Monday, May 10, 2010

Feed My Starving Suburbs

I know that it’s supremely un-American of me, since all of us have such strong opinions about everything, but there’s something I’m undecided about. And it’s something that everyone else in my circle seems to regard as a good and noble punch on the passcard to heaven. My dilemma centers on Feed My Starving Children.

If you’ve never participated in one of their events, here’s a distillation: Drive to the remotest reaches of the suburbs, where the sidewalks and the minorities have vanished. File into a hyper-clean space in a “light industrial” complex. Listen to 30 minutes of fundraising, including video, followed by an hour of food packet assembly (accompanied by a very loud soundtrack of ‘70s hits), followed by another thirty minutes of fundraising, plus an offer to buy t-shirts and tubes of M&Ms that you’re asked to return, filled with quarters. That’s it.

There is so much about this place that bothers me, but then I tell myself I’m looking at things from the wrong perspective. I try to go along with the group, which I manage for a while, until another heretical thought pops into my head.

The first moment of queasiness comes when they trot out the poor starving Haitians in the video and I feel as if I’m watching poverty porn. Granted, this victim-plea is pretty much the norm for nonprofits. I was at a medical clinic gala a couple weeks ago where they decided it wasn’t enough to make the poor man who needed care chatter like a needy mynah bird for a camera crew (off to one side, at an arty angle, natch) and be subjected to a weepy string underscore – they made him stand up AFTER the video and give a speech. (Sidenote: Another place where I volunteer, Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP), staunchly refuses to feature their clients in any way as a matter of policy, saying, “the people who use our food shelf are the ones who take your money at the gas station and clean your office building. You see them every day, so you don’t need to see them here.” Not as much of a heartstring tug, but high on the respect-o-meter.)

So I’m watching the video, already squirming, when they note that the food is distributed through “Christian organizations,” and I wonder what that means. Is this Christian with a capital “K?” If I showed up in a chador, or wrapped in a tallit, would I still be fed?

Then, up on the screen, I hear a teenage volunteer testify, “I’d rather be here than home playing video games,” and I think, okay, score one for FMSC. Perhaps this can be a gateway charity, one that leads to stronger stuff, like actually being in the same room with someone who’s starving.

Once work commences, things feel better, especially since I, having done this before, wisely volunteered for warehouse duty. Working in the main room, scooping rice with a bunch of bossy sixth grade girls, is really no fun. (Note for school groups: warehouse jobs are good for the kids who need a lot of physical activity and who don’t work or play well with others, like me.) The boys and I scoop stuff and cart stuff, until the boys start to get tired and the old guy volunteers kick in. I am to the bottom of a burlap rice bag and struggling with it, so I ask one of the old guys if we can cut it open. “Well no, because they use these bags to line their huts,” he says, quietly and sadly. Feeling overfed and overhoused, I shut up and get back to work.

Then I hear a big whoop from the main room, where the stations are vying to see which one can pack the most. A friend of mine works at a company which sends their sales force to FMSC each year. “I love it!” my highly competitive friend says. “We have huge contests to see who can pack the most.” Yeah, I think, that Jesus really missed a bet, not putting a point structure in the Beatitudes. “Ten points for clothing the naked, special triple bonus for feeding the hungry, and on Wacky Wednesdays, a 10% topper for visiting people in prison!”

Now I’m back to where I started, all world-weary and mistrustful. Peeking through the warehouse doors, I can’t deny that everyone seems very cheerful. People love to work together for a common goal, and to see the tangible results of what they do. But are they any happier here than they would be at Build-A-Bear or Paint-A-Plate parties? And, to ask an even more heretical question, does this stuff really need to be packed by hand? I’m sure the nice people at General Mills, just up the street, would have some good ideas about how food packing can be automated. That Industrial Revolution, it really did have some swell concepts. But I'm guessing that it’s the actual physical labor, whether necessary or make-work, that helps people feel they’ve really accomplished something.

