The Race To The Bottom Continues: 500 Applicants For A $13/Hr. Job

NEW YORK - JANUARY 08:  People walk past a 'Cl...
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Once a week, I put on an official shirt and shoes, loop a lanyard around my neck with a little plastic badge with my first name carved into it, and go sell merch for The North Face, an international chain of outdoor clothing, with 23 stores in the U.S. I was hired there September 25, 2007 and did it to earn some extra, steady cash, to get out of my suburban apartment and the relentless isolation of working alone at home all day, with no kids or dog for distraction and company. I’d never worked retail in my life. Never had to, never had a huge desire to. But it’s paid work and I am now lucky to have it.

I make a fat $11/hr., no commission. Last week, in my seven hour shift, I moved $3,650 worth of product, $521.42 worth per hour. No one said “Thanks! Great job!” or high-fived me. I went home, showered, went to bed.

Every week, I think, OK, it’s time to quit. The work is not terribly interesting and the learning curve flattened out a long time ago.

Then, every week, yet another magazine or newspaper — my primary source of income for the past few decades — closes, cans its staff, cuts its freelance budget, tossing hundreds more competitors into the pot for the dwindling amount of freelance work available. I read there are six extremely well-qualified applicants for any available full-time job. So, I stay.

I spoke to my manager today — after reading today’s Wall Street Journal story about how retailers (surprise) will be cutting back on labor this holiday season and hiring fewer temporary workers. He asked if I could work some more hours in November and I said yes. I had planned to add hours in December, when the store will really need veterans who know our stuff and our team. In this economy, any steady work is a rare and valuable commodity. So is someone who knows how to do their job well, certainly the physically tiring job of retail sales.

I went shopping yesterday in Manhattan and came home fuming with the incompetence I saw in almost every store. At Sephora, where I wanted to enjoy finally cashing in a gift card, two of the associates did not speak English and I had to cross the store in search of help. In the worst recession in this nation in 40 years, I actually do expect competent help from anyone who still has a paycheck when millions do not. Silly me.

And firing someone in this economy can make for a terrifying, ugly scene. Our manager finally let someone go from our staff — who returned the next day and made physical threats. My partner was in a local Staples last week and watched a young man, just fired there, shrieking obscenities at the top of his lungs at every manager in sight. This went on until the police came.

I find this economy confusing, these behaviors both understandable — and mystifying. If even the crummiest jobs are so hard to win and so deeply coveted, why not do them really well?

Here’s a recent front page New York Times story about the insane fight for a $13/hour clerical job — 500 people applied and a 28-year-old woman won it.

Was It The Food Or…? Where Do You Take Your Dinner Dates?

Diner : Diner
Image by Tony the Misfit via Flickr

Today’s New York Times’ Dining section has a fun piece about where New Yorkers are going on dates these days, especially those deal-making, or breaking, first dates. The trend is toward casual, fun, paper-napkins, sit-at-the-bar bistros where you know the tab won’t make you feel crummy if, by the appetizers, you know this is also probably also going to be the last date.

My sweetie (10 years so far) took me to Le Madeleine, a now-closed, beloved (sob) French restaurant on West 44th., then not far from his newspaper workplace. I remember the room and the waiter and what my guy wore. I don’t remember the food, but the ambiance was perfect: quiet, a lovely room, tables far enough apart for privacy. Our subsequent restaurant dates were almost always French bistros, which suited me fine as a Francophile who prefers elegance to paper napkins. Since then, we’ve eaten everything from road food in New Mexico to goulash at our favorite Toronto spot, Prague. Yes, we do love to eat.

Where your would-be lover takes you for a first (or subsequent) date can set the tone for many more shared meals — or wreck it for good. Maybe she’s nasty to the waiter or he cheaps out on the tip. Maybe they chew with their mouth open or yammer on their cellphone. Maybe a $35 steak seems too ostentatious, while a hot dog in the stands (yes, one of my dates extended himself only that far) looks just mingy.

Where do you take your dates? What makes those restaurants or bars work for you?

Female Writers and Directors Prefer Nasty Women To Nice. Whew!

Screenwriter Diablo Cody holds her trophy of B...
Diablo Cody, writer of "Juno" by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

“The higher-ups always want female characters to be sympathetic, which is frustrating. Why can’t you write a nuanced psychopath?” asks “Juno” writer Diablo Cody in November’s Elle.

Indeed. When was the last time you watched a film with a female character whose complexity you could really identify with? “Confessions of a Shopaholic?” “He’s Just Not That Into You?”

