Sunday, September 27, 2015

A belated 30th birthday tribute to The Golden Girls: It really WAS the new Maude

In one of the early episodes of The Golden Girls -- even possibly in the 1985 pilot -- Dorothy Zbornak said something that's stayed with me all these years. She and her BFFs Blanche Devereaux and Rose Nylund were sitting around the kitchen table (of course) talking about the trials of getting older. I don't think Dorothy's "ma" Sophia Petrillo was in the room for this particular declaration.

Dorothy acknowledged that she was at an age (55 when the series began, though Beatrice Arthur, the actress who played her, was closer to 63) when 40 actually seemed young. I never thought I'd reach an age where I'd understand exactly what she was saying.

In honor of The Golden Girls' 30th anniversary this month, I've done far. I couldn't think of anything I could do that every gay blogger under the sun hadn't already done...until now. As I was thinking of Dorothy's take on 40 this morning, I remembered a blog post I started writing about two years ago when I began revisiting old episodes of Bea's pre-Golden Girls series, the groundbreaking '70s sitcom Maude.

As I started watching those old Maude episodes during a trip to Johannesburg in 2013, I noticed some interesting similarities between not only the shows but also the characters Bea played in them, Dorothy and Maude Findlay. Yes, there were major differences: Maude, unlike Dorothy until the Golden finale, was married...sometimes happily. She was also less restrained and less gullible than Dorothy. Remember that haughty author that Dorothy befriended and Blanche and Dorothy hated? Maude would have had her number from the first sentence.

But one look at Maude's kitchen, and I noticed that it looked almost exactly like the one in which Dorothy offered that memorable take on 40. That's when I started to realize that if you replaced Maude's husband Walter with Stanley Zbornak, The Golden Girls could have been a kinder, gentler Maude's life after divorce and a relocation from New York to Miami. Remember, Dorothy was from New York, too.

Were Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak the same person in different decades and zip codes?

Among the similarities and overlaps between the shows and the top-billed characters...

1. The biggest one is the presence of Rue McClanahan, who played Maude's bestie Vivian, who often came across as Rose in Blanche's body.

2. Both Maude and Dorothy pronounced "despicable" DES-pic-able.

3. Maude performed "Hard-Hearted Hannah" is season 2 episode 10, as did Dorothy in the final Golden Girls season when Blanche was consumed by jealousy after Dorothy became the hit of her favorite watering hole.

4. Two episodes of Maude were dedicated to Maude getting a facelift. Dorothy once admitted to having had her eyes done.

5. The polygamist that Blanche almost married in The Golden  Girls' pilot was played by the same actor who played the older man that almost married Maude's daughter Carol. Incidentally, both Blanche and Carol got involved with younger men over the course of their respective series.

6. Season 2 episode 11 of Maude featured an appearance by the actor who played the man Sophia met in the personals whose dying wife wanted Sophia to replace her.

7. The actress who played wife of the guy who died of a heart attack in Rose's bed appeared in the third episode of Maude's fourth season, "Maude Gets a Job."

8. "What fools these mortals be." That's a Shakespearean line Dorothy once pretentiously quoted, as did Maude in the ninth episode of the second season.

9. Remember when Rose announced that she always sang the song "Over There" when she was scared and the gang broke into it as Blanche was being wheeled into the operating room to have a pacemaker installed? Well, Maude also sang it in season 2 episode 14.

10. In season 3 episode 1 of Maude, the one with a guest appearance by John Wayne, Maude uttered the line: "I for one, intend to question Mr. Wayne on the important issues of the day." Dorothy said the same thing about President George Bush when she learned he'd be coming to their house.

11. Both Maude and The Golden Girls devoted an entire episode to a supposed UFO sighting.

12. There was an episode of Maude in which one of Maude's friends was fighting with her daughter over an inheritance that the younger woman's deceased dad had left her. A similar scenario played out between Rose and her daughter over Rose's late husband Charlie's estate.

13. A character by the name of Miss Devereaux popped up in Maude's "Business Person of the Year" episode. Eerie, right?

14. Both shows had amazing theme songs. Maude's was sung by the late Donny Hathaway, who had Top 40 hits with Roberta Flack in the '70s. Meanwhile, The Golden Girls' "Thank You for Being a Friend" was written by the late Andrew Gold, who had a Top 40 hit with it in the '70s.

15. In addition to the aforementioned double-dipping guest stars, a number of others appeared in episodes of both sitcoms.

Edward Winter appeared in the Maude episode "The Ecologist" and later as the blind guy Blanche dated.

