The Big Short (2015); d. Adam McKay

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Yes, it’s as good as you’ve heard. And if you haven’t heard, trust me. It’s good.

Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which he wrote after the phenom that was Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, unravels the insanely complicated and interconnected-jumble that was the sub-prime mortgage debacle which ended up collapsing not only the housing market, but the American economy, and then the world economy. Good work! We all remember those awful days in 2008. And then the fallout spreading into 2009 and beyond. I don’t own property. I don’t play the stock market. But I lost my job (a job I had had for 11 years) in 2009 – amazing that I even survived the popping of the Dot-com bubble as long as I did – and losing that long-term job was the result of everything falling apart. What happened to me, of course, was nothing compared to those who lost their pensions, their benefits, their homes, everything. Michael Lewis tells the complex story by introducing us to a disparate group of smart renegade guys (not connected to one another) who all started asking the same questions about the bonds markets, and asking what the hell was going on with those sub-prime mortgages (nobody seemed to understand them and when these guys asked questions, even the banks didn’t seem to know.) It’s a gripping story, and an awful one, told in clear concise prose that actually helps you understand (if you squint a little bit) all the financial thingamajigs erected in precarious towers so if one section fell apart, the whole thing collapsed.

As happened with Moneyball, Lewis has a way of painting personal portraits of the players involved. Most of these people were insiders, and they all decided to bet against (i.e. “short”) the sub-prime market, so that when the thing collapsed – as they all felt it would – they would make a shit-ton of money. Almost a carpetbagger’s mentality. Lewis always finds the side story, the one on the periphery, and he is drawn to renegades who look at long-established systems, understand that they do not work, and implement schemes – backed up with facts and statistics – to fix it, or benefit from it. Such people are never welcome in any entrenched community. Hey, this is the way we’ve always done it. Also, and more chillingly, because such comments are always prominent during speculative bubbles: Hey, everyone’s making so much money, why are you raining on the parade?

Adam McKay, the director of The Big Short, hails from the Chicago improv scene. I knew him when I hung out with that crowd. I dated one of his best friends, and both of them were on the legendary improv team “The Family,” working out of Improv Olympic, in the second story of a bar huddled on the side of Wrigley Field. IO was Second City’s poor cousin, formed by Del Close, and it attracted some of the most talented people ever. I saw Chris Farley “play” there. Everyone played there. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, people who basically run Hollywood now. Occasionally, a scout from Saturday Night Live would swoop through and scoop someone up. For a year – maybe more – “The Family” was the “house team” at IO, meaning they had guaranteed shows every weekend. They were a draw in and of themselves. Hanging out at Improv Olympic was how I met Phil (who stars in this fun story, but that is just one of many – Phil and I are still good friends today.) My friend Jackie met her husband Stuart performing in an improv team at Improv Olympic. Everyone was so talented that it was electric in that highly social environment. “The Family” was made up of Adam McKay, Neil Flynn, Matt Besser – who would go on to be one of the geniuses behind Upright Citizens’ Brigade – Ian Roberts, Ali Farahnakian, and Miles Stroth. Some of those names you already know but if you look up all of them, you’ll see how far they all went – and continue to go. Their shows were – and still are – legendary. Mitchell and Ann Marie and I went to every one of them, and each one was brilliant, unforgettable, and so funny that we STILL quote them, to this day. They never had an off night. Their chemistry was incredible, the six of them working at such a high level of intellectual speed that it was ESP going on up on that stage. There were no dull moments, or awkward moments. If a joke fell flat, they turned it into gold every time. There was no “star” in the group. Adam McKay didn’t stand out any more than the other guys: they each brought their own unique energy to the group. My old flame told me that Adam McKay was the funniest person onstage he had ever seen, and I thought my “flame” was the funniest person onstage I had ever met. (It wasn’t all laughs all the time offstage. But on stage, these guys were incandescently funny. So inventive. Their imaginations! The connections they made! There was one show where I actually thought I might faint from laughing too hard.) It was such an exciting time. Since I was dating one of those guys – (loose term, granted, although our “thing” lasted, in various forms, over a decade) – I was always hanging out with all six of them, which was an experience in and of itself. They were outrageous together. They were not just guys throwing ba-dum-chings around, and being boring about it and unable to be serious. They were all deep thinkers, quick thinkers, and the conversations ranged from politics to history to books to music to everything else. Their vast frames of collective reference helped them as a group onstage. Someone could make a reference to, say, Malthus, and everyone knew what that was, and would be able to riff off it. (Just one example. I remember one “bit” that had to do with Marbury vs. Madison, for God’s sake.) I ran into one of them recently, at a bar where comics hang out, and he recognized me immediately. Didn’t remember my name, but he was like, “Hey … hey … you were so-and-so’s girl!” Back then, they accepted my presence, were always very friendly, because my old flame dragged me around everywhere with him. Neil was my flame’s roommate for a couple of years, so I got to know Neil best out of all of them, since I was always over there. (We lived only three blocks away from each other. That was during the “crawling through my window at 3 a.m.” stage of our relationship.) I am clearly kissing and telling, but I won’t tell you which guy it was because I have SOME discretion. Having seen each one of them in action in “The Family”, I am thrilled – although not at all surprised – that these guys would go on to be successful outside of Improv Olympic, where they already were treated like celebrities and gods. “The Family” took improv to another level, building on the work of The Groundlings, and Del Close, and the famous Second City teams – many of the “games” now taught in improv classes around the world were created by “The Family.” So, it’s gratifying to watch from afar, but again: I am not surprised. These guys were geniuses when they were working for free.

