“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

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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.