Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sizing Up "Black Men": What Happens When the Story Is About Me?

For more years than I care to admit, I've been sticking my nose into other people's business. As a journalist, that's what I'm paid to do.

But what happens when the tables are turned and I find myself on the other side of the microscope lens? Now that I'm an author promoting Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, my first book, I'm getting to see how all of those celebrities I've spent decades interviewing have felt. Being interviewed and then reading my responses in print is not unlike hearing my voice on a tape recorder and being reminded each time that what I hear in my head and what I put out into the world are two very different things.

It's a slightly nerve-wracking source of anxiety (What if I sound even more ridiculous on the page than I do in my head?), but it's a welcome one. If I'm being interviewed about my book, it means that there are people out there who not only want to read it, but a few who want to talk about it and write about it, too. I don't think there's any greater gift a writer can receive -- unless they're counting royalties, of course, but this is a labor of love not the bottom line.

Last year I wrote a freelance article on the business side of Rihanna's brand for the South African magazine Destiny Man. A few months ago, after I sent my editor on that story a copy of my book, he asked if he could interview me for a Q&A feature in the magazine. It appears in the December issue, and there is also an excerpt from my book on the website. Click here to read the full Q&A.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

There’s More to Being Black Than Sports and Sex Appeal

Is it true what they say about black men -- that we kick ass on the court… and in bed? According to a message in my Grindr inbox this morning, the latter, in particular, would be a definite definitely.

"Blacks rule whites drool"

I love a good rhyme scheme, but I couldn't stop myself from cringing when I read that one. Should I have taken it as a compliment?

The general consensus about compliments seems to be this: Take them and run. Usually, I would, especially if said compliment singled out some personal detail that applies only to me: my eyes, my smile, my way with words. When you compliment/comment on my race, though, you're not singling out anything that doesn't apply to millions of other men. Maybe you haven't even noticed my eyes or my smile because you've been so blinded by my black. Who needs lust like that?

But this isn't just about my objection to putting people into boxes labeled with colors or the myth about black men that has become the bane of my gay existence. Yes, I'm sure those whites are drooling because of how big we are (or are supposed to be), but I had my say on that subject in my book.

Today I'm looking at the bigger picture and wondering why black and sex seem to be so intrinsically linked in it, even in the eyes of many white people who would never dare to utter anything as crude as "Blacks rule whites drool." Why must being a black man always seem to have a sexual connotation? Is that all there is to us: our sexuality?

Yes, I know everyone gets objectified regardless of skin color, but I wonder if the objectification of white men ever makes blatant mention of the color of their skin. Does any white guy have to keep collecting compliments for his entire race? All the blanket black appreciation doesn't betray even a hint of discerning selection. It's like any black man would satisfy all chocolate cravings.

Here's a general rule of thumb that has nothing to do with my ego: If replacing "black" with "white" in any racially charged supposed compliment would make it pretty much universally offensive, don't say it. Could anyone get away with "Whites rule blacks drool"? So why is it OK to say the opposite?

The more I thought about it, the more I thought about that uncomfortable scene in a recent episode of How to Get Away with Murder. During an argument, the white husband of Viola Davis's character basically tells her that their 20-year relationship has been based on the fact that she's always been just a piece of ass to him. Given the black and white context of the story (it just had been revealed that the white co-ed he'd been screwing was pregnant with his baby at the time of her murder), it was a shocking moment of interracial truth, with a black woman assuming the role of the sexually objectified, just like it used to be on the cotton plantations.

I don't know if Azealia Banks watches TV, but if she's into Murder, God only knows what went through her mind when she saw that scene. A few days ago she attacked her fellow rapper Iggy Azalea on Twitter, and while I think Azealia needs to learn some Twitter etiquette, she did make one interesting point in her explosion of black rage.

For those who have spent the past several months living under a rock, Iggy is a white female rapper from Australia whose musical posturing co-opts black culture more flagrantly than Elvis Presley's ever did. Oh, and she dates a black guy (NBA star Nick Young). As it turns out, Iggy's romantic status sparked the most interesting part of Azealia's rant.

"Don't just be down to ride Black Dick..... If you with us you WITH US!!!!"

And also...

"its funny to see people Like Igloo Australia silent when these things happens... Black Culture is cool, but black issues sure aren't huh?"

While I wouldn't presume to know what social causes Iggy privately supports (for activism does not necessarily need to be loud and public), I can see where Azealia is coming from. Her sentiment echoes one of my biggest problems with color-coded and sex-obsessed white gay admiration. They just don't get it… or us. The guy in Tel Aviv who told me that I'm blessed to be black last year comes immediately to mind every time I consider the horny and the clueless.

I'm not saying that white people need to embrace black culture to the extent that they live it more than I do. I'm not saying they have to assume black history as their own (though a white American who's dating a black person probably should have at least heard of the Harlem Renaissance, even if he or she can't name one prominent black artist from the period).

