book reviews, housekeeping tips, lessons learned, movies

“Well-fed butts!” Barbara Ehrenreich and C. Thomas Howell have something in common.

Like today’s title? I wish I could claim it as my own quote, but I actually read it first in a book by Barbara Ehrenreich. Back in 2001, I was a second year graduate student in a state where I had few friends. I went to the local Barnes & Noble, looking for something interesting to read. I found Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. At that time of my life, I still considered myself fairly conservative in my politics, although looking at today’s right-wingers, I see that I’ve always been more of a moderate. But back then, I voted Republican.

I picked up Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, not knowing anything at all about her. I read about how, at different times from 1998 until 2000, she tried being a member of the “working poor”. She worked at Walmart, Menard’s, a hotel maid, waitress, cleaning woman, and at a nursing home. She moved from Florida to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodging she could find and whatever jobs she could find. And she tried to live on the wages she was paid. In the course of her research, she lived in trailer parks and at residential hotels. And, at one point, while scrubbing a toilet while working as a cleaning lady, Barbara came up with that beaut of a phrase… “well-fed butt”. She was referring to the comparatively wealthy white people who employed people like she was pretending to be, thinking nothing about what it was like to be a member of the “working poor”, surviving on minimum wage and “not getting by”.

This was the original book cover and the one that is on my hardcover copy. The cover on some editions now look different, because in 2007, the woman in the picture, Kimmie Jo Christensen, sued Ehrenreich’s publisher for using the image without her permission. The photo was originally taken for an unrelated 1986 cover of Fortune magazine. The suit was eventually settled out of court.

At the time that I read Barbara’s book, I was a social work and public health student. In 2001, my focus was exclusively on social work. Oddly enough, I really hadn’t known anything about social work when I applied to the program. I was mostly looking for a way to be employed, making more than the low hourly wages offered at big box stores and waiting tables. I’d had my fill of dealing with the public and wanted to do something less taxing… because, as Barbara Ehrenreich had discovered, there’s no such thing as “unskilled labor”. Even working in food service at Busch Gardens was physically and mentally taxing, on hot days when the park was full of people, lines were long, and tempers were short. For that, I made $4.75 an hour during my last year, back in 1992.

Eight years later, as a graduate student editing and writing about the CDC’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, I made $10 an hour. But I only worked ten hours a week, so I had to supplement that money waiting tables at a country club, where I earned $8 an hour, the odd (and rare) tip, and occasional free meals. The rest was paid for by student loans. If only I had discovered Epinions.com back then. I could have made a nice side income writing product reviews. I didn’t discover Epinions, though, until 2003. Sadly, Epinions is now defunct, as are a lot of the other online writing gigs where I used to make my own money.

For some reason, I thought of the phrase “well-fed butts” as I was vacuuming today.. I always vacuum on Thursdays. I hate doing it. This morning, I joked to Bill that I wish I had a riding vacuum cleaner. It just seems like such a pointless activity, since as soon as I’m done sucking up the household dirt and dog hair, one of the dogs or another human invariably tracks more dirt, dog hair, or grass clippings into the house. On the other hand, I am always kind of gratified when I see the canister fill up with debris, which I can later dump into our “black bin” (trash that goes straight to an incinerator, rather than being recycled).

When Barbara wrote of “well-fed butts”, she was leaned over a toilet bowl, scrubbing shit stains and urine splashes. She wrote a snarky comment about how she was making low wages, cleaning up the residue left from “well-fed butts” belonging to rich people who had no appreciation whatsoever for her low paid labors. She had been vacuuming the carpets in a company patented fan style, leaving marks in the pile so that the customer knew that the cleaning woman had properly cleaned. Barbara confessed that the techniques were actually just cosmetic, since the cleaners weren’t using a lot of water or soap as they mopped floors and scrubbed grout. They were under pressure to be fast, so a lot of things got missed. She wrote:

“The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it”(54).

It’s interesting to look at Amazon reviews of Nickel and Dimed. The book gets an overall score of 4.3 stars. Many people liked it and learned from it. Others considered Ehrenreich preachy, judgmental, and occasionally racist. More than a few mentioned that as a well-educated woman who was merely acting as a low wage worker, she had no idea of how difficult it really is to be a member of the working poor, especially since she could scrap her experiment at any time. For whatever it’s worth, The Guardian ranked Nickel and Dimed 13th in its list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. Since we’re only 21 years into the 21st century, it seems kind of premature to be ranking books for this century. But writers are always looking for ways to make content, aren’t they?

