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Our First Thanksgiving: You’re So Lucky You Weren’t There

Blogger’s note: This is one of my first and one of my favorite posts from 2007. It is, unfortunately, true. — RBP


Talk about bad. If the Pilgrims had shown up to the first Thanksgiving dinner we cooked, they would have taken the first ship back to the Old Country. They would have swum, if necessary, and we native Americans could have kept the whole continent to ourselves.

It was 1972. My then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I were living in an apartment complex in St. Petersburg, Florida. The place had all the charm of a 1950s Soviet-bloc tenement.

We weren’t very popular. All the other residents were at least 105 and they suspected us of 1) being hippies and 2) being unmarried — both of which were true.

The apartment’s managers, a seethingly hostile couple in their later years, especially disliked us. They suspected that we were behind the posted note in the elevator that read: “Are you fat?  Do you live on the second floor?  If so, you may be ineligible to ride this elevator!  Please see me immediately.”  Then we’d signed the apartment manager’s name.

It was a harmless prank, we figured. Something we’d all get together and laugh about — except for the small problem that the apartment manager, a real sorehead, wasn’t speaking to us, as usual. This, we assumed, was because he had just posted a new rule on the trash chute outside our fourth-floor apartment: “Don’t put glass bottles in this chute!”

When we were bored, when we were feeling rebellious (which happened rather frequently), we occasionally left one of our empty gallon-size Cribari wine jugs dangling on a string secured by the trash chute’s door. The next person who opened the chute unloosed the bottle and it hurtled four floors downward, loudly crash-landing in splinters a few seconds later.

But, anyway, that’s just background. It was Thanksgiving and we were far away from our families and we weren’t very popular in our Soviet-bloc neighborhood. If we were going to cook a proper meal, we needed to rustle up some guests.

We found them on the second floor, a young Japanese couple who spoke almost no English. They’d never heard of Thanksgiving before, but they were elated to be invited anywhere for dinner. They said they could come.

So, we went into action. We bought a turkey. We bought packaged dressing. We bought canned green beans and a pre-made pie and a gallon jug of grape Cribari.

By the time our guests arrived, we’d already shoved our still-frozen turkey into the oven (with the little package of gizzards still intact in the interior). Being charitable, it might have smelled good, but who could tell?  The Japanese couple turned out to be complete nicotine junkies who sat and chain-smoked the entire time. They also repeatedly tried out what appeared to be their entire English vocabulary on us: “Smoke like a chimney!

Which was just as well, I suppose. They sat and smoked and we began to panic, prodding a turkey that still had crystals of frost on it. We managed to successfully heat the green beans and deplete the Cribari bottle. But we were growing more and more panicked as the hours began to pass and we began to snipe at each other.

“I thought you knew how to cook Thanksgiving dinner!”

“You know I can’t cook!”

“Smoke like a chimney!”

Finally, we hauled the turkey out of the oven. It was barely warm. We managed to peel off a few not-entirely-raw pieces and cover them liberally with a brown runny substance we called gravy. In fact, we covered as many things as possible with the “gravy.”

When we served them their plates, the Japanese couple stared with a combination of horror and extreme politeness. “This is a traditional American meal,” we told them — one of the biggest lies and most unadulterated slanders I’ve ever uttered in my life.

They put out their cigarettes and somehow managed to eat everything we’d served them, which is more than I could say of my boyfriend and me. (I seem to recall we slipped out for a hamburger after the meal was over.)

At any rate, owing to our guests’ enormous tact and diplomacy, we avoided an international incident that day.  We toasted a lot with the Cribari, planning to leave the bottle hanging by a string if we managed to finish it off.  The Japanese couple smoked even more — presumably to clear their palates — and drunkenly screamed, “Smoke like a chimney!” every chance they could get.

If they got salmonella or food poisoning, they never let us know.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read The Ballad of the Sick Husband

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The View From Behind

1) When I went to college in the late 1960s, behaviorism was all the rage. Why did people turn out so differently? Because the environments they grew up in molded them differently, that’s why.

“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything,“ said B.F. Skinner, the reigning behaviorist. Even though Skinner was a man, his reasoning also had great appeal to the first wave of feminists, who favored the belief that men and women were different only because society treated them differently.

All this made sense to me and to my husband, who went to graduate school in psychology. When we had kids, we figured, we would treat them all – boys and girls – the same. That way, the boys could cry and play with dolls and the girls could be mean and aggressive and play football. Equality!

