Category Archives: Rant

Everything I learned about working I learned at McDonald’s

This isn’t my McDonald’s, because they tore down the one I worked at and put this one up next door.

I am not, actually, a big fan of McDonald’s. I can’t really remember the last time I ate there — chances are, it was during a road trip somewhere and the Golden Arches was the only option for the next sixty miles, or something like that. Mickey D’s hasn’t been a dining destination for me in at least two decades, easily.

The food is, of course, a nutritionist’s nightmare. Yes, there are healthy options on the menu, but nobody really goes in for those. You want a salad, you have options for salad beyond McDonald’s, is what I’m saying. Breakfast, if I’m being honest, is actually about as healthy as your typical big breakfast — i.e., greasy and laden with carbs and cholesterol, but actually less so than your typical platter at a Jersey diner.

The parent corporation isn’t great, either. I remember when McDonald’s put out a money management guide that included a line for a second job — a not-so-subtle admission that a normal human can’t get by on a fast-food wage. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which blows up to an annual salary of $15,080. By way of comparison, the federal poverty line for a family of four is $24,339.

And the work itself? Working the grill is hot, sweaty, greasy and during rush hours, a non-stop parade of rapid, repetitive, assembly-line work. Working the counter is likewise rapid and repetitive, and while there’s less heat and grease, the procession of people at your register invariably includes people with hygiene issues, angry people, rude people, horrible people in general. Not all, of course — but enough that if you get out of a shift without an unpleasant experience with humanity, it’s a pretty excellent day.

I know all this because from 1987 to early 1993, on and off, I donned the taupe uniform — and later, the managerial clip-on tie — of a McDonald’s employee, back when the minimum wage was $3.35, the McDLT was a thing, and salads were new and strange. I lived in a small town at the time, and Mickey D’s was the only joint that would hire on 16-year-olds without much fuss. By the time I went to college, they lured me back every summer and winter break by making me “breakfast coordinator” — the 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. managerial shift — and later assistant manager for the times I was in town.

And you know what? I learned a lot. I kid you not. Yes, I learned how to construct a Big Mac (though the Secret Sauce recipe remains a mystery) and take a drive-thru order. But I learned a lot about how to get my shit together and keep it together. I learned a lot about the workplace. I learned about people. And now, 25 years after I tossed my last grill apron aside, I’m gonna tell you what I learned.

Nothing is insurmountable. When it’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, it’s you and two teenagers holding down the joint, and then two buses full of Vermont National Guardsmen pull in to your parking lot, it’s mighty tempting to just shut down the lights and lock the doors. Mighty tempting. But you don’t. You deal with the crush in the lobby, then yell out for the C.O. — because two months ago, you interviewed the commanding major general of the Army ROTC for a story while interning at a news service in Washington and “C.O.” seems like what you should ask for.

You get a captain who agrees to not only consolidate everyone’s orders and get them seated to wait patiently, but even gets four men to stay on the buses with the M-16s because your sixteen-year-old grill crew member literally started crying at seeing so much weaponry in her workplace. And then you churn out more Macs, fish, fries and nuggets as you’ve ever seen in one place, including massive amounts of comped food for the guys on the buses because you feel bad. And you still close on time at 11 p.m.

Seriously, you wanna learn how to work fast? Efficiently? You want to handle crises and roll with it and work the problem and all that crap? Go work at McDonald’s. I see a direct through-line in my career from handling a massive lunch rush to writing the AP NewsAlert that Bill Gates stepped down as CEO of Microsoft. You wanna up and quit as the only CEO Microsoft has ever known, Bill? Please, son. I once cooked 360 cheeseburgers in an hour. I got this. Book deadlines? Bad reviews? Whatever.

People aren’t all good or all bad. They’re just people. Look, I’ve seen things. I’ve seen a disgruntled customer throw his food directly in the face of a fellow manager, who proceeded to stand there and take it until the customer stalked off. (He then punched clear through the glass door of the salad cabinet once the customer was gone, but damn, that’s still some admirable restraint.) I have seen people try to cheat me out of 30 cents by claiming a large fry instead of a medium after the fact. And I let ’em  because, hell, if you feel the need to do that, my fry count pales in comparison to whatever issues you got going on.

But I’ve seen awesome people, too. I’ve seen customers by lunch for someone else just because they looked like they were in a rough spot, or they were short. I’ve had people try to tip. I’ve seen smiles and patience in the middle of a horrible rush in which the kid running the fry station was asleep at the wheel and literally the McDonald’s has no goddamn fries. I’ve seen the best and worst of people, and sometimes from the very same people.

And I learned to lead, too. I never got a formal manager training session or anything. Nobody ever taught me how to manage people, just inventory and production and cash register counts. I got keys to the building and the combo to the safe, but never once got a briefing on what to do when the grill person gets freaked out by the sight of thirty-plus military assault weapons. So you make do and you learn on the go. When your grill crew gets into a tartar-vs.-secret-sauce dispenser battle, you can choose to write ’em all up…or you can grab a tartar gun, catch the instigator right in the face, and tell them they have five minutes to clean up or else they get written up. And every now and then, you lead a sing-along of Bohemian Rhapsody in the middle of dinner rush. (I got written up for that myself, actually, but you know what? That crew would fall on their spatulas for me.)

