Archive for December, 2009

The Thinker

Review: Young Frankenstein at the Kennedy Center

If Mel Brooks can make a hit Broadway musical from his 1968 movie The Producers, then he should be able to do the same with his much more popular 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, right? Just in case the idea was not a good one, to even the odds why not add your wife and the famous choreographer Susan Stroman to direct and choreograph the show as she did in The Producers?

As they say, lightning never strikes the same place twice, so the odds were always long that Young Frankenstein would do as well as the phenomenally successful musical version of The Producers. That is the case with Young Frankenstein, at least the touring version now in the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There are times when you wonder if it was directed by Max Bialystock, the infamous bad musical producer immortalized in The Producers rather than Susan Stroman. Okay, it’s not that bad and the truth is the musical gets better as it goes along, and it ends pretty well. Young Frankenstein though is certainly not great, and I have a hard time even giving it a passing grade. It bears the mark of a musical that was made simply because it could be made and not because there was any compelling reason to stage it.

In a way, seeing such a crass musical in the ornate setting of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House lowered my opinion of the Kennedy Center. After all, I have seen many a lavish staging of a musical or opera on this stage, perhaps most memorably a staging of Tosca by the Met back in the mid 1980s. In an exhibit as you enter the Opera House, you can see one of the exquisite gowns from that staging. However, you take your seats to watch a musical with no pretense at being high art but that is high on the things that Mel Brooks thinks is funny but which are really incredibly sophomoric. These include cute women in dresses with low bodices and high libidos and allusions to the monster’s massive sexual organs.

None of this is a surprise to those who have seen the movie. In fact, the musical really adds nothing new to the movie at all and is rife with the same gags that were in the movie. What you don’t get of course is Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein, Madeleine Kahn as his puritanical fiancé Elizabeth, Marty Feldman as Igor, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher or Teri Garr as the bosomy lab assistant Inga.

Instead, you get a generally good cast working with substandard material. For example, you will find Brad Oscar (who was a regular in The Producers on Broadway) in the rather minor role of Inspector Kemp. Roger Bart plays the young Doctor Frankenstein, and comes across as more of a wisecracker than Gene Wilder’s portrayal. Most of the rest of the cast seems to be working hard to imitate the characters in the filmed version, and this includes Beth Curry as Elizabeth and Joanna Glushak as Frau Blücher. We do get some variations. Cory English as Igor does not even attempt to emulate Marty Feldman. Peter Boyle played the original monster in 1974. In this version, we get Shuler Hensley who, film critics may note, has played Frankenstein before in the 2004 film Van Helsing.

As you might expect there are strobe lights aplenty, a mad scientist’s workshop decently rendered and theatrical fog in some of the sequences. As for the music, sadly, there is really nothing memorable. Since we go to musicals mostly to hear music, the musical cannot help but disappoint.

The musical only has a few things going for it. First, Roger Bart is rather fun in the pivotal role of Young Frankenstein. Second, if you can make it to the second act you will find it is much better than the first act, but not enough to redeem it altogether. The most surprising actor in this musical is none other than Shuler Hensley. Unfortunately, the monster does not really have a chance to graduate beyond one-dimensional acting until late in the show when he becomes half civilized. Hensley does a great job, when he is finally allowed, of blending the dichotomy of the bestial monster with the emerging civilized monster. At times, he is quite a stitch. It’s just a shame that he does not get a chance to really act until near the end.

So this musical is not The Producers. Do not go to see it on the expectation that it will be anywhere near as much fun as that musical. Its story is much more pedestrian and far less interesting. In The Producers, we got some really weird and compelling characters. There is no equivalent to Leo Bloom or Max Bialystock in this musical. These characters are stereotypes. The Producers is a comedy of bad intentions gone awry. Young Frankenstein as a musical adds nothing to the material and leaves you with nothing memorable to hum on your way home. It feels tawdry in a way The Producers did not. If it had to be staged somewhere, it is better staged in a burlesque house than in a place as ornate as the Opera House at the Kennedy Center.

If you are a huge Mel Brooks fan, you may want to see the show just to say you saw it, but you will invariably be disappointed. The Producers reached very lofty heights indeed. Young Frankenstein tries to make you think that you are getting a lot more value from your two plus hours in the theater than you are actually getting.

My advice: just stay away. There has to be much better theater in the region than Young Frankenstein, and it is likely to be both better and cost less.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 13: Great sex is not pornography come to life

This is the thirteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Surfing YouTube last night, I spent most of my time enjoying the excellent TED channel. There I stumbled across this video by Cindy Gallop, a “lady of a certain age” as they like to be called who is fortunate enough to bed many men half her age or more. One thing she has noted is that young adults today confuse pornographic sex with real sex. The sad truth that many young adults cannot discern is that pornographic sex has about as much in common with real sex as a Formula One racer has in common with the Honda Civic that you drive. To help you out, Gallop created this site. Gallop, however, just scratches the surface of this topic.

The confusion is understandable. Like it or not young adults have probably been exposed to hundreds of hours of pornography on the Internet, often before they have sex with someone other than their own right hand. Lord knows that in most cases their parents cannot be bothered to clue them in on how real adults have sex. They are more likely to completely hide their sexuality from their children and make sure they are asleep or being very quiet while having sex.

