A conversation with Jancee Dunn, author of July’s Life Lessons essay.

By Jancee Dunn
John Kernick

Real Simple’s Noelle Howey spoke with Jancee Dunn, author of the Life Lessons essay “You’ve Got to Read This” (July 2009), about her parents’ compulsive newspaper-clipping habit and whether she plans to keep up the family’s snip ’n’ send tradition.

Real Simple: How do you think your parents’ newspaper habit came about? Did they do that before they retired?
Jancee Dunn: My parents have always liked to clip newspapers. They’ve always been big on taping notable articles to the kitchen cabinets for display. Then when they retired, two things happened: They had more time on their hands to clip, and they began to get a little forgetful. They were haunted by the fact that they might not remember to pass on the advice they had read about the best way to organize your garage, so they started clipping and sending in earnest.

RS: How did your parents react to the essay?
JD: They do the same thing every time: roll their eyes and complain that I make fun of them. Then I’ll find out that they sent it around to all of their friends.

RS: Have you continued your own clip ’n’ send tradition?
JD: Well, you really do become your parents, don’t you? Yes, it started happening a few years ago. God help me, I sometimes write the same things on top, like ‘Who knew?’ My specialty is turning out to be strange phenomena, like an unidentifiable animal that looks like a sea monster that some fisherman found on the beach.

RS: You had some interesting thoughts on how your parents sought to protect you in certain ways through the clipping and sending of articles. Now that you’ve had a baby of your own, do you understand their motivation more or have a different perspective on it?
JD: I absolutely do. It’s amazing how the protective instinct kicks right in. With this new baby, I am already getting my comeuppance, because now I completely understand why my folks act the way they do. Not that I’m getting soft on my parents. If I do, my writing career is over!

RS: You have a varied career, ranging from celebrity interviews to these sorts of personal essays. Is your writing process different depending on what type of piece you’re writing?
JD: I find personal essays to be easiest―they just flow―and the most fun to write. That is when I’m at my absolute happiest and feel like I have the greatest job ever. When I do a reported piece, I’m very deliberate and always over-research, but I actually love that process, too. Not long ago, I did a piece on moss for the New York Times, and I spent a few weeks immersed in the world of moss. That may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but for me it’s the pinnacle of fun.

RS: What are you reading now?
JD: That new collection of Cheever stories [John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings], Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, and The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. Because I had a baby recently, I can only manage a few pages at a time, but I’m determined to keep my mind from deteriorating completely.

RS: Any future plans?
JD: I have to start thinking of a fourth book. Any ideas?

To buy Jancee Dunn’s new book, Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?, in which a version of this essay appears, click here.  

The Essay

When I got my mail this afternoon, I noticed my mother’s handwriting on one of the envelopes and knew, without opening it, what it would contain: a newspaper clipping. “What now?” I muttered to my two cats. I work at home alone, so I talk to them a little too often. My cats are my version of office workers―or, if you take a less charitable view, a nut-ball posse for a person who spends way too much time by herself.

I extracted a clipping entitled BEATING BACK NATURE’S FURRY INTRUDERS. It was a story about enormous rodents called nutrias, described as “giant ratlike swamp creatures” with “voracious appetites and explosive reproductive capabilities.” Nutrias were originally natives of South America, the article went on, and were imported to the United States in the 1930s for their fur. When they were eventually released into the wild, they started breeding furiously and invaded the area along the Gulf of Mexico.

“Who knew?” my mother had scrawled on the top of the paper. I wanted to write my own question: “Why are you sending me this?” I don’t live near the Gulf of Mexico. I live in New York City, where, as far as I know, there are no wetlands, and there are already giant rats. What had caused my mother to read an article on giant rodents and send it to me was a mystery.

But this has been a regular occurrence in my life ever since my parents retired. Over the years, the occasional bulletin about disease prevention has snowballed into a veritable deluge of clips. Sometimes the clips say simply, “Thinking of you.” Other times the message is “Who else but your caring mother would be interested enough in your digestive workings to take the time to send FIVE STEPS TO A HEALTHY COLON?” Or “I may be retired, but as your parent, I still have valuable wisdom to dispense, such as this article on litter-box microbes.”

