Thursday, January 17, 2008

the trouble with...

My biggest ridiculous frivolous expense, besides my dog, is going out to eat. Lately I've stepped up my program of bringing lunch to work and taking Nancy Reagan's advice (just say no) concerning dinner invitations, but it's dawned on me that cafes are harder to avoid than spare-changers on Telegraph Avenue.

I was seriously wondering about my willpower before I added up the number of invitations I receive each week. A typical week is seven. The number can easily go up to twelve. The absolute minimum is four. And if I don't accept the minimum number of invitations, I don't see my friends. We have no backup plan. Even if I persuade them to take a walk with me (not an easy sell with my crowd), it's rarely instead of going out to eat. On the contrary, hikes just make us hungrier.

Last weekend a friend of mine, without warning, simply bought my lunch. I racked my brain but couldn't think of any reason for him to do that (Did I drive? Did I edit something? Did I pet-sit? Did I overpower him with my inordinate charm?) None of the usual free-lunch triggers fit the occasion, particularly that last one. Which means that now I'm obligated to take him to lunch soon. This is how lunch dates multiply. Like tribbles.

I have another friend (let's call her Lisa) who always, always offers to cook. And she's an incredible cook who can whip up a vegan meal and show me the online profiles of all the cute guys she's dating at the same time. Very cool, except she once made the fatal mistake of introducing me to the Ethiopian restaurant a brief walk from her house. So now I'm like a Pavlovian dog when it comes to dinner with Lisa. I can taste the spicy sweet potatoes as soon as she says "get together." Besides, I'm never going to figure out the knack of bringing wine. And I'm only going to cook dinner for friends once a year on Christmas. So how in the world do I pay her back? (More cafe dinners, that's how! I pay her back in tribbles!)

Even for the once-a-week let's-watch-trash-TV event at my house with Wendy, I'm too tired from work to put together a meal. Ordering takeout has become part of the weekly holiday tradition.

And this is not taking into account my own weaknesses, like going out by myself to read a novel at Filippo's or Jenny's. Or forgetting to eat breakfast or replenish my always-diminishing supply of bananas, thereby having to stop off at the deli. Plus! I'm not even dating anyone right now. Dating always adds two or three meals to the week.

Wendy, who reads financial websites the way I watch YouTube, sent me a link to a blog by a woman who budgeted herself out of debt in an amazingly short period of time (hint, hint?) The blog talks a lot about not going out to eat. Wendy said, "And can you believe her friends were really unsupportive of that?" Um, er, yes. Because how else do we all hang out? I can't even see the guys I work with unless I walk out with them for coffee.

When I was twelve, I went to England with my cousin who was undergoing an experimental treatment for cystic fibrosis. The treatment involved drinking these horrible thick gray beverages in place of meals. All meals. The thought was that starting at age twelve, she would never eat regular food again. Eventually, the beverages (which contained some sort of glucose-y simple sugar) induced type 2 diabetes. Which meant her teenage years were spent giving herself insulin shots on top of dying from an incurable disease.

Even if the experiment had not gone awry, I gotta wonder at the adults who considered this an acceptable treatment. How could they think that anyone could comply with such a program? My aunt's faculties (she's normally the most sensible woman I know) must've been overcome by grief at her impending loss. Otherwise, she never would've packed her child off to a foreign land for such an ordeal.

But because of all this, we talked a lot back then about the place food holds in social interactions. Food is always present, at every event from movies to ball games to cocktail parties. Food is what we all gather around now that campfires have been replaced by halogen bulbs. We spent the year I was twelve trying to figure out how to be together without food. We never really found a solution, and I still remember my relief when I heard that Betsy ended the treatment and could rejoin the party.

Okay, didn't mean to go off on such a bummer. The point is, it's really hard to avoid going out to eat unless you're Zarathustra or somebody like that. I've already suspended all solitary dining out for the duration of the war, but I can't put off my friends any more than I have already and still expect them to be around to listen to my diatribes about men and work and life.

The blog girl's workaround is to eat first, then order something like tea (cheaper than cappucinos) or water and a snack. Or take half of it home. I love the concept of workarounds, because abstinence definitely isn't working for me. Cheap restaurant meals are to budgets as free clinics are to unprotected sex.

Reminds me of The Shop Around the Corner, a depression-era Jimmy Stewart movie where Jimmy can't afford to marry the girl he loves. He asks a married-with-five-children co-worker how he manages. "And what about when friends come over for dinner? What about that?"

He replied, "If they're real friends, they'll come over after dinner."

1 comment:

leesajay said...

i think all these workarounds are good, but also: burritos! the cheapest eat-out food on earth. you can go out for dinner for six bucks total.

more important, though, is that your friends will understand if you say, "i really want to hang out with you, but just can't afford to eat out so much right now. can we [blank] instead?" i know what you said about taking a walk, but i think you'll have better luck if you explain why you're making alternative suggestions. it also opens the door to people saying, "well, i don't want to walk, but how about we [insert other free or cheap activity here] instead?" or offering to cook. which does not always have to lead to tribbles!

'cause now is where i tell you that i don't expect to be "paid back" for cooking, and many people feel the same way or would be happy to be "paid back" with a contribution of ingredients. i sometimes call people up and say things like, "wanna come over for dinner? i have potatoes and kale and white beans, so if you bring a leek we're all set."

also, i have to note here that i *love* to think of myself in the way i am described here. i sound so cool and fun and like i am always dating multiple cute boys! i wish my actual life felt like that.

and, in closing, i respectfully suggest that perhaps you might want to cook dinner for your friends on a more regular basis. 'cause you're totally right about socializing without food. it's just too hard. besides, you have to eat food every day, and why not eat it with others? you have to feed yourself, and the way you describe the eating-out problem does suggest that you cook for yourself regularly, otherwise the budget issue would not be linked to socializing. so why not eat with friends what you eat when you're alone? (i realize we may be opening up a whole new discussion, what with everyone having weird food habits that they like to keep to themselves, but i still think it bears mentioning.)