I spend a lot of time talking to my sister, D. I’m sure lots of grown women with sisters are out there going “Yeah, me too, so what?” But I mean — I spend a LOT of time talking to her. We live in different states and have vastly different lives and schedules, but somehow, if a day goes by where we haven’t spoken on the phone, emailed, or Facebooked one another — usually more than once — things just don’t feel right.
We’re close. Obviously. But one of the reasons that our daily contact is so important to me is that D., as my sister, has a way of being honest with me and calling me out on the reality of any given situation that no one else can quite match. Lately, our conversations have started to include a certain phrase, which my loving and accurate sister pulls out of her rhetorical back pocket and serves up to me overhead-smash-style:
Overdeveloped Sense of Guilt.
“Should I buy that dress?” I’ll muse, rapidly typing as I cut and paste a links to the sale website. “Why not?” she’ll retort, knowing that I already have a list of at least 10 reasons why I Shouldn’t Do This.
“Well, the kids need x. And J. really needs y. But when I offered to get y. for him, he said don’t worry about it, don’t spend the money on me, get x. for the kids.”
“Do you have the money?”
“Did the kids get x.?”
“Do you need a new dress?”
Pause. “Do you need a new dress?”
“Probably.” (I’m never good at assessing or admitting to my wardrobe’s possible outdatedness or lack of functionality.)
“What does J. think?”
“He said get what you need.”
“I don’t know.”
“Overdeveloped Sense of Guilt.” Smack. Conversation over.
She’s right, or at least probably right, most of the time. I do have an Overdeveloped Sense of Guilt, about many things in life. Until recently, I had a very hard time saying No to things, too — I always figure that if it’s worth doing, there will be a way for me to rearrange my life to fit it all in. As a result, I tend to experience life as a constantly overcommitted, over-ambitious blur of activity, and I have a hard time putting into perspective my own perceived shortcomings. (Except when it comes to the housework. There, I’m able to shrug, sigh, and step over the pile of laundry. Selective perfectionism, I call it. Plus, I can delude myself into believing that my kids’ immune systems will be strengthened by eating the Cheerios they found under the couch.)
At any rate, D. is not only the incisive Voice of Reality for my life, she is also one of my key culinary playmates. In fact, as I was typing this post, the chat window on my Facebook screen popped up, with a message from D. asking my opinion about one of the steps in a new recipe she was trying (a recipe the two of us found together, and which is being made using the peaches from her CSA in Brooklyn — she’s a locavore champion, too). Her life, though, is somewhat different from mine in many ways, and this is no more apparent than it is in all matters of cooking and eating. I’ve got to figure out how to get the kids, J., and myself fed on a daily basis before the inevitable evening meltdowns occur; she’s often cooking with a glass of wine at a shockingly European hour, musing over her dinner preparations while I’m sacking out in my pjs, nearly ready for bed. She’s canning and preserving the contents of her CSA box with exotic recipes and fancy liqueurs; I’m eschewing the CSA box, at least so far, because I’m worried about the fickleness of my kids’ vegetable preferences and I think there are only so many kale chips we could possibly stand to eat. She’s making a gorgeous, upscale meal for friends, and debating the merits of the peach semifreddo; I’m in my kitchen at 9 o’clock in the evening, packing the last of the lunchboxes and cursing the next day’s office potluck, to which I’ve committed, and for which I have not prepared a single thing.
For someone like me — a pretty good cook (not to be immodest), who actually LIKES to cook, and who takes pride in doing so –potlucks are an inordinately stressful experience. When you know that people expect a certain level of gastronomic delight from whatever you set on the table (owing, in part, to my husband’s sweet but possibly over-embellished bragging about my cooking skills), you end up digging yourself into a completely unnecessary hole of ambivalence and agony over what to bring to the event. Naturally, knowing this potluck was coming up, I’ve spent a good week chatting with D. about it. And since I’m a planner, I had a plan. A good one. A solid one.
And then yesterday hit, and I didn’t get to the store to buy what I needed to execute the plan. And dinner was a little late getting to the table. And L. had a longer nap at school than he should have, so he was up later than usual, too wired to sleep. And my mom called. And we talked too long. And “Top Chef” was on. So I had to punt.
“Just BUY something, for God’s sake — everybody else will,” J. reasoned with me, as I stood, pj’d and sweaty and exasperated, in front of the pantry, willing something to materialize. “Get a couple of rotisserie chickens at the store and be done with it. Now come on — the quickfire challenge is almost over.”
“I can’t just BUY something. You know this about me. Now help me think,” I ordered. “I really don’t want to go to the store.”
“Macaroni and cheese,” he retorted. “You’ve got noodles. You’ve got cheese. Easy.”
I rolled my eyes. “I can’t. Just. Make. Mac and cheese. Besides, I don’t have the right stuff for a GOOD mac and cheese, and I’m not bringing a fricking mediocre mac and cheese.”
He stared me down, then walked away, experienced enough with my madness to know that no amount of logic would help his case. I ransacked my kitchen stores, inwardly cursing. And then it hit me, like a beacon of D.’s wisdom radiating from somewhere south of sticky, breezeless Rhode Island:
Overdeveloped Sense of Kitchen Guilt.
I snatched up the phone. Dialed. “Bonjour,” she said.
“Tell me that it’s not too smarmy to bring a vegetarian chili-mac type of deal to this thing.”
Bless my sister, who, without missing a beat, knew exactly what I was talking about. “It’s not too smarmy. No one else will even cook, probably. What are you putting in it?”
“Black beans. Corn. Tomatoes. Cheese, obviously. Pasta, obviously.”
“Sounds like a potluck to me. Go watch Top Chef. It’ll be fine.”
And it was fine. Talked down from the ledge of culinary perfectionism, I danced back and forth between my stove and the living room, throwing ingredients into pans while watching the Top Chef contestants mangle world cuisine. The end result of my experiment was actually pretty tasty. I was finished by 10 p.m., and there’s a dish of hot food in the office kitchen that was made with my own two little hands, sitting alongside the various supermarket bags and bakery boxes my coworkers lugged in this morning.
Guilt assuaged. But I know it’s a brief respite. You’d think I would learn from the experience, but I know there will be other potlucks, other school bake sales, other opportunities for the madness to take hold. I’ll be calling D. again to talk me out of my overzealous need to prove, to no one in particular, that I can do it all. It’s a Mommy thing, a work-life balance thing, a Me thing — a permanent character flaw –this Overdeveloped Sense of Kitchen Guilt. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed off to plan the baking and decorating of 4 dozen cupcakes that look like farm animals.