Sunday, January 31, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Black Panther

In 1992, we see T’Challa’s father arrest his uncle. Then we cut to 2008, where T’Challa and his friend Okoye are on a mission to extract Wakandan agent Nakia from an undercover mission with warlords in Nigeria. All three kick ass. 
Why T-Challa might be hard to identify with: We don’t meet him until 7 minutes into the movie. When we do, we see that he’s not as confident as some other superheroes. He’s barely in the top five of the most bad-ass people in this movie. 
  • Wakanda has internecine conflicts.
  • He has secrets. News reporters report how poor his country is, not suspecting the truth.
  • Something Marvel is always good with: He has friends. (Unlike the DC heroes.) He and Okoye josh like old pals, which goes so far to make these seem like real people with full lives.
  • A news report reminds us that his father has recently been murdered, as we saw in another movie.
  • He has an embarrassing tendency to freeze up around Nakia, which Okoye teases him about. “What are you talking about? I never freeze!” he says, unconvincingly.
  • He’s king of his country.
  • He has superpowers he gets from eating an herb.
  • He has neat gadgets for disabling the jeeps of the caravan he’s raiding. 
Strength/Flaw: Respectful of Ancestors / Too tied to bad traditions

Saturday, January 30, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Gravity

Dr. Ryan Stone is on a shuttle mission fixing a satellite. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski floats around her trying to achieve a spacewalk record. Mission control tells them that there’s been a chain reaction from an exploding satellite and they’ve got to get out of there. 

Why Ryan might be hard to identify with: She will spend most of the movie feeling like a talentless amateur who lacks the survival skills she needs in this environment, but she’ll eventually prove herself wrong. (Although, when she gives herself the advice she needs, she has to imagine that it’s coming from the veteran astronaut in order to convince herself.)

  • The movie begins with a title onscreen: “At 600km above Planet Earth, the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees.” Already, we believe, care and invest. This movie will include sensory information about space we didn’t know, this will make our heroes suffer and our heroes will be bad-asses for going out there anyway.
  • There’s no score and no sound other than what’s on the radio.
  • One of the first thing she does is ask Matt to turn off his music. She has a sense of self she will assert.
  • Ryan is having a hard time keeping her lunch down.
  • No one listens to her. “Engineering admits that you warned us that this could happen, but that’s as close to an apology as you’re going to get from ‘em. We should have listened to you, doc.”
  • Her life soon becomes a nightmare.
  • We will eventually find out she has a tragic backstory: Her daughter died.
  • She may feel totally unprepared but it’s been established right up front that she’s a genius in some areas, so we are able to invest in her. Only she could see the problem that she’s fixing. Matt tells her, “You’re the genius up here, I only drive the bus.”
Strength/Flaw: Neither is very clear from the first ten minutes, but we’ll eventually realizes it’s that she’s cool-headed (not at first but she finds it within herself) but chilly (she hasn’t cared much about staying alive since her daughter died)

Friday, January 29, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Elf

A baby escapes from his crib at his orphanage and climbs into Santa’s toy sack. He’s wearing Little Buddy brand diapers so they call him Buddy. An elf adopts him. 30 years later, he’s much bigger than the other elves, but doesn’t figure out he’s human until he overhears it. He finally learns about where he came from and sets off to New York to find his human father. 

Why Buddy might be hard to identify with: He can be a little grating.

  • We begin with some entertaining facts about elves, including showing how elves make plastic toys like Etch-a-Sketches, which is always the sort of things parents have a hard time explaining.
  • Buddy bursts with personality every time he’s onscreen.
  • We love naïvete, such as when his elf father has to explain to him how it’s possible that some people don’t believe in Santa and he’s baffled.
  • He doesn’t fit in. He’s a big oaf. He’s incompetent. “Why don’t you just say it? I’m the worst toymaker in the world!”
  • He’s put in charge of testing jack-in-the-boxes, but they scare him every time they pop up.
  • He overhears them saying that he’s not really an elf, which destroys his world. Overhearing humiliation is always good.
  • He finds out his human father’s on the naughty list.
  • Just when we’re convinced there will be no reason to invest in him, Santa says of his father: “Some people, they just lose sight of what’s important in life, that doesn’t mean they can’t find their way again, huh? Maybe all they need is just a little Christmas spirit!” Buddy responds, “Well, I’m—I’m good at that!” Santa replies, “I know you are.” So this is a classic story about an incompetent hero with just one valuable quality, put into a situation where that one quality is badly needed.
Strength/Flaw: Exuberance / Inability to do what others ask of him.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: The Invisible Man (2020)

