Sunday, December 26, 2010

Box-office Flops of 2010: Bad Timing or Just Plain Bad?

Quick: what do the following movies have in common?

Edge of Darkness
The Wolfman
The A Team
Repo Men
Robin Hood
Knight and Day
From Paris With Love
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Give up?

They all flopped at the box office this year. And they flopped hard. In fact, these movies were the 10 biggest box-office flops of 2010.

In a year that saw two wars, a stubborn recession, high employment, increasing distrust in the government, and an overall negative attitude about the state of the union, is it any wonder that we wanted some lighthearted, I-don’t-wanna-think entertainment this year? Hollywood thought that’s what they were giving us—feel-good rom coms (Knight and Day), kick-ass shoot ‘em ups (The A Team, From Paris With Love), and far-out fantasies (Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Hollywood pumped these movies out, thinking they were exactly what we wanted…and then no one went to see them.

What gives?

This could be a stretch (or wishing thinking on my part), but is it possible that what we wanted this year wasn’t escapist entertainment, but reality entertainment? Were we really craving provocative documentaries, tales of hardship and daily struggles, and inspirational weepies? Are we finally ready for less fluff and more substance?

Movies, perhaps, like Winter’s Bone, an independent movie that takes an unflinching look at life in the Ozarks, in the form of a young girl forced to care for a mentally disturbed mother and two hungry siblings while hunting down her drug addict father and preventing the family home from going into foreclosure?

Or A Film Unfinished, a documentary about the deplorable conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and the Nazi propaganda used to cinematically manipulate the situation?

Not exactly feel-good fare, but excellent films nonetheless, nominated for awards and receiving critical acclaims. Was our desire for more substance a factor in these films’ success?  

I’d like to think Americans are ready to face reality head on, and are tired of being pandered to. I want to believe they want to be challenged, are looking to think outside the box, and want movies to focus on life as they know it. Maybe it’s possible Americans want Hollywood to connect with them, to identify with them, be empathetic to their struggles.

I, for one, have always liked my movies to flirt with the dark side, expose the seedy underbelly of society, show life on the fringe. I shy away from fluff for the most part.

But I’m not so sure my fellow Americans want the same. Here’s how I know.

I recently joined a book club. The first book I was responsible for reading was Tracy Kidder’s “Strength in What Remains,” about a man who escapes war and genocide in his native Burundi in West Africa to seek the American dream in New York City. The book was full of violence and bloodshed and poverty and tales of homelessness and helplessness. It was a brave choice of book, especially given this time of year, when most people’s thoughts turn to Happy Holidays and visions of sugarplums are dancing in their heads.

It gave me hope that the staff of the bookstore would shy away from the typical lighthearted stuff most book clubs gravitate towards, and include gritty, provocative, and controversial reads. Maybe this book club would be different. Maybe the staff wouldn’t shy away from the horrors of the world, wouldn’t shelter us in a protective bubble, and embraces the world and all its imperfections. And if they felt that way about the books they read, certainly they liked their movies the same way.  

But I would be wrong.

“Don’t worry,” the book club leader said to us as our meeting wrapped up. “It’s rare that we pick a book as dark as this. We’ll be returning to more lighthearted fare for the future.”

All the ladies in the group let out a collective sigh of relief, and uttered such things as “Thank goodness for that,” and “I can’t believe this book was even chosen for discussion,” and “I hope next month’s pick is Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve been meaning to read that for months.”

Yes, as you might have guessed, most of the group hated “Strength in What Remains.”

Guess that goes to show that—no matter the form of entertainment—people really do just want to escape. Which would explain the top three box-office earners of the past year: Toy Story 3 ($415 million); Alice in Wonderland ($334 million); and Iron Man 2 ($312 million).

See the common thread there? Escapist entertainment if I’ve ever seen it. But also this: all three movies appealed to kids—and the kid in all of us.

Oh, and a third thing: they didn’t suck. Maybe that’s why we didn’t flock to theaters this year to see The Wolfman and Repo Men and MacGruber. Those movies, and the other big flops, were simply terrible.