Adam McKay went on to write/direct for SNL, and then (of course) on to Anchorman, Ant Man, and a couple of other amusing films (influential in their own ways). With The Big Short, McKay ups his game. He and Charles Randolph adapted Lewis’ book, and they’ve done an amazing job of cohering all of these separate stories together.

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There’s Steve Carell, unforgettable as the rude but smart Mark Baum, with a couple of guys working under him (all excellent as well). They are underneath the umbrella of Morgan Stanley but work independently as analysts. There’s Christian Bale, a socially incompetent doctor with a glass eye who now runs a hedge fund, and pours all of his money into “shorting” the market. His investors are furious, they don’t understand what he is doing with their money. Nobody understood what he was doing and he is so awkward and strange that he puts everybody off anyway. He seems like a madman.

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There’s Ryan Gosling, as Jared Vannett, who exudes the stereotype of Wall Street guy. He’s got a fake tan, a slick hairdo, he’s ruthless and avaricious, and when he overhears something in a bar in the financial district about “shorting” the market he swoops in to be a part of it (or take charge of it). He wants in. He is also our narrator, sometimes turning and talking to the camera. And finally, there are Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), two young guys who still live with their parents, formed a hedge fund (that they operate out of their garage), made a million or so dollars doing it, and start to figure out that something rotten is in the housing market. They ask the advice of a sort of mentor, a bearded retired banker named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who continues to insist he’s out, he’s done, all he cares about is his garden now, but the numbers they start bringing to him get his attention. Something bad is going on in the banks, he can feel it, and he’s not sure if the banks are stupid or criminal, but he decides to “sponsor” the two young guys so that they can get seats at the Big Boy Table.

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That’s our cast of characters. It’s five separate stories. McKay weaves them all together with such confidence, such bravura, that there were moments when I actually felt I understood what was happening (in the numbers/financial sense). Unlike Wolf of Wall Street, which shows how the boom in the market attracted the sleaziest of elements, the open con-artists, The Big Short is about insiders, guys who have worked within the system, accept its rules, but cannot understand the numbers going on, cannot wrap their minds around the fact that this even IS fraud. How could there be a fraud this big? None of them are naive, remember, so their incomprehension is even more telling.

Characters emerge from the chaos with little to no exposition. You do get backstory (particularly with Carell’s character), but it’s handled gracefully and realistically. No sentimentality. Backstory provides important context. These are real people. McKay’s direction (and the talented cast) makes what is happening onscreen feel spontaneous – NOT easy to do with such potentially dry material. The characters stumble in the dark, searching for coherence, and the tension increases with each new revelation. In almost every scene, these actors are shouting at one another, leaping up out of their seats, throwing in comments from offscreen, racing out of the room … and none of it feels “staged” (although it obviously is). The mood of the film is manic. Outraged. Confused. Many of the characters leapt into “the big short” to make a ton of money when the housing market fell apart. They were just as cynical as anyone else. But as the scope of the fraud became apparent, as the sheer ineptitude – not to mention calculated criminality – of the mortgage-bundling deals unearth themselves – none of the characters can quite believe it is happening. They all know that corruption exists. But this was corruption on an operatic scale. The fallout was going to be apocalyptic. Each has their “A-ha!” moment. The Big Short is expressly political, but without the typical heavy-handed humorless sanctimonious approach usually used with such material. By resisting the heavy-hand, The Big Short makes its points with panache, ferocity, and unmistakeable anger.

