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?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

10 things I learned while doing karaoke with my colleagues at our Christmas in July party

Don't worry: During our Christmas in July, clothing was not optional...thank God!
What I didn't learn: I work with a pretty cool group of people. I already knew that. Friday night just offered confirmation.

Now on with my learning curve...because there was no way I was walking a straight line after 10pm!

1. Waking up in bed alone, fully clothed, and not knowing for sure how you got there beats rising and not shining in the nude next to a not-so-beautiful stranger and not knowing for sure how he got there. Also, on the plus side, I somehow made it into bed without my shoes still on.

2. Nicki Minaj deserves our respect. I knew "Anaconda" was a great song, but I had no idea it could, in the immortal words of Destiny's Child, make me lose my breath. Rapping a few of Nicki's rapid-fire sentences left me gasping for air just as much as my Saturday runs from Kings Cross to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to North Sydney and back to KX via the Opera House waterfront route. OH MY GOD... Naturally, I skipped Saturday's run. I was still trying to catch my breath from Friday night karaoke!
3. I'm not the only one who finds Mick Jagger's chocolate queeniness in "Brown Sugar" kind of shocking. By the time I finished my first karaoke number (The Rolling Stone's "Brown Sugar," as planned for weeks), one of my colleagues looked at me, astonished and revolted. "I had no idea those lyrics were so racist," he said, having just read them in large, bold print on the karaoke screen. When I explained that Mick wrote the song about his black girlfriend at the time, he echoed a comment I made in my recent "Brown Sugar" blog post: "Well, I wonder what she thought about it." Indeed.

4. Rose wine is not your friend. Splitting two bottles with a co-worker is enough to leave you and your boss/Sydney BFF dancing around a pub that doesn't actually have a dance floor. Don't you hate it when people who do that?

5. Friday night might not be the best night for a work party, after all. Now I know why they're usually on Thursday night: Having to work the next day stops you from going full-on and casting all your inhibitions to the wind.

6. Inner Sydney is not nearly as massive as I thought it was. Walking from the Japanese restaurant in the CBD to the karaoke pub in Surry Hills took about a half hour less than I would have expected. Wait. Does that mean those weekly runs that leave me as breathless as "Anaconda" are shorter than they feel?

7. Japanese steak might be smaller than the ones you get in those pub-grub specials, but the one I had for dinner pre-karaoke might be the best red meat I've had in Sydney. I'm going to give credit to the soyed-up teriyaki sauce. My trip to Japan next month can't come fast enough.

8. "Cars" by Gary Numan might be my favorite song of the 1980s. Waiting out the extended instrumental coda is as awkward as Gary said it was in my BFF Lori Majewski's '80s music tome Mad World: An Oral History of the New Wave Artists and Songs that Defined the 1980s. (Karaoke is, after all, about singing, not posing through a never-ending wordless outro). Still, "Cars" now has a permanent spot on my future must-do-at-karaoke list.

9. The camera never lies, which makes the best Christmas in July party a Christmas in July party where not one single selfie is taken. In fact, I can't recall a single photograph being taken all night. That means I'll have to take my boss' word that I was "amazing" and in "top form." Who wants to see photographic proof? Not me.

10. Drunk texting doesn't always end in embarrassment. Just don't try it at home. It's best when there are friends around to work the edit button.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner: Kim Kardashian with substance (and a face that moves)

There's something about Caitlyn. Ms. Jenner's can't-look-away glamour dramatically caps a compelling story arc. But wouldn't the narrative be so much more powerful if, after the Vanity Fair cover, she'd emerged as a more down-to-earth woman?

Yes, she looks fantastic, but the costume changes, the perfect-angle shots, the reported diva demands, Angelina Jolie's glamour squad -- what does this say about transgenderism? About womanhood? The implication is that both are all about appearances? Isn't that just promoting another stereotype?

It started to dawn on me during the biography portion of Caitlyn's Arthur Ashe Courage Award presentation at the ESPYs. The segment was edited so that we kept catching brief sideways glances of Caitlyn talking about her transformation. I understood the ploy: Keep everyone watching until the full-on money shot. Wasn't that why we were all watching -- to see how great Caitlyn looked...again?