This compulsion to clip ’n’ send is a well-known phenomenon among retirees with adult children. One friend of mine from California receives regular mailings from her father from the Los Angeles Times, a publication he knows she reads every day. “I think he believes I just skim it,” she says with a sigh. “He doesn’t want me to miss anything.”

The clippings I receive differ slightly, depending on the parent. My father’s fall under a few general categories:

  • If you don’t heed this article, prepare for a grisly mishap in your own home as you use your last breath to wheeze out your address to 911 before you collapse and die. This would include any and all inflammatory stories on the perils of walking down uncarpeted stairs in socks (“You don’t want a nasty fall!” he scribbled), as well as the importance of having one’s chimney cleaned annually to prevent the house from burning down to a few smoking cinders (I don’t have a fireplace) and keeping curtains away from electrical outlets, which can shoot out harmful sparks (I have blinds). Over the years, I’ve received warnings in the mail about “deadly household tragedies,” such as an unattended candle falling on a rug; someone carelessly ingesting cough medicine without checking the expiration date; the refrigerator door having a faulty seal, which can encourage hazardous bacteria growth; and cooking in loose clothing, which can easily burst into flame.
Some of these clippings are accompanied by a cheery note: “Remember that accidents can happen anytime, anywhere! XO, Dad.”
  • If you don’t buy this item from my favorite catalog, Improvements (with its not-at-all-hectoring slogan, “There’s always something around your house that could use Improvements”), well, then, best of luck to you. Best of luck. Products that are carefully marked with my father’s treasured highlighting pen might include fingerprint-activated door locks, mattress protectors that shield you from gangs of marauding dust mites, and something called a Blackout Home Safety Kit.
  • Finally, if you are buying any sort of appliance or considering any form of home upgrade whatsoever, woe be to you if you don’t consult Consumer Reports.
 My husband, Tom, and I recently decided that we were going to get a new refrigerator and, after a little research, settled on one brand, but I couldn’t commit until I had vetted our choice with my father. Imagine my alarm when I caught Tom cavalierly dialing up the appliance store one day to check prices.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said when he hung up the phone. “Do you want to break my father’s heart?”

He laughed and then mechanically dialed my folks’ number. “Hi, Jay,” he said woodenly. “How are you? Oh, the Giants are on? Who’s winning?”

“Ask him!” I mouthed, making my eyes bulge out in what I hoped was a menacing manner.

“Listen, we’re thinking of buying a new fridge, and we wanted to know if you had any thoughts.” Oh, yes, my father most definitely had some thoughts. “Mm-hmm,” said Tom. “Right. Uh-huh. Mm-hmm. Well, I was wondering if you might have any Consumer Reports lying around that feature the best refrigerators.”

Tom looked at me. “He’s going to get his files,” he whispered.

“Thank you,” I whispered back.

My mother, meanwhile, tends to send the following types of articles:
  • Funny!!!: This is a broad human-interest category, often culled from community newspapers. Animals behaving badly are always a hit, because my suburban folks see the natural world as something to subdue, and they love it when a rebellious creature gets its comeuppance. (Recent headlines: WOMAN GETS INTO TUSSLE WITH AN AGGRESSIVE DEER and RACCOON’S CRIME SPREE FINALLY COMES TO AN END.) But it can also include humans behaving badly, especially if an “area nude man” is discovered mowing his lawn or holding up a convenience store. (“Dummy!” my mother will scrawl gleefully.) If something unusual is being deep-fried at a state fair (Twinkies! Pickles! Oreos!), I will read about it. If a report surfaces about a hamster who saved a family trapped in an overturned car, into the envelope it goes.
  • Inspirational: Dying breeds are popular with my mother (NEWARK FAMILY DOCTOR STILL MAKES HOUSE CALLS). So are stories of an entire town rallying around some down-and-out person, or the tale of a wizened 95-year-old woman who still shows up early every day to work as a secretary in an elementary school and enjoys a daily double martini afterward (any obligatory quotes about meeting President Calvin Coolidge as a girl are a bonus).
  • Completely and utterly irrelevant to my life: CELEBRITY-INSPIRED DRINKS NOT ALWAYS TOASTWORTHY. I don’t go to bars. That’s because I don’t drink. So I wouldn’t order a cocktail, whether it’s celebrity inspired or not. RAW-FOOD DIET HAS PROS AND CONS. I’ve never been on a raw-food diet. That’s because I like my food cooked.
 For clip ’n’ send parents, clippings can conveniently substitute for discussions they would rather not have. A recently divorced friend of mine just received a torrent of articles from her mother on the exciting joys and impressive effectiveness of Internet dating. And my folks know they can push me only so far in their relentless quest for a grandchild, so a cautionary headline that childless women are more likely to get breast cancer furthers their cause nicely without bringing up the issue directly. As medical fearmongering is a consistent theme of these mailings, they can innocently claim that they just want me to live for a long time―is that such a crime?

