Lunchbox Land

Kish and I met Russell for breakfast at Dell’s Fine Food in Fostoria, Ohio today. In addition to winning countless awards for its barbecue and making the best pancakes Kish says she’s ever had — which is the highest praise any pancake could possibly hope for — Dell’s also features an impressive display of old-fashioned lunchboxes, from back in the day when many kids took a lunchbox and matching thermos filled with hot soup to school every day.

I’m sure I had a Mercury astronaut lunch box, a Jetson’s lunchbox, and a Monkees lunchbox, and a few others, too. My thermoses always broke — the glass inside shattered if you dropped it — and I eventually became too self consciously cool for a lunchbox and carried a sack lunch instead, but I still have a soft spot for the lunchbox days of the ’60s.

Ringing The (Taco) Bell

This year, Taco Bell is going to be experimenting with a new approach to recruiting qualified restaurant managers:  in certain labor markets, it has announced it is willing to pay an annual salary of $100,000 to managers of company-owned Taco Bell stores.

taco-bell-kiosks-digital-strategy-qsrThe Taco Bell initiative is a response to a very difficult labor market for employers.  With the current unemployment rate at historic lows — the product of a strong job market and lots of aging Baby Boomers moving into retirement, among other circumstances — there just aren’t many good candidates out there.  So Taco Bell is going to test, in certain markets in the Midwest and Northeast, whether paying a $100,000 salary brings in a better crop of candidates.  That represents a significant increase over the current starting salary for Taco Bell store managers, which ranges from $50,000 to $80,000.

The Taco Bell manager initiative isn’t the only evidence of a tight job market and wage pressure.  The article linked above notes that other companies operating in the fast-food restaurant market — typically the classic source of low-paying, entry-level jobs — are reporting wage pressure affecting their margins.  Just this week the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in the fourth quarter of 2019, “median weekly earnings of the nation’s 118.3 million full-time wage and salary workers were $936, an increase of 4.0 percent from a year earlier ($900).”  The BLS statistics show wage growth in 2019 above the rate of inflation (which was about 2 percent) in all age categories except workers between 55 and 64, with workers in the 25 to 34 age range showing especially strong wage increases.  And the BLS wage statistics indicate the labor market is particularly good for women, with median weekly earnings for women in 2019 up by 6.2 percent.

Imagine — making a six-figure income as the manager of a Taco Bell!  Your parents never would have thought it was possible.

This Week’s Big Health Scare

News outlets are reporting that the “coronavirus” that was first detected in Wuhan, China is sweeping across that country, causing the Chinese government to try to quarantine entire cities of millions of people to try to stop the spread of the virus.  Nevertheless, cases have been reported in Thailand, Japan, and even in the United States, where a man in the state of Washington who recently returned from China was found to be infected.

106349531-1579718913219gettyimages-1195315493It seems like there is always some huge health disaster for us to worry about.  This week, it’s the Wuhan coronavirus.  Should we be concerned about it?

The link above is to an L.A. Times article that provides some basic information about the Wuhan coronavirus.  Coronaviruses are common in humans and some other animals, but the Wuhan variation is a new strain that hasn’t been seen before.  After some people began showing pneumonia-like symptoms, health officials traced the origin of the conditions back to a large seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China.  Initial research indicates that the Wuhan strain may have come from the handling of snakes at the market, with the virus jumping from snakes to humans.  (At this point, one can almost hear Indiana Jones saying:  “Snakes!  Why does it always have to be snakes?”)

The key issue for most of us is determining how the virus is transmitted, and what we can do to avoid getting it.  The virus appears to be moving from human to human via the airborne route, which is why you see pictures of people in China wearing masks that cover their noses and mouths.  Viruses that are conveyed by air can spread rapidly and are the most difficult to contain.  And, from the reports of cases outside China, that’s what has happened here.  Still, it appears that some people are more prone to becoming infected than others — exactly why that may be so is one of the things researchers are examining — and severe illness, and death, has for the most part occurred only in people who are older and otherwise dealing with significant health issues.  The man from Washington infected with the virus, for example, is being monitored and is reported to be in good condition.

