Help Yourself!

How could you resist?

Somewhere in Cubicle America ™, in a ten-by-ten dead end of a rat maze for the rat race, there is a kitchenette.  In that kitchenette stands a bi-level refrigerator/freezer.  Like a drowsy elder statesman, the refrigerator is prone to rattling, growling white noise filibusters interrupted by startling silences. On the nearby countertop are two heavy-duty, brushed aluminum microwaves; one works, but it’s a nuclear laboratory disguised as an appliance.  It reeks of the splatter of a hundred lunches repeatedly recooked to the point of quantum reconfiguration. One day, the successor to the human race will emerge from that microwave. The other microwave has been broken for two months now.  It sits smugly in the cobra coils of its own electric cord, mocking all would-be poppers of popcorn with its patent uselessness.   There’s a coffee machine that combines the craftsmanship of a give-a-shit barista with the charm of a Chinese water torture machine.  The coffee machine’s ever present puddle buddy perilously lies in wait on the floor nearby like a goon looking to finish what the coffee machine started.  There is a sink.  Its drain trap is filled with debris and chunkage of an indeterminate origin. An inch of grey water gussied up in a filmy veil of pearlescent handsoap stands stagnant in that sink, emanating eternal ennui.  A rainbow of scattered post-it notes decorates the room, giving it the festive flair of a passive-aggressive surprise party.  Surprise!  “This is your home five days a week!  Keep it clean!” Surprise! “Did you enjoy that last cup of coffee?  Did you know that you’re not the only person who would like a cup, too?  Remake after you take!” Surprise! “Im broke!  Fix me!”

Amid the miniature landscape of crumbs and coffee ring oxbows mapping the emerald-green countertop stands a cup.  It’s a Styrofoam cup, recruited from one of the tilting towers of its like stationed by the coffee machine.  The cup is crowded to the brim with a concoction of mixed fruit.  The fruit is well past its prime: faded and clearly breaking down into water and enzymes.  At the base of the cup is another post-it.  “Help yourself,” the post-it admonishes the corporate kitchenette party-goers.  “Help yourself!”

“Help yourself.”  It’s a phrase that connotes cheerful generosity.  It brings to mind images of fresh-baked cookies on a grandmother’s coffee table, coupons cranking out of a small red machine in a grocery aisle, colorful stacks of Thrifty Nickels at a gas station, baskets of lotion samples at a doctor’s office, or individually wrapped peppermints at a restaurant cash register.  These things we’ve been told to help ourselves to are given away to anyone, for reasons ranging from simple love, mutual benefit, commercial enticement, and an appreciation for the important societal under girding provided by breath that does not smell of Hospitaliano ™.  But somehow, there’s a bleak and dour undercurrent to the post-it note invitation in this corporate kitchenette. “Help yourself,” it reads, but if there were enough room on the post-it note, it might have gone on to say “because in this hellish, god-forsaken place, no one else will.”  The rotten fruit cup just adds insult to injury.

When the rotten fruit cup told me to help myself, I instantly thought of Socrates.  Did his governmentally-mandated cup of hemlock come with a cute little “help yourself” note, too?  From what I’ve taken away from my reading on the matter, it might as well have.  Socrates, with his annoying habit of questioning authority, was clearly not “fitting in” with the world according to the Athenian mission statement, and was politely asked to clear his cube, in a manner of speaking.  “Help yourself, Socrates!  If you can’t stop asking all those subversive questions, then at least help yourself to a nice warm cup of suicide.”  I think under such oppressive circumstances, I would have probably asked for a second helping.

The fruit in the cup reeked of defeat and degeneration.  But did it harbor an escape from this non-stop bitch warfare battlefield where the faceless powerless senselessly lashed out at one another with destructive squalor and pissiness, where even normal kitchen appliances seemed to harbor unkind intentions?  Is this the world I was born to live in?  “Help yourself!” the rotten fruit cup’s siren song called to me, “There might be just enough e-coli here to make it all go away.  Forever!”  Was someone trying to help me after all?  The thought of the bottomless Styrofoam cup to oblivion was a seductive one, if it weren’t for the fruit it contained.  Because that shit was nasty.