It may surprise you to learn that your parents probably are still having sex. They are probably not coupling every night anymore as middle age takes a toll on many things, including their sex drives. There is no one size fits all when it comes to sexuality. There are couples in their middle years still going at it like bunnies. Others can go months without having sex and it is fine with both of them. Most likely, when they do get around to making love it bears no resemblance to a pornographic movie. Most likely, neither will your sex life.

This is because pornography is about fantasy, not real life. Moreover, the vast majority of videotaped pornography is for the male, not the female. Since women these days watch a lot of pornography too, you may be under the impression that they are being trained to enjoy the male-oriented version of pornography. Perhaps some of it is rubbing off (no pun intended) but likely not very much. However, pornography might carry with it the implication that modern women should enjoy or at least accommodate men by engaging in sexual acts rife in modern pornography.

Ask any porn actress how much they enjoy being in porn. A certain amount will lie for the trade presses, but when interviewed most will candidly admit (gasp!) they are in it for the money and get little or no pleasure from participating in sexual acts in front of the camera. Any great sex they have likely happens off camera. For one thing, they are being tightly directed. Second, they are expected to act so of course for the most part they will be faking lust they do not genuinely feel. They are following a script for a few quick bucks so you (generally a guy) can get off. Their directors know what you want because they analyze their sales and follow trends. So if you see a lot of videos about something like anal sex, they are there to meet your market demand. Satisfying your lust is simply a business. Pornography attempts to render idealized sexual fantasy, nothing more. It is particularly unhelpful in educating you on how ordinary people make love.

So while you may think a sex act like anal sex might be very arousing, chances are any female you have a real life sexual encounter will not. Now, as in most things in life, there are some women who are into anal sex, and if that is also your passion, you two will have a lot of fun in bed together. Most likely though she will be into anal sex about as much as you would be if she were doing it to you. Most men don’t want to go down that road because it kills the fantasy and has homosexual implications. In any event, rest assured that those couples that do have anal sex are doing it slowly with lots of artificial lubrication and probably using a condom, something you are unlikely to see in a pornographic video.

The same can be said about almost any sexual act portrayed in pornography. If you are a male and can find a woman who is genuinely into your kinks, you are likely going to be a happy man in the bedroom. Most but certainly not all women may be into a couple of your kinks. Oral sex, for example, is now fairly out of the closet mainly because the tongue is much more expressive than a penis or a vagina. It is not too hard to find a woman who is willing to satisfy you orally, particularly if you are willing to return the favor. However, most women see oral sex as foreplay (although for many it is the only way they can get off with a man, providing he knows how to do it to them right). Relatively few women see mutual oral sex as the primary way to have orgasms. Do not expect your partner to be Linda Lovelace for she is no more likely to have mastered the gag reflex than you.

The majority of women cannot have an orgasm from intercourse alone. In fact, you may not be able to even give them an orgasm. Some women never achieve orgasm, but those that do often need a lot of foreplay and need you to exercise a lot of patience. You may need to slow down when nature says go faster because they may need to also use their fingers or a vibrator to get off.

The truth is that having a great sex life with your partner takes a lot of time and energy. Your first experience with someone new is likely to be memorable, but only so-so as far as actual sex is concerned. That is because we are all different and no matter how much experience you have between the sheets, the first time two people couple they are really just getting to know each other sexually. If you are a guy and your pattern is to move from woman to woman, aside from the dangerous aspects unless you practice very safe sex, you are likely to be disappointed.

In most cases, the best sex between two people happens months or years later after they really know each other, both as sexual creatures and as people. In short, sex becomes better the more trust and understanding there is between two people. Most likely, you will find that sex is best not when you are engaging in the latest bizarre position you saw in some pornographic Internet video but when in the sex act you become one passionate creature with your partner, each feeding off the signals from each other. When you do X to your lover in a certain way that creates a passionate response tailored to their sexual buttons and she responds similarly, that’s when sex really becomes great and transcendent. You feed off her signals and she feeds off yours and, if you are both lucky, for a few special moments you will experience transcendent pleasure, although the time before and afterward will be great fun too. You should feel connected sexually, emotionally and spiritually to your partner when this happens. Your orgasm, when it happens, will be so much more than an orgasm. Rather than be kinky as you see in pornography, it should feel wholesome, godlike and spiritually uplifting. What positions you are in do not really matter, nor does it matter how kinky or pedestrian the act is when it happens. What is important is the overwhelming sense of pleasure and intimacy between two people.

Trust me, it is way better than anything you are going to see in a pornographic video. No video can capture these feelings that happen inside you during these short but exquisite moments. The high comes from the feeling of mutual connection, not because you also had an orgasm. The orgasm is the frosting on the cake. The mutual connection is the cake itself. This is the difference between making love and having sex.

My suggestion is to go into sex in a spirit of mutual playfulness. Sex can have many meanings, both for good and ill. At its best, it is warm and playful intimate adventure between two people who are just really into each other, not just as sexual creatures, but also as people and with all the dimensions that this encompasses. That is way better than anything you are going to find in some pornographic video.