In her introductory comments, Caitlyn emphasized the difficulties of being a woman. But they all revolved around the physical aspect, not the less tangible negatives like the lack of opportunities, the lack of support, the lack of equal pay.

Of course, Caitlyn, like her ex Kris and daughters and stepdaughters, doesn't have to worry about such pesky issues as equal pay. For the foreseeable future, she'll be raking in millions just for getting out of bed. And there'll be a glamour squad on hand making sure she looks perfect for the reality cameras. Did she wake up like this? Never.

In concerns me that in the mainstreaming of transgenderism, it seems to be all about beauty and glamour. Caitlyn and our reaction to her seem to be reinforcing that with every public appearance. Does she -- does anyone -- need to change outfits half a dozen times in one New York City day? Blake Lively pulled that one first, so it's not like Caitlyn was even being original.

Laverne Cox, the Orange Is the New Black actress and the second most-famous transgender woman of the moment, is currently celebrated for being beautiful...and brave, but mostly beautiful. Would we care as much about her if she looked like an average soccer mom?

After Caitlyn's Vanity Fair cover, I had a debate with a Facebook friend who was concerned about the gushing commentary revolving around how "amazing" she looked. Would we have been as accepting of her, he wondered, if she hadn't looked so good?

While I understood where he was coming from, I had to consider Caitlyn's debut medium. We were reacting to a celebrity magazine cover. Traditionally, they're all about shallow aesthetics. What else should we have been reacting to if not how she looks? Isn't that pretty par for course with two-dimensional photographs?

In the weeks since then, though, we've had time to focus on other things. Caitlyn has had time to give us more to focus on. Yet it continues to be mostly about how amazing she looks. This is such a loaded non-development.

All transgender women no more look like Laverne Cox or Janet Mock or Candis Cayne or Caitlyn than all non-trans women look like Kim Kardashian. The big difference is that Kim is pure celebrity. Unlike the others, she isn't regarded as any kind of heroine.

Where is the applause for, say, Chas Bono? He came out as transgender years before Caitlyn made it safer to do so. But where were all the plaudits and glowing testimonials about the bravery of Sonny and Cher's son? If he had come out looking like Josh Duhamel, would things have been different?

I'm not blaming this all on Caitlyn. She wouldn't be the center of attention if we didn't put her there, for whatever reason. So in a sense, we're financing the ego trip.

It's not like I was expecting that much more from her. After all, Bruce was not exactly a promoter of social progress, a tireless crusader. But I was hoping for a pleasant surprise. I wanted Caitlyn to be much more than the second coming of her stepdaughter.

Maybe once the post-initial furor dies down, after mama gets paid, she will grow into the role model she seems to want to be. But as long as her life continues to be a red carpet, complete with glamor squads and perfectly timed public appearances, she'll keep missing the mark in those impossible-to-walk-in heels.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

I can't believe Anne Murray is 70!

I may not be celebrating America's birthday today (check out my previous post to find out why), but I'm in the mood for a birthday celebration, even if it's a belated one. Two weeks ago, on June 20, Anne Murray turned 70, and I'm having trouble wrapping my head around it.

I'm not really sure why. It's not like I have images of ingenue Anne floating around in my head to beg the question: Where did the time go? Unlike her '70s country-pop contemporaries like Linda Ronstadt and Olivia Newton-John, Anne was never really the ingenue.

She always seemed a little older, a bit more settled. Perhaps it was her calm musical approach and her utter un-trendiness. She was like the Julie Andrews of pop, with a strikingly similar hairstyle.

If you compare photos of Anne today to photos of Anne circa 1980, when I first fell in love with her, not much has changed. The woman is as ageless as her music. "Time don't run out on me," she once sang. But it always seemed to stand still as far as Anne was concerned, which is probably what makes it so hard to grasp that she's now entered her eighth decade.

In belated celebration, five of my favorite Anne Murray moments:

"Danny's Song" Like "A Love Song," written by Kenny Loggins but totally owned by Anne. They make me wonder what Anne might have done with later Kenny-written classics like "Whenever I Call You Friend," "What a Fool Believes" and "Footloose."

"You Won't See Me" The one John Lennon called his all-time favorite Beatles remake. The fade-in is still all kinds of amazing.

"Daydream Believer" Makes the Monkees original completely irrelevant. Note how Anne manages to sing flawlessly, completely in tune, while walking around and handing out presents in the video below, like it's the most natural thing in the world to do. That's the very definition of effortless.