Cecelia drugs her controlling live-in boyfriend Adrien and sneaks out of the high-tech house they share in the middle of the night. Adrien wakes and catches up to her, but her sister drives her away just in time. Later, she’s hiding out at the house of a friend of her sister’s. 

Why Cecilia might be hard to identify with: She has no dialogue for the first 10 minutes, so we don’t have much chance to get to know her personality until we’ve been with her for some time. Even when she’s free, she’s not bursting with personality. Like many victims of abuse, she has little sense of self left, and must rediscover it over the course of the film.

  • The pill bottle she uses to drug him is a sort of talisman, but then she drops it in the escape, leaving a crucial part of herself behind.
  • The bizarre house, including a mad science lab, feels oddly specific to this situation, not generic.
  • But I’m not sure how much we’d believe in her if Elizabeth Moss wasn’t playing the part. Her performance feels very grounded and real. She’s done more work than is on the page.
  • We’re terrified for her when, after sneaking away silently for six minutes she accidentally kicks the metal dog bowl down the hall with a deafening clang.
  • We’re not sure if she’s justified in her fear until he catches up to her and smashes open her car window. Now we share her terror.
  • She’s still terrified when she’s supposedly free two weeks later, afraid that if her sister visits her, Adrien will follow her there. She can’t check the mail without running back inside in fear.
  • When her sister visits to tell her that Adrien is dead, she finally gives us some harrowing details of his controlling behavior.
  • She’s very clever in the sequence of steps she takes to get away, from drugging him, to turning off the alarm system, to shifting a camera and using the surveillance system to monitor him.
  • The dog wants her to take him with her, and she agrees to pull his electronic collar off, though it sets off a car alarm, finally waking Adrien.
  • Once she’s supposedly free, she’s still googling ways to protect herself, so she uses nail polish to cover up her webcam.
Strength/Flaw: Alert to danger / afraid all the time

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

I am well aware that I have not yet done my “Best of 2020” list. I usually do it in the two weeks before the Oscars, which gives me a lot of time this year, but this week will include some previews. 

Ma Rainey’s jazz band plays a 1927 tent show in rural Georgia, then some theaters in Chicago. Ma is annoyed at the showboating of trumpeter Levee. Later, Levee and the other musicians, led by a trombonist named Cutler, gather to record some records.

Why Levee might be hard to identify with: The material is stagey and obviously shot on sets. The monologues are a little too monologue-y to seem like reality.

  • The other three musicians arrive together, but he arrives separately, making him stand out.
  • He’s bursting with personality. His first line: As two girls walk by, he says “Hey, hey! Good morning, Chicago!”
  • He’s a man of rarified tastes: He’s bought himself some $11 shoes (which he loves a little too much)
  • He has a goal: “I’m gonna get me a band and make me some records.”
  • Cutler cuts him down to size: “Just play the piece, [expletive deleted.] Look, you want to be one of them, uh, what you call it, virtuosos or something, you in the wrong place. You ain’t no King Oliver or Buddy Bolden. Just an old trumpet player, come a dime a dozen.”
  • He’s cocky, he doesn’t look when he crosses the street and expects the cars to stop for him.
  • Only he cares about “art” of jazz. One of the musicians replies, “What’s drawing got to do with it?”
  • The white boss sees him as having more talent, “Where’s that horn player, the one that gave me those songs? Is he gonna be here today? I wanna hear more of that sound.”
Strength/Flaw: Confidence / Volatility

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Kitchen Confidential

New York Chef Bourdain begins by directly addressing us, promising to dish secrets that will shock us about the restaurant business. He implies that he’s a rough, tough, outlaw type of guy (“If I need a favor at four o'clock in the morning, whether it's a quick loan, a shoulder to cry on, a sleeping pill, bail money, or just someone to pick me up in a car in a bad neighborhood in the driving rain, I'm definitely not calling up a fellow writer.”) but then tells us about his wealthy childhood, vacationing in France, where he discovers his love of food. 

