25 February 2009

How Stimulus Worked for the Dittes Family

I'm just so proud of the job that President Obama is doing, and I appreciated his handling of the stimulus debate. Seeing right-wingers (the very ones who drove our nation to the verge of bankruptcy with eight years of mismanagement) get completely unhinged at the idea of spending was quite fun indeed.

Why am I not terrified at the thought of "spending"? Why am I not tearing my hair out and screaming "socialist, socialist!" at the thought of doing something to help my own country?

It's probably because I've been through an economic crisis in my time, and I have seen for myself how stimulus works.

It was 2003. Jonah had just been born. Jenny tried to return to work after maternity leave, only to learn that she had been replaced. Shortly thereafter, I was fired from my job. Oh yeah, at six weeks of age, Jonah ended up at Vanderbilt Medical Center. I sold my pickup truck to pay for three months of family health insurance. Thank God we had that.

The first job Jenny took was with a new doctor at an inferior rate of pay. Once I lost my job, we knew that she needed something new. She signed on with a new doc, who paid better, but whose practicing philosophy was a polar opposite to what Jenny wanted to do.

One year later, Jenny was ready to quit. I had found a part-time job teaching, but we still weren't out of a financial rut. Jenny had a dream of starting up her own clinic--a non-profit clinic that could treat patients the way she wanted them to be treated, and could provide care for those who couldn't find it elsewhere.

Where was the money coming from? We certainly didn't have the savings to start up a new business. The only option was debt--quite a bit of it.

Fortunately we had equity in our home. I didn't question it when the idea came out. I have complete faith in Jenny, and I knew that she would be successful, even if many of her prospective patients wouldn't be paying lots of cash. We took out a 2nd mortgage of $30,000. It was all or nothing.

Four years later, Jenny's clinic provides her with a good salary and employs 12 other people as well. Last March the clinic paid off the remainder of the debt it owed us, and it is free and clear. It was stimulus, plain and simple. It worked.

As I think about my country, I see a similar scenario. The USA is already in terrible financial shape, and $789 billion seemed tough to add to our debt in that situation, but we need new direction, we need something daring, and President Obama's plan could do that.

But this is more than about President Obama, who won 53% of the vote and whose approval ratings approach 70%. It is more about America. If we believe in her, we know that this crisis could be the beginning of greatness, just as the Great Depression launched the USA on the track toward superpower status.

If there is no stimulus in 2004 for the Dittes family, where would we be now? Who would have cared for the thousands of patients who have patronized Hope Family Health Services in the last 4 years? It's amazing, when you think about it.

15 February 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Will the Easter Story sweep the Oscars next Sunday? Will anyone notice?

It's mid-February, and I already have Easter on the mind.

Maybe it's a subconscious yearning for spring--although 60-degree temperatures here in Tennessee the past week haven't exactly been wintry. Maybe it's that my German class is preparing our first-ever celebration of Fastnacht/Karneval on Fat Tuesday, a week from tomorrow. It may be that I'm still preparing myself for Lent.

Hopefully it means that Christ's re-birth in me during our church's fantastic Advent season has carried through.

Valentine's Day swept by in a rush this year. My nephew's birthday is on Valentine's Day, and my sister's family came up from Georgia to celebrate. On Sunday afternoon, however, Jenny and I hired a baby-sitter and went to the movies--something we hadn't done since we saw
U23D together over a year ago. We chose Slumdog Millionaire.

Now glowing reviews have been posted everywhere, so it would seem reduntant to note how touching, triumphant or thrilling it is.  Driving home after the film, Jenny and I were amazed at how Christian it all was:  the story of Christ's Passion played out across the slums of Mumbai on a Calvary that looks an awful lot like the set of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Really?  This is stretching it, perhaps.  No doubt the production was made by secular Britons and Hindu Indians.  How can an Easter story come from such a source?

Because it is a story that is that great, that's why.

The story begins with torture.  Jamal Malik, a tea-server at an Indian call center, has finished the evening's show one question away from 20 million rupees.  He never finished the 2nd grade, lived in the slums all his life, yet he has managed to answer nine questions correctly.