I'm not saying they have to take a pre-determined stance on white cops killing unarmed black men in the United States. I'm not even saying that they have to listen to rap and R&B. After all, I was raised on country and came of age with rock & roll.

What I am saying is that it's time to change the broken record. Give us recognition for something else, please. It's not just about our sports prowess, our size, our sex. We're so much more than that. As with people of any color, we're multi-dimensional. Constantly singling us out because we're sexy implies that there is nothing else worth noting about us, and I happen to know there's so much more to me.

To expect us to take those sexually/racially charged compliments and run (preferably into your bed), to suggest that we should not want to be appreciated for more, to suggest that we should be glad that you're noticing us in the first place, can be just as bad as ignoring us entirely.

If you can't say something nice without it being all about race (and sex), then it's just as well that you don't say anything at all.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thoughts on Part 1 of the First Season of 'How to Get Away with Murder'

Annalise Keating is maddening. How does she frustrate me? Let me count the ways…

1. She's grumpy. She spends much of each episode of the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder in a foul mood.

2. She's a hypocrite. She blasts her white husband for screwing a white girl when she was doing the same with a hunky chocolate brother.

3. She's crooked. She not above breaking the rules -- and the law -- for the sake of winning a case, or saving her husband's ass, or her students', or her own.

4. She's a queen of artifice. For all her brutal candor, she's a bit of a fake. She's all steely armor, hiding behind a mask and under a wig that hides her fierce natural hair.

Annalise Keating might very well be the most infuriating woman who can be called the heroine of her own TV show right now.

But Annalise Keating, a defense attorney and law professor who's never encountered a rule she wouldn't bend, is played by Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis, which means it's impossible not to watch her. I can't take my eyes off her. I'd probably still be into How to Get Away with Murder if it was just one hour of tight shots of Viola's face.

The one scene that will probably secure her Emmy nomination next year is the one at the end of the fourth episode in which she removes her wig, pulls out her false eyelashes and wipes off all her make-up so that she's staring into the mirror, stark naked from the neck up. She then turns to her husband, and in a tone that's a mix of weary and threatening, she asks, "Why is your penis on a dead girl's phone?"

It's a shocking scene and not just because of the penis question. It's reminiscent of the sequence in the 1992 film Damage in which Miranda Richardson stands in front of Jeremy Irons totally nude and asks why she wasn't enough for him. Why did he have to have an affair with their son's girlfriend (Juliette Binoche), leading to the son's death? Miranda wouldn't have scored her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination without that one climactic scene, but Viola is lucky enough to have so many other riveting moments besides the one with the penis question.

She's naturally the main reason to watch How to Get Away with Murder. I keep wondering what the show would have been like had its creator Shonda Rimes hired another actress to take the role. There's so much loaded subtext in that penis scene -- what it says about masks, vulnerability and black female beauty. I can't imagine anyone other than Viola playing it so note-perfectly.

I also can't imagine anyone other than Viola playing Annalise so perfectly. If I close my eyes, I can picture someone like Alfre Woodward filling in for Viola in pretty much any of Viola's big-screen roles and doing each one justice. But I couldn't see anyone else, not even Alfre, pulling off Annalise. What if the character had been white? Would Annalise have worked so well, as a comeback vehicle for, say, Oscar winner Geena Davis? My answer: only if the show's other ingredients were stronger… a lot stronger.

The cracks in Murder show when its MVP isn't onscreen. The supporting cast that plays Annalise's students is capable enough, but aside from Connor, the gay student who has never met a guy he wouldn't screw to secure evidence, the characters are all fairly vanilla, straight out of Felicity.

That's not a color call. The two black students are the plainest ones of all. I love the hint of sexual-ish tension between Annalise and Wes (Alfred Enoch, overdoing the wide-eyed in his character's innocent and tilting his head too awkwardly), but that has everything to do with Viola. She could create sexual sparks with a chalk board.

I've found myself more involved in each case of the week than I am in the murder mystery that's the season-long story thread and the show's main hook. The fallout from that particular murder -- actually, the two murders -- is far more interesting than the whodunit aspect. I kind of haven't cared who killed either of the victims or why. I've been sticking around to watch Viola -- I mean, Annalise -- react to the latest bit of damning evidence against her husband, and to see what sexual/social taboo Connor (Jack Falahee, growing on me more each episode) can shutter next.

My favorite scene of the entire series so far was probably the episode-nine showdown between Annalise and her husband Sam (Tom Verica, a good actor who can convincingly switch from staid and stand-up to calculating and creepy to vile and dangerous in a matter of moments). When Sam tells Annalise that she was always just a piece of ass to him, it speaks some uncomfortable and unfortunate truths about the nature of many interracial relationships. Cheers to the script for actually going there rather than white-washing things.

