Consider the office Christmas party. Your employer, who grows prosperous from the sweat of your labors, forks out for dinner and drinks at a nice restaurant, and you can let your hair down for a while with your fellow wage slaves. Sounds like a good thing—so how come so many of them are so awful?
One year, the owner of the radio station I worked for scheduled our Christmas party for a mom-and-pop restaurant willing to trade the cost of the dinner for advertising. Imagine having the party at Denny’s, only with a limited menu, and you’re getting close to the vibe. The message to the staff was pretty clear—this is all you’re worth to me. And maybe it dawned on him that he’d skimped, because the next year, the party was scheduled for the most exclusive restaurant in the city. As the waitstaff brought the menus that night, the thought flashed from table to table instantaneously—let’s stick it to him. And so everyone ordered appetizers and bottles of wine, expensive entrees and desserts. The owner had a little facial tic, which grew more pronounced whenever he had to spend money, so that night he sat at the head table vibrating like a tuning fork. The Mrs. and I racked up $85 worth between the two of us. Two decades later, it’s still one of the most expensive dinners we’ve ever had.
Even though I loved many of the people I worked with, the company Christmas parties at my post-radio jobs were almost always dreadful. Dinner and drinks were fine. Even the little speech by the company president was OK. But when the party was planned by a committee, there always had to be an entertainment program of some kind—and I am convinced that there’s never in history been an office-party entertainment program that’s actually entertaining. Memo to party planners everywhere: Don’t waste money hiring a hypnotist or some damn thing—just reopen the bar and let everybody get back to drinking, because it’s drinking that provides the real entertainment at these things.
You can make the most fascinating sociological observations while watching people drink at office parties. Young people—those within, say, five years of college, who frequently spend Saturday nights out drinking—sometimes fail to see the difference between a typical night at Chasers and this distinctly work-related function, getting cheerily fucked up on appletinis and Miller Lite, depending on gender. Older people—couples in their 30s who are usually tied down with children but got a babysitter tonight—are a little more discreet, but only just, because they still think of themselves as college students who haven’t lost their ability to party. (And I can tell which couples have left the kids with Grandma for the night and booked a room in the hotel—usually by the look in the husband’s eye.) People 40s and up are harder to generalize about. My sympathies are always with the husbands of female employees, many of whom sit with a fixed smile on their faces, nursing a beer and pretending to watch with interest whatever’s going on around them. My sympathies are with these people because I was one of them—at least until The Mrs. excused me from having to attend any more of her office parties.
Since I got back into radio, I don’t go to the station’s parties, either. Nobody minds, because I usually volunteer to work that night so somebody else can go. But not all employers view party-skippers so benignly. At one company I worked for, the HR manager visited the cubicles of those who had declined the invitation to find out why. Sometimes I had a valid excuse, and sometimes I lied. One year I said I had tickets to a Badger game, which was true. She told me one of the vice-presidents had given up his tickets to the game, with the suggestion that if I were a good corporate citizen, I’d do the same. But I knew something she didn’t: I wasn’t a good corporate citizen.
There’s no natural musical angle to this post. (Sorry.) So this is as good a place as any to shift gears and unleash the 2009 Christmas podcast, recorded live in my living room and featuring the cat. I’m not happy with either the quality of my microphone or the quality of the production generally, but I hope you like it anyhow. It runs about 31 minutes and features a rarity by Darlene Love, plus Aimee Mann, Simon and Garfunkel, and a handful of songs I’ve written about this holiday season.
Christmas Podcast 2009