One night my sister Dinah phoned me. “You know how Dad keeps trying to convince me to tell Patrick to get a gastric lap band?”

“Yes.” Her husband, Patrick, has been fighting his weight forever. Making matters worse: He’s a chef. With diabetes.

“Ever since Dad saw a segment on 60 Minutes about how it can stop diabetes, he’s been obsessed. But he never tells Patrick―he tells me. And I keep fending him off by saying that Patrick is trying to lose weight on his own. But Dad couldn’t wait, because a clipping just arrived for Patrick about laparoscopic surgery.

“Dad meant well,” she sighed. “But I prefer the articles about Roth IRAs or that one about the pig that likes to go surfing.”

I can’t bring myself to toss out some of these little pieces of paper, so I often save them until they’re yellow. They’re stuffed in a drawer in my bedside table, and one of them, a collection of lucky numbers that my mother sent me to play lotto with, falls out of my wallet every time I pull out some cash. I suppose these clips are a way of maintaining a bond with a nonstop flow of the comfortingly mundane. Most are about everyday matters, the sorts of ordinary things that I would discuss a lot more if I lived closer, rather than one state away, and could just drop by for a visit. It’s a way for us to pretend we live in the same neighborhood―which, by the way, my father would love. Many times when I visit them, he takes me for a morning spin around their New Jersey town to point out the houses for sale that I might like. (Then I return home to find clippings from the real estate section of his paper, with wheedling notes in the margins saying things like “Check out this state-of-the-art kitchen! Open house this Sunday if you want to see it in person. I’ll pick you up at the train station!”)

After an article has been mailed by either parent, I often get a phone call to ascertain that it was received. The other day, when my father phoned to inquire if I had any thoughts about the article he had sent on early-retirement planning, I asked him why he sent so many clippings.

 “Generally, I find information in an area you don’t read about,” he said. “No matter how old or mature my daughters are, I think you might have missed something. And obviously I’m worried about you, about your safety. At your age, you think you’re immortal, and thank goodness. At my age, you’re trying not to slip and break a hip. So I try to ward off bad things from happening, both to me and to you girls. I try to prevent things two moves out, as chess players say.

“Like the crank radio that I keep telling you girls to buy,” he continued. Oh, no. Here we go. “I bought one, as you know, and I really think everyone should have one.”

Here comes the phrase “substantial power outage.” Predicting the next phrases he will use has long served as a helpful mental game for staying awake when he goes on one of his jags. “If there’s a substantial power outage or a national emergency, then most radio stations will be operated on generators, so the only way you’ll hear them will be with a crank radio. How are you supposed to get your information otherwise? You’re completely cut off.”

“You’re right, Dad.” As I hung up, I felt a little sheepish. As much as my sisters and I make fun of him and Mom for their eye roll–inducing clippings, it’s clear that they are genuinely plagued by the thought that one of us might be trapped somewhere, surrounded by rubble. If they couldn’t live near us to race to the rescue, maybe this was the best backup plan they could manage.

God help me, I’ve begun to clip, too. Last year I read an article on home owners who install a second laundry room in their McMansions in order to save themselves the bother of walking up or down the stairs to wash their clothes. Ugh, I thought, reaching for the scissors.

“Do you believe this?” I wrote on the top. Then I stuck it in an envelope, which I addressed to my parents. “Just this once,” I said to the cats.