Winter’s Bone and A Film Unfinished were dark and gritty, but excellent, which explains their success. Bad timing maybe, but appreciated by a minority of people who like to be challenged and forced to think. That was those movies’ saving grace.

Bad timing had nothing to do with any of the movie flops. It all came down to being bad.

So there you have it—the key to box office gold: make escapist movies that don’t suck. Unless a vampire is involved. Then we want the movie to suck.

(Which reminds me: I think my next post should be about the vampire craze that’s been sweeping the country for like, ever now. Seriously, the trend is getting old. Please go away.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chernobyl Gearing up to be the ‘Hot’ New Tourist Site of 2011

Sorry for the bad pun, but it’s to prove a point, really. Which is, do Ukrainian officials really think people will visit the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster?

I don’t know: Did the mayor of New York think people would visit Ground Zero, site of America’s worst terrorist attack?

The answer turned out to be yes, and people showed up in droves to view the wreckage and pay homage to the dead. And people are still showing up nine years later. (If you visit today, of course, you’ll see something more uplifting: construction of what will be a museum housing permanent exhibitions of stories and artifacts, and a memorial that will remember and honor the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11.)

For all the similarities you could draw between Ground Zero and Chernobyl—a preventable tragedy, thousands dead, thousands more forever altered—there is one striking difference: Ground Zero has been cleaned up and is safe for construction workers and visitors (who still view the site from behind barrier fencing), whereas the Chernobyl reactor that blew up is still leaking radiation.

You read that right: radiation is rife at Chernobyl. And Ukrainian officials want to turn it into a tourist attraction.

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the disaster

And not just any tourist attraction. A site where visitors will be able to walk around and see where, 24 years ago, a nuclear reactor exploded, spewing radiation over a huge part of northern Europe. Visitors will hear stories about the hundreds of thousands of people who were resettled from areas contaminated with radiation fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. They’ll hear about the health problems that still persist. They’ll see evacuees that, despite a government ban and risk of recontamination, have returned to their villages in the area of the plant. They’ll see the iron-and-concrete structure that was hastily built over the exploded reactor, a “shell” that is leaking radiation and is in threat of collapsing. Tourists might even bump into one of the 2,500 employees who still work at the now-closed nuclear plant, and work in shifts to minimize their risk of radiation exposure.

And visitors will be asked to follow a strict travel path (one that hasn’t been fully developed yet) and not stray from their tour group lest they want to be exposed to radiation themselves.

Look: I live ten minutes from Limerick nuclear power plant. I feel like can I weigh in on this subject, because the threat of nuclear fallout is a reality I live with every day.

The twin reactors at Limerick stick up into the sky like a beacon and are visible from every angle within a ten mile radius. The towers have become such a common site in the skyline that most residents don’t even think about them anymore. Even when they’re spewing smoke (visible from distances of up to 50 miles), because we know that means things are running smoothly and some fancy scientific thing is taking place to create energy for millions of homes. Even when, on the first Monday of the month at 2 p.m., the nuclear plant sounds its unmistakable siren, because we know that’s normal too—just the facility testing its emergency siren system.

And yes, from time to time, Limerick Generating Station has opened itself up to tours for specialty groups.

The Limerick Nuclear Power Plant

But here’s the thing: Tours of a well-guarded, professionally staffed, fully functional, safe nuclear power plant are one thing. Why not? Maybe we all would learn a thing or two. But to walk around a burned out shell of a site that’s leaking radiation?

I don’t know.

No, wait. I do know. It’s irresponsible. It’s unconscionable. And it could be a deadly liability.

The Emergency Situations Ministry, the Ukrainian governmental group wanting to offer tours of Chernobyl, claims the tours will be medically safe for visitors, and will educate Ukrainians and foreign visitors about the tragedy. Even the U.N. supports the plan, seeing it as an opportunity to tell a story, raise awareness about nuclear safety, and be an economic boon for the community.

All I can say is this: If Limerick blows its top, my husband and I plan on driving right into the line of fire, Thelma and Louise style, and going out in a blaze of glory. There’s no way we want to suffer with radiation fallout the way those poor Ukrainians did. I’d rather end my life than suffer for the rest of it.