Women writers and directors, like Tamara Jenkins, Mary Harron, Jane Campion, Nicole Holofcener and Diablo Cody, offer us female characters who are rude, bitchy, ambivalent, a more complicated, truthful  — sometimes cringe-inducing — version of ourselves.

Writes Gabriela Taylor:

“None of these complicated characters are nice, thank heaven, but most are intensely personal creations who are also sympathetic creatures of our time. They’re canny exaggerations of women we know firsthand. Hysterical or angry worriers, often unsuccessful by conventional measures, few have glamorous jobs or perfect husbands. They’re not automatically loyal to one another. Sometimes they make rotten mothers. They can be hapless, immature, and uncertain of their relationship to feminism, which has brought them a measure of freedom and autonomy without necessarily equipping them for the ambiguities of urban life, in which the boundaries between work, love, marriage, and family have grown hazier and hazier even as the cacophony of experts telling us how to live swells to a deafening roar. They may rage and flap their hands a lot, but like most of us, they’re trying to behave like adults in a culture that encourages perpetual childishness.”

If you love movies and are a feminist, you can search in vain for a contemporary film worth your $12 that doesn’t shove its female characters into tidy boxes. Did you see “The Savages”, the 2007 movie written and directed by Tamara Jenkins? Laura Linney played Wendy, a nightmare of a woman: angry, frustrated, exploding with rage — but a woman many could, however uncomfortably, identify with. “Wendy is a version of myself with really bad luck,” Jenkins tells Elle.

The number of women directing films remains small, Martha Lauzen, a communications professor at San Diego State University, found that women directed only 15 percent of the more than 900 narrative features at the to U.S. film festivals in 2008 and 2009.

What female film characters resonate for you? Does she have to be nice to be worth watching?

Intellectual Blind Dates — Finally Meeting A Few Fellow True-Slanters

Two street vendors taking time out for lunch a...
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What better way to spend a rainy, gray Tuesday than to meet someone congenial for lunch in the battered wooden booths of the Old Town Bar, one of Manhattan’s coolest and most ancient of lunch spots? Hanging beside our booth was an autographed book cover by one of my favorite authors, the late Nuala O’Faolain, marking a good spot for two writers to settle in.

It’s one thing to read someone on-line, at their putatively witty and edited best. What happens when you meet face to face? Fun!

Today I hung out with Scott Bowen, who writes Beaufinn, and got to put a face to the name and a personality to the byline. We’d emailed privately a few times and anyone who uses the word pelagic gets my vote. It was great to have a chance to trade freelance and Manhattan staff war stories. Yesterday, in brilliant fall sunshine, I lunched with Fran Johns, who writes Boomers and Beyond, who was here visiting from San Francisco. Like Scott, I knew nothing of her work before we both started working for True/Slant and had never spoken to her. It was all the pleasure of meeting an old friend, plus the commonality of our shared work here, plus the chance to talk books, writing and ambition with a smart, skilled woman.

Next week, lunch in the city again with Todd Essig, at another of my favorite spots.  I’m really enjoying meeting some of my new virtual colleagues. I’ll try to squeeze some work in as well…

Qanukkanniq? Ten Years After Nunavut's Creation, Canada's Inuit Are Still Screwed

A medium size almost finished igloo. Note the ...
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Ten years after the creation of Canada’s newest territory — Nunavut — its problems remain the same, a new report suggests. While craving greater autonomy from the federal government, it still needs boatloads of cash. This year, its residents will receive $1 billion (Canadian) in direct federal funding, $32,373 per capita. Education and employment still lag far behind the country’s other provinces.

The Globe and Mail says:

“Nunavut is the only Canadian jurisdiction without mental-health treatment and rehabilitation facilities, despite rampant substance abuse and sky-high suicide rates. An addictions and mental-health strategy is imperative, the report states.”

I’ve been to the Arctic, to a small Quebec town called Salluit, on a reporting trip for the Montreal Gazette. The social problems were shocking. Bored kids were sniffing gasoline and dying in snowbanks. The local community center, built atop permafrost, had so warped the walls were bound together with enormous metal struts and the rooms were unusable. A town swimming pool was being used to store raw sewage. Most people had no toilets but used “honeybuckets”, a large metal garbage can, lined with plastic, topped by a toilet seat. Because of the appalling sanitary conditions, kids often suffered diarrhea and stayed home from school.

I spent all of 24 hours there but have never forgotten the grinding, shocking poverty that is often normal life in the Arctic.

One of the issues the report calls for is much stronger opposition to anti-sealing campaigns. I wonder how PETA’s fanatics would feel about shitting into a honeybucket.

