distributed equally.
Anna Sales: Yeah or to evade death for as long as we can, if you want to talk about the health care system.
Ana Marie Cox: Right. And what COVID has done. You talk a little bit about COVID in that chapter and the unequal distribution of of the illness and the deaths. Um to switch tone entirely, now I have to apply the “what are you into” question.
Anna Sales: It’s actually good. Ok. I’ve got a good answer to this. I could do it.
Ana Marie Cox: All right. Death. Ok. What are you into? Death.
Anna Sales: Well, I think that this is actually really, it is a question, some variation that is not, that is useful and something I thought a lot about, because one of the peop—one of the stories I wanted to tell in the chapter was, you know, it can be so hard to figure out when someone is declining, either from illness or age, that when you’re in that space of do I, do I acknowledge that I see this and open up a conversation about it? Or is that will that be embarrassing to this person I love? And so you get it, can get into these places. You know, Katie Couric talked on Death, Sex & Money about like the final, you know, the last period with her first husband as he was dying of cancer and how she looks back and sees it as a period of a lot of dishonesty because she saw her role as being his cheerleader while he was going through cancer treatment. And if you are a cheerleader and trying to keep someone strong, you don’t acknowledge that they might not get better. And she didn’t have the opportunity before he died to acknowledge what was happening because of that. And I interviewed a really dear friend of mine who’s in her 80s who I had that kind of just like, it was like annoying to me and also cliché of just like that, that she was, like [gasp] anxious energy every time we would spend time together, I would go home and I would be like, oh, I can’t believe she’s in her mid-80s, how much time do I have with her? You know, and it, and it was all unspoken. And so I just called her up and said, like can we talk about what it’s like to be in your mid 80s and how you’re thinking about it? And she had been sick for a bit, thought she was going to die, had read a book that she told me about. Like, really I, and I think that I learned kind of the “what are you into” from her. Like she described in her own life, like, when she wanted to kind of show up for people who were aging, she described it as like, you know, you walk past him and you just offer your arm, they might not take it and if they don’t take it, you don’t force it, you know, but if they, they might just grab it if they want to just hold your arm while they’re walking, if they become a little frail. And you do it in a way that respects their dignity, you know, offer your arm, and we kind of wordlessly. And I like that, and I think you sort of, it’s a lot of reading cues, you know, it’s a lot of, I talked to a Dr. Fernando Maldonado, and he talked about trying to talk to all of his patients about end of life care, and he works for the community of patients where it’s not like, it’s just not an open conversation. But if they say anything about death, he sees the opening and he goes, well, let’s talk about that, you know? Just sort of waiting for those cues because it’s delicate. It’s not easy, but kind of that’s how I think of what are you into? Like, just listening. Somebody complains about their back pain, ask, what are you noticing, is it, you know, how is that affecting life for you? You know, that kind of thing?
Ana Marie Cox: Now, buying things will not solve your communications problems, but buying things can solve other problems and our sponsors are here to help.
Ana Marie Cox: It is the attitude of “what are you into” that I really love, of course, as applicable to all these other things. Not the exact phrase, although it so tempting.
Anna Sales: We will lead people really astray. [laughs] Cancer treatment, what are you into?
Ana Marie Cox: What are you into? What I, what I think, in that question, in the spirit of that question, besides curiosity and openness, is your centering the other person.
Anna Sales: Mm hmm.
Ana Marie Cox: You’re, you’re saying in one question, I want to do something for you. You know? And I think that’s where you get to in terms of talking about end of life with someone else who might be facing it. What can I do for you? You know, and being ready to take the answer, like: nothing. You know. And that’s OK. So one more question about death, which is did it, did doing the research on this chapter cause you to maybe make a will or plan your funeral, did you think about your own death more concretely?
Anna Sales: You know, I, this, it’s hard to separate the two because I was working on this book, while I was, I had one baby when I started and two babies when I finished, and so like becoming a parent has been the thing that’s like: oh, I got to, like, acknowledge that this is happening, could happen. So I did, in fact, get my will finally done while I was, while I was working on this book. I haven’t programed my funeral. That would that would be an interesting exercise, but I haven’t gotten that far. And I still, talking about identity, I still kind of with COVID, I’m someone who lives far away from where I grew up, and a place where I think of his home. I grew up in West Virginia. And so something that I like perennially return to as an adult is like, where would my body go if I drop dead today? You know, like, would it go back to the hometown funeral home? Probably not, because my family’s not there anymore. But where else would it go? You know, which is just an interesting thought exercise about where you feel rooted.