So if there’s even a remote chance that I can get radiation poisoning from visiting Chernobyl, you won’t be catching me there anytime soon.

Then again, if the U.N. agrees with it and thinks it’s okay…

Sign me up. Sounds like it could be a real gas. (Ouch. I’m gonna catch a lot of shit for that one.)

Who’s up for a road trip? Show of hands?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is It Time To Crown A New King of Pop?

Michael Jackson’s song “This Is It” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, alongside Michael Buble, Adam Lambert, Bruno Mars and John Mayer. If the King of Pop wins on February 13, 2011, there will no doubt be a tearful acceptance speech from an appreciative family member. It’ll be reminiscent of the moment at the Oscars two years ago when Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight and his parents accepted on his behalf: a painful reminder that we are losing talented artists way too early.

And it got me thinking. Michael Jackson has been gone for a little more than a year. Is it time to crown a new King of Pop?

To fans and family members and artists influenced by Michael, the answer would probably be, “No way. Not ever.” But statisticians, the people who love tallying album sales and counting awards, might say, “Eh, we’ll see. There might be another artist in our lifetime capable of such accomplishments.”

And what accomplishments they are.

Over a nearly 40-year career, Michael Jackson has won just about every type of music award you can possibly think of (Grammies and Golden Globes and everything in between) and has been recognized by everyone from MTV to the Guinness Book of World Records to world leaders. Five of his solo albums are among the top-sellers of all time. He’s had 13 number one singles. He won 13 Grammies. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. “Thriller” is the largest selling album in the history of the recording industry. He has sold an estimated 750 million records worldwide.

Not to mention that he is profoundly influential, having inspired subsequent generations of pop, soul, R&B and hip-hop artists.

So the bigger question might be: Is there another performer out there capable of all that?

Surely there are some performers well on their way to such stardom and artistic greatness. Artists like Usher, perhaps, who has released seven albums in 15 years. He’s had 13 consecutive Top 20 singles, seven of which were #1. He’s won 17 Billboard Music Awards, nine ASCAP awards, eight Soul Train Music Awards and five Grammies. He’s also an accomplished actor, record company owner, best-selling fragrance spokesman, and devoted mentor for youth leadership. Not too shabby for a 32-year-old. (He’s the first person to come to mind when I think about an heir to the King of Pop throne.)

But what about Jackson’s fellow nominees? Bruno Mars is considered a relative newbie on the scene, but dig deeper and you’ll find he’s no overnight success. Behind the scenes he was creating hit singles for some of today’s top talent, including Flo Rida and Travie McCoy. Bruno was barely out of high school then. Over the years, he’s leant his voice to top hits and produced hooks and has just released his own first solo album. He sings and writes and plays piano. Last week he learned he was nominated for seven Grammies. He’s just 25.

John Mayer’s guitar skills are no joke. He’s also a songwriter and music producer, as well as a philanthropist, supporting veterans’ healthcare issues. His first two studio albums went multi-platinum. He has several Grammies under his belt and has been nominated for four more this time around. He’s 33.

Michael Buble is only 35 but he’s already sold 25 million albums worldwide. This Canadian’s first album reached the top ten in Canada and the UK and soon enough he reached worldwide fame with the albums that followed. He acts and has won numerous music awards.

Adam Lambert found the stage before a singing career took hold. He starred in many European and U.S. theatre productions as a boy and teenager, after which time he met the people who would help him launch his recording career. This 28-year-old is most notably known as the runner-up on the 8th season of American Idol, but he’s won several awards, cementing him as someone to watch in the pop world.

The fact that the other four artists nominated alongside Jackson are 35 and under is nothing to shake a stick at. They’ve all accomplished so much in so short a time that it begs the question: Are any of these men (Usher included) capable enough of filling Michael Jackson’s shoes? Not yet, of course, but in time—with more training and more hits and more experience—any one of them might very well be handed the crown of King of Pop.

Well, except maybe John Mayer and Mars Bruno and Michael Buble. Because they don’t dance. Not that that’s a prerequisite. I’m just saying.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Recent Safety Review Begs the Question: Are Airplanes Too Fat To Fly?