It is really hard out there for a lot of good people. As a teenager, working at McDonald’s was kind of optional. Yes, I helped pay for my own college, but there’s a huge difference between working to pay for college and working to put food on the table. There were so many good people I worked with who almost invariably had been dealt bad hands. We’re talking factory closures, failed farms, layoffs, recovering addicts, dicey pasts, spousal abuse and abandonment, you name it.

Nobody working at McDonald’s wants to be working at McDonald‘s. Remember that the next time you go there, or to any fast-food or even casual-dining spot. It really is hard work and low pay. You actually don’t get to complain about hard work and low pay unless you’ve worked at Mickey D’s, because you have no basis for comparison. And yet people do it, they put in forty hours, grab overtime whenever humanly possible and usually work another job somewhere else at least part time. I worked with a woman whose car was repossessed during her shift. The shift leader offered to let her go and deal with it, but the poor woman decided to stay because she didn’t want to lose hours. Only when the shift leader told her she could officially forget to clock out did she go running after the repo man.

We also did a brisk business with regulars, too, who scraped up enough money for our food because it was cheap and hot. The guy who lived in his van and did odd jobs around town always ordered a Big Mac when he was flush, an 89-cent cheeseburger otherwise. There was the  little old lady anywhere between 90 and 300 years old who ordered a single biscuit with butter and jam each morning, and always asked for the “senior” coffee because the coffee was free to senior citizens, and would usually have the 92-cent tab in exact change. Actually, we’d get worried when she’d skip a day because…well, she was old. And she was so sweet, too. Even asked about college after she overheard me talking with a coworker about it. I know it’s impossible, but I hope she’s still there every morning, 25 years later.

To sum up: I can do anything and deal with anyone, basically, because I worked at McDonald’s. Honestly, I’m lucky to have moved on and will be luckier if I never have to go back. And yes, I wrote this for my newly-minted teenage daughter, because I feel like she should know.

 

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This is what you get when folks vote against their own interests

Warning: Political rant incoming. Feel free to skip if you like, though I hope you won’t — especially if you think you might disagree. Different perspectives are fun. 

Nearly two months into the great Trump experiment in governmental self-destruction, I hope it’s becoming clear that the populist veneer of the Donald was just that — a veneer. A thin layer of formica made to look like marble, slapped onto plywood, rather like the furnishings in his casinos.

The GOP replacement for the Affordable Care Act will result anywhere from 6 million to 10 million people losing health insurance coverage, according to the Standard & Poor’s rating agency (hardly a bastion of liberal socialism), while providing $600 billion in tax breaks to the richest 0.1% of Americans — roughly $200,000 per rich person. Let’s put it another way — that extra $600 billion is enough money to provide $50,000 in basic income for 12 million families of four for a year.

Now, I’m not so much a socialist liberal elitist or whatever to suggest that we do that. But I’m not so blind as to think that even a fraction those immensely rich folks are going to take their $200,000 and increase investment into industries and businesses that will help employ more Americans, as per the thoroughly discredited trickle-down economics the GOP seeks to cling to. No, chances are, that $200,000 will be rolled over into the market, or maybe go toward a really nice first-class vacation somewhere — just like the rest of us do with our tax refunds.

This is not populist. This is not any sort of salve to the middle class. This is a naked giveaway to the most wealthiest people on the planet. And it is shameful.

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The importance of accepting dissent

WARNING: Political rant incoming. That said, no matter your politics, I’d urge you to give it a read.

Just this afternoon, journalists from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, BuzzFeed and Politico were barred from attending a “gaggle” — kind of an informal briefing — with Press Secretary Sean Spicer at the White House. Anybody, of any political affiliation, should see this as the affront to American values it surely is.

Combined with the ever-increasing rarity of Republican congressmen and senators refusing to hold town hall meetings with constituents, apparently for fear of getting yelled at, and a veritable pall is settling upon American democracy. The very notion of the “loyal opposition” has been perverted into believing dissent is traitorous. And the critical function of a free press in American democracy has been mauled and spindled into “fake media” and “alternative facts.”

I cannot overestimate how horrible and threatening this is to the very fiber of America and her values.

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On leaking intelligence reports and the intel community

WARNING: Another political rant forthcoming. Duck and cover if you prefer not to go down this rabbit hole. 

Apparently, the President is quite angry at all the leaks of intelligence information that ultimately led to the resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn’s sin was that, according to many well-sourced news reports (i.e. not fake), he spoke to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about getting American sanctions removed.

In his anger, Trump has lashed out at both the news media for reporting on the leaks, calling it fake news, and at the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) for leaking sensitive information that, presumably, was not fake. Trump has also appointed an adviser to conduct a review of the IC to get to the bottom of the leaks.

