Happy Labour Day! To celebrate hard work across the globe, our contributors give their labour-themed recommendations, touching on a wide range of jobs, from sweating it as a New York sous-chef to, uh, teaching ballroom dance at a summer camp… Really?!
I’ve never watched Master Chef or any of its spinoffs, which seem to reproduce faster than Tribbles. Still, there’s something about life in a professional kitchen that fascinates me. The hours are grueling; the slang is arcane; the work is fastidious and physically demanding; and the sign of a truly good day is that plates are empty and you’ve got nothing left to show for your success. Just the same, I consider Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential an obvious genre classic and would recommend its litany of debauchery wholeheartedly. If you can, track down the audio book read by the author. Alternately, you could pick up Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter for its literary merits and expert account of the path to opening a restaurant.
My true recommendation, though, blends both the high and low. Subtitled “An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany,” Bill Buford’s Heat chronicles what may sensitively be described as a well-planned mid-life crisis wherein a budding foodie quits his prestigious job and throws himself into the fire of a real kitchen. A former New Yorker fiction editor, Buford brings pedigree to his own writing while maintaining a self-effacing tone. His account is exhausting, but it can thankfully be read at leisure over a nice meal and a glass of wine.
The Blessing Bell (2002)
You hear it a lot these days: “At least, I’ve still got my job!” In the current economy, losing employment can feel like a kick in the groin or five. I can only imagine how devastating it must seem in Japan, where work isn’t just a means to pay the bills but a life-long commitment, a source of pride, and, to some extent, a way of life. I don’t mean to reduce the Japanese culture to a tired stereotype. Rather, I want to provide context for one of my all-time favourite flicks: Tanaka Hiroyuki’s The Blessing Bell (a.k.a. Kôfuku No Kane), which tells of a factory worker (Terajima Susumu) losing his job and taking a long walk to clear his head.
No, really, that’s it. Along the way, our hero witnesses a criminal’s final moments, goes to jail, befriends a young widow, and finds a winning lottery ticket, but he never speaks a word. Iragashi is shellshocked, you see, struggling to readapt his values to a difficult new reality. Like 2009’s Up in the Air (another brilliant comedy), Tanaka’s film criticises how the modern work culture has come to define our sense of worth. However, instead of lashing out at our corporate overlords, The Blessing Bell does so by embracing its characters’ humanity in such a charming and profound manner that we can’t help but want to protect it. I feel I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t encourage you to seek this movie out immediately (or didn’t conclude with this lame play on words).
Dirty Dancing (1987)
I know: what does a movie about vacation have to do with Labor Day? Well, when the film in question is Dirty Dancing, a number of arguments can be made. For one, this 1987 sleeper hit about an introverted girl (Jennifer Grey) falling in love with her dance instructor (Patrick Swayze) at a Catskills holiday camp provides a blunt contrast between the plight of the working class and the leisurely existence of those known today as the one percent. The film also highlights the hard labour required to master a discipline like dancing, something that money and brains alone can’t grant you.
However, despite its origins (who cares about seventy dead or injured Pullman strikers?), I feel Labor Day largely serves to demarcate the end of the summer. In this vein, a movie that celebrates the decadent beauty of summer ennui and dissects the end of innocence seems à propos. Ultimately, though, Dirty Dancing just makes you want to smile, dance, and shed nostalgic tears without fully understanding why. In sync with the reason for the season, the film epitomises the bittersweet nature of summer’s end. Also, yes, I was kidding about my insensitivity to the 1894 Pullman strike.
Rebuild 2 (2011)
When you want to take a five-minute break from work, nothing beats a free online Flash game like Sarah Northway’s Rebuild 2. Just load it, start playing, and realise half an hour later that you should probably get back to work. Like so many of its kind, the strategy-based simulator takes place in a world overrun by the living dead. As the mayor of one of the few remaining cities, you must search for survivors, provide food and shelter, expand your small, fortified district, and defend it from hordes of undead ghouls. Keeping up the morale of your citizens also proves capital, as does conducting scientific research. You see, surviving the zombie apocalypse isn’t as easy as sending a few brave souls on suicide missions to the unknown.
The balance between expansion and protection is a tricky one, especially at the beginning of the game. As you send your loyal townspeople on scouting missions, scavenging runs, and zombie hunts, you’ll likely think to yourself, “Just one more turn! Just one more turn!” until you realise you’ve had twenty one-more-turns and an hour has gone by. Why do you think it took me a full afternoon to write little over two hundred words? In the spirit of these Labor Day recommendations, I invite you to try Rebuild 2 at the office, and, when your boss blocks Internet access for the entire department owing to low productivity, you can thank Idiomanic.