Thursday, May 31, 2012

From Bangkok to Laos and Back Again: Few Thrills, A Few Surprises

Say what they will about Bangkok's insane bumper-to-bumper traffic -- and everyone who's experienced it has -- but being stuck in the middle of it is a lot easier to handle when it's not costing you a small fortune. That's one of the reasons why, despite its traffic-jammed streets, I love Bangkok anyway. Like New York City and Buenos Aires in the past, and Melbourne in the present, every time I leave, I can’t wait to return.

Thankfully, driving (as a passenger, or behind the wheel) isn't the only option here in BKK. If you have all the time in the world, a high tolerance to the year-round summer sun and walking shoes suitable for climbing overhead pathways from one side of the street to the other, off-the-road transportation in Bangkok is not only cheap, but it's a easy, too. For those staying in certain neighborhoods (in my case, Sathorn), most everything you need is within walking distance. If not, the public transportation system is excellent and, like the taxis, air conditioned!

Leave the capital and venture to Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Chang, or Vientiane in Laos (that's pronounced with a silent S, by the way, like Illinois, befitting the landlocked country's French heritage), and you'll be at the mercy of drivers trying to charge at least 150 baht (US$5) for the honor of riding in a rickety tuk-tuk to get from point A to point B, regardless of the distance between them. (I've successfully bartered down the rates on occasion, but who needs that kind of hassle every time you flag down a ride?) That's one-third of the roughly 400 to 500 baht it costs to take a taxi 25 kilometers from Bangkok's city center to Suvarnabhumi Airport -- AC and tolls included (in the taxi, not the tuk-tuks)!

In Vientiane (or Vien Tiane, as it's written on some road signs), I was shocked by how much tuk-tuk and taxi drivers were certain tourists would be willing to pay to not have to travel on foot. My taxi driver charged me 500 baht ($17) for the six-or-so-kilometer round trip (plus one-hour waiting time) to go from the City Inn Vientiane in the center of town, several blocks from the Mekong River, to the Royal Thai Embassy to renew my visa. Last summer in Siem Reap, Cambodia, my tuk-tuk driver only expected half that much to spend half of the morning and half of the afternoon taking me from temple to temple. Our van driver/tour guide in Chiangmai only charged us 100 baht more -- and he was with us from 11am to nearly sundown!

As I was griping on the inside over how much I'd just spent to go such a short distance, I realized that the taxi and tuk-tuk drivers in Vientiane depend on suckers like me who are making visa runs there because, really, there isn't any other discernible reason that I can see for laying one's hat in Vientiane and not the considerably better-reviewed Luang Prabang, which is deeper into Laos and therefore not as accessible to budget-minded visa runners. If you're set on Vientiane, be warned that booking a three-star hotel in the city center on Agoda will set you back US$25 to US$60 for basic amenities on par with two-star Bangkok accommodations.

When I arrived at my first hotel, City Inn Vientiane, for day one of my Laos adventure, and I saw a poster with a man-made lake at the top of the list of must-do Vientiane tourist activities, I knew I wasn't in for a visual feast (unlike what I encountered last summer in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, of which the Laos capital reminded me architecturally). That's not to say that inflated hotel and transportation rates aside, traveling to Vientiane from Bangkok can't still be a somewhat interesting and enlightening experience. Here are five things I learned in three and a half days that I totally wasn't expecting.
Chao Anouvong Statue

1. Overnight sleeper trains can be kind of cool. Though I could have lived without the border control/Immigration portion of the journey and the various fees involved (as a U.S. citizen, I had to pay 1,500 baht for an on-entry Laos visa -- in addition to 500 baht for overstaying my 90-day non-immigrant Thai visa by one day), the actual train rides to and from Vientiane in the second-class sleeper car (758 baht, each way) were not only surprisingly comfortable (more so than that twin bed at the Family Hotel in Vientiane), but they seemed like a lot less than 15 hours.

That will happen when you spend most of the journey sleeping relatively soundly, which might be why I wasn't completely annoyed that both trips were scheduled by the State Railway of Thailand as being only 12 hours. And thank God for considerate fellow passengers: Fabrice, the French guy sitting across from me (and sleeping over me), waited until the last hour or so of the ride to befriend me. This, chatty travelers, is how you do it. Bonus props for the unexpected two-bar Wi-Fi in the Nong Khai train station, on the Thailand side of the border.

All that said, now that I’ve crossed “Ride a Thai train” off my travel bucket list, I never have to do it again.

2. They drive on the right side (the right side) of the road. Which means that if I ever completely surprise myself and decide to move to Laos, I might actually consider getting behind the wheel of a car again.