A trailer for Soul Man… wow… things were cheap in 1986!

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book reminds me of Soul Man, a 1986 movie that was kind of popular, but today would likely be taboo. C. Thomas Howell, who was prior best known as one of the “Wolverines” in the anti-Soviet propaganda film, Red Dawn, played a rich White guy whose family cuts him off from the family fortunes. Howell’s character, Mark Watson, wants to go to law school at Harvard University, but as a rich White person, he doesn’t qualify for financial aid. So, his solution was to take tanning pills and pose as a Black student so he can qualify for a scholarship that is only available to Black people. Naturally, this role required that C. Thomas Howell wear blackface, which led to protests against the film’s release.

Worth watching for this scene. I like James Earl Jones a lot.

Today, Soul Man probably would not have been made, although I remember many television shows and movies where blackface was used in the 80s. In fact, I was watching The Kids in the Hall, a hilarious 90s era CBC/HBO comedy show last week, and noticed that at least two characters were in blackface. James Earl Jones and Rae Dawn Chong were both in this movie. And while many people think Soul Man is “racist”, the last scene kind of sums up things nicely. In that scene, Mark Watson is talking to his law school professor, Professor Banks (James Earl Jones), who tells Watson that now he’s learned what it’s like to be Black. But Watson reminds the professor that he doesn’t actually know what being Black is like, because he could always “escape” it. Real Black people can’t do that. Likewise, Barbara Ehrenreich could have bailed on being a member of the “working poor”. She was a successful writer with education and notoriety who had money. But she didn’t bail, and managed to write a book that was compelling to a lot of people, despite the “woke” naysayers’ complaints.

I think it’s too bad that so many people are so “woke” that they miss the main point sometimes. Our society has gotten to the point at which if you’re not spouting off politically correct rhetoric, you will get shouted down by the masses, many consisting of people who don’t stop to think about anything for more than a minute or two. They read or hear something, have a knee-jerk reaction to it, and just drive on without another thought. They don’t always stop to see the other sides of an issue and think critically. And if you dare to bring up the other sides, they get all ragey about it, which is why comment sections are often useless and reading them does nothing more than raise my blood pressure and occasionally provide fodder for my blog.

Soul Man is kind of cringeworthy on its surface, because it shows a clueless White person pretending to be Black– and frankly, not very convincingly, as I don’t think C. Thomas Howell really pulls off racial appropriation. To me, he doesn’t really pass. But that final scene, in which he talks to his Black Harvard law professor about the trick he pulled, the main idea of the movie is spelled out. And I think a lot of people miss that, and just want to crap on the film because they think it’s “racist”. If it was meant to be a racist film, that last scene would not have been included. That being said… Soul Man is not a great film, in my opinion, although I do think the people who made it had good intentions. But thinking about Barbara Ehrenreich’s book this morning made me remember it.

Rae Dawn Chong, who is mixed race– Black, White, and Asian– reportedly was very offended that Spike Lee took exception to Soul Man. She said:

“It was only controversial because Spike Lee made a thing of it… He’d never seen the movie and he just jumped all over it,” she added, recalling that it was a time when Lee was coming up in his career and making headlines for being outspoken.

“He was just starting and pulling everything down in his wake,” Chong asserted. “If you watch the movie, it’s really making white people look stupid.”

That was my take, too… although my favorite part of Soul Man was the music. The soundtrack was pretty excellent, if I recall correctly.

In any case… I hope my days of being a member of the working poor are over, for I know that is not an easy status. But one never knows what the future holds. I have been very lucky, but as Don Henley pointed out in his song, “New York Minute”, everything can change in an instant. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re gone… So I try to keep that in mind as I clean up after the two well-fed human butts and two well fed canine butts in my household and feel great relief when my vacuuming chore is over for the week.

