Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oh Say Can You See Any Fans In Attendance?

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Yeah, me neither.

This is my required panorama of the stands at first pitch. I will acknowledge that there were about 5k by the end of the (40 minute) first inning. That Moscoso sure knows how to slow a ballgame down. There is not a chance that the announced attendance of 17,006 (48.5% full) is anywhere close to accurate. The $2 BART seats weren't even close to sold out. We sat in special half-off seats- the A's honored the Cal Baseball team yesterday and gave a special price to people who used a Cal code on ticket orders, and those seats weren't filled. There were entire empty sections.

And yet, the A's "Guest Services" were quick to kick anyone sitting in the wrong section out of their seats. Although you can see that no one was sitting pretty much anywhere, no one was allowed to move a few rows around. The banal anal retentiveness of this boggled my mind. We all payed to get in, and clearly no one paid to sit in those empty seats, but "Guest Services" person after person moved person after person out of vacant seat. It was bizarre and unfriendly. I've been to Giant's games- sold out games- where the Guest Services (not in quotes, because they provided a service, and treated fans like guests)- were less anal about seating, and much kinder, in the process. I sat in my own seat, but watched these people do their jobs in a letter of the law manner.

And I saw the A's play craptastic baseball. Against a craptastic team. Cliff Pennington made his 10th error of the season and Kurt Suzuki made his 5th. I'm not quite sure what's going on with these guys- they both were excellent defenders in the past, and I don't know if injury is to blame, or can be to blame, for piss poor defense. Guillermo Moscoso seemed determine to allow a full minute elapse between each pitch to ensure that the fielders behind him were even more slow and indolent than usual. I saw Ryan Sweeny stifle a yawn at one point. Seriously. And he was absurdly focused on the Marlins that got on base. He could not, however, hold them, and they ran on him and Suzuki all night. The A's seemed to be hitting the ball hard, at least from my angle, and directly to outfielders. The one ball that almost actually landed was caught, and of course the A's left the bases loaded and Suzuki hit into a double play the one time the crowd stopped stifling yawns. If Bob Melvin was managing, I couldn't tell. Sure looked like Bob Geren was back. It was a sad night.

I highly recommend reading Baseball Oakland's great piece on the A's ownership and how we got here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill: A Rope and A Prayer

On November 10, 2008, journalist David Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan by a hardcore group of Taliban, and held by them, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for 7 months until his unlikely escape. Only two months before his kidnapping, Rohde had married Kristen Mulvihill, a photography editor at a fashion magazine, and promised her this was his last dangerous war correspondent adventure. He had already been kidnapped once before, and his release was negotiated at the highest levels of government. He was done, but decided to do one last interview with a Taliban commander, without telling his wife. He knows there is a risk, but decides the risk is worth it for the book he is writing about the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"A Rope and A Prayer" is the story of Rohde's time as a hostage/captive and Mulvihill's time as the wife of a hostage or captive, told in alternating voices. As I read the book, I enjoyed it, and learned a depressing amount about the sickening, chaotic, worsening situation in Afghanistan. The more time that passes between finishing the book and reading this, the more resentful I feel toward Rohde, on a more small, personal scale. The authors are about 40, and the marriage is the first for each of them. Although Mulvihill writes that she knew what she signed up for when marrying a war correspondent, Rohde told her that he would not jeopardize his life, and clearly took an unnecessary risk. Throughout the process, at least in her telling of the story, Mulvihill is supportive and resourceful, and almost never resentful. She is grateful to all of her family and to Rohde's family for their support, and really, goes above and beyond. Rohde, meanwhile, thinks about his wife, and surviving, but seems to feel worse for the two men who were traveling with him and whose lives he has endangered. Clearly, this is a terrible situation, but the epic guilt that seems implied in the set up is missing.

