28 February 2009

Man On Wire: Tightropes and Slippery Slopes

I recently had the pleasure of watching Man On Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary about French tightrope performer Philippe Petit and his 1974 walk between the two World Trade Center towers. What a remarkable story.

What is remarkable, however, is not the walk itself--though I imagine if I suddenly found myself on a rope above a 1400 foot canyon I would have more reverence for the act--but the logistics involved in making it happen. In a past life, Philippe Petit could have been a classic bank robber, evading authorities like Bonnie and Clyde.

Previously, I had only been vaguely aware of Petit's feat. Knowing virtually nothing of the facts, I naively assumed that all the appropriate forms had been filled out and all the insurance paid up. Nothing of the sort. This was, simply put, a heist. And an ingenious one at that. After its opening in 1972, Petit and his friends spent countless guileful hours at the World Trade Center, observing comings and goings, studying blueprints, developing passable alternate identities, and collecting a small posse of unlikely accomplices to abet their wonderfully devious cause.

The film works so well because it plays to the strengths of the story: it is a movie about scheme and subterfuge, rather than a tightrope walk. It is a real-world Italian Job, and is presented as such. There is no dryness here, no uninspired narration, just suspense and fun throughout.

Perhaps predictably, the day of the event (August 7th 1974) was about overcoming unforeseen obstacles. The morning weather was less than perfect. The group had spent the night trying to haul the equipment to the two roofs, but Petit's sortie had the misfortune of ending up on a deserted floor with a security guard who had decided to stay there for the night. Petit lay concealed under a tarp, completely still, for hours.

One of the story's most amazing aspects is the ingenious way the team got the high wire across the void. It was achieved by--and this is just fantastic--a bow and arrow, tied to a fishing wire. After stringing the line across, they tied a slightly heavier line to that, and then a small rope, and then a heavier rope, and so on, until the weight of the steel cable could be supported. A complex problem, an elegantly simple solution.

The crossing itself was not so much a tightrope walk as a performance. Petit balanced on one foot, on one knee, he layed flat on the wire; he crossed eight times. The film has already shown us his charismatic personality, and so we are not surprised by his showmanship. He speaks poetically about the crossing; to him it is stage. He is a performer: "My objective was to venture through the negative space offered by the two towers and discover what kind of ephemeral, improvised theater I could write in the sky. Why did I cross eight times? . . . I was called by the towers, by the void, by my instinct to perform one more crossing . . . and one more . . . and one more . . ."

After forty-five minutes conquering physics, he steps onto the south tower, and is of course arrested. He would later be 'sentenced' to perform for the children of New York (which he does, in Central Park).

Upon his release, instead of finding his friends--who had traveled from all over the world and helped him overcome seemingly insurmountable odds--and his girlfriend Annie--who had supported him since their teens and had given up most of her dreams for the realization of his--he ended up sexually engaged with a random admirer who had offered to 'celebrate' with him. Annie and the others tried to call him, to contact him, but he pretended he had press conferences that were keeping him busy. The film does not preach on the ills of celebrity, but the result of his actions are implicitly clear. His friends were hurt--to this day they bear the scars and are seen to get emotional thinking of the incident in the interviews--but it did not matter to Petit, who had just walked on air at the top of the world. Such is, I suppose, the price of instant fame.

Finally, the movie excels at reminding us of the majesty of the towers, but does so while avoiding poignancy or descending into unnecessary tributes. Rightfully so: there is no homage here. There is simply no need. Instead, we are treated to dramatic views from 120 stories above Manhattan. Photographs show Phillippe and his friends atop the roof on their many reconnaissance missions. They are fooling around, sitting on the edge, precariously balancing above an unfathomable precipice. These still frames almost enticed me to shout at the screen. Get away from the edge! What kind of a person is this? How can he be so fearless (or is it foolhardy?). It really takes some stepping back and considering: it's one thing to watch a documentary about this feat, to maintain an interested detachment in something so astounding as to be intangible, but imagine actually doing it. Imagine that first step.

And of course, imagine the size of those buildings.