3. People speak English there. Somebody in Bangkok explained it to me: Since Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonized by France, the UK or some other imperialistic power, learning English was never compulsory for its citizens. That would explain why so many people in the countries formerly known as Indochina, all of which are far less developed and tourist-heavy than Thailand, have a rudimentary grasp of English, while hardly anybody seems to in Thailand. It's also why the guy who checked me into the Family Hotel for day two in Vientiane was able to immediately disarm me with his familiarity.

"I love your skin," he said stroking my forearm. "It's so nice. I wish I had skin like that."

Alright, then.

4. Despite the proximity of the countries, people in Laos are quite distinct from people in Thailand. It's easy to take for granted the warm, borderline obsequious nature of locals in Thailand when you spend three months straight being charmed by them. And then you leave, and people go back to being normal. Although the locals I encountered in Vientiane were, for the most part, perfectly polite, the hotel employee was an aberration from the norm, which was prompt service but not necessarily with much of a smile.

5. Still, a Lao massage feels a lot like a Thai one... only with far less pain involved (the kind that supposedly hurts so good, but not for me). You really can't go wrong when you're spending 580 baht ($19) on a two-hour treatment that includes a full-body massage, hot compresses and no hands creeping dangerously close to should-be-off-limits places. But what was the guy who checked me into my hotel -- and checked me out there as well -- doing working the receptionist desk at the massage spa, too?

At least he gave me the type of happy ending ("Good-bye" and nothing more) that I always find perfectly acceptable -- in any country.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why I Love the '90s, Part 3: The 90 Best Things About the "ME" Decade

Everybody loves '80s music, and I do, too. But as much as I appreciate the pop culture of the Ronald Reagan decade, personally, those were hardly the best years of my life. I was too busy trying to make sense of who I was, struggling to fit my square self into a round hole, to really seize the days and enjoy them. In some ways, the '90s was the decade in which I was truly born.

An ex-boyfriend (see No. 2 below) once told me that the thing he admired most about me was the way I completely invented myself. I took it as a compliment, but he was off by about 12 years. Necessity was the mother of my invention (I needed to perfect a presentable, acceptable image if I was going to survive on the playground), but that was back when I was trying to be someone I wasn't, from around ages 10 to 22. By the time he and I met, I had stopped inventing and reinventing myself -- I was finally just being myself. Despite some terrible outfits and questionable hairstyles, the '90s were best for me because it was my era of self-discovery.

One of the other interesting distinctions between the '80s and '90s is how differently I remember the two decades. I can assign exact years to '80s albums, singles, movies and events more or less from memory, but for the most part, with the '90s, specific years are less clear -- perhaps because, for the first time, I didn't have school years with which to associate them. Everything in the '90s tends to fall into three categories: the early '90s, the mid '90s and the late '90s. Thankfully, in the 2010s, we have Wikipedia to provide dates, when needed.

Lisa, my former high-school classmate and current Facebook friend who calls the '90s her "religious cult years" because she knows so little about them, suggested that I document and celebrate my second favorite decade (nothing compares to the '70s) with an official list. What a great idea. So here are 90 reasons why the '90s were, to quote a Styx song from the early '80s, the best of times.

1. Coming out and coming into my own.

2. My first love (and my second and third ones, too)

3. Kir royales: Was I drunk on love, or was it just the champagne?

4. New York City's East Village, circa October 1992 to October 1995, and my first bachelor pad there

5. Sex and the city: Not the show, my life!

6. The summer of '95: My best one ever, and the last hurrah of kick-ass NYC.

7. The summer of '96: New York to London to Prague to Budapest to Vienna to Prague to London to New York.

8. My milestone birthday party at Cheetah: 30 was the new 20 (now it's 40)!

9. My mom's surprise 55th birthday party in Atlanta five days earlier

10. Never letting a birthday sneak by without a decadent birthday dinner.

11. Monday nights at Sugar Babies

12. Tuesday nights underground at Jackie 60

13. Wednesday nights upstairs at Flamingo East

14. Thursday nights at Bowery Bar

15. Friday nights at Sound Factory Bar

16. Saturday nights at the Roxy

17. The blizzard of 1996

18. Mardi Gras (1990-1991)

19. Gainesville, Florida

20. Driving solo from Los Angeles to San Francisco over Christmas break 1994

21. My first trans-Atlantic crossing (Can you believe they ever permitted smoking in-flight?)

22. European vacations

23. Museo del Prado en Madrid

24. My favorite London spaces: Soho Square, Kensington High Street, Camden Town, King's Road, Earls Court, Notting Hill Gate, Portobello Road Market, Hyper Hyper and Neal Street/Covent Garden

25. Shaftesbury Avenue, West End theatre and discovering Julie Christie for the first time in a revival of Pinter's Old Times

26. Jigsaw menswear

27. Top Shop before it was everywhere

28. Wednesday nights at Heaven

29. Mondays and Thursdays at G.A.Y.

30. Sundays at DTPM

31. That comically unflattering photo of Monica Lewinsky that seemed to accompany every story about her. Say what you will about ML, but thanks, in part, to her, Bill Clinton's U.S. Presidency was the only one of my lifetime that I actually enjoyed.

