“welcome to the goddamn ice cube” by blair braverman

Tuesday I woke up exhausted and voiceless; I wrote a quick lesson plan for the substitute, texted my principal, and then went back to sleep until noon. I woke up feeling marginally better (the internet tells me it’s likely laryngitis; i.e., I’ll sound like a smoker for a week) and ready to read something. Twitter came to the rescue and told me that Blair Braverman’s “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” was on sale (still is!) so I downloaded it and dove in.

I started following Blair on Twitter maybe five months ago, when I stumbled on her footage of the minis and the maxis meeting for the first time.

I’ve been a devoted member of #uglydogs ever since, laughing at the antics of Blair and Quince’s sled dog team, crying at probably most of the threads, too. In fact, R has told me I’m not allowed to read Blair’s threads unless I’m home with my own dog, because inevitably I turn to her with teary eyes and go “I love dogs and I just love Rilke so much and I want to kiss her big perfect face.”

Rilke is fond of facekisses

One of the things I love most about Blair’s Twitter threads is the way she sees all the living creatures around her with such love. It is not an impractical or blind love; but you can tell she’s someone who is investing in seeing the world as it is. And seeing is an act of love.

So I was excited on Tuesday to curl up with this big baby and Blair’s memoir.

The story begins with an encounter between Blair and a dying man on a beach in front of a bonfire. The man asserts, over and over, that “he could have fucked her” if not for his illness. Stoic, Blair remains silent. It is the first hint: this is not a story about ice axes and daring rescues on a mountainside. It is about a different, particularly female, kind of survival.

Over the course of the narrative, Blair travels back and forth to Norway, where the bulk of the story takes place: with her parents as a 10 year-old, on an exchange program in high school, at a folk school the year after high school, in her mid-twenties as a traveler and then a part of a community. She also spent two summers in Alaska.

The examination of “What does it mean to be in the world, in the body of a woman?” runs throughout the story. Blair writes the reader into the complexity of questioning, “Is he good or bad? If he’s good, why doesn’t this feel good?” It feels very deeply female, this questioning. It feels true and sad and naming it also feels necessary. When she writes about her host-father in Norway during high school she describes, “I doubted myself so violently that I split into two: the part that was afraid, and the part that blamed myself for my fear.”

That moment reminded me of parts of “Educated” by Tara Westover — a desire to reconcile the halves, to square the inner truth with what the world (or the men in our lives) said was true. 

Along with a story about female survival, though, the book is a story of community. Blair’s friendship with a general-store owner in northern Norway is the spine of the narrative. Arild and his store become the heart of Blair’s growth towards herself. In Norway, she helps him feed lambs, visit far-flung customers, and open a local museum. She builds a place for herself at the coffee table with the other regulars. 

One of the strengths of the storytelling is Blair’s ability to hold both the moment and the reflection in a balance such that the reader is within the narrative and they know where they are in a larger context. Near the end, Arild, who has been nothing but kindness and platonic support for Blair, makes an off-color sexual remark. Shaken in the moment, a few paragraphs later Blair is able to use that moment to help us (and herself) understand both Arild and Norway more deeply.

Dog sledding (mushing) is a part of the story — Blair sleds throughout Norway during her folk school year, and by the end of the book, I feel like I’ve made it (almost) to where I picked up her story on Twitter — happily training a team of joyful dogs alongside her husband, Quince (who, it turns out, is allergic to dogs but supports Blair’s dream because LOVE).

Blair and Quince’s relationship felt like such a gift, too. Honest and based on so much healthy communication. But I’m blabbering a bit, I think.

TL;DR: “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” is a beautifully written, reflective, and complex story about what it means to be human. I stayed up late to finish it and you should read it!

“This Will Only Hurt a Little” by Busy Phillips

I stayed up reading “This Will Only Hurt a Little” well past my bedtime, and then sneaked the last 15% of the book while my students were working on their history project in groups, racing through paragraphs that sucked me out of my classroom and into a more glamorous and adult world.

I started following Busy Phillips shortly after she started doing her Instagram stories. She is truly charming; as a viewer, I felt invited into her world. She shares the kind of details that make someone feel like they really know her (her penchant for margaritas and cinnamon gummy bears, her way of starting every story with “Guys!”, what she looks like when she’s working out or crying, her various rash/ache/bump questions — the kind we all get and then ask our friends “Has this ever happened to you? What IS it?”). She brings the same warm, best-friends-on-the-phone-watching-the-same-movie-from-our-own-apartments tone to her memoir.

The book tells the general story of her life — from toddling around the block alone for the first time to her current career stage (about to be a talk-show host, mostly retired from acting in movies/TV). It contains its fair share of celebrity gossip (who is an asshole, who drinks too much, etc), but Busy is also concerned with figuring out who exactly she is. She begins the book with an anecdote about an ex-boyfriend who told her she was “too much”. It’s a comment a lot of women get when they refuse (consciously or not) to cut themselves down to fit into the roles that are comfortable for the men in their life. So there is that theme through out. Busy wrestles with what it means to have healthy relationships with men, what it means to be a good mother, what it means to be a woman in an image-obsessed industry (and world, really).

The whole book sounds like Busy (at least, as far as I can tell from her Instagram stories). It’s casual, chatty, and anecdotal. And by anecdotal — I mean, she is more concerned with the events of a story than she is with setting, with connecting to larger meaning or context. Which is not to say that the book is not reflective; she has chosen a mostly coherent set of stories that trace the general trajectory of her life. I think what I mean is — at the end of the book, I was left wanting to know, “So what?”