The actor who played with fire when the girls were held hostage by Santa on Christmas Eve in the help center where Rose worked also appeared in the Maude episode "The Gay Bar."

Herb Edelman, who had a recurring role as Dorothy's ex-husband Stanley, was in "Maude the Boss," season 3 episode 11 of the earlier series.

Conrad Janis who played the host of Beat the Devil in the Maude episode "The Game Show" (sounds a bit like The Golden Girls' game show Grab That Dough, no?) was also the dance-off emcee in "One for the Money" on The Golden Girls.

And the winner is...all of us! Maude and The Golden Girls were two of the best sitcoms of all-time, and Bea Arthur remains a national treasure. We're lucky to have had her as a regular in our homes...twice.

Friday, September 25, 2015

9 classic songs that wouldn't go away…and they're not the ones you think!

I recently listened to a 1981 episode of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 countdown, and one of Casey's trivia moments changed the way I view pop history.

When I think of the biggest vintage songs of the rock & roll era, a few immediately pop into mind: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones, "Respect" by Aretha Franklin -- you know, those usual 1960s suspects.

When Casey listed the five songs that made the Top 40 via different versions in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, he kind of blew me away. They were songs that were so beloved they entered the Top 40 again…and again…and again, but not one of them come to mind when I think of the quintessential classics from the last 50-plus years.

I mean, the Stones' "Satisfaction" is the band's signature single, and it's been covered by artists as diverse as Franklin, Otis Redding, Devo, and Britney Spears, yet it's only enjoyed one Top 40 trip. How is that possible?

There are a couple of those triple players that I'd consider to be bonafide classics, though none of them on par with the aforementioned classics. I suppose, however, that I could imagine a post-millennial choosing a few of them as audition songs on any of the reality-show talent contests. Then again, Stevie Wonder's "Lately" was an American Idol staple for several seasons and Stevie's original only made it to No. 64 on Billboard's Hot 100. Not a particularly iconic chart showing.

After some careful consideration, I threw in the '90s and added four songs to Casey's triple-play list (all of which joined the club after the August 1981 AT40 episode aired). Hmm… I'm still scratching my head and wondering, These are the songs that Americans loved so much they sent them into the Top 40 at least once in at least three consecutive decades? Huh?

Well, who said there are no more surprises? There are a number of them among Billboard's biggest decades-spanning hits.

(Interesting aside: The title "Venus" has topped the Hot 100 in three non-consecutive decades -- the '50s, '70s, and '80s -- via Frankie Avalon's 1959 classic, a completely different 1970 Shocking Blue hit, and Bananarama's 1986 Shocking Blue cover. Despite the No. 1 success of "Venus" by both Shocking Blue and Bananarama, would anyone consider it to even approach the classic status of, say, Aretha Franklin's iconic "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which went to No. 8 in 1967, never to grace the Top 40 again? Mysteries!)

"Stand By Me": 1) Ben E. King, 1961, No. 4, 2) Spyder Turner, 1967, No. 12, 3) John Lennon, 1975, No. 20, 4) Mickey Gilley, 1980, No. 22, 5) Ben E. King, 1986, No. 9

"Cupid": 1) Sam Cooke, 1961, No. 17, 2) Johnny Nash, 1970, No. 39, 3) Tony Orlando and Dawn, 1976, No. 22, 4) The Spinners, 1980, No. 4

"The Loco-Motion" : 1) Little Eva, 1962, No. 1, 2) Grand Funk Railroad, 1974, No. 1, 3) Kylie Minogue, 1988, No. 3

"Hey There Lonely Boy/Girl": 1) Ruby and the Romantics, 1963, No. 27, 2) Eddie Holman, 1970, No. 2, 3) Robert John, 1980, No. 31

"I Only Want to Be with You": 1) Dusty Springfield, 1964, No. 12, 2) Bay City Rollers, 1976, No. 12, 3) Samantha Fox, 1988, No. 31

"The Way You Do the Things You Do": 1) The Temptations, 1964, No. 11, 2) Rita Coolidge, 1978, No. 20, 3) Hall & Oates featuring David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick, 1985, No. 25, 4) UB40, 1990, No. 6

"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)": 1) The Four Tops, 1965, No. 1, 2) Donnie Elbert, 1972, No. 22, 3) Bonnie Pointer, 1980, No. 40

"Everlasting Love": 1) Robert Knight, 1967, No. 13, 2) Carl Carlton, 1974, No. 6, 3) Rex Smith and Rachel Sweet, 1981, No. 32, 4) Gloria Estefan, 1995, No. 27

"Baby I Love Your Way": 1) Peter Frampton, 1976, No. 12, 2) Will to Power, 1988, No. 1, 3) Big Mountain, 1994, No. 6

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dear white people (and Nancy Lee Grahn): There is no criticizing Viola Davis' beautifully human Emmy speech

What is it with daytime soap actresses I love putting their feet in their Twitters? Several years ago, it was Days of Our Lives' Melissa Reeves defending the right of the powers that be at Chick-fil-A to hate gay people.