32. Great Britpop bands with one-word, one-syllable names

33. The sounds of the time: Britpop, Madchester, dream pop, grunge, trip hop and drum 'n' bass

34. Interviewing David Bowie -- twice!

35. The last golden age of the soul diva: Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Kelly Price, and '80s holdovers Regina Belle, Miki Howard and Angela Winbush

36. Annie Lennox's Diva: It lived up to its title and then some.

37. Babyface's For the Cool in You: This was just one reason why the '80s super-producer was still relevant in the '90s. La Face Records and Toni Braxton's debut album were two others.

38. Kate Bush's The Red Shoes: In one fell swoop, Bush delivered her strangest and most accessible album, a hard act that it took her 12 years to follow.

39. k.d. lang's Ingenue: Here's one of those rare instances where an artist's great commercial triumph was exactly what it should have been.

40. Joni Mitchell's Turbulent Indigo: A mid-decade surprise that was right up there with her '70s classics.

41. Linda Perry's In Flight: "She didn't need any help," Pink once told me when I thanked her for helping Perry get the recognition she deserved (via her Perry-written and produced 2001 single "Get The Party Started," which I actually hated). If only that had been true.

42. Maria McKee's You Gotta Sin to Get Saved: I once saw McKee in concert at Irving Plaza, and I couldn't believe the things she could do with so many instruments.

43. Morrissey's Vauxhall and I: A brilliant album, Morrissey's best (and if you listen closely, his coming-out album, too), with not a weak link in earshot. "Speedway," one of the best album closers in the history of albums, still makes my jaw drop.

44. Neil Young's Harvest Moon: This was the one that turned me on to the legend, belatedly.

45. Neneh Cherry's Homebrew: Speaking of great album closers, "Red Paint" used to leave me nearly in tears because it hit so close to my New York City home.

46. R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People: Volume two of R.E.M.'s spectacular run of '90s greatness (from 1991's Out of Time to 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi) and the best of the four-set series.

47. Radiohead's The Bends: More than any other musical opus, this and No. 46 are the ones that define the entire decade for me.

48. George Michael's "Too Funky" video: The visual and aural embodiment of the supermodel era.

49. Roxette's "Spending My Time" video: It must have been some love.

50. Bjork's "All Is Full of Love" video: The ultimate space-age love song.

51. Depeche Mode's "Barrel of a Gun" video: I prefer my DM pitch black and extremely twisted.

52. The KLF featuring Tammy Wynette: Justified but so not ancient!

53. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach: Painted from Memory and the Sessions at West 54th episode that celebrated it remain essential listening/viewing 14 years on.

54. Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave: "Where the Wild Roses Grow" was the highlight of "Indie Kylie"-era Minogue. As much as I love pretty much everything she does, I wish she'd push her boundaries -- or let someone do it for her -- like she did in the mid to late '90s again. 

55. Texas: Not the place -- the band, massive everywhere but in the country of its namesake state.

56. Jamiroquai's near-U.S. breakthrough: But I never really got all the hoopla over "Virtual Insanity," the song or the video.

57. Shara Nelson's stunning double play: What Silence Knows and Friendly Fire

58. Canadian queens: Shanie Twain, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan

59. Fierce ruling dance divas: Billie Ray Martin, Kristine W., Ultra Nate, Joi Cardwell, Sandy B, et al. 

60. Girl power, riot grrrls and Lilith Fair

61. Teen pop for twentysomethings: Thank you, Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah and Robyn. Oh, and the boy was mine!

62. TLC and En Vogue: The best girl groups ever!

63. The Trainspotting soundtrack: No, the movie didn't make me want to go out and get high, because the music took me there.

64. The Until the End of the World soundtrack: Featuring fantastic music by Neneh Cherry, Depeche Mode, U2, Elvis Costello and especially Lou Reed that ranks right up there with their best work of the decade -- or of any decade.

65. Red Hot + Blue, a various artists tribute to Cole Porter to benefit AIDS research and relief (more Neney Cherry!) that gave me a whole new appreciation for the Great American Songbook. De-lovely!

66. PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love tour: Seductive and kind of scary, two qualities that shouldn't go together that Harvey wore better than anyone since Siouxsie Sioux in the previous decade.