Immediately after the taping, he is grabbed by police under suspicion of fraud.  Jamal is silent before his accusers, and the silence is broken in a remarkable scene.  Thinking he is unconscious, the two inspectors confer:
Police Inspector 1: Doctors... Lawyers... never get past 60 thousand rupees. He's won 10 million. [pause
Police Inspector 2: What can a slumdog possibly know? 
Jamal Malik: [awakequietly] The answers
Jamal and the inspector go through the previous evening's show, question by question.  Jamal's answers are explained by flashbacks.  I don't want to get too bogged down in detail, but I want to point out a few striking similarities.

Jamal grows up with his brother Salim in a Muslim slum.  Orphaned by a rioting Hindu mob, Jamal and Salim flee, followed tentatively by another orphan girl, Latika.  Salim, the eldest, at first refuses to let Latika join them, but Jamal persists, displaying a loyalty to her that matches his loyalty to his own brother.

Salim is Adam, Christ's brother.  Tempted by a cold Coca-Cola, he, Jamal and Latika leave their shelters in the dump to live with gangsters who use children to beg on the streets of Mumbai.  When Salim witnesses the gangsters' brutality to another child, he becomes Moses, leading Jamal and Latika out of the "orphanage," but only the boys get away.  Latika is left behind as the brothers sojourn throughout India.

Five years later they return on Jamal's volition.  He has to find Latika.  They find her in the red light district, a young twelve-year-old virgin being prepped by the gangster for a big payoff.  Selim becomes David versus The Gangster, and--after a night of drinking and violence--he becomes Nebuchadnezzar:  holding Latika captive in their hotel room, he points his revolver between his brother's eyes:  "Now get out!"  Jamal will stay--he's that determined--but Latika intervenes, closing the door and leaving Jamal alone.

The Jamal of the quiz show is five years older.  His job in the call center led him to reunite with Selim and find Latika, but they are out of his reach.  Latika is the consort of Mumbai's toughest gangster, and Selim is now Judas, the gangster's right-hand man.

When they meet, Jamal fantasizes about throwing his brother off the top of a building:
Salim: [Trying to explain why he never contacted Jamal after forcing him out of the hotel room.]  Left a message for you at work. 
Jamal Malik: There was no message. 
Salim: I definitely left a mess... 
Jamal Malik: There was no message! There was no message! *There was no message*! 
Jamal Malik: [Looks down at Salim starting to cry a little
Jamal Malik: I will never forgive you! 
Salim: I know. 
Jamal won't harm him.  Adam/Salim is his brother.  Besides, it isn't Salim he's returned for, it's Latika.  In the ultimate act of betrayal, Salim learns of Latika's plans to run away with Jamal.  In an intense scene, he grabs her at the railway platform--just as she has caught the attention of Jamal--forces her into a car, and gives her a long scar along the side of her jawbone.

That leads directly to Calvary/Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  The pharisaical show host, Prem Kumar, is contemptuous.  "This is my show," he screams in private.  To Jamal he gloats, "A few hours ago, you were giving chai for the phone walahs. And now you're richer than they will ever be. What a player!"  Jamal avoids the traps the host lays and outwits him at every turn.  

This exchange is particularly revealing in light of the Passion link.  The quiz show exchanges are fascinating in this new, calvary-centered paradigm.
Prem Kumar: Its getting hot in here. 
Jamal Malik: Are you nervous? 
Prem Kumar: [audience laughs] What? Am I nervous ? Its you who's in the hot seat, my friend! 
Jamal Malik: Yes, sorry.
The gospels don't show Jesus ever saying this to Annas (the Prem Kumar character), but history shows that  Annas indeed had more at stake than the man whose life was on the line.  It is important to point out that Jamal wasn't on the show to win twenty million rupees; he wanted to find Latika.  Why would he worry about a multiple-choice question in that scenario?

The final question opens the next evening's show.  All of India is watching.  Salim is Judas (you will see a 30-pieces-of-silver allusion).  He is also Peter, freeing Latika from the gangster's lair, giving her the keys to an SUV (ahem, another huge connection) and his cell phone.