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All of this may sound didactic. It is not at all. It is a kinetic frenzied race to the finish. The stakes could not be higher. Not just for these guys, because what got them into the game in the first place (make some money) vanishes as they begin to realize the scope of the situation and what it will mean to ordinary middle-class/lower-middle-class American people. Lives will be ruined. (And, of course, their “shorting” of the market ended up making things much worse, and they all realize that too, but it’s almost too late by that point.)

McKay has punctuated the script with some great and hilarious flourishes, a whimsical and absurd device used repetitively: When something gets confusing, Ryan Gosling will turn to the camera and say: “This is all pretty confusing, right? To explain it all for you, here’s Margot Robbie.” Quick cut to Margot Robbie, a gorgeous blonde (who played Leo’s wife in Wolf of Wall Street), lying in a bubble bath, drinking champagne, and explaining, in an English accent, that “sub-primes are shit.” Or, Anthony Bourdain is introduced to explain the “bundling” of mortgages, using as an example a halibut stew. Or Selena Gomez at the blackjack table explains how the entire system was based on “bets.” These bits are so much fun: they admit that the subject matter is so complicated that even Wall Street people didn’t understand it (part of the problem). So let’s just admit that and have pretty people, who automatically demand our attention because of their fame/beauty/nudity-in-bathtub, to break it down. These small sequences work like gangbusters (and show how McKay utilizes his sketch-comedy background in all kinds of inventive ways). They’re mini-lectures, babbled by completely improbable celebrity personalities, and they also actually do help explain what is going on.

There have been two really good “investigative” movies this year, Spotlight and The Big Short. Both are exhilarating, showing, as they do, the nuts-and-bolts structure of a given industry or culture, and then, how a couple of very smart isolated people become more and more determined to put the separate pieces together so that they can see the big picture. Once the big picture reveals itself, in all its monstrous clarity, far bigger than even they could have imagined, many of them wish they could un-see it.

The Big Short is sharp and biting, extremely angry, but it makes its points through humor, chaotic sparking adrenaline, and extremely entertaining ensemble work (my favorite kind), all of the different stories circling one gigantic whirling center, one story. One terrible terrible story.

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37 Responses to The Big Short (2015); d. Adam McKay

  1. Tad says:

    Independently the Family/UCB members were fun to watch at the ImprovOlympic; at times Matt Besser appeared to genuinely enjoy observing other performers, possibly not associated with his groups perform onstage.

    • Sheila says:

      MB was (is) so so funny! He would get totally lost in these very specific characters. He played women a lot, but not in a way that was condescending. He transformed!

      One of the strengths of the Family was that they were all so well-informed and well-read that ANY reference anyone came up with could be played with. Malthus, Anne Frank, Philip Marlowe or up to the minute current events … All at their collective fingertips. So they had do much more freedom onstage then other groups who had narrow frames of reference.

    • sheila says:

      So we were probably at the same shows. :) Ain’t it a small world?

  2. Denise says:

    I enjoyed the film and thought it had a great balance of comedy and seriousness. And that the comedy ended in the right place for the story. And, I loved when Ben (Brad Pitt) stopped Jamie and Charlie from celebrating to remind them that people lives would be destroyed.

    The film did a great job of explaining the technical details. While I got a lot of the info, there were parts I was like…wait, what was that? But it didn’t stop from getting it overall.

    • sheila says:

      That moment when Pitt stopped them from dancing was the heart of the movie. I loved how they were drawn up short – and then one of them said, “Woah. I just got really scared.” That could have been so didactic and preachy – but it wasn’t, not as played.