On November 4, a Qantas flight departing from Singapore had to turn around after one its engines experienced a midair blowout. The plane landed safely in Singapore, and all passengers were safe, but the engine was toast.

The engine in question is a Trent 900, manufactured by Rolls Royce and installed on the A380 planes of Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, and, well, the damn thing disintegrated upon takeoff. A domino effect occurred, a series of events that, as you can imagine, caused all sorts of problems for the pilot.   

The incident occurred without much media coverage or public outcry about airline safety, perhaps because Qantas did everything right—both from a safety and PR perspective—to correct the situation, including replacing some of the Trent 900 engines, grounding planes for exhaustive safety checks, and flying its chief executive on a Sydney to London flight today as a sign of the airline’s commitment to safety.

In an act of good faith and PR suavity, Qantas flew its chief executive on the first flight by one of its super-jumbo jets since a midair engine explosion in early November triggered a safety review of the airline’s fleet.
But still, even Qantas admits there’s more work to do. The airline will eventually pursue compensation from Rolls Royce for the faulty engines and seek compensation for losses it suffered from grounding its fleet. And there’s the matter of redeploying its fleet of A380s that fly the Australia to Los Angeles route, currently one of the longest commercial flights in the world. Those flights are currently suspended while the airline tests whether the extra thrust required for takeoff on these routes creates too much stress on the engines.

In other words, the airline is keeping its fingers crossed that our desire (our need?) for long-haul world travel hasn’t exceeded its operational capacity.

Certainly it’s a question other airline executives must be asking themselves. As if the airline industry doesn’t have enough to worry about, now it can add “Stressed Out Engines” to its list of woes.

That’s because the A380s that fly these long-haul flights must load up on more fuel than other flights if the airplane is expected to make it across an ocean. The planes, therefore, are heavier at take off and require more thrust in order to get the bird in the sky. Qantas insists the Trent 900 engines are up for the challenge, and claims the suspension of these flights is only precautionary.

But even if the engines are manufactured correctly and the airline follows all the rules and adheres to strict safety protocols, there’s no denying that outside factors are starting to affect airlines’ ability to carry us safety around the world.

I’m talking about our insistence on packing our entire closet in our luggage.

How many times have you seen someone wheeling a ginormous “carry on” bag onto an airplane and wondered how on earth an airline employee didn’t question it? Or stood speechless at the check-in counter as the family in front of you checked, like, ten bags? I know that’s happened to me on several occasions and frankly, it’s selfish of my fellow passengers and it’s unfair that airlines aren’t doing more to stop it.

I know the airlines have instituted fees for checked luggage in an effort to discourage people from bringing too much stuff (and okay, to make money for the financially strapped companies), but so far all the fees have proven is that people will gladly whip out their wallets if it means they can still pack eight pairs of shoes. We Americans don’t want anyone telling us what to do, least of all dictating what we take with us on vacation, so if we have to pay a little bit extra for the right to exercise that freedom, then so be it.

And therein lies the problem: At some point, it becomes a safety issue. If every passenger on a full flight checked just one bag that was “only” ten pounds over the weight limit, that’s thousands of extra pounds on that already heavy flight.

Sure, Qantas says the extra weight—in their case because of extra fuel—was okay and didn’t effect the airplane, but what’s the tipping point? When will extra weight be too much weight? At what point will airplanes simply be too fat to fly?

There’s nothing us average passengers can do about the extra fuel required to fly us on super-long flights; that’s up to the airline industry and its suppliers to sort out. But we can help control the excess weight of the airplanes that we board.

The next time you’re preparing for a flight, stop and think about what you’re packing. Seriously people, do you need four bags’ worth of stuff for your extended weekend jaunt to Florida? I understand that international--and extended--travel requires more luggage than usual, but let’s do our part to make our flights less hefty by carrying less stuff.

I promise you, there are washers and dryers wherever you’re going. And if not, there’s always the hotel bathroom sink.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Co-Ed Naked Airport Security: Would You Strip if it Guaranteed Your Safety?

The majority of Americans (4 out of 5) in a recent poll said they would. And that other person? Well, he is protesting the increased security measures at airports around the country, because he thinks it’s an invasion of his privacy.