Here's the how the final question plays out:
Prem Kumar: So are you ready for the final question for 20 million rupees? 
Jamal Malik: No, but maybe it is written, no? 
I was grinning at this point of the movie, Easter-lover that I am.  The faith that allowed Christ to conquer Calvary, uttered so simply, by a chai-wallah on an Indian game show.
Prem Kumar: Final question for twenty million rupees, and he's smiling. I guess you know the answer. 
Jamal Malik: Do you believe it, I don't! 
Prem Kumar: You don't? So you take the ten million and walk? 
Jamal Malik: No. I'll play. 

Which of the lifelines will Jamal use?  Millionaire fans know which lifeline is the last to be used:  phone a friend.  Salim's number rings...and rings...and rings...and rings..."Hello?"  

It isn't Salim; it is Mary Magdalene--no, it's me--OK, actually it's Latika.  She doesn't know the answer either.  But the answer doesn't matter to Jamal, neither do the twenty million rupees.  Latika answered.  All he has to do is climb down out of the Hot Seat (ahem) and reclaim his destined Bride.

The theater is full of Easter, and every eye is full of tears, but Jamal isn't done.  They meet in a garden that isn't Eden but an abandoned train platform.  I hear Resurrection whisper out of Latika's amazement:
Jamal Malik: I knew you'd be watching 
Latika: I thought we would meet only in death. 
Jamal Malik: This is our destiny 
Latika: Kiss me 
And for the final, perfect touch, Jamal bends down and kisses...Latika's scar!  It's a transcendant moment, full of redemption.  I wanted to stand up and cheer.  To a Christian, this symbolism is most wonderful--as wonderful as Easter.

In Slumdog Millionaire, the greatest story ever told has been told again--brilliantly, wonderfully.

A few more notes.  
  • Malik, the last name of Jamal/Jesus and Salim/Adam, is the Arab word for "king."  
  • The movie has a few scenes set in "heaven" before young Jamal's return to Mumbai to rescue Latika--I'll leave it to viewers to figure out which famous Indian place this is.
  • A month ago, Jenny and I watched Danny Boyle's breakthrough film, Trainspotting, on cable.  This really helped us to appreciate Boyle's work in Slumdog.  Both films are beautiful stories of redemption (Trainspotting chronicles a Scottish man's escape from heroin).  They are very, very gritty and dirty, too.  Both have a scene with a dirty toilet, which seems like a strange hallmark for Boyle.
  • If you're wondering, I got the quotes from the IMDB site for Slumdog Millionaire

01 February 2009

Mytherable: The Prettiest Golden Apple

Ellie and I were at contretemps: drama, misunderstanding, struggling for a way to communicate. Then she needed me. She came home with a social studies assignment: write a myth.

With every suggestion, she would complain, "No, no it will never work." Then she would burst into tears and say, "I can't do it, I can't do it!"

I decided to write a myth of my own. Experienced readers will recognized a little of the Judgment of Paris and Atalanta, but it got the point across. I'll share it here with you.

A couple of notes: yes, "Prettiest" is the nickname I have called Ellie ever since she could walk; also, feel free to read the details and pick out your own interpretations of Dittes family dynamics.

The gods were gathered, sipping nectar and laughing at the stories of Homer, when the door flung open and a package rolled down the colonnade to the base of Zeus’s throne.
As it came to a rest, the paper bundle magically unfolded to reveal a golden apple. Attached to the apple was a tag which read, “Prettiest.”

Zeus read the note and smacked his forehead. “Not again!” he groaned, thinking of the terrible war his daughter, Helen of Troy, had begun soon after the last golden apple had rolled through the halls of Mount Olympos.

“Who is it for?” asked Hermes. Without waiting, he leaned over and read the tag. “Prettiest!” he exclaimed. He looked at Zeus. “Who is that?”

“I think I know.” A lovely goddess got up from her bench and glided toward Zeus’s throne, smiling prettily and reaching out for the apple.

“Don’t even think about it Aphrodite,” said the goddess, Artemis. She had just gotten back from chasing deer through the Elysian Fields, and she hadn’t yet changed out of her jogging outfit. Even so, she seemed as fresh as a spring morning, and her golden braids were sprinkled with flower petals.