Now General Hospital's Nancy Lee Grahn has tried to turn what was a beautiful historic Emmy moment -- How to Get Away with Murder's Viola Davis becoming the first black actress to win Outstanding Lead Actress in Drama Series -- and turn it into something ugly.

I will admit that for one moment, the one where Viola was quoting Harriet Tubman, I was a bit perplexed. Wait, when were beautiful white women reaching out to you from across the great divide? I wondered. But once she attributed the lovely quote to Tubman, I recognized it for the amazing analogy that it was.

I was right with her for the rest of the speech. I'm pretty sure I must have stifled a tear. I was surrounded by colleagues at work. I didn't want them to see how touched I was. I try to be tough like that in public, but had I let the waterworks flow, I'm convinced they all would have understood.

Thank God, I don't work with Nancy Lee Grahn. She probably would have been rolling her eyes while crafting her tweet in her head.

Here's what she ended up writing:

"I wish I loved #ViolaDavis Speech, but I thought she should have let @shondarhimes write it. #Emmys"

Of course, you can't go there and just run away. NLG didn't. She wrote a succession of follow-up tweets criticising Viola for singling out black women and not making her speech about all women. She griped about Viola getting better roles than she does, paid her some backhanded compliments, then delivered the zinging kicker:

"She has never been discriminated against."

Whoa! I thought as I read her series of tweets, wondering how it was possible that she could have survived the half hour-plus it took for her to write them without any oxygen getting to her head.

But after Matt Damon's lesson on discrimination last week -- he had the nerve to tell a black director that it doesn't matter if you have diversity behind the camera as long as there's diversity in front of it -- I'm convinced that when it comes to racism, white Hollywood (including many who consider themselves to be hyper-aware liberals) just doesn't get it.

Unless you know what it's like to be denied opportunity because of the color of your skin, to be denied jobs and housing, to be told you are not as good as everyone else, as beautiful as everyone else, because you happen to be a minority, you simply cannot tell me how racism works.

Yes, there is discrimination against women in Hollywood. But Viola Davis is not contractually obligated to speak for all women. (And didn't Patricia Arquette already cover that -- painfully so -- after winning her Oscar earlier this year?) Nancy Lee Grahn is a fantastic actress -- one with a pair of Daytime Emmy Awards, by the way -- and I certainly think she's talented enough to be a major movie star. Why she isn't is a discussion for another night.

But on the night when Viola Davis becomes the first black woman in history to win an Emmy Award in her field, yes, I think the discussion needs to be about black actresses, not actresses in general. (P.S. Since The Jefferson's Isabel Sanford won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1981, she, Gimme a Break's Nell Carter, and The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad have been the only black women to be nominated in that category, the last black nominee being Rashad in 1986.) Despite what NLG sees as her professional deprivation and Viola Davis's privilege, this is an award for which women, most of them white, have been competing for decades, and it took decades for a black woman to finally win it.

What does that say about the Academy? What does it say about Hollywood? What does it say about the United States? For all the discrimination against women in general, the fact remains that white women have it much better than women of color. Yes, they don't receive the same pay as men. Yes, in Hollywood, they struggle to find work after turning 40.

But black women have a tougher time climbing over that brick wall. How often do we see them headlining movies, being cast as the romantic lead, being cast at all in roles that aren't specifically written for a black character? Things have gotten much better on TV in recent years, but Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to female minorities.

In the 13 years since Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a leading actress Oscar and Denzel Washington became the second black leading actor to take the prize, two black men (Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker) have won, but there have been no follow-up black female winners and only three black female nominees (one of which was Viola).

Viola Davis may be highly employable these days, but she was no overnight success. How dare NLG tell her that she has never been discriminated against? She is a 50-year-old woman who has only just begun to hit her stride in film and TV. As NLG said in one deleted tweet, she herself has been an actress for 40 years, and she's been a gainfully employed one since the 1980s, well before anyone had ever heard of Viola Davis.