Simple Pleasures

Fruit-bearing branches, after losing leaves in...
There for the looking...Image via Wikipedia

It’s a crazy time. If you still have a job, you’re probably working insane hours and wondering when you’ll be laid off. If you’re freelance, you may have lost more than two-thirds of your income as panicked clients cancel everything non-essential. If you’re looking for a new job, you might be ready to throw in the towel. We need simple, affordable pleasures more than ever.

This month’s Elle Decoration, the UK version (decidedly different in tone and style from the American version) offers a list of 30 simple pleasures, some well worth considering.  (There’s no on-line version, so I can’t offer you a link.) But they include: take time to print out your digital images and make an album, bake a cake from scratch, keep a soft blanket or throw on the sofa, lay a sheepskin rug by the bed for those soon-to-be-frosty winter mornings.

As we head into another week deep into this endless recession, here are some of my favorites that are, as best they can, keeping me sane and happy:

Steal 10 extra minutes to lie very still in bed before you rocket out and start your day. Stare out the window at something lovely.

Take a total techno-break one full day a week. Turn off everything that buzzes and beeps and demands your constant attention and response.

Before you go to sleep, light a candle and have it be the only illumination in your room. Staring at a small, flickering flame is deeply soothing.

Dig out your 10 favorite recipes, find a lovely, large blank notebook and copy them into it for a friend or relative, maybe a new college student learning to cook.

Spend an hour at your local garden nursery or greenhouse. Buy something small and green to bring home and nurture over the winter.

Take your camera and wander a local park for an hour. Capture, in the Northeast, what’s left of the spectacular beauty of the leaves.

Go to the library with no agenda. Browse the stacks slowly and see what looks good. Bring home no fewer than four books and three videos. Experiment — it’s free.

Come home, brew a full pot of Constant Comment tea in a china teapot, pour it into a china cup and sit alone to sip it slowly. Savor the smell and the delicious sound of tea splashing into china.

What are some of your go-to soothers?

His California Garage Is A First-Class Airplane Cabin. Really.

Pan Am logo, as used by Pan Am Systems (former...
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If you’re under, maybe 30, flying has become a nightmare. Those of us with a few decades of air travel hold treasured memories of what it was like to go on an airplane trip. People dressed well, even dressed up. Real meals were served on china and glass with metal cutlery — only available now to first-pass passengers on most flights. Flight attendants (aka stewardesses) smiled and were friendly.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a great story about Anthony Toth, who has built a precise replica of a first-class cabin from a Pan Am Worldways 747 — in the garage of his two-bedroom condo in Redondo Beach, CA. Toth, a 42-year-old global sales director for United Airlines, has spent 20 years and $50,000 on the project. I get it. If you really enjoy traveling, it’s easy to miss the days when getting there was as lovely as arriving.

The closest I’ve come to commercial aviation heaven recently was our flight to Paris in October 2008 on Open Skies, an offshoot of British Airways. (We paid full price, $1,000 apiece, so there’s no other reason for me to rave except it was fantastic.) It began at JFK where the check-in desk had an enormous vase of fresh flowers. “Happy birthday,” the agent said to my sweetie, whose birthday it was (evident from his passport.) The leather seats — only 84 of them on a 757-200 — were so deep and wide my feet didn’t touch the floor and I could tuck one leg beneath another. The food was great and, halfway through the flight, a handsome, silver-haired man moved through the cabin asking each of us — like a chef moving through his restaurant — how we were enjoying our flight. The captain. Everyone was stunned with pleasure.

I hated to leave the aircraft and am counting the minutes until we have the cash to do it again.

Flying, fun? Imagine.

Want A Major Motion Picture About You? Be Dead And Famous, Ladies

Neta Snook and Amelia Earhart in front of Earh...
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Why do women have to be dead and famous to be the star of a popular film? So asks New York Times‘ film critic Manohla Dargis in today’s paper.

The latest two entries are Amelia Earhart, in a new film played by Hilary Swank and Coco Chanel, played by Audrey Tautou. Safely buried, the messier details of their lives hidden in the end-notes or indices of their multiple biographies, only then, Dargis argues, can women be resurrected and burnished to Hollywood’s standards. Sometimes the gutsiest and most accomplished women have made some decidedly controversial choices about other areas of their lives. Seems obvious to me, but I think that also scares off producers.

There are so many women, dead and alive, whose lives and choices intrigue me. I’d be happy to pay $12 for a well-made movie about: Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Canadian suffragist Nellie McClung, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, social activist Dorothy Day, women’s wear maker Lena Bryant, physician and surgeon Virginia Apgar, scientist Marie Curie, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, journalists and war corespondents Marguerite Higgins and Martha Gellhorn, shooter Annie Oakley, explorer Isabella Bird and Gertrude Bell, the first woman to work for British military intelligence in 1915, an expert on the Mideast.

