Book Review: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich


Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Title: Nickel and Dimed
Narrator: Christine McMurdo-Wallis
Publication Info: Recorded Books (January 1, 2004)[Originally published in  2001]
Summary/Review:

Revisiting a book from my 100 Favorite Books of All Time list to see if it still holds up.

In the wake of Clinton Administrations slashing of social safety nets in the 1990s, writer Barbara Ehrenreich decided to do an experiment using undercover participatory journalism.  She worked in a series of low wage jobs over several months each in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota to see if it was possible to pay for housing, food, and other necessities.  She went to the latter two states because as a white person who speaks English as a first language she found that in a lot of places in the United States these were advantages that automatically got her better paying work. The results are not surprising in that she struggled to make ends even with the strictest budgeting.

This book shouldn’t have to exist. There are millions of low-wage workers who could tell us their experiences if we only listened so a more privileged person like Ehrenreich shouldn’t have to go undercover.  But since the book exists, it does serve as a proxy for how low-wage jobs are destructive to the bodies of workers who suffer great indignities while remaining largely invisible to society at large.  Ehrenreich is particularly observant of hiring practices rituals such as personality tests and drug tests that serve to emphasize the worker’s mean status.  She also makes interesting observations about how the maid service she worked for trained employees to clean in a manner that was more for the prestige of the client than actually getting things cleaned sanitarily.

Sadly, this book remains highly relevant over 20 years later.  In fact, when Ehrenreich discusses her wages she’s often getting the same hourly rate paid to low-wage workers today despite the costs of housing and other necessities skyrocketing in that time.  As we are living through the Great Resignation and the largest labor organizing drive in decades, hopefully we will begin to see the conditions described in this book fading into history.

Favorite Passages:

I make no claims for the relevance of my experiences to anyone else’s, because there is nothing typical about my story.  Just bear in mind, when I stumble, that this is in fact the best– case scenario: a person with every advantage that ethnicity and education, health, and motivation can conder attempting, in a time of exuberant prosperity, to survive in the economy’s lower depths.” – pp. 9-10

 

It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage.  But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and an again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”  pp. 68-69

 

What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re really selling is your life.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Pather Panchali (1955) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter P

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Pather Panchali
Release Date: 26 August 1955
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production Company: Government of West Bengal
Summary/Review:

Pather Panchali (translated, Song of the Little Road) is a story set in Bengal in the early 1900s.  It tells the story of a family’s slow descent into poverty over a period of a few years.  Much of the film is told from the point of view of the family’s youngest member, Apu (Subir Banerjee), a curious child.  His older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta) dotes on him and teases him in equal measure, and has taken to stealing things to supplement the family’s meager income. Their stern mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) is distressed by Durga’s thievery, her debts to their neighbors, and her husband’s directionless nature.  Their father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a priest who wants to be a writer and is perhaps too casual about bringing in money for his family, but also spends significant amounts of time traveling to earn money elsewhere.  The final member of the family is an aged aunt, Indir (Chunibala Devi), a mischievous old woman who the children adore but is an irritant to Sarbajaya.

This is the first feature film directed by Satyajit Ray, beginning a career as one of India’s most notable auteur directors.  It also the first of three films, followed by Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959), that tell the story of Apu’s life and are known as The Apu Trilogy.  The film is very crisp and has a silvertone quality that captures a lot of detail.  I’m reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s way of depicting the natural world overlapping the built world of humanity.  The movie also draws on Italian neorealism influences which means that it didn’t follow a strict script and depicts many of the basic pleasures of life and the ordinary human tragedies without a strict plot. The score of the movie was composed and performed by Ravi Shankar, one of the earliest works in his career that lead to him being one of the world’s most famous Indian musicians.

Pather Panchali is a sad but beautiful film.  It’s probably worth a rewatch at some future date when I have time to appreciate it better.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week: August 26-September 8


This (two) weeks in podcasts.

All Songs Considered: All Songs +1: The Weird World Of ‘Feature’ Credits

Ever wondered what has lead to the great increase in songs with a “feat.” artist in the title over the past couple of decades? Or why the featured artists appears in the song title rather than the performer? Or what the difference between “feat.” and “with” or even “x” and “vs” all means?  Apparently, it’s all about metadata.