Ana Marie Cox: Speaking of thought exercises, we have to go one more round on “what are you into.” [laughs] Which is identity, and now I think I have an answer on this one.
Anna Sales: All right.
Ana Marie Cox: You want me to go?
Anna Sales: I’m curious. I’m curious.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s just, it’s the curiosity and the centering of the other person, basically.
Anna Sales: Yeah, yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s, that’s the what are you, the whatever version of “what are you into” that applies to identity is saying again, sort of what can I do for you, what do you need right now? What do you want from me? It’s the same kind of question that we adapted for the other categories. You know? What seems really, really important and I think this is a message that you send throughout the book, is that centering of the other person to start at least. Like it’s not like verboten to talk about yourself in these hard conversations, but I think opening them, you can’t be the, you can’t be like, hey: I want to talk about me. [laughs] Which, you know, in white people, in conversations about identity, that’s what we’re used to.
Anna Sales: Yeah, yeah. I mean, and also the thing that I like, something I wanted to sort of tease out in the identity chapter was, you know, what is identity even mean in the context, one of the contexts I write about it is it’s both a very personal self-expression of our own individual experience, family history, and in our bodies, how we move through the world. And then it is also these like really blunt categories that we get slotted into, no matter how we express, how we identify, you are identified. And the “what are you into” kind of gives, gives the opening for people to sort of navigate how they want to, how they describe themselves in that universe. You know? The chapter, the “what are you into” question that’s in the chapter is like tell me about your family? You know.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. Yeah.
Anna Sales: Because it allows someone, it’s not like where are you from? Which is saying, you know, for someone who hears it a lot, often embedded in that is like obviously you’re not from here. Where you from, you other person, you outsider. It’s not like—
Ana Marie Cox: What’s your stock? Could you—[laughs] do you want to tell me your breed line?
Anna Sales: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. But tell me about your family, it can, there’s a lot of ways in, and so you’re giving the other person the ability to choose.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, yes. Obviously I’m drawing, I’m drawing a difference there. [laughs] Tell me about your family is not what are you from?
Anna Sales: Yeah. Yeah. What are you? Yeah. I mean there’s so many wrong ways of, but acknowledges—
Ana Marie Cox: And it’s an invitation about how to, how to treat you.
Anna Sales: Yes. Exactly. And it—
Ana Marie Cox: What to call you, etc.
Anna Sales: What to call you, what the words you use are for your own identity. And also there’s a little space there to like, it acknowledges that parts of our identity are inherited from our family, and also there’s room to be like: oh, my family was X, but I tell you, I left behind and I moved here and this is how I’m different. You know what I mean? You can do, you can also say the ways you are not like your family, which is an important part of identity as well.
Ana Marie Cox: And I think I just want to restate that part about curiosity, and centering the other person when you start that conversation, is that the spirit of what are you into? Also, you are saying I’m at your service [laughs] in a way. Like not like in a, you know, a servile, like literally servile, but more like I want to, I want to do something for, like, what can I do? You know? It’s an act of humility. It’s saying, like, this isn’t about me. Which again, I think in those conversations about identity, we white ladies especially have a tendency to be like: I am so woke can you just look at my wokeness and I want you to see it and I want you to know it and I want you to give me my merit badge. And also let me tell you what I know about your experience. [laughs]
Anna Sales: Here’s what I know and also, oh, but what can I do? And that’s, that’s also not a great question.
Ana Marie Cox: Which is different than what are you into.
Anna Sales: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. What are you into is sort of saying it’s like, help me see you the way you want to be seen. And but in a way that’s like hopefully empowering and not putting labor on their shoulders, like it’s instead saying: tell me about this. You know?
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Anna Sales: I do think, I do think that there is, I mean a lot of the book is about listening and centering the other person. I do want to just wave a flag, though, that there are hard conversations sometimes where, like, that’s not the point. It’s there are there are hard conversations where you are, you know, disclosing to your families something that’s going to interrupt the family story or you are disclosing to a partner some history of trauma. Like that’s not that, there are conversations where the primary motivation is speaking up rather than listening first, but it’s kind of like, um, which side of the circle you’re starting on, you know, because I think then ideally you get back up to the top of the circle where you’re listening like: OK, I’ve told you this thing, like now how, how is that landing for you? And then you go into the listening mode. So you’re doing both.