I tend to be a fatalist about these kinds of things.  I’ll pay attention to the news about the coronavirus, but I’m also content to let the CDC and other public health officials and scientists do their work and figure out how to deal with the Wuhan coronavirus, just as they have dealt with SARS and Ebola and other global health issues.  I’m confident that, if I need to go out and buy a mask, they’ll let me know.

47 Years Of Working

Earlier this week I got a document called “Your Social Security Statement” from the federal government.  That’s the document that tells you how much you and your employers have paid in Social Security taxes, tells you what your monthly Social Security payment will be at various retirement ages, and also gives some pointers about how, and when, to start getting the benefits.

The statement also tells you, year by year, your taxable earnings for Social Security and Medicare purposes.  As I looked at it, I realized, with a certain chill, that I’ve been working for 47 years now.

ph-430009996The statement notes that my first job was in 1973, during the Nixon Administration, when the 16-year-old me got hired as a “bag boy” at the now-defunct Big Bear Supermarket at the Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington.  I had to wear a collared shirt and tie and a long white apron, and I bagged groceries at the checkout lines, helped old ladies put their groceries in their cars, and retrieved shopping carts from the parking lot after the store closed down.

According to the statement, I made slightly more than $500 that year, which sure felt like a lot of money to a kid living at home.  The next year, after I got trained on how to run the cash register myself so I could sub in for the ladies who were the permanent cashiers when they needed a break, I upped my earnings to just over $1,000, and I felt flush with cash.

It’s all there on one page — my earnings from working on the Ohio State Lantern, from my summer intern stint for the Wall Street Journal, from writing obituaries for the Toledo Blade, from serving as a press secretary for a Congressman on Capitol Hill, as a research assistant in law school, as a summer associate at law firms, as a judicial clerk in Washington, D.C., and finally from the law firm where I’ve worked for nearly 34 years.

It’s kind of weird to look at my employment history on that one page, and remember those old jobs that I haven’t thought about in a while.  47 years is a long time, I suppose, but it really doesn’t feel that long, and the memories of those jobs — and the feeling I had when I got that first two-week paycheck that probably netted me about $64 — are still fresh and lurking.  Thanks to the Social Security Administration for the reminder!

Mascot Madness

In Philadelphia, police are investigating a complaint that “Gritty” — the mascot of the Flyers hockey team — punched a 13-year-old kid after a photo shoot last year.

hi-res-999ed1323129c7ca5ddd46c81d3a67c4_crop_northThe kid’s father claims that after the kid patted “Gritty” on top of his furry orange head, the bug-eyed creature took a running start and punched the kid in the back, leaving a bruise.  The Flyers say that they conducted an investigation and concluded that “Gritty” did nothing wrong and there was no evidence to support the assault claim.

I suppose one could argue that the combination of circumstances — the fact that the incident allegedly happened in Philadelphia, where sports fans are notorious, involved a goggle-eyed mascot named “Gritty” for a team playing a sport where dropping the gloves and taking a few swings is an accepted part of the game, and a franchise that recently unveiled a “rage room” to allow frustrated fans, and “Gritty,” blow off steam by wrecking various household items — should be factored into the investigation, but clearly we need to let normal police investigative techniques take their course.

The more important lesson here is that all anthropomorphic mascots should be given as wide a berth as possible, whether they are found at a hockey game, a ballpark, or an amusement park.  Unless you’re a “furrie” — that is, somebody who gets his or her jollies wearing a fuzzy or hairy costume depicting some kind of character — being a mascot would be one of the worst jobs imaginable.  You’re stuck in a hot, probably smelly costume with inadequate breathing capabilities, you’ve got the heavy burden of engaging in “zany” behavior at all times, and the fans around you undoubtedly aren’t respecting your personal space in any way.  Pats on the head, and for that matter kicks in the behind, are probably a regular occurrence.

I’m guessing that, in the professional mascot world, “Gritty” isn’t alone in wanting to use a “rage room” now and then.