Bill managed to get his second Moderna shot yesterday. He was feeling okay until about 3:00am, when the shot kicked in. He woke up this morning feeling achy and flu-like. I’m glad we washed all the bedding yesterday, so he can enjoy clean sheets while he recovers. He worked so many hours in Bavaria that he’s taking most of this week off. I wish we could have used the time off to see some of Europe, but the weather has been positively horrible lately. It’s currently 54 degrees outside and cloudy. Yesterday and Tuesday, it rained for most of the day. I did catch a rainbow, though…

I hope this is a good omen.

Well, it’s time I got on with the rest of the day. I don’t know if I recommend Nickel and Dimed. I liked it a lot when I read it, but at 20 years old, it’s now a bit dated. But I do like that turn of a phrase, “well fed white butts”… and I hope Barbara Ehrenreich meant it when she expressed empathy for the working poor… just like I hope C. Thomas Howell learned something from his turn as “Mark Watson, Soul Man”. I guess Barbara Ehrenreich and C. Thomas Howell really do have something in common besides having well-fed butts of their own.

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complaints, Germany, housekeeping tips

My new vacuum is a German speaker…

When Bill told me he was going away for three weeks, I said I was going to buy myself a “present”. Most women would buy themselves some earrings or something. What did I do? I bought a fucking vacuum cleaner. But it’s not your ordinary vacuum. This one is a dry/wet vacuum. It’s like a hybrid steam mop and vacuum. It has an app, and “speaks”. I didn’t decide to buy it for its ability to speak, though. I bought it because it’s cordless, upright, and lighter than my corded Dyson, which I’ve been dragging around for the past few years.

This guy did a review. He’s in America, though, so his vacuum speaks English.

Supposedly, I can change the language in the app, but I wasn’t able to access it yesterday, even after I registered and got an email confirming that I did. Somehow, I wasn’t able to click on anything that shows them I received their verification and would allow me to set a password.

Tineco is supposedly very responsive, but I left them a message on their Facebook page and, so far, nada. I also found it rather concerning that there was a sticker on the vacuum that asked consumers not to take the vacuum to the store, but to contact customer service. I’m not sure how to take that. But anyway, I haven’t tried it out yet. By the time it got to me, it was late afternoon, and it took some time to remove it from its box. Every part was wrapped in plastic and shrouded in cardboard. Since I’m still in pain from my recent spills, I’m moving slower than usual and was in no mood to mess with the new toy. Aside from that, it needed time to charge.

Ah well… I’m sure I can learn the German phrases uttered by my new cleaning buddy. As long as I can figure out how to use the damned thing and it does what it’s supposed to, I’ll be happy. I think Dysons are overrated. I’ve had several of them, and they never quite live up to the hype. I decided to buy my current one only because the Dirt Devil I had when we first moved back to Germany fell apart after less than a year. The Dyson may not suck as well as it should, but at least it doesn’t fall apart. And at least it’s not designed so that when I round a corner and the machine brushes against the wall, it doesn’t accidentally hit the power button and shut off the vacuum. That happened many times with the Dirt Devil.

For some reason, upright vacuums are hard to find in Germany. Everybody seems to prefer canister vacs without powered heads. I find the canister vacuum cumbersome and annoying, and I hate using it. So hopefully, this new vacuum with be good for lighter jobs, especially since Noyzi deposits so much hair all over the place and tracks mud on the floors.

In other news, I also ordered a new laptop computer yesterday. I did so as I Skyped with my mom. I don’t really need a laptop that badly, as the one I have currently is mostly used for travel purposes and I’m not traveling nowadays. However, it’s also seven years old, and doesn’t move as smoothly or efficiently as it used to. Of course, I have a feeling that my fucking credit card company might have declined the charge, since I rarely charge things and this is a high dollar item. Usually, they text me to get my approval, but I never got a text last night, and the pending charge isn’t showing up on my bill anymore. So that will probably mean calling them, which is a pain in the ass, since I pretty much hate calling people. I might just say fuck it and either use another card or wait until I’m feeling impulsive again. Like I said, I don’t need a new computer so much as I want one.

I’m not as sore as I was yesterday, though I still have some pain from the bruises and actual wounds. My knees look even uglier than they did when I photographed them the other day. The left one has developed a light brown scab, while the right one has a dark red one. The bruises are slowly changing color. Last time I saw the one on my right knee, it was kind of greenish, while the one on the left is more bluish.

