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The Christmas party

Company Culture #9

On the day of the company Christmas party, everyone worked at their desks until noon or so. Then the sociable sorts started wandering toward the hotel, traveling in herds with their friends, to arrive early at the party and have more time for talking to each other. The semi-sociable sorts went at 12:30 or 12:40, leaving just anti-social Zeke and me in the office. 

"How long can we put this off?" I said. I could've put it off until next year and been just fine, but I'd promised Juan that I'd be there. Still had my doubts, though. Hundreds of people I didn't know, all in one huge ballroom, and at any moment any of them might want to make conversation with me? Just thinking about it strangled all traces of any Christmas spirit I might have once had, decades earlier.

"It won't be as bad as you think," Zeke said as I grabbed my jacket. He turned off the office lights, and as we walked out the door he added, "but it'll be pretty bad."

Then we walked to the hotel, arriving mere minutes before the party's official start at 1:00. Juan was waiting for us outside the hotel, and he said, “Today’s going to be a great day!” I gave him a hug, and the three of us walked in together.

I'd never been inside the hotel before. It wasn't built for people like me. This was a place for fancy people. The lobby had high ceilings, geometric carpeting, glowing pillars, couches and chairs everywhere, and acres of empty space. I was beyond lost, but Zeke, having been to these annual events before, led us down a long hallway, across an atrium, and under an archway, until — there we were.

And it was ridiculous. The ballroom was a huge space, extravagantly decorated with banners and balloons and two fully decked-out Xmas trees, one on each side of the room. There were hundreds of wrapped presents under each tree (elaborate props, I assumed) — and hundreds of people in the room.

Oh, jeez. I hated it already.

It's not a fear of crowds; I've been to baseball games with 30,000 people and had fun. It's not a fear of socializing; I ain't good at chit-chat and such, but with effort I can do it. Socializing with lots and lots of people, though, and surrounded by them — that's my phobia of phobias. A thesaurus of profanity flooded my mind and I wanted to run from the place, but I'd decided to face it. I wanted to run, though.

Some human from Human Resources approached us, asked our names, looked us up on a clipboard, and gave us pre-printed name tags. We hung our jackets on a coat-rack that stretched from here to eternity, and slapped the stupid name tags onto our shirts, and (sweet Jesus) I followed Juan and Zeke into the ballroom.

"This is going to be fun, Doug," Juan said. "I promise."

"No, it won't," said Zeke, "but it'll be bearable."

I was sweaty and skeptical about the 'bearable' bit. The company had about 250 employees, but with spouses and guests, there were about 500 people in the room already, more were still arriving, and most of them seemed deliriously happy. LSD happy. They were laughing and hugging and ho-ho-ho-ing.

There were fifty tables, maybe more, each with twelve chairs and plates and sets of silverware, and twelve blank name cards. You were supposed to pick a seat, write your name on a card, and leave it where you'd be sitting. Then you could mingle with everyone else. Ugh. Shrewdly, though, by coming late we'd missed the mingling time.

In the distance, a curly-haired white man waved at Zeke and Juan, and we walked toward him. He was at a table in the corner — worst seats in the house, and as removed from the crowd as you could be without stepping into the hall, but that's a good thing.

"Welcome, fellow orphans," he said as we approached.

Juan said to me, "This is Russell Ruston, from I.T.," and to Russell he said, "This is Doug Holland, and he doesn't want to be here."

"None of us want to be here," said someone across the table, but smiling as he said it.

"That's for sure," Russell said, shaking my hand.

Zeke explained that Russell had come early to claim our space, had filled out our dozen name cards, and this table was a refugee camp for people who'd otherwise never be comfortable coming to the company Christmas party.

"We sit together every year," someone else at the table said, "and we don't talk much."

"Survival tactics," Russell said.

"Seems like a smart system," I said. "Thanks for doing this."

"I'm a systems analyst," Russell said, sighing. "I like solving problems, and this solves my problem — I don't like crowds."

A lady across the table said, "Crowds? Hell, I don't like individuals."

Juan said, "I like people, but this is too many of them."

Zeke and Russell nodded, and someone else at the table said, "You guys are all talking too much," which got a laugh.

I thought, Maybe this is the wrong place but at least it's the right table.

A few people introduced themselves, but there wasn't time to meet everyone (which was fine, to be honest) before the lights dimmed and went up again — a signal that meant, on with the show, this is it. 