 
The Thinker

Review: Up in the Air

Some part of me understands the world of Ryan Bingham, the jet-setting businessman portrayed in the movie Up in the Air by George Clooney. Ryan spends most of his life either in the air or inhabiting the cozy little world of frequent flier clubs. Many of us have opportunities for business travel. My half dozen or so trips a year more than scratch the itch to roam. In fact, it does not take many trips before one American city seems pretty much like all the others. Bingham spends all but 46 days a year on the road. He has mastered frequent flier clubs and is boldly working toward reaching American Airlines Ten Million Mile Frequent Flier Club, a very exclusive club with only six previous members. Hotel and airport life have become his home. It is only when he returns to his rarely used apartment in Omaha that he feels uncomfortable. He yearns for 35,000 feet, airport tarmac and the chance to add more frequent flier miles.

That part of his job is bliss. Less so is his actual work. He is hired to fire people. It’s what his company does and in a depressed economy, he has never had more work. He has firing down to a science and has become largely inured to the devastation he inflicts on people he does not know. Come 5 p.m. he tunes it all out. If this is the price he has to pay to live a detached life, he is happy to do so. In the process, he has nearly disconnected himself from any meaningful relationships. The sole exception is his sister Kara, who nags him to take pictures of places he visits as a present to her daughter and her fiancé who are about to get married.

Two karmic forces will rock Ryan’s serene world on the road. One is an attractive late thirty something woman Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who he meets in an airport bar and who spends nearly as much time on traveling as he does. They instantly click and work through their complex travel plans to find time to intersect, trade their war stories and make love. The other is a young woman who recently joined Ryan’s firm, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She has convinced the CEO that their business could be much more profitable if the firing process could be done remotely using videoconference technology. This causes a breach in Ryan’s comfy world on the road. So he takes Natalie on the road with him so she can learn for herself why her idea will not work.

Given the dehumanizing work that Ryan does, it is not surprising that nonstop business travel works so well for him. It allows him to detach from virtually all relationships. His family is whomever he meets on the road. In spite of himself, he finds himself increasingly drawn toward Alex. While he preaches the virtue of detached relationships, almost unwillingly he finds himself wanting to spend more time with Alex than their frantic schedules will allow. After all, how can he resist when Alex tells him, “Think of me as you with a vagina.”

Clooney is at the top of his form in this movie and glides through the subtleties of his role with what appears to be a reflexive adroitness. For a long time it is hard to know whether to admire or revile Ryan Bingham. He understands that life and relationships are complicated, and has no interest or patience for dealing with the many permutations that come with relationships like marriage. After a while, we understand that he is paying a price for living a detached life. When Alex arrives in his life, he slowly begins to understand that there is value in having a partner in life, although it takes until the very end of the movie for him to truly understand the karmic lesson life will dish out at him.

Up in the Air is something of a parable for our 21st century information age and the pitfalls that are inherent in the virtualized and ephemeral relationships many inhabit these days. Reputedly, this movie will be one of the Best Picture nominees. I personally do not think it merits the award, but the movie is clearly topical, interesting and engaging at least for those of us who do any amount of regular business travel. It is also at times funny and touching. If it has particular virtues, it is that it depends on acting rather than fancy special effects to deliver its value. I have yet to see Avatar, but I suspect this one will be the better movie.

3.3 on my four-point scale.

 
The Thinker

White Christmas

Our unofficial snowfall from the storm that began a week ago was twenty-one inches. The storm set a December record for recorded snowfalls in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region. Typically, if we get massive snowfalls they arrive in February, often at inconvenient times like Presidents Day Weekend. Many of us Washingtonians were caught with our snow pants down this time, counting too much on global warming and figuring our rarely used snow shovels would carry us through whatever mild dusting we could get.

In the last week, the snow has not so much melted as collapsed under its own weight. It is now about half its size. A snowplow finally came down our street on Monday, threw some sand on the streets but could not be bothered to actually plow to the curb. Since then, it has retired to wherever snowplows go. While this approach keeps our taxes low, it also means that to get your car onto the street you must shovel six feet or more into the street. I knew there was some point to all that weight lifting I was doing. Shoveling snow turned out to be excellent cardiovascular exercise. My arms were stiff as a board three hours later, but my back was intact and I felt only winded. Our street is still a mess of half cleared pavement and packed ice and snow. Driving down the street is like driving over a washboard.

The upside is the first genuine White Christmas in my thirty years of living in this area. The streets are mostly clear of snow but at least a dozen inches of snow solidly cover the ground, and most roofs are still covered with snow. The snow looks likely to hang around through the New Year.

In many ways once the frantic rush of holiday preparations are behind me, this is the best part of the year. At work, so many people are on leave that the building is half (or more) empty. I walk largely alone down darkened corridors, even in the afternoon. The usual hundred or so emails that clog my inbox are down to about twenty. Work feels more like a vacation. I find time to do things I don’t usually have time for: reading back issues of IEEE Computer and slogging through a book on software testing. For me, these sorts of activities are almost fun. It is far more interesting than budgets, supervising employees, reviewing travel authorizations and working on requirements. Now I too join the vacationing crowd, with plenty of leisure at home until I return to work on January 4th.

