Birds and their Lookalike Feathers

I have an old friend who’s quite neurotic.

I realize that doesn’t narrow the category much, since most of my friends are pretty neurotic.

Actually, I’m pretty neurotic myself. And I’m not sure I’m interested in friends who aren’t neurotic. Who needs the aggravation of hanging out with people who are pulled-together, have high self-esteem, and never doubt themselves? What would we talk about? How great they are? What a mess I am?

That, as usual, is beside my original point. My original point was to tell a story about my highly neurotic friend, “Allison.”  Allison and her husband invited my husband and me over for dinner one night a few years ago. We arrived at their house to find pots boiling, plates steaming, pandemonium brewing. Allison, her face frozen in hysteria, barked out orders to her husband. Salt! Do we have enough salt? No, we don’t! My God! Didn’t I tell you to get more salt? You need to go to the grocery store! Now!

Crisis begat more crises. The husband went to the grocery store. He got the wrong kind of salt. The pots boiled over, the sauce burned, the smoke alarm trilled. My husband and I got our own drinks, since we really needed to calm down by then. Allison’s face went into spasms of contortion. This dinner is going to be a disaster! You’ll never want to come back here again. My God!

We reassured her, we drank, we helped to set the table. We said, I feel sure, how nice it was to be part of such a lively atmosphere. Nothing like a dinner party with a little drama!

What was the food? I’m not sure. Probably something Middle Eastern. Everybody in our world had just discovered Middle Eastern food and everybody but my husband thought it was divine. I remember lots of white rice. The green dish may or may not have been tabbouleh. The meat was a secret, dark and inscrutable, bobbing in the sauce like a drowning swimmer.

But, oh, yes, everything was wonderful, really! my husband and I said over and over again, as we jammed food in our mouths to prove our point. Wonderful! Superb!

Whatever we said, however much we ate, Allison wasn’t buying it. She bolted from the table to the refrigerator to the spice rack, tragedy looming on her face. I didn’t put enough spice in it! The dish is ruined! It’s awful, isn’t it? I can tell you think it’s awful! My God!

Time passed. We ate and drank, she agonized loudly. Finally, the dishes were cleared. We moved to the living room to talk. Allison mentioned our getting together again in the near future. Perhaps she could cook again.

“But,” I said, trying to choose my words carefully, “it seems like it’s so much trouble for you … you know … to cook. We could just go out, instead.”

Allison looked stricken. “But I love to cook!” she said vehemently.

Too many years have passed, but I’m sure she never cooked for us again, thank God. My stomach could have taken it, but I’m not sure my nerves could have.

I think of Allison, though, when I grit my teeth and write, when I make faces at the computer, when I avoid starting to work,  when I stall and skip over the Internet, when I do everything I can to avoid what I should be doing, which is writing.

Why do I have the profession I do? I’m sometimes asked.

“Because I love to write!” I announce loudly.

Then I think, oh, hell. It’s no wonder I have the friends I have. And it’s no wonder they have me.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about getting my verbal comeuppance


22 comments… add one
  • ” . . . bobbing in the sauce like a drowning swimmer.” I absolutely LOVE this.

  • Cindy A Link

    Such a vivid account that I will always think I was with you at this dinner! My theory is that people are neurotic (myself included) because of critical parents who expected perfection and overlooked brilliance.

  • Oh boy, as someone who professes to love to cook, but never thinks it is turning out right, and someone who allegedly is a writer, but can’t ever get down to it…..I certainly relate to this one. That is a brilliant description of a disaster as it happens. LOVE the details.

    a relatively mild personality disorder typified by excessive anxiety or indecision and a degree of social or interpersonal maladjustment.
    Just as birds add color, depth and sporadic arias to the world around us, so do flocks of neurotic homo sapiens. What if neurotics hadn’t hung together in the ’20s, they would never have finally invented Jazz as a form of release– a way of communicating to others that feeling of jumpy cacophony replicating endlessly within their souls. By all means, hang with your like-feathered friends. Venture occasionally, en masse, into public arenas. Your presence will aid the unfortunate non-neurotics of the world in gaining a glimpse of what it’s like to be a banana suddenly stripped of its peel, to sense the elevating joy of self-inflicting smudges upon ones own soul. Enjoy your neurosis! You’re one helluva Jazzy Lady!

