Thursday, May 13, 2010

Snow Cake

Alex Hughes had a fling with a girl named Rebecca a long time ago. A son was born of that fling, a son Alex never knew. Then, years later, he found out, and he arranged to meet his son for dinner at a restaurant in London Alex had never married, and there would probably be no other children, so he waited for his only offspring with great anticipation. But his son never came. He had been killed by a motorist while crossing the street. An enraged Alex found the errant driver, hit him, and knocked him down. The motorist died, and Alex was sentenced to several years in prison for manslaughter. He serves his time and is released, but the totality of the experience leaves him a desolate man, with little to live for.

Desperate for some kind of closure, Alex searches for Rebecca and finds that she is living in Winnipeg. So he sets out for Winnipeg, not by the most direct route, but by flying from London to Toronto, renting a car, and setting out overland for Manitoba.

All this takes place before the movie opens. You will find it out, piecemeal, but I am not spoiling the story by telling you that much. The movie is called Snow Cake. It was made in 2006. It was written by Angela Pell and directed by Marc Evans. And almost nobody has ever heard of it.

Which is a shame, because it’s an engrossing, well written, brilliantly acted story about what happens to Alex Hughes on the way to Manitoba. To tell you more would be wrong, because it is a story best appreciated when you don’t know what’s coming next.

The leading roles are played by Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver. Emily Hampshire is memorable in a key supporting role. The movie cost petty cash to make and was filmed in about a month. In the era of mega-movies, Snow Cake reminds us that a good story, well acted and well written, need not cost a fortune. The corollary is that a $100 million movie without a good story well told can be a turkey. Some years ago, as we left the theater after seeing Titanic, Jill summed it up thus: “There were 1500 people on that ship, and they couldn’t find a story better than that?”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Strange Times

Here’s the deal: You buy a one-year Treasury bill that will pay you $100,000 at maturity. It costs you $99,952 (T bills are prediscounted). Your broker charges you $60 to execute the transaction. Since the fee exceeds the interest, you have actually lost money for your trouble.

Or try this: You invest $100,000 in one of Fidelity’s government money market funds. After a month goes by, you check your account and find that in return for the use of your $100,000 you have earned the grand sum of one dollar.

Now you see why, despite the dreadful economic numbers, the stock market keeps climbing. There are, for most people, only three reservoirs available for storing wealth: stocks, bonds, and real estate. Real estate, long regarded as a sure-fire investment, is now poison. Bonds pay next to nothing unless you accept high risk or go long-term. So it’s back to the stock-market casino. The CNBC anchors tell you that the economic numbers are not dreadful at all, ignoring (1) the unemployment rate, (2) the national debt, (3) the budget deficit, and (4) the balance of trade.

There is another reason for the Dow’s ascent: If you are a wealthy European, do you really want your money sitting in pounds or francs or lira? No, so you buy dollar-denominated assets. You tell yourself that your wealth is safe in the U.S. because the U.S. is too big to fail. (Where have we heard that before?)

Buying stocks of good companies is not stupid. If you are worried that eventually runaway inflation will eat you alive, consider this: If you buy one share of Apple stock, you own one 910-millionth of the Company. Now, assuming that Apple doesn’t have to sell more stock ($23 billion in the bank says they won’t) you will still own one 910-millionth of the Company no matter what happens to the dollar. So, in a sense, Apple is an inflation hedge. The same can be said of other companies that have strong balance sheets and good growth prospects. Alas, there aren’t many companies that make it through that filter. And remember, some respected economists say that deflation, not inflation, is the more likely danger.

These are strange times, the strangest I’ve seen in a half century of market-watching. The federal government is selling zillions of short-term bills and notes at zero cost. Banks can get almost as good a deal, thanks to the Fed. Borrowing at less than 1 percent and lending at, say, 6 percent is nice work if you can get it.

It reminds me of an old joke about the fellow who shows up at his school’s reunion in a private helicopter, much to the surprise of his classmates who remember him as the dumbest kid in school, especially in mathematics.

“How on earth did you amass such wealth?” one classmate asks him.

“It was easy,” he answered. “I make these gadgets for 1 cent and I sell them for 5 cents, and you’d be amazed at how that 4 percent adds up.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Clarence and Melissa

a short short story

Clarence looked up from his New York Times and asked, “Melissa, must you sing during breakfast? It’s really quite annoying.”