Ana Marie Cox: I will say it’s my experience that even if a conversation is about my disclosing something, it goes a lot better if I can begin with asking the other person their permission.
Anna Sales: Yeah, absolutely.
Ana Marie Cox: Or their buy-in, asking what, and sort of what are you it in a way, right? Which is that I have to, I need to talk to you about this thing, are you in a place where you can do that right now? You know, can you listen? Can you, do you think you could hear me out on this right now? You know, if you start with the other person, I think you get so much farther.
Anna Sales: Yeah, because, and you’re also honoring the mode that you’re trying to get into with that person. You know, you, you I think that that’s something that like that’s my first go-to tip for any hard conversation is doing that exact thing you just described, which is to say, I’d like to talk about this now, is now a good time? Or is there another? Just signaling so the person, even if it makes them feel anxious to know that there’s something, there’s a hard conversation coming around the bend, you’ve at least said like, let’s, let’s go into a different mode together, and if now is not right, let’s come back to it, you know, when you fed the kids and bath time’s over and you can call me after bedtime, you know, that kind of thing. I think that’s exactly right. It’s very respectful.
Ana Marie Cox: And I speak about this particular tactic borrowed from recovery a fair amount on the show, but I’m going to lay it out again because I’m interested in what you have to say about it, which is that so when you’re doing amends, you disclose more than you ask. Actually, like what you’re doing is saying, this is how I harmed you, this is my understanding of how I harmed you. And at the end of it, you need to ask, did I miss anything? And I think that gets back to [laughs] and then we can share expressions.
Anna Sales: What a scary question.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh, it’s terrifying. Oh, because also you think you’ve done all the work. And then to hear—sometimes it’s good news, I will say. Like, I’ve had the experience of someone telling me, you know what, like this might have been a big deal for you [laughs] clearly, it was a big deal for you because you remember it better than me. Like [laughs] but you have to be, you have to be ready, right, to hear something maybe you don’t want to hear. Because as we were talking about when we were discussing family specifically, people change, their needs and wants change, their memories of what happened are different than yours.
Anna Sales: Yeah, I mean, I will say it, I love that you can bring the perspective of the recovery community because I, I’m not in recovery myself, but the people in my life who are, I like have harvested so much. I just I, I think that there’s so much in this book that I have learned from people who have had that framework, you know, whether it is even just like the little sentences. I love them. I love, my current favorite, I learned from Maria Bamford, which is “say what you mean, but don’t say it mean.” I love that one. Also love don’t shit all over yourself, which I learned from—so I think that it’s, it is such a, it’s, what I’m trying to say is there’s a lot in my book that others have explored and different, in different contexts that I feel like, yeah, and the recovery theme is a big one. Repeat, there’s been a lot of practicing and trying, how do we talk about hard things? Yeah.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m just going to go a little further down this road, which is that I think one of the ways that the ideas and attitudes of recovery inform the kinds of work that you want to do, or when you want to help people do, is that recovery is about right-sizing yourself, not too big, not too small. And that’s what these hard conversations also require.
Anna Sales: Exactly, that’s, and I have another sentence that [laughs] and Ana Marie Cox told me. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right, because it’s about right-size is exactly right. Because it’s not, people often ask me about like, oh, but what, can you be too empathetic, or can you be, can you listen to where you lose yourself? And it’s like, yes, you can. this is about that space between where am I doing what is required for me to respect myself, while also acknowledging that I need to be open to what someone else is trying to express to me, you know, so it’s that space in between,
Ana Marie Cox: It’s having the attitude that you deserve to hear “what are you into back.” That you deserve, just having the, just knowing that you deserve that question, not that that person ask it or whatever, but being able to go in the conversation—and wanting to be of service, that doesn’t change—but knowing that you are also worthy of someone wanting to know what you want.
Anna Sales: Yeah. Which means that you have to ask yourself.
Ana Marie Cox: That person may or may not ask.
Anna Sales: Yeah, I know. They might ask and you might forget to ask yourself.
Ana Marie Cox: Right.
Anna Sales: You know, I . . .
Ana Marie Cox: But that gets us to, that gets us to actually the thing I really wanted to hit on before we say goodbye, which is expectations from these conversations. Because going into these conversations, while they need to be full of curiosity and openness, I think at the same time there has to be an awareness of like I might, what am I, what do I want, what do I want out of this? Now, I don’t think it should be too concrete. But even knowing that you, but knowing what you want may help you when you don’t get it, because one of the, my favorite observations in the book is that all these conversations, every single one of them, none of them are about actually like getting to a place where everybody’s happy.