Let's be frank: 1 and 2 World Trade Center were not the prettiest buildings in the world. They were what can only be described as 1960s Utilitarian Chic, and when they were built, many in the public considered them downright ugly. But in spite of this, they were royalty. They ruled the skyline and represented continuing advancement in engineering and Western technology. The name World Trade Center--now synonymous with terrorism and conflict--then affirmed New York as a city seated on the throne of global commerce and integration.

And Philippe Petit gave us a view from the top.

23 February 2009

How To Bankrupt Your Country And Influence People - A Beginner's Guide

I am a registered Layperson. I am not an economist. And I was, for a long time, shamefully ignorant of the complex workings of Modern Money. I still have a lot to learn, but I've been doing a little bit of research into the mess we're collectively in, and I've been trying to frame it in a way that my fellow Laypeople and I can understand. And so, I give you:

How To Bankrupt Your Country And Influence People - A Beginner's Guide

You too can use housing as a convenient means to send rich and poor alike scrambling to George Bailey's Building & Loan! Just follow these 25 easy steps!

1) Remember that investors are always looking for The Perfect Investment.
2) Remember that sex sells.
3) Have your Federal Reserve lower interest rates on safe government bonds and whatnot, effectively discouraging people from putting their money there. It's just not sexy enough.
4) Combine steps 1 - 3. Investors will stumble upon the city upon a hill, the whited sepulchre: housing. Housing is wonderful because everyone wants a house, and no one has the money to just BUY one, so they have to get loans. Furthermore, these banking types won't be able to remember a time when housing prices weren't going up. Right? Well, can YOU? I'm pretty sure it's always been increasing. Ask the secretary.
5) Refer to step 2. Chunks of mortgage interest are much sexier than Boring Old Bonds.
6) Banks will issue mortgages to people. Investment firms will buy lots of them from said banks. Presto! Safe and long term streams of income from people paying for their lovely homes every month. Chop this nice bundle up and sell it as shares to investors.
7) Even better, if people CAN'T pay their bills, the banks will have beautiful homes on their hands which will be worth more than gold, because the housing market never falters. We agreed on that, right?
8) It's a miracle drug! Demand will be insatiable! And a fun bit of serendipity: lawnmower sales will go through the roof!
9) Investors will want to buy more, and firms will need to come up with the goods, which means more mortgages will need to be given out. Hmmm. Bit of a puzzler this one.

. . . Ahh yes! I have it!

10) Give more people more loans. Begin to slowly lower your standards. It doesn't matter if people have fewer and fewer qualifications for them because . . .
a) This won't be like the old days. You won't really be dealing with this guy's mortgage for 25 years, because mortgages are being bought and sold like common stock. Transience = less responsibility. Loan away.
b) Other companies are going to approve that guy you just laughed out of the building. Are you really going to give up a sale to them? Where did you go to business school? The Carrboro Co-op? This is the real world! MAKE THAT SALE!
c) The mortgage brokers will get their money based on the loans they give, not on the payments the homeowners make, so their incentive will not hinge on being realistic. Don't even ask that client how much he makes . . . you'll only be disappointed. Ahh yes, much better. $500,000 sounds about right to me, too.
11) Standby for the teachers' pets to come out of the woodwork and question all of this. Have your rebuttals ready:
a) "The credit raters are saying these piles of mortgages are AS SAFE as that lame-o bond you bought from the Feds! Credit doesn't lie!"
b) "Damn the torpedoes! Everyone's doing it, so there must be something to it!"
12) Meanwhile, in another part of town, the actual people in the houses will be ancillary to all this trading and fun. No one will pay attention to them. Anyway, owning your very own home is the American Dream, when last I checked. They won't make a peep.
13) A catch, however: these people were never going to be able to pay up. So they won't.
14) People will start to get kicked out of the lovely houses. There will be a slight problem with this, as having all these gorgeous pieces of The Dream on the market sure do drive prices down. But wait . . . prices going down? Something doesn't add up. Did the secretary lie to us?
15) People facing foreclosure will start to take out loans they can't pay back, from companies with fun names like WaMu, to pay for the mortgages they can't pay.
16) Reality will start to set in. Now you're cooking with Crisco!
17) Somebody in a very tall building on Wall Street will decide the best plan is to stop giving loans to the unworthy.
18) The smaller banks, (in smaller buildings, not on Wall Street. More likely on Your Street), will have lots of mortgages from people that didn't deserve them and ain't payin'. Oh dear! They were going to sell them to the big credit and investment fellows on Wall Street who, as we learned in step 17, suddenly ain't buyin'.
19) The brokers and small banks will fall on their own swords and go under.
20) The large firms with the fun names will also be stuck. Not the least because they've been loaning people money to pay off loans they couldn't pay on houses they won't be able to keep. Soon, it will seem as though the money everyone had been having a grand ol' time with just does not exist.
21) The downtrodden masses will seek to renegotiate their loans. Unfortunately their leases are diluted by having too many proverbial cooks in the kitchen, and lots of cooks = too many to get any flexibility.
22) In an interesting twist of fate, the remaining companies will be 'once bitten twice shy' and now won't lend to anybody, under any circumstances, ever. Bad news for those who would have qualified in the old days. And for businesses who depend on loans to run. And for car manufacturers, who can't get people to buy anymore because they don't have the money. And for the service industry, which has fewer people to serve. And for all of the infrastructure and labor that makes all of the above possible, which suddenly has fewer people to supply. And for purveyors of
pretty much any 'luxury' item that isn't food. It's a chain reaction, you see.
23) Remember the good old days?
24) Those low-interest bonds are looking mighty good right now, eh?
25) And . . . you're destitute! National crisis seems imminent. Enter the federal government, hopefully to save the day. They can fix this, right? Ask the secretary.

