‘The Big Short’ – Great Entertainment from Tragedy

Smart, funny, fast-paced, full of heart, The Big Short offers a social consciousness rarely found in Hollywood films. It also does the nearly impossible by making the intricacies of the 2008 financial crisis understandable for non-economists.

We see the human face of the mortgage meltdown, from distressed homeowners to a cohort of non-sophisticated oddball/outsiders who saw the crisis coming before it erupted. Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a brilliant fund manager with Asperger syndrome who takes refuge in his heavy metal drum kit. Ryan Gosling portrays a slick Wall Street insider who turns to the camera and offers shocking truths in a casual voice. Brad Pitt is the older, jaded Wall Street player who’s left the game, yet helps two dorky twenty-something investors who are prescient about the crisis. The heart of the film is Steve Carell as a Wall Street insider who mourns when his bet finally pays off.

The film points out the corruption of the big banks, how their greed and stupidity drove them off the cliff, creating horrible consequences for millions of people in the process. Savings, careers, hopes, families and lives were destroyed by the collapse. Yet as the movie shows, no one was held accountable, and nothing has fundamentally changed. Sure, there was financial legislation in response, but – in the film’s opinion – it is hardly true oversight of mega-powerful financial institutions.

I want to believe that, with time, there will be demand for better, more consumer-centric regulation. That’s idealistic, probably, though as this Atlantic article argues, America is shifting leftward politically (however, the New Republic argues the opposite). Any candidate who advocates for a fairer financial system would certainly get voter interest. The excitement about Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders is clearly fueled by this sentiment. Sanders has pulled Hillary Clinton leftward. We’ll see – certainly reform is needed for our long term health as a nation.

Chicago O'Hare

The Zen of Holiday Airline Travel

Chapter One: Optimism Against the Odds

Early morning, icy rain on the way, waiting to fly from St. Louis to Chicago. Long lines, blank faces. Flight delays. Semi-panic at Gate 19. Gray people, stressed by too much holiday time with family. Privileged refugees. Families lugging Target luggage crammed with enough stuff to sustain an American lifestyle for 3-5 days.

Stranded journeyers, dreaming of a return to Cleveland, Phoenix, Minneapolis St. Paul. But our living rooms seem distant as we wait for nuggets of news about our flights. The system so fragile, a wave of hard rain – just a forecast or a real problem? Maybe no one is getting home to Rochester today. Maybe Denver will never stop cancelling inbound flights. All we can do is hope. Now they’re welcoming everyone to board flight 5184 to Houston, but the flight is oversold. They’re offering an $800 flight voucher. Not bad; it was $600 on the flight in last week.

Indulging in Dunkin’ Donuts, taking refuge in a confected high, and we’ll worry about the sugar crash when we’re safely crammed into seat 39F. CNN, playing on a dozen monitors, adds entertaining obscenity by broadcasting Trump’s latest fusillade.

A heavyset middle-aged lady plays solitaire on her iPad with a resigned air. A guy with a cowboy hat and St. Louis Cardinals jersey looks like he doesn’t have a social life, unless you count hanging with the guys and catching the game.

All of us know we’re here until we’re allowed to go home. We are powerless in this world, an ecosystem of random chance.

But at least we’re headed somewhere. Existentially, we have a leg up on the clerk in the Sunglass Hut. She’s pacing an empty store front, not going anywhere, even if the flight from Denver finally gets in (which I’m hearing it might not). She’s traveling nowhere. Or perhaps she’s the lucky one. Maybe she has a relatively happy, healthy life right here locally. She’ll go home and pick up her kid and make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Watch the flight delay madness on TV.

CNN now boldvoicing news of horrible weather – storms, deaths in Texas, footage of emergency workers. A serious-voiced announcer with wreckage in the background. Here at Gate 19 we take it in stride. The flight takes off.

Chapter Two: Collapse

Flight lands in Chicago O’Hare around lunch time. News reports of freezing rain on the increase. Okay sure, probably some delay ahead – no big deal.

A business guy sips a Diet Coke and talks non-stop on his phone. He’s got it under control. Even from his beat-up plastic seat here in Gate 27 he finesses his universe. An older guy and an Asian woman with fuchsia hair appear reasonably happy as they peer at her iPhone. The hip young couple – his haircut actually looks pretty cool.

The flight crew guys, a squad of four of them waiting, chatting. They have gold stripes on their blue coats, a quasi-military look. They have rank. They’ve seen it all.

Then, after a three-hour delay, the United rep at the desk announces that our flight has been cancelled. A mad dash to the desk to rebook. But the pandemonium rushes ahead of us. The system has, for the foreseeable future, collapsed.

Some 245 flights cancelled in O’Hare alone. Hundreds more flights cancelled on the east coast and Midwest. Because it’s the holidays all those flights were fully booked. No one can rebook because the alternatives – if they’re running – are already taken.