Anna Sales: Yeah, yeah. And it took me a while to learn that myself. Like I, I’ve always been a practitioner of trying to dig in, but I had this idea that if I did it, I was like doing what one ought to do to problem solve and fix problems. And it was yeah, it was the end of my first marriage where I was like, oh, wait, what if I do all the work and I still can’t get to an agreement or resolution? What then? And I think I didn’t, I hadn’t really like, it wasn’t until I was writing this book more than 10 years after the end of that marriage where I saw, like, oh, we didn’t not do something. We had a lot of hard conversations and they were sad and hard because we were uncovering that we, our marriage wasn’t going to last, you know, which was a hard thing to face. So your question was . . .
Ana Marie Cox: I think probably did a bad job of actually making it a question, that’s really my weakness as an interviewer. [laughs]
Anna Sales: No, I really like talking with you. It’s really interesting.
Ana Marie Cox: I think it has to do, it had to do with knowing what want.
Anna Sales: Not everyone’s going to end up happy. Yes.
Ana Marie Cox: And also, but, like, borrow one more thing is to enter into the conversations with an open hand rather than a closed hand. But there is like a, like here’s what I’m offering, and I kind of want something in exchange, but I’m not, I’m not grabbing for it. I’m not going to push you about it. It’s just . . . here.
Anna Sales: I like that, I mean, and I think that knowing, that question of like, why do I want to have this hard conversation?
Ana Marie Cox: By the way, that’s a much better way to phrase it than like what I want. Thank you. Yes. It’s, what I want, is because what I was thinking about do I want resolution? Do I want an apology? Do I want to dah dah dah—but “why do I want to have this conversation” is maybe an even better way to frame it.
Anna Sales: Yeah, because I think, you know, it starts, I think that often the types of conversations we’re talking about, they start with the feeling, like a gut like unsettledness, which is like ‘ugh’ and then you’ve got to go like, what is that feeling? And then, well, why do I want to have this conversation? Do I want to have this conversation because I’m feeling anxious about this change that I’m noticing and I want the person to tell me it’s not happening? Like that could be one of your objectives. And then sort of like, oh, let me think about that. Or it could be, you know, I’m noticing a sense of distance from this person who matters to me and even disagreement, to go back to the example of, you know, having political differences, real differences in political values with someone in your life, that thinking beforehand, you can, you can think like, do I want to talk to them about this because I want them to know that when they take that position, I feel like they are not thinking about what it’s like for me to move through the world and that hurts me? Or are you thinking, do you want to have a conversation where you want to acknowledge that you have those differences, but also establish, like still it’s important to me that we gather together on holidays because I want the kids, the cousins, to have a relationship? You know, that’s a very different conversation. And when you get, when you spend that time to think about why do I want to have this conversation, um, it will sort of kind of reinforce and embolden you with the spirit you want to bring to it. And then, as you say, like you can then at the end recognize like, oh, what I wanted when I started this hard conversation was to feel this, was to establish this between us and this person can’t do that with me. And that’s new information. It’s sad information, but it’s new information that I didn’t have before so it was a worthwhile conversation, even if it ends in disagreement or a lack of resolution.
Ana Marie Cox: What’s the last hard conversation you had?
Anna Sales: Let’s see. I’m having, like, variations on a theme of a hard conversation with my husband, and I think it’s like, it’s sort of what’s tricky about the conversation that we’re having is we’re both in our early 40s, I turned 40 and he’s 41 and so we’re both in this process of like encouraging the other to create more healthful boundaries around work and clarity around what we want to get from work, what we’re willing to give to work. But the reason it’s hard is because when we’re trying to be like, you should just, oh, go mountain biking, you should exercise. You know, we’re telling each other what we both know we need. So it’s like activating this, like defensive, like we’re basically, we’re just, it’s all projection because we’re both going through the same thing. So that I feel like that’s hard because we’re really trying to be helpful to the other while also trying to figure out how to be compassionate to each other and ourselves as we sort of figure out our, that’s our version of pandemic reimagining is like what is, what is our work identity and how does it fit with other parts of our identity? That’s like the ongoing hard conversation. Which came about, unsurprisingly, after I finished a book which took a lot of work. [laughs] So we’re just like, huh, that happened in our family. Do we want to do that again?
Ana Marie Cox: Thank you so much for talking to me. This has been, this has been great.
Anna Sales: Thank you very much, Ana. I’m really glad to be on your show. I love what you make.