Cheers to Rimes for creating such vibrant, riveting and complex portraits of both black female sexuality and gay male sexuality. Television hasn't offered nearly enough of either. Some might argue that Connor is a dangerously negative representation of gay male sexuality, but anyone who lives in the real world or has logged on to Grindr realizes that his behavior, though exaggerated, is hardly unfathomable. If a female character can use sex to get what she wants, why can't a gay man play the femme fatale role for once?

When the show returns after the winter break, I'll be tuning in not to find out what happens next. I'll be tuning in to see what Viola does next, to see whom Connor screws next, and to see if they ever let Annalise permanently lose that wig so that Viola can be the beautiful natural black woman she was born to be onscreen. I love the show for at least giving us glimpses of her.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Reflections on Throwback/Coming-Out Thursday with Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman

It's been such a gay week. In some ways, it feels like my career suddenly came full circle, and it had everything to do with Thursday's coming-out announcements of two retro country stars, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman.

I'll get to why in a moment, but first, let me just say, what perfect timing! A day or two before Ty and Billy both came out, I turned in my latest Huffington Post essay. Title: "Why I Hope One Direction's Harry Styles Is Really Straight."

Also, there's the gay-country-singer-with-a-bratty-but-(surprisingly) talented- wife storyline on the ABC nighttime soap Nashville. It's currently my favorite arc on the show, and it's the most timely one, too, with the reality-TV angle and all. Too bad it's spent most of each episode on the backburner this season.

It's such a perfect cautionary tale about the dangers of being gay in country music. It hurts my soul that the first music l genre I ever loved, one that has been a part of my life for as long as I've been able to mangle a tune, doesn't have much use for me or my kind.

The reason why Ty's and Billy's coming outs make me feel as if my career has come full circle, though, has nothing to do with a fictional prime-time character or homophobia in country music. It has everything to do with how both Ty and Billy factored into my career at key stages in it.

One of the most memorable stories I worked on during my early years as a staff reporter at People magazine was the one we did on Ty Herndon's arrest for allegedly soliciting sex from a male undercover cop. At the time, I remember wishing that the implications of the story might be true. I so wanted Ty to just come out already.

It had nothing to do with political or social concerns. I was in my early 20s at the time, and when it came to sexuality, I didn't really think much about the world outside my bedroom. Not yet. I wanted Ty to be gay because I secretly fantasized about going to Nashville to interview him, falling in love and living happily ever after with one of the hunkiest guys on the country charts. It seems pretty silly now that I look back on it, but I've always had a weakness for that slow southern style, and it's not like country music was overflowing with eye-candy bachelors who were eligible for me.

While I firmly believe we all should have complete control over when we come out, and yes, better late than never, I'm going to hold my applause for Ty -- or keep it muted. It's disappointing that he had to wait until age 52 to publicly declare himself "an out, proud and happy gay man."

It's a shame that he had to go through two marriages to women. It's too bad he had to spend as much time as he did living behind a curtain, though from what I've read, he's been pretty much out in his private life for a while. He says he realized that he had an important story to share five years ago, so why did it take him five years to share it?

I'd be more likely to extol his courage if he were still in his commercial heyday and therefore was risking a hot career by publicly coming out. As it is, Ty's chart peak is nearly two decades behind him. So when he made his announcement, ironically enough, in People magazine, my old alma mater (like I said, full circle), I was more impressed by how great he looks than by his belated coming out. Sadly, I still don't have a shot with him. He's taken.

I never had any designs on Billy Gilman. After all, I met him when I was an editor at Teen People, and he was only 12. I'll never forget the time he visited the Teen People offices with his publicist and mom. He was such a sweet, chatty tween. Before he treated my colleagues and me to a live performance of his then-hit "One Voice," he spent some time hanging out with the entertainment department.

Two things about Billy stand out in my mind to this day. First of all, he was obsessed with the movie Arthur, which I found pretty odd for a 12 year old. Dudley Moore was never a tween sensation, and the movie was released nearly a decade before Billy was born. I was surprised he didn't belt out the chorus from "Arthur's Theme" right then and there.

The second thing that stood out was how he took an immediate and particular liking to me. At the end of the visit, he even invited me to a Broadway performance of Reba McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun that he was going to that evening. I politely declined because as nice a kid as he was, I wasn't really interested in socializing with a 12 year old. When he left, my colleagues joked that the little boy had asked me out.

I think we were all pretty sure Billy would turn out to be gay. I'm not saying that Billy knew he was gay back then, or suggesting that he secretly wanted me. What I am saying is that he must have known a kindred spirit when he saw one.

Although Billy credited Ty Herndon with giving him the courage to come out, I love that he did it a quarter of a century earlier, so to speak. I also love that like a true post-millennial, he didn't release a public statement through his publicist but rather came out via a YouTube video. I also love that he referred to his boyfriend of five months as his "partner."

