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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Eat and Run

Nothing screams, “Find a reason to leave town” louder than receiving an e-mailed invitation to attend your employer’s service awards dinner/employee appreciation banquet/dinner-dance/holiday party.

I haven’t been diagnosed with any kind of social anxiety disorder, but probably would be if I went to a therapist, who would probably prescribe yet another pill to take for the rest of my life. That’s not going to happen.

I have a tough time wrapping my hands around why these functions exist, because I don’t think anyone really looks forward to them, especially the admin staffers who are delegated to put together these events, a thankless, time-consuming job that always stirs up complaints from people for myriad reasons. Why can’t I bring my children? Why isn’t there a vegan menu option? Can you move it to the week following my chemical peel? Shut the hell up, all of you. If something doesn’t make you happy, don’t go. Or say you’re going to go and then don’t show up so I can take home leftovers.

An employee function says this to me: Let’s gather up all the people with whom you work every day, some of whom you like, some of whom you tolerate, and some of whom you pray nightly for a grand piano to fall on from the 30th floor. Let’s make the party semi-formal so you can wear a choking necktie and hot jacket, and the women at work who already dress inappropriately can dress up even more inappropriately and unflatteringly, but with sequins, lamé and Elton-John-as-Pinball-Wizard platform heels. Then let’s add unlimited alcohol to: 

a) loosen up all those inhibitions so that people who drink too much can throw up; 

b) encourage people who carry grudges to pick fights; 

c) allow people who usually keep quiet announce their prejudices with pride, thus reinforcing the unwritten law that forbids gay men from dancing. 

 All my life, the majority of people with whom I have worked range from middle-of-the-road to moderate conservatives to rabid Tea Party followers of Limbaugh Christ. The liberal to radical left employees, where I fall, are few and far between. We know who we are and whisper to each other in dark corners about taboo topics like re-election, gay marriage, and the obscene cost of health insurance and medications brought on by corrupt insurance executives and politicians. We exchange lists of fellow employees with whom we should not discuss politics, religion, or bumper stickers.

People at work are young and old, liberal and conservative, black and white (insert more adjectives regarding human diversity here) who applied for these jobs and were dropped in this pot, and we have to figure out a way to get along and simmer down and make the soup palatable for everyone.

This does not mean, however, that we have to attend social events together. I wouldn’t dream of holding an office party in a gay bar, but that is just about the only venue where I feel comfortable dancing with Other Bill. Despite the shifting winds towards gay acceptance, I wouldn’t feel comfortable dancing in a place with 500 cops, firefighters, staunchly conservative politicians, egocentric department directors, and bitter, poorly-treated, low-paid unionized staff and their spouses with bellies full of spirits, wine, and beer. It is perfectly fine for two women to dance, because American mores allow for that. But here, to see two men, slow-dancing, chest-to-chest: never. Not in America, unless you’re in a gay bar. Or at home. I taught Other Bill how to waltz on our patio, and he’s pretty good at it.

Back in the 80’s and before, and probably even now in some arenas, gay men brought straight female friends to these events. That way, everything looked “right” to the executive staff, who was fooled into believing that all their employees were straight and having loads of fun at these parties funded by corporate greed. When my sister was single, she went to her corporate event with a gay man, and I am sure that also helped to make everything look “right” to the senior executives, as well. From the ivory tower, she appeared to be married to, or at least in a relationship with, a male. Everyone of one sex had another of the other sex. How superb. How appropriate.

I don’t go to these events very often, unless, of course, there are raffles. Because not that many people attend, the chances of winning something are pretty good. But it usually takes a really nice prize to force me to be present to win. At the last awards dinner, you had to pay $25 to go and collect your paper reward. It was mostly mandatorily attended by supervisors, who deposited the certificates into their employees’ mailboxes the following day. The upcoming one I assume will be less poorly attended because the event is free for employees, but $25 to bring a spouse, unless you’re being recognized, in which case a plus-one gets to attend for free. For some people where I work, $25 is 3 hours’ pay, before taxes.

The rare occasions I do attend these events (i.e., when it’s free for both of us and loaded with good raffle prizes), I take Other Bill, and we usually sit together and talk to ourselves. Neither he nor I drink, so we arrive after the cocktail hour, just in time to hit the buffet, gather up our raffle prizes, make our excuses, and go back home and waltz on the patio. (That really means “sit on the couch and play Words with Friends while listening to TV.”)

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and attend. These are times when you win something like an employee of the year award or are getting your X-years of service dog tags, or whatever it is they give you. In this economy, it’ll probably be a certificate on copier paper, run through a color laser printer. Next month I am celebrating eleven years of service by getting my ten -year service certificate. As government workers know it takes forever to get anything approved. Maybe it’s a pin; I don’t know. But if you don’t go, you look ungrateful. And I’m not ungrateful; quite the contrary. It’s nice to be recognized. Hell, it’s nice just to have a job. But look, can’t they just e-mail me my certificate in PDF format? I promise to print it on nice bond paper and push-pin it to a wall.

So even though the next event is free but without raffles, we will be attendees. I will probably have to go out and buy a jacket that fits me and maybe a new tie, and we’ll enjoy our meat, poultry, fish or vegetarian pre-selected entrée and drink our ice water. Then I’ll go up to the front and shake some hands of people who have seen me around but don’t really know what I do, or what I’ve done, other than survive a government decade, which we already established is at least eleven years (AKA a baker’s decade). It’ll be fine. It’ll be fun.

