Tuesday, October 29, 2013

McDonald's and a Living Wage

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how companies like McDonald’s need to pay their workers a “living wage” that they can support a family on, and I’ve always disagreed with that. Not because I didn’t feel for the people who were trying to support families on a McDonald’s paycheck, and not because I’m totally callous toward the poor and the working poor. Quite the contrary, I believe that we should do more to help them, and that we’ll be a better society as a result.

No, my reason for disagreeing is very simple: I know from my years working there myself that McDonald’s is a “trained monkey job.” Really. It doesn't require you to have any skills that are worth $18/hour. It’s a beginner's job, where you learn the skills that you’ll need to keep other jobs in the future. True, most people will not go on to work for McDonald’s corporate, or to own their own franchise. Most people will never need to know what order to put the condiments on a Big Mac in their later lives, but it does teach you about showing up on time, working with others, and following directions without talking back.

Minimum wage jobs like those at McDonald’s were never designed to be jobs that a person could support a family on. With the exception of the managers, they were supposed to be jobs that teenagers and housewives worked for spare cash. They were flexible jobs that you could work while taking classes or while the kids were in school.

But there’s something else that I forgot about, that helps to make my point. It’s important to keep in mind, and we forget these days, that there were other jobs back then that paid good money. There were factory jobs where a person with only a high school education could work their way up and make good money…enough to support a family on. McDonald’s was always considered “chump change,” but good enough for the teenager saving up for his own car, or for spending money.

Then those other jobs went away, and McDonald’s was all that was left for people with no education or special training. They’re still paying what they’ve always paid, and now everyone’s getting on their case for not paying a living wage, or saying that the minimum wage needs to be increased so that a person could support a family on a McDonald’s paycheck.

Wrong. What needs to happen is for there to be jobs that are worth the living wage that would be paid to people. And believe it or not, according to an NPR piece from June 2011, a lot of them are out there, going begging for people to take them. The problem is that they all require some level of education or training after high school, or special training during high school.  And I suspect that the people at McDonald’s who are trying to support families are heavily weighted toward those who don’t have that education or training.

So…it seems that what we really need to do is to get everyone to understand the importance of an education, and to get them to go for it. That will enable them to get a job that pays a living wage.

And leave the burger-flipping to the teenagers who want a little spare cash.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Lady Sings the Blues About "The Butler"

Back in 1972 my family went to see Lady Sings the Blues, the film about Billie Holiday, starring Diana Ross. As we watched the scene where Harry first introduces her to heroin, my father turned to us and said, “That’s wrong. He’s not the guy who gave her heroin, it was Jimmy Monroe.”

And that was just the first of many inaccuracies and perhaps downright fabrications that I was made aware of in that movie.

The Wikipedia article on Lady Sings the Blues calls it a biographical drama film, loosely based on her autobiography; and in reading the plot of the movie and comparing it with the article about the real Billie, I definitely see where the “loosely based on” comes in.

However, Lady Sings the Blues was, once again, a biographical drama film, and not a documentary. It was a dramatic presentation about her life in broad strokes that would capture the audience’s attention, and maybe inspire them to find out more about her, not an episode of Biography. To tell the story within the already long 144 minutes some details had to be left out, certain incidents and people had to be combined; and to avoid lawsuits from those who were still alive, certain names had to be changed.

The movie was what some theologians would describe as “true, but not factual.”

And this wasn’t the first movie biography that “got it wrong.” The 1953 film Houdini ended with the famous escape artist dying dramatically in a failed escape attempt rather than from a much more pedestrian case of peritonitis. Once again, this was a feature film that was loosely based on the life of a real person, and not a documentary.

I could go on an on with examples, but I think you get my point.

All of which brings me to the recent movie The Butler. It is supposedly based on the life of real-life former White House butler Eugene Allen.

And that’s where the trouble begins.

In the column The Butler from Another Planet, Michael Reagan complains that the character of Cecil Gaines in the movie is nothing like the real Eugene Allen. He also complains that the movie dishonestly portrayed the workings of the White House during the administration of his father Ronald. He states that once again Hollywood has “taken a great story about a real person and twisted it into a bunch of lies.”

