Alicia Tobin is a comedian and podcaster based in Vancouver. In her first but decidedly polished essay collection, she writes about self-esteem, bad boyfriends, working in retail and as a comedian, the economic insanity of living in expensive cities, chronic illness, her troubled relationship with her mother, her troubled relationship with cookies, and the difficulty of freeing trapped pigeons, among other topics near and dear to her.
This is all pretty typical fare for humor essayists, so it’s really saying something that Tobin makes it so fresh and unique. She has a warmly sensitive voice and recognizes the right moment when a story is getting heavy and injects the sense of humor that has clearly saved her many a time. It doesn’t shy from confronting the toughness of those moments, but rather feels very much like life itself. When things feel their worst is often when some buoying element enters to keep you from crashing entirely.
The part of me that hurts the most is the part that doesn’t know I am any good. Or worth very much. That is the part that hurts the most when I hurt. The other part that hurts is my stomach because when I am upset, I eat so many cookies, you have no idea.
It’s soothing to read and I found her eerily relatable. It’s never whiny or self-pitying, and it had the potential to go there. She’s one of those types that says the things you don’t say out loud yourself, then are shocked and surprised and delighted when someone else articulates them just as you felt them.
One thing is for sure, if you know someone who calls squirrels rats with fancy tails, lose that person’s number. Quick. If they don’t see the beauty in everyday animals like the common squirrel, they shouldn’t be invited to parties, if people are still having parties these days. Are they? I haven’t been invited to one in years. Weird.
Her stories are gentle and thoughtful but experienced and wise, and this felt like a balm for a very bad day / life phase. It’s the cliched make you laugh, make you cry, make you want to have coffee with the author. And all of that in under 200 pages!
It is just a body, my body, doing its best, no better than any other, as genetics and environment roll through it. Just the one I have. The vessel, where I store my snacks and where my heart is. Even when my shoes seem so far away, or I magically put on 10 pounds in a week, I am fine.
I might have connected with this so much in part because I navel-gazingly felt like much of it could’ve been me. Sorry, I know this is your book and congratulations on that, but apparently you actually wrote it about me: “I felt directionless, and instead of enjoying the freedom I had from 19 to 24, I was a bag of nerves.”
See also: “But living isn’t just happiness, and if you count experience and heartache as measures of living, then technically speaking, I was living it up!”
And: “I survived the grief of my relationship ending by thinking of LIFE: WITH BRAD… I had done this before, and I think it isn’t uncommon to focus on something in the distance when your life is burning to the ground.” It’s…just too real.
That essay, about a long friendship turned toxic relationship and her deft analysis of what went wrong and what it all meant to her in understanding something about herself was a standout, along with those addressing her relationship with her mentally ill mother. This shaped her most bittersweet storytelling, as there’s so much she appreciates about her mother and what she gave her despite the (very) bad stuff.
Tobin has great skill in emphasizing how many life situations and relationships aren’t as black and white as we tend to want them to be, and the dynamic with her mom underscores that as she thanks her too: “For making me funny and kind, for teaching me to speak up against injustice, to — no matter how down I feel — get in the shower and put on some blush, no, wait, that is too much blush, that is clown blush.” See what I mean about that injection of humor right when it’s needed?
Or here, after she writes about dealing with chronic illness, one that’s (surprise surprise!) connected to this: “But then something lifted in the ruins, and I came out of it. Not like a phoenix from the flames. More like a hotdog that rolled out of the fire into some cool sand.”
I still struggle with long-ago seeds of unworthiness that rooted in my heart, twisted around my legs, and have taken me down again and again over these 43 years.
But I also think it’s not one that necessarily requires you to connect with the material personally to appreciate it. It gives insight into people like this — those who are just a little melancholy in general, sensitive but easily, unabashedly delighted at the twists life — or just a day — can take. And maybe, hopefully, it helps you understand something more about this type of person. I’m sure there’s someone like this — a sensitive but resilient, feel-it-all type in your life whose humor is a cushion against crushing sadness and despair.
There was so much wisdom here, all so brilliantly, hilariously told. It’s hard to believe but there wasn’t a single weak essay, which happens almost never in such a collection. She’s a voice we’re lucky to have, and I loved every page of this meaningful, uplifting tour through the highs and lows of her life.
So You’re a Little Sad, So What?:
Nice Things to Say to Yourself on Bad Days and Other Essays
by Alicia Tobin
published in the US April 7, 2020 by Arsenal Pulp Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.