Arran continues to wake me up in the wee hours of the morning, but I am a lot more careful about going up and down the stairs now. Don’t want to have another accident. Next time, I might fall on my face, and I don’t need to be any uglier there.

My former student in Armenia, who now works for the Peace Corps, has asked me to make a very short video in honor of the 60th anniversary of the agency. That will mean putting on some makeup, which I haven’t done in weeks. Maybe I’ll make a new selfie, too. The one I’m using now is a year old, although I look kind of pretty in it. It was taken just before we went to France for the annual wine expo, which I believe was postponed this year. It’s a shock to see how much things have changed in just a year’s time. Now, Angela Merkel and her pals are talking about extending the fucking lockdown until March 28th. I suspect people will freak out.

I was feeling a bit depressed and sad for the future yesterday. I probably shouldn’t read so much doom porn in the papers. Every day, it’s more about COVID-19, and how new variants are popping up. I read comments from people who are all about living life the way it is now. I read articles about how the governors of Texas and Mississippi have decided to end the mask mandates and allow businesses to reopen. I hate the fucking face masks, and being forced to wear them is very depressing for me. However, I am not dumb enough to believe that it’s safe for everything to open up, especially in the United States.

At the same time, I’m tired of all of the hostility and disrespect people have for each other. Everyone is on edge, and there’s no room for differences of opinions. People who don’t want to take the vaccine are being harangued by honor graduates of the Google School of Public Health. To be sure, I have no issues getting vaccinated myself. As soon as I can get the shot, I probably will, mainly because Bill will turn into Pat Boone if I don’t. But I can understand why some people don’t want to be vaccinated. Some people are legitimately afraid of the vaccine, for whatever reason. It should be their decision, even if I don’t agree with it– as long as they aren’t directly working with vulnerable people. Being rude, derisive, and confrontational towards people who aren’t with the official program is not the way to change their minds. Same thing I’ve been saying about the fucking face masks. All that behavior does is polarize people even more.

But… as it is now, the fucking vaccine will take awhile to get to us. I am low on the priority list. And I suppose that is how it should be, since I’m not officially high risk and I live like a hermit anyway. It sucks, though… and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I don’t think about checking out on a daily basis. This is nothing new for me, as I have often felt like this even before COVID-19 was a thing. It doesn’t mean I’m planning to off myself, either. It’s more like I feel like I’m stuck at a never-ending party that isn’t fun anymore and I’d like to go home and go to bed. 🙂 And since I have no real purpose, other than to feed my dogs and make Bill laugh, I wonder what the point is of staying.

Anyway… at least the weather is getting somewhat better and the days are getting longer. I’m hoping the backyard will dry out some and we’ll get some grass back after Noyzi destroyed the lawn. At least we can sit outside and drink cocktails, right? And listen to music from a time when things were less bleak, exhausting, and downright annoying.

I guess I’ll go try out my new German speaking vacuum now… and maybe put on some makeup and make a video for Stepan. Have a special day.

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silliness

Housework can be dangerous…

I hurt myself yesterday. My right ring finger is currently swollen and sore, and has an unusually limited range of motion. It doesn’t hurt to use it for typing, but there is pain when I try to use it for scrubbing. Consequently, I probably won’t be doing much cleaning today. Housework can be dangerous.

I was doing housework when the spectacularly stupid injury occurred. I had stripped the sheets off of the bed so I could wash them. There are six pillows on my bed and I put them on the floor so I could get everything off of the mattress. I also have a backrest that I use when I sit on the bed to watch TV. It has a handle on top of it.

That handle almost killed me yesterday…

As I was making the bed, I reached down to get one of the pillows so I could replace the pillow case. The top of my foot somehow got caught in the handle on top of the “husband” backrest and I lost my balance, suddenly hurtling forward. Instinctively, I put up my right hand to protect my face from hitting the sloped wall so common in Germany.

I hate sloped walls/ceilings. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit my head on one of these damned things in every German house we’ve lived in.

My right ring finger hit the wall with so much force that it hyperextended backwards. The sudden wrenching of my phalange led to copious swearing and a massive endorphin rush.