Aside from the personal aspect I found wanting, the book is a fast read, and the kidnapping gives Rohde an insight into current events in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan that he probably wouldn't have had just writing the book he planned to. An entire area in the Southwest of Pakistan which borders the Southeast of Afghanistan has been designated the "Federally Administered Tribal Areas" or FATA and is basically ungoverned by any officially recognized government: it is Taliban and Al Qaeda territory. Though Pakistan says that they do not harbor Taliban or Al Qaeda, Rohde was clearly held by Taliban and for most of his time in captivity, living in the FATA, which was clearly Taliban-run country. He had a number of guards and met a few commanders, and was distraught by the extremism he saw. He tells of guards who watch videos of suicide videos and decapitations of hostages the way other young men watch pornography or music videos: "The constant images of violence seem to numb our guards to the idea of death. Over and over again, human beings are killed on the small screen in front of us... the videos are cynical efforts by Taliban commanders to brainwash their foot soldiers. While death is ignored in the West, it is embraced in the videos. Death, the message goes, is not a distant fate. Instead, it is a friendly companion and a goal." These are the kinds of insights Rohde shares, along with more global, political and regional ones. While fascinating, the reader is left with the feeling that the book could not have existed without the kidnapping. And that Rohde wouldn't have had it otherwise.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Artistic Style

Both the picture, and the prop!

Week 25: My What a Blurry Head You Have!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Attendance and Sadness

As the A's face the Giants tonight in a sure sellout, I would like to share a story of the A's woes in a series of panoramas of some of the games I have attended so far this year. Note the preponderance of green (i.e. empty seats) all over the stadium in all of the shots except the Yankees game.

May 2nd, A's vs Texas Rangers. Announced attendance 9,193. Highlight: Actually seeing Matsui hit a homerun. Actually, I believe I called it. Sarcastically.

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May 15th, A's vs Chicago White Sox. Attance: 19,018. I don't remember anything about this game. I am absolutely sure there were not 19k people there.

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May 17th, A's vs LA Angels of Anaheim. Attendance: 12,190. A's Jewish heritage night, which was horrendous, as was the weather. The A's were possessed by another offense and scored 14 runs. I was sick, so we only saw 8 or so of the runs. The actual attendance was close to 5k.

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May 30th, A's vs NY Yankees. Attendance: 35,067 (sellout). Terrible game, all around. Read about it here.

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June 16th, A's vs KC Royals. Attendance: 11,775. Definitely under 10k at the ballpark. Amazing game in the sun, the A's scored 8 runs in the sun. Jamile Weeks showing a spark on a dull team. New manager Bob Melvin ejected, Gio wild and all over the place- 100+ pitches in 5 innings.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jon Ronson: The Psychopath Test

Last month I read another book by Jon Ronson, which was equally catchy, but much more interesting. "The Psychopath Test" is a meandering book, if a short, confusing book can be called "meandering," in the sense that Ronson starts one place and ends up somewhere completely different, with many many twists along the way. I never quite figured it out. I believe the book was about psychopaths: what a psychopath is, in terms of the person himself, his behavior, the diagnosis, the basis of the definition, etc.

The subtitle of the book, "A Journey Through the Madness Industry," and the way I came about reading this book, is the most interesting (and least touched) part of the twists and turns: the fact that journalism is in the business of marketing madness. Journalists and media seek out madness that is just mad enough to make a story but not mad enough to lose the audience. The reason we, the readers/watchers/consumers, eat up certain madness and not others, is that it rings true: "The right sort of mad are people who are a bit madder than we fear we're becoming and in a recognizable way... We are entertained by them, and comforted that we're not as mad as they are." He goes on that journalists are also in the "business of conformity:" they present mad people not as examples of people to emulate, but as warnings. People can be themselves, but not crazy like they see in teh media (and in the psychology bible DSM-IV).

This is a fascinating premise, a story that tells a lot about modern medicine and madness and media, especially in the United States. And it's not what Ronson dwells on- it's one short chapter. Rather, he goes on and on about a couple psychopaths or possible psychopaths that he meets, and sells it as investigative journalism. I'm not buying it: it seems more like a long, semi-sarcastic piece you might see in the Village Voice or some such free paper. The potential is there, but the book falls short. Don't bother getting on the hold list at your library, like I did.

The Year of the Bug: Double the Fun

Mac and chartruese sofafree, x2!

Week 24: Double the Fun

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain

T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain" is the first fiction book I've read in a Long Time, and it was worth it. I wish I could tell my mom that it was a piece of light reading, but it wasn't. It was a fast read, and well written, but it was harsh, and has so far stuck with me pretty much all the time (I finished it a few days ago), probably because it hit close to home. One of the two main characters is a upper class white dude who prides himself/makes his living on his liberal sentiments, and even is willing to stick his neck out for his environmental beliefs. When he's actually confronted by the reality of what he stands for, though, he finds out that he can't walk the talk at all. Piece by piece his image of himself crumbles. This hits home because I talk a big talk, on themacinator and in my life, and I have a pretty strong idea of who I am, or who I want to be. I acknowledge my racism as I struggle to be anti-racist, but the fact that I acknowledge my racism is hard, since sometimes it's a whole lot bigger than I'd like it to be. I find myself being a snob in a class sense, and I drive more than I want to. I could go on. T.C. Boyle doesn't let his character go on, and he doesn't let the reader let him off the hook, either.