Ana Marie Cox: And now we turn to Adorables. This week, we’ll be talking to the musician Moby, who does not currently have an animal companion, but has an incredibly robust relationship with a friend’s pup, a huge personality trapped in a tiny dog: Candice Bergen Bagel.
Ana Marie Cox: What is your adorable’s name, and how did you come across them?
Moby: Well. My adorables, I can’t lay claim to my adorable because my friend Lindsey is the true parent to the adorable that I want to talk about, which is Bagel but Lindsey and I work together and we’re very good friends so I see, I get to see Bagel be adorable five times a week. Bagel is short because Bagel’s full name is Candice Bergen Bagel, which I think is a fantastic name. And I can say that with some objectivity because my friend Lindsey decided that her name was Candice Bergen Bagel.
Ana Marie Cox: What does Bagel look like? Can you describe Bagel for us?
Moby: Every time I see Bagel, I’m stunned at how tiny she is. We think that she is a cross between the world’s smallest Chihuahua and the world’s smallest terrier. So she’s, she’s tiny. Every now and then I’ll see, like a normal-sized dog and be reminded like, oh, Bagel is very small, like if she weighs more than five pound, I’d be surprised.
Ana Marie Cox: And of course, we do believe here at with friends like these that all companion animals are emotional support animals. How has Bagel supported you?
Moby: Well, Bagel is just a phenomenal everything. Like, when I say that, what I mean is she is not just a phenomenal dog or a phenomenal animal, she’s just a phenomenal entity. And she, because she’s incredibly smart, like you can see, I mean, she’s so smart, but she’s also whatever she does, she does fully. You know, so when she is enthusiastic, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Like, she runs around like a lunatic just for the sheer joy of running around. She’s playing, she’s playing without any reservation. When she’s scared of something, she’s scared without reservation. When she’s thoughtful, thoughtful without hesitation. So it’s like, it’s so inspiring, like. And just like dogs, I mean, their capacity—and I feel like such a cliché saying this—but like their capacity for both giving and gendering true unconditional love.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. Just Babel have a voice that you could do for us?
Moby: Bagel has many voices. Her bark is tiny and generic, but I can do one of her, my favorite Bagel voices. Her favorite treat is broccoli stems, she loves chopped-up broccoli stems. Like, I don’t know who figured this out, but at some point maybe Lindsay or I handed her a chopped-up broccoli stem and she responded like she’d just been given the greatest gift of all times. She loves her chopped-up broccoli stems. So if you give her a little chopped-up broccoli stem, she makes this voice that’s like a proud growl.
Ana Marie Cox: OK, come on.
Moby: It’s kind of like [rolling r’s]. Like she’s like, super proud of her broccoli, but she’s also pretending to defend her broccoli.
Ana Marie Cox: And last question: if Bagel could support a cause or be a spokes-dog for a cause, what cause would it be?
Moby: If Bagel could be a spokesdog for a cause? Wow. I mean, there’s so many things I know that she’d be interested in. I think she’d be very politically active. I imagine the cause that would be closest to Bagel’s heart would be right now a little, perhaps statehood for D.C.?
Ana Marie Cox: [laughs]
Moby: Maybe there are other, maybe some broader causes, like fighting Republican efforts at state legislatures to restrict voting access, but I think, I really do think, like she believes in fairness and she’s just, we’ve had some conversations about that. She’s just horrified at the fact that the residents of D.C. do not have the basic rights afforded to all other American citizens.
Ana Marie Cox: Well, this was really so fun. I love meeting a fellow, specifically 12-step recovery nerd. Like, that’s like good stuff.
Ana Marie Cox: And that is it for the show. Thanks to Moby and to Bagel as well as Anna Sales. Her book, “Let’s Talk About Hard Things” is out now. This show is a production of Crooked Media. It is produced by Alison Herrera with Jordan Waller. This episode was engineered by Louie Leeno. Izzy Margulies is our booker. Whitney Pastorek is caring for Wally’s wounded paw. Things have slowed down around here for the summer and it’s a welcome break, though I found that having time to think is a kind of mixed blessing. It’s been helpful to remind myself of this: discomfort is what happens when you try to do something new. Discomfort means you’re in the middle of an opportunity to take a different route, whether that means taking a different action or maybe choosing not to take action. Don’t run from discomfort, respond to it. And remember, self care isn’t a treatment for discomfort, regular self care is what allows us to sit with discomfort when it comes. So please take care of yourselves.