I know. That's so 26. But it confirms something else I suspected when he was 12. I always had a feeling he'd grow up to be a great guy and an unjaded romantic. Welcome to the party, Billy.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

10 of My "Favorite" Things: ABBA to John Lennon

What's your favorite song by [insert popular band/singer] here?

As ice-breaking music-related questions go, I actually like that one more than my long-time standard: What are your Top 3 favorite bands/singers of all-time. For one thing, I tend to find the specifics of someone's taste (favorite songs, movies, cities, etc.) to be far more revealing than more general preferences (favorite singers, actors, countries, etc.).

An example: When I recently posed my Top 3 question to someone, his inclusion of Prince didn't say nearly as much about him as when he later named Purple Rain as his all-time favorite movie. His cool cred suddenly skyrocketed.

For another thing, as long as you stick to popular artists with massive discographies, everyone is likely to have an opinion.

Or so it seems every time my Facebook friend Dan J Kroll poses another "$2.99/gallon KROLLSTION" (that's Kroll + question). His latest one was Lionel Richie themed. To make things more interesting, Dan allowed Richie songs, tunes by his old band, The Commodores, and Richie compositions for other artists, like Kenny Rogers' No. 1 smash "Lady".

My picks: "Zoom" (The Commodores), "Love Will Conquer All" (solo) and "We Are the World" (songwriting -- but mainly for the Ray Charles parts). Had I been able to pick from songs that Richie produced but didn't write, Rogers' "I Don't Need You" would have been my one and only choice. I may not love it quite as much as I do "Lucille" or "Love Or Something Like It," but at this very moment, I'd rather listen to "I Don't Need You" than anything Richie ever wrote or sang, with or without The Commodores.

Inspired by the Lionel Richie-themed KROLLSTION, I've decided to do a mix-tape blog post featuring my favorite songs by 10 of my favorite bands/singers, A to J.

How can I possibly choose one song when there are so many great ones by each act? I think of it this way: If I were on my death bed, and I was told that I could hear one song only by each act before I die, which track would it be? A morbid thought, yes, but at least I'd kick the bucket with a kick-ass soundtrack.

ABBA: "When All Is Said and Done" On a different day, it very well could be "Waterloo" or "Take a Chance on Me" or "Voulez-Vous". But on most days, it would be ABBA's final U.S. Top 40 hit, possibly because it's one of the group's few singles that haven't been overplayed to death in the various ABBA revivals over the decades.

Billy Joel: "The Longest Time" We all know Joel is an excellent songwriter, but for me, this is the one song that proves without a doubt what an amazing singer he was during his peak years. And he performed it entirely a cappella. Those impossibly high notes at the end still give me the goose-bumpy chills.

Chicago: "Old Days" Chicago doesn't get enough credit for being musically daring. Aside from probably Three Dog Night, I can't think of another band from Chicago's creative-peak era (1969's "Questions 67 and 68" to 1976's "If You Leave Me Now," which kicked off the band's still-musically remarkable but considerably more predictable era of Peter Cetera-sung mellow ballads) that offered so many singles that were so distinct and un-cookie-cutter. "Old Days" might not be the best one, but it's the one most likely to make me press "repeat" because its ever-changing mood always makes me think I've missed something. As the clip below shows, even a band as great as Chicago and a singer as skilled as Cetera struggled to recreate the complex and intricate sound of the single live.

Depeche Mode: "Barrel of a Gun" Normally I would have gone with David Bowie (and "Sound and Vision," of course) or, like a recent KROLLSTION, Donna Summer (and "The Wanderer" or "Lucky") for "D," but I was just raving about "Barrel" to my friend Dov (speaking of D's) on a straight tequila night. The video is everything, one of my all-time favorites, and it's a large part of why I've never been able to get enough of this song for more than 17 years. Still, even without the odd clip, this still would deserve a spot in the band's pantheon of greatness.

Electric Light Orchestra: "Telephone Line" I'm a sucker for a fairly mainstream band going Top 10 with a strange-as-fuck-song. Will someone please tell me when ELO, The Moody Blues and The Steve Miller Band will finally get nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We're already onto '90s acts like Green Day and these seminal bands from the '60s to the '80s have yet to score even a measly nomination.

Fleetwood Mac: "Tusk" See above. Though Christine McVie has always been my favorite FM vocalist ("Think About You" would probably be No. 2), and Stevie Nicks my favorite FM solo act, Lindsey Buckingham actually sang/wrote more of my favorite FM songs. Honorable Lindsey-sung/penned mentions: "The Chain," "Walk a Thin Line," "Empire State" and "Big Love".

Grace Jones: "My Jamaican Guy" Too bad I didn't know this song back when I was a kid and certain people would erroneously peg me as being from Jamaica and mean it as an insult. Now Jones's classic makes me prouder to be a Caribbean queen than Billy Ocean ever did.