The presents under our tree were fewer this year, in part due to snow that made shopping the last week before Christmas a living hell. I tried on Christmas Eve to make a final run at a Barnes & Noble. I should not have bothered. Cars were queued a dozen long waiting for a free parking space. Heaps of snow occupied other parking spaces. Still, our Christmas was cheerful enough. There was ample time today to enjoy the first DVD in my new set of Horatio Hornblower episodes.

Mostly this holiday season I am struck by how fortunate I am in a time when so many people are hurting. I am in my peak earning years with little likelihood of unemployment. Even if unemployment were to strike, I have ample money and decent job skills that should see me through bad times. Overall, we are doing exceptionally well. Most of the medical issues that bedeviled my family and me are behind us with a few exceptions. One that still bedevils me is the tarsal tunnel in my right foot. This hopefully will be solved on January 14 when I undergo tarsal tunnel surgery along with nerve release surgery from this guy at Georgetown University Hospital. Then I get to enjoy a couple weeks at home recuperating, where my largest problem will be keeping the stitches on my ankle from rupturing for three weeks. Whatever work I can do will have to be done at home. Our cat Arthur will be quite happy.

Until then, I look forward to leisure and clearing the detritus out of our house and off my desk. I hope your holidays are happy too.

 
The Thinker

Half a loaf is still better than none

Polls indicate that most Americans are not happy with the health insurance reform plan emerging from Congress. Of course, most Americans are also not fully informed about the health care reform plan either. With the Senate bill alone consisting of thousands of pages, who has time to read it? We depend on the press and policy wonks to give us the bottom line. To say the least, there is disenchantment. It’s kind of like hoping for a Lexus and instead getting a Yugo. Who would not be disappointed?

I know I am. I am in line with the majority of Americans who wanted a public government administered health plan on the assumption that it would at least be fair, provide real competition and be always available when other private plans left the market. It doesn’t look like that will happen. While anything is possible in the upcoming conference committee, it is likely the House will kowtow and it will be the Senate’s version of the bill that will become law. There is no public option in there, in large measure thanks to Senator Joe Lieberman.

Many Americans are also disappointed in President Obama’s performance to date. After all, he promised change. Where is the delivery? Our disappointment is reflected in his sagging pole numbers. In reality, given polarized politics as they currently exist in Washington, Obama is doing remarkably well. Particularly when it comes to health care reform, our disappointment is because our hopes are colliding with this messy thing called reality.

We might have actually seen the massive change that we were hoping for had we had solved a few other major problems before electing Barack Obama. Specifically, we needed meaningful campaign finance reform and limits on the influence of lobbyists in Congress. The Supreme Court in its infinite wisdom says our current corruption-laden political system is entirely constitutional. This meant, as usual, that those with the money, such as the health insurance lobbies, had a massively disproportional influence on our legislators. To me it is remarkable that in spite of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to defeat reform we got as much reform as we did.

What we are getting is largely health insurance reform and not quite health care reform. Still, getting even health insurance reform is a remarkable achievement, given the money spent to defeat any kind of reform. Every single Republican senator lined up against reform, which meant that 58 Democratic senators and 2 independent senators had to pull together. Only of course, they did not so much pull together as kept watering down the bill until health care reform became health insurance reform. Naturally, billions of dollars in tax breaks went to appease the more recalcitrant senators. The resulting bill is a lowest common denominator bill, which is what you get when the Senate chooses to allow 41 senators to block almost any legislation.

One can complain about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s tactical approach. He could have placated people like me by using a budgetary rule called reconciliation that required only a simple majority to pass. This could well have delivered a more liberal bill with more actual health care reform in it. He chose not to go that route. While I think it was a mistake, perhaps he had sound reasons for it. For example, he might have decided that disenfranchising conservative Democrats on this issue would eventually prove counterproductive with a whole host of other matters on which Democrats need to remain united.

Any major changes by Congress are excruciatingly difficult because there are so many well moneyed interests aligned for the status quo. This leaves the rest of us who are much less moneyed largely disenfranchised. Yet despite these odds, meaningful health insurance reform looks likely to become law. In that sense, President Obama is right that this package is a big deal. History suggests that even this much was a long shot. Once we get used to it, we will take it for granted and wonder why Republicans were so foolish as to block it in the first place.

Half a loaf is not as good as a full loaf, but it is still half a loaf. I do not agree with Howard Dean that we are better off without this bill. While it does little to address exploding health care costs, at least thanks to generous subsidies 30 million Americans will be able to acquire health insurance, and no one can be denied coverage for preexisting conditions. This should make our premiums less than they would be without reform. Every hospital or emergency room visit by an uninsured or indigent person means that their costs are passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher premiums. Reduce the uninsured and more of our health insurance premiums will actually go to treat us.

Count me among those who are disgruntled but still grateful for the half a loaf we are getting. It was not foolish of me to hope for more than what we got. It would have been foolish of me to actually think we would get it this time around. I never did.

 
The Thinker

Snow day

We have a foot of snow so far, and the snow is still coming down frantically. It is hard to see out my northern facing window. No plow has bothered to come down our street. Only a few cars are even bothering to try to drive through the snow, and they are only the ones with four-wheel drive. If I got a newspaper this morning, it is buried under the snow somewhere. I dug out one lane to the street and there was no newspaper to find. I guess I will have to read it online.