But when the music strikes up, we’ll already be on our way home, no doubt gossiping about the wrong people who wore spandex or Lucite shoes, the ones who started drinking way too early, and the flavor of the beef/chicken/vegetarian food compared to what we ate last week on our vacation in San Francisco, a place where no one bats an eye if we hold hands on the street, peck each other on the lips in public, or even waltz in the middle of Union Square.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Offensive Helpers

Yesterday we were at the great scratch-and-dent, broken candy-cane, and crushed-box discount paradise known as Big Lots. The first thing we saw was a couple with a push cart full of nothing but dozens and dozens of slightly imperfect boxes of Tuna Helper. I’m glad I didn’t go there looking to buy some Tuna Helper, because this couple had obviously cleared the shelves of all that was available. So for them, the next six months’ worth of “What’s for dinner tonight, honey?” questions has been answered.

Tuna Helper hasn’t been around that long. After all, it all started with Hamburger Helper, which reached the supermarket when I was a kid. Betty Crocker, wherever she resides, has been a big Helper for decades.

So naturally I felt compelled to go to Ms. Crocker’s website this morning and was in awe to discover that she helps more than hamburger, more than tuna, but also whole grains, chicken, and Asians.

Yes, they actually have something called Asian Helper. The first question that came to mind is: are there tutors or launderers in the box? If I were a cow, or a tuna, or a chicken, or a whole grain, I’d be pretty insulted knowing that this Crocker chick thinks I needed her help. But I’d be really pissed off if I were Asian and came across Asian Helper. We no need you help, Betty Cwocker. We alweady gwaduate at top of cwass.

Yes, there I’ve done it: thrown in some racist, Asian-stereotyped sentences and ruined my reputation as an inclusive liberal, all at the expense of getting a laugh. I sincerewy apowogize.

My mother was a lazy and bad cook. Most of the time it was my sister and I who made dinner. I knew how to throw a meatloaf together and time it for my mother’s arrival home from work when I was seven. She never made anything fresh. Vegetables were always frozen and boiled to death or heated up from a can or a jar. I don’t think I had a real salad until my aunt made me one when I was 12.

We lived on convenience foods. So when Hunt’s Skillet Lasagna showed up on the shelf, it became a staple in our house. Hunt’s Skillet Lasagna was the precursor to Hamburger Helper, and it was good. All you did was add water, hamburger, and the crap that came in the box, and you had a meal that tasted nothing like lasagna, but was tolerable and salty, which is all one expects from convenience foods.

All these scores of varieties of Helper meals are clearly made for the tired, lazy, or unimaginative who can’t put forth the effort to chop up an onion and some fresh mushrooms, and dollop in a little sour cream or canned cream of mushroom soup or shake in some salt, pepper, or some other spice. If you did that, you’ have to wash a knife, a spoon and a cutting board. How taxing.

Here’s a quote from Betty herself from her web page.

Who couldn't use a little help in the kitchen? One of life's simple pleasures is to relax after a busy day and enjoy a good meal with ones you love. Hamburger Helper dinner mixes bring families to the dinner table for a hearty, wholesome meal.

I got news for you, Ms. Crocker. You get a lot more pleasure out of preparing or eating a meal made for or by a loved one who actually puts some care and effort into it instead of lighting a fire under a pan and dropping in shit from a box. And if you want to bring families to a dinner table together, there is only one way to accomplish this: dine out at a really nice restaurant. Hamburger Helper again, Mom? I’ll be in my room, fasting. Text me only if you have to.

Betty Crocker makes five Mexican flavors of Hamburger Helper, but she doesn’t call them “Mexican Helpers,” because Republicans would think that there was a landscaping crew inside the box. Yet there are no qualms about calling something “Asian Helper.” The four Asian Helper varieties call for chicken or ground beef, so they could have just as easily been included in the Chicken Helper or Hamburger Helper lineups. As long as you’re going to be racist, Bett, let’s do this thing right. Here are ideas for more international Helper meals.

Irish Helper:  Dehydrated potatoes and alcohol. Don’t add water. We don’t want to dilute it.
Canadian Helper: Priced significantly cheaper than all other Helpers, eh?
Indian Helper: A curry dish that comes without cooking instructions. You have to call a toll-free technical support number for that information.
Great Britain Helper: This is a real timesaver. It’s simply a bottle of ipecac syrup. Skip the torture of kidney pie and go right to the vomiting.
Eskimo Helper: A can of Sterno and a packet of Adolph’s moose tenderizer.  
Vietnamese Helper:  Instructions: fold in your least favorite pet.
Miami Helper: A live, ready-to-eat homeless man.
American Helper: Include the meat in the box; we can’t afford it in this economy.

Okay, I have offended enough people for one story. My sincerest apologies to all of you. Now let’s move on.

What we really need is something called Convenience Foods Helper, some high-tech process that will magically reverse the flavor removal that’s caused by over processing of food.  Something that makes microwaved meals taste more like something your mom made (not my mom).  Or barring that, maybe someone could come up with written directions on what to buy and how to prepare a dish. Oh, wait, that already exists. They are called “recipes.” And a collection of recipes is called a “cook book.”

Do they sell those at grocery stores, or somewhere else?