Friday, October 17, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees

For several years now, I've been teaching The Secret Life of Bees in my 1A and 1AX classes. Student reaction to the book has been almost uniformly positive, from international students and American students, from white students and black students, and somewhat from men, as well as women. Several times over the semesters, students have wanted to see the movie, but there wasn't a movie. I imagined what a good movie it might make, and when I heard that Dakota Fanning was going to play the lead (at least 2 years ago an internet rumor), I was surprised because she seemed too young.

But she grew up, and the movie was finally made and was released this weekend. Sam and I went to see it this afternoon. (Thanks, Sam! It's not really your kind of movie, but I appreciated your presence.) One of the first things I noticed was that an 11:30 am movie on Friday in south Torrance was quite full, and a substantial portion of the audience was African-American women and couples. Later I read that there is some concern that if it is perceived as a "black film" it won't play to white audiences. I am not too concerned about that. Millions of white women have read and loved the book. In fact, i was more concerned whether black people would accept the movie. There is some controversy about the fact that a white woman wrote a book that some (few) see as co-opting or stealing cultural icons that rightly belong to the black community. Here's hoping that, as in politics, so too in daily life, we can all appreciate a story that involves both black and white people in all their separate and intertwined glory. (Incidently the director and several of the producers, as well as the majority of the actors, of course, are black. But the lead is a white girl, and it's her story.)

So how was the movie? It's hard for me to say, in a way, because I have so internalized and memorized the plot that I can't really see how well the movie stands on its own. The movie stuck quite closely to the book, putting many of the most memorable lines directly into the actors' mouths. And almost miraculously, to me, the feel and tone of the movie seemed close to that of the book. But, as is almost inevitable, some of the depth is lost. A few of the cuts seemed regrettable to me. I have imagined so vividly so many times the scene when Lily and Rosaleen bathe in the creek after a disagreement that it *feels* as if I've seen it. But that scene, with its strong baptism imagery, was not included. Also, the scene when they stop to rest at Lily's church and steal a fan was omitted, as were any details about how Lily springs Rosaleen from the hospital (a much simpler scenario, that the young sheriff was busy flirting when the two walked out) was perhaps more believable, but it took away some of the charm of Lily's personality.

Also, it was more explicit from the beginning that Lily had held the gun that killed her mother, and so the pivotal scene at the end, when Lily runs after T. Ray to ask who really did it is necessarily changed to her asking if her mother had really come back to get her or not. Perhaps that works better, since it makes her quest not one to find out if she did it, but to find out if her mother loved her or not, which is a deeper and more universal quest.

The most significant plot change actually seemed to improve upon the plot of the book: the issue that got Zach in trouble and led to May's suicide. Rather than a fight between young black boys and older white guys over a rumor about Jack Palance bringing a black woman to the theater (though, oddly, the mention of that is left in), what happens is that Zach and Lily themselves sit together in the "colored" section of the movie, and the white guys storm in and abduct Zach. Again somewhat miraculously, he escapes with only a black eye and a few bruises, but is gone long enough to move the plot forward. And also nicely, Zach's mother is one of the Daughter's of Mary, and May learns of Zach's abduction when his mother slips into the house to pray before Our Lady of Chains.

The acting was mostly really good. Dakota Fanning was just right as a barely adolescent girl with a quick mind and a wounded spirit. (She reminds me very much of my niece Hannah.) I couldn't quite see Queen Latifah as August in my mind, but she plays the part well. Perhaps the best jobs were done by the guy who played T. Ray, as a believable angry redneck, whose wounded heart is conveyed with subtlety. I think I was most impressed with the character of May. I could never quite picture someone singing Oh Susannah as therapy, but she hummed it very lightly before dissolving into tears, and her cock-eyed smile and intensity was better than I could have imagined. The weakest character, for me, was June. I had difficulty, first of all, with her appearance and clothing style, since I certainly never pictured June in tight jeans and a form-fitting NAACP t-shirt (nor did I find that believable for the time period.) I also didn't feel that her anger and resentment came across as anything more than simple nastiness.

I wished there had been more period touches, more of a 1964 feel to it. Sam also felt that it didn't feel like he remembers 1964, or even like I remember Auburn, Alabama in 1973. A bit more of the music, and more of African-American culture and the feel of the Civil Rights movement would have made me really feel that I had time-traveled to South Carolina in 1964.