      I also loved the moment after talking with those two sleazy gorgeous mortgage brokers – and Steve Carell says to his colleagues, “I don’t get it. Why are they confessing?” One colleague says, “They’re not confessing.” And Hamish Linklater finishes off the moment with his dead-on summing-up: “They’re bragging.”

      I understood very little of the financial stuff – although I will say a second viewing made some of it clearer. The whole interest-rate thing – somehow I had missed that in the first go-round. Christian Bale’s urgency to get his deal done immediately – because he knew that in two years the new interest rates would kick in and defaults would sky-rocket. (Of course, he didn’t count on the fact that even though the defaults sky-rocketed, those worthless bonds would still be valued the same.) Those subtleties became much clearer once I saw it the second time.

      • sheila says:

        I’m re-reading the book too which I loved when it came out. I was a huge Moneyball fan (maybe read that one 3 times, so far?) Very impressed with Lewis making complicated systems clear – especially systems that have no relevance to my world, in all its talk of amortization and securities and interest-rates and all that. I’m Bohemian, man, I’m barely on the grid.

        But he makes me understand these numbers.

        It’s similar to what Ron Chernow does in his biographies of financial wizards – like John D. Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Alexander Hamilton. I may not understand the MATH, but I get the CONCEPTS – and that’s all Chernow’s doing.

      • sheila says:

        and there’s more to be said about the STYLE of the ensemble acting here. I have to think a little bit more about it.

        It has to do with meeting up with people in the MIDDLE of something, as opposed to strolling into an event alongside them, and being with them from the beginning. We catch up with people smack-dab in the middle of things. And then we are tossed out of the scene before it ends.

        I think the clearest example of that is when Brad Pitt and one of his minions are interviewing a guy – asking him why he is valuing these subprimes the way he is – can’t remember the details – and the guy’s answers make no sense – as Brad Pitt and Minion turn away, Minion starts to exclaim in frustration: “What is going ON.”

        But McKay pulls us out of the scene in the middle of the word “on.” So you know what the guy is saying – but being yanked out of it before he completes the word (and McKay does that constantly throughout) somehow creates the reality of “you are there,” but also … it’s like looking on as a train falls off the rails. There’s too much to look at, take in – it’s not exactly a linear experience, it’s too huge.

        So part of the way McKay accomplishes that is by cutting scenes off mid-sentence. I love the style – it’s a “bit”, I think, but really really works with this material. Helps create the mood – but it also helps the actors seem totally spontaneous and not actor-y at all.

        Even Ryan Gosling’s theatricality feels totally motivated because that guy is always “performing” in real life.

        I love this kind of acting.

  3. sheila says:

    Also my favorite line:

    “It’s like 2 + 2 equals …. FISH.”

  4. sheila says:

    Clearly I love this movie. I watched it twice in two days. Thank you, Academy screener.

  5. Anne says:

    I went back and read a couple of pieces about your old flame, and they are so great Sheila. So alive and so good at capturing what it means to connect with someone. And just all around great pieces of writing.

    Though it’s funny, part of my personal reaction is, “What the hell was *I* doing in Chicago?” Meeting people who saw my soul, not so much.

    • sheila says:

      Aw, thanks so much, Anne!!

      He was a special (albeit totally insane) human being. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about him with any regularity – it was all so long ago – we’re friends on FB but except for “Happy birthday” messages we don’t connect. That’s fine. He was always there for me (and I was not easy to be there for at that time), and I know this sounds maudlin – but he never hurt me or tricked me or let me down. He was never mean to me. A lot of guys were mean, I don’t know why. He actually protected our relationship – even when I was the one trying to destroy it, i.e. “I’m too messed up and I’m a total drag. Fly, be free, you shouldn’t have to deal with me!” He’d say something like, “Oh would you please shut the fuck up. Planet of the Apes is on.” hahahaha and I did shut up, and it all would be okay.

      anyway, I appreciate it. Sometimes it’s fun to go down Memory Lane (especially if they’re good memories) – and the name “Adam McKay” being everywhere right now brought that whole crazy time back.

      and in re: Chicago: hahahahaha I forget, were we there at the same time?

