Friday, May 31, 2013

You Want Fries with That?: A White-Collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage by Prioleau Alexander

This is the last book I read for May, and for once I'm finishing my reviews before the new month starts. Since blogging is the closest thing I have to a job anymore, maybe the work ethic of these writers (well, most of them) is rubbing off on me.

In You Want Fries with That?, Alexander abandons an unsatisfying advertising career and decides to explore the minimum wage world (it helps that his wife works). He delivers pizzas, serves up ice cream, labors at a construction site, and of course takes orders at a fast food restaurant. His descriptions are vivid, informative, and often funny. I like how he writes about his coworkers without looking down on them as Caitlin Kelly did (I guess that book really stuck in my craw), and I like that he sticks around longer at each job than Daniel Seddiqui. He doesn't get into the economics of surviving on minimum wage, aside from explaining how delivering pizzas is a losing game. He sticks to describing the work itself. It's one of the best books I read all month.

Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT by Jane Stern

I've been familiar with Jane Stern and her husband Michael for many years based on their classic American dining guide Roadfood (I never leave town without it!) and similar works. I think I bought Ambulance Girl many years ago because I recognized her name. It didn't seem like my kind of book, but then my wife read it and she loved it. So in the spirit of May's work theme, I decided to finally read it myself.

Stern decides to become an EMT in middle age because she wants to help people and feel useful. This book tells about her training process and some of the more interesting calls she has answered. She also has some psychological issues that are impacted positively and negatively by her new (volunteer) job.

Ambulance Girl is a quick and entertaining read. It should be required for anyone interested in becoming an EMT, especially later in life. As for me, I'll pass. But that's also how I felt before I read it. At least now I have a better understanding of the work and a greater admiration for those who do it.


Odd Jobs: Portraits of Unusual Occupations by Nancy Rica Schiff

This book features black & white photos of 65 unusual jobs along with a paragraph about each. It includes a doll doctor, a condom tester, an ocularist (who paints glass eyes), a riddler (who rotates wine bottles), and a duckmaster (who handles the ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis). The photos are excellent and capture the essence of the work (though I wonder how the colonics therapist can wear such a bright smile!). I really enjoyed this collection; I just wish it was longer.

Canned: How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years and Learned to Love Unemployment by Franklin Schneider

Schneider has trouble holding down a job. Sometimes it's a lousy job from the start; other times it turns sour. He recounts his work history in grim, absurd detail. His first job is detassling corn in a flooded Iowa field. Other workplaces include a cookie factory, a video arcade, an adult bookstore, a telemarketing center, a dot-com, and a non-profit. Eventually he figures out that he really doesn't want to have a job anyway. Then he presents his theories about not working. His logic may disgust a lot of worker bees, but at least he offers more than abject laziness as a reason. Near the end of the book he has a bit of a showdown with a formerly like-minded friend that's just begging to be a movie scene with "Friends in Low Places" playing in the background.

This book is hilariously cynical. Or cynically hilarious. Anyone should be able to identify with something in this book, be it pointless tasks or clueless managers. Schneider writes a little more than necessary about sex, but I think he's trying to show that guys without jobs can still get laid. More offensive are his morals: theft, deceit, and sabotage seem to come naturally to him. Regardless, it's an entertaining read about the working world.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thanks for Breakfast!

Belly is awesome, and so is The Great American Bagel in Elk Grove Village. I redeemed an offer there for a free breakfast bagel (egg, cheese, meat) this morning. It felt like robbery to walk in, show the QR code on my phone, and walk out without paying, sandwich in hand. And to make it even better, Belly is giving me $10 for using the offer. It's like they're buying me breakfast twice!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Idler Book of Crap Jobs: 100 Tales of Workplace Hell edited by Dan Kieran

The Idler is a 20-year-old British magazine promoting "alternatives to the work ethic." Unfortunately, it seems the only connection this diverse collection of stories shares is the writers' distaste for work in general. And let's face it—if you don't like working in principle then every job is crap. Anthologies like this are usually hit or miss, and this one mostly misses. A few stories are interesting, but not enough of them, and some are just lame or whiny. Plus since they are "reader contributions", the writing isn't of a particularly good quality to redeem them. Bottom line: if I wanted to hear people bitch about work, I'd get a job.

Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam Shepard

After graduating college and getting pissed off at Barbara Ehrenreich's thesis that upward mobility in America is largely a myth, Shepard decides to prove her wrong. He takes Amtrak to a random Southern city (Charleston, SC) with $25 in his pocket, a sleeping bag, and an empty gym bag. He spends more than two months in a homeless shelter, picking up work from a labor agency and doing the kinds of jobs that might make Caitlin Kelly appreciate retail. His wages are meager even before the agency deducts various fees. Eventually he finds steady work as a mover, which pays better than most of his other options.

After achieving his goals for the project, Shepard pontificates about how this means any American can start with nothing and find a decent job, get an apartment, get a car, and put money in the bank. He doesn't acknowledge his obvious advantages over many poor people. He's physically and mentally healthy, he has no addictions, and he has no dependents. While he doesn't tell anyone about his degree, he still carries all he has learned in his head, and I presume he is articulate and carries himself well. Surely these qualities make it easier for him to get and keep a job.

Scratch Beginnings is an interesting story about life in the underclass. Shepard's success may inspire some, but his broader conclusions based on an experiment of one are presumptuous if not ridiculous. Still, I enjoyed most of the book until the epilogue.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Choosing Sides

You may not be able to see it in this photo, but there is a sign on the left that says "Sidewalk closed use other side" and a sign on the right that says "Sidewalk closed use other side"!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Thinking of Sunnier Times on This Cloudy Day

Rosco liked to lie in the sun, especially in the morning. This picture is from April 22.

Rosco Johnsen 1998-2013

We found out a couple months ago that our dog Rosco had cysts in his kidneys. He soldiered on as well as any 15-year-old dog could be expected, but a few days ago he lost interest in eating. Last night his breathing became labored and his condition deteriorated rapidly. We couldn't bear to see him suffer, so early this morning we took Rosco to be put to sleep.

Fifteen years is a long life for a dog, and Rosco spanned several eras of pets in our household. He was 18 months old when my wife brought him home in October 1999, days after I ran the Chicago Marathon. Teddy, our other dog, liked him right away. We named him Rosco after Dukes of Hazzard character Rosco P. Coltrane (from the TV series; this was years before the movie), and it suited him well, especially since it sounded like "rascal". He was still a little wild, and we had to separate him from the cats with a pet gate. Teddy helped guide him into adulthood, and they were a great pair. The "Teddy & Rosco" era—we called them "Big Guy & Little Guy"—will probably turn out to be the best years of our lives. Rosco was pretty sturdy until he injured his left hind leg in spring of 2005. Just weeks after his surgery, he almost attacked Governor Rod Blagojevich. A few months later Teddy died, and Rosco became our only dog.

Rosco had the house to himself for almost three years. He got a little chubby because we didn't walk him as much (we got fat, too—we were depressed after Teddy's death). In 2008 we adopted 11-month-old Gracie. We had hoped Rosco might help train her like Teddy trained him, but he wasn't interested. She hassled him sometimes, but she begrudgingly accepted him as the boss. In 2010 Rosco's other hind leg needed the same surgery he'd had in 2005. I told him he would have to live to be 18 for us to get our money's worth. Later that year we got an older lab named Ginger. Last January Ginger died, followed too quickly by young Gracie. Rosco became our only dog again. Then in June we adopted Moose with Rosco's approval. Moose is pretty submissive and never bothered Rosco. Neither did 12-year-old Rexy when she joined the pack in November.

Rosco outlived three of our dogs and two cats, as well as just about every dog that lived in our neighborhood when he arrived in 1999. Last spring when I put together a collage of dog photos, I made sure he was in more than any other since we had him the longest.

I may never again have a dog as devoted to me as Rosco. He didn't always listen to me (he had a stubborn streak), but he obeyed me more than he obeyed anyone else. His favorite place to sleep was on the floor by my side of the bed. His second favorite place was on my side of the couch. When I used to get mad about something and start yelling, he'd come running from the other room and sit at attention before me, as if to offer his assistance. I remember how he'd sit upright in the passenger seat when I drove him somewhere, looking out the window. It was like we were two dudes out cruising.

There are so many more stories I could tell about Rosco. Heck, we had him for 13-1/2 years. It's hard to imagine that he won't be here when I wake up in the morning. We love you, Little Guy.

Friday, May 24, 2013


I'm sitting here in the waiting room to see a medical nutritionist, and I'm fantasizing about eating a Philly cheese steak afterward. And maybe some cheese fries.

UPDATE 4:00 PM - I did get the Philly cheese steak, but I skipped the cheese fries. Baby steps.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly

I thought maybe I was being harsh when I first wrote this, but then I read the reviews on Amazon. Plenty of other readers were equally disappointed by this book for similar reasons.