With much tinkling of forks on glasses, the ballroom hushed as the CEO, Roger Harper, walked to the podium, wearing an ordinary suit topped with a red and white Santa cap. He coughed into the microphone, looked around nervously, and said very dryly, "Uh, hello, everyone. Let's open, uh, with the figures from the third quarter, and our projections for the upcoming year—"

Suddenly, three people sprang from their front-row tables blowing kazoos and shouting "Not today, Roger!" and "Merry Christmas!"

The CEO shouted, "Just kidding! Merry Christmas, everybody!"

My boss Daniel had been one of the three who rushed the stage — a cute little skit. As CEO Roger left the stage, he dramatically unknotted and removed his tie, and tossed it like tinsel onto one of the trees.

Waiters in tuxedos came into the room pushing several salad bars on carts, and hot food on other carts. I'd been told the grub would be great, and I was hungry, but our table was in the most remote section, so we were very nearly the last to be served.

The delay gave my tablemates a chance to finish the introductions. There were even some awkward conversations, but we all kinda giggled about the awkwardness. It wasn't fun, but it wasn't awful.

When the food rolled our way, it was a choice of ham, turkey, beef, or 'vegetarian', plus a dozen sides from peas to potatoes to cornbread. I had the ham. Give me a choice and I'll always choose ham. It was fabo as promised, and the carts continued circulating all through the meal so when I wanted more ham, I simply raised my hand and presto, more ham.

I eat too much when I'm nervous, so I had four helpings of ham, with mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, french fries, and mashed potatoes again. Eventually, the carts became dessert carts, and I had several pieces of several pies.

Daniel stopped by our table for a few minutes of season's greetings, and a few others from among the normals said hello. The huge room echoed and amplified the sound from all the other tables, so it was a cacophony of conversation, but at our table we talked quietly and only occasionally — or didn't — and that's the way we wanted it.

None of us had come to this party to make friends. We'd come to endure it until it was over. A good time was had by none of us at our table, but also nobody shot themselves so it was a grand success.

After the feasting, forks tinkled against glasses again, and Roger came back to the podium. "OK," he said, "happy holidays, and we have a video we'd like to show you."

Were there groans from the audience, or only from inside my soul? Unless you work in Hollywood, you never want to watch a movie made by the place where you work, but surprisingly, the video was funny, and better still, it was short. Someone had gone 'round inside the headquarters building, filming people at work and asking them silly or stupid questions, like a Jimmy Kimmel bit. Some of the questions and some of the answers were amusing, and then it was over. Applause, deserved.

Next, Elizabeth spoke about the company's charitable donations for Christmas. They'd 'adopted' a dozen disadvantaged families, she said, and each family had been given Christmas dinner and presents for everyone. There was a slideshow, with pictures of Elizabeth in a Santa suit making the deliveries, and she joked, "I did not enter anyone's home via the chimney."

It was a nice gesture but a lame joke, and the pictures seemed intrusive. If I'm poor and you want to help me, help me — but don't snap pictures of yourself with me and my family, and flash 'em on the screen at the frickin' Ritz Carlton. To me, that was the off-est moment of the afternoon.

Then CEO Roger came back to the podium, and said, "Here's what you've been waiting for, and the rules are very complicated, so listen closely: One, please take only one present each, and Two, everyone have a very happy holiday!"

And with that, people stood and applauded, and started making their way toward the Christmas trees. One, it was over, thank Christ, and Two, all those hundreds of boxes under the trees were not props. They were actual presents.

We said merry Christmas and goodbye to the other people at our table, and while it would be nice to say I'd made some new friends, that would be an exaggeration. At best, I'd recognize a few faces when we rode the same elevators at the office, but Russell was the only person I met at the party that I'd ever really talk to again. And even then, I don't think he remembered that we'd met.

We all waited in line to reach the nearest tree, and Zeke explained how this part of the party worked. All the presents were different, all were unmarked, and you simply took a present and took your chances. Most would be little things, Juan explained — a desk fan, or a garden sprinkler — but a few of the gifts would be more substantial items. Last year, he said, someone had gotten a snowblower.

From under the tree, I took a red box just because I like red, and because it was small and light enough to easily carry. Juan and Zeke and I took our boxes to a nearby, already abandoned table and started ripping.

Juan got a handheld video game that looked somewhat nice. Zeke got an ugly Christmas sweater. I got an oversized flashlight that was also an AM/FM radio (batteries included). Nice presents, and another nice touch for the big event. Juan said he didn't like video games, so he and Zeke traded presents. Juan pulled his new sweater on over his head, and it mussed his hair real funny, and Zeke took a picture that ended up in the company newsletter.