Blizzards do have certain advantages. They tend to focus the minds of us Northern Virginians, which means we make frantic dashes to stores to stock up on snow shovels, milk, bread and toilet paper. What’s with the toilet paper? Isn’t that why we invented Costcos, so we could stock up in bulk? I have enough in my basement to see me through February, at least. This focus on essentials of course meant gridlock in general yesterday, and this was before a flake of snow fell on the ground.

So the actual blizzard now underway is somewhat anticlimactic. Life becomes pretty simple. You stay indoors, hope the power stays on, and start digging out once the storm passes. All those busy plans I had for today are blown away. I was supposed to give a final exam today. The exam was all prepared, but I was unprepared for the campus closing. What do you do in this case? I wrote the dean, who said in her thirty-six years in academia she has never seen this happen. What you do is (with the dean’s permission) make up a policy on the spot. So I am giving my students the options of getting their grade based on their work so far (since grades are due by Tuesday) or taking the exam later and maybe getting an incomplete. If I know my students, they will all opt for skipping the exam altogether. This is fine with me. The end of the semester is always the hardest. Students want to begin recess. Professors like me are sick of our students and all their little quirks and hassles. These include disputes over grades and homework, belated requests to take quizzes later and dubious excuses like they had to go out of town because grandma or Uncle Fred passed away. It is all suddenly moot, thanks to the blizzard. Post some grades online and the semester is over. Let the holidays begin.

Except, of course, I am behind on holiday shopping and this blizzard puts me even further behind. The Christmas cards were frantically assembled yesterday. Now stamped, they have no place to go. Meanwhile, I try to think about what to give my wife and daughter, who have pretty much everything they could possibly want. How much better am I supposed to make life for them? But for a day or two, no worries. We will be landlocked and even the 7 Elevens will be closed. For the moment, worrying is moot. Instead, you sleep in late, eat leisurely breakfasts and have as sex with your middle aged spouse as frequently your middle aged bodies will allow.

Still, this blizzard is exciting because of its timing just six days before Christmas. It virtually guarantees a rarity here in Northern Virginia: a white Christmas. Bing Crosby was right: “Just like the ones I used to know”, but it was oh so long ago when I was living in upstate New York. Around here, a white Christmas is something you enjoy once a decade if you are fortunate. “White” counts if there is any snow on the ground, so some dirty and gunky snow in a parking lot counts, even if it is mostly melted. I have counted as “white” Christmases where there was just a dusting of snow on the grass. This one however will be truly white. There is no way that all this snow can melt before Christmas, not even with global warming. The ground will be solidly covered on Christmas Day. Considering what a crappy decade this was, thanks to Mother Nature we will be leaving it behind on a high note.

So instead of frantically grading exams and posting grades, I will help put up the artificial Christmas tree and assorted holiday decorations. Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire will go on the stereo to regale us while we hang the ornaments and string lights. One difference this year: we are having a more ecologically friendly Christmas. The incandescent light strings are out: the new very efficient LED light strings are in. They festoon our front porch and soon will adorn our Christmas tree as well.

Also later today will come the smell of frantic banking as my wife and daughter roll and bake gingerbread cookies. For me this is good news, as I don’t like gingerbread cookies, so I likely won’t eat any. This in turn is good for my waistline during this perilous gastronomic time of year. I may have time to wrap the few presents I have bought and place them under the Christmas tree as well. In addition, there is always belated vacuuming and bathroom cleaning to be done. For a day, I can be a domestic god.

We have tickets to see Young Frankenstein tomorrow at The Kennedy Center. It is unclear whether the roads will be passable enough to get there for our matinee show, or if it will be put on at all due to the weather. In any event, there is nothing that I can do about it. Mother Nature will decide. It has rendered all else moot.

Since our power lines are buried underground, I expect the power and the heat to stay on. This, the chance to blog and surf the web indiscriminately, and putting up some Christmas decorations will keep me happy. In fact, I will be much happier than if the blizzard had not arrived at all.

Let it snow.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Prisoner (AMC Version)

Number Six is back, along with Number Two, and along with many other villagers who have numbers but not names. The Village, which used to be on a mysterious island somewhere, is now in the middle of the desert yet has all the conveniences of modern life. Patrick McGoohan (the original Number Six) unfortunately went to meet his maker earlier this year at the age of 80. In his place is Jim Caviezel, who has starred in a number of prominent movies and actually played Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. This Number Six (or just Six) doesn’t work for the British Secret Service, but for some murky company based in New York City called Summakor. The company spends a lot of time monitoring people. Also, it’s a really good idea not to resign from Summakor unless retiring to a sterile village in the middle of nowhere is your idea of fun.

In the original series, the character playing Number Two usually switched with every episode. In this abbreviated mini-series version of The Prisoner (just six episodes) we have a recurring Number Two played by Sir Ian McKellen. This Number Two does not seem quite as obsessed about Number Six as in the original series. Yet, somehow this Number Six often ends up spending his nights in a clinic where dubious things are done to him largely without his knowledge.