Why Bourdain might be hard to identify with: Suddenly, he’s sailing to Europe in “cruise ware” to “summer” in France! I quit reading there the first time I tried to read the book. When I tried again, I kept reading and discovered that a few pages later, he calls himself “a sullen, moody, difficult little bastard,” which is annoying enough with average kids, but even more off-putting in rich kids.

  • Lots of fascinating bizarre details about life in France: “Houses had two kitchens, an inside one and an outdoor ‘fish kitchen’.”
  • As with any good foodie memoir, the sensory information overwhelms us on every page: “I remember everything about the experience: the way our waiter ladled it from a silver tureen into my bowl, the crunch of tiny chopped chives he spooned on as garnish, the rich, creamy taste of leek and potato, the pleasurable shock, the surprise that it was cold.”
  • Looking past these ten pages, we’ll get all sorts of memorable details that you’d only get by being there, such as cooks snorting coke through uncooked penne pasta.
  • In the intro, it seems like maybe he’s had a rough life and he’ll be sympathetic, but that quickly dissipates in the next chapter. 
  • But there is the moment where his parents go to a great restaurant at night and just leave their kids alone in the car out in the parking lot for three hours so they can eat in peace. Crappy parents always cause us to give a lot of leeway to a hero, and rich parents can be just as crappy as poor ones, if not more so. Most importantly, the moment has irony: “And there came a time when, finally, they didn't take the kids along. I remember it well, because it was such a slap in the face. It was a wake-up call that food could be important, a challenge to my natural belligerence. By being denied, a door opened.” That basic ironic sentence fuels many books.
  • Looking past these ten pages, we don’t really start to care for him until he suffers absolute humiliation in his first attempt to work at a real kitchen job in a high-end restaurant. When he burns himself and asks for burn cream, his trainer shows him all of his own burn damage and “the other cooks cheered, hooted and roared at my utter humiliation.” (I think he should have started with that incident, then went back and filled us in on his childhood, so that readers like me didn’t put the book down on first try.)
  • “Spite, always a great motivating force in my life, caused me to become suddenly adventurous where food was concerned.” We like driven heroes, and spite is a great driver. People only want what they want.
  • His ability to appreciate food is obviously great, from his orgiastic descriptions, and he seems to have been a very successful chef from what he tells us.
  • In the French countryside as a little kid, he kills lizards with explosives for fun, so he’s a little badass.
  • He’s a brave eater: “But I, in the proudest moment of my young life, stood up smartly, grinning with defiance, and volunteered to be the first”. Readers always want heroes to grin with defiance.
  • He keeps comparing cooks to pirates, and he knows we love to read about pirates. If we go past the first ten pages, we see the first time he meets a chef’s crew: “In the kitchen, they were like gods. They dressed like pirates: chef's coats with the arms slashed off, blue jeans, ragged and faded headbands, gore-covered aprons, gold hoop earrings, wrist cuffs, turquoise necklaces and chokers, rings of scrimshaw and ivory, tattoos — all the decorative detritus of the long-past Summer of Love.”

The Annotation Project: Kitchen Confidential

Download this here.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Episode 25: Cult Thinking

Is anybody still reading this blog? We’ve got a full front page with no comments now, which may be a first. Please comment!

And I reiterate, please review the podcast on Audible, where we have no reviews.  Click on “More Options”.

Meanwhile, here’s a new episode of the podcast! James presents an elaborate theory about how storytelling is like cult indoctrination, and I try to keep up.

Here’s that video essay about the movie Midsommar James talks about:

And here's the list he's discussing:

1. Find the vulnerable target
2. Invite the Target to an innocuous event
3. Cut the target off from outside influences
4. Lovebomb the target; dangle the Prize in front of the Target
5. Extract an agreement from the Target that they want the prize
6. Shut down dissent by threatening to withhold the prize, iterating between carrot and stick
7. Arouse guilt in them and lead them to self-betrayal
8. Bring the subject to a breaking point
9. Offer leniency and clear steps to make things right: compulsion of confession, channeling of guilt, action to be done.
10. Release of guilt through ritual or signficicant act
11. Progress and harmony
12. Final confession and rebirth into new community and identity

(I’m doubling up posts tomorrow so we don’t break our 31 days of BCI.)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Born a Crime

Comedian Trevor Noah tells us about his childhood in South Africa. He begins by telling us that his birth was illegal, because his father was white and his mother black. He then tells us a story about his mother taking him to a church service during civil unrest and almost being killed by a taxi driver from a rival ethnic group. 