For me, the most important revelation in this book has nothing to do with working retail. Kelly writes a lot (too much) about her decades of experience as a journalist. Assuming her portrayal is accurate, I would have fucking hated being a journalist. That's a big deal because I was on that career path when I started college.* At least I had a lucrative 10-year run in computers; I never would have lasted that long in journalism.

I didn't like this book. Let's start with the subtitle. Can you really call 27 months a career, especially when you only work one day a week (with an extra shift or two in the holiday season)? That's maybe 130-150 days of work, about half a year if she had been a full-timer. Let's move on to the basic theme: working retail sucks and pays poorly. Did I need to read a book to learn that? I was hoping for some interesting and/or amusing stories, but there are few.**

I don't like the author's attitude. She tells us over and over how she wouldn't normally associate with her fellow, um, associates (Kelly repeats herself often—yet another book in need of a decent editor). She acts like she's the greatest employee, master of the sales floor. She brags about the new skills she is learning but still has the air of one who feels the work is beneath her. She brags even more about her glorious past as a journalist. I would love to hear what her coworkers really thought of her.

Then she gets upset when she is passed over for a promotion, but again, she's only working one freaking day a week. I worked retail for a few years in high school, and I quickly learned there is a big difference between the full-timers and the part-timers. Apparently this is lost on Kelly, who after all has elevated her single day a week into a "career". At least other people who have written about doing crappy jobs (most prominently, Barbara Ehrenreich) have fully immersed themselves.

Kelly throws in some interviewing and reporting—she is a journalist, as she constantly reminds us—but it doesn't add up to much. She should have stuck to her experiences at work. And if that wasn't enough to fill a book, well, that kind of says it all, doesn't it?

* I was editor of the high school newspaper for three years and quickly became an editor on the college paper as well. Career counselors say to envision yourself in the job you want, but I could never imagine being a journalist in "real life" even though I wrote and edited stories in school. I took that as a sign that I should do something else. I switched to computer science before the start of sophomore year.

** I hope another book I have called Retail Hell by Freeman Hall will provide that.


Monday, May 20, 2013

50 Jobs in 50 States: One Man's Journey of Discovery Across America by Daniel Seddiqui

This book has an intriguing premise: work in all 50 states in one year. Seddiqui makes it even better by choosing jobs that represent each state such as farming corn in Nebraska, making cheese in Wisconsin, logging in Oregon, and shelling peanuts in Georgia.

50 Jobs in 50 States is too short for the ground it attempts to cover, though. It could easily have been 50 pages longer, one more page for each state. For that matter, it would have been better if the author spent at least two weeks per job. The journey seems rushed, and for all the effort he put into securing each job it would have been ideal to spend more time at each one.*

But the book's biggest flaw is too much about Seddiqui and not enough about the work. I'd say this has risen to the level of pet peeve for me since I see it in so many books. Isn't one of the cardinal rules of writing "don't let yourself get in the way of a good story"? People don't want to read about you; they want to read about what you did. Especially annoying is his relationship with a psychotic** pseudo-girlfriend. It's a perfect example of something that seems important to the writer personally at the time while readers really don't give a shit. Heck, in 5-10 years Seddiqui probably won't care about her anymore either. I hope.

* Of course, it's hard enough to commit a whole year to a project, much less two, so I don't fault the author for this even though I think it would have resulted in a better book.

** I don't throw that word around casually. The woman has serious issues.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab by Melissa Plaut

There are 40,000 cabbies in New York City but only about 200 are women. Plaut is one of them. Hack is yet another book that started out as a blog (no longer updated).

This book is pretty much what one would expect: a narrative of the hiring process followed by a collection of tales about the job. Plaut tells of good and bad tippers, kind and rude people, getting lost at the airport, getting stuck in traffic, and so on. The stories are somewhat random and unorganized, but that's the nature of the work.

Hack is interesting at times but not particularly memorable. As with any memoir, Plaut is at the mercy of what happens to her, and other cabbies may have better stories to tell. I suspect that she wouldn't have scored a book deal without the novelty of her gender. Plus she has a rather boring personal life, and although she doesn't write a lot about it, the book would have been better with less. If I reviewed books on Amazon, I'd give it three stars.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Random Musical Coincidence

I'm reading a book called Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard at Philly's Best on Belmont. The author stays at a homeless shelter, and he's talking with a nutty guy who says
Did you know that a barracuda is actually a combination of a fish and a dragon and a hawk? Right now it can only exhibit its fish powers, because the other two are chained down by the demons deep below the Earth's surface, but believe me, one day, the barracuda is going to take over the world.
I told you he was nutty. Anyway I continued reading, and less than two paragraphs later, "Barracuda" by Heart played over the PA! BTW this is the same place where I heard "Down Under" while reading about Australia last month.