But my final judgment? Better than I expected. And a story I still love.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Last Debate

So we're down to the wire, and this is the last chance these two guys have to talk to the whole country before we vote.

So here's how McCain starts it off. After shoe-horning Nancy Reagan's name into the intro (remember Reagan? remember how warm and fuzzy he made you feel? Remember how old he was? ok, never mind), his first major point is this:

Americans are hurting right now, and they're angry. They're hurting, and they're angry. They're innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and as well as Washington, D.C. And they're angry, and they have every reason to be angry

Wow, the word angry 4 times in the first 20 seconds or so? Guess who's feeling angry tonight? Man, Freud got that projection thing right.

Then he brings up the semi-mythical beast, Joe the Plumber:

You know, when Senator Obama ended up his conversation with Joe the plumber -- we need to spread the wealth around. In other words, we're going to take Joe's money, give it to Senator Obama, and let him spread the wealth around.

I want Joe the plumber to spread that wealth around. You told him you wanted to spread the wealth around.

The whole premise behind Senator Obama's plans are class warfare, let's spread the wealth around. I want small businesses -- and by the way, the small businesses that we're talking about would receive an increase in their taxes right now.

Who -- why would you want to increase anybody's taxes right now? Why would you want to do that, anyone, anyone in America, when we have such a tough time, when these small business people, like Joe the plumber, are going to create jobs, unless you take that money from him and spread the wealth around.

Poor McCain. He thinks that Americans live in fear of someone "spreading the wealth around." Well maybe in Sedona they do. But out here in the flatlands, our biggest fear is that the wealth will keep on doing what it's been doing (statistically speaking) for the past 8 years, which is clumping all up at the very tippy-top. So a little wealth spreading doesn't scare us, Senator McCain. We know how it's gone, we know who has the wealth. And it isn't plumbers who work for it. It's investment bankers who play games with it.

He actually said: "We need to encourage business, create jobs, not spread the wealth around."

Oh that's beautiful. Encourage business, but don't spread any wealth around! Keep it where it belongs--in rich guys pockets!

McCain also revels in his oldness, his memories of things that happened before most Americans were even born. Talking about the urgent need for town hall meetings (the lack of which forced him to call Obama a terrorist), he reminded Americans that this is "the way Barry Goldwater and Jack Kennedy agreed to do, before the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas."

Right. I was in the 4th grade then, and I am eligible for the Senior Special at IHOP. I don't think Obama was even born. Neither were most of his voters. Look it up in your American history book, you bunch of punks!

He also refers to the good things the government did in the Great Depression, as if it were only yesterday.

Then there are the times when he references things that even those of us who try to follow all these things just can't quite follow:

Let me just say categorically I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies. Whenever you get a large rally of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 people, you're going to have some fringe peoples. You know that. And I've -- and we've always said that that's not appropriate.

But to somehow say that group of young women who said "Military wives for McCain" are somehow saying anything derogatory about you, but anything -- and those veterans that wear those hats that say "World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq," I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens.

Hunh? What is this about Military wives for McCain? And Veterans of our many wars? And let's be serious here. Those numbers at "our rallies"? McCain isn't drawing crowds like that. Only Palin is.

He finally got up the courage to accuse Obama of, um, knowing Bill Ayers. And then he said this:

ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy
Get out. Destroying the fabric of democracy? By registering Mickey Mouse to vote? Damn, and when Mickey shows up and flashed his ID, we're gonna have to let that rodent vote! And there goes the neighborhood.

McCain pounced on Obama for saying he'd "look at" offshore drilling, calling it an example of how Obama's "eloquence" was deceiving people. Except that it was McCain doing the deception in this case, because the transcript clearly shows that what Obama had said the paragraph before was:
"And I think that we should look at offshore drilling and implement it in a way that allows us to get some additional oil. "

McCain also used this old tried and true method of casting doubt: compare Obama to...Herbert Hoover? Seriously?