"Lucky Me" The first 45 I ever bought. When I met Anne in New York City in the '90s, I brought along the old vinyl Capitol Records single for her to sign. She took one look at it and said, "Oh, another one that didn't do too well." When I considered that it hit No. 9 country and No. 42 pop, Anne's personal musical identity and allegiance became as crystal clear as her voice. She was all about Billboard's Hot 100, not Billboard's Hot Country Singles.

"Another Sleepless Night" Totally naughty to my pre-teen ears...She sang "making love"! The slightly risqueness of it all was one of the reasons I loved it. But today, Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" video makes it sound about as wholesome as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Why I won't be celebrating Independence Day this year (or ever again)

One of my most vivid childhood church memories happened on a once-a-decade-or-so Sunday that doubled as Independence Day. It was religious business as usual at Calvary Assembly of God in Kissimmee, Florida, until the stoic woman who played piano during song service approached the pulpit.

She began to sing a song I'd never heard before and was sure she'd made up on the spot called "I'm Proud to Be an American." I can't say for certain, but I think she even may have been wearing a blouse that was patterned like the American flag. It was the strangest display of patriotism I'd ever seen.

My first thought: I never knew she could sing. My second: What the hell is she singing?...

This is church, isn't she supposed to be singing about God? What does America have to do with anything here? And what about the members of the congregation who are not American?

I looked around at all of the white faces around me. Wrong question. She was preaching to the choir. The room couldn't have been more American. It was the right song, wrong occasion. Wouldn't Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," which was probably a hit around the time, have been more on-topic?

I still probably wouldn't have sung along, though. It had nothing to do with separation of Church and State, or the idea that religion serves as the No. 1 ammunition for homophobes, like my Aunt Juliet. I was 10 or 11, way too young to be concerned with that yet.

The truth is, I've just never been into patriotic songs. I don't care for "The Star-Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Nothing she possibly could have sung would have impressed me as much as a kick-ass original take on "Amazing Grace"...which by the way, I'm still waiting for.

Furthermore, Independence Day just wasn't my thing. Aside from getting the day off from school/work, I've never been into it. I don't even like fireworks. 

Now that I'm on my 10th July 4th living outside of the U.S., Independence Days matters even less because there's no reprieve from anything for me. It's just like any other day here in Australia. 

But deep inside my heart, it's actually a little worse than any other day, not for what it represents but for what it doesn't. For my fellow black Americans and me, Independence Day means absolutely nothing. On July 4, 1776, our ancestors were shackled and enslaved, forced against their will to serve their white masters. I love my country as much as anyone, but is that cause for celebration?

I've recently been watching a number of historical documentaries, with a focus on our Founding Fathers (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, etc.) One of the most alarming discoveries I've made is how many of them owned black slaves. Yes, even the Father of the Country himself, George Washington, "Master" to many.

Jefferson, our third U.S. President, even wrote an entire treatise on why blacks are inferior to whites. Was this his way of convincing himself that it was OK to hang them several rungs below pets, treat them as much less than humans (unless he was taking them to bed!)? 

Though not all of the Founding Fathers so publicly supported slavery or even owned black Americans, only one -- Benjamin Franklin -- ever publicly supported the abolitionist movement. And like 34th U.S. President Harry Truman a century and a half later, he had his ah-ha moment regarding black Americans rather late in life.

So despite the fact that at this moment, I'm prouder to be an American than I have been in years (or maybe ever, thanks to SCOTUS), I won't be celebrating Independence Day today. July 4 will be just like any other day, aside from offering another occasion for me to get atop my soapbox.

I'm glad I'll be spending it in the Blue Mountains of Australia, where I expect there will be no fireworks or TV coverage. Considering my current heightened state of awareness, I'm not sure I could stomach watching everyone celebrate our Founding Hypocrites who preached freedom and equality from England while denying that very thing to the people who would go on to contribute so much to American culture.

I have nothing against white Americans celebrating Independence Day, but it's their Independence Day, not mine. Wake me up when President's Day rolls around again. I'd like to raise a glass to Abraham Lincoln. Unlike most of our Founding Fathers, when he spoke about freedom and equality for all men, he actually meant it.