Hall and Oates: "Sara Smile" As huge a fan as I am of Daryl Hall and John Oates in the '80s, nothing they did that decade -- not "One on One," not "Say It Isn't So," not "Out of Touch" -- can touch the sublime timelessness of the duo's breakthrough hit from 1976.

INXS: "Heaven Sent" At a mere 3:18, proof that size doesn't always matter. Sometimes the best things come in unusually short packages.

John Lennon: "#9 Dream" Look, I'll probably never live this down, but Lennon was never my favorite solo Beatle. That honor would go to Paul McCartney. Lennon wasn't even my second favorite. That honor would go to George Harrison. And neither McCartney nor Harrison nor Lennon recorded what is my favorite solo-Beatle single. That honor would go to Ringo Starr, whose "Photograph" I'd rather listen to over and over and over than any Beatles song I can think of. But in a solo career that wowed me intermittently and, from "Just Like Starting Over" to "Nobody Told Me," consistently (albeit posthumously), "#9 Dream" probably would always be the last Lennon song I'd want to hear. Doesn't it actually sound like something Harrison would have done around the same time?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Best Love Advice Ever

Jeremy Helligar, Love Expert.

In my wildest dreams, I've never imagined myself as one. This past weekend, though, that's exactly what I became for one hour as a guest on Dan J Kroll's lifestyle radio show Kroll Call (formerly "Soap Central Live," the first weekly radio show I've listened to religiously since Kasey Casem's "American Top 40" in the '80s). I was there to plug my new book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, and to be part of a three-person panel answering listeners' questions about love, romance and sex.

What do I know about love, romance and sex? That's as good a question as the ones I was asked on the show. Writing a book about my romantic escapades around the world hardly makes mine a voice of reason. And being chronically single, I'm not exactly a poster child for romantic living. But as they say, do as I say, not as I do. Most of us are better at dishing out great advice than following it.

Among the topics covered by our love panel (one of whom, former All My Children star Terri Ivens, once gave me romantic advice when I met her at a friend's home in New York City): long-distance relationships, nude photos, threesomes and online dating. What I didn't get to share was the greatest lesson I've yet to learn about love. It came to me two and a half weeks ago while I was at a cafe in Melbourne with friends. The writing was on the wall -- literally.

The words:

"If you're looking for the love of your life, stop. They will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love."

That actually echos advice that Mary J. Blige once gave me when I was interviewing her, and it also goes along with the very first line in my book: "You get what you're not looking for." But there's something about the wording here that really cuts to the chase while advising against going on one. Don't go looking for love. Let it find you.

Also among the writing on that wall: "Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself." True, too. Alas, I didn't agree with everything I read that morning. "If you hate your job, quit," sounds great, but it's not particularly realistic here in the real world.

But getting back to love, that quote isn't saying to be passive. It's telling you to do what you love doing; be active. Love won't come knocking on your door if you stay at home playing the entitled one. You've got to put yourself out there. And while you're at it, keep calm and just let what will be be.

That's actually pretty sound advice for every aspect of life.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rose McGowan Needs to Brush Up on Her Gay Culture!

Clearly Rose McGowan has never met a gay man.

How else to explain her having the audacity to make a comment as preposterous as this one: "Gay men are as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so. I have an indictment of the gay community right now, I'm actually really upset with them"?

Well, guess what, Rose: Most of us probably never gave you a second thought before, but now the feelings are entirely mutual.

The unenlightened actress made the comment to author Bret Easton Ellis (of course!) in a podcast last month. Then she went even further, taking gay men to task for not mobilizing politically in support of women's rights around the world. Hmm... And what exactly have straight men collectively done for the female cause lately?

The biggest problem with McGowan's comments is that they completely ignore the fact that women are such a huge part of gay culture. Drag queens are basically an over-the-top celebration of women, and gay entertainment revolves around female artists, from dance divas to pop divas to R&B divas to Broadway divas to soap divas to our obsession with Oscar-caliber actresses. (It's all about actresses.) Every single one of our icons from the beginning of time has been a women. What's so misogynistic about that?

McGowan did make one decent point when she mentioned an unfortunate tendency of oppressed groups to ignore the plights of other oppressed groups. I've seen it in the way some gay men disregard minority gay men, in the way some blacks dismiss gays, and in the way many women treat other women. But I don't think the gay movement has to simultaneously be a women's movement to not be anti-women. And for her to say that gay men have most of what they've fought for shows how little she knows.

It sounds to me like McGowan was grasping at straws, trying to justify throwing a party at the Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel. Brunei is notorious for its anti-gay laws, but that's no problem since, in McGowan's eyes, gay men hate women. We deserve to be stoned to death. I wonder if she's checked Brunei's record on women's rights.

