Thursday, November 20, 2008

11/20/08 The Bicycle Thief

I think I said some months ago now that I was really tired of the Dow Jones Industrial Average making the front page every day. I'm really, really, REALLY tired of it now!

We watched a movie a few nights ago that haunts me. It was an Italian movie called "Ladri di biciclette," (The Bicycle Thief) made in 1948, set in the post-WWII depression that Italy suffered. A desperate father gets a rare job hanging posters, but he must have a bicycle to do the job -- his wife hocks the family's sheets to trade for their pawned bicycle -- and on the first day of his life-saving job, his bicycle is stolen.

It both comforts and alarms me. The throngs of unemployed, the scrabbling, the desperation of the father whose whole life hinges on finding his bicycle. It's a reminder that we're nowhere close to being that bad off. But it's also a reminder that seriously bad times have happened in living memory. 1948 looks like ancient history, but I was born only 15 years later. (OK, OK, so my birth is ancient history now too, I get it.)

The movie is supposed to be one of the best Italian movies ever made, and indeed, it meets my measure for a great movie: I keep thinking about it.

One of the absolute worst things in the movie, to me, wasn't even intended to be that bad a thing. The first day of the father's new job, he drops his son off before dawn -- at work. The boy cheerfully starts setting things up at an Esso station. Then when the Dad is late picking him up (since his bicycle was stolen), the boy complains, "Dad, you're late, it's 7:30!" Half an hour late to pick up his BOY from WORK after TWELVE HOURS!!. The kid can't be more than 7 years old! And that was normal!

If we lose everything and I have to grow food myself in our yard, I'll do it to keep my children from working. That's horrible. But that could never happen now, right? That was all decades ago. Yet I just heard a news report on NPR a few days ago about children in Brazil whose parents have no choice but to pull them out of school and send them to work in the sugar cane fields. (Brazil is the world's biggest agricultural producer of bio-fuels, and this report was about the human cost of that distinction.) The working conditions in sugar fields makes a gas station look like a cruise ship. It still happens around the world. But to us? In Silicon Valley? Not likely -- but lots of things have happened that I'd have scoffed at a few weeks ago.

Despite my unease, it helps give me genuine appreciation for what could really go wrong. Last summer, I was worried about gas prices. That seems like nothing now! But, truly the worst thing that could happen is for one of children, or us, to get seriously ill. Then looking back on being on the brink of the next Great Depression might seem like nothing.

Happily, the only health issue around here is Katrina's new bout with hives. This morning, another one on her leg just after she woke up, probably where she'd been lying down on it.

It started subsiding right away, and she didn't have any more all day. She'll probably have another tomorrow morning, and it could go on for days, even weeks. Just one of those things.

It's so corny, but having boisterous healthy children around really does pull you back into the present and equalize your perspective on life.


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