The white dude lives on a hill and hits a Mexican immigrant who has crossed the border (the tortilla curtain, which strikes me as an amazing image) and is living illegally in a protected wildlife area with his car. Get it- living in the hills and the flatlands? The immigrant is almost killed, and the rich white man struggles with his conscience, trying to forget it after paying the man $20. One by one, the hill dweller's principles are challenged. He has to build a fence around his yard to protect his wife's fluffy dogs from coyotes, though he is a nature writer and finds the idea of fences horrific. He loses his open spaces to the home owners association, though in theory, he believes in America as land-of-the-free. And the immigrant that he has run over becomes the face of the evil that is changing him, or at least his perception of himself.

Meanwhile, the immigrant is living a crappy life far from the American dream in the prison of his broken body and the ravine he has secreted himself and his wife in. He is devestated, but too proud to admit it. He is insulted that his wife is even thinking of making money, and takes out his rage and impotence on her. Everything he does seems to fail, out of bad luck, he believes. His whole life has been a story of misfortune and things gone wrong. He even drags a young pregant wife into the mess. Is he a metaphor for Mexico/Mexicans? Or for the havoc immigrants wreak on unsuspecting (white) Americans? Whatever he stands for, he's a good foil for rich dude, who becomes what he hated. I suppose he proves a point if you were a reader who already hated the liberal-minded man on the hill. On the other hand, if you're someone like me, who feels sympathy but can't really know empathy for the man living in the flats, he calls us out: it's not enough to talk the talk, and we'll never be able to walk the walk. Finding a common ground, a meaningful path is something even fiction can force on us.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Year of the Bug: I Can't Even See My Feet!

Week 23: I Can't Even See My Feet!

(around that big head)

Ciscolo posted this wonderful shot of 4 paws and I was inspired, though I knew mine would be slightly different. Mac is SO sick of the camera, and strangely weirded out by posing between my legs, though he has no problem standing like this. But I knew that I wouldn't be able to see my feet, or his feet. Mac has a BIG head.

This is the first picture I'm posting with my new toy- the Mini Minox that I got at Photojojo. It's a quirky little beast- retro digital??

Friday, June 10, 2011

Eli Pariser: The Filter Bubble

It's a big brother world out there. And not, Eli Pariser of Moveon.org, wants you to know, of the creepy, government looking for terrorists kind of way, but an even more insidious way: every click each of us makes online is being monitored to make the virtual world more about us, because each time we like (and "like") something online, someone somewhere makes money. So each time we click, our online world gets a little more "perfect": we're a little more likely to see something that we like, or that fits who we are, which becomes a cycle (called personalization). Our online world fits us a little better, and we fit our online world a little better, because we're less likely to see anythign out of our comfort zone. It's the online version of The Big Sort. I was thinking this almost from page one of "The Filter Bubble" and was practically dying when Pariser quoted "The Big Sort" mid-way through the book. We are where we live, and we are what we google.

What's the big deal? I like to get accurate search results. It's kind of like predictive text on the cell phone: for the most part, it's really nice that my phone knows that most of the time I'm typing "A's," not "as," and "Mac," not "Max." So it's nice when google knows what I'm searching for. I had no idea that when I search for soemthing, I'm going to get different results than when my roommate searches for the same thing, even though I think we have fairly similar tastes. Pariser gives the example of two friends who demographically appeared pretty similiar: white, left-leaning, and college educated. They both typed in "BP," but one woman got results about oil-spill and one got a promotional ad for the company. Try it with someone you feel close to. Searching becomes a rabbit hole: the more left-of-left links I look at, the more left-of-left links the companies that mine and buy data from search engines and servers are going to send me to. I will continue to receive certain kinds of directed hits, and will have to work harder to see anything different. Until I read this book, I didn't know this: I was ghetto-izing myself (and still will, as the searching stuff is sub-conscious, behind the scenes stuff of strong algorithms). Learningn takes place in the face of new information. New information is withheld in the personalized world of the internet.