67. Saint Etienne, Grant Lee Buffalo and American Music Club at Manhattan Ballroom on September 23, 1994. Damn, my allergies that night!

68. Kings of remix: Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia and Armand Van Helden

69. Single white males who rocked my world: Matthew Sweet, Michael Penn and Joe Henry

70. Annie Lennox, Simply Red and Gwyneth Paltrow (the latter in a sighting, not in concert) in Central Park

71. Four years without a TV (1991 to 1995)

72. Small-screen comedy queens: Fran Drescher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lisa Kudrow, Carrie, Miranda and Samantha (but not Charlotte) on Sex and the City, and, of course, Karen and Jack on Will & Grace

73. Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever

74. Miranda Richardson in Damage, The Crying Game and Enchanted April -- all in one year (1992)!

75. Juliette Binoche in Blue

76. Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas

77. Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station: I've never really forgiven the Academy for giving the 1998 Best Actress Oscar to Gwyneth Paltrow instead.

78. Julianne Moore when she was almost famous (in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Short Cuts and Safe)

79. Emma Thompson 1993-1995 (minus Junior)

80. Dramatic sibling rivalry between Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham in Georgia and Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths in Hillary and Jackie. "You don't sing. You can't sing." Ouch! (I just can't get enough of dueling sisters -- see my 2011 love of Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene.)

81. Jennifer Jason Leigh, never Oscar-nominated, unlike every other '90s film star mentioned above

82. Reality Bites: It spoke to me, in 1994, like The Breakfast Club did to my peers in the '80s." Melrose Place is a really good show." I re-enacted that Winona Ryder-Janeane Garofalo scene shortly after meeting my second boyfriend, the Friday it hit theaters, a few days after I saw the movie at an NYC screening. He laughed -- and then he asked me out. By the way, he loved Jennifer Jason Leigh. Brownie points!

83. Beautiful Thing: My favorite gay-themed film until A Single Man came along.

84. Reading Entertainment Weekly cover to cover in bed every weekend

85. Hard copy: Not the TV show (1989-1999)! Magazines, newspapers, books and letters -- Remember them?

86. The blinking light on answering machines

87. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: One of the few fiction novels published in the '90s that I read in the '90s and loved in the '90s.

88. Birkenstocks

89. Life before Atenolol

90. MTV's The Real World, back when reality TV was still a novelty. The Truman Show, back when a movie about a TV program about a man's everyday life was actually an original concept. Oh, how I miss the '90s!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why I Love the '90s, Part 2

Lovers live longer, the great country duo the Bellamy Brothers sang on their 1980 No. 3 hit.

So do movie stars. In music, as Chris Rock so succinctly put it when hosting the 1997 MTV Movie Awards, here today, gone today. But the biggest movie stars in any given decade are far more likely to still be movie stars a decade or two later.

Consider the Best Actress nominees from the '90s. Though it's been a long way down for several of them (Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Sharon Stone), most remain more or less regularly, if not always so gainfully, employed, unless it's by choice (Joanne Woodward, Julie Christie). Even Helen Hunt, the 1997 winner for As Good As It Gets, largely MIA in recent years, might be on the cusp of a potentially major Oscar comeback with the Sundance hit The Surrogate.

Now consider the No. 1 singles of 1992. Of the 14 acts to hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, only Madonna and Mariah Carey would be considered bankable on the charts today. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were long past their best-seller years at the time of their deaths, and Elton John was already a legend when he hit No. 1 as a guest performer on George Michael's cover of his own "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." The majority of the rest -- Color Me Badd, Right Said Fred, Mr. Big, Kris Kross, Sir Mix-a-Lot, The Heights -- really were here today, gone today, and we only care about Vanessa Williams in 2012 because she went on to make it as an Emmy-nominated prime-time TV actress.

It's easy to see why so many pop stars go Hollywood then. It's the best way to ensure longevity and/or immortality, whether it's by being in movies (Academy Award winners Cher and Barbra Streisand, and, possibly, Justin Timberlake), being the subject of movies (Loretta Lynn, Tina Turner, Billie Holliday), or practically dying trying (Madonna). Although the late Whitney Houston was a superstar before The Bodyguard, her 1992 film debut made her forever an icon.

But alas, as Madonna has spent most of her career proving, movie stardom can be so much harder to come by. One-hit wonders in music are not as common you think. If you score once, audience goodwill usually gets you to second base at least once more (see Vanilla Ice, who made it to No. 4, post "Ice Ice Baby," with "Play That Funky Music"). But I once read somewhere that most actors and actresses who are nominated for an Academy Award are never nominated again.