“I think it is mine.” Athena strode forward, her clear grey eyes glaring at the other two goddesses. Her fingers tapped ominously on the shaft of her spear.

The three goddesses glared at each other. Then they looked at Zeus. “You decide,” they demanded, almost as one.

Zeus laughed. “Oh no I won’t,” he said. “I won’t have any part of this. Do you think I want everyone on Olympos angry with me? Never!”

“Just give it to me,” Aphridite said. “No me!” Artemis replied.

“God of Thunder, if I may.” A short satyr approached the throne. “There is a dancing place in Tennessee. Huge slabs of concrete overlooking a spring, a burial place for the giant, Thorsys. A girl lives there. I have seen her. I hear that she is called, ‘Prettiest.’”

Athena glared at him with her grey eyes, fires glowed in the dark starburst around her pupils. “Well…is she…the Prettiest—I mean, this apple could be for her.”

The satyr stuttered. “No, your highness, she is nothing like you…except,” he paused reverently, “for her eyes. They are of your color—and passion.”

Artemis ran over to him. “You said she was the prettiest, didn’t you?” she growled, sounding almost like a hungry wolf.

“Compared to you, she is not,” the satyr continued, “But you should see her run—she is so fast, I dare say she could keep up with you.”

Artemis smiled. “Prettiest, prettiest, prettiest,” Aphrodite said, pursing her lips into a sweet smile. “Can she do this?” She stared at the satyr and blinked her eyelashes. The satyr felt his knees weakening and his pulse quicken.

“I dare say she comes close,” he said. He turned to Zeus. “I only mentioned this because I thought that she might serve as judge.”

Zeus pounded the arm rest of his throne. “Wonderful idea!” he said. He handed the golden apple to the satyr. “You shall be the keeper of this. Lead these goddesses to the dancing circle you spoke of, and the competition will begin. This girl, uh, Prettiest, sounds like the very judge we have been looking for.”

The satyr and the three goddesses were caught up in a cloud and taken far away to Tennessee. At that very moment, Ellie Dittes sat curled up on a couch reading a book. Her phone buzzed to life. Text message.

There on her screen was a golden apple avatar. She couldn’t take her eyes off of it. It was so beautiful.

The phone buzzed again. “Want it?” the message read.


“Back yard. Past the fire pit.”

Back yard? Ellie looked out the window. Leaves were blowing around the yard. A storm must have picked up. She put her book down and walked to the family room, looking out past the dogwood tree at the fire pit. Just beyond, she could see a cloud that seemed to glow with pink, purple and green lights.

Buzz. She looked down. The golden apple. Buzz. “RUCumin?”

Ellie opened the door and walked into the back yard. The cloud seemed to race toward her. Suddenly it enveloped her.

Ellie blinked and tried to shake some sense into her head. This was her back yard, all right, but the people were unlike anything she had ever seen. A satyr grinned up at her, perched on his fawn-like legs. Three beautiful women—one in a flowing dress, one in Greek battle armor, and one in a jogging suit—smiled sweetly at her.

“You are the one called, ‘Prettiest?’” the satyr asked her.

Ellie wrinkled her eyebrows. “That’s just a silly name my Daddy calls me,” she said. “I don’t really believe it. No one else calls me that.”

“I believe it,” said one of the women, whose grey eyes warmed her. “That Daddy of yours is a smart one.”

“Oh, it’s true,” said another. “I just love what you have done with your hair—and those clothes look so great on you. I bet all the boys are sweet on you.”

Not to be outdone, the woman in the jogging suit spoke up. “Prettiest in looks and deeds—I hear that you’re quite the athlete.”

“Thanks,” Ellie said. Under her breath she muttered, “I guess.”

The satyr looked at the women and then back at Ellie. “You will probably want to get right back to whatever it was that you were doing.” He paused.

“A book,” Ellie said. “I was reading a book, and I still have some homework to do.”

“Your book,” the satyr continued. “I just need a quick favor. It has to do with this.” He reached into a bag and pulled out the golden apple.