Another customer said to her friend, "This is so weird. It's like Heart has been following me around all week. I've been hearing this song everywhere!"

My first thought was to tell her this time it was my fault because of what I was reading. But my next thought was that perhaps "Barracuda" playing had nothing to do with my book and was all because of her. Then I returned to reading my book before more levels of weirdness piled on.

Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange & Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson

Though I missed Antarctica during my month of vicarious vacations, I made up for it with this first book of May. I originally bought it for my wife, who was intrigued by a friend of a friend working in Antarctica. She never read it, but I think she'd recognize many similarities with her own workplace. Antarctica should be called the "world's coldest bureaucracy."

Contrary to popular belief, Antarctica isn't full of scientists—most of the workers are support staff who provide food, dispose of waste, repair things, etc.* These service industry jobs are managed by a large corporation serving as contractor for the National Science Foundation. With the layers of governmental and corporate management acting arbitrarily, it is amazing anything is accomplished down there.

Big Dead Place is a bit hard to follow at times. It is mostly an anecdotal memoir which seems scatter-shot at first, but eventually the broader theme of bureaucratic disenchantment emerges. Johnson addresses the notion that harsh weather conditions drive workers away:
I have never heard one person say that the most difficult thing about Antarctica is working outside, or being cold. I have never heard one person imply that Antarctica's tough physical environment would be the main reason not to return. I have never heard of one returnee who finally quit because it's the world's highest, driest, coldest, or whatever. People leave because of the bullshit.
He proceeds to document a fair amount of that bullshit in excruciating detail. He weaves tales of South Pole explorers into his narrative, and it is obvious that despite his bitching about the way the program is run, he truly finds Antarctica fascinating.

It isn't all riveting, though. A better editor would have excised many of the dorm hijinks stories, for example. Still, Johnson offers a valuable perspective on living and working in Antarctica. I think it's a good book for the curious (like me) and a mandatory book for anyone who wants to work down there.

While doing research for this post, I learned that Johnson committed suicide in December 2012.

* This reminds me of my experience working at the American Bar Association. People often asked me what it was like to work with a bunch of lawyers. But I didn't—the only lawyers I knew there were at least three levels above me, and naturally I didn't interact with them. The ABA provides services to members who happen to be lawyers, but most employees are administrative assistants, computer programmers, magazine editors, data entry clerks, etc.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

April Wrap-Up/May Theme

April in Chicago was unpleasant this year so it was nice to be taking these vicarious vacations. I covered six of seven continents in the seven books I read. There weren't any real duds in the bunch, and I learned about a lot of interesting places I'd never want to actually visit.

May's theme is work, which may be an odd choice for someone who hasn't held a steady job in nearly a decade. I plan to read about all sorts of occupations from the unusual to the mundane. Who knows, maybe I'll find a new career. Or more likely I'll be reminded how good I have it as a homemaker who can sit around and read books about work.

No Shitting in the Toilet: The Travel Guide for When You've Really Lost It by Peter Moore

As usual, I'm finishing off the previous month's books in the middle of the following month!

Moore is an Australian travel writer with a knack for bad experiences.* The title comes from a sign posted in a cafe in China. This book is written in a Q&A format with Moore providing sarcastic, funny, and yet often practical responses to a reader's queries about world travel. He also draws on his experience to offer "Top 10" lists of what to avoid.

Though there is a helpful glossary, I couldn't always follow Moore's Aussie slang (my copy is a UK edition so it's not Americanized). Also the book is aimed toward backpackers, a particular kind of traveler. Overall I found this book amusing but not great. I think my wife enjoyed it more than I did (I read it aloud), although she was initially put off by the title. I'd give it three and a half stars (out of five).

* Not to be confused with Tim Moore, a British travel writer whose books I've read.


Into Thick Air: Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents by Jim Malusa

I had to include at least one bicycle touring book among my vicarious vacations. Into Thick Air has the added appeal of checking off Europe and Australia, leaving only Antarctica "unvisited" in my April travels.

The book is based on a series Malusa wrote for Discovery Online wherein he rides a bicycle to the lowest point on each continent. He doesn't ride around the world from lowpoint to lowpoint in one long trip; he flies into a convenient airport and rides a few hundred miles to each one (except Death Valley, which he rides to from his Tucson home).