Unless she's actually walked in Viola's shoes, how can she say what Viola has experienced? Unless NLG has experienced racial discrimination firsthand, how can she address it with any real expertise? Rather than using a landmark moment to bemoan her own status or perceived lack thereof in the industry, perhaps she should have put her hashtagging effort to better use and congratulated Viola.

A win for black women is a win for all women. Who knows? If NLG had put aside her sour grapes and really listened to what Viola was saying, she might even have learned something.

Later NLG apologized for her comments, but she kept defending herself at the same time, proving she hadn't actually learned anything at all.

Dear white people: Stop wigging out and getting so defensive when black people start talking about racism. If you're not racist, bravo. But it's not just about you. So shut up and listen. You might learn something about us. You might learn something about yourselves, too.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Strangers in the night (or day): Is it really necessary to acknowledge all of them?

The other night I had an interesting conversation with a man at a party that had a familiar effect: Like so many others before him, he left me wondering if I'm actually a terrible person, after all.

We all have our insecurity things. For some, it's "Am I ugly?" For others, it's "Do I look fat?" Still others dwell on their dancing, their cooking, their walk, or their talk. I have my moments of uncertainty regarding all of the above and much more, but the self-doubting question with which I most often plague myself is this one: Am I actually a terrible person?

It's not something I typically ask myself unprovoked. While no one has never called me a terrible person outright, the question usually pops into my head when I'm in or have been in the company of another person.

The latest instance was on Friday night, and it began with a conversation I was having about social mores in Japan vs. social mores in the Western world...or something. The guy I was talking to expressed a people pet peeve that I can't say I'd ever heard before. He said he can't understand how people can share the same air space without acknowledging each other. Just a "Hello" or a little nod would do.

The way he explained it, you shouldn't enter an elevator without acknowledging the people in it. You shouldn't pass someone in the hallway without a gesture...or silently walk by anyone on an otherwise empty street. In short, it's common courtesy to let everyone you see and who sees you know that you see them and you're glad they're there, even if you couldn't care less.

I couldn't believe my ears (and they're probably the one thing that's never caused me a moment of insecurity). Most of the time when I'm in public, I'm deep in thought, wearing my headphones, or both. Is it really necessary for me to nod to everyone who passes? And furthermore, isn't "the nod" a black thing? Aren't there enough white people in Sydney for none of them to ever really feel alone?

"Sorry, I'm not that guy," I said once he'd finished. "I'm the one who drives you crazy by not even looking at you."

I could see the judgement start to cloud his view of me. We probably wouldn't become besties after my revelation, but someone had to break the news to him, just in case I ran into him on the street at a later date, and didn't see him...or recognize him. Chances are I'd probably pass by him without a word. That's what I do. Is that such a terrible thing?

He challenged me by asking me this: "But doesn't it always make you feel better when you have a pleasant encounter with a stranger, even if it's as minor as a nod?"

Well, to be honest, I don't care what people whom I probably will never see again do as long as they don't invade my personal space. If they do, then the only acknowledgment I expect is "Excuse me." Frankly, the less strangers have to say to me, the less I have to say to them. That's a pretty great arrangement.

He was looking at me like I'd lost my mind, so I quit while I was behind. But please, allow me to continue...

I can play the social game, but in general, I like to be left alone. One of the reasons why I avoid group dinners with mostly strangers is because I hate the moment when I arrive (usually late) and have to meet every single person seated at the table. It's not like I ever remember more than one name, and in Buenos Aires, I used to have to kiss each of them on the cheek, too.

I'd rather just quietly slip into a seat unheralded and strike up a conversation with whomever is in my immediate vicinity...or not. I figure that if I'm meant to meet anyone in particular, we'll naturally gravitate toward each other. There's no need for the host to interrupt all of the conversations already in progress to announce my arrival. He (or she) is the reason I'm there and the only one whose acknowledgement I require.

That said, I do remember thinking what a lovely person Sarah Jessica Parker was the time we passed each other backstage at David Letterman's late-night show, and she said, "Hello, how are you doing?" as she walked by. I thought it was a thoughtful gesture, and after that day, every time I watched Sex and the City, I always found myself rooting for Carrie Bradshaw, even when she was behaving abominably, as she often did.

There was that other time on Christmas Day in Buenos Aires when I was walking home after my morning run, and an elderly woman appeared out of nowhere and embraced me (without a cheek kiss, Gracias a Dios!). "Feliz Navidad," she said before going about her day.