Pain is such a rush.
“There could be some major damage here…”

I can’t really tell by looking at the finger that it’s injured. There’s a little shadowy bruise on the backside of the digit and there’s a bit of swelling that is only obvious to me. It doesn’t hurt quite as much today either, although it’s hard to straighten it. I’m relieved about that, since I couldn’t help but remember something that happened to my late father at the end of his life. He almost lost his middle finger after injuring it while he was dreaming. My dad suffered from post traumatic stress disorder due to being abused by his father and spending too much time in a war zone. Dad was deployed to Vietnam, and was profoundly affected by what he did there.

I have read that when people are dreaming, most of the time their muscles are so relaxed that they don’t function and they’re pretty much “paralyzed”. This is what keeps most dreamers from acting out while they sleep. However, the “paralysis” that stops people from acting out their dreams doesn’t always work. Besides having PTSD, my dad also suffered from several sleep disorders, including sleep apnea and REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. So he would have vivid dreams that would cause him to jump out of bed, scream, shout, and throw punches. One time, when he was sleeping, he threw a wild punch and hit the wall, which really hurt his finger.

Unfortunately, he didn’t take proper care of the injury, and the finger got badly infected. There was some talk that he’d need to have it amputated, but fortunately the injury eventually healed. I remember being freaked out that my dad might need to have his middle finger removed. Then I was reminded of another funny story involving my dad and middle fingers.

Back in 1983, the Waterside was opened in Norfolk, Virginia. In the early days, Waterside was a really cool place to shop. It had a lot of unique stores and restaurants. My parents took me to see it, even though we lived somewhat far from Norfolk. I was about eleven years old at the time.

One of the shops we visited that day was a hat store. They had all kinds of funny hats in there that ranged from the elegant to the profane. I remember laughing uproariously at a baseball hat that had a felt dog on the brim, passing a plastic fire hydrant. You pulled a little plastic string, and the dog’s leg would lift on the hydrant. I think I begged my mom to get it for me, but she refused. My dad, on the other hand, ended up purchasing a black baseball cap that had a yellow felt hand on the brim that formed a middle finger salute.

The hat looked like this, except the hand was made of bright yellow felt stuffed with batting. It was really funny!

Despite his 22 years in the Air Force, my dad was never big on profanity. I think it was because his alcoholic and abusive father swore a lot and his mother, whom everyone adored, never did. Consequently, in 1983, my dad was unaware of what displaying the middle finger means. He showed the hat to my mom, who did know what it meant. She was shocked that he would ever buy such a hat, and she said, “You’re not going to wear that hat in public, are you?”

“Sure, I am.” Dad replied. “I’m gonna wear it to Rotary.”

Mom said, “No, you’re not going to wear that!”

“Yes, I am! I’m going to wear it to my next Rotary Club meeting and say, ‘I don’t agree with any of you!'”

“Do you know what that means?” Mom asked, completely aghast.

“Doesn’t it mean ‘go to hell?'” Dad asked, starting to look a little worried.

“NO!” Mom said, leaning over to whisper in his ear.

She needn’t have bothered trying to protect my virgin ears, since I was watching a lot of HBO and already had a very advanced dirty word and gesture vocabulary for a kid. As many people who know me realize, I still use vulgar language with pride. That hat wound up underneath the driver’s seat in my dad’s ugly bright orange VW van. He never wore it anywhere, yet didn’t throw it away for the longest time. I wish I had pilfered it from him. I’d wear that hat with glee at any pro Trump rally.

When I heard that my dad might lose his middle finger due to injuring it, I couldn’t help but laugh at the memory that he’d once bought a baseball cap with a middle finger on it, not knowing that the middle finger is a very vulgar hand gesture that, if flashed at someone in Germany, can actually lead to arrest and/or fines.

I’m not going to need to have my finger amputated. It’s just going to hurt for awhile. Sometimes I have a habit of thinking of worst case scenarios, which causes unnecessary worry. I don’t think this injury is going to affect me for too long, although it may be awhile before I can straighten my finger properly again.

Most injuries are caused by something stupid, like tripping on the handle of a backrest. Who would have thought that something that was supposed to make life easier would cause me to fly into a wall and hyperextend my finger? Too bad it wasn’t my middle finger. At least then, I’d have a funny story.

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