Deploying The Digital Undead

Hollywood has made tremendous strides in marrying technology and film.  First it was in deploying high-end “special effects,” using miniatures and models, such as were found in 2001 and Star Wars, then it was in having computers generate images and entire scenes.  More recently, technology has been focused on the human actors, who’ve either been digitally recreated or, as in the recent film The Irishman, de-aged.

james-deanNow we’ve apparently reached a new frontier, where filmmakers believe they can literally raise an actor from the dead and, thanks to the miracle of modern computer, give the actor an entirely new career with new roles.  And the first actor to be targeted is one of Hollywood’s icons:  James Dean.

The moviemakers, acting with the full permission of the Dean family and estate, plan to feed TV footage and still photos of Dean into a computer to create a digital James Dean.  (The real James Dean died in 1955 at age 24, after making only three movies, and immediately rose to legend status, including being the subject of an Eagles song.)  The digital creation will then be moved from the computer to the movie screen with the help of stand-in actors moving through scenes using the motion-capture technology commonly used in CGI filmmaking, and another actor will supply the voice of the digital “James Dean.”

Digital JD is supposed to make his debut in a Vietnam War drama called “Finding Jack” — which seems like a very weird choice, given how closely the real James Dean is associated with the pre-Vietnam War, leather-jacketed bad boy ’50s.  The filmmakers say that they’re not aiming at a one-movie curiosity, but instead hope to give their digital creation an entirely new career that will revive interest in an actor who has been dead for more than 60 years.

Some people are rightly reacting with horror to this effort, which seems desperate and ghoulish.  But it may be the wave of the future in increasingly cash-conscious Hollywood.  Some studios may think:  why worry about developing and casting new acting talent if you can revive Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Lucille Ball, and other stars of the past, draw upon their established personas, and avoid dealing with real-life actors’ huge salaries and huge egos?

I’m not a fan of this effort, but I’m also not sure it will work.  James Dean may have been an iconic figure for a particular generation, but how many people under, say, 60 even know about him or have any interest in the films he actually made?  Fame is pretty fleeting in today’s Netflix world, and I’m not sure that the ghosts of stars of the past are going to fit in.

Working Too Hard

Recently I was on the road and arrived at my hotel at about 8 p.m.  I hadn’t eaten, so after dropping off my bag in my room I visited the hotel restaurant, had a cheeseburger for dinner, and then was tempted by an apple crumble for dessert.  I asked if I could get it with ice cream, and the waiter said that would be fine.  The combination above is what arrived.

In case you’re wondering, on the plate that’s closest to the camera, that’s a kind of crumble pie, with no apple pieces, at the far left, two little green apple spheres with faux stems in the middle, and an apple slice dipped in dark chocolate in a mold made out of a cheesecake-like substance on the right, all set against the backdrop of Aztec-like lines inscribed in dark chocolate that was hardened on the plate.  The bowl at the far side of the plate contains my scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I’m sure I was supposed to admire the artistry of the presentation of the dessert, and the delicate nature of the plating. Mostly, though, I wondered how I was supposed to eat the various elements. I spooned the scoop of ice cream onto the crumble pie to let it melt, grabbed one of the little green apples by its faux stem and ate it, and then was stumped.  Was the molded cheesecake-chocolate option on one side of the plate supposed to be eaten in conjunction with the crumble pie at the other end?  If so, how?  And what was I expected to do with the chocolate markings –scrape them off and chow them down with the crumble pie, or the apples, or the cheesecake chocolate mold, or all three?  I ended up alternating between bites of the crumble pie and the molded object, ate the second little green apple at some point in between, and left the dark chocolate stripes alone.  It was fine,  I guess, but it would have been even better if I’d just gotten what I expected in the first place — a single dish that contained warm spiced apple slices, crumble, and ice cream on top that you could eat in the normal way.

I admire haute cuisine, and the efforts of chefs to bring creativity to the art of cooking and to reimagine some time-honored dishes.  But there’s a time and a place for it — and a late dinner at a hotel restaurant isn’t it.  It was clear that the kitchen had worked hard on the dish, but it really was making me work too hard in order to enjoy it.  Call me a philistine if you will, but I wasn’t ordering dessert to get a work of art.  I just wanted a traditional fruit dessert served in the traditional way.  Maybe the artistry can be reserved for the souffle.