When I first read this column, I, being the librarian that I am, decided to do a little research to find out what was going on. That’s when I found out that, contrary to popular understanding, The Butler is not based on the life of Cecil Gaines. Rather, it’s a movie inspired by his life. To be more specific, it’s inspired by the idea of telling the story of a person who worked backstage at the White House for over 30 years, and seeing history through that person’s eyes. It’s a great idea.

And it’s been done before. The 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House, based on the book My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House, followed Lillian Rogers Parks and other members of the White House domestic staff through the administrations of presidents Taft through Eisenhower. It’s available from Amazon if you’re interested.

The difference here is that The Butler is about a fictional member of the White House domestic staff, while Backstairs at the White House is about the real people. And as a work of fiction, it is allowed to take even more liberties with the facts than Lady Sings the Blues did. Moreover, it’s a work of fiction about how a particular fictional character saw the Civil Rights Era from his position as a member of the White House domestic staff. It is not, and doesn’t pretend to be, a documentary on the presidents in office at the time. It doesn't pretend to be the biography of Eugene Allen. That’s something that both Michael Reagan and the general public need to understand. And once everyone understands that this is a work of fiction loosely based on history, the charges of twisting Allen's story "into a bunch of lies" should go away.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch Hyde Park on Hudson.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Would You Eat?

As I write this, which may be weeks before this makes its way online, Cheryl, Sofie, and I are listening to the audiobook of Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern when we’re in the van together. Now, despite the title, and the very salty language inside, we’re all enjoying it a lot, and we’ve been able to have some great conversations with Sofie as a result. Halpern’s father, who served in the Navy, comes across as a very wise and loving father, who just has a blunt way of saying things. In fact, Halpern himself says in the introduction that he realized when he moved back in with his parents that his father’s bluntness was a refreshing change from the passive-aggressiveness he dealt with on a daily basis from everyone else.

One of his father’s gems had to do with his brother’s not wanting to share his toys, and went like this:

I'm sorry, but if your brother doesn't want you to play with his shit, then you can't play with it. It's his shit. If he wants to be an asshole and not share, then that's his right. You always have the right to be an asshole -- you just shouldn't use that right very often.

I love this guy. He’s Heathcliff Huxtable with a potty mouth.

But my favorite story from the book so far has to do with the week that Halpern’s mother, a lawyer working in poverty law, decided that for one week the entire family should eat what her clients had to eat. This didn’t sit well with then 10-year-old Justin, who tried to choke down the disgusting food she brought home, and then went to his room without dinner rather than finishing it, hoping that his mother would finally bring him some real food.

A few hours later his father, and not his mother, came to his room, and had a talk with him about what was going on. He explained that both he and Justin’s mother had grown up poor, and thought it was important for he and his brother to understand just how much they had, and just how little poor people had to live with. That’s why they were eating the same shitty food that those people were given when they went to the local food pantry.

That’s when I paused the iPod. I turned to Sofie and said, “And this is why when we buy food for the food pantry, we buy them stuff that we’d actually want to eat. I will never make you go through a week of eating what they have to. Making you eat crap for a week isn’t helping anyone. But when you go to give food to the poor, I don’t want you to cheap out. Don’t buy the store brand just because it’s cheaper and you can save money. If you wouldn’t eat it yourself, then don’t buy it for them.”

And I mean that. When we go grocery shopping every two weeks, we make a point of filling two grocery bags with items for one of the local food pantries. And it’s all brand-name stuff…unless we just happen to like the store brand better ourselves. If I wouldn’t eat generic corn flakes, I’m not buying it for them. Furthermore, after having read A Pretty Good Person, in which author Lewis Smedes mentioned how his poor family was always given the hairy eyeball whenever they managed to scrape up enough money for some small treat, we always make a point of getting some sort of “fun food” too…cookie mix, brownie mix, Pop-Tarts…something besides the bare necessities.

But my point, and I do have one, is this: eating crap for a week isn’t helping anyone who’s hungry. Saying “starving people in Lower Slobovia would love to have this,” and forcing your kid to choke it down out of guilt isn’t making those people less hungry. What will help them is providing food for them.

Good food.

Food you’d actually eat yourself.

And not a palette of cheap crap.