Why Noah might be hard to identify with: He portrays himself as slightly psychopathic. Remembering the time he burned down a house, he says, “I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I still don’t. The lawyer in me maintains that I am completely innocent. There were matches and there was a magnifying glass and there was a mattress and then, clearly, a series of unfortunate events. Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade.”

  • We learn a lot quickly about the Zulu and the Xhosa. Struggles within groups that we would think would be allied are always fascinating to readers. The title promises an Apartheid memoir but Apartheid nominally ends when Noah is five, so he has to show us the conflicts that rose up in its place to keep things lively.
  • The details of his mother’s intense Christianity take obsessions we’re familiar with and project them onto a larger canvas.
  • Noah has a strongly defined argument tactic (that we know he still has if we’ve seen his show.)
    • “It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”
    • Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.
    • “Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”
    • “Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”
    • “No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—”
    • “No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”
    • “Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”
    • “No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”
    • “But, Mom!”
    • “Trevor! Sun’qhela!”
    • Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—what we call a spanking.
  • He has child logic: But at black church I would sit there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why time moved so slowly. Is it possible for time to actually stop? If so, why does it stop at black church and not at white church? I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more.
  • He was raised under a brutally racist regime. He begins by quoting the law that made his birth illegal.
  • Then a group of his fellow black people wants to kill him for being of a different ethnic group.
  • He remembers getting beaten by his mother a lot, but he remembers it fairly fondly.
  • He lets us know that, later in the story, his mother will be shot in the head. He’s led a tough life, and she’s led one that even tougher.
  • He was in the shit. He’s been through a baptism of fire.
  • He, his mom, and his baby brother leap from a moving car to save themselves. The first numbered chapter begins: “Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.”
  • He has a keen sociological eye: “If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.”

Saturday, January 23, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Wendy and Lucy

Wendy is living out of her car in the Pacific Northwest along with her dog Lucy and gradually making her way to Alaska. She hangs out with some hoboes by a bonfire who give her tips. A security guard wakes her up in her car and tells her she has to move it, but it won’t start. 

Why Wendy might be hard to identify with: She’s a homeless drifter and we’re not used to identifying with those. It seems selfish for her to have a dog she can’t really take care of, as she’ll realize in the closing moments of the movie.

  • She fairly aimless but she does have a goal in mind: Alaska. One of her fellow hoboes knows all about Alaska and shares some fun stories about working on docks there.
  • She carefully traces her route so far on a map. She keeps careful track of all her expenses, showing us the details of her life. We always like physicalization.
  • Her sweatshirt and shorts and sneakers feel very normal. She doesn’t look like Michele Williams.
  • She’s living in her car, hanging out with scary tattooed hoboes in railyards at night.
  • She gets hassled by cops who wake her up in her car. “You can’t sleep here, ma’am.” Then her car won’t start.
  • Not much reason. She’s not very resourceful. When her car won’t start, she tries looking under the hood, but clearly has no idea what she’s looking at.
  • She’s certainly loving to her dog, which makes us root for her somewhat. (Though on one level, we’re just rooting for her to find a better home for that dog. But when she does so at the end, it’s devastating.)

Friday, January 22, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Harriet the Spy

On the upper east side, 11 year old Harriet Welsh is playing “Town” with her friend Sport, imagining a crime-filled town in the roots of a tree, when she and Sport are invited by her nanny Ole Golly to go out to Far Rockaway visit to Golly’s mother, who isn’t all there. 