Who would you like to see a film about?

Getting To Know Dad

A father and daughter walk
Image by Solmaz Zohdi via Flickr

There were years, plural, we simply didn’t speak to one another, locked by anger and hurt into our comforting cages. I still remember, and wish I didn’t, a screaming fight in an outdoor parking lot in Antibes at midnight when I was 19. An argument on a crowded public street in Toronto. My college graduation neither parent attended as I tried to dance around their mutual rancor.

Many times over the decades I’ve come to the very precipice of walking away for good from my father, a complicated, proud man with more talent, energy and creativity than a dozen men combined. An award-winning filmmaker, he wears me out with his energy, at 80. We went to an antiques fair this week and reveled in handling objects, like the 6,000-year-old oil lamp in the shape of a dog or a fine piece of Georgian silver, chatting to the dealers and reminiscing fondly about the Egyptian basalt fragment of a lion’s head we saw at the last show we attended here in 1996. That’s typical of us, both obsessive about beauty and history.

“Your Dad’s a hard act to follow,” my late step-mother once said, and it was true. It took me many years to find a partner who offered my Dad’s best qualities (insatiable curiosity about the world, a well-worn passport and the desire to use it frequently, work he’s passionate about and does well that combines ideas and advocacy, a roaring laugh, stylish elegance) without his tougher bits.

We’ve just put put him in his car, a black Jag, and hugged goodbye as he drives to his home from ours, north from New York to Toronto, about 10 hours. This morning we took a gorgeous photo of him and posted it, with his headline and profile, on, hoping to help him find a good woman to enjoy life with.

My sweetie lost his father when he was only 26 so he enjoys borrowing my Dad whenever he can. They’re very different people in some ways, so it’s sometimes lovely and sometimes I need a stiff drink to cope with their misunderstandings and clashes. They’re both strong-minded guys with specific worldviews, so it’s bound to happen. We really need this time to get to know Dad, because the past few years were an ugly and terrifying marathon that began, in March 2005, when his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer; she died two years ago on my sweetie’s birthday, which we celebrated this week.

When your Dad is 80, even in blessedly robust health, you might still have decades or you might have days. I’m lucky to have whatever time we’ve got.

Why Is Legally Protecting Overworked Nannies So Difficult?

Mary Poppins (film)
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It still hasn’t passed — a New York State law to protect the rights of 200,000 domestic workers such as nannies, housekeepers and elder-care givers, more than 90 percent of whom are women of color or immigrants.

“This bill, which has been battling its way through the New York State legislature for five years, aims to provide basic protections to many of the estimated 200,000 nannies, housekeepers and eldercare-givers who labor in New York State. Backed by a diverse coalition of labor and religious groups and even employers, it calls for severance and overtime pay, advance notice of termination, one day off a week, holidays, healthcare and annual cost of living increases, among other fundamental rights. By most accounts, it should have passed in June, but an epic power struggle in the State Senate halted all business for a month. Now domestic workers are hoping their bill will pass in September”, wrote Lizzy Ratner in The Nation.

It’s now almost November — and still no bill.

The legislators in Albany are a regional and national laughingstock as it is, our Governor now garnering the lowest approval ratings of any New York governor in decades. Come on, boys. For once, do the right thing.

A new bill in Ontario, Canada has also been introduced this week, to protect domestic workers there. The Toronto Star reports:

“Nanny recruiters would face a maximum fine of $50,000 and up to a year in jail if they get caught “directly or indirectly” charging foreign caregivers a fee to work in Ontario under legislation introduced Wednesday.

The jail term is the toughest penalty in Canada in such cases, Labour Minister Peter Fonseca said after revealing details of the Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act.

Premier Dalton McGuinty described the legislation as an overdue helping hand to those foreign nannies who uproot themselves to find a better life here.

“Ontarians feel the responsibility … that you’ll be treated fairly, that there will be rules in place that respect your human dignity.”

I don’t have kids, so have never employed a nanny, but I know people who’ve done that tough and demanding job. Just because someone is working in your kitchen, laundry room or backyard doesn’t mean they don’t need and deserve the same legal rights and protection as other workers. These are the women, and it is overwhelmingly women, who wipe your baby’s bum, cheer up your demented and aging father-in-law and ferry your treasured teens to soccer practice. Treat them with the respect they deserve.

If employers can’t figure this out, we need laws to compel them.