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, managing a city during a zombie apocalypse… 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.
Pan Am (2011-2012)
Let’s all take a moment to mourn one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve ever watched: ABC’s Pan Am, which aired fourteen episodes between September 2011 and February 2012. The period drama about the once glamorous work of airline stewardesses (now known as flight attendants) featured strong women, complicated men, and enough history to make it feel real. In its short run, the series tackled the changing roles of women, the taboo of interracial relationships, the emotional cost of World War II, the harrowing realm of Cold War espionage, and the shock of Kennedy’s assassination. It handled the changing tides of the sixties with panache, and made us all understand a little bit more what that tumultuous era must have been like.
Some will tell you that Mad Men is the way to go for TV dramas about social issues in the sixties. While I realise it was the zeitgeist of the times, the misogyny that permeates the AMC original series (at least in its first season, which is all I could get through) left a bad taste in my mouth. In contrast, Pan Am focuses more on the growing empowerment of the fairer sex. It was rich to watch and edifying to listen to. I wish the show had gone on for a few seasons longer if only so I could use it as a supplementary history curriculum for my ever curious daughter. In my home at least, Pan Am will be sorely missed.
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 if I didn’t conclude with this lame play on words).
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. It’s hard labour!
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 nineteen 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 you can thank me when your boss blocks Internet access for the entire department owing to low productivity!