His name may very well be John Tyner, the traveler who recently refused to undergo the new security measure at the San Diego airport, and also refused to undergo a pat-down, only to leave the airport—with a full refund for the flight he didn’t take. (The whole incident was recorded and you can see it here and here.)

What, exactly, was Tyner—and other privacy-sensitive people like him--protesting? Full-body scanning machines.

The TSA rolled out full body scanners at 65 airports across the U.S. in October, including ones at the large airport near me, Philadelphia International. These Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units use X-rays and electromagnetic waves to detect both metallic and non-metallic threats including weapons and explosives. Both types of machines create a full-body image, like this:

Looking at the pictures above, can you see why some people are up in arms?

Never mind that these machines are safe, according to the TSA. (They claim our cell phones are worse for us.) Or that they require only seconds of your time to walk through. And never mind that they pretty much weed out terrorists and other bad guys and guarantee safe flights for everyone because they detect ALL metallic and non-metallic threats.

No, the hubbub has to do with the fact that your fat, flabby body will be seen by a TSA agent you can’t see and will never meet. 

You see, these machines can pretty much see through all the layers of your clothing, and images of your (naked) body are what pop up on the scanner’s computer screen. And that’s exactly why Tyner refused to go through them in the first place. His words to the San Diego airport’s TSA officials? “I didn’t want anyone looking at my naked body.”

People are protesting this latest technology because they think it’s an invasion of their privacy. (Whether these people use the “invasion of privacy” term as a replacement for “fear of embarrassment” is open to debate.) These machines have created such a hullabaloo that a group of fed-up fliers have created the National Opt-Out Day, scheduled for November 24. Their cause has a website here 

 On that day, travelers who think their privacy is being violated by the thought of going through the AIT scanners should refuse to do so. They will tell the TSA agents, “I opt out,” and in doing so will be pulled to the side for an “enhanced” pat down. (The National Opt-Out gang wants you to think the TSA will grope your genitalia during the pat-down—a further violation of privacy--but the TSA is pretty vague about what “enhanced” means.) The end-goal? Get enough passengers riled up and refusing to go through the scanners, and thus creating even longer lines at airport security and complete mayhem at airports around the country during the Thanksgiving travel season.

Huh. So these opt-out people would rather waste five minutes being groped in public by a complete stranger during a pat-down than take three seconds to walk through a scanner and be on their way? And not only that, they want to create longer lines for you and me, their fellow American travelers who have no problem with the scanners, and are willing to piss us off on a principle? Really?

I could go further and say that they’d rather take the risk of being blown up mid air than allow an invisible stranger to see an image that is a mere reflection of their naked body, but that would be insensitive of me. Instead, I’ll just say thanks, d-bags.

On Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the stepped-up airport security measures. "This is all being done as a process to make sure that the traveling public is safe," she said. I wish she would have said what she was really thinking. “You fools wanna be blown up by terrorists? Be my guest. My ass is walking through that scanner.” (Wouldn’t it be awesome if we lived in a world where politicians could say what was truly on their minds? Life would be so much more interesting. But I digress. Sorry.)

Look, I don’t want airport security to see my “naked” body either, but we live in a world where bad guys are getting smarter, their technology increasingly advanced. We need to be smarter than they are. And if an AIT scanner will do that, then so be it. The TSA agent looking at my “naked” self can laugh all he/she wants. This is a person I will never see and never meet.

My only complaint about these new scanners? That they weren’t instituted sooner.

Hey, if nothing else, the new machines will force us to get in shape, something we need to do anyway, because America is getting fatter and fatter and obesity is now an epidemic in this country. So if takes a few seconds of embarrassment for us to change our eating and exercising habits, awesome. Bring it on.

A slimmer America with no terrorists? Hurray to that.

I raise my glass to the new AIT scanners and look forward to stripping naked for the TSA.

Who’s with me? Anyone? Hello??

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cleopatra: Do We Need Her to be Beautiful in Order to Matter?