  6. Anne says:

    I was there for about a year in 1993/94. My roommate was an actor, Ka/tie Dawson, who I think had overlapping circles with you. She had many exciting adventures that year – men were kind of throwing themselves at her – and it was sort of a theme for the rest of us that whoever we were interested in would show up at the restaurant where Katie worked and hit on her. Even people who met her for half a minute at a party would somehow magically discover where she worked and just show up.

    So connecting with guys’ souls, that did not happen a lot. I did kind of meet the Devil, though, so that was interesting. (I feel I told this story somewhere – S. African date rapist dude, with whom I merely had a long unsettling conversation.)

    • sheila says:

      Oh my gosh, yes, Katie Dawson! I met her in my first couple of months there – through some random guy I was dating (not the one I was just talking about) and thought she was totally amazing. Northwestern girl, right? If I recall correctly, she had worked on a one-woman show about Anias Nin which I was sorry I never saw.

      We were definitely there at the same time, which is crazy.

      I don’t remember about you meeting the South African date rapist Devil, though. I think I would remember that.

      I think the ratio of single men to single women in Chicago in my age demographic was, like, 10 to 1. So men definitely outnumbered us and there were lots of batting them off with sticks – which I should have enjoyed more while it was going on, since in NYC it’s the exact opposite.

    • sheila says:

      // whoever we were interested in would show up at the restaurant where Katie worked and hit on her. //

      hahahahaha It’s like a superpower.

      She kind of was magical. I can still see her face – she was very pretty, and vivacious and smart. She had “it.”

  7. Anne says:

    Yes, I did the lighting for the Anais Nin show. Katie was great, and I could totally see why so many people were into her. I still see her from time to time.

    The S. African dude was the friend of a friend, who stayed over at my apt. for some reason. He told me that he liked to “take women to places they don’t realize they want to go” and told me a large number of crazy stories, most of which seem to involve getting naked women to clean his apartment. I busily wrote them all down after fending off his attempt to spend the night in my room rather than the couch.

    • sheila says:

      Anne – holy crap here I am telling you about the Anais Nin show and you LIT IT. Anne!! I am sure we have made this discovery before, and my apologies.

      I wish I had seen it!!

      Those Northwestern kids were go-getters, man. Every single one of them graduated with a one-person show they had developed, that they could then shop around town. A very smart practical way to look at an acting career.

      In re: South African date rapist:

      That is absolutely horrifying.

      • sheila says:

        and I just remembered that the guy I was dating who introduced me to Katie Dawson was ALSO in love with Katie Dawson. He told me that point-blank. hahahaha

        I wasn’t serious about him so I was like, “Dude, I totally get it. She’s awesome.”

        What is she doing now?

        • sheila says:

          Katie Dawson probably will not remember me – we only met a couple of times and she was super-friendly (I had just moved there and it meant a lot to me) but tell her I said hi. :)

          • sheila says:

            I wonder if you know any of my other friends from Northwestern. These people are all still in my life, good friends:

            Derek Goldman
            George Brant
            Kate Fry
            Rachel Hamilton

            The Chicago theatre scene was swarming with talented driven Northwesterners!

        • sheila says:

          and did you ever go to Improv Olympic? 1993-94 was the heyday of the aforementioned “The Family,” believe it or not. They started up in 1992 – that was when I met my flame (I first saw him onstage and thought to myself, like a cavewoman: “You. Me. OMG into the bushes Now.” – which was delusional, because he was onstage and I was in the audience but then we met afterwards and he asked me for my phone number within 5 minutes – one of those weird moments when you get what you want in your weird little fantasy brain.)

          But their shows went strong for a couple of years before one by one they were scooped by SNL or moved to LA.

    • sheila says:

      // “take women to places they don’t realize they want to go” //

      Pal, that’s called pressure and coercion. Gross.

      Reminds me of that skeevy radio personality up in Canada? His name escapes me. Or I’ve blocked it out. The guy into rough sex.

  8. Anne says:

    There was later an incident with another friend of mine and the S. African guy – so I felt I had been spared. I think he saw me more as a confidant, even while realizing that I was horrified by his stories.

    Katie teaches theater (& maybe arts integration for schools?) at UT. I most recently saw her a couple of years ago at her family reunion – her cousin and are good friends. In fact a number of her cousins and I are good friends. I visited her in Austin once, when I was briefly living in TX. She’s married and had just had a baby. There is a second little one now as well. She’s happy, well, seems to be thriving. She was already doing some drama in schools stuff when I knew her.