HUB History: Perambulating the Bounds

Local law requires Boston City Councilors or their designees to walk the boundaries of the city every five years, a practice that was often a boozy ceremony in the past, but has been ignored since the 1980s.  If the city is looking for citizens to take up perambulating the bounds again, I put my foot forward.

99% Invisible: The Age of the Algorithm

How algorithms, purportedly designed to replace subjective judgments with objective measurements, have been used as a cover for discrimination and  marketed for purposes they’re not designed for.

Have You HeardEducation Can’t Fix Poverty. So Why Keep Insisting that It Can?

The history of the most misguided myth about education, that it will resolve poverty with no other interventions required, and how it has set up schools to fail.

Finally, there are two podcasts that actually replayed episodes made by another podcast this week:

Code Switch: An Advertising Revolution: “Black People Are Not Dark-Skinned White People”  originally from Planet Money

An interesting story of the first African-American advertisement executive who showed how supposed free market capitalists were losing out on money due to white supremacy.

99% Invisible: Notes on an Imagined Plaque originally from The Memory Place

Nate Dimeo’s thoughts on what should be placed on a plaque on a Memphis statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest to mark the reasons why the statue exists.

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 14


Late, but still worth listening to.  There’s a lot of terrific material this week, although to be fair several of my recommendations are repackaging previously released content, so think of this as a greatest hits package of greatest hits!

Best of the Left – The inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men

Several stories debunk the myths of poverty and ask why economists don’t ask the right questions about poverty.

Have You Heard – ‘I Quit’ – Teachers Are Leaving and They Want to Tell You Why

The stress and inequity of teaching in defunded and underesourced public schools is causing teachers to quit teaching, but some of them are prominently telling the world why they’re leaving in hopes of bringing positive change for future teachers, students, and schools.

StoryCorpsBetween June and September

Stories of Coney Island from people who kept the fun in the sun destination alive during its lowest points in the early 1990s.

Politically Re-Active – Street Heat w/ Congresswoman Barbara Lee & Linda Sarsour

Interviews with two amazing progressive leaders, both women of color, and their work fighting for social, racial, and economic justice.  I seriously had no idea that Linda Sarsour was so very Brooklyn.

BackStorySkin Deep: Whiteness in America

Slavery and segregation not only meant discriminating against black people, but also defining what it means to be white.  Three stories detail how the idea of whiteness played out in different periods of American history.

Re:SoundThe Smash the Binary Show

Three stories of the experiences of transgender persons, as well as an exploration of the “feminine” qualities of straight cis men.  I was particularly touched by the story of “The Accidental Gay Parents.”

 

 

 

Book Review: Evicted by Mathew Desmond


Author: Matthew Desmond
TitleEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Narrator: Dion Graham
Publication Info: Penguin Random House, 2016
Summary/Review:

Using the methods of ethnography, Matthew Desmond lives among the poor in Milwaukee’s most distressed urban neighborhood and in a trailer park on Milwaukee’s outskirts.  The product of this research is a book filled with dialogue and everyday vignettes which reads like a novel, but illustrates the very real dilemmas of America’s working poor facing eviction from their homes.  Once rare, eviction is now so common in the United States that entire industries have emerged to profit off moving and storing the property of evicted tenants.  And that is only scraping the surface of the wealth created by managing the properties in the poorest neighborhoods.

Desmond provides a glimpse into the lives of both tenants and landlords, often providing a sympathetic portrait of people trying their best under tenuous conditions. Yet there are no angels here.  Tenants steal, vandalize, or just flake out on paying rent, while landlords fail to provide even basic upkeep of their properties and taken advantage of their position of power to exploit their tenants. In a lot of ways both tenants and landlords are in the same boat, victims of a larger repressive system that enslaves them both.  One scene that illustrates this is when after a contentious faceoff in court, a tenant asks her landlord for a ride home.