As much as that kind, unexpected gesture made my morning, it was extra-special because it was so kind and unexpected. If everyone went around hugging me and wishing me a Merry Christmas, the heartwarming effect would eventually be diluted...and I'd probably get seriously annoyed.

So if you see me on the street and you feel like nodding, go ahead. I'll nod right back. But if, like me, you'd rather stay in your own world and get from point A to point B with as little fanfare as possible, it's OK. In the immortal words of Hal David (via Dionne Warwick), walk on by.

I promise I won't think any worse of you. And if you can do the same for me, that's really all the courtesy I need.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Last lasting impressions: 20 random observations in Japan

1. Cool, sleek architecture that occasionally flirts with being geometrically OTT

2. Doors that slide open when you press a button -- Don't push or pull...just a touch.

3. Taxi doors that open and shut automatically...Be careful not to touch!

4. No garbage bins on the sidewalks...How do they keep Japanese cities so clean and litter free?

5. Semi-communal restaurant dining at long shared counters or tables...I tried it once, but my meals in public are meant to be enjoyed in the privacy of my own table, thank you.

6. A preponderance of pizzerias

7. Smoking in restaurants

8. Cashiers in even the finest dining restaurants

9. A wet washcloth before every meal

10. Weak cocktails. No kick. Stick to beer, wine (plum -- if you can find a restaurant/bar that serves it), and tequila shots that are twice as big as the ones bars charge $10 for in Australia.

11. A Family Mart on practically every block selling some of the yummiest food you'll eat in Japan

12. Weirdest language moment: When I had to communicate with an Ueno massage therapist in Spanish because she (like nearly every local I encountered in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka) didn't speak English, and I don't speak Japanese.

13. Tower Records...I thought they'd gone out of business.

14. Free public WiFi that you need an Internet connection to access...How else are you supposed to get the code that they email to you?

15. Public vending machines selling refreshments in Kyoto

16. Bicycle riders in Kyoto that give me Berlin flashbacks -- Look out!

17. Impeccably dressed and manicured women who all look like they're on the way to the same audition

18. Older men who dye their hair a rather unflattering -- and unnatural -- shade of reddish

19. Quite possibly the smallest four-star hotel rooms in the world

20. Low sinks clearly made for a general population that's under 160 centimetres tall...If you see a black guy walking around Sydney with a stoop, he's probably me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lovely and amazing: Why I'm loving Kyoto even more than Tokyo

One day after my arrival in Kyoto, I was still trying to figure out why I was increasingly more appreciative of its considerable charms than I was of Tokyo's. Then en route to the Philosopher's Path on foot, it hit me: It's a nature thing.

Tokyo is cooler, hipper and more happening. It's the epitome of urban excitement, possibly even on par with New York City. But having OD'd on cool, hip, and happening in the Big Apple in the '90s and in Buenos Aires and Bangkok this century, I no longer place as high a premium on those qualities. Perhaps that's why I can prefer Melbourne over Sydney or Jerusalem over Tel Aviv or Woolloomooloo and Potts Point in Sydney over Newtown. It's not all about the urban hustle...or being on trend.

Concrete jungles wear me out after a while. I know there's nature in Tokyo, having witnessed it firsthand. But every major city has parks, trees, and more rural outskirts...sometimes a river even runs through it. Nature in Tokyo, though, feels almost incidental to city life. It's there if you look for it, but it's so far removed from the pulse, from the figurative heart of Tokyo.

In Kyoto, nature is built into the city. Whether walking along the Kamo River or strolling down the Philosopher's Path (billed as one of Japan's 100 greatest roads) at the foot of the mountains that frame Kyoto, the urban experience is a natural one, too. 

And that's the thing about Kyoto. I'm getting the urban experience that I live for (I will always be a city boy at heart, a true urbanite), but I'm getting something more, something I haven't really gotten in many of the Asian metropolises that I've visited. I'm also getting natural beauty, much of it breath-taking.

Kyoto is beautiful in a way Tokyo isn't. And at this point in my life, when it comes to location location location, aesthetics will trump vibe every time.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

12 random first impressions of Japan: From Tokyo to Kyoto

1. Tokyo is exactly what I'd always imagined it to be: colorful and glowing, refined yet a bit tacky, expensive (in its presentation, not its prices, which are a lot more reasonable than I expected), with an undercurrent of grit and seediness (especially in the part of Shinjuki where I went out last night). It's organized chaos, a bundle of contradictions, which is a quality I can certainly relate to. Oh, and Lost in Translation didn't lie: There's a distinct aura of alone-with-everybody melancholy. That's something else Tokyo and I have in common. No wonder we get along so well.