Sadly, that list includes Elisabeth Shue, a 1995 Best Actress nominee for Leaving Las Vegas. No other Oscar nominee from the '90s impressed me more, not even Susan Sarandon, nominated four times that decade and finally winning the year Shue was nominated, for Dead Man Walking.

Though her win was no surprise, Sarandon had a decidedly less Oscar-bait role: a nun counseling a man on death row (Sean Penn, nominated for the first time). For women, it seems, playing a prostitute (Jane Fonda in Klute, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite) or playing a rape victim (Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, Jodie Foster in The Accused) is as surefire a route to an Oscar as playing gay is for men, and, like Charlize Theron in Monster (for which she'd win the Oscar eight years later), Shue did both in Vegas.

I only saw the film once, in the theater shortly after its release, and although Nicolas Cage would go on to win Best Actor for one of the most haunting portrayals of alcoholism this side of fellow Oscar winner Ray Milland in 1945's The Lost Weekend (speaking of Oscar bait character characteristics) everything that I remember about the movie involves Elisabeth Shue. Her performance as Sera is quiet and understated, yet so full of passion. It's a shame that Hollywood couldn't find anything better for her to do than The Saint and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, on which she's now a regular. At least she's working.

My favorite Vegas scene comes at the end of the movie, after Ben has drunk himself to death, and Sera is recounting the denouement of their story. More than anything that comes before it, that final minute or so perfectly captures how sad and damaged Sera is. "I loved him.... [Very long, very dramatic pause] I really loved him," she says, as if she's truly realizing it for the very first time. Bravo!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why J. Lo Almost Has Me Thinking Straight (Almost!)

It's a shame about the song's backslide on this week's Billboard Hot 100 (from its apparent peak of No. 17 to No. 19), but sometimes it's better to look good than to sell well. And just when I thought Jennifer Lopez couldn't make fortysomething look any better than she did last year in her "I'm Into You" video, she outdoes herself in her latest clip, "Dance Again."

I dare any of today's reigning pop princesses who are decades younger than she is to try this at home. With the video, Lopez does what every great video diva dreams of pulling off: She sells a mediocre song, and she makes being 42 going on 43 (on July 24) and dating a guy nearly half her age (Casper Smart, 25, her video costar and real-life beau) look like the most natural thing in the world.

Last night I saw the video for the first time at DJ Station, and I couldn't take my eyes off of Lopez. I couldn't take my eyes off of Toni Braxton either, when her latest single and video, "I Heart You," came on right afterwards, but for an unfortunately different reason. I adore Braxton, and I'm praying that her next album, Heartstrings & Synagogue Vibes, will be the chart comeback her last two deserved to be (if only for its ultra-original title), but the low-budget production only highlights the fact that Braxton, 44, is trying too desperately to pass off vintage goods as a brand new model. It's a bit of a train wreck. Lopez's youthful glow works because she gives the appearance of not really trying to look half her age. She just does.

Remember years ago when she wore that green dress at the 2000 Grammys, the one that revealed her entire mid-section, top to bottom? (For the record, back then, at 30, she was trying way too hard.) Her co-presenter David Duchovny said something along the lines of "This is the first time in five or six years that I'm sure nobody is looking at me." Casper Smart can say that again!

In Defense of Lady Gaga -- and Bangkok!

Lady Gaga just can't seem to get it right in Asia, the first continental stop on "The Born This Way Ball," her world tour, now in progress. Christian groups in South Korea and the Philippines, where she's already performed, blasted her less than family friendly brand of entertainment, which has led to a possible Gaga-concert ban by Islamists in Indonesia. (The June 3 show in Jakarta has been "tentatively cancelled.")

You'd think that a country that was battered by a deadly tsunami less than a decade ago would have its priorities straight. Lady Gaga's stage antics are not the threat to mankind that her detractors in Indonesia would have us believe they are. To quote Sinead O'Connor (and I can't believe I'm about to do this), they should fight the real enemy -- and in Indonesia, according to my friends who've been there, there are plenty, like crooked police and vicious stomach bugs. If you don't approve of Gaga, then skip her show.

Which apparently some people in Bangkok are now doing. Today, Gaga has been criticized by some of the local populace here, where she's due to hit the stage any minute now. This time, it's not for crossing the line (morally speaking, it's so blurred here that it might as well not even exist), but for something she tweeted upon her arrival yesterday in the gay capital of Southeast Asia.

"I just landed in Bangkok baby! Ready for 50,000 screaming Thai monsters. I want to get lost in a lady market and buy fake Rolex."

I'm assuming that by "lady market" she was referring to Bangkok's famous lady boys, and as for that "fake Rolex" -- well, they're readily available here, too. Silom Road, the site of just one of Bangkok's massive street markets (with plenty of lady boys off to the side streets), is loaded with bootleg DVDs and knock-off luxury items after dark.