You know, it just didn’t work out that way. We had a daughter first, then a son. Our daughter was outgoing and curious. So was our son. But only our son practically came out of the womb making car noises. And only our son played with stuffed animals by body-slamming them against the wall.

We still believed in equality. But boy-children and girl-children were just different creatures.

2) Our son, age 5, is just outside our kitchen window with his friend Emma. He is slamming a ball against the wall. She is trying to talk to him. I am, of course, eavesdropping shamelessly.

“Nicky, I want to talk to you!” Emma says.

Slam, bang, thud.

“Nicky! I think I’m in love with you! I think about you all the time!”

Slam, thud, bang, thud, slam.

“Nicky! I’m trying to talk to you!”

Even louder slams, thuds, bangs.

“I wanted to tell Emma to hang it up — that it doesn’t get any better than that trying to talk to grown men,” I tell my sister later.


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 3) “Mrs. Pennebaker, I’m afraid I have some shocking news,” the assistant principal of the middle school said. He was calling in the early afternoon. “It’s about your son.”

Oh, God. This sounded bad. Really bad. I could hardly breathe.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Well, he got on the pay phone and called an indecent number,” the assistant principal said. He cleared his throat. “It was 1-800-SPANKME.”

I put my hand over the phone so he couldn’t hear me dying laughing. Finally, I managed to come up with an appropriate remark like, “Oh, no! Really?” before I collapsed, cackling, again.

In fact, I spent the rest of the day howling with laughter till my husband got home and then it started all over again. I think you can see where our son got his little problem with middle-school authority from.

4) When our son was nine, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After I came home from the hospital after my bilateral mastectomy, I showed him the exercises I needed to do to heal and keep the range of motion in my shoulders. Every afternoon, he would come into the den, where I’d be reading. “Mom!” he’d say. “You need to do your exercises.” He watched while I crawled my hands up and down the wall, gradually getting better.

Later, before I began chemo, I told him I’d probably have side effects like fatigue, hair loss, and vomiting. He brightened a little at the mention of vomiting.

Every day, he came home from school and asked, “Mom — have you vomited yet?”

He always looked so disappointed when I said no.

5)  And then there was the Halloween our son dressed up as a Republican. He slicked back his hair, donned a three-piece suit, and carried a briefcase to put candy in.We lived in Dallas then and were the only Democrats in our neighborhood; that year, our kid got more candy than anybody else on the street.

Later, we moved to Austin, so he retired his little capitalist outfit. Nobody in our Austin neighborhood would have given him even a half-digested Tootsie Roll for being a Republican.

6) When your kids are small, the stories you know and tell about them are more colorful. I guess it’s because you see almost all aspects of their lives — or hear about their misdeeds more quickly.

Your 24/7 access erodes as they age, though. Their stories become their own. When they and their friends get their driver’s licenses, even your last-ditch efforts at shameless carpool-mom eavesdropping expire. All of you still live under the same roof, but everything is different. Your children are semi-gone even before they’re actually gone.

And sometimes, you admit for yourself, it’s better you don’t know all their stories. Years later, when you hear carefully laundered accounts of their teen and early-adult escapades, you realize ignorance was a comforting buffer for all those years. Then you head for the smelling salts, if anybody still makes smelling salts these days.

7) Our son graduated from college in another state. He also spent a semester in Australia improving his English, I liked to tell people. But he then came back to Austin, where he’s worked the past six years.

It’s so lovely to have one of your newly grown kids in town. My husband and I’ve had brunch with him almost every weekend and it’s been great knowing he’s so close.

But now, he’s moved to Chicago. He’s 28, he’s untethered, he wants to do something new and go somewhere else. It’s a smart move, I kept thinking when he told me over dinner one night. Clearly, he’d thought about it carefully and planned it well. He’d grown up so much, he was so mature and thoughtful. I felt great for him and so proud — but sad for his father and me. We’ll miss him terribly.

There’s some kind of divided land you enter when you become a parent. Here is your kid’s welfare and well-being, over here is your own happiness. Ideally, they overlap completely — but only if you don’t live in a real world. Oddly, the results you want when you parent — that your kid becomes independent and strong — are also the impetus to their separating from you.

Again, it’s funny being the age my husband and I are. Sometimes, almost imperceptibly, we can feel our world shifting. We’ve seen and felt it shift for decades, of course, as our grandparents and three of our own parents died, and we became the center of our own family. We understood the shifting never stopped — but we didn’t quite get that it would happen to us, and so soon.