Senator Obama wants to restrict trade and he wants to raise taxes. And the last president of the United States that tried that was Herbert Hoover, and we went from a deep recession into a depression.
All of you out there over the age of 80, who were actually alive when Hoover was president, I know you'll never forget how much you hated Hoover, and you will see that Obama is his direct descendent.

He also tried to scare the bejezus out of us all by telling us that under Obama, our health care will be like Canada's and England's. Nooooo! You mean like where Americans go to get drugs at a price they can afford? You mean like where people who have cancer or their kids have cancer, and all they have to focus on is dealing with the illness, and not also worry themselves sick dealing with insurance companies? You mean where a pregnant woman who needs to go on bedrest doesn't lose her insurance coverage? You mean where people aren't being forced into bankruptcy to pay for a one-week stay in the hospital? You mean where small business owners don't also have to worry about how they could possibly pay for their own insurance, much less that of their employees? That damn terrorist, doing that to us!

He ended up grinning into the camera, telling Joe the Plumber that at $250,000, Congratulations, you're rich! haha. (because everyone knows that don't touch rich. Cindy, now that's what I mean by rich!)

All in all, it was a pitiful performance by an angry old man who is despreately trying to distance himself from his own party (one of his biggest selling points is how often he can disagree with his own party, and he seems to think there's something wrong with anyone who belongs to a party he actually supports).

I can't wait to vote, and to see the results pour in.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Let Me See if I Understand This

Ok, so I'm trying my best to follow the panic of 2008 and the bailout/rescue plan. My understanding is that people got caught up in a price spiral that was actually speculative in nature.

So instead of houses, let's pretend that they were buying Beanie Babies. When my daughter was in late elementary school Beanie Babies were all the craze. At first people bought the cute little stuffed toys for their kids to play with. The manufacturer, sensing a fad, starting releasing "limited editions" and otherwise manipulating the availability of particular versions. So a toy that started out costing $5.99 or so was being re-sold for much more than that. People bought special plastic covers for the heart-shaped tags in order to keep the tag neat because that would add to the value of the toy as a collectible. Many people kept their special ones in custom-designed clear plastic cases and never let little grubby hands near them. The belief was that a $5.99 toy bought today would probably be worth $100 in the near future. A few people actually paid $100 for a single toy.

So suppose I got caught up in that mania. I notice that $5.99 toys can be sold for $12 in a few weeks time. Geez, that's a fast profit. So I buy 1000 of the things. Invest $6000, expecting to sell them later and get $12,000 back. Easy money! A lot of other people are also buying them at the same time, which is one of the things that is already making the price rise.

After a few months, I try to sell my Beanie Babies. But the fad has passed and the market has cooled. It turns out that there are not too many people who really want $100 toys after all. Now I'm stuck with items that aren't worth as much as I expected. In fact, I start seeing them at yard sales for $1.

Well, lesson learned. Now I have a garage full of mistakes.

Except that, unfortunately for me, I didn't actually take that original $6000 investment out of my savings account. I actually borrowed it. Paid for it with my credit card, in fact. And I still owe--well, thanks to the miracle of compounding, I actually owe more than $6,000. I owe $7000. So I have a $7000 debt and a pile of collateral that's worth less, maybe a lot less, than $7000. How much is it worth? Well, in order to answer that question accurately, I have to find a buyer or buyers for 1,000 Beanie Babies. Maybe there aren't any buyers at all. Maybe if I hold a yard sale or put them on ebay, the selling price will be only 5 cents, because the intrinsic value of them is basically nothing at all. No one needs a Beanie Baby.

If this were a story about houses and mortgages, that last sentence wouldn't be true. Housing is a need and houses do have at least some intrinsic value, or at least the land does. How much land is worth depends, of course, on where it's located and what else is around it. There may be lots of land between 2 meth houses in some depraved suburb or inner city that have essentially no worth under present conditions. The taxes on it would be more than its useful value. But for the most part houses are worth something.

What is scarier than houses is paper. Specifically, Credit-Default Swaps, which if I understand the story correctly, were bought and sold like Beanie Babies, except they can't even be played with by bored children. They are promises, backed by nothing at all, that were sold for millions of dollars.

And sometimes they were "leveraged," ie bought with debt.

I think that's what's really gone wrong. Not housing, which people value for a reason, but financial instruments that were of less real value than a Beanie Baby.