But don't tell that to some of the thin-skinned locals, who are still fuming over the negative portrayal of the city in movies like The Hangover Part II, which presents Bangkok as a seedy den of iniquity, on par with Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps they'd prefer that the world associate Bangkok only with the high-end shopping in Siam Paragon, one of many elegant super malls in the city center. I can understand why they'd want to give Bangkok a public-relations makeover. Although there is that cheap, tawdry side immortalized in "One Night in Bangkok," like any great city, it's too multi-dimensional to be sized up as any one thing.

For instance, as an unholy mecca for bargain shoppers angling for counterfeit goods. There's a market, and markets, for those in many urban and suburban jungles around the world. Remember those knock-off bags that Samantha Jones salivated over in the episodes of Sex and the City where the girls went to Los Angeles? And New York City's got Canal Street, one of the knock-off capitals of the world. For years, I went there to buy my fake TAG Heuer watches until the day that I could afford to buy a real one, which was promptly stolen from me in Buenos Aires several months later.

I used to tell everyone who'd listen about the cheap fake goods for sale on Canal, and as far as I know, no New Yorker ever got insulted. But then, I'm not Lady Gaga, with millions of Twitter followers, and New York City is not suffering from bad PR the way Bangkok has been for years. The New York Times Magazine can publish articles like "Bangkok Rising," about the shiny new Thai capital (a side I keep reading about in the links that my friends are always sending me) all it wants to, but among those who get their information on the world's greatest cities from sources other than glossy travel guides intended to sell the place (like from, um, Gaga's Twitter feed?), Bangkok's PR problem persists. It's hard to imagine that an innocent tweet about fake watches could possibly affect it one way or another.

My best friend recently visited me here, and for her, one of the biggest thrills was how the city was nothing like she expected. And not just because I live in a high-rise hotel in an apartment with two balconies, running water, air conditioning, Wi-Fi and a washer and dryer (see my nighttime 10th-floor view, left). She was expecting The Flintstones, and she got something closer to The Jetsons.

The traffic is jammed with modern, expensive automobiles. Everyone is tweeting away -- or Facebooking, or Grindr-ing -- on mobile devices. And the skyline is one of the most dramatic and contemporary on the planet. In a lot of ways, Bangkok makes Buenos Aires look like the Wild Wild West.

As much as I loved BA, everything's broken there, and a certain lawlessness always seemed to prevail. After nearly a year in Bangkok, I've yet to make the acquaintance of the local police, which was a regularly recurring character during the first half of my four and a half years in BA. Too bad I didn't save my TAG Heuer for Bangkok. If I had, I probably wouldn't have any use for fake Rolex.

The two Gaga songs I'll be listening to tonight in lieu of going to the show

"Government Hooker"

"Heavy Metal Lover"

Friday, May 25, 2012

Does "The Big Bang Theory" Star Jim Parson's Public "Outing" in the New York Times Count?

Every time a celebrity comes out of the closet standing on his, or her, own two feet, rather than being dragged out of it, kicking and screaming, it's a small victory. But the recent New York Times article that casually mentioned that The Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons is gay -- as far as I know, the first direct acknowledgement in the mainstream media -- has a sort of deja vu feel to it. Parsons is just the latest in a long line of male performers -- Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Martin, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Richard Chamberlain -- who confirmed what anyone with semi-functioning gaydar, or who has ever secretly read an issue of The Enquirer or Star, probably already knew.

Yep, he's gay. Pass the peas, please.

It was obvious to me the first time I saw Parsons as virginal physicist Sheldon Cooper on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which I probably enjoy a lot more than I should. When he won his Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 2010, I updated my Facebook status to comment on the openly gay Emmy ceremony: One gay comedy actor wins, while in the supporting comedy actor category, a straight guy, Eric Stonestreet, beats out three gay guys, by playing gay.

When nobody "liked" it or had anything to add, I wondered if it was something I said/wrote. I backtracked in my mind and began to question my gaydar. Was it malfunctioning? Then a few months ago, when I saw Parsons being interviewed by Ellen Degeneres on her talk show, he confirmed what I'd suspected without actually confirming anything. No 39-year-old actor spends that much time talking about his mother (and Ellen's), his sister and his nephew unless he's family.

"Is coming out over?" one headline asked, in response to Parson's non-outing outing in the Times. Though he wasn't exactly forthcoming with Ellen, it's not as if Parsons has ever hidden the fact that he's gay, and she never brought it up. He's attended award shows with his longtime companion Todd Spiewak, and he's never tried to pass himself off as Charlie Sheen.