2. I don't think I've ever experienced such a high-tech society. The toilets are a highlight, which is not a comment one writes every day...if ever. They're toilets and bidets rolled into one -- and with a dryer function! The ones in hotel rooms even have a control for warming the seat. If I ever build a house from scratch, I'm definitely designing the bathroom Japanese style -- with one major change: higher sinks. They're so low, I'm worried I'll leave Japan with a permanent stoop.

3. Tanzania and Cambodia may now have competition for the cutest babies on the planet. And the thing about Japanese babies is that they grow up into such well-behaved children. Two days ago I was watching a group of boys in their early teens who were playing a video game on the train, If we had been in New York, they probably would have been shouting over each other and annoying the hell out of me. In Sydney, they definitely would have been jabbing each other and going "mate" this and "mate' that. But these kids were so calm and respectful of each other and of their fellow passengers, engaged in their game and interacting with each other but doing so at a volume that disturbed no one and drew no attention from anyone besides the middle-aged guy sitting across from them.

4. Equally impressive: the food. I've always enjoyed Japanese cuisine, but there's so much more to it than sushi and teriyaki. Someone said I'll never have a bad meal in Japan, and so far he's right. Even those packaged 7-11 sandwiches are yummy. And who ever thought up of baking avocado, cheese and shrimp in one pot deserves a Nobel Prize.

5. I've never seen such phone obsession as in Tokyo. Taking the long escalator down as I exited the Shinjuku-sanchome train station last night around 9pm, I noticed that practically everyone going up had their eyes glued to their phone. But most of them didn't seem to be texting, so what were they doing? Two nights ago I sat next to a girl on the train who spent a good five minutes looking at herself in a mirror app. Could that be what they're all doing?!

6. Japanese women have me rethinking my sexuality. OK, not really, but watching them cross the street with such dainty precision and perfectly applied make-up, I'm convinced that if I was straight, I'd probably go crazy here. Whenever they're in groups of three or more, they create the same effect as a group of female flight attendants and pharmaceutical reps...but without the optical illusion that Barney once pointed out on How I Met Your Mother. He said if you get a bunch of slightly above average-looking flight attendants or pharmaceutical reps together, individual 7s become a collective 10. Even solo, though, these flawlessly coiffed and manicured Japanese women are stunning.

7. Japanese people have gotten so many things down to a cultural science -- from how you should take off your shoes when you enter a home to how not to blow your nose in public -- that you'd think they'd come up with a system for walking on the sidewalk. They drive to the left, so why don't they walk that way, too?

8. I'm not leaving Japan without a kimono. Last night the hottest guy at Dragon was wearing one. Sadly, when I threw myself at him and offered to take it off his, um, hands, he declined.

9. I've seen more Western tourists in one afternoon and early evening in Kyoto than I saw in three nights and two days in Tokyo, which strikes me as a bit odd. Perhaps I wasn't paying enough attention, or it was a good call to stay away from the Roppongi area, which I heard is full of embassies and expats. Or maybe it's this: In considerably more densely populated Tokyo, the Western faces blend into the crowd more. Whatever the reason, Kyoto doesn't appear to be underrated at all. I don't know why everyone else is here, but I came because of a song by The Cure that I've loved since the '80s.

10. Speaking of expats, I was quite surprised by how many Brazilians I encountered in Tokyo. What brought them there? I have no idea. Note to self: Remember to ask Yohan, the singer from the Brazilian town you've never heard of who made you dance to Destiny's Child at Dragon, if you see him again when you get back to Tokyo.

11. Speaking of the music at Dragon, is no place in the world safe from Taylor Swift on the soundtrack? Oy vey. Thankfully, the Sapporo beer, the tequila shots, and, well, Yohan were enough to distract me from that spectacularly bad remix of "Shake It Off."

12. My friend Dov described Kyoto as the Detroit of Japan, but it's much too clean and upscale for that. I'd put it this way: If Japan were Italy, Kyoto would be Bologna. What it lacks in energy, it makes up for with calmness and elegance. And after last night at Dragon, which pretty much depleted my energy, I appreciate calmness and elegance more than usual. I'm looking forward to bonding with Kyoto over the next two days.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

My year of living un-dangerously...Tokyo, here I come!

Some world traveler I've turned out to be.

