The Spaghetti Test: Getting Clear on What’s Really Important

The Spaghetti Test, a euphemism for trial-and-error, comes from the theory that if you throw spaghetti against a wall, it will stick if it’s done. If it doesn’t, the pasta needs to be cooked more. Not the best tool for getting my head straight— and, it turns out, not very accurate in testing the doneness of pasta, either.

Comical use of the spaghetti test

Comical use of the spaghetti test appears in one scene of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” In it, the roommates argue during a dinner Felix has prepared:

Oscar: Now kindly remove that spaghetti from my poker table.

[Felix laughs]

Oscar Madison: The hell’s so funny?

Felix Ungar: It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguini.

[Oscar picks up the linguini and hurls it against the kitchen wall]

Oscar Madison: Now it’s garbage.

A jarring shift in mood

Oscar is completely done in by Felix’s obsession with petty details and how he uses it to ignore Oscar’s point. Oscar retaliates by changing what was the promise of a good meal into a total mess, knowing full well that Felix hates messes just as much as he loathes bad cooking. It is a jarring shift in mood and perception. Mean-spirited manipulation though it is, I’m going to highlight it for those of us who might be stuck in a negative place.

Mired in minutiae

I can’t count how many times I’ve been Felix Ungar. Can’t see the forest for the trees. Mired in minutiae, totally in reactive mode, hunched forward and leading with my chin. Honking from stuffy sinus pressure. Compulsively clearing my throat from post-nasal drip. Brooding and dusky-faced from having lived, loved and lost. Consumed with perfectionism and therefore oblivious to the feelings and needs of others.

The flip side

But I’ve also been Oscar Madison. Impulsive and selfish. Insensitive and incapable of holding myself accountable for hurting people. Blaming my shortcomings on others. Slob of the year. But Oscar and Felix are more alike than different. They are both incapable of compromising enough to live together. Imagine what a problem it is when you’ve got both of them living inside you?

Neil Simon wrote his characters as having essentially the same weaknesses but on opposite ends of the scale to create and maintain the conflict that drives the story forward. As a writer I know Simon created every character nuance for a reason. That’s the difference between fiction and real life. I also know that as I acknowledge these character types as being a real part of me, I must revise my script to better serve my life. Or more specifically, my quality of life.

Get clear on what’s really important

For example, I constantly need to get clear on what’s really important. I need a touchstone that’s tried and true. Separate what is a negative, biased self-perception from some kind of object truth. I can tell you right up front that literally looking in a mirror is not a way to find an objective truth. The mirror’s reflection is objective, but how we receive the information is not. So, for the sake of preserving my self-esteem, screw looking in the mirror.

Finding my touch stone

Where then can I find my touch stone? I can walk down the halls of my apartment building and gaze warmly into the faces of my elderly neighbors. We glow at each other with a steadfastness, a regularity that is more reliable than a Swiss watch and twice as beautiful.

Sometimes a neighbor will show me that dusky, brooding look that Felix wears when he’s unable to come out of himself. I have choices in this case. I could make like Oscar and lash out, or I can make like the sun and warm the pain right out of her arthritic mood.

There isn’t much in life that’s important enough to stop me from giving others some love. My touch stone, my reality check about the truly important things lies not in myself but in the faces of the elderly, my loved ones, the suffering, and the poor.

Throwing spaghetti is mean. Serving spaghetti feeds the spirit.

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