Socrates once said “To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”  He had a point, but then I would rather live with the shame of my ignorance than be the wisest box of ashes in the far west suburbs.  And besides, the worst that cup of fruit could probably do is cost me a sick day.

“Help yourself,” the fruit cup admonished, clearly losing its patience, “Neither one of us is getting any fresher.”  Socrates may have achieved ultimate wisdom through fatal surrender, but the fact remains that he did indeed punk out.  He did not help himself at all.  In fact, it could be argued that he actually helped his oppressors by making himself an example of what happens to anti-authoritarian smartasses. Aron Ralston, though, now that’s a guy who knew how to help himself.  Aron Ralston’s cute little “Help yourself” note took the form of a sandstone boulder that he himself accidentally dislodged, subsequently pinning his right hand and wrist against a canyon wall.  This jackass canyoneer was trapped for six days, with very little food and water, in a standing position, at the bottom of a hole in the ground.  What’s more, he had neglected to inform anyone of where he would be that day and knew no one would be looking for him until he failed to show up for work several days later.  “Help yourself, Aron Ralston,” the boulder told him, “because in this hellish, god-forsaken place, no one else will.  No– really.”

Six horrifying days trapped under the accumulated weight of a lifetime’s worth of bad judgment and hubris… Aron Ralston’s deliverance came via a decision born of delirium and desperation.  And a dull, dirty knife.  He broke his own bones and he cut off his own arm and he rappelled down a cliff and he hiked six miles to safety.  It’s pretty safe to say Aron Ralston helped himself.

Aron Ralston had this to say about his ordeal: “Whatever you’re faced with you already have the tools to transform that adversity into something that’s positive. That’s what I proved to myself.”  Now, I understand that Aron Ralston is no Socrates, but this bland, can-do statement is a bit of a let-down as far as living proof testaments go.  Hell, a typical Reader’s Digest “Drama In Real Life” packs more of a schadenfreude punch, and I’m even counting the ones where “hero” dogs postpone the inevitable for their elderly owners.  Ralston sounds like someone who never had to drink his own urine or write his own epitaph or amputate his own arm.  Quite the contrary: he sounds like a job candidate who just got a bit fed up with the downer vibe coming out of the kitchenette at his old job and is interviewing for a new one.

But perhaps the secret to his survival lies in that generic, understated perspective.  What most people might consider a horrifying dance with slow death, Ralston saw as a rough day at the office.  It gave him the presence of mind to do the god-awful work of helping himself to life.  Socrates’ belief that suicide would be a fun field trip to Enlightenment Land gave him the courage to help himself to death.  Combing positive thinking, denial, delusion, this magic crazy cocktail induces a powerful intoxication.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Ralston and Socrates are indeed nutcase success stories, but one R Kelly has yet to fly of his own volition.

“Help yourself,” the fruit cup admonished, “Get off your ass and help yourself.”  It’s a cup of fruit, not hemlock, I reminded myself.  And it’s certainly not a boulder.  It’s a cup full of fruit that not even a tapeworm living in the withered small intestine of an anorexic monkey would eat, true, but that cup also contained perspective.  Socrates and Ralston, through the magic of mindset, found their respective ways out of no-win situations.  How would the combatants of this dead-end kitchenette find theirs?  Is this the life we were meant to live, squabbling like corporate pigs in the filth of our own malaise?  Were we trapped, and if so, will there be release?  After carefully disposing of the Styrofoam cup and its charming contents, I removed the “Help Yourself” post-it and, before heading out at the end of the day, I put it on a more helpful place: the door.

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2 Responses to “Help Yourself!”

  1. Gus Avocado Says:

    I once worked at a place that had one of the prehistoric particle accelerators masquerading as a microwave. We did not have proper kitchen counters in the breakroom/converted storeroom, so it was set on one of those 8-foot folding tables that the grade school gets out for book fairs and girl scout meetings.

    Though serviceable, it put the nuke-box at groin level, which earned the old turn-dial, no digital readout warhorse the nickname of “the Sterilizer”.

    I had not thought of that breakroom in over a quarter century. Way to explore the dark corners.

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