The crowd was thankfully thinning, and in the lobby a dozen other people were trading their company presents. Olivia, boss of the slicers, was among them, and her present had been a lava lamp, but she'd traded it for a very nice picnic basket. She's outgoing but also nice, so the four of us got to talking, and she'd been working for the company for decades, so she told us about the spirit of Christmas parties past.

In her first few years, she said, there'd been drinking at the Christmas parties — booze with an open bar. Bottomless martinis and Manhattans. "That ended in the 1980s," she said, "after the incident." 

"The incident?" I asked, and without nearly enough details she told us that a vice president and an office worker had gotten "really quite handsy" at their table during dinner.

I wondered exactly how handsy, but Olivia said, "Oh, my husband's here to pick me up — you guys have a great Christmas, OK?" and she was gone.

It was only about 2:45 and we were free to go, and still we'd be paid like we'd worked until our normal quitting times. Yet another nice touch. The party, I decided, had been mostly a series of nice touches, and damn, the ham was good, too.

Juan and Zeke and I said goodbye and merry Christmas, and Juan said, "Will you come to the party again next Christmas?"

I smiled and said "Absolutely," but knew I wouldn't. Like an anthropological expedition, I'd come, I'd seen, I'd experienced it, and now I've written about it, but once was enough. Happy holidays and all that crap, but even with Juan and Zeke and the other orphans protecting me, I'd rather be at home with my wife and the cat.

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18 comments:

  1. People will not understand how difficult this kind of reportorial writing is: the intertwining of telling a story of an event in chronological order, noting your own emotional response to the event as it unfolds, zooming in and out to provide details of the event that reveal the larger story without getting bogged down in the details, structuring a framework of background/opening/middle/end/summary while making that structure transparent, using humor without allowing it to degrade into parody, while using, in this case, language appropriate for a slightly formal Christmas party while maintaining the narrative in the vernacular to put the reader there without losing him/her.

    Writing that kind of narrative is really difficult, but if you don't make it look easy you start to turn readers off. Man, you nailed this one.

    You don't need effusive praise from me, but this could be lifted and placed in a writing workshop handout as an example of effective first person narrative writing. You did a dozen more things I didn't mention that any writer would do well to learn, and integrated them so subtly that they go right past the reader if he's not looking for them. Thank you for taking the extra time to turn this narrative into art.

    John

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    1. You surprise me, John. I won't argue, but I never know what's good and what's garbage. I can tell the difference when someone else writes it, but my own stuff? Nah, I can't tell for a year or two.

      When I was patching this one together this morning, I thought it was rambling and anecdotal and a lot to ask anyone to read it. I am required by me, though, to get something new online every morning, so what the hell, here goes. That it connects with someone — someone I believe knows about good writing — makes my afternoon.

      You, sir, are a hot buttered banana-nut muffin when I didn't know anything was even in the toaster. Thank you. You're also welcome to write a negative critique when it's deserved, which might be tomorrow. I''m working on something right now that smells like crap.

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    2. I have no idea how writing works, and even less of an idea how good writing works -- that is, where it comes from, how it is formed from concept to idea to word to paragraph to chapter. The question took me, as a reader, from novel to short story to popular song to poetry when I was a young man. I finally, in song and poetry, found a germ of an idea that could grow into a theory that would never grow into a compete theory about where good writing comes from: genius.

      The partial theory speculates that we are all blessed or cursed by happenstance with a shard of genius in these brains that took two billion years to evolve. Since genius is a frightening thing that lives next door to madness, when we first experience it, usually around the time of puberty (in some cases, Yo-Yo Ma, et. al., earlier) it scares the shit out of us. We tell it to go away, try to run, submerge ourselves in whiskey (and now weed) and more powerful substances to avoid it, and eventually, if we are successful, it submerges in our consciousness and hides, waiting for us to let our guard down, which most of us never do.

      Joe Heller wrote one of the best novels of the 20th century by asking the question, "What does a sane man do in an insane society?" We'll have to gender-normalize that for today's readers, but it's a fair question, and the genesis of Catch-22. It took him thirteen years to publish his second novel (partly because Catch-22 had reinvented the novel form and partly just because) and only wrote four more novels after that, along with some short stories and magazine pieces. He was asked in later years, "You never achieved the greatness of Catch-22 again, did you?" Heller famously replied, "Who has?"