  • Ha ha. Well that’s pretty damn funny. I actually think that liking to cook and liking to cook for other people are actually two different things and maybe that is where her confusion was!

  • Christine Link

    I loved this! so funny. I feel as though I were right there with you.

  • LOL! I love your descriptions. It’s exactly how I act when I have people over. That’s why we usually go out. 🙂

  • Good golly. Great story. A longtime friend married into a family like this, and what was SO interesting to me was that when serious illness and real tragedy struck … they were cool as cucumbers. Buy the wrong bread for dinner? DISASTER. Lose part of a leg to cancer? Meh, such is life.

  • Sheryl Link

    Love this story, Ruth. I know people just like this. Fun to be around, just not if they’re cooking.

  • Funny and true about cooking. I always wonder why I am doing this to myself when I cook for a dinner party.

    As for writing, the hardest part for me is starting. Once I get into it I can muddle through without too much pain. I don’t mind editing — that is the simple kind I do of taking out all the extra words. And reading it after it’s done is only slightly painful. But then, I don’t regard either cooking or writing as my profession. Actually, though I have done a lot of things in my rather long life, I am not sure I ever had a profession.

    Well, I was very good at being a student. Perhaps that was my profession.

  • I’m probably way too neurotic to have dinner parties, so I guess I’ll stick with my no-dinner-party regimen. And I’m glad to count myself among your neurotic friends, Ruth.

  • I’m going to make my family read this post, because it says — with a smile — what I think completely mystifies them: How I can freak out all day procrastinating about writing a story and saying how much I don’t want to write it, then smilingly tell people I love being a writer.
    Thanks, Ruth!

  • That’s how my mother cooks, which might explain why I started cooking for myself. Anything to stop the litany of “you hate it, don’t you? this is terrible! please don’t eat this…”

  • Reminds me of some lyrics by the Australian band “The Whitlams”, ‘All my friends are f*ck ups, but they are fun to be around.’

  • I used to know people like these friends of yours, in France. The post reminded me of some crazy dinners I went to at their apartment. Dinners in Paris are pretty la-dee-dah, as you can imagine. Sometimes it would have been better to simply eat out, as you pointed out. Also, in France, all this preparation went on for hours, literally. One hostess, in particular never got the food to the table until 10. I don’t miss that at all.

  • I’m convinced that’s why we have dining rooms so the cook can be neurotic in the kitchen and the guests don’t get to see all of it;) But darn it, my dining room table is now my writing table–what does that say about me?

  • I love this “Allison” – she sounds like a more composed version of me. In fact, my term for this character trait is ‘hostess neurosis’ and yes! that is why compassionate builders make the kitchen separate from the dining room. As for polite guests who wander into the kitchen asking if they can help, can’t they see that the rictus of panic on my face and the knife in my hand is actually quite dangerous?

  • My great culinary salvation was having a husband who had been in the Special Forces before learning to cook. Boy was he a cool customer in the kitchen. I suppose something burning or boiling over on the stove was hardly a matter of concern to someone who had been a medic in battle, with bullets flying. The only drawback was the necessity of using every single pot and utensil we possessed, as I had KP duty after the evening was over. But the result of his cooking would have pleased the Geneva convention.

  • I should mention that he was the same way about his writing. Cool as a cucumber, with astonishing results.

  • Agreed: fellow neurotics often do unite. Can you imagine a room full of anxious scribes who write about food (and often cook and develop recipes) for a living? That’s my tribe.

  • Is that why I love you so much? Because I’m so neurotic too?!!

  • Susan Link

    Geez – sounds like quite an experience! I’m not the calmest hostess either but I like to think I’m not nearly as extreme as “Allison.”

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