“Sorry, father,” Melissa said. Melissa was 19 and a sophomore in college, home for the Christmas holidays. She had been singing a popular song unknown to her father (or to most people of his generation). In fact, Melissa’s knowledge of the lyrics was spotty, so that at key parts of the narrative (if there was one), she drifted into “la la di dum dum.” Clarence’s objections could be summarized thus: first, her voice was flat or sharp (he couldn’t tell which, but he suspected it was both, if such a thing were possible); second, she sang everything fortissimo, if not fortississimo, which was like getting a generous helping of bad food; third, her repertoire was limited to songs written in the last six months. no Kern, no Rodgers, no Gershwin. If he asked her who wrote a song she was singing, she would say something like The Bad Boys or Crazy Red Poles or The Hairy Grape.

One should add that Melissa was very serious about her singing. At college, while she had the good sense not to enlist in the glee club or one of the many a capella groups on campus, she did join the Dramatic Club, where she had small parts in their undertakings. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, she played Algernon’s manservant Lane, a role recrafted as a female for this production. In these efforts Melissa was quite adequate, because she was given no opportunity to sing. But she enjoyed singing, more than she enjoyed anything else in life.

Clarence was a patient man, and his outburst at breakfast was unusual. Clarence’s wife had died the year before, and he had not yet learned how to be both parents. Clarence was still in his forties, an age that invited thoughts of exploring new social frontiers, but there was no hurry. His work as a lawyer kept him busy, and then there was Melissa, an only child. Beautiful Melissa, with her mother’s eyes.

“I’m sorry to be sharp with you, Melissa,” he said. “I know you like your music.”

“Maybe we could do something musical together,” she said. “You know, go to a concert, maybe.”

The word “concert” struck terror into his heart. He knew what young people meant by concerts, and it was not Rachmaninoff. Still, it was an opening he could not resist,

“Sure,” he said. “Pick something out and we’ll go.”

And so it was that father and daughter went to a concert give by a touring group of Irish singers, 20 in all, young men and young women, singing Celtic and contemporary pop songs. Clarence was greatly impressed by their musicianship, and Melissa was so taken with the concert that she sang two or three songs over and over as they drove home.

“That was a very good show,” father said to daughter. “Didn’t you think so?”

“Oh, yes, Dad. I’d love to join a group like that.”

“Well,” he said doubtfully, it probably takes a lot of time, which is something you don’t have much of these days.”

“Not during the school year,” she said earnestly, “but summers I could find time. This summer I’ll look for some job where I can sing. What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Clarence said guardedly. Maybe you could try out for something in summer stock. On the Cape, maybe.” It wouldn’t do to discourage her from singing, but he might encourage her to study acting. Or set design or costumes or props. Anything but singing.

And so, after Clarence talked to a friend who summered at Chatham, he found a friend of that friend who knew the man who ran a summer theater on the Cape, and Melissa was taken on as an acting apprentice. She was ecstatic about her good fortune and above ecstatic when she was given a nonspeaking part in The Most Happy Fella, the first production on the summer’s schedule. Actually, she told her father on the phone, she was a member of a crowd, but they all were to join in a chorus of “Abbondanza!” She was going to SING! Hearing this, Clarence hoped the chorus was a large one.

Clarence drove down to the Cape for opening night, and noted that Melissa’s singing was not only drowned out but that she was positively aglow on the stage. Was it fatherly pride, or was Melissa the most involved person in every scene, reacting with intelligence and energy? Maybe, he chuckled to himself, she was born to be the greatest actress-in-a-crowd-scene who ever lived.

The next summer, the summer after her junior year, she returned to the Playhouse, and was given small parts in all five productions - two musicals and three straight plays. The leads were all taken by members of Actor’s Equity, and one of them gave Melissa the name of a voice coach who summered in Hyannis, and soon thereafter Melissa was singing scales at the home of the coach, a woman of Wagnerian proportions and an intimidating demeanor.

“You want to sing for a living?” the woman asked incredulously.

“Yes, I do, very much,” said Melissa.

“Mmmmm.” the woman said. “Your voice is strong. But it is also flat.”

“Flat?” Melissa said, as if her questioner were speaking Swahili.

“Flat. It is, to be blunt, painfully flat.”

“Can you teach me to sing?” Melissa asked urgently, so urgently that the coach was moved.

“I will give you two lessons. Then we will decide.”

In the life of every success there is a moment that serves as a hinge of fate. If it swings one way, opportunity follows opportunity. If it swings the other way, there is nothing but failure and frustration. Melissa’s hinge swung providentially when Madam Domine said, “I will give you two lessons.”

At the first lesson, Madame Domine taught Melissa to sing softly. Her normal voice was loud, and her natural flatness was amplified a thousandfold. “When we eliminate the flatness – if we can – then you will learn to modulate. And then, and only then, can you open up again."

Melissa worked – hard – all the next week, on exercises she had been given, and at the second lesson, Madame Domine was startled to hear the flatness all but gone. She was witnessing the triumph of determination over nature. The girl’s ears and vocal chords were the same as they were the week before, but where there had been noise, now there was music. The coach was intrigued – no, challenged, just as Henry Higgins was challenged by Eliza Doolittle. The lessons would continue.