Other issues with personalization are more societal. One is disturbing and oxymoronic: stereotyping. As data becomes mroe and more personal, individauls begin to be judged by who they know. If people like me, or people I like tend to have problems with credit, then I might have problems iwth credit, too. This might influence my ability to finance a house, or increase my credit rates, even if I don't have a problem with credit. Decisions we make based on personalized filters can affect us in bad ways, and we don't even know this is happening. "Companies that construct [your life] choose which options you're aware of." More and more, we "like" the personalized world about what our friends are eating or wearing, how to cook dinner, what Weiner is showing to whom, but we miss the big problems of the day. As Pariser puts it, "As a consumer, it's hard to argue with blotting out the irrelevant and unlikeable. But what is good for consumers is not necessarily good for citizens. What I seem to like may not be what I actually want, let alone what I need to know to be an informed member of my community or country."

The take home point for me, is that the richer we get, the thinner our lives become. We can live wherever we want, but where we want to live may not be that great for us. We can move to Celebration, Florida, in the hopes of a Disney-built utopia, but really, we're in the search of a store-bought happiness. We can use the internet to discover all kinds of shit, and I'm not saying we should opt-out, but Pariser is trying to open our eyes to the fact that we may just be digging ourselves further into our own rabbit hole. It's more than the fact that my eyes were just opened to the fact that google is telling me what movie I'm going to like, it's the fact that google is telling me what is news. I opted out of tv and broadcast media a long time ago, and felt like maybe the internet was the answer. Now, Pariser is yelling at us, we need to re-democratize the internet, and take back the personalization of our own lives.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I Am Unamerican: Baseball and Nationalism Continued

As if I didn't know enough about my unamerican-ness already, I turned on the radio in the car today to see if the A's pregame show was on, and heard my recent topic of separation of baseball and state being blasted. (The pregame show wasn't on yet.) I never listen to talk radio, and I certainly don't listen to shock-jocks, and I imagine this was some sort of combination of shock-jock-sports-talk-radio. Apparently Goshen College has decided to stop playing the national anthem at sporting events, something they only started in January. Their students, faculty, board, and alumni felt strongly enough that the pacifist, Mennonite tradition was not represented by the anthem to stop playing the song. (You can read more about Mennonites and peace at their website.)

The sports shock-jock (I'm not going to bother looking him up- partially because of the filter bubble, which will be the subject of my next book review) continued haranguing Goshen College. Clearly, they were unamerican, because Americans play the national anthem at sporting events. Although I didn't understand the logic, if Goshen College was American, they would play it, and because they're not, they would have sat around and had tea with the British. Obviously, the country was founded on revolution, and war, and so that's part of sports. The host said if he was on a team in the same conference as Goshen, he would make sure to beat Goshen so badly they'd never forget it, like 200 to nothing. A co-host (?) on the show suggested some alternatives: "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful" which I suppose were supposed to be patriotic without being war-like, but he didn't expand, and then the host suggested "This Land is Your Land." This struck me as kind of funny: Can you imagine singing a song which has been adopted as a camp song before a sports game? It really brings home the "play" aspect of sports, which I don't think was the intention of Mr Shock. The Fox News story quotes some residents disapproving the decision, suggesting the college take its views to Iran or Cuba- this is not unlike what the radio show was arguing.

I got all of this in the two or three minutes that I could tolerate. Interestingly, this uproar does exactly what I proposed in the last blog: separates both church and state from baseball (and sports in general) at a small institution. The institution is a religious institution, though, which complicates matters: can baseball be played there without religious implications? I think in this case, Goshen College is making the decision to make the field a real playing field, for sports. The game is played out, as sports are, free of nationalism, free of religion, on the field. The school itself may represent Mennonite beliefs, but the field, by not playing the anthem (which has Judeo-Christian references throughout, especially in the verses not commonly sung) becomes religion-free. Pacifism, it is true, can be construed as a religious belief (the Mennonites are case in point), but by definition is not nationalistic. I believe it is patriotic to be a pacifist, but not in the aggressive sense. To me, Goshen College has figured it out.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Oakland Can Be Pretty

Even if we all complain about it.



(courtesy of conradtse.)