Why Harriet might be hard to identify with: She’s a mean little rich girl with a live-in nanny and chef on the upper east side. We simultaneously identify with her mean side and feel repulsed by it. (Kids in 2020 tend not to like the book, because they’ve been raised to be nicer than us Gen X kids)

  • Her notebook is the physicalization of her mind, and her constant talisman.
  • She has secrets. Fitzhugh lets us know she has a secret life, and then only gradually reveals it to us.  
  • By the end of this first chapter, we have a sense of it, but we see that it’s a secret from everyone else in Harriet’s life.
  • She traverses worlds from a very rich home a very poor home in this first chapter, and we always like heroes who can visit both.
  • We all remember those little moments, around this age, when we realized that authority figures were human beings with their own things going on.
  • Objects are anthropomorphized in a way that makes this world come alive. “And her shoes were a wonder. Long, long, black, bumpy things with high, laced sides up to the middle of the shin, bulging with the effort of holding in those ankles, their laces splitting them into grins against the white of the socks below.”
  • The portrayal of Ole Golly’s mom is like nothing we’ve ever seen in a kid’s book before. We’re used to dead moms, but not negelcted ones that are tragically mentally disabled.
  • She’s not as good of a writer as she wishes she was, and Sport’s dubious toward her narrative shortcuts wounds her a bit.
  • She feels embarrassed to see the scene between Golly and her poor mother.
  • Crucially, she’s starting to very vaguely realize she might be a bad person, “Harriet felt very ugly all of a sudden.” We like self-awareness, as long as it dawns very slowly.
  • Like all writers, she has the superpower of making something out of nothing.
  • And she has incisive powers of observation about her fellow New Yorkers, though her observations lean towards the vicious.
  • We like her snarkiness. We like kids who talk like they’re adults, such as when she introduces Sport as her husband.
Strength / Flaw: Incisive / Cruel

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: It's a Wonderful Life

Celestial beings fret about George Bailey in 1946 and review his life: We meet George at 12 in 1919, with a group sledding onto a frozen pond on snow shovels. George has to dive in to save his brother’s life. He loses hearing in one ear, but soon returns to works at old man Gower’s drug store, but Gower’s son has just died in the pandemic, so he gets drunk and accidentally sends George out with the wrong pills. George goes to ask his father for advice, but his father, working at a Savings and Loan, is being chewed out by the town banker, Mr. Potter. George decides not to deliver the pills and gets beaten by Mr. Gower until he convinces him of the mistake he made. Jumping ten years later, Mr. Gower buys George a large suitcase as George prepares to travel the world. 

Why George might be hard to identify with: We always groan a bit when we’re told that we’re going to have to learn a hero’s story from their childhood, starting off the story with a younger actor. We say, “Ugh, this had better be worth it.”

  • He has lots of odd rituals, like using some sort of bizarre cigarette lighter contraption in the store, which presumably fails a lot, so he says “I wish I had a million dollars”, and tries to light it. When it lights, he says: “Hot dog!”
  • He’s not an adorable little kid. He’s got personality. Violent says “Help me down?”, and he just replies “Help you down??” and walks away.
  • He has an obsession: Traveling the world. “You don’t like cocoanuts? Say, Brainless, don’t you know where cocoanuts come from? [takes out National Geographic] Lookit here, from Tahiti, Fiji Islands, Coral sea!”
  • He’s got a false goal: “I’m going out exploring some day. You watch. And I’m going to have a harem, and maybe a couple of wives! Wait and see!”
  • He loses hearing in one ear saving his brother.
  • When he’s whistling his drunk boss says, “George, you’re not paid to be a canary!”, embarrassing him.
  • He sees his beloved father humiliated. “You can’t begin to spend all the money you’ve got--” “--Oh, I suppose I should give it to miserable failures like you and that idiot brother of yours to spend for me?” He tries to stand up for his father but his father whisks him out of the room, not stopping to give him the advice he needs.
  • Mr. Gower hits him until blood comes out of his ears when he finds out he hasn’t sent the pills.
  • He will soon lose his chance to to travel the world.
  • A classic “save the cat”: He first meet him jumping in a frozen pond to save his brother’s life.
  • Then another: He saves the life of the person who would have taken the wrong pills.
Strength / Flaw (Not really flip sides): Bravery, good sense and moral courage / overly sarcastic and prone to depression

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Snowpiercer

In 2031, a train rattles through a frozen Earth with the rich people in the front and the poor people in the back. A young man named Curtis leads the poor people in a revolt.

