porcelainandporcupines

In which we talk of hot dogs and aging

Posted on: June 23, 2014

There is no polite way to ask someone if they’re about to eat an unreasonable amount of hot dogs. That’s not specific to hot dogs, actually; no matter what a person is eating, a comment on the quantity is going to be a judgement. Many is the time I heard “Wow, you sure do eat a lot of salad,” as though having eaten an entire bowl of lettuce that was not topped which chicken was remarkable in comparison to the half a bowl of lettuce left over by those who had also eaten several chickens worth of tenders. That the relative insubstantiality of lettuce plays no factor at all in deeming the quantity of consumed lettuce excessive underscores how very impolite a similar judgement regarding hot dogs – whose substantiality is well-established even as the actual substance of which they are composed remain a mystery – would be. To question someone on the number of hot dogs they’re eating is to question their judgement, and questioning their judgement is akin to questioning their worth as a human being.

This question of what constitutes a reasonable serving of hot dogs came to mind around lunch time, when I was struck by an aroma as I entered the break room and, upon further investigation, discovered 6 hot dogs quietly baking in the toaster oven. There was only one other person in the break room, but her office is also in the break room, so there was an outside chance that the hot dogs were not hers at all, much less entirely hers. I could not, however, ignore the possibility that all 6 hot dogs were intended for just that one person. Which, frankly*, seemed like a lot.

But, as previously stated, there was really no way to determine this. “Wow, that’s a lot of hot dogs,” is maybe appropriate talk if you work in a carnival hosting a hot-dog-eating contest, but a carnie I am not. I did note a lack of buns in the break room, and so considered that the seemingly excessive number of hot dogs was a purposeful counterbalance to the lack of buns. I almost considered that the excessive number of hot dogs compensating for the lack of buns might be indicative that someone was on the Atkins diet, but then I remembered that it’s not 2003 anymore and everyone loves carbs now, just so long as they’re whole grain, local, and gluten-free. Unless they’re following the Paleo diet, but I don’t want to think of what the world might be like if I knew people who followed the Paleo diet, even if just casually through work, so I abandoned that line of thought pretty quickly and returned to a slightly modified version of the original line, that, even without buns, 6 hot dogs is a lot of hot dogs.

Even determining ownership of the hot dogs was tricky. “Are these your hot dogs?” could go a lot of ways, depending on inflection, and I wouldn’t trust myself to sound non-judgmental on an inherently judgmental issue. Without ever considering that I was putting far too much thought into an ultimately trivial matter, I finally settled on “Hot dogs for lunch?”, believing that the statement-in-the-form-of-a-question was my best hope for neutrality, even if it left the greater issue, that of the Ideal Number of Hot Dogs and How it is Most Likely Less Than 6, unanswered.

The answer, it turns out, was yes. And this is how I discovered that there are some people who consider 6 hot dogs to be a perfectly reasonable lunch. However, instead of focusing  how myself and this person differ dramatically in our approaches to diet, I focused rather on the tremendously inane question I had just asked, how little it contributed to a genuine exchange of knowledge, and how very happy I was about it.

Because, as I’m sure you can imagine if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation that involves coworkers, the Hot Dog Situation was not my first interaction with this person, nor was it my first awkward interaction with this person. On one previous occasion, she had gone in to quite a bit of detail on the excellent rapport between herself and her chiropractor, ending with “My chiropractor thinks I’m hilarious; she said I should be a stand-up comedian;” and while I did intrinsically understand that “Oh, are you funny?” would not be the right thing to say, how to respond to a person extolling qualities that I’ve never seen manifest has always eluded me. In this situation, I responded with a couple of my favorite sounds that can pass for language, the tried-and-true “Ah. Huh.” Another time, I remarked on the temperature in the room, which caused her to launch into a lengthy discussion of an attempt to get tickets to an event that required costumes but was not Halloween, and although she was generous enough to pause occasionally to allow me to speak, I was thoroughly confused about how this talk of costumed adventure was going to swing back around to be about the temperature, which was noticeably colder than it should have been, and so could only fill the silence with quizzical looks and more silence.

From her perspective, I’m sure that looked like a failure to hold up my end of the conversation. But for me, in between not understanding that there was no connection between temperature and costumes, and that none would be forthcoming, I was looking across a generational divide, steep and glorious as the Grand Canyon.

For her, these are the years to spend swearing your life will be free of workplace banalities like “Hot dogs for lunch?” Your life will be meaningful, it will involve costumes and hard to get tickets, and you’ll stupidly fall in love with guys who refuse to wear watches because they refuse to live their lives by someone else’s schedule, and not because they’re an inconsiderate asshole who’s always late. You will be someone who has something to say.

For me, though, what I understand is that sometimes, I’d rather politely end a conversation than engage in one that doesn’t interest me. That having something to say is quite a bit different than wanting to hear myself talk. And that, while the meaningless inanities could certainly indicate that the person talking is not interesting, there’s a greater chance it means they’re not interested in talking to me. Just as it took me an unfortunately long time to cotton to the dude without the watch, I did eventually come to realize that the true and lovely meaning of utterly mindless chit-chat is that we find ourselves together at this place and time, so why don’t we just leave it at that.

(*Pun intentional and without apology.)

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