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Year of the Bug: Eloise at the Plaza

Remember the Eloise books? Yeah, Mac loves the hotel, he thinks he lives there now. We spent another week in LA, so the first is the shot I chose from the hotel, and the second is the runner up.

Week 22: Eloise at the Plaza

Lounging Poolside

Lounging Poolside

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Church of Baseball

On Memorial Day I went to the A's game. I specifically ordered these tickets in the off season because it was a Monday game, and at that point I was off on Mondays, and because it was one game of the only series that the Yankees were going to be in town. There are only two things that get me steamed without any discussion, and one is the Yankees. The game sucked, and my opinion of the Yankees hasn't changed any. They hit the ball hard over and over, making Trevor Cahill, who has looked awesome all year, look like a 5th starter on a team with crappy pitching. It was the first sell-out I've been to in at least 5 years, and it was great to see the (overstock.com) Coliseum full. It was not, however, great to see it at least half full of Yankees fans. Rude, pompous, blue and white wearing Yankees fans. This is Oakland, dammit. The sell-out was cool, though, even if it meant waiting in line for the bathroom (and concessions due to crappy Coliseum architecture) and a short line to get in, and a long line to get back to the BART platform. There were people there, dammit!

But what I really want to write about is the separation of church and baseball, and the state and baseball. If it's not written into the Constitution, it should be. About two weeks ago, I went to the awesome game where the A's scored 14 runs. I don't think they've scored 14 runs since then, total. But I was substantially creeped out because it was "Jewish Heritage Night." Now, you can accuse me of anti-Semitism all you want, and it may be that I'm a self-loathing Jew (I've been accused of this before), but the issue to me was not specifically about Judiasm. I do think that's a little part of it: There is something in the history of the Reform movement in particular that makes Jews in America sort of anti-ostentation. Blatant displays of religion on the part of Jews make me (and I believe other Reform Jews) cringe. But the real issue was that there was religion at my ballpark. MY ballpark, my sanctuary. There were little snippets of the religious groups on the big TV, and some people were walking around with Israeli flags (don't get me started, this is the other thing that gets me steamed). The messages that were on the screen welcoming groups to the ballpark were predominately religiously oriented. I've heard about other "heritage" nights on Phillies broadcasts, but I didn't think it would come to Oakland.

If I had to articulate my feelings that night, I'd say squeamish, grossed out, resentful. Religion, I think, doesn't belong at the ballpark. Baseball *is* religion. Serious fans, students of the game, come to the ball park (or turn on the TV or radio) faithfully, at scheduled times. We ritualistically stand up before the game for the national anthem (more on this later), and again for the 7th inning stretch and the singing of "Take me out to the Ballgame." We eat ceremonial foods like peanuts and hot dogs, and drink ceremonial wines. (I've written about this a little bit before.) Baseball is ecumenical: anyone, of any religion, can enjoy it. We leave our religious differences, our political differences, in the parking lot. We enjoy our games, because it is play. Religion is deadly serious, and doesn't belong or near the field.

War, nationalism, and patriotism are also, obviously, deadly serious business. They also don't belong on the field. I know that most would argue that baseball is patriotism, and as American as apple pie. I'm willing to concede this- we'll always stand up for the National Anthem, and fine, it's America's national pastime. Sure, baseball has a history of racism and exclusion (and still does- Matt McCarthy's wonderful "Odd Man Out" is a great reminder of this, and I listened to a great episode of Edge of Sports about Adrian Burgos' new book about Alex Pompez. Have you heard about the recent Civil Rights game in Atlanta?) But so does America. Some would argue that baseball is part of the progress in America, and I guess you could say that regarding civil rights, though I would also argue that it lags way behind in other areas- ever heard of a gay baseball player? will we ever see a woman baseball player (I don't think so)? How long will teams be named "Braves" and "Indians" and how long will fans accept and participate in the "Tomahawk Chop?" So sure, baseball is American, and makes "us" "feel" "American," whatever that means.