Leaving a restaurant one night after our last dinner with our son, my husband and I walked back to the car. It’s so dark this time of year, so lonely. I swear to God, I felt like I was 105.

As I sniffed loudly, my husband said he thought we should just adopt. Like, tomorrow.

That idea was so amusing and terrifying, I almost stopped weeping. Bring up another kid at our age? Good grief. You’ve got to be joking.

We won’t adopt. We’ll just adapt and get on with our lives. Parents need to be good at things like that, you know.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)








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30 Days to Something Better


Maybe you’ve noticed — there seem to be an awful lot of narcissists around these days. Or maybe people just routinely bring them up in conversations more than they used to.

Anyway, I didn’t think much about it till one of my friends, Meredith Resnick, wrote her second ebook about surviving a relationship with a narcissist. Since Meredith is an excellent writer, as well as a therapist, I told her I’d like to look at it.

Titled Surviving the Narcissist: 30 Days of Recovery: Whether You’re Loving, Leaving, or Living With One, it’s a deceptively simple book on taking care of yourself — wise, understated, and calm, like a good friend. It’s about taking your life back after you’ve been blindsided by trouble. And the trouble, I kept thinking, didn’t necessarily have to be a narcissist.

I asked Meredith a few questions about her book to clarify some points:

Can you define what a narcissist is — and isn’t? 

Unfortunately, the term “narcissist” has become a label for anyone who is annoying or self-centered, who is a media hog or rude. But a true narcissist is something far more lethal.

The relationship may start out with a kind of otherworldly charm, a sense that the person is too good to be true. Likewise, the narcissistic person may have you believing that you are too good to be true.

But a narcissist feels, internally, that they are nothing more than a black hole, a nothing, and, as you can imagine, this type of wound to the personality structure is terrifying because they trigger a fear of non-existence, of emptiness (but not in the Buddhist sense). These fears are very primitive, and take hold before language can be developed (meaning that the terror is present from a very young age).

Other traits include: grandiosity (“look at how great I am now,”) projection (“look at how lousy you are now” … see how it relates to the above grandiosity and projection?), lack of empathy, ostracizing, and more. It’s important, in my opinion, to focus on the pattern of behaviors, too, not just a one-time occurrence.

Why did you begin to focus on narcissists?

Like many, I’d been involved with narcissists on and off for years – relationships, at work, etc. But it was a particular incident with someone I had trusted that opened my eyes  and made me want to understand how I’d not seen what was so apparent now.

And how is it you chose 30 days as a basis for the book?

I feel like the first thirty days are some of the most tender parts of recovery because everything is so new. The truth is that thirty days can start at any time because as we get better, we grow, and with growth there is change, and change can be exciting but also make us feel tender and vulnerable. Also, I like how AA and other recovery programs ask newcomers to stick with something for 30 days, so you might call it a hat tip to that, too.

Can anybody get involved with a narcissist — or are some kinds of people more susceptible?

Yes, I think it’s possible that anyone could and that most people know one or more, though to varying degrees.

This book seems to me to be applicable to many other kinds of relationships that end badly. Do you think it’s specific to involvement with narcissists only?

I have been told by numerous readers that they feel that this book works across many relationships. I think this is the case because it focuses on helping the individual learn to focus on himself or herself which is, of course, where all healing begins.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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On Not Being One of Those People

We all have recurring dilemmas in our lives. One of mine reared its unattractive head last week.

I was having a conflict with a former business associate because I’d ended the association. It got personal and it got very ugly. I pulled back from the increasingly bitter exchange and tried to think about it calmly.

Naturally, I wanted to see myself as a blameless victim. But it didn’t quite work. I don’t care whether you divvy up the percentages showing me to bear 20% of the blame or more or less; the fact is, I bore some responsibility. At some points, I hadn’t acted well and I felt uncomfortable recalling my behavior. Sic transit total victimhood.

Fortunately, it was a Saturday and we were in the thick of one of my favorite events, the Texas Book Festival. Moving through the free-for-all of tents and exhibits, I bumped into the Typewriter Rodeo. This is a group of young writers with manual typewriters, quick fingers, and even quicker wits who’ll write you a new, fresh poem for nothing. Or for a tip, if you’d like.


You step up, you tell one of them who the poem is for, and you go on to describe whatever underlies your request — a mood, an occasion, a relationship. It’s kind of unnerving because it can be so damned revealing: Who are you and why are you here? You’re telling that to a total stranger who has fingers poised, ready to write the verses of your life. It’s part art, part therapy.

