Mary Laura Philpott Discusses Her New Memoir 'I Miss You When I Blink'
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a roadmap for a certain kind of memoir. A woman realizes her life isn't working, so she blows it up and hits the road. Mary Laura Philpott's new memoir does not follow that path.
MARY LAURA PHILPOTT: I have not bought a Corvette. I have not sold all my belongings and put on a backpack and traveled the world. I did not have 20 extremely smooth years of adulthood and then just blow it all up. I've had what I feel like are more like a series of small identity crises every few years where I have to recalibrate a little bit.
SHAPIRO: The book is called "I Miss You When I Blink," and it's about how to stay in your life, how to do the hard work that it takes to get to OK, even if your relentless perfectionism tends to get in the way. My co-host Audie Cornish spoke with Mary Laura Philpott earlier.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: So let's talk about some of the stories here because they are essays.
CORNISH: But they do build. There is a kind of arc.
CORNISH: And I want to talk about one called "The Perfect Murder Weapon," which is not a title I expected to read.
CORNISH: But this is about, I think, a humorous idea of the desire to plan in the perfect murder or, essentially, is it about that or about critiquing crimes that have already happened?
PHILPOTT: It's about the need to plan the perfect everything. It's about going through life as a perfectionist, self-aware enough to know that I'm a perfectionist but unable to resist the need to get every little thing right, including things that are none of my business. Like when I watch a crime show on television, staying awake all night and rethinking the crime and how I would have done it better and gotten away with it.
CORNISH: I want you to read a passage from this essay. It's on page 21.
CORNISH: And it begins, I'm making it sound like...
(Reading) I'm making it sound like being this way is fun, like it's a hilarious quirk. But to be clear, it's also miserable. I hate that I can't relax. I wish I didn't have a to-do list in my peripheral vision at all times. It's an exhausting way to live, but try as I might, I can't turn it off. My brain seeks tasks to check off, I's to dot and T's to cross, not to mention X's to slash, E's to loop and Z's to zag, the way a sort-of-but-not-really reformed smoker sucks in a deep lung full of nicotine when walking past a crowd of smokers outside a bar. Like any high-functioning addict, I've learned to sneak a hit wherever I can. When the pediatrician gives me my kids' growth charts, I look for the percentages first. When the water meter guy handed me a report with our latest meter reading, I scanned it for a score and asked, is this good? I can sustain a buzz for hours after anyone tells me that something I've done was the best, even if it's just a colleague at the bookstore where I work saying, hey, Mary Laura, you're the best at changing the toilet paper roll in the employee bathroom. Bam - better than a shot of tequila.
CORNISH: So this sounds exhausting.
CORNISH: How do you short-circuit these tendencies?
PHILPOTT: Oh, gosh. I don't know that I've ever really mastered short-circuiting these tendencies. I try to just...
CORNISH: Wait. Do you want to? I should ask that.
PHILPOTT: Well, so yes and no. I mean, I - one of the things that I work through in this book is coming to the understanding that perfectionism and a desire to do things right has led to some really great things in my life. It has also led to a lot of exhaustion and sometimes even depression.
So I feel like the best thing I can do is just be aware of it and maybe catch myself sometimes when I'm spending that effort on things that aren't worth spending it on.
CORNISH: I hope you don't mind me saying this, but there are some aspects of the book that feel like you're, like, the chipper PTA mom that usually in movies is a villain or a bad guy because they're, like, doing everything right.
PHILPOTT: Right. Right.
CORNISH: And then, like, the bad mom strolls in with Converse sneakers. And it's like, I don't care. Anyway, but you're the villain in that story (laughter).
PHILPOTT: I love it. I'd rather be the villain.
CORNISH: But were you nervous about, you know, the idea of, like, privilege - people reading this and being like, this woman is having a severe case of first-world problems.
PHILPOTT: Oh, absolutely, and not just in writing the book, in my life, when I would have thoughts about - I don't feel happy right now. I would then immediately feel guilt at not feeling happy. And I would look at my life and go, I have everything to be happy about. I have a roof over my head. I have enough money for groceries. Everyone in my immediate family is alive and well.
I don't deserve to get to think about problems. And not letting yourself think about a problem doesn't make the problem go away. It just buries it deeper so that it's more of an explosion when it comes to the surface.
CORNISH: A lot of this book also talks about how you maintain an identity or how one maintains an identity outside of being a partner, outside of getting a parent.
CORNISH: This is a question, obviously, that women have talked about for a very long time. Which brings me to chicken salad because...
CORNISH: There is - let's just call - I'll call it a chicken salad incident in an essay called "Sports Radio."
PHILPOTT: (Laughter) Yes.
CORNISH: Set up the story for us.
PHILPOTT: OK. So the essay is called "Sports Radio" because I begin by saying, one thing I have never understood is the fascination with sports. I just don't get it, and I feel left out. And then I sort of make the tie over to a memory that I have of a dinner party, and it was all women. And I was sitting at this dining room table. And somebody starts a conversation about what we were eating, which was chicken salad.
And the conversation went on and on. I swear it must have been 19 minutes, down to this minutia of, well, do you put grapes in it? And do you slice the grapes? And do you boil the chicken or do you bake it? And I sat there just seething, having the same feeling that I feel when I listen to sports radio.
Like, we're out for the night. Why aren't we talking about bigger, more interesting things? And I thought, why am I so angry? And if everyone else is excited about chicken salad and I'm not, then something must be wrong with me.
CORNISH: I'm going to put in a vote for you're normal and chicken salad's not that interesting.
PHILPOTT: Thank you. But one of the things I didn't want to feel, but I was feeling in that moment, was - are all of these women talking about chicken salad like it's the most important thing in the world because they've had kids and now they're obsessed with domestic things? And I didn't want to think that because I don't believe that. But I was - that thought was entering my mind, and it was really bothering me.
CORNISH: I don't know if you've had any friends read the book yet, but have you had someone say, yo, MLP, I don't care about chicken salad. I just was at the party talking like everyone else.
PHILPOTT: You know what?
CORNISH: Why didn't you say something?
PHILPOTT: You know what? I've had both. I've had friends reach out and say, thank you so much for writing that chicken salad story. I've been stuck in so many chicken salad conversations that I couldn't wait to get out of.
And then I also had a friend say, you know what, it sort of hurts my feelings that thing you wrote about the chicken salad because when I was in the chicken salad years, I was just trying to survive that phase of life. And I was interested in those things because that's what was right in front of me at that time.
CORNISH: You know, at the end of the day, so much of - so many of the essays kind of spoke to the idea of reinvention.
CORNISH: Not just the idea of saying, I think something needs to change, but then, like, the really hard work of making yourself do that.
CORNISH: What do you want people to take away from watching you go through this process?
PHILPOTT: I guess if you take away anything, it's that you can screw up and try again and that reinvention can be something that happens in small, repeated ways versus one huge way. If the only reinvention stories you've read are the really big blow-up-your-life kind, then reinvention can seem really daunting. But there are other ways to do it, and there are different times to do it. You don't have to wait till your 40th birthday and then blow up your life.
CORNISH: Mary Laura Philpott. Her new book of essays is called "I Miss You When I Blink." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
PHILPOTT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.