But on Memorial day, it wasn't just patriotism that I saw at the ballpark. And it was worse than the religion stuff, which I thought was pretty bad. First, though great to see a sellout, the stadium was padded with Yankees fans, who are by their nature, patriotic to the extent of bordering on nationalist. Okay, I don't know if individual Yankees fans are like this, but seeing the Yankees reminds me of the absurd, war-like nationalism that has been at the Yankees stadium at least since 9-11. The 7th Inning Stretch at Yankees stadium now also involves the playing of "God Bless America," which combines the eerie combination of religion and nationalism. And not only do they play this song every 7th inning, it's broadcast on the radio every game. I understand the grief caused by the terrorist attacks, and I understand that baseball, or any large sporting event, can bring people together. However, when civic pride crosses into a mixture of religious based nationalism with the audience standing and saluting the flag, it borders on fascism. I know I'm overreacting by associating the Yankees fans with shows of extreme nationalism like this, but after 9-11 everyone was wearing Yankees gear with that iconic "NY" logo. I don't think a third of them were Yankees fans. It was just The Thing To Do. Supporting New York, and by extension, America, meant wearing Yankees gear. If you aren't with us (the Yankees), you're against us.

Then the pomp of the Memorial Day game started. The A's players warming up on the field were wearing camouflage hats in some sort of cloth, army style, not the typical baseball caps. And then a ceremony started on the field, and it took me a minute to realize that they were swearing in new recruits to the Marines, right there on the baseball field. The baseball field, where men play a game wtih strict rules of comportment, had just become the entre for the battlefield, where wargames: deadly and lawless. I felt sick to my stomach watching the rookies, signing their lives over for tiny salaries and a life of extreme hardship: the baseball field was not the place for this. A marine threw out the first pitch to Dallas Braden, who was wearing a sling and a fully Army uniform, though he is not a veteran. The A's then changed into special Memorial Day baseball caps before taking the field, and we were shown clips of the soldiers who had warn them in the field before sending them back for the game. It was a lot.

I want to make something clear here. I am glad to be an American. I consider part of this to question and criticize what it means to practice my identity as "American." This is my understanding of patriotism. I appreciate people who become soldiers, who give up their lives as they know them, and often actually give their lives, following their understanding of what it means to be an "American." I think Memorial Day is very important- we need to remember and honor our troops. I also understand that it's not going to happen anytime soon that we honor them in the way I think is appropriate: by bringing them home from the many pointless situations they're in now: unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, standing on the DMZ in North Korea, etc. I do not, however, think that nationalism is productive. (See some better explanations.) It leads to jingoism, war, us/them mentality, etc. You could say, ala David Chidester, that baseball is its own form of nationalism: each team is its own mini-nation, and the teams compete for supremacy. The teams have strict borders, and homogeneous societies. Viewed this way, like Clifford Geertz and his cockfights, we're playing out (or watching baseball players play out) some serious stuff.

But the bottom line is, we're not doing the serious work of nationalism, war, or religion on the ball field. Baseball becomes the serious stuff. Fans are patriots of the game, we worship at the temple of baseball. I don't want to see marines sign up and take their oath. I don't want to see people, however proud they are, and know what religion they are. Our commonality is our love for the game. I can sit next to someone, and fine, maybe they're a Yankees fan, but we still love the game. And beer, and hot dogs. For 27 outs, war and religion and borders don't matter. I'd like Major League Baseball to consider this, and to stop confusing matters.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Gabriel Thompson: Working In The Shadows

If you're reading this blog, you probably need to read Gabriel Thompson' book, "Working in the Shadows," because you've probably never done any of the (as he calls it) "jobs (most) Americans won't do." I don't know whether to call this book investigative reporting, a memoir, an ethnography, muckracking or what, but similar to Barbara Ehrenreich's earlier "Nickled and Dimed," Thompson set himself the task of working for a year at jobs that paid minimum wage, or less. Unlike Ehrenreich, he didn't try to live off the money he earned (though it's not quite clear where the rest of the money came from). So Thompson cuts (the real term for picking) lettuce in Yuma, Arizona; does miscellaneous jobs at a chicken processing plant in Alabama and works as a bike delivery guy for a posh restaurant in New York City. He never makes more than $7 dollars an hour if I remember correctly, and when he's biking around New York, he earns $4.60, plus tips. This is legal, but crappy. For a couple days, in New York, he worked for free at a flower shop thing, as the owners told him they'd pay him after a week after they "see what they think," at a rate to be discussed. When he gets fired, he has made less than $7 an hour, which is less than minimum wage.