But coming out is far from over, and if any A-list male action star ever bothers to do it, it will once again be front-page, cover-of-Newsweek news. In Parson's case, the way the New York Times nonchalantly revealed his sexual persuasion without announcing it with exclamation points and rainbow flags is commendable. It treats being gay the same way it treats being straight -- as a matter of fact. But had the subject been an actor of Brad Pitt's or George Clooney's caliber, or if Will Smith had kissed that male Russian reporter back, I suspect it would have been an entirely different story.

Perhaps Parson's sexual orientation wasn't treated like breaking news because it wasn't. The Times could have gotten more publicity mileage for its story with a photograph of a shirtless Parsons and his boyfriend sucking his nipple, but that probably would have gone over less well than Time's mother-son pose did. His outing won't change the world, or likely alter anyone's perception of gay people. We'll need need a different actor to take us completely by surprise before that happens.

In the meantime, here's an idea: Why not make Sheldon Cooper gay, too? It's not like the writing isn't on the wall in bold print. The last time I watched, Parsons' Big Bang Theory character was on the way to becoming a 40-year-old virgin, one who has never exhibited the slightest interest in the opposite sex -- or sex at all, for that matter. That would make it a win-win for CBS. The show would get tons of attention for outing the character, and CBS would never have to worry about showing him kissing a guy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why I Love the '90s, Part 1

The secret to rock & roll success? Kick-ass songs and a kick-ass frontman (or frontwoman) who serves up flesh for fantasy while moving like Jagger (or seducing like Deborah Harry), a whole lotta love (and luck), and an unforgettable moniker that will still sound cool 20 years later.

When it comes to the latter, they don't make them like they did circa 1990 to 1995. My favorite bands from that great era of Madchester, Britpop and dream pop -- the latter being wall-of-sound productions featuring a wash of layered guitars and gauzy vocals weaving in and out and around the melodious cacophony -- had names that were as memorable as their tunes, which, sadly, were sometimes more successful critically than commercially. They're like vintage clothing that still smells fresh today -- unlike, say, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco.

The '80s gave great bands with great names, too -- A Flock of Seagulls, After the Fire, Bauhaus, Culture Club, Depeche Mode, General Public, Love and Rockets, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Psychedelic Furs, Ratt -- but they were so complicated, and so many, too many, of them began with the same article: the Alarm, the Bangles, the Call, the Church, the Cult, the Cure, the Fall, the Fixx, the Go-Go's, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Judds, the Pixies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smiths, the System, the The.

With several exceptions (Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine, the Stone Roses), the best band names of the '90s left off the "the" (even the Verve, who were simply Verve until Verve Records threatened legal action) and pulled us in with one simple word and, again with several exceptions (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Elastica, Slowdive, Texas), a one-syllable maximum.

Nothing against Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Kasabian, Boy & Bear, the Temper Trap, MGMT and Foster the People. Though their tunes -- which I'm pretty sure I'll still be listening to and loving in the 2030s -- will go down in history as some of my favorites from this century, Coldplay aside, I occasionally have trouble remembering the names of the bands in order to find their songs on my iPod.

But who can forget the best of the golden era of band names, ones that looked so good on paper (CD covers, and if you were still stuck in the '80s, cassette sleeves) and sounded even better when you said them out loud?










Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Songs That Travel: 10 More Themes for Great Cities

Here's the thing about lists. Just when you think you've completed one, and you've sent it out into the world, you start to remember all of the things you left off of it. Here are 10 more songs I love about places I love or would love to visit one day.

"On a Bus to St. Cloud" Trisha Yearwood She's actually referring to St. Cloud, Minnesota, but I like to pretend she's singing about the one in Florida, where I graduated from high school.

"Crescent City" Emmylou Harris There are actually several places called Crescent City in the U.S., but Lucinda Williams, the song's author, was writing about New Orleans, my favorite U.S. town below the Mason-Dixon Line.

"I'm in a Philly Mood" Daryl Hall Someone recently compared Philadelphia to my beloved Melbourne (the one in Australia, not Florida). I didn't get it, but Philly is appealing in its own way for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the Liberty Bell.

"I Love New York" Madonna More props for the city that will always be home to me.

"Woodstock" Joni Mitchell The perfect, ultimate merger of town and song.

"Fire in Cairo" The Cure I've still never visited, but Egypt is right up there on my bucket list of places to go before I die.

"Tel Aviv" Duran Duran Another tribute to a city on my bucket list, from one of the best albums of the '80s (Duran Duran's 1981 debut).

"Stranger in Moscow" Michael Jackson An ode to the Russian capital, which is bubbling under my bucket list.

"Warsaw" Joy Division I have no idea what to expect from Poland's contribution to my bubbling-under list, but I like to think that this would be the perfect soundtrack.