It just dawned on me that I've spent nearly a year doing something I haven't done since 1993: I've stayed put. Right before Japan Airlines flight 772 from Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport to Tokyo's Narita Airport departs at 8.15 Thursday morning, I will have spent almost exactly 10 consecutive months in the same country without a single international departure.

That's something I haven't done since 1993 when I flew to Bermuda with a group of my People magazine colleagues on a posh private plane with a full bar (and a bartender who made a killer Bloody Mary!). It was the first time I'd ever traveled outside of the United States, and it launched an adult life spent regularly jetting off into the far-off unknown.

When I returned to New York after several days, I promised myself I'd never again spend an entire calendar year in one country. I vowed to visit at least one new country every year, and it's a promise I've managed to keep. In fact, by the time Japan Airlines flight 771 returns from Tokyo to Sydney on August 30, I will have crossed another city/country off my travel bucket list for the third consecutive calendar year, having already done Tel Aviv, Cape Town and Tanzania.

The last nine years, in particular, have been filled with frequent travel, partly because my travel bug wouldn't have it any other way, and partly because visa requirements limited the amount of time I could stay in any given expat stomping ground without at least one international departure.

With my arrival in Sydney last October 22, I knew everything was about to change. For one, I'd be working a full-time 9-to-5 gig for the first time since 2006. Second, the company that hired me also sponsored me, which meant no more taking flight from my expat stomping ground every 90 days unless I wanted to.

I never expected to last 10 months. There have been four trips to Melbourne, one to Adelaide and one to the Blue Mountains, but I haven't once stepped foot outside of Australia since arriving here from South Africa. I wonder if that has something to do with how underwhelmed I've been with Sydney and, by extension, Australia, despite the fact that I spent years being obsessed with all things Aussie before officially living here.

Maybe it's like moving into your boyfriend's studio apartment and never seeing other people. How could you not get sick of each other when you never get away from each other? How could I fully appreciate Sydney when I'd never given myself the opportunity to miss it?

Everyone tells me to give it time...Sydney is a city that rewards patience. I've tried to be patient, and in some ways, it's paid off. I've settled into my job to the point that I actually enjoy both the gig and my colleagues. And one month ago, I moved into a dream apartment in the building I've wanted to live in since a couple of months after my arrival. Life is good, but Sydney isn't home. Maybe it never will be.

I haven't given up hope, though. I may never find my Sydney "family" or a make a new friend whom I don't work with or go on a fourth date here, but I'm excited to see where my trip to Japan takes me mentally. The best holidays are the ones you don't want to end that also somehow make you appreciate where you live more.

If I've already maxed out my appreciation for Sydney, I'm prepared to live with that. Now that the world traveler is on the verge of making a comeback, I know this arranged marriage can be saved. Just because I don't have to leave every three months doesn't mean I can't. Goodbye, Sydney. Hello, world. Boy have I missed you!

Monday, August 10, 2015

How did I miss the sad news of the passing of country great Lynn Anderson?

Divorce is a terrible thing...and not just because it's claimed the Hollywood unions of Ben Affleck + Jennifer Garner and Gwen Stefani + Gavin Rossdale as well as, if those often-repeated statistics are correct, half of all marriages.

The divorce announcement by Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert and all the follow-up headlines (This just in: Miranda is drinking to get over Blake...which actually succeeded in making her more interesting than I ever found her to be) have overshadowed the most important country-music story of the year.

Lynn Anderson, the '70s country great best known for the crossover hit "(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden" and, by extension, Kon Kan's 1989 reboot "I Beg Your Pardon," died from a heart attack at age 67 on July 30. That was nearly two weeks ago, and I just found out today. I blame Blake and Miranda from keeping me in the dark for so long. Yes, I hate divorce.

Had it not been for the passing of American sports great Frank Gifford at age 84 on Sunday, I might still not know that Anderson is no longer with us. After reading an article this morning on Gifford's death on TMZ, I spotted a link to an Anderson obit in a list of related stories.

Though Lynn Anderson had absolutely nothing to do with Frank Gifford, and I doubt that she was ever interviewed by Gifford's widow Kathie Lee, there is something of a loose link there. Both were giants in their chosen field, only Anderson's peak popularity period was decidedly more compact than Gifford's.

But boy, what a peak. Among '70s female country singers in the early '70s, she was probably fourth behind Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn, and just ahead of  Donna Fargo. In fact, she was the first major female country star to score a crossover smash when "Rose Garden, her 1970 country No. 1, went all the way to No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100, a height to which neither Wynette nor Lynn would ever ascend. 