And now my shift is over, and they’re starting to encourage us to buy those tubes of M&Ms, so I’d better quit while I’m ahead, and still, it seems, undecided.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Talking out Loud (Like a Broken Drum)

My old pal Roger, the one who reminded me of Fred Flinstone in more ways than I care to remember, used to hold a roomful of peons hostage in a conference room, writing with dried-out marker on the flip chart and stopping every now and then to say, “I’m just talking out loud here.”

Ah, my days of being a corporate tool. Good for my 401K contributions, bad for my faith in the longevity of the English language.

Since my first day as an employee at the sort of joint that provides an employee ID number and a name badge, I’ve sat through thousands of hours of meetings. There were meetings when I tried hard not to scream aloud, meetings when I felt my heart pounding in my chest because I had no idea how I would ever get all that work done, and meetings where I honestly wondered if anyone would notice if I just … closed … my … eyes … a … bit. And always, I kept my mouth shut when I heard language being misused, mispronounced and generally mangled to unrecognizable bits, as it often was, and not just when Roger had flown in from Detroit.

As a recovering English major, I make it a point never to correct other people’s grammar. Having spent my life with one parent whose greatest pleasure in life was to point out other people’s mistakes, as loudly as possible, I lost my appetite for correcting other people long ago. My one exception is for a single bit of Minnesota-ese which I only heard after moving here. I feel strongly enough about this one to tell my daughters that if they ever use the word “pitcher” to describe a photograph, graphic representation or piece of artwork, I will sneak into their rooms while they’re sleeping and shave their heads.

I’ve been spending more time in conference rooms lately, and I see that the state of the English language is in perhaps even worse shape than when I first took a detour into self-employment. People are working twice as hard, and they seem to be thinking before they speak about half as much.

Here, then, for your amusement or despair, are a few of my new favorite bits of “talking out loud,” heard within the past calendar year at very reputable firms, and uttered by entirely well-meaning staff members. Feel free to contribute some of your own pips in the Comments section:

From someone who felt he was repeating himself, “I know I sound like a broken drum.”

From someone who was worried she had given me too heavy a workload: “I don’t want to overwater you here.”

From someone who wanted me to know that things were happening at a rapid pace: “We’re aggressing very forward.”

And now, I stop, before I cry. I'm reminded of Kennedy's description of my boyfriend Winston Churchill as the man who “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

The battlefield is one thing, but the conference room might just beat the poor language yet.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mary's Peeps

Everything is catawampus (yes, that’s the correct spelling, I checked) in our family these days, what with Mary suddenly off and away every afternoon at play practice. The girl who normally requires hours of door-closed quiet time is staying up past ten on schoolnights to work as an assistant stage manager for a local youth theatre group’s production of her favorite book of all time, Surviving the Applewhites. The plot has everything Mary loves: a wonderfully weird family, a mystic/saint, the Musical Theater and everyone working together in love and harmony. Plus, they put on a show in a barn. (I had to get her on You Tube clips of Rooney & Garland to see that this was an oft-told joke, not a new inspiration). If the cast called for a wry, well-dressed gay boy who burst frequently into song, the show would be perfect, in Mary’s view.

She’s doing much more than just helping to put on a play, though. Every night she comes home with a new story. Some boy laid himself across a table and sang “Roxie.” The boy dressed like Kurt in “Sound of Music” launched into “Springtime for Hitler.” Everyone, all the time, sang all the songs from last week’s episode of “Glee.” And Mary, who spends days at school where no one ever has the slightest idea what she’s talking about, found that every line of dialogue or flutter of song lyric was immediately understood and appreciated.

Mary has found her peeps.

As great as this is, and as happy as it makes me, I find special delight not in Mary’s happiness, but in Emma’s confusion. During the nightly recounting of the cast’s antics, Emma narrows her eyes and asks repeated questions like, “and when they did that, nobody made fun of them?” It’s become clear that Emma saw Mary as a one-of-a-kind crazie, her own beloved and uniquely bizarre sister. That there are Other People just like that, well, it’s a little much for my big, very sensible girl to bear.

But she’s holding steady to this new, slightly tilted, planet, and she loves Mary just as much.

As always, these girls, together, are a beautiful thing.