The next 30 hours haze into a blur. Lines from the United service desk stretch hundreds of feet down O’Hare’s main hallway. The standby list goes to seven pages. At one point I’m 73 on the list, then I’m 37, then I mysteriously disappear from the list. Getting through to a United rep is a long shot. Calling means merely listening to on hold music. Any United rep has a long line between you and them – and every traveler requires at least a 10 minute harangue. A furious man opens his laptop and yells that he has an email with a confirmed ticket. I realize I could be on standby for days, so I tell United I need a confirmed flight. I’m told the next available flight is five days away.

People cut in lines. Tampers boil. The airport itself starts to get strained. There’s talk of United setting up cots, but the airline rep I ask about them doesn’t know where they are. I book a room at a nearby Holiday Inn around 11 o’clock; when I get there I face a line of 20 people waiting to check in. At the desk I’m told there are no more rooms. But I have a confirmation number, I say. Too bad, we’re all booked up.

Find another hotel, finish checking in past midnight. Set my alarm for 4:30 AM because I’m on standby for the 6:18 AM flight. The TSA security line the next morning is thousands of people long, snaking through constructed barriers. A vast hall of bleary-eyed mummies. I get to my gate around 6:30. No dice on standby – too far down the list. I witness one of about a half dozen standby dramas, as crowds push forward, hoping to be one of the lucky 7-8 passengers to fit on the overbooked plane.

An upset customer argues with a United clerk, pointing out all the confusing inconsistencies. They go back and forth, and finally the exasperated United clerk semi-yells, “everything changes all the time!”

That, then, is the final zen of travel, and of course, life itself: everything changes all the time. The path of no journey can be relied upon, not on United Airlines and not in the larger world. Nothing is permanent, including your connection in Philadelphia. Those who seek the security of constancy will be sorely disappointed.

I finally get a rebooking out, on the second day at 4:07 PM. All the passengers line up at 4:30, and United announces that the flight is missing a single crew member. Status unknown. A collective silent groan ripples through the crowd. A lady walks away in disgust. But some 10 minutes later the flight crew member shows up. We hustle on to the plane. I buckle my seatbelt and get a text from United about a weather delay, but it’s not real; we leave not long after. Or maybe the delay was real, at the moment it was sent. Who knows? Everything changes all the time.

In the photo above: O’Hare’s futuristic basement walkway between concourse B and C. I traversed it constantly as I dreamed of a spot on standby.



A small moment of unplanned beauty

I was out walking and saw this small daffodil near the sidewalk (is it actually a daffodil? No idea – I don’t know much about flowers. But bear with me.) Such a pristine little portrait of beauty. Fresh and pure. A gorgeous piece of urban nature. And the cost? Absolutely nothing. Sometimes you just have to keep eyes open and there it is. 

Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies


I really enjoyed Bridge of Spies. It’s an intimate period drama, mining the tension and paranoia of early 1960s Cold War. Co-written by the Coen Brothers, it’s a cracking good piece of storytelling and it punctuates the seriousness with plenty of humor.

Most interesting, the film subtly plays with the parallel between that era and current day; just as some Cold Warriors wanted to (and did) ignore the Constitution in the name of protecting the U.S., so have some current voices advocated lessening privacy and due process protections in the face of terrorist threats. At one point Tom Hanks (playing a small-town lawyer thrust onto the world stage) says to a CIA operative, “you know what makes us all Americans? The Constitution.” Hanks is hyper-authentic and charming, channeling his inner Jimmy Stewart to portray extreme human decency, even when pressured by smarmy government operartives. Good flick.

Caitlyn Jenner and ‘What Makes a Woman’

Elinor Burkett’s essay in The New York Times about Caitlyn Jenner, What Makes a Woman, is one of the best pieces I’ve read recently.

She quotes Jenner as saying, “My brain is much more female than it is male.” To which Burkett observes:

“This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.”

Burkett takes great exception to Jenner’s concept of what it means to be a woman.

“I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.”

In a very well-reasoned essay, this paragraph felt central:

“Their [transgender women] truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.”

I do support Jenner’s right to switch genders – I wish her well, and her life change is part of a larger, longer process of the blurring of traditional gender roles that is positive for all of us. We need to get away from stultifying gender roles; girls play with dolls, boys play with trucks – those retro views have caused massive heaps of unhappiness for the many people who don’t live on the obvious end of the male-female spectrum – and plenty of beautiful, smart, and compassionate people do not. But I appreciate Burkett’s account of how a woman born and raised as a woman has fought, struggled and earned something that an individual who becomes a woman with the help of a surgeon’s knife and hormonal treatments cannot know.