In short, this is not your father’s The Prisoner. Yet of course it is creepy, just in different ways. This village comes complete with families, schools, and even village tours. Rover, the big amorphous weather balloon straight from the id is still around to try to frighten those trying to escape, but for the most part these villagers are too torn up inside from dealing with the surreal life in The Village to do much in the way of escaping. For most of them, the plasticity of The Village is ripping their souls apart.

In many ways, this version of The Prisoner is creepier. Gene therapy was not even in Patrick McGoohan’s wildest nightmares back in 1967, although in both versions we have many really long needles puncturing open flesh. Whatever Summakor is up to, they are good at getting people to forget their past lives, but not so good at making them hide some internal often-inchoate angst.

In many ways, this version is more of a homage to the final episodes of the original The Prisoner, as it operates on a much more metaphorical level. In the original show, you knew The Village was an actual place. In this version, it soon becomes clear that The Village may exist wholly in our minds. Using many flashbacks, we can see that many of the people who populated Six’s life when he lived in New York are also in The Village, although it takes him a long time to understand this.

This Village comes complete with its own underground, in this case a place where you can go to let off some steam, have some illicit sex and engage in activities like congregating with your fellow homosexuals that are not allowed on land. One of the villagers with sexual preference issues is 11-12 (Jamie Campbell Bower), the son of Number Two. His largely comatose mother spends much of six episodes mysteriously in bed in Two’s palatial home.

In this version, Six does try to escape a few times but seems much more engaged in Village life, and even helps spy on his fellow villagers. Mysterious holes open up on the grounds of The Village, sometimes swallowing up villagers. There is love to be found in The Village, but it is hard to know if it is real or genetically induced.

For me the best parts of this miniseries are the flashbacks to New York, particularly with Lucy (Haylee Atwell), a fellow employee of Summakor who has a brief but intense relationship with Six. Over the course of six episodes, Six’s past starts to fill in. For those of you who have seen the original series, in some ways its ending parallels that version, but in some ways not. This village is more a metaphor of modern society, man’s place in it, and the relationship if any between reality and detached consciousness.

Whether you find it better or worse than the original will depend in part on whether you saw the original. In many ways this version, while shorter, is better. In other ways, it is not quite as engaging or as fun. It is a delight to spend six episodes with Sir Ian McKellen because he is such a fine actor, but he is not your classic, obsessive Number Two. Rather he is more like a village caretaker, but why? To find out, watch all six episodes. I have seen all six episodes, all of which may not have yet been broadcast here in the states. I have my ways.

I doubt anyone who sticks with this version will be disappointed. I was not that happy with Jim Caviezel as Number Six, but at least he was more human and emotionally expressive than Patrick McGoohan’s ultra stoic version of Six. Instead, enjoy the minor characters. Ruth Wilson as 313 and Jamie Campbell Bower as 11-12 are particularly excellent.

The only real drawback to this version is that the story felt too rushed. To fully explore this village and its many permutations and eccentricities, they needed a more leisurely seventeen episodes, like the original series. Perhaps there will be a sequel to this miniseries where we get to learn more. Without giving any plot points away, I can say that at the end you will find out there is a new Number Two in charge.

 
The Thinker

Joe Lieberman: the leading asshole in the Senate

Granted the competition is extraordinarily stiff but congratulations to “Independent Democrat” Joe Lieberman. In a U.S. Senate full of overstuffed egos, you have proven yourself exceptionally singular even in this “august” deliberative body for your continual vacillation, contradictory statements and your “my way or the highway” approach to almost every issue no matter what the cost or how high the stakes. Of course when push came to shove it would be you, the leading asshole in the Senate, who would have to make or break health care reform to conform to your vacillating views, which will probably change again tomorrow.

When I think about you, this scene from Blazing Saddles (1974) comes to mind . To my readers, if you want to know how I feel, jump to 1:12, and change the words slightly to: “The fact that you would keep those 55 or older from having affordable health insurance just goes to prove that you are the leading asshole in the Senate.” That’s how most of the country feels about you, Joe: Democrats, Republicans, Independents and especially the citizens of Connecticut who in the future will not even elect you to be dog catcher.

 
The Thinker

Thoughts on Buddhism, Part Two

I have finished reading Buddhism for Dummies. I now at least feel like I can have a semi-informed opinion on Buddhism. I may be wrong. Reading Buddhism for Dummies and thinking you have an informed opinion on this ancient religion may be like flying across the United States at 35,000 feet and feeling you have a pretty good idea that you understand the country.

But I can also relate real-life experiences attending a half-dozen services with my wife at the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Burke, Virginia. At least at this temple the members are uniformly nice and harmless people. Perhaps they are saddled with as much baggage as the rest of us but they really do seem a lot more serene than most people I meet. They are also friendly and respectful. Unlike other religions where men in suits are anxious to have coffee with you after the service, I found none of this at this temple. Like my religion Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism is a come as you are no pressure sort of religion.

That is not to suggest that Buddhists are entirely out of the proselytizing business. Once enlightened, out of a spirit of compassion Buddha traversed much of northern India preaching his dharma. Upon his death, his followers also spread far and wide to preach the dharma too. However, I don’t think you ever have to worry about anyone leaving Buddhist pamphlets in your door or knocking asking you if you are enlightened.