      But he rode his genius like a perfect wave for nearly a decade to produce Catch-22. Like Dylan, nearly a decade after his muse had left him, produced one more work of divine beauty in "Blood on the Tracks" in the fall of 1974 in New York, found that he had fucked up some of the recording with his blind ego, then re-recorded five tracks in a small studio in a forgotten neighborhood of Minneapolis over a sub-zero Christmastide with a half dozen musicians nobody outside of the Twin Cities had ever heard of. Dylan submersed his ego as much as he could and listened to what was left of his own genius, and the genius of the unknown musicians.

      Doug, you have some genius that, on your best days, you tap into. Most of us have strangled our geniuses by now, but you've lived a little outside the law and have forced yourself to be honest. You have retained that shard, or some of it. If you stare at it long enough, it will go away. If you ride it like the perfect wave it might stay with you for a while.

      I'm far too old and grouchy to kiss ass halfway across an insane country. I enjoy being told I can write a little, and, though I submerged my genius at the usual time, I can perform a sort of workmanlike job. If you don't enjoy your genius and aid it with hard work and commitment, as you've been doing, you're sending two billion years of evolutionary advantage down a toilet that, unlike mine for the last week, flushes.

      Work hard and don't forget to have fun.

      johnthebasket

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    3. > I have no idea how writing works, and even less of an idea how good writing works...

      If you say so, Dr John, but you *do* know how to do it and that's what matters.

      > Doug, you have some genius that, on your best days, you tap into.

      One of my days is coming up in April. Mark your calendar now and don't miss it!

      'Genius' is a word often misused, like by Donald Trump when describing Donald Trump, which was a mindblowing conundrum within a conundrum within another conundrum, wasn't it?

      Never seen 'genius' as the right word to describe any person, now that I pause and ponder it. Occasionally the word accurately describes a work, or more often a half-second of wonder à la "flash of genius." Some very few people are geniuses at one thing, or were at one time, like Heller and Dylan, but same as me and everyone they're all bozos or backwards at most everything else, and at any moment before or after their flash.

      Four of my favorite writers post on this site, and they know who they are. I've given three out of four a compliment, and I don't compliment often, so that's a big clue. I'd put myself in fourth place (again, just for this website) — but at least I'm on the list. I enjoy writing, and usually don't think I've embarrassed myself, but that's as far as I'd go patting my back or kissing my ass.

      I am ass-kiss resistant, but not ass-kiss immune, so you're always welcome to try, Be advised it gets messy back there. Nobody visits, so I don't keep it terribly tidy any more.

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    4. Dude,

      Attempting to clarify a statement about the complexity of human intelligence and behavior is a loser's game, yet here I am, replying under the impossible odds of a six-deck Blackjack shoe or a numbers racket run by the Alabama State Republican Committee. But I got myself into this.

      What I didn't say: Doug's a genius.

      What I tried to say: We all, or most of us, are born with a small but powerful element of inspiration in our brains that, sometime in the last two billion years, served a survival need, but has since gone (roughly) the way of the appendix. By life choices that reduce the amount of social compromising we are all required to engage in, you have preserved a modicum of this inspiration (as have other people who have not worn it away through social compromise) and, combined with hard work and repeated daily practice, retain a fair amount of it that frequently reveals itself in your writing.

      I wasn't analyzing you; I don't know you. I was analyzing your writing, of which I've read a fair amount. And in that writing I found the usual stuff: pain, ignorance, joy, sadness, plenty of scars, and a small dose of the inspiration most of us have purged ourselves of by our teenage years. I probably shouldn't have called it genius, but our vocabulary for describing the ineffable is limited.

      And never expect an old man to kiss ass. We hate squatting down.

      John

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    5. Fuckit, I'm not quite done. You will note in my writing kidnapped tidbits from external sources (did you know that in the 19th century and even slightly later that word was "titbit"? which sounds like, at the minimum, more fun.) I'm reproducing, sometimes consciously, sometimes without knowing, snippets or even whole sentences from sources I digested decades ago and are just coming back up like a Big Mac with extra sugar. Your writing is characterized by the nearly total lack of that borrowed prose. Everything is new. Whether it's better without the old cliches is a matter of opinion. My opinion is that it's very much like a breath of fresh air, remembering that I grew up in a town that was awash in sulphur dioxide.