Second Chance Cat Rescue

This late model sedan with the company name – Last Chance Cat Rescue – got me thinking. I’m wondering: what exactly is the business model? Okay, clearly, they’re in the business of finding cats; plenty of kitties go missing, so someone’s got to track them down. There’s definitely a market for the team at Second Chance.

What I find charming – really, actually inspiring – is how quixotic their quest is. Really, driving around in an ancient car, looking for lost cats? Someone’s going to turn a profit doing that? That’s the thing: this is a business based (I’m assuming) on sheer love and hope, not a cold-blooded calculation to lure in the lucre.

You have to have a damn big heart to drive around in your aging boat of a Lincoln, at 7 miles per gallon, keeping your eyes open for lost kitty. Really, I do sincerely hope the Second Chance folks are good at what do. I wish them all the good luck and patience in the world. We and all the kitties in the world need a second chance!

Gloria Steinem in March Across the Korean DMZ

US feminist Gloria Steinem and South Korean peace activists march along a military fence at a military check point in Paju on May 24, 2015 after she crossed the border line through the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. An international group of women peace activists, led by American feminist Gloria Steinem, made a rare crossing on May 24 of one of the world's most militarised borders between North and South Korea. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images) US feminist Gloria Steinem (C) and South Korean peace activists march along a military fence at a military check point in Paju on May 24, 2015 after she crossed the border line through the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. An international group of women peace activists, led by American feminist Gloria Steinem, made a rare crossing on May 24 of one of the world’s most militarised borders between North and South Korea. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)[/caption]
Gloria Steinem is one of my all-time favorite heroes. I adore her for her enlightened support of feminism. She’s a bright light of intelligence in a crazy world.

Her most recent news: she was part of a group of women activists who walked across the DMZ between North and South Korea. From Huffington Post:

We feel very celebratory and positive that we have created a voyage across the DMZ in peace and reconciliation,” said U.S. activist and feminist Gloria Steinem, honorary co-chair of the WomanCrossDMZ group, which is calling for a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice which ended the conflict.

As the women crossed into South Korea, there were greeted by protests by some conservative groups. The conservatives were responding to what they saw as an accommodating stance toward the North Korean regime by WomenCrossDMZ.org. I can’t believe that accurately describes WomenCrossDMZ.org. Yet the group’s web site does – according to the HuffingtonPost – host a video that says “millions of North Koreans lack ‘basics of survival’ because of what it describes as ‘crippling embargos’ against the North Korean government.” Certainly the embargo does need to be in place – which is deeply unfortunate, because it hurts regular citizens, not the ruling elite. But North Korea must be hobbled. One point I’m sure the conservatives are missing: the walk across the DMZ was an embarrassment to the North Korean regime, because this rare march points out how rigid and militaristic the regime is; it’s a true mud pie in the face of Pyongyang. Steinem continues to be in the forefront of important work.

Mad Men’s Greatest Narrative Invention

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

Jon Hamm as Don Draper – Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 8 – Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

As the
Mad Men series ends, the hype is overblown; sure, it was fun TV, but I’m not placing it in the pantheon of great art. Much of the series was enjoyable diversion, with plenty of routine office politics and a delightful splash of soap opera. I loved all those mid-afternoon Scotches and the constant cigarettes.

The show’s greatest narrative inspiration was Don’s backstory: the poor boy, born to a prostitute, who goes off to war and (accidentally) kills his superior officer – and in that very moment he decides to assumes the dead man’s identity.

We don’t learn this until we’ve seen Don as the consummate ad man, able to conjure suburban mythos around a routine brand of soap. When we learn his self-creation story, we realize that this ultra-handsome demigod of Madison Avenue was just a scared buck private when created his greatest image: himself. This central act echoes all of our lives. We are all, to a certain extent, creating ourselves, spinning ourselves, inventing our personhood out of the materials at hand. We’re all doing some branding, selling something fabricated, woven a bit more from cotton candy than we care to admit.

So we root for Don; hey, you’re inventing a greater self for yourself? We want to see you succeed; maybe that means we can succeed, too. But after a certain point in the series, Don always seemed to be falling, pulling us in with the pathos, his tumble from business grace or his struggle with some kind of hollowness. His bag was existential angst; his efforts at happiness never spun gold for very long. An early season ended brilliantly on this note. He sat alone at a bar, and a shark-like brunette with sex in her eyes approaches. She asks, suggestively, are you alone? Don turns toward her, facing us full in the camera, and we see that his depth of aloneness is so clearly beyond the romantic.

The show’s other fascination was its glimpse of how far we’ve come since the 1960s; in those days, women got coffee, with a few, very notable exceptions – Peggy’s and Joan’s upward trajectory was the show at its most encouraging. As a period piece its glance in a distant mirror flattered us enormously, allowing us to feel thoroughly enlightened. Things are so far from perfect today, but Mad Men let us know they’re a damn lot better than they were. I’ll drink a midafternoon Scotch to that.