Why Curtis might be hard to identify with: Well, he seems a little too healthy to be totally believable as a desperately poor person. (Evans had just bulked up to play Captain America)

  • All the details are bizarre. All humanity lives on a moving train. They’re given gelatinous black cubes to eat.
  • The guards are glumly brutal but not sadists, so the movie doesn’t feel manipulative. They’re just doing their jobs.
  • Their life is a living hell. Their children are being taken from them for some nefarious purpose. One of them is tortured by having his arm put outside the train, then smashed with a hammer when it’s frozen.
  • We can guess that Curtis despises himself for some reason. “I’m not who you think I am.”
  • He talks to a kid like an adult, doing an elaborate high five with a young black kid.
  • He’s strategizing. He figures out there are four seconds when all three gates are open at once.
  • He’s worshipped for his leadership. “Edgar just wants to help, you know. Thinks the world of you.” “He shouldn’t worship me the way he does.”
  • He notices things. “They don’t have bullets. Remember what Mason said? She said ‘put down that useless gun.’”

Monday, January 18, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Americanah

Nigerian American academic Ifemelu journeys from Princeton, New Jersey, to nearby Trenton to find an African salon to get her hair braided, thinking about the fact that she’s recently shuttered her popular blog about race in America and left her boyfriend Blaine in preparation for a move back to Nigeria, where she’s still in love with her old boyfriend Obinze, who is now married. 

Why Ifemelu might be hard to identify with: I think we’re hardwired to dislike bloggers, spewing digital noise instead of producing a physical product. Betsy and I both felt a sea change of respect when we turned out blogs into physical books.

  • You would think that another reason she might be hard to identify with is that she’s fairly hypocritical. Her blog consisted of calling out white people for saying insensitive things about black people, but at the salon she’s fairly disgusted by things she should probably not be. One can only imagine how much she would have nailed a white woman who said “Mariama pointed at the smallest of the braiders, who had a skin condition, pinkish-cream whorls of discoloration on her arms and neck that looked worryingly infectious.” But we actually identify with hypocrisy. It’s a pretty universal emotion.
  • The wonderful sensory details begin with the first sentence: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing.” She then gives us a tour of other places she’s lived in America according to their smells: “Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage.”
  • Everybody has their totem objects: She sees a white man eating ice cream during the day and that seems so oddly American to her. (“She had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public) She worries if she goes to Nigeria, she’ll be one of those returnees always carrying a water bottle. (“Ranyinudo, had made her return seem normal. ‘Lagos is now full of American returnees, so you better come back and join them. Every day you see them carrying a bottle of water as if they will die of heat if they are not drinking water every minute’”)
  • Collapsing confidence is always easy to identify with: “She began, over time, to feel like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of people’s stories for something she could use. Sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.”
  • The love of her life has married another woman.
  • The braiders treat her as alien, both for wanting her hair to be natural and other reasons, making her worried that she’ll no longer be at home in either world.
  • She feels unsure about walking away from her blog, her boyfriend, her apartment, and everything she’s known in recent years. She’s alienated even from her own emotions. (“Imagining him at his wedding left her with a feeling like sorrow, a faded sorrow.”)
  • She has unique problems, because she is uncomfortably stuck between worlds, not entirely welcome in either. She’s afraid that her taxi driver will be Nigerian because of the questions and/or resentments they often have for her.
  • She has a sharp eye. She diagnoses the ills and oddnesses of both America and Nigeria well. (“Before, she would have said, ‘I know,’ that peculiar American expression that professed agreement rather than knowledge.”)
  • We love heroes that bestride two worlds, and she does so right away, going from Ivy-covered Princeton to working class Trenton, prefiguring a much bigger journey.
  • We aren’t very inclined to like bloggers, but she’s at least talented at her quest to get people to say racist things she could skewer on her blog: “People were flattered to be asked about themselves and if she said nothing after they spoke, it made them say more. They were conditioned to fill silences.”