Buddhism is centered on meditation. While meditation can relieve a lot of human suffering, by itself I do not think it offers a panacea. Following Buddhist dharma gives no assurance that in the next life you will be living in bliss. Rather it suggests your next life will be a lot like your current life, at least in the sense that you will be wrestling with the same sorts of issues. However, they claim that through techniques like guided meditation, you can discover your inner spirituality and through lots of study and practice anyone can achieve enlightenment.

You can be both a Christian and a Buddhist and it is not necessarily a contradiction. Guided meditation techniques pioneered by the Buddhists are useful for anyone, regardless of whether they are even religious. At its core, Buddhism is about eliminating human suffering through attacking its root causes, not in achieving salvation. If like most human beings you suffer, there is little reason not to give Buddhism, or at least meditation a try. It’s not like it has to cost anything. Many Buddhist temples will offer guided meditation free to all comers, or you can pick up a book and try to learn it by yourself

If there is a theology to Buddhism, it is that reincarnation happens. Not all Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but clearly, the vast majority of them do, otherwise they would not be so concerned about the karmic consequences of their actions. Most karma acquired during a given life is not addressed during the same life, but is carried forward into the next life for you to stumble through again until you get it right. In this sense, for those who prefer religions that are salvation-based, Buddhism is a big disappointment. If you believe in salvation, all your bad karma is pardonable by some higher authority upon death. In most cases, you are expected to be earnestly devoted to the beliefs and practices of the faith in order to achieve salvation.

For those who believe in salvation, getting into heaven is like getting past the bouncer at a club. If you are not too obnoxious, the bouncer lets you through. To the Buddhist (well, except a few like the sect my wife belongs to) you get into the club when you are spiritually ready to enter. In actuality though you are already a member of the club, since you are already divine in the sense that you have an immortal Buddha nature, you just have to get in touch with it. Achieving enlightenment sounds a lot like an alcoholic deciding to put down the bottle and embrace sobriety. When you achieve enlightenment during your mortal life, you pass through the door (nirvana). Out of compassion, many who do achieve enlightenment elect to reincarnate to help others also achieve enlightenment. For those who believe in salvation, there is little point in going back to an earthly life to wrestle with sinful mortals. You leave all that behind.

Part of meditation amounts to self-psychoanalysis. The theory goes that if you ponder a personal problem long enough, you can see it from all its various sides and permutations and know how to resolve it. The other part of meditation is to learn to exist in the moment. I personally am skeptical on the value of the self-analysis part of Buddhism, but I do see value in learning to exist in and appreciate the moment. People like me who perhaps spend too much time thinking about the future may end up missing the joy of being alive in the present. As Buddha taught, while death is inevitable, suffering is not. If you can develop a state of mind where you can revel in the now, you can spend less time worrying about the future. If you can master this, then it alone will do a lot to relieve your personal suffering.

I think the evidence is clear that Buddhism is one of the best major religions on the planet. As evidence, observe the behavior of Buddhists. Over 2500 year, have Buddhists caused any wars? They have not, as best as I can determine. Have they fought internecine wars to achieve dominance of one sect over another, such as have happened between Catholic and Protestant or Sunni and Shiite? I do not believe so. Do they go around hurting other people? All people hurt other people at times, sometimes inadvertently, but overall Buddhists take great pains to avoid being in the hurting business. They strive to be always mindful of what they say and do and the consequences of their actions. No other religion that I can see is doing as much to generate real harmony. Moreover, by their nature, they are not materialists. They tend to be natural environmentalists, vegetarians and eco-friendly. It takes a really tortured soul to hate a Buddhist. How can you hate someone who gives no offense?

If you think you are free to muddy up this world in order to achieve your salvation, Buddhism is not for you. However, if out of compassion you want to make this world better for everyone, including yourself, as well as all the other creatures on the planet, Buddhism might well be for you. If you are less concerned about slipping through some pearly gates in some amorphous next life then in relieving your suffering and the suffering of your fellow men, Buddhism is for you.

What is to dislike? Well, it may be just my Western orientation, but there is a fair amount of mysticism in Buddhism. The ringing of a gong, the smell of burning incense and the frequent use of chants do little to me to make me feel spiritually connected. There is also a strong belief in the nobility of celibacy, at least among the clerics. Sex is generally frowned upon for those who have or are trying to achieve enlightenment. I guess you are supposed to have transcended such earthly pleasures.

For me and for many of us of Western orientation, a religion like my Unitarian Universalism may be a better fit, while achieving similar aims. However, if your religious orientation is more spiritual than religious, if you feel more human-centered than salvation-centered, and if compassion is at the center of your being then Buddhism should feel very natural.

 
The Thinker

Danger: Wal-Mart Customer!

How ugly can retail get? There are uglier chain stores out there than Wal-Mart, but not a whole lot. Perhaps a Marshalls. Or a Dollar General. Wal-Mart is likely to remain forever the epitome of the gargantuan box store. It comes replete with lots of garish florescent lighting, narrow aisles and overflowing merchandise.