By now you must have guessed the ending of our little story. Melissa graduated from college and then moved to New York to start her assault of Broadway. While at home, she rarely sang, and she did not mention her voice lessons to Clarence, who attended several plays at the Playhouse, mostly straight plays in which Melissa had small parts.
He realized that her ambition burned as ardently as ever, and he bankrolled one summer’s expenses in New York. By the end of the summer, he was sure, she would return to Boston, a sadder but wiser Broadway Baby.

But Melissa’s voice had lost its flatness and was now strong and true and ready for prime time. There were auditions, but not many before the word got around: Here was a comer. First, she was an understudy to the second lead. Then she won the lead in a road company of She Loves Me, scheduled to open in Boston. By this time she had told Clarence about her voice lessons, and he was mildly interested. Now she phoned him to say there would be two tickets at the Colonial box office in his name on opening night, and that she was playing THE LEAD!

Clarence brought along a woman who was an attorney at his law office, and they settled into their fourth-row seats. On stage, Melissa was dazzling, and by the time Amalia Balash (her character) sang “Dear Friend,” tears were rolling down his cheeks. Later, when her unmiked voice filled the theater with “Ice Cream,” he was dumbfounded. Where did she get that voice?

After the show, in her dressing room, he repeated the question. “Where did you ever get that voice?”

“Is that your way of saying I was pretty bad before?”


That’s okay, Dad, I know I was awful. But I had two things that made all the difference. I must have gotten them from you and Mom.”

“And they were?”

“Determination and persistence, Dad. Without them, talent isn’t enough. With them, a little talent can take you a long way in this business,”

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Day the Dow Dropped 1000

At one time today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 1000 points. Then it rallied and finished the day down 300-plus. Several factors were listed by the evening pundits: the situation in Greece, a couple of glitches (including a trader’s entering an order for a billion dollars when he meant a million!), and general market nervousness. The three Gs, we'll call them: Greece, Glitches, and Gloom.

First, Greece: The TV screens were filled all day with scenes of phalanxes of Athens policemen facing off against mobs, made up mostly of public-sector union members. When a government is threatened with bankruptcy (as Greece surely is) and must resort to an austerity program, public-sector employees are high on the cut list, because their unions have demanded and won outsized pay and benefit packages over the years.

In this country it is no different, and when the federal government and the states bite the bullet and declare their own austerity programs, the public-sector employees will take to the streets. (The private sector, presumably, will be at work.) The new governor of New Jersey, squeezed by his State’s miserable finances, spells out the stakes: A 49-year-old public-sector retiree in New Jersey will get $3.8 million in pension and health benefits despite having paid only $124,000 for them. “Is that fair?” he asks. The unions no doubt would answer with a resounding “Yes!”

General Motors illustrates where such largesse leads you, but if you don’t sell cars, you don’t have a job, whereas you will always need teachers, policemen, firemen, and social workers. Only maybe not so many of them, as Greece will now find out.

Glitches: Computers are a wonderful thing, but is the power to buy or sell a million shares at a click of a mouse a good thing? Trading regulations have not caught up to technology, and until it does, we need circuit breakers. Remember them? It used to be that whenever the Dow fell by 250 points, all trading was stopped for some period of time (10 minutes, I think). We are in an era where speed is all. Today's Times has a long article bemoaning the fact that a Red Sox – Yankees game averages about 3-1/2 hours. So what? The game starts at 7, and 10:30 is hardly an ungodly hour to head home, especially if the game is exciting, as most Sox – Yanks games are. Similarly, would the world end if it took 10 seconds to trade a stock, rather than a microsecond?

Gloom: It is true that most stock-market traders are worried. They are worried about their jobs, about the chance of terrorist attacks, about the national debt. But underlying everything they are mindful that their government is not on their side. The President rails against “fat-cat” bankers, dishonest insurance companies, and Wall Street bonuses. Watching Congress questioning the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, etc. is like watching the lions devouring Christians. The starting assumption in most public debate these days is this: The people managing your money are a bunch of crooks, and we’re going to get them, by gum.

If you have money to invest and believe this, you will not invest it in the stock market. You will put it under your mattress.

Life is still comfortable for most people in the United States because of the flywheel effect. For decades – from the Second World War to about 1990 – we had the most productive, enterprising, dynamic economic engine in human history. That engine is still spinning, but it is slowing down, like a flywheel deprived of its power. Unless we quickly resuscitate the risk-taking spirit and start cheering for those who create wealth instead of beating them up, the flywheel will stop, and Washington will resemble Athens.