Cleopatra is all the rage right now. A new biography was just published about her, Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff (a good book apparently, albeit without any new revelations) and a traveling exhibition on the Egyptian Queen is currently making its world premiere in my neck of the woods, at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

While reading reviews of Ms. Schiff’s book and scanning through info on the last pharaoh of Egypt, it occurred to me: Cleopatra is always portrayed in photos and dramatizations and movies and artwork as being outrageously beautiful.

I think this might be a lie.

From what I know, while she was far from ugly, Cleopatra wasn’t exactly a stunner, either. She was…well, rather average looking.

And it got me thinking: Was Cleopatra really a gorgeous specimen of femininity, or did popular culture make her that way in order to make her matter more in the eyes of history?

Let’s start here, with this “classical” image of Cleopatra, as portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in the famous 1963 movie of the same name:

Let’s face it: we all love a pretty face. Pop culture, especially, loves attractive people. Why else use models to sell everything from underwear to soft drinks? Because as a marketing tool, good-looking people get the job done. Sex sells. Always has, always will. I don’t profess to know all the stats out there about this, but suffice to say it’s a trend that’s still in use for a reason. As humans, we’re just hardwired to want to hang around with and look at—and buy stuff from--attractive people. Marketing executives and advertisers know this, and use it to their advantage. (Full disclosure: As a marketing executive, I’m guilty of this myself.)

I guess we could blame the makers of the Cleopatra film, who cast a comely Taylor in the titular role, for the perpetuation of Cleopatra’s beauty. Maybe, however, they were just playing along with the pop culture Cleopatra-as-sexy status quo. I mean, let’s face it: Hollywood almost demands their queens and goddesses to be not just powerful, but powerful and beautiful. The producers had a movie to sell, after all.

But portrayals of a beautiful, seductive, powerful Cleopatra goddess pre-date this film by about…oh, two millennia. Look at this piece of artwork:

This is a basalt statue of Cleopatra that dates to the second half of the first century B.C., around the time she was ruling Egypt. Va-Va-Voom, right? The artist was clearly trying to send a message: not only was Cleopatra an influential pharaoh from a powerful bloodline of Egyptian rulers, she was also smokin’ hot.

Cassius Dio, a member of the Roman consul and noted historian in the first century A.D., spoke of her beauty thusly: “For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking.” This Dio dude was Roman and lived nearly 100 years after Cleopatra, and yet even HE knew of Cleopatra’s supposed alluring beauty. It seems, then, that the portrayal of Cleopatra as gorgeous goddess caught on early and was passed down through history.

How, then, do we explain these images of Cleopatra?

The first is a marble bust that dates from about 30 B.C., around the time of her death. The second is an ancient Greek silver coin in wide circulation during Cleopatra’s reign, showing the pharaoh in profile. In these perhaps more realistic images, Cleopatra, with her hook nose and homely appearance, is in stark contrast to popular images of her. Hardly the face of a woman whose conquest of powerful men was proof of her sexual appeal. And hardly the stunning beauty we’ve been led to believe.

So whose images of Cleopatra are the most historically accurate? I tend to believe the truth is always in the middle.

Remember Cassius Dio, the first century A.D. historian I mentioned earlier who claimed Cleopatra was “most striking”? A fellow historian of his, Plutarch, begs to differ, indicating "her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” In other words, this first century Roman wondered what all the fuss was about. He went on to say that “the sweetness in the tones of her voice” was what made Cleopatra attractive, not any physical attribute. It was Cleopatra’s wit and charm alone, in fact, that won many men over.

But Dio doesn’t completely eschew her non-physical qualities. He is known to have said, “She {also} possessed a most charming voice and knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one.” Again, a reference to non-physical attributes that, in spite of any lack of physical beauty, made Cleopatra attractive to everyone around her.

So, do we need Cleopatra to be beautiful in order to validate her as a woman? Must she possess a stunning face and a shapely figure in order for us to take her seriously as a powerful leader and influential political tactician? The answer, it seems, is no.

But just to be safe, Little, Brown and Company, publisher of Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra biography didn’t show Cleopatra’s face on the cover of the book. (Intentionally?) Instead, her head is turned extremely to the left, as if she's looking over her shoulder. All you can see is the back of her head. But the suggestion of beauty is there—the long line of her neck, her swept-up hair, her flowing wardrobe. This seems to suggest that even though we know she may not be the beauty that pop culture typically portrays her as, we want her to be. We want her to have the whole package: beauty, brains and brawn.

