Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hard Work

American culture tends to assume that people who have a lot—of money, power, stuff, whatever—work hard for it. Maybe they didn't at first; maybe they started off with an advantage... but they have to work to keep it and grow it. And that people who have little must be lazy.

This assumption has deep roots in the Puritan ethic that played a huge role in founding our country. The Calvinists who believed that their fates were predestined and completely unaffected by their actions still saw success and prosperity as signs of their favor from God. And, although their fate after death was already written, they did not seek to anger God by frivolous activities and self-adornment; their asceticism meant that their hard-won profits were re-invested in their livelihood.

But today, while we have shed that asceticism and instead revel in pursuit of worldly signs of wealth—nice cars, big houses, designer clothes, or even less conspicuous consumption such as constantly climate-controlled houses or lights on in every room—we retain the notion that affluence is a sign that you are favored by God. Even if we don't consciously understand it this way, we still implicitly assume that those who have, worked for it; those who lack, deserve it.

We've entered a Bizarro world where, not only do we assume that wealth requires hard work, we actually rate the hardness of work based on the wealth it generates. We think of “flipping burgers” as easy, even as we watch people sweating over fryers, running back and forth to fill orders, and taking flak from abusive customers with a smile on their face. We think, “I would never want to do that.” and yet, we consider it “easy.” We don't think it's easy because we have any reason to think the work itself is not hard to do, but merely because it is low pay. And then in a strange tautology, we think the work should be low-paid because it is so easy.

Consider how hard is the work of a megacorp CEO sitting at a desk larger than my son's bed, in an office larger than the typical American living room, with an en-suite bathroom and multiple assistants for various tasks? To be sure, CEOs do work hard. They often work 60+ hours a week, evenings, weekends, travel away from their family, manage meetings with very powerful people and millions of dollars on the line. Their work is stressful. But when they are taking home millions of dollars per year, how do we compare that to the “hardness” of their work?

On the other hand, consider a man who wakes at 4 a.m. to get ready for his first job. He showers quickly, dresses in worn but rugged clothes, and reports to a shuttle point by 5:30 to go to a far-flung construction site. By 7 a.m., he's doing heavy lifting and working with tools that can maim or kill if used incorrectly. As the sun rises in the sky he starts sweating. The dust kicks up and sticks to his brow. He gets a half hour for lunch, and an occasional bathroom break; he knows they're supposed to give him two 15-minute breaks on the clock, and he knows of union jobs where that happens, but he's never been able to get one. Here, he's an “independent contractor,” hired as a temp with no benefits, no paid time off, no job security. Keep your head down and don't complain; you're lucky to even have a job.

He comes home at 5:30, showers, grabs a bite to eat, and leaves for his evening retail job. If he's lucky, it's in a tipped establishment and he can smile and accommodate his way to more money. If he's unlucky, it's again temp work, seasonal, could end at any moment... and an inconsistent number of hours stocking shelves, ringing up customers, and trying not to take it personally when people yell at him for not being able to meet their every unreasonable demand.

Meanwhile, he barely sees his spouse and children. That's who he's doing this for: working 60+ hours a week at low wages, so that his spouse can work a more flexible job and sometimes show up for the kids' holiday programs and school open houses. But 80 hours a week doesn't cut it anymore for a family of four. If they are compensated for 50 weeks a year (because in jobs at this tier, you don't get vacation time, and sometimes don't even get sick time), at 80 hours a week, at an average of $10/hour (nearly 40% higher than the Federal minimum wage), after payroll taxes they've got about $3,000/month to pay rent (that's not enough income to get a mortgage), buy groceries, put gas in a car or buy a bus pass, pay utilities, buy clothing and school supplies, pay for after-school care, and handle any other expenses that come up – such as a $2,000 emergency room visit or a $4,000 blown head gasket in their 12-year-old car. Health insurance? Savings? Laughable—every dime is spent the second it comes in.

Who works “harder”? That's a ridiculous question; the work isn't remotely comparable. They both work hard. But does the CEO's vastly higher compensation actually cause him to “work harder”? At some point, does more money actually get more product?

Now we've elected a President who definitely “has.” His home glitters, his name illuminates skylines. He travels in the rarefied circles of world leaders and business magnates. He's famous for being rich, and rich for being famous. He can lose $916 million in one year—enough to give every Pennsylvanian in poverty $550—and just keep on chugging.

Does he know what it means to work hard?

Many of us assumed he did. We assumed that it has to be hard work to maintain that empire. But the more we get to know him, the more it seems that he doesn't ever actually do that work himself. Intelligence briefings are boring—go meet with Kanye. Let's take a phone call from Taiwan; it's too complicated to understand why that pisses off China. Rather than finding people with impeccable qualifications and distinction in the relevant field, let's just pick our friends and colleagues, or their spouses, to fill our Cabinet. It would be too much work to do otherwise.