This book is an eye-opening glimpse into the realities of far too many Americans suffering under a system built into our law.  Desmond concludes with suggestions on how to reform the broken system to be more fair to both tenants and landlords.  This is definitely a must read book.
Favorite Passages:

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston
Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

Book Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado


Author: Linda Tirado
Title: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America
Narrator: Linda Tirado
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Audio, p2014.
Summary/Review:

Tirado writes and narrates this extended essay on the poor in United States, unflinchingly and wryly explaining why the poor do the things the do and how both right-wing and left-wing  stereotypes of the poor are off the mark.  It’s an intelligent and honest account based on lived experience, not shying away from anything (especially an insightful chapter on sex among the poor).  This book is build off an essay widely circulated on the web which captures the gist of the matter, but the whole book should be required reading.
Favorite Passages:

“If the average rich person had to walk around for a day wearing a polyester work uniform, they’d need Xanax.”

“You can’t tell us that our brains and labor and emotions are worth next to nothing and then expect us to get all full of intrinsic worth when it comes to our genitals. Either we’re cheap or we’re not.”

“I once talked to a neighbor about the fact that people who lived on our block were statistically likely to die earlier than the people who lived five blocks over in the wealthy neighborhood. He told me that it was just life, it was the way it was.  He’d stopped questioning it.  So if you already figure you’re going to die early what’s the motivation for giving up something that helps get you through the here and now?”

Recommended booksNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

Walk for Hunger 2009


It’s time again for one of my favorite events of the year, Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger. I’ll be walking with my wife Susan and son Peter.  At least one of us has participated every year since 2004.  This year will be the first time all three of us will walk together as family.  It is important to us to remember the many people who are suffering from the lack of food including families like our own with young children.

Having a child makes us realize how
important good nutrition is for the development of children like Peter. With the cost of food rising, it is getting harder and harder for low-income parents to buy good food for the kids.  Hunger affects children’s physical and mental development and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.  We believe that no child or adult deserves to go hungry.

As a result of the global economic crisis more and more people are unable to make ends meet. They are forced to go without food in order to pay their rent, utility, and medical bills. The demand for emergency food has never been greater with pantries and meal programs supported by Project Bread serving 43.4 million meals last year alone.

Here are the ways you can help:

  • Go to the Project Bread Walk for Hunger website and sponsor us for the Walk.  Donations in any amount small or large are welcome.  Together we can make a difference.
  • If you live in the Boston area, register to walk or volunteer.  If you’re already signed up, let us know as we’d love to see you on May 3rd.
  • We always welcome good thoughts, prayers, and moral support in addition to or in lieu of donations.

Project Bread helps by using the funds raised in the Walk for Hunger to support 400 emergency food programs across the state.  These include some of favorite places to volunteer like:

  • Haley House which provides meals daily to homeless men and the elderly as well as a bakery training program to promote self-sufficiency for underemployed people with barriers to employment.
  • Wednesday Night Supper Club where a hot and nutritious meal is served once a week to guests with respect anddignity.
  • Greater Boston Food Bank where food discarded by supermarkets is salvaged for stocking food pantries.

We hope you can support our fund raising and walking efforts in any way you can.
Previously:

Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg


Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns


New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.

Two Commentaries on Immigration


“It is just so difficult to think that they don’t want us” in Larry James’ Urban Daily written in response to a municipal law requiring proof of citizenship from tenants.

Supporters of the ordinance claim that these hard working, undocumented families use up the scarce resources of the community, including public education and health care. Few will acknowledge the fact that these families pay all sorts of taxes, including sales tax, federal withholding taxes, property taxes and Social Security taxes that they will never be able to reclaim. Undocumented workers are in essence paying for my retirement, with no hope of receiving such benefits themselves no matter how hard or long they work.

The New Bedford Raid and Its Aftermath in Dispatch from the Trenches focuses on how corporate policy — aided and abetted by the government — perpetuates the illegal immigration problem.

It’s the picture of city officials so blindly pro-business that they could walk through that hell-hole of a sweatshop and come away thinking only about how they could help Insolia make more money that puts the 19th century attitudes of modern America into sharp relief. Not one of them appears to have considered for a moment that there was anything wrong or at least suspicious about the crowded, filthy conditions or thought to wonder if these rows and rows of Hispanic women were all legal. Not one of them so much as asked a question about how the workers were treated or raised so much as an eyebrow over an obviously unhealthy workplace. Neither was of the least importance to them. They were focused on one thing and one thing alone: help the owner make more money.