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Saturday, January 16, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: The Wizard of Oz

Young Dorothy comes home to her farm in Kansas to report that Miss Gulch wants to order her dog destroyed. Her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em won’t listen to her. Miss Gulch shows up with an order from the sheriff and takes Toto, but Toto runs away from her back to Dorothy, who decides to run away from home. On her journey, she meets a phony psychic named Professor Marvel who pretends to see that Auntie Em misses her. Dorothy heads home, but a tornado hits and she finds the house empty. The house flies up in the air and lands in the (color) land of Oz on top of an evil witch. The locals celebrate her and a good witch rewards her with magic slippers. 

Why Dorothy might be hard to identify with: When she falls in the pigsty, her dress doesn’t get dirty, which makes her hard to believe in.

  • We love heroes that ride bicycles. They are exercising and interacting with their world.
  • She has the ultimate “I want” song, giving us a glimpse into her heart.
  • She actually has a really strong motivation to run away from home: to save her dog’s life. We agree with her.
  • We see her strong, unique reasons for running away, but her general desires are universal enough that Professor Marvel can guess them: They don’t understand you at home, they don’t appreciate you.”
  • Miss Gulch wants to kill her dog!
  • Nobody will listen to her.
  • We care for naïve heroes and she’s naïve in her dealing with Professor Marvel.
  • She straight up gets caught in a tornado. Her family closes themselves in the cellar without her.
  • We see that she’s brave and gung-ho when she refuses to avoid Miss Gulch and walks along the fence between the pig sties.
  • She runs away to save her dog.
  • She accidentally kills a witch and gets celebrated and rewarded with magic slippers
Strength/flaw: Defiant / inconsiderate of the feelings of others

Friday, January 15, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: The Big Short

Michael Burry in The Big Short

Former doctor turned full-time investor Michael Burry interviews a man to be work for his fund. He wants him to investigate all of the hundreds of mortgages that have been bundled together for a mortgage backed security.

Why Michael might be hard to identify with: We all hate hedge fund guys. And he seems rude, because we don’t know what’s going on with him.

  • He listens to metal music on headphones, plays drumsticks on his desk, puts his bare feet on his desk.
  • Burry has a literal hole in his life: “I’ve always been more comfortable alone. Maybe it’s because of my glass eye. I lost the eye to a childhood illness, separates me from people.” In a flashback, we see the eye pop out in a football game, disgusting his teammates and the cheerleaders. In the book, he eventually realizes that a lot of the isolation (and lack of eye contact) he attributes to his glass eye is actually the result of undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome. The movie oddly doesn’t have that realization, but Bale’s performance makes it pretty clear.
  • The narrator introduces him by saying “While the whole world was having a big old party, a few outsiders and weirdos saw what no one else could. …These outsiders saw the giant lie at the heart of the economy and they saw it by doing something the rest of the suckers never thought to do. They looked.” In this case it’s literally true that in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!
  • His name plate says, “Michael Burry, M.D.” so we can see that he might have a more diagnostic eye than most in finance.
Mark Baum in The Big Short

A man in a suit is making a painful admission to a therapy group about his treatment of his son, when suddenly investor Mark Baum bursts into the group, interrupting him, saying “Sorry I’m late, no cabs, ugh, so get this, I met with this retail banker yesterday…” and he launches into a tale about the banker abusing his customers. As he’s saying this, we see the hurt on the face of the man whose story he interrupted. The therapist finally interrupts him, “We’ve talked about this numerous times, you can’t come in late and highjack the entire session.” What do you mean, I didn’t highjack the meeting, did I highjack this session?” One guy says, “Yeah.” Baum gives him a withering look and says, “What do you do?” “I’m in commodities.” Baum snorts, “Well good luck with that.” The therapist says “Mark, I know you’ve suffered a terrible loss. Maybe you want to talk about that?” “I don’t talk about that.” Phone buzzes. “Hold on, hold on, I have to take this, sorry. [To phone] I don’t care, Porter, this guy’s whole business is based on ripping people off, how long can that last?” He leaves and shouts, “Bye, everybody!”

Why Mark might be hard to identify with: On the one hand, he’s a cocky wall street asshole, and we know from the trailer he’s going to become a billionaire betting against the economy, but in his own mind, he’s clearly a crusader for the little guy.