I’ve been a reporter for The Associated Press, and I’ve done academic work on the IC (as well as a lot of research on it for my novels), so I thought I’d throw in my $0.02 here. Let’s break it down this way:

  • What did Michael Flynn do and why does it matter?
  • Where did the leaks come from and why does it matter?
  • What will Trump’s adviser do to plug the leaks, and why won’t it work?

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Debunking the myth of the paid protester

Warning: I’m about to commit math! And politics! TOGETHER IN ONE POST!

It’s now the lie du jour  for the Trumpist/Bannonist elements of the Republican Party — and let’s face it, gang, they don’t speak for the mainstream GOP anymore — to state that the protesters who have taken to the streets in the past few weeks are not, in fact, Americans like you and I who are exercising their Constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of assembly and the like.

Nope, they’re paid protesters. Because Trump won the presidency and the globalist/elitist/Wall Street cabal behind Hillary Clinton and the Democrats simply cannot allow the real voice of the people to go unchallenged. See? Even the president has an opinion:

In all fairness — a quality not usually associated with the President or Mr. Bannon — this tweet was about protests near Oakland that got violent when an alt-right provocateur and demagogue went to go talk at Berkeley. Which…dude, you went to Berkeley to talk alt-right politics? OK, then.

But the myth of paid protesters goes far beyond one or two incidents, and the echo chamber is filled with all kinds of conspiracy theories. Apparently, the hardcore Trumpist/Bannonist folks think that the protests we’ve seen all around the country were funded by…someone. (George Soros is always a favorite bogeyman for such shenanigans, for some damn reason.) But whatever — deep pockets and irrational hatred of Trump equals paying to undermine him via protests.

I’m gonna tackle this utter fallacy in two parts. First, the actual costs and logistics of paying protesters, and second, the potential return on that investment. Here we go.

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Replace with what, exactly?

Warning! Political opinions ahead regarding the Affordable Care Act. If you’re not up for it, feel free to surf on by. I’ll be back to talking about SF/F and books and whatnot later. Promise. 

You have auto insurance, right? Of course you do. In fact, it’s required by law in 49 of the 50 states. (New Hampshire is all Live Free or Die on this one.) Why is it required? Because if you’re in an accident, you can cover the costs of the repairs without taking a massive financial hit — and you can cover the other guy if it’s your fault, which is even more important.

You have homeowners insurance as well, if you own a home, yes? There’s usually no legal requirement there, but your friendly neighborhood mortgage lender is gonna insist that you have it, of course. And let’s face it, your home is a major investment. If something happens, you don’t want to be out six figures or more. Plus, if there’s a fire or something, it ensures you’ll be able to rebuild, rather than leaving a smoking ruin on your block that endangers public safety and drives down property values.

Insurance is both a financial and social contract. Obviously, it covers your costs should something bad happen to you. Moreover, your monthly payments help cover other folks’ misfortunes — and that’s especially important if you played a part in that misfortune or that misfortune affects your neighbors or fellow drivers.

Insurance is, in essence, pooled responsibility. The more people buy in, the more there is to cover your misfortune and insulate you from the misfortune of others. It’s enlightened self-interest. Yet when it comes to health insurance, we immediately lose sight of this.  Continue reading

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Journalism in the Trump era

For the first fifteen years of my professional career, I was a journalist for a variety of publications, most notably three different stints with The Associated Press in Albany, Seattle and New York. Journalism is a tough, unforgiving career — low pay, long hours, soul-crushing deadlines and heaping helpings of disrespect from nearly every quarter. I admit, it totally burned me out, which is why I left.

Yet it’s an absolutely critical part of American society. The problem is, at a time when it’s more important than ever, the Achilles heel of American journalism has been exposed.

Get both sides. That’s been the mantra of journalists for more than a century now, when the notion of an impartial Fourth Estate began to take shape. This was, in large part, due to the growth and importance of The Associated Press. Back in the 19th century, newspapers were unabashed in their political views in reporting. But when five New York papers created a cooperative service to report on far-flung areas, there was a need for the AP to be impartial, so that a conservative paper and a liberal paper could use the same dispatch.

This grew into a general belief that news should be impartial, and that editorializing should be the purview of the editorial pages only. I genuinely believe this to be a Good Thing, and it transformed journalism into an active challenger of the status quo, no matter who was in power and who was on the outside.

Over time, though, the get both sides mantra has become bastardized. It’s allowed folks on the very margins of reasonable discourse — anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, all manner of conspiracy theorists — a seat at the table. And with the advent of social media, these fringe voices can find each other, organize and boost their signal, giving journalists a sense that the beliefs in question are more widespread than perhaps they realized.

And so here we are today, when we see journalists writing normalizing articles on the so-called Alt-Right and CNN has a ticker that says “Alt-Right Founder Asks If Jews Are People,” as if this can even be debated. (Meanwhile, you have The Atlantic, saving face for the rest of the Fourth Estate, covering an Alt-Right event where participants are giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Victory! Heil Trump!” and calling it like it is.)

So where does get both sides end and the media begins to take a stand for the nation?

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