“I think I’ve acted like an asshole recently,” I said to David Fruchter, who was commandeering one of the keyboards. (David, it turns out, hosts a weekly radio show, Slappy Pinchbottom’s Odd Preoccupation, Sundays at 4 pm on KOOP 91.7 FM.) “And you know,” I told him, “I don’t want to be an asshole.”

He nodded — like this wasn’t a strange request from a woman he’d never met before. Then he bent over and started typing. Minutes later, he gave me this poem on a gold rectangle of paper:


How to live life without being an asshole


the first thing to know

is that every single one of us

is more than capable

of serious — i mean SERIOUS


no one is exempt.

and realizing that, about yourself

(and everybody else)

is a big step toward prevention

(which as they say is worth a pound

if not a pounding!)

paradoxically, forgiving your own

inner asshole

can be the best way to quiet it down

and taking a moment every day 

just to sit

and watch your thoughts go by

can be a big help

too …


I took my poem, read it, left a tip, and walked away. I knew the Typewriter Rodeo served other purposes for other people — like romance and sentiment and whimsy. For me, it helped calm me down a little and made me think about how I could be a better person.

Self-reflection, a little judgment, humor, ideas on how to live better. Good grief, what a deal. I’m thinking Typewriter Rodeo should be on every corner of the universe.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read If Writers Competed in the Olympics: A Horror Story


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The Rest of the Story

Any writer or storyteller will kill or maim for a good lead. You know, the kind of intro that socks you in the face or gut and leaves you begging to know what Paul Harvey called the rest of the story.

Well, my friend Betsy’s 90-year-old mother recently had that kind of lead.

“I haven’t been myself,” she told Betsy over the phone, “since I found that dead body in the swimming pool.”

You see? Doesn’t that intro leave you pleading to know more?

Anyway, my own lead isn’t quite that riveting, but I like to think it packs a bit of a punch. Namely:

I’ve been worried about myself ever since Joe Biden came to town.

Feel your interest piqued already? I thought so!

Well, it so happens I was in a hotel bar a couple of weeks ago and —

Reader #1: Hey, wait a minute! What about Betsy’s mother?

Me: Huh?

Reader #2: Betsy’s mother! We want to know what happened to her. You brought up the topic, then dropped it like a slippery hors d’oeuvre. Did she really find a dead body in a swimming pool?

Me (a bit grudgingly): Well, yes, she did. But let’s get back to my story. There I was, in a hotel bar, and Joe Biden —

Reader #3: Hold it there, sister. First, you need to tell Betsy’s mother’s story — the whole thing, got it? Then, after we’ve heard every bloody detail, you can tell your own story. (Which, frankly, doesn’t sound that interesting, but you’re always pretty slow at getting to the point.)

Me: OK, OK. Stop ganging up on me.

Reader #4: Stop stalling. Spill it, toots.

Me (spoken with heavy sarcasm inappropriate for anyone over the age of 13): If you have to know, Betsy’s mother was swimming at a gym and noticed something in the water. It was a body. The paramedics came, but they couldn’t revive the guy, who was in his 60s, and —

Reader #1: Was it foul play?

Me (sulkily): No. It was a heart attack.

Reader #3: Wow! That’s fascinating. I’ve never even found a dead bug in a swimming pool.

Reader #4: Me, neither. Nothing interesting ever happens to me.

Reader #2 (sighing): I know exactly what you mean.

Me: Hello! Remember me? Can I have my blog back now?

Reader #5: Yeah. I guess. What were you talking about?

Me: Joe Biden. I saw him one night and —

Reader #3: Was he dead or something?

Me: No! Of course not! It’s just that I —

Reader #2: Nobody died? You didn’t even have to call the paramedics?

Me: No, but I —

Reader #3: Is there a point to this story?

Me: Well, yeah, kind of. It’s about me being a celebrity stalker with Joe Biden. Then, I saw Jimmie Dale Gilmore at a dinner and I said, “I love you!” even though I’d never met him and —

Reader #1: You were going to write about that? Really? Everybody loves Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Of course you said that to him!

Me: Well, I was going to flesh it out and make it funny —

Reader #2: Uh-huh. I’m sure you were.

Reader #4: By the way — Betsy’s mother has such an interesting life. Do you think she has a blog?

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Musing About Tattoos













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