The "most" Americans that Thompson refers to in the title are white Americans, and middle class Americans. Thompson learns that he is only the second white person to cut lettuce for his company, and before he is even hired, he is offered two promotions, based not on experience, but presumably because of his skin color. No one gets it why he would want to do "that kind" of job (Thompson doesn't reveal that he is writing a book). And employers are willing to bump him to better, easier, higher paying jobs because of how he looks. Speaking English is, of course, a plus, but some of the more skilled jobs involve working with a crew of entirely Spanish speaking workers, so the fact that he speaks Spanish, not English, is much more important. Further, they are skilled positions, and he has no skills, so he is not being offered the job on merit. At the chicken plant, Thompson works with African Americans, Latinos (primarily from Guatemala), and white people, who are all destitute and scraping by usually on two jobs. The workplace is segregated racially, though, and the town has collapsed since the much better factory, Lee Jeans, has closed. Only the Guatemalans seem to see the poultry plant as a move in the right direction, and if you know anything about the plight of the indigenous people in Guatemala, although sad, you can see why this might be the case. In New York City, Thompson delivers food, which renders him completely invisible. Unlike waiters and servers and runners and hosts, and even, to some extent, cooks, the people "in the back" of the restaurant, and the delivery people just don't exist to most of us who eat out. The fact that Thompson cycles around New York City in the dark on a craptastic bike wearing his uniform of chic and impractical black is irrelevent to the people he serves. They want their food and they want it now. Even the restaurant treats him as invisible: the day Thompson quits is the day that he does the work of about 5 employees and makes $10 in tips, with no recognition from the bosses.

So what's the big deal, besides being a great piece of writing? Well, one, it puts the lie to the conservative argument that immigrants are taking "our" jobs. It is possible that there are immigrants doing work in the poultry plant and fields like this that US-born citizens could be doing. Workers, however, hated the work. They described it as "work that a trained monkey could do," and Thompson writes "parents who had stepped foot inside the plant certainly didn't hope their children would one day join them." Talking heads who argue about these jobs being "stolen" probably don't know what they're talking about. This isn't even touching the lettuce fields, where Thompson was literally the only "American," though almost all of the people working in his crew were working legally. The company did their best to keep him from the fields. After all, he was an America. Even more, immigrants pay taxes as they work, wether to a real or "borrowed" social security, on the things they purchase, and on their homes, etc. The work they do in this country is a plus, no matter what jobs they're doing.

Further, none of these jobs are unionized, and the safety and economic protections that are supposed to protect workers in America, regardless of race, class, immigration status, blah blah blah, are, if present, are there in name only. Loopholes are exploited, and if there's wiggle room, it's a-wiggling. One of the points that Thompson ends with is how the Bush administration cracked down on some factories in 2006 who were hiring undocumented immigrants. The companies didn't suffer, the immigrants did: they were ddeported, or in some cases, arrested and jailed. In one case, $5.2 million dollars was spent to catch 389 workers in Postville, Iowa, which worked out to about $13,000 a person. "Hard-line anti-immigrant forces cheered the developments" because they had been complaining about the damage that these workers were causing to the environment. Unclear if they understood the damage that these raids did to the environment, or the fact that more immigrants will fill their jobs.

Thompson makes the larger point, though, that if immigrant labor is expendable, and if safety and ecomonic protections are afterthoughts for immigrants, labor in general becomes expendable. The threat becomes this: Well, if you won't do this work, there's someone (read: immigrants) out there who will do it cheaper. Thompson proposes some solutions (and finally, FINALLY for all these books I read, acknowledged that they will be difficult!) with the end goal being valuing the labor, and the dignity of the laborers. He suggests $15 as a base wage for any of the jobs that he did, in the places he lives, and acknowledges that living wages will vary from place to place. There is no reason that minimum wage should not be a living wage. To acheive this will involve "protecting the rights of workers to unionize, raising the minimum wage, and more vigorously enforcing labor and safety laws." He gives some ideas of how to organize places like restaurants that have not been targets of organizers in the past, but clearly need representation. He suggests (which I find genius and plausible) that the food justice movements and humane/organic movements start incorporating the human factor into their thinking, and "rethink our notions of the benefits of cheap food." Finally, he stresses the need for immigration reform. Raids are not the answer, obviously, and Thompson also points out problems with bracero-type programs earlier in thte book. Thompson does not pose any large-scale solutions for the immigration question, and I don't have one, either, as Mexico and the United States are so clearly tied together in an unequal relationship.

I guess I'm back to depressing books. This one was worth it.