  • Slipping between past and present tense is terrible in prose, but good in dialogue, because it sounds unwritten “And you know what he did, he laughed. He just walks out of the lunch, doesn’t say a word.”
  • We don’t know what’s wrong yet, but we see he’s in group therapy and his therapist says “Mark, I know you’ve suffered a terrible loss. Maybe you want to talk about that?” to which he responds, “I don’t talk about that.” Soon we’ll see a flashback to his brother jumping off a roof while still on a cell phone call with Mark.
  • He’s clearly a righteous crusader against bad corporations (His wife later says, “You’re running around like you have to right every wrong in the world”) and he certainly knows how to dominate a room.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

31 Days of Believe Care Invest: Little Women

Four very different sisters lament that they can’t afford Christmas presents, with their father off serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. They act out a silly play written by Jo, the tomboy of the group (In 2020, Jo would almost certainly be a trans man, but I don’t want to impose a pronoun on her that she didn’t ask for, so I’ll stick with she/her for the purpose of this piece.) 

Why Jo might be hard to identify with: Jo is pretty delightful, so no real reason. (James’s brother-in-law just did a sweet-sixteen tourney of beloved children’s characters and Jo beat Hermione for the championship.)

  • Like Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet, Jo is selfish about her reading: “‘I agree not to expect anything from Mother or you, but I do want to buy ‘Undine and Sintran’ for myself. I've wanted it so long,’ said Jo, who was a bookworm.”
  • Alcott finds many opportunities to contrast the four girls with each other. By the end of this chapter, they already feel like family to us. The first example is the first four paragraphs:
    • “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug
    • “It's so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
    • “I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
    • “We've got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
  • The next example:
    • Meg announced, as if the idea was suggested by the sight of her own pretty hands, “I shall give her a nice pair of gloves.”
    • “Army shoes, best to be had,” cried Jo.
    • “Some handkerchiefs, all hemmed,” said Beth.
    • “I’ll get a little bottle of cologne. She likes it, and it won't cost much, so I'll have some left to buy my pencils,” added Amy.
  • And here’s another:
    • The girls flew about, trying to make things comfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea table, Jo brought wood and set chairs, dropping, over-turning, and clattering everything she touched. Beth trotted to and fro between parlor kitchen, quiet and busy, while Amy gave directions to everyone, as she sat with her hands folded.
  • Everybody’s family role is very clear. They’ve got classic four-way polarization: Meg is head, Beth is heart, Jo is spleen, and Amy is stomach/cocky, but they’re not strongly polarized. Ultimately, each is fairly three-dimensional.
  • Alcott, who, like Jo, got her start writing pulpy adult stories, flat out tells us she resents having to describe the setting and the girls, but nonetheless does a masterful job of it. She says to us, “As young readers like to know ‘how people look’, we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within… Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful.”
  • Jo’s too poor for Christmas gifts, her father is off at war, and her sisters are starting to outgrow her beloved plays (“‘I don’t mean to act any more after this time. I’m getting too old for such things,’ observed Meg”)
  • Alcott has written a very autobiographical novel, but moved it ten years forward in time because wartime is a more harrowing setting.
  • Jo’s sisters are more girly, but she feels things more intensely then they do. When her mother reads a letter from their father, she hides behind the chair so the others won’t see her cry.
  • Alcott tells us, “Her long, thick hair was her one beauty”. Then, of course, she will feel compelled to cut it off and sell it to help her father. Give your hero one gift, and then make them sacrifice it.
  • For whatever reason, everybody loves a klutzy heroine. I guess we all feel that way sometimes and naturally identify with it.
  • Jo’s oddball writing talents delight everyone including us, given what we hear of the play. “Then things went smoothly, for Don Pedro defied the world in a speech of two pages without a single break. Hagar, the witch, chanted an awful incantation over her kettleful of simmering toads, with weird effect. Roderigo rent his chains asunder manfully, and Hugo died in agonies of remorse and arsenic, with a wild, ‘Ha! Ha!’” We can tell she’s born to entertain, but undisciplined as a writer.
  • We love heroes with sharp eyes. We can tell that this is an autobiographical novel and that all of this acuity is Jo’s own.
Strength / Flaw: Sharp eyes / Rude

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Annotation Project: Little Women

One of my favorite books! Download this here. BCI tomorrow!