Ellie’s eyes grew wide, and she gasped in amazement. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen—nothing she had seen in the Louvre Atlanta or Boston Museum of Fine Arts could compare with its brilliance or craftsmanship! She read the tag, “Prettiest.”

“It’s not for you,” the satyr said, putting it back into his bag. “It’s for one of them. You get to decide who it belongs to. You could say it’s a contest. You’re the judge, Prettiest.”

Ellie looked at the women. They were all beautiful. “I don’t think I can make a decision like that,” she said.

Athena strode towards Ellie, put her arm around her shoulders, and turned her away from the others. “Let me make this easy for you,” she said. “I’m the Goddess of Wisdom. If you pick me, everything gets a lot easier. You will get the top grade in every class for the rest of your life—even math. You get a full scholarship to the university of your choice, whether it’s in Paris or New York or London, and you are guaranteed your dream job right after you graduate—valedictorian, of course. Just give me the golden apple.”

Ellie grinned. “Nice,” she said. “You said New York, right?”

Athena winked at her. “Nice eyes,” she whispered.

“Oh Ellie, let Auntie Artemis talk with you.” Ellie spun around and faced the goddess in the jogging suit. “Ellie, I can tell that you’re a winner, just by the look of you.”

Ellie nodded.

“I’m the Goddess of Girlhood,” Artemis continued. “Did you like the Olympics last summer? If you like winning, you like the Olympics, and I can help you get a gold medal…or three…or ten if you want. You will run and run, leaving everyone in your dust. And since I’m the Goddess of Girlhood, you’ll always be the BFF, you will never run out of friends.”

“Sweet,” Ellie explained.

“Sure it is,” Artemis giggled. “All you have to do is give me the golden apple. Let’s get together for lunch sometime. Where is your table at lunch?”

“Now Artemis run along.” Aphrodite strode up to Ellie. “It’s time for a woman-to-woman chat.”
Ellie’s lips lifted into a smile.

“Your lips are just beautiful,” Aphrodite said. “I would suggest a light pink lipstick—nothing too strong.”

“O….K….” Ellie said, expectantly.

“I already know what those two ninnies were talking to you about, so let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? Do you like any boys?”

Ellie grinned. “Sort of.”

“I’ll give you beauty that will knock their eyeballs out of their sockets. The boys won’t be able to resist you, my dear. You will never have a bad hair day, your body will be the perfect proportions at all times. Oh, and this….” Aphrodite pulled out a credit card. “Unlimited balance, but it can only be spent on clothes and accessories.”

Ellie reached out as if in a trance. “Give me….”

Aphrodite snatched it away. “Only if I get that golden apple.”

“That’s enough you three,” the satyr said. “You have all had your say. Now give Prettiest a chance to make up her mind.”

Ellie backed up until she was sitting on the steps outside the family room. The three goddesses stood under the dogwood tree. Ellie could hear them whisper.

“Think what your daddy is going to say when he sees your grades,” Athena said.
“Your name in lights,” Artemis whispered, “Ellie Dittes, USA!!!”

“I bet that boy is a cutie,” Aphrodite said, “He’s going to love the way you look.”
“Pick your Mama, she’s prettier than all of them combined.” Was that Daddy? What was he doing on the other side of the family room doors?

Ellie looked down at the golden apple. She tossed it in the air and caught it, admiring its brilliance. She had to decide, she just didn’t know which one….

Ellie, I think that this myth describes where you are in your life at this very moment. The golden apple you are holding is your life. It’s your future. You have so many demands, so many dreams, so many aspirations, and they are all calling to you, beckoning you, begging your allegiance. This is a stressful choice—very stressful, especially for someone with your natural talents and abilities.

Myths are wonderful tools to look at the things that might be causing you trouble. Giving these stressors a name and a face helps you to understand them better. Perhaps you could write an ending to this story yourself—or add gods and goddesses (religion, family, music, etc.) that I didn’t have time to include.

The greatest story that I know of is the one your life has written so far. It has travelled to the ends of the earth; it has experienced true loyalty and great turmoil. I am so proud of you—very, very, very proud of everything about you. I hope that we can keep writing together—that you will continue to inspire me—for many, many, many more years.
--Daddy, 11 January 2009