      That's about enough on Duggles' writing. Feel free to respond, but what I intended to say in a few paragraphs has turned into some kind of dirty romance novel. I'm just guessing. I haven't read any myself.

      jtb

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    6. Wait, so I'm not a genius? Sigh. My wife was right...

      > By life choices that reduce the amount of social compromising we are all required to engage in, you have preserved a modicum of this inspiration (as have other people who have not worn it away through social compromise)…

      A light bulb moment. I need solitude to write, of course, but I'd never thought that my lifelong grumpy preference for solitude might *improve* the writing, or keep it from being battered to dusty dullness. That's interesting enough that while pondering it, I've been staring at the ceiling for a minute or so, and really I should broom down the cobwebs up there.

      I like writing so I write, but that's all I know. I don't give much thought to the 'how' of it. I've thought more about the 'why', but it really just comes down to 'why not?' As in, writing is fun for me, so why not? Guess I'm not a heavy thinker. More cobwebs.

      Titbits! I love that, and probably I've heard the word, because I watch a lot of British TV shows (Doctor Who and The Avengers, mostly), but it's similar enough I'd never noticed. Sounds so naughty, I hope it satisfies MLG's daily urge for boobies.

      > Your writing is characterized by the nearly total lack of that borrowed prose. Everything is new.

      Really, no. I try to avoid clichés, but I don't try very hard, and in absolutely every article, often every paragraph, there are echoes of something I've read or heard, ideas swiped and philosophizing borrowed.

      A girl I dated (when I was so young that I dated girls instead of women) liked romance novels, and loaned me one, which I read and liked so much I still remember it almost as fondly as I remember her. Skye O'Malley, by Beatrice Small. I'll bet Ms Small has no cobwebs on her ceiling.

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    7. So you mock my struggle to identify the special property of the brain/mind that enables you to create readable, enjoyable prose that offers a very different take on the world than I find elsewhere. Well, mock away, but I should warn you that the line of mockers I've encountered is a long one, and does not move at the speed of mock 1. We can all be geniuses, but most of us brush off the feeling as we do an annoying headache and change the channel. Just rambling again.

      jtb

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    8. Exhausted this morning I am, but never mock I do.

      Delete
    9. Now you're mocking Yoda. Hey, even animatronic characters have feelings. Wait a minute . . .

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    10. Was Yoda mechanical? I always thought he was a muppet.

      Delete
    11. I've asked the same question about most of the Trump Cabinet, and received unsatisfactory answers like this.

      jtb

      Delete
  2. Captain HampocketsJanuary 1, 2022 at 6:58 AM

    I haven't read the column yet, and I imagine this is unrelated, but :

    Regarding podcasts, are you interested at all in old suspense/hard boiled detective radio shows? I've been on a kick lately, and can recommend a few podcasts.

    I don't wanna type 'em up if no interest, but let me know if you are curious. I'll pass 'em on to you.

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    Replies
    1. I always want to be interested in those old shows, like the ones CBS Radio used to air on the weekends. Haven't heard any in years. If you're willing to type it, I'm already intrigued.

      Delete
    2. Captain HampocketsJanuary 1, 2022 at 1:45 PM

      My subscriptions are :

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio

      https://www.greatdetectives.net/detectives/

      At that link, go down to "Currently Featuring," near the top, and click on "View All Shows." You can then select a series, and listen to (seemingly) every available episode, WITHOUT a podcast app. This one is my favorite one so far.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Stars on Suspense

      https://starsonsuspense.libsyn.com/

      You can figure out how to listen, it's obvious. It's episodes of the show "Suspense" which featured famous actors. Hit and miss, more hits so far than misses.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~

      CBR Radio Mystery Theater

      https://www.cbsrmt.com/

      Much newer, started in 1974. But so far, pretty good. Lasted until 1982. Click "Episode Guide," then figure it out.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Down These Mean Streets

      https://downthesemeanstreetspodcast.libsyn.com/

      My least favorite, but I've only listened to episodes 1 and two. #1 was a terrible Sam Spade thing, even more sexist than you'd think, and boring. Episode 2 was a better Philip Marlowe tale.

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    3. This all sounds like fun. Thanks for the time spent typing, and I will start checking these out this afternoon.

      Delete
    4. Captain HampocketsJanuary 2, 2022 at 6:39 AM

      You're welcome! Just go in with the same approach as with a Mickey Spillane book.

      Delete
    5. Man, I go through *life* with the same approach as a Mickey Spillane book (with the racism and sexism and knee-jerk patriotism dialed down, I hope).

      Delete

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