We need to change our understanding of work, and hard work, and how it relates to assets. We need to remember that farm work is hard. Caring for children is hard. Preparing safe and appetizing food is hard. Stopping fires is hard. Chasing down criminals is hard. Cleaning offices is hard. Constructing new buildings is hard. Mining coal is hard. Managing a store is hard. We ALL work hard. We ALL deserve to be able to come home after 40 hours a week, know that there's enough food, that our housing situation is stable, and spend time with our children and partners free of stress and worry. This isn't a rural issue or an urban issue. It's not a white issue or a black issue. It's not a coastal issue or a plains issue. It's not a Boomer issue or a Millennial issue. It is a human issue.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sushi Cake

When D4S1 was turning 7, I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. I've made all their birthday cakes myself (except that one year that my best friend was in town and did it for me), because we found out when he was nine months old that he reacted to wheat. So I needed to know... chocolate? Vanilla? Carrot? Peanut Butter and Jelly? I didn't give him a prepopulated drop-down list, I figured he knew what the choices were.

His response was, "I wish there was a way to have a sushi cake."

That was not in the universe of things I thought he might say.

I asked for more information. "Do you mean a cake that looks like sushi, or a cake made of sushi?"

"A cake made of sushi!" he responded with enthusiasm.

"You know, I think I  could do that."

And so I did. I pressed a layer of rice into a springform pan, then added a layer of fillings, and kept doing that. And it worked!

Every year since, we've done the same thing. I've gotten pretty good at it. This year, R8S2 asked for one for his 8th birthday.

For the Cultural Potluck at the end of this past school year, D4S1 said he wanted to bring sushi. I reminded him that we are in no part Japanese. This did not dissuade him. I decided that, given its relevance to our family's particular culture, sushi cake was an acceptable contribution. While I completely failed to get pictures of them, I made two smaller cakes... one with fish and one vegan. I figured that sixth graders would be shy about consuming raw fish. I was wrong; that one reportedly disappeared in short order, while there were leftovers of the vegan one. Lesson learned.

I've now made nine different sushi cakes in all. It takes me about 45 minutes to do the actual assembly and decoration, but there's some prep work with making the rice and slicing the fillings. 

People ask how I do it. It's not terribly hard, though having the right equipment helps. Here's the rundown...

What you'll need:
Sushi rice (regular short-grain rice can work too, but sushi rice is finished slightly differently)
Rice vinegar
Sea salt
Sushi fillings (vegetables, fish, whatever you desire)
Seaweed for decorating (optional)
Large bowl, preferably wooden
Rice paddle or other similar implement
Springform pan (I have never tried doing this in a regular cake pan. I really don't know if it would come out.)
Wax paper

What to do:

Make Sushi Rice

   4 cups Sushi Rice (uncooked)
   water sufficient to cook

Cook sushi rice per instructions. If you have a rice maker with a sushi rice setting, that works great. If it's a Zojirushi, that's 6 of the little cups that came with it (which are 2/3rds of an American cup).

Mix together:
   1/2 cup Rice Vinegar
   3/8 cup sugar (6 tablespoons)
   2 tsp. sea salt

until the sugar and salt are dissolved.

Dump the rice into a large bowl (a wooden salad bowl is great for this), and pour over the vinegar/sugar/salt mixture. Mix with a rice paddle or large spoon until thoroughly integrated.

While that cools a bit, chop up your fillings of choice. Our favorites are cucumber; avocado; sashimi-grade salmon,  yellowtail, and tuna; salmon roe; and shrimp (butterflied). If you choose to use raw fish, make sure you are using a source that is intended to be consumed raw. Use anything you like in sushi... crab meat, cream cheese, tamago, tofu... it's all good. (By the way, the shrimp come already cooked and butterflied that way in a frozen package from the market where I get all my sushi-specific stuff. I have no idea how to make them look like that.)

Take a 9" springform pan and cut a circle of wax paper that fits pretty well in the bottom.

Using a rice paddle or something similar (maybe a rubber spatula or something? I haven't tried other tools), press a thin layer of sushi rice into the bottom of the pan. I used to use my hands for this (get them wet first, so the rice doesn't stick to them!) but the paddle gets a tighter layer. Press it allll the way to the edges-- you want the edges really tight so your cake looks smooth and round (and doesn't fall apart) when you take it out of the pan. The layer shouldn't be more than a quarter-inch thick-- the thinnest you can do without being able to see the wax paper through it.

Add your ingredients in a radial pattern. This is something I've refined over the years-- at first I'd just line them up across the pan, but that makes the cake harder to cut. So I started arranging them in a radial pattern and that works much better.

More recently I've used even smaller pieces:

Now, repeat until you've filled the pan:

Next, turn it over onto your chosen cake platter:

I have another piece of wax paper here as sort of a doily for the base. I'm not good at making doilies out of wax paper. See, sushi cake does not require any great general artistry or craftiness.

Next remove the sides of the springform pan:

 And then the bottom:

This was when I was still figuring out how to line the pan. Now that I use the wax paper, it comes out like this:

Next you decorate. This is really just a matter of arranging things in an artful pattern on top. But this year, I actually cut letters and numbers out of seaweed to put D4S1's name on it:

The Sushi Cake has developed quite a bit over the years. My first year, this is what it looked like:

 I tried lining the entire pan with seaweed. It made sense in my head. It doesn't work that well.

For his 8th birthday, I used rice molds to try to make it cuter:
...but the seaweed REALLY doesn't work well on the inside of the pan. It just kinda melts.

I started to get that by year three:

That was, you'll never guess, his 9th birthday. After that, he said, "Mommy, will you please put the salmon roe inside the cake too?"

...but they're still fun to decorate with some.

By the fifth time, I was starting to get the hang of it:

And then this year is when R8S2 asked for his own: