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'Bring Your Baggage And Don't Pack Light' Collects Hilarious Essays On Midlife

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Helen Ellis has written a book of laugh-out-loud essays about hot flashes, neck threading, downsizing, wrinkle pumping, stomach bile injections willingly absorbed, disfiguring surgeries, however lifesaving, and high-stakes poker, which, by the way, she happens to play. Her book, "Bring Your Baggage And Don't Pack Light" - Helen Ellis, author of the bestselling "Southern Lady Code: An American Housewife" joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HELEN ELLIS: I am so happy to be with you.

SIMON: I want to get right into the spirit of these essays. Could you please tell us about the trip you took with some of your friends, the farewell nipple trip?

ELLIS: The farewell nipple trip - that's what I called it because you have to have a little bit of a sense of humor when you're facing a mastectomy. My girlfriends from childhood all met up for a reunion at Panama City Beach. My friend Vicki came with a bad mammogram result.

We then had two other trips. One was before the results. The second was before her mastectomy. And the third was when she had been cleared of cancer. And the piece is about childhood friends rallying around one of ours when facing the toughest of toughs.

SIMON: Yeah. I'm struck by the way - as you mentioned, you (laughter) all seem to still treat each other as the adolescents you were.

ELLIS: Yes. That's the great thing about being with childhood friends. You know, we see each other like we did when we were young. And we're as forgiving as we were when we were young. And we laugh at the wrong things. And (laughter) we do the fun things that we did before the internet, before boys, which means going to water parks, going to see a psychic and just sitting around all night long telling stories. And the stories have changed in the last 50 years. But we are always on each other's side. You know, we're always the main characters.

SIMON: Yeah. To be sure, the theme - and it's elegantly stated in so many of these essays - is growing up and even a little more than just growing up. Let me put it that way...

ELLIS: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...All of which is a prelude to the phrase getting quoted so much from your book. (Sighing). "Are You There, Menopause?"

ELLIS: (Laughter). I just want to hear you say the whole thing. (Laughter).

SIMON: All right. Only if you follow...

ELLIS: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Me, OK?

ELLIS: Of course. I will.

SIMON: "Are You There, Menopause? It's Me, Helen."

ELLIS: Yes. I grew up in the '70s and '80s with Judy Blume's "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret." And so did my girlfriends. And that book was banned where I grew up. And Mama brought it to me from I don't know where, wrapped in a brown paper bag like a bottle of liquor. That book was a friend to me waiting for womanhood to come. It was sort of part user's manual, part coming of age.

Now all of my friends are 50 years old. And we're all waiting for menopause. We're in perimenopause. And I kept asking, you know, are you there? Is that happening? And so I wrote that piece as sort of an ode to Judy Blume's waiting for menstruation, but we're all waiting for menopause. (Laughter).

SIMON: I just don't know what I can say that - and I should probably say nothing.

ELLIS: (Laughter).

SIMON: I got to ask you about poker.

ELLIS: Yes, yes.

SIMON: You are such a serious poker player. You ride - you - from where you now live in New York City, you ride the bus for two hours to Atlantic City to play poker.

ELLIS: I get on that Greyhound several times a year. I miss that Greyhound. And I don't know if you realized - you know, you interviewed Colson Whitehead for "The Noble Hustle."

SIMON: Yes. Another great poker player, yes.

ELLIS: And did you know that I was his coach?

SIMON: No. I did not know that.

ELLIS: Yes. That was me.

SIMON: You're kidding me.

ELLIS: No.

SIMON: So you are one of America's great essayists and the poker coach of one of America's great novelists.

ELLIS: When he wrote that book...

SIMON: Yeah.

ELLIS: ...I wasn't writing at all. I had had so much failure - novels in drawers, novels not published. And I was identifying as a housewife and really throwing myself into a fun midlife crisis playing poker. And he took me on as his coach. I do thank him in the acknowledgments of "American Housewife," saying, thank you for reminding me that I'm brave because as I was coaching him, and we've been out to the World Series, I realized if I...

SIMON: The World Series of Poker, we have to explain - yeah, yeah.

ELLIS: Is there any other? But I realized, you know, going out and walking into a room of 8,000 mostly men and thinking that I could outlast everyone was very brave. So if I was brave enough to do that, I was brave enough to try writing again. I could write a little story. And I did.

SIMON: There are some good things about growing older, too, aren't there?

ELLIS: There are. I think of bravery. That's what I discovered when I'm with my - I don't like to say old friends. I like to say...

SIMON: Yeah.

ELLIS: ...Dear friends.

SIMON: Long-lasting, enduring.

ELLIS: Long-lasting friends - because when you're an 11- or a 12-year-old girl, I don't think much scares you. And then...

SIMON: Yeah.

ELLIS: ...As you grow older, you're told no, you trip up and you get shy. But when you're with a group of girlfriends who have known you since you were a brace-faced child, you sort of feel that spirit. So I think you get a little braver because you know what it is to fail. And you know that even if you fail, you can try again. You know, I think about the 15 years between my first novel and "American Housewife." There was so much failure. You're just not scared of it anymore.

SIMON: Helen Ellis - her book, "Bring Your Baggage And Don't Pack Light" - thank you so much for being with us.

ELLIS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.