She'd be way better off in a gay club. If any of them would welcome her after spouting such misguided drivel.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Ill Communication: If You Want to Make Me Nauseous, Say or Write These 10 Things

Griping about things I wish people wouldn't say (or write) never gets old, or irrelevant (because people keep saying -- and writing -- them), so here we go again. Today's Top 10 conversational pet peeves:

1) "Everyone's entitled to their opinion." Um, duh.

2) "Let's agree to disagree." A true cop-out by someone who doesn't have a wobbly leg to stand on.

3) "a fresh start" The past always comes back to haunt, especially when one of you gets mad.

4) "Deal with it." So dismissive, so nasty.

5) "She's had (a lot of) work done." This cosmetic-surgery/Botox shaming has got to stop. Does Renée Zellweger's face shock us because it looks different or because we think it wasn't just the handiwork of time? Who cares? She looks great.

Who cares if current General Hospital star Donna Mills, 73, has her (excellent!) plastic surgeon to thank for not looking a day older than she did when Knot's Landing ended in 1993? If she looked her age, we'd be slamming her for that, too.

Are make-up, wigs, hair extensions and highlights more authentic agents of attractiveness than nips and tucks? Do they make Beyoncé (at least the one we see on stage, in videos, on red carpets and in publicity photos) more real than Renée? In episodes four and five of How to Get Away with Murder, Viola Davis showed us how what we see is rarely what we get with women in Hollywood, nor do they generally wake up like that, despite what Beyoncé sings.

Constantly putting women on the defensive for pursuing an airbrushed standard (forever youthfulness and impossible beauty) is like punishing them for following the rules that society set. If you don't have something nice to say, then just don't say anything when someone else does.

6) #Anythingwithahashtaginfrontofit. I'm not just annoyed with hashtags because I'm still not sure what they do. I'm annoyed with them mostly because they symbolize a society of communicators who believe words are useless, especially sentences (of 140 characters or less), unless they're "liked" and "retweeted" by the masses. Even condolences are offered with "reach" in mind. "RIP" and a hashtag should never be in the same vicinity!

7) "[Insert absolutely "amazing" thing here] is giving me life." What I used to say -- "I'm living for [insert absolutely "amazing" thing here]" -- was kind of the same thing, but then, hardly anybody else used to say that. Along with other stale staples of blogosphere-speak -- like "Co-sign," "Fail" and "Epic fail" -- it was probably clever when one or two bloggers or blog commenters used it, but now it just comes across as hackneyed and bandwagonesque.

8) "Let's grab a drink/dinner sometime." I get what people who say this are trying to do (make an invitation sound as casual as humanly possible), but I can never shake the image of crying over spilled vodka or picking up chicken parma off the floor, for who "grabs" a drink or dinner without making a total mess?

9) "What did you do today?" One of the best things about starting a new job on Monday is that people will no longer ask me this unless it's the weekend.

10) "Brekkie" I adore Aussie-isms ("buddy," "mate," "heaps" and "nah," "tomoz" for tomorrow, "arvo" for "afternoon," "How are you going?" for "How are you doing?" and "as" in lieu of an exclamation point, as in "Hot as" for "Hot!"). They're giving me life (wink wink) as I settle into my new city. But what's the point of shortening a word ("breakfast") to something with just as many syllables ("brekkie")? Plus, "brekkie" doesn't sound particularly palatable, especially not first thing in the morning.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

No, Facebook Is Not the Devil, If You Know How -- and When -- to Use It

"How are you doing over in Cape Town?"

What a strange question? I thought while reading an email from one of my very best friends a few days ago. Doesn't she know where I am? I figured everybody who knows me knows. Although I've told only a few people personally, pretty much everything I've posted on Facebook for the past month or so has had something to do with my forthcoming book or my big move from Cape Town to Sydney for a new job. Where had she been?

"Where have you been? Haven't you been on Facebook?" I asked in response, expecting her to tell me about how work has made it impossible to keep up with everybody's status updates. As it turns out, she hadn't been keeping up with anybody's status updates because she "deactivated" her Facebook account two months ago, weeks before Sydney came into play. And by the way, the irony of my not realizing she'd been off Facebook for that long was not lost on me. It reminds me of the irony of my having had to see a Facebook friend in person last weekend to find out that she split up with her husband a year ago. She had a similar response to my cluelessness about the dramatic details of her life.

But getting back to my other friend, she was tired of all the pointlessness of Facebook, knowing all the minutiae of the lives of people she cared nothing about and reading the back-and-forth bickering on topics that didn't interest her. She'd had enough, so she opted out.

I shouldn't have been surprised. My friend has always been one of the most no-bullshit people I know, and I adore her for it. She suffers no one -- fools or otherwise -- gladly. She's the friend who finally convinced me to dump a boyfriend by making an unrelated offhand comment about straining to keep up your end of non-conversations. "Suddenly, you realize, why am I knocking myself out like an idiot for someone with absolutely nothing say?" she said. I knew right then and there that my then-boyfriend and I were through.