But isn’t it enough that Cleopatra was powerful, and cunning, and “sweet,” and charming? Must she be beautiful, too? Can't we accept that she used something other than her beauty to achieve what she did? In other words, what value do we place on a pretty face?

A lot, but remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And to many, Cleopatra, in spite of any lack of beauty she had, was one of the most beautiful women in history.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Should we NOT want to travel to a foreign country because of its socio-political reputation?

In the weeks leading up to my recent trip to China, friends and colleagues kept asking me the same question: “Why on earth would you want to go to China?”

Different people, same exact question. They’d follow this comment up with, “There’s nothing to do in China,” And, “They make so much money off of us exporting cheap crap.” And my favorite bon mot: “They’re all a bunch of communists.”


Me in the Forbidden City with a bunch of my "communist" friends
So how do I begin to explain to these people (whom I love dearly, despite their lack of cultural awareness) that China is both everything they’ve read it is and nothing that they expect. Yes, China’s citizens are dominated by a totalitarian political party that controls all their economic and social activities. But that doesn’t make all 1.3 billion of them “communists.” Yes, the Chinese currency is severely undervalued, but that’s because the country is trying to keep up with the huge demand for cheap goods that other countries—especially America—can’t seem to live without. (Been to a Walmart lately? Hello!?) Yes, China’s towns and cities are loud and dirty and suffer from bumper-to-bumper cars and elbow-to-elbow people. But you try shuttling millions of people to work and school everyday and see how clean and quiet you can be.

I’m not a journalist, so for a better explanation of the current state of Chinese affairs, read this and this

I only know what I saw for myself.

I tried telling my good-natured friends and colleagues all of the above, and was met with responses along the line of, “Yeah, well…whatever.” I even got a few blank stares. I decided right then and there that they simply didn’t understand. Which is totally okay. There’s something in all of us that most people just don’t get.

Upon my return to China, I told them about all the things I saw and ate and drank and experienced. The Great Wall in Beijing…The Forbidden City…The Pandas in Chengdu….The Giant Buddha of Leshon…All the pagodas and drum towers in Xian…so much more and not enough room here to summarize. The food? Fresh, hot, and cooked to order right in front of me. And so much healthier than the fructose-laced crap I can’t seem to avoid here in America. The tea was delicious, the rural landscapes beautiful, and the subway stations surprisingly clean and well-maintained.

They seemed a little more receptive, but mostly to be polite, not because they suddenly cared about all the “communists” in China.

I could have been a real jerk and said that America ain’t so great, either. Millions of people are unemployed, the housing market is in the toilet, and the middle class is slowly being hollowed out as more and more jobs are shipped overseas. Our justice system is screwy-louie, the rich keep getting richer, government is filled with crooked thieves, and don’t even get me started on the lack of separation of church and state.

The government seems reticent to do anything about all our problems, probably because they don’t know how to fix them, both sides can’t seem to agree on anything, and powerful lobbyists pay our politicians to look the other way.

But change is on the horizon—for both countries. A Chinese man living in exile was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and federal money in out on the streets, helping fix America’s dilapidated bridges and tunnels and roadways. A changing of the guard is occurring in China as a new PM is gearing up to take office. And America is preparing for mid-term elections that could see a huge shift in power, ushering in sweeping changes…or more of the same. Time will tell.

So now it’s time for me to tell. To all the people who question why I’d want to go to a country as “backwards” as China, this is the simply answer: Why not? What better reason to visit China—or any other country—than because it’s unique and different, and because it’s experiencing a time of change and uncertainty? The exact reasons we give for NOT visiting a countries should be the same reasons why we go. For the straight story, for the first-hand experiences, for perspective.

Life is short. Immerse yourself into different cultures. Surround yourself with people different than yourself. I did. And in doing so, I found myself surrounded by 1.3 billion Chinese “communists.” Just don’t tell anyone that was my real reason for going.