As far as us shoppers, apparently, I am not the only one to notice a certain lack of standards among many of Wal-Mart customers. Way back in 2003 I wrote about Wal-Mart:

I don’t hate its customers, but they don’t appeal to me a whole lot. They make me itchy. I know I paint with a wide brush here (and I’m certainly not saying that all their customers are this way) but they seem to me to be a lot of overweight and over-hassled looking people. They seem to disproportionately represent the lower middle class. I don’t hold it against them for shopping there. If I were living from paycheck to paycheck I might be shopping there too.

It’s not that finding stylish customers is impossible at a Wal-Mart, it’s just unlikely to be someone other than Sarah Palin. Of course, most of us avoid dressing stylishly unless the occasion commands it, which Wal-Mart certainly does not. Still, a certain amount of decorum is expected anywhere you shop, isn’t it? It’s hard to find a store, except perhaps along a beach, that does not require you wear shoes and a shirt. Apparently, it was not my imagination. We really do need to add the ubiquitous Wal-Mart to this list. In pursuit of the almighty dollar, it appears that Wal-Mart will let virtually anyone in the store. I guess I have to give the company an A for being egalitarian, but frankly part of the reason I avoid Wal-Mart is because some of their customers frighten me (and I’m 6’2”). When I see some of these types on the street, I hurriedly cross over to the other sidewalk to avoid them. In a Wal-Mart, they tend to be in your face whether you like it or not.

Another fashion challenged Wal-Mart customer

Another fashion challenged Wal-Mart customer

The theme of PeopleofWalmart.com seems to be, “Don’t be afraid of these eccentrics; celebrate them.” Wal-Mart customers much braver than me are apparently snapping unflattering and amazing pictures of other Wal-Mart customers and putting them on this web site for us to gawk at. While I am unlikely to ever shop again at a Wal-Mart unless they start paying their employees a living wage, I can at least observe the Wal-Mart customer spectacle from the safety of my computer.

Frankly, I spend much of my time on PeopleofWalmart.com guiltily laughing. The site is hilarious as a nadir of bad fashion. I say this as someone who has almost no sense of fashion. I frequently end up wearing clothes that, in the opinion of my spouse, are mismatched or uncoordinated. So when someone with as little fashion sense as me finds himself appalled by someone else’s dress that truly says something.

On PeopleofWalmart.com you can see many examples of horrendous fashion every day. Just a couple of these photos would make Robin Givhan (the Washington Post fashion editor) go blind. Truly, in your wildest imagination, you could never dream up some of the combinations of clothes that actual people are wearing at your local Wal-Marts. Some of their clothes are so bizarre, so Technicolor and so haplessly uncoordinated that even a hippie would recoil.

See the same person wear too much clothing on one part of their body and too little on another. View guys and ladies with plumbers’ cracks big enough to insert your local telephone book.  See people wearing animal skins mixed with garish polyesters. See people wearing florescent colored clothes with pastels. See bare feet. G strings. View ladies in swimsuits that leave nothing to the imagination. See people wearing what I hope are bizarre costumes rather than their regular clothes. See people who look like five minutes earlier they were cleaning shit out of a public sewer. See people who make Swamp Thing look fashionable. How I wish I were making this stuff up, but I am not. Go see for yourself. These kinds of pictures leave me wide eyed with my mouth hung open somewhere near the floor. It is often followed shortly thereafter by bombastic laughter and tears coming out of the corner of my eyes. Could it really be that we share the same forty-six chromosomes? Just the idea is frightening.

At the same time, I feel sad by the overwhelming number of beyond morbidly obese people in these pictures, many of whom are completely happy to let it all hang out. Huge rolls of fat bulge out from jeans five sizes too small for them. See women with fat on their backs so enormous that it dwarfs their already ample bosoms and puffs out around their narrow halter-tops as if they were the Pillsbury Dough Boy. You wonder how some of these people can even walk.

Doubtless, they are disproportionately captured on digital film but the fact that they exist at all, let alone in these numbers, is appalling. The site does suggest something that may now be the norm in Wal-Mart: the obese make up a plurality, if not a majority of their customers. Granted with the majority of Americans now either overweight or obese, they may well be characteristic of the average American in the 21st century. If so, you have to ask, what are we doing to ourselves? The evidence on PeopleofWalmart.com suggests we have been actively engaged in mass gluttony of the most egregious kind.

Perhaps this is also why I cannot be found in the aisles of Wal-Mart. If I can avoid it, I don’t want to face this unpleasant truth about my fellow Americans. Wal-Mart in general and the many examples of its customers captured on PeopleofWalmart.com make me scared for my country’s future. I hope I am wrong, but America has never seemed so infirmed, so fat, so bizarre and so dysfunctional. Everything I see in and around the Wal-Marts of America tell me that America is not just off the right track, but our locomotive has careened into the river and the water is rapidly rising up to our necks. Only most of us cannot see it.

So perhaps I laugh not only because of some personal character defect but because it is the safer alternative. What I really want to do: scream in shock, horror and pain at this daily evidence of a national problem that seems too big to solve. We appear to be destroying ourselves, our country and our national character. There is plenty of evidence available at your local Wal-Mart.

 

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