Furthermore, for as long as she and I were Facebook friends, we never used it as a means of communication. We've kept in touch since I left New York City eight years ago mostly by regular email and dinners when I've been back in NYC. The question she asked at the beginning of this post was part of her response to a "Happy birthday" message I had sent to her via personal email because I'd never sent her anything via Facebook.

I had no idea she had deactivated because it never occurred to me to do the 2014 thing and post Happy birthday! Hope you're having a great day! on her "Timeline" the way I assumed pretty much everyone who knows her -- or don't -- would be. I owed her something more one-on-one to make up for the few months that our currently busy lives had kept us out of each other's loops.

Her not being on Facebook may have kept her in the dark about my current employment status and living situation, but it won't change our relationship at all. She asked for my new mailing address because that's the kind of person she is. In 2014, she continues to write letters and send cards to people she cares about. I love her for that, too.

But still, I wondered, was she and people who up and leave Facebook for similar reasons -- including a family member who recently departed after being stung by a another family member's status update that she interpreted as being directed at her (because it's always all about her) -- cutting off their noses to spite their faces? To me, it's like someone who spends too much time pulling and tugging and fussing with their clothes. Just let them be and go on with your day!

The truth is that Facebook is what you want it to be. There are no membership requirements that say you have to log on and regularly check up on what is going on in people's lives, nothing that says you have to participate in heated debates or even keep track of everyone's point of view. We encounter annoying people every day in offline life and choose whether or not to pay attention. Even if we're feeling a little misanthropic and would rather not be around most people, we don't cut off contact with everyone to avoid the unfortunate many.

There are Facebook controls in place to block those people you don't want to hear from, and ways to determine what notifications you receive. If you're a casual Facebook user who rarely logs on, there's no reason to be annoyed. So if you are, perhaps you're protesting too much because you're logging on too much.

Yesterday, I had drinks with someone who made a similar revelation. He had to ditch Facebook because the constant notifications were just too much for him to handle. He's really into photography, so Instagram is more his speed anyway. He gets his social-media fix there. Fair enough.

I thought about telling him that he could stop receiving those notifications entirely, but what was the use? He seemed to be pretty set in his ways regarding Facebook. Although the anti-Facebook folks always have excellent reasons for their stance, in the end, it's never really just about that. It's usually more of a principle thing, a gut reaction to something that's gotten too big for its britches: Facebook is dumb because it's dumb (and because everyone seems to think it's the meaning of life -- so why should I?).

Personally, I couldn't disagree more. Yes, I have my issues with Facebook and social media in general, particularly for the way they've taken the "personal" out of relationships and made us all even more gluttonous for attention and validation ("like" me, "like" me, "like" me!!!). Also, I can do without knowing all the details of everyone's health and being apprised of every death in every family. When tragedy strikes me, Facebook is generally the last thing on my mind, but I understand that for some, there's solace and strength in numbers.

Think about it, though: Back when people still read newspapers, did you throw them out because you didn't need to read every story? If you didn't want to sit through everyone's opinion, didn't you just skip the Op-ed page? I don't believe I've ever read a thing USA Today had to say that wasn't in the "Life" section. I take a similar approach to Facebook.

Beyond its content, Facebook works for me for two very crucial reasons: 1) It's an excellent way for me to promote my work. 2) As someone who has lived all over the world and made friends and acquaintances everywhere, it helps me to stay in touch with peripheral people with whom I might not otherwise take the time to form long-distance bonds but whom I might want to see again if I ever return to their corner of the world. Who knows? We might even end up unexpectedly becoming friends. It's happened before, and I have Facebook to thank for it.

If I weren't a journalist and world traveler, I'd probably rarely log on to Facebook, but I'd certainly still have my account, for there's another big benefit of Facebook that is probably the reason why I've stuck around this long and will continue to do so. I've never come across a better way to reconnect with people from my past with whom I thought I'd fallen out of touch forever.

When you take out the people I don't know or don't remember, they make up the bulk of my Facebook friends, and even if we rarely, if ever, actually say anything to each other, it's nice to know they're still out there. They may never be active participants in my day-to-day life, but at the very least, they'll always know in which city to find me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lost in Sydney: Is This Really My New Home?

Not lost "lost," so don't bother trying to offer me directions. It's not like I don't know my way around here (or can't figure it out on my own, for inner Sydney is fairly user-with-a-map friendly). Yesterday's landing at Sydney International was my eighth one in the city, which couldn't have looked more gorgeous from eight miles high (or wherever we were when we were no longer flying above the clouds). But I think it started before I went up, up and away in Qantas flight 64 from Johannesburg to Sydney.