Congratulations! If you've followed this 25-step guide very closely, then you've successfully driven your economy into the ground. Try it at home and impress your friends!

21 February 2009

Of Mice And Mayberry

Just when you start to think that America is four thousand miles of homogeny, a dish of vanilla ice cream topped with Walmart and Wendy's, something comes along to surprise you, to prove you wrong. Such was my thought yesterday, when I found myself in Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Mount Airy was the inspiration for
The Andy Griffith Show's Mayberry, and this small Southern community makes no secret of it. There's Opie's Candy Shop, Barney's Cafe, Aunt Bea's Restaurant. There on the left is Floyd's Barber Shop, across from the Mayberry Five & Dime. It is, needless to say, themed.

It's a gimmick, I thought, as I drove in on the Andy Griffith Parkway. It'll be contrived, a mini-Disney World cashing in on its vague connection to a fictional American idyll. I would later feel guilty for my skepticism.

The first clue that something here was different came when I stepped into a small consignment and souvenir shop. I needed to buy a Mayberry mug and send it home immediately. This was my shallow tourist mission, and I was fixed on my goal. Upon opening the door, I was hit with a wave of stale nicotine-laden air, and a twangy--but very genuine-sounding--
word of welcome by the shopkeeper. I selected an appropriate vessel, and approached the register, where there was a small crowd lined up to pay--or so I thought.

"I'll ring'y'up, honey," she said, beckoning me to skip the people ahead. Reality slowly set in.
These people aren't in line at all . . . They made a trip to this consignment shop to socialize. They all know each other. What kind of a place is this?

I decided to get a bite to eat; Barney's Cafe looked suitable. Compared to the sleepy main street, this diner seemed positively bustling. Photographs of Don Knotts and artistic charcoal sketches of a young Ron Howard adorned the walls. I could feel eyes following me through the room as I found a seat; I was not from around here.

People would look over and smile at me. I could hear snippets of conversation. The waitress said to one gentleman, "later than usual, Jack! We thought you weren't going to come in today!" This was The Routine for these people. This was Mayberry.

I didn't fit in here, as much as I would have wanted to. I stared intently at my plate, and made it halfway through the meal before I heard a gentle voice from two tables away: "Where are you from, young man?"

This serene, grey-haired man wore a blue healthcare volunteer vest, proudly adorned with various patches from local organizations. He sat at a table alone, sipping on coffee from a Mayberry mug. He had gone to Wake Forest when it was
in Wake Forest, he told me. That was a long time ago. We talked about Florida, about North Carolina, about the four seasons and the coast. I had to go to Ocracoke, he insisted. "Take the ferry over from Hatteras." I told him I would.

When he had finished his coffee, he rose from his chair, tucked his newspaper under his arm, and made his way to the back of the restaurant. I watched as he worked his way forward, systematically saying goodbye to everyone in the room. They responded in kind; these were all friends bidding adieu to friends. When he reached me, he warmly said, "it was nice talking to you. It's good to have you here." He meant it.