I enjoyed this book. Malusa really connects with the locals, and most are exceedingly generous. With a background in botany, he describes his natural surroundings vividly. I think his ride through Djibouti was my favorite, though the ride from Cairo to the Dead Sea was very interesting. Djibouti surprised me because the people are so friendly—aside from some kids who throw rocks at him—and because the French Foreign Legion has a presence there. I hadn't heard about them in such a long time that I assumed they had disbanded.*

* I remember the Foreign Legion being portrayed when I was young, circa 1980, as elite, mercenary, and very dangerous (i.e. its members didn't live long). But I must admit that a good portion of that impression came from jokes in Mad magazine.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Poor Choice of Words

The U.S. Postal Service announced that it lost $1.9 billion in the second quarter. The Postmaster General has been trying to make cuts to save money. Parcel delivery grew 9.3% in the second quarter compared to last year, though, and some think that aspect of the business could be the key to future profitability:
"Instead of the postmaster general's 'shrink to survive' strategy -- which will only begin a death spiral for the USPS -- what is needed is a dynamic business plan for the future to take advantage of the many opportunities for growth, including in the exploding package delivery market," Fredric Rolando, the union's president, said in a statement.
Wait a second... did Rolando say "exploding package delivery"? Boom!

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Lyrics of the Day

The chorus of "Draw a Crowd" from the latest Ben Folds Five album:
Oh-oh if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall
Oh-oh if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall
If you can't draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall
I was driving home today totally buzzed on adrenaline after a bike ride on the North Branch Trail. There was a train crossing on Touhy Ave. so traffic was stopped, and I had the windows down. This song was playing and I sang along loudly, pounding out the rhythm on the door (like I said, I was really buzzed). As the song ended, I thought Gosh, wouldn't it be funny if the driver next to me had the passenger-side window down?

She did. Then she pulled forward a bit, turned and glared at me over her shoulder.


Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

I couldn't read travel books for a month without at least one American road trip. Deck gets the idea to form the Typo Eradication Advancement League and travel around the U.S. with a friend or two fixing mistakes on signs. This book was a natural for me—when it came out people were telling me about it. I guess I seem like the type who'd go around the country correcting grammar and spelling errors.* At least I complain about them regularly; my pet peeves are its/it's and your/you're.

The road trip is entertaining for the most part, though I've read more engaging travelogues. Fortunately the authors do not include every correction they made, instead trying to stick to the most illustrative ones. Surprisingly, the most interesting parts are where Deck reflects on the evolution of language. It becomes a sort of existential crisis that I did not expect. In that respect, it is the best kind of road trip: one that brings the travelers back to someplace different from where they started, metaphorically speaking.

Overall, unfortunately, The Great Typo Hunt falls a bit flat. The book is written in an overwrought, heroic, righteous tone that starts out amusing but can become annoying. Though the premise appeals to me, this isn't much of a travel memoir. Most of it could have just as well occurred on the streets of one city. This is underscored by a lesson the authors learn: people make the same errors everywhere (oh well, I guess somebody had to drive around the country to figure that out). Also the writers don't give much detail about the things they see aside from the typos; it all seems to pass by too quickly. A grammar freak/scold will like this book, but someone looking for a vicarious vacation may be disappointed.

* At one time I might have, but I guess I've grown too cynical about making any kind of difference in the world to bother. And I could never write a book like this—the pressure not to publish any mistakes would be unbearable. Just omitting a one-letter word in Biking Illinois devastated me, and I am probably the only person in the world who expected that book to be perfect (my only solace was in finding the error myself before someone else pointed it out). 


Thursday, May 02, 2013

False Advertising

TV commercial: "JCPenney believes mom deserves to get everything she wants."

Except her job back. Assholes.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism by Thomas Kohnstamm

Lonely Planet hires the author to update its guide to Brazil. It's his first travel writing assignment, and he quickly learns there is no way to thoroughly explore the area—much less write about it—in the time he is allotted. His advance from the publisher doesn't go far either.

As a travel author, I can identify with Kohnstamm's dilemma. Time wasn't as big an issue for me as money (at least until the last month when I realized I had blown nine months writing 30% of the book). I doubt that any travel guides end up making much money for their authors (though travel memoirs may). Alas I cannot identify with Kohnstamm's tales of debauchery. Researching my book was a solitary process with neither female nor chemical companionship.

Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? is a funny and engaging tale. Along the way it exposes some of the dirty truths of the travel writing industry—or confirms them depending on one's cynicism.