And I’m trying to figure out why — because I read it in less than 24 hours and enjoyed the whole thing. The first section of the book covers her childhood and start of her time in LA, when she took her “Twelve thousand dollar pottery class” at LMU. To me, this was the most compelling section of the book. It’s difficult material; a 17 year-old boy raped Busy when she was 14. A boyfriend’s mother tells her she is going to hell for getting an abortion. She fights with her sister. Her world turns on the romantic affections of boys and partying with her friends. It’s a familiar story (and I don’t mean that dismissively); parts of it mirror my own high school experiences.

When her career “launches” with Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek, the narrative (for me) began to fall apart. While engagingly written, it began to feel like a recitation of famous names in different locations.

But maybe this is the point of celebrity memoirs? To give us plebeians a glimpse into the lives of the famous and (often) rich. But I think I want more from the memoirs I read: I want well-described settings that become characters in their own right; I want contextualization (in society or history or even within the narrative) that tells me this means something — about family, friendship, ambition, love, anxiety, motherhood, money, success, faith — whatever it is. My students are about to write their own memoir pieces; one of them asked me what the point was. I gave a little speech about the power of shaping our own narratives, but then I told them what I personally read for: “I want my understanding of what it means to be human to be expanded by your story. What will I learn about being human by knowing about your relationship to your grandfather? By reading how you overcame difficulty? Your perspective is unique and necessary.” Phillips is smart enough to deliver a story that expands our understanding of what it means to be human, but that is not in this book.                

cinnamon-pecan oatmeal cookies

It’s be a Week, although I feel like I’ve been saying that all spring, and besides it’s only Wednesday. Rilke cut her foot last night and we spent several hours (and many dollars) at the emergency vet. Today, I accidentally let my second block out 10 minutes early (a serious no-no for 9th graders).

But. I have been working on a draft of an oatmeal cookie recipe that I’m pretty happy with. I made cherry-pecan oatmeal cookies last week, but was disappointed with them. They tasted too chewy — like the oatmeal wasn’t thoroughly cooked, and the butter flavor didn’t shine through.

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So I tinkered with a recipe that included ground oats as well as regular, upped the brown sugar, and came out with a pretty crisp, chewy cookie. But they were too thin, and even though I stored them overnight in a sealed plastic bag, they went stale quickly!

The tinkering continued. I replaced half the butter with shortening, reduced the brown sugar, lowered the oven temperature, and added some corn starch. The result? Tender, chewy cinnamon oatmeal cookies studded with pecans. I still want to try for a thicker version, but everyone seems pretty happy with these.

3 oz each butter and shortening, melted together

7 oz brown sugar

2 oz white sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 egg + yolk

6 oz oats (3 oz ground)

4 oz flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp corn starch

1 cup chopped pecans

brownsugarcookieeggsbutter

Beat melted fats and sugar for 3-4 minutes, scraping down the bowl. Add egg + yolk and beat until ribbony. Add vanilla and beat until incorporated.

Fold in flour, oats, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and corn starch, then mix in chopped pecans.

Chill the dough at least 3 hours. 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 325°.

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Bake for 12 minutes at 325° and then let cool for 10 minutes on the tray. Cookies will look puffed and undercooked, but will collapse into a chewy, delicious, and solid cookie.

Rilke will have to be in her stitches for two weeks and I know already she’s going to be a nightmare of pent up energy by the end of it. But I’m grateful that it happened now, while there’s still time for it to heal before she goes to training. And grateful for my calm, wonderful vet, and grateful that I have the resources to take care of her.

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Currently Reading: Possession by AS Byatt

 

currently reading: Educated by Tara Westover

I finished reading Educated over the weekend (a three-day reading binge that seriously slowed down my grading). I had read the excerpt published in Time and it ticked a few “I would really like that” boxes. A lot of the headlines about the book bill it as her “escape from a Mormon family;” I think a more true log-line would describe it as a difficult journey from a rural, survivalist family to a sense of self in the wider world.

It’s extraordinary — on multiple levels. The writing is clear and thoughtful; she balances action and reflection in a way that brings the reader with her in her emotional and educational transformation. There’s a thing that sometimes happens in memoirs — where there is a chasm between the reader and the speaker, a kind of interiority that does not translate. Educated bridges this chasm. Westover doesn’t overwhelm us with characters or metaphors or extended reflective monologues. She tells us a series of events from her childhood, braided with her growing awareness of self and world. Her stories are detailed, rich in setting and dialogue. (She says in this interview that this learned about narrative craft from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; I can see how she mirrors the arc of a short story in each chapter.)

So the writing is good. But more than the writing, I was impressed with Westover’s refusal to allow any of her characters (i.e., family members) to be either black or white. Love exists alongside violence and neglect; belief follows sentences of profound doubt. Betrayal is recounted without blame or resentment. Religion is not demonized. It’s not comforting or easy, as several of the “fundamentalist-family-abuse-trap” stories I’ve read have been. Westover holds us in the ambiguity of being human in a difficult world. At its core, it is asking questions about how we define ourselves, about how we heal ourselves, about what we owe to our families.

And Educated is also one of the first memoirs I’ve read without a false sense of ending. There was no neat tying up, and yet at the end, the story felt finished.

All this to say — it’s a book well-worth picking up.