By the latter part of the decade when Crystal Gayle, Anne Murray and Barbara Mandrell had emerged as country contenders, Anderson's popularity was waning. Before her death, she was probably mostly regarded as a relic of the '70s or -- worse! -- a one-hit wonder because even most country fans probably couldn't name any of her songs aside from her signature one.

I can't argue with the '70s angle, but her list of hits extends well beyond the one for which she's best known. "Rose Garden" aside, Anderson scored four other No. 1 country hits and 13 other Top 10s between 1967 and 1983. Not so bad for a one-hit wonder, right?

Here are five Lynn Anderson hits other than "Rose Garden" that should be required listening for every country fan who thinks Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert splitting up is more important news than Anderson's passing.

"How Can I Unlove You" (No. 1, 1970)

"Fool Me" (No. 4, 1973)

"He Turns It Into Love Again" (No. 13, 1974)

"You're My Man" (No. 1, 1971)

"Isn't It Always Love" (No. 10, 1979)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Trending on social media: #CecilTheLion! RIP…but what about Sandra Bland and Ralkina Jones?

From The Cowardly Lion to Simba, before and beyond, the "King of Beasts" has roared in our public consciousness for centuries. Powerful, regal, beautiful, the lion might be the most iconic non-human presence in the animal kingdom. I'm surprised the U.S. founding fathers chose the bald eagle instead to signify American national pride and strength.

Had they gone with the lion, Walter Palmer wouldn't stand a chance. He probably still doesn't. The biggest mistake the American dentist ever made was arranging a $50,000 hunt to kill Cecil, a major lion attraction in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. If the outraged public (and possibly the legal system) has its way, his life will never be the same again.

I'm one of the outraged many. With visions of lions in the Serengeti still fairly fresh in my mind from my July of 2014 African safari, I'm especially sickened by Palmer's misdeeds. It's bad enough that we descend upon lions' natural habitat wielding cameras like paparazzi chasing celebrities, but must we hunt them too?

Imagine if Princess Diana's death had been intentional and privately paid for by an egomaniacal bloodthirsty pap. In a sense, that's exactly how Palmer nailed Cecil. Money talks...and kills.

Horrifying as the murder of Cecil might be, the business transaction heightens the shock value for me. I don't know which is worse: that Palmer paid big bucks for the dishonor of killing a lion or that said dishonor can be bought.

But my rage doesn't begin or end with Palmer and the death of Cecil. I'm angry for anything -- anyone -- that dies at the hands of another for no reason. I'm angrier because I noticed more moral outrage on social media yesterday over the senseless death of a lion than I did over the senseless deaths of two black women, in two separate incidents, while in police custody this month.

I'm not saying that the people I follow consider a lion's life more valuable than Sandra Bland's or Ralkina Jones'. But I missed the mass outrage when two black women died for nothing. Have we become so desensitized to police in the U.S. killing black people that we no longer feel the need to comment on it?

Jimmy Kimmel cried last night over Cecil. Where were his tears for Bland and Jones? Where was the celebrity outpouring of hashtagged Twitter grief for them? Where was white America's moral indignation on social media? Why does the death of a lion seem like a much bigger story than the passings of Bland and Jones and all the blacks who've lost their lives to increasingly racist agendas in the U.S.?

Maybe Nicki Minaj had a point about the lack of respect and appreciation afforded to black women, but then, she's still alive. She may have missed out on an MTV VMA nomination for Video of the Year, but thanks to the exchange of a few choice words with Taylor Swift on Twitter, Minaj was hardly a loser. Yes, she's still alive.

She was perhaps the most-talked about black woman on social media this month, and from what I read, #TeamNickiMinaj was the victor in Nicki vs. Taylor, after countless tweeters, including Katy Perry, weighed in. The rapper even managed to swing a public apology from the former most powerful woman in pop, a title that perhaps should now go to queen of the pop jungle Nicki Minaj.

Oh, and she's still alive. So she can spare me the martyr act.

Unlike "Nicki Minaj," the names of Sandra Bland and Ralkina Jones will continue to go unheard and unsung. When they have their posthumous days in court (if they have them), no one will likely be punished. Isn't that what typically happens when black people die in the custody of white police?

Walter Palmer probably won't get off for his high crime against the animal kingdom. He's already been crucified on social media, and I suspect this is just the beginning of the end of his life as he knew it. Stupid man. Doesn't he realize that in the killing game, the more value the public places on the target, the more likely you are to go down for nailing it?