My final hours on the ground in South Africa (two in Cape Town, two in Johannesburg) were imperfect caps to my last year abroad, so fraught with inconveniences that they seemed to be screaming "Get out while you can!" (..."and don't come back!" -- which is a twist for a future blog post once I make more sense of it) while confirming what has become my No. 1 travel truth: The worst parts of any long-distance voyage are the parts spent in airports.

The waiting isn't the hardest part of that part, though. It's dealing with airport speed bumps post-9/11: rigorously enforced weight restrictions (If I book a two-leg flight on, and Qantas uses a partner airline for the first leg, shouldn't Qantas arrange for me to have the same weight limit on both flights?), baggage checks (I'm still not sure what airport security has against liquids), and customs (a necessary evil that's still a pain in the ass). The latter was never actually a problem for me until I left South Africa this time, six days after my visa expired, which, again, is a story for another blog post.

Thankfully, my arrival/welcome in Sydney was smoother than my departure from South Africa. Although Australia's border patrol has a reputation for being extra-vigilant and strict (and it has its own TV series to document/show for it), in the dozen or so times I've entered the country, I've only once had an Immigration problem (the first time, as I didn't enter my middle name on my ETA visa application, making the ETA me, in essence, a different person than the me named in my passport), and I've never had my baggage inspected. That's probably not the reason why I click with the country and the people in it, but it's never a bad start.

So why have I felt so out of sorts since my latest arrival? Was it because of the gloomy overcast skies and the autumn-like spring chill that greeted me? I overheard a woman on the shuttle bus into the city complaining about how she didn't have to leave London to get such grim weather. Another compared it to Melbourne's notoriously capricious climate, citing the "four seasons in a day" cliché. For a moment, I found myself wishing I could be somewhere else: in London, in Melbourne, in a taxi. But I've been so looking forward to Sydney for weeks. I should barely be able to contain my glee.

Perhaps the reason for my continuing malaise is that I left South Africa, my home for the past 11 and a half months, under less-than-stellar conditions, but I feel like I'm already moving past that. God knows it's not my living arrangements in Sydney. My accommodation for the next three months is certainly welcoming enough, even without some of the necessities (towels, bed linings, toilet paper) that I might have expected to find in a furnished one-bedroom executive rental which is costing me more than twice what I paid per month for my apartment in Cape Town. (Aside from views of Devil's Peak, Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Signal Hill, it's the one thing I'll miss most about Cape Town).

On my way to a store to buy a towel to dry off with after washing myself clean of the grime my body had accumulated over 14 hours of air travel and several more of airport drama, I discovered that I live only a few blocks away from my new job at ninemsn, which will make the work commute my easiest ever and my temporary CBD address convenient, if not ideal on a social level. And I was immediately reminded of the unpredictable but excellent Aussie taste in music. The first two songs I heard in public after landing: "Best Friend" by Foster the People, which was playing over the loudspeaker en route to the customs and baggage claim area at the airport, and "To Know Him Is to Love Him," the 1987 No. 1 country hit by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt that was blaring from the radio at the 24-hour convenience store near my new home.

I think there may be a couple of key contributing factors to this peaceful but slightly uneasy feeling that's been washing over me since I woke up mid-flight from Johannesburg to Sydney somewhat panicked. For one, I'm about to start a new job (which, in itself, is generally a cause for some trepidation), one that will mark the first time I've been tied to a 9-to-5 gig in more than eight years. I'd better make it work. I'm a perfectionist that way, and the terms of my 48-month 457 visa demand it. The pressure is on.

For two, there's my social standing in Sydney, or rather, lack thereof. The last time I arrived in Australia thinking long-term (in March of 2011), it was under considerably different circumstances. I was arriving in Melbourne, my first Australian love, and my second Australian love (my boyfriend-to-be) was waiting for me. I've never been one to move to a new country or city for love and can't imagine myself ever being motivated to do so, but I now fully understand how having a human connection awaiting you on the other side of a relocation can make all the difference. The job may, for the first time, give me a legitimate reason to be in Australia, but reclusive as I am, I've always been driven mostly by human connections.

Thankfully, I'm now in a place where it should be a lot easier to make them. I spent most of the last year mostly on my own, partly by choice, but partly because South Africa's social fabric, particularly in Cape Town, is so difficult to penetrate. The local gay scene is even tougher. Before I left, I hadn't been on a date in at least three months, which may have had something to do with my rare excursions into the nightlife and my temporary departure from the Grindr dating pool. One's skin color can be the hot topic for only so long before one begins to feel even more self-conscious than usual about it. Who needs that?

As valuable as the lessons learned in Cape Town were (and I got an entire second book out of them), I'm looking forward to living in world where the racial politics don't really apply to me. (As a black American, I've never felt more accepted than I have in Australia.) I know that eventually my diffidence will pass. Like jetlag -- killer, as usual -- it always does, leading to bright new (and hopefully, sunnier) days.