When I was finished I made my way to the till, credit card in hand. It was met with an apologetic look. Surely, I thought, there can't still be places untouched by the tentacles of the Visa network? But there are, and here I was, standing in a diner forty years back in time. I scrambled to produce any bills I had. It wasn't enough.

"Don't worry about it, sweetie," said the waitress. This was preposterous. I was $0.70 short of the cost of the meal, let alone leaving a tip. It didn't matter to her at all. She insisted that it wasn't a problem in the slightest, as if people came in here and ate for free all the time.

Riddled with guilt, I ran back to my car (behind the Mayberry Soda Fountain: Homemade Shakes and Malts) and scrounged enough quarters to cover my sins. Running back into Barney's, the waitress shook her head at me.

"I really wish you hadn't done that, honey. It's far too cold out there for you to be running back and forth."

As I merged back onto Andy Griffith Parkway, heading out of town, I reflected. Here was a place where there was no reason not to smoke in your shop: your customers are all your friends. A place where it didn't really matter if you paid for your meal, as long as you kept yourself warm. There was no gimmick here, no manufactured charm. Mount Airy wasn't emulating Mayberry. Mount Airy WAS Mayberry. And I bet there are hundreds of Mayberrys scattered over the map, places where you can talk to anybody, you're welcome anywhere, where you can get a malt from the Soda Fountain before catching a movie on one of the two screens downtown.

I suppose you've got to peel back the layers of big box stores and cookie-cutter chains. Those places don't define America, not completely. In many cases, just below the surface, you'll find unadulterated character.
The Andy Griffith Show aired forty years ago, and while it was fictional, it was based on a reality that is still captured in time, if you know where to look. We in the cities and suburbs tend to forget that.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a souvenir mug to put in the mail.

20 February 2009

The Obligatory Statement of Purpose

This text exists in a vacuum. It is public, available, free. But I fully expect that it will never be read by any other person Of Woman Born, save a few accidental clicks by people who have lost their way.

It is a tree falling in an empty forest: anonymous, and bordering on theoretical.

And in that way, it's just like the vast majority of all the blogs that exist.

Since the beginning, man has been an opinionated creature, and more importantly, has harbored a deep need to share his opinions with others. After all, what's the point of an opinion if it never leaves the mind that formed it? Again, trees in the forest. Whether or not the opinions are well-constructed or rash, thoughtful or crude, progressive or bigoted, there is a vague sense that other people are interested in them.

The problem: no one is interested in them, no one wants to hear it. They've got their own, thank you very much. Actually, it's not that simple. Everyone has a circle of friends, loved ones, family, that will gladly exchange views and have healthy debates. But outside that friendly cluster, it's just drops in an ocean.

Which brings us to the internet.

The internet is a remarkable development; it allows anyone to be connected with anyone else. Many words have been written about how great that is, so I don't need to elaborate. BUT, the internet has more or less given everyone a universal forum to publish their opinions, whether anyone asked for them or not. "Vlogs" are even worse . . . it's mostly people staring at the camera saying "today they gave me the curly fries. I really think that the shoestring kind are better. Yeah . . . I wish they'd have given me the shoestring instead of the curly." And then someone with a very basic grasp on spelling will call them a VERY offensive and vulgar name in the comments box underneath.

There's a lot of hot air on the internet, in other words. Media figures on CNN trying to be trendy and saying "let's check the blogosphere!" doesn't help.

It was this very reality that kept me from writing a blog for years. I'd been incubating the idea for some time, because I enjoy writing and venting (sometimes) and it seemed like a good outlet. But I realize that I'm just another very opinionated person whose two cents nobody needs. In public and with people I care about, I've tried to curb giving my opinions, because they're unneeded. But I shall express them here, and I shall try not to be pretentious doing it. This is not a journal. I don't need to write about curly fries. I want to write about things that are interesting, things that matter, things that are constructive or have some cause to help or to enrich. Blogs that strive for that are great: an inexpensive means of expressing and connecting.

So these are my thoughts, take them or leave them. I know almost everyone will choose "leave them." And that's fine. But this blog will hopefully be about worthwhile things.

And that makes all the difference.