    I also visited her once in LA when she was living out there – this was before Austin. And that was interesting to me, because it was the fulfillment of the dream of Chicago, sort of, and yet it felt like her group were not as happy as they expected out there? I don’t recognize the names you wrote – the Northwestern friends of hers I remember are Darlene (who was in I heart Huckabees) and Steve. Cannot remember last names at all. I know she was friends with a guy who was on 90210, and the daughter in Father of the Bride, but I think they were in LA by the time I arrived in Chicago.

    • Sheila says:

      Thanks for the update on Katie! I’m glad to hear she is doing well!

      Chicago theatre is so much better than most other places – the work you do, the quality of the work, and the community itself.

      Leaving was a wrenching change for me (and I somewhat regret it.)

      Kimberly Williams!! Yes she was the big breakout story! (Weirdly she was just in a movie I reviewed yesterday.)

      Probably the biggest breakouts – at least among the people I knew there (outside of the improv scene because they all became huge) were Michael Shannon and Tracy Letts. With “Killer Joe” they exploded the Chicago scene – I was in the first production of it out of town after the original. But when they busted out they really busted out. It was exciting to witness the whole Killer Joe thing go down in real time!

  9. Anne says:

    I loved going to the theater in Chicago. I remember it was the price of a movie ticket, and the stuff I saw was so good. It seemed like a great place to start and to grow as an artist, but then it also seemed like a lot of people left for LA or NY after a few years, so it might have been hard to be an old-timer there? I’m not sure, since I was mostly outside it.

    I don’t know if I went to the Improv show you’re writing about. I feel like I did go to at least a couple of improv things. I know I went to a theater near Wrigley Field a couple of times, and it was above a bar. I saw an early version of Your Friends and Neighbors there (was it called Lechers at the time? Losers? Lobsters?). But I can’t necessarily match it up with the comedy shows I saw.

    Now I’m wondering if I met Michael Shannon, or saw anything with him in it. He’s popular in my house – my husband loves his dramatic reading of the sorority girl letter.

    • Sheila says:

      I love that Michael Shannon letter!

      Tracy Letts’ play was one of those moments (that almost never happens – it’s only happened to me once). – where you feel like a Voice that is going to be pretty major comes out of your community. And we would talk about it at the time. “Is this how NY actors in the 1930s felt when they saw Odets for the first time?”

      Letts’ plays were more retreads than Odets – but he could write, he understood structure, his plots were grandiose and confident. It was so cool at the time!

      That second story theatre sounds a lot like Improv Olympic. The bar downstairs was The Wrigleyside where everyone would hang out after shows and get crazy. (Or, more crazy.)

  10. Anne says:

    ” I just remembered that the guy I was dating who introduced me to Katie Dawson was ALSO in love with Katie Dawson”

    As you can imagine, I find this hysterical.

  11. Anne says:

    Oh wait – now I’m remembering that Katie dated someone named Derek while I was there. Not sure if it’s the same guy.

    • Sheila says:

      Hmmm. Maybe. I’ll ask my friend Mitchell who knows everything.

      Derek set up a theatre company the year after he graduated and I did a bunch of shows with them. Derek has gone on to great award-winning success. I just saw him and his wife a couple months ago when George (also on the Northwestetn list) had his play open at The Public.

      Those NW people! They get shit done!!

  12. Anne says:

    The Derek I’m thinking of smoked a lot of weed. Had an impressive number of plants in his apartment. This is the ONLY detail I recall about him.

  13. Anne says:

    That doesn’t seem to tally with getting a lot done, but maybe he was the Seth Rogen of his era.

    • Sheila says:

      Hmmm. Yeah that doesn’t sound right. The Derek I knew was a 25-year-old who had the soul of a 58-year-old Talmudic scholar/linguist.

      He was super fun but he was born middle-aged.

      • Sheila says:

        I am loving this shared memory lane, by the way.

        I am now having the feeling that you and I – even if we didn’t actually meet – were definitely at the same event/party/show at least once.

  14. Anne says:

    I am too. Yeah, I think we probably were.

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