Recently, I took my 5-year-old grandson to see the animated movie "Kung Fu Panda." My aim was to spend time with a boy I'm fond of, to hold his hand during the scary parts and to listen to him recount every bit of the main character's bathroom humor on the way home, so I was surprised when this film I was hardly watching got under my skin.
What disturbed me was the message my grandson and every other child in the audience got about regular, daily work -- how dreary it is, how embarrassing even. I felt myself getting defensive about the ordinary jobs I've held in the past, including my first one flipping burgers and frying tater tots at the Viking Drive Inn in Boise for which I was hired on my 15th birthday and paid $1.50 an hour.
I can't draw a clean and straight line back in time, but I have a feeling that spending those after-school and summer vacation hours cleaning the milkshake machine and leaning out the small window into the cold night to hand over bags of sandwiches and fries were among small but necessary steps in developing an attitude about what it means to work, and which would coalesce in a future I couldn't then begin to imagine.
The plot of "Kung Fu Panda" is predictable for the martial-arts genre: Po, a big dreamer with little to no talent (voiced by Jack Black), is selected for a mission clearly beyond him, for which he must be whipped into shape -- and fast. With the aid of a strict and gruff-but-lovable master, the panda discovers purpose and self-confidence. He saves the day and his village. As we knew he would.
The scene that caused my disgruntled feelings came somewhere in the middle and lasted a minute or two, flitting by before a child could detect much weight in its tropes: the panda, whose father is (inexplicably) a goose, has been trained to prepare meals and wait tables in his family's cafe. Now, Po cooks for his new kung fu companions, chopping and mixing just the right ingredients and deftly balancing bowls of hot soup on one forearm as he serves.
This theme -- that the panda has acquired valuable skills from an ordinary job, and that those skills will now bubble up to serve him in his dire hour -- is quickly dropped. What gets poked at instead, again and again, is the panda's greed. His great, insatiable hunger. The master "trains" his new recruit by forcing him to chase high-flying dumplings and climb to incredible heights for cookies, the panda's big-old belly trampolining him through air. Which, of course, my grandson found hilarious.
The filmmakers could have encouraged the notion that the daily grind of work -- while often difficult, tiresome, tedious -- can teach us something critical about who we are. They didn't -- and that they went instead for the easy joke of gluttony probably says something about our culture. We seem to have instilled in a whole lot of young employees that everyday work is something to endure, to slog through with as much distraction from actual chores as they can manage.
The main point of work these days seems to be to hurry it along so employees can get back to "real life" before and after their shifts, and to the dreams of the fabulous job they're going to easily land in the future, something along the lines of J.Crew model or NFL star. In the meantime, the stuff of kids' personal lives has so permeated the workplace that many young workers seem almost offended when they're asked to attend to the duties for which they've been hired.
At the grocery store where I've shopped for 15 years, for instance, cashiers were once mindful of the produce they handled, the packaged meats and sacks of flour, and politely inquired after the customer's day. These days, workers enthralled by gems of gossip talk to each other and only to each other, and hardly notice what -- or who -- is in front of them. The last few times out, I've overheard conversations about the previous night's big drunk, the creepy boss who schedules the pretty baggers for the late shifts, the workplace love affair that ended badly, another rumored to have just started.
A few weeks ago, during a family trip to Ashland, I stepped inside a hotel's lobby and found the desk clerk stretched out in a chair talking on his cell phone -- loud enough that I heard the plan for pool and beer. When he spotted me waiting, he asked his friend to hold and then checked me in with one hand -- the other hand pressing the cell phone to his chest, an indication that I was the disturbance and that his intention was to rush me out of there so he could get back to what mattered. In nearly every shop or business I enter, I find this bantering, this sense of customer-as-bother -- and it's not subtle. It's loud and brash, as if to announce, I'm better than this job; I am barely tolerating it and I am barely tolerating you.
My complaint may seem like nothing more than a middle-aged desire for the old days, but I'm also worried about young people -- my grandson, in particular -- who will someday enter the work force and who are learning at an early age that it's natural to disdain the work you're being paid for. The truth is, with the waning clout of a college education, the squeezing of student loans and a shortage of ladder-climbing professional positions, a huge number of young people will spend their entire careers in the service industry: selling bluejeans at J.Crew or hot dogs at NFL games. They'll wait on a public they'll quickly learn to treat as a nuisance, and, more critically, they'll fail to understand that if they want to grow into a better job, a more satisfying work life, then they must treat the one they have with at least some measure of respect.
Dorianne Laux, formerly of Eugene and recognized by many as a major American poet, has long kept an old plastic name tag on her kitchen windowsill, her name imprinted on one side, a rusty pin on the other. She wore it on her uniform in a little cafe where she worked for years, she once told me, while raising her daughter and putting herself through college at night.
She leaves the name tag on the sill because it reminds her that during those days of juggling plates and glasses, appeasing customers, balancing tills, washing the grease out of her hair when she got home, she absorbed the rhythm and cadence of ordinary life, the uncomplicated conversations of her patrons, and she started to learn to be a poet. The bone-tiring physical strain of waiting on others allowed her to recognize her own limits and capabilities. She stepped fully into her job (perhaps not enjoying the work itself, but enjoying her propensity to do it well and make diners and bosses reasonably happy), which led her to discover aspects of the creative work that will sustain her through her life.
Po's master Shifu, in my opinion, gives young viewers of this movie a misguided message. In the real world, the panda might have been told, you don't learn your life's ambition by leaping toward the sky to chase another mouthful of treats, but instead by recognizing that your dream job is probably going to come to you incrementally. And that steppingstones won't do you any good if you refuse to alight on them.