"Galveston" Glen Campbell I've only once stepped foot onto Texan terrain (and even then, just the floor of the airport in Houston, to catch a connecting flight between New York City and Buenos Aires), yet Galveston will always hold a special place in my heart for inspiring my all-time favorite city song. And speaking of Texas, have the cities of any other U.S. state inspired so much great music?: Marty Robbins' "El Paso," George Strait's "Amarillo by Morning," Larry Gatlin's "Houston," Bob Willis's "San Antonio Rose," the Doobie Brothers' "China Grove," and, of course, the theme from the TV series Dallas!

Honorable Mention: "Miami" The Golden Girls How could I not include it?

5 Songs I Love About Cities I Don't

"Rio" Duran Duran

"Atlanta Blue" The Statler Brothers

"Free Man in Paris" Joni Mitchell

"Detroit City (I Wanna Go Home)" Bobby Bare

"Cincinatti, Ohio" Connie Smith

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Travel 101: How to Love Any City (Even Paris!)

Istanbul, Turkey: Not in love? Get a job. Make some friends.
Yesterday I was having a Facebook conversation with a friend who's visiting Paris when I interrupted his gushing over the city with a revelation of my own: I've always sort of hated the City of Lights. Though I wouldn't turn down a free, all-expenses-paid trip there (or pretty much anywhere), there are so many places I'd rather be (pretty much anywhere).

After a bit of back and forth, he said the magic words, ones I've heard before from people trying to sell me on other cities of which my reviews were less than glowing: "I think if you had a good job and a nice group of friends, it would be lovely."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't any place be lovely then? Having lots of friends, lots of money and knowledge of where to go to spend it would make just about any major city on earth fantastic, no? Yes, some of us are country people, others (like me) dig the mountains, while others live for the ocean, but if you're into big cities, and you can't make Paris, or Athens, or Berlin, or Rio, or even Atlanta (sorry, Mom!) lovable with all of that going for you (and it), then why leave home?

However, when most people talk about cities they love, hate, love to hate and hate to love, they're generally talking about places they've visited on vacation, usually with a limited budget and without a social network in tow. So it seems a little beside the point to tell somebody who's passing through any place for just a week or two, "Well, if you have a lot of money and great friends, this is the place to be!" Sure it is, but what if you're not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and you lack George Clooney's quick wit and ability to make instant friends?

Since we can't all travel to Paris, or any other city, with the benefit of a fat bank account, a massive welcoming committee and knowledge of all the hot spots that most tourist guides miss, it's up to cities to impress thrill seekers and lazy sunbathers with their own charm. The best ones -- some of which, for me, would be New York, Buenos Aires, Bangkok and London -- have an appeal that goes deeper than beauty (which, in cities, as in humans, is only skin deep) and lifestyle.

They are places you can enjoy even if you have no money (well, maybe not London, but when I started loving it there in the mid '90s, I wasn't exactly rolling in pounds, and like all great loves, my love for London is not based on reason), no friends and no grasp of the language. You can be poor in New York City, not know a living soul there, and not speak a word of English, and you could still have the time of your life (if loud, crowded urban jungles are your thing -- and if not, then what are you doing there?!). That's what makes NYC one of the greatest places on earth.

At least one American in Paris apparently agrees: "I was broke my entire 7 years in NYC but still managed to go out every night!" my Facebook friend recalled. "Not so Paris. I've spent 100 euro a day here, and I really have nothing to show for it! It makes Milan look cheap." (Love Milan, by the way, though Florence, which is strictly about tourist appeal, not so much.)

Here's what the British actress Kristin Scott Thomas recently told me about her adopted hometown.

"I'm really comfortable in Paris as opposed to London. The older I get, the more drawn I am to my roots, which is the country in England. But I can't really see myself living in the country -- not unless I marry a farmer or something, which I don't think is going to be likely. I'm not that crazy about London. It's too big. It's too noisy. I like Paris. Somebody described Paris to me once as like a kitchen garden. It really does feel like that. It's very small. It's got the nice wall around it. It's got this circular road that you don't really go beyond unless you've lived there." 

If I'd never been to Paris, Scott Thomas's description -- which makes it sound like the kind of place you go to retire, and eventually die, not live -- wouldn't entice me to go. My problem with Paris (and I can understand why a lot of people adore it even if I don't) has always been more with the city -- it lacks the violent jolt that I require from my major metropolises -- than with the French, who, in general, have never been less than gracious to me. For all of its visual grandeur, Paris, ultimately, bores me.

As for the food, I've never understood the draw. Last night for dinner, I ordered freshly cooked Pad Thai for 35 baht (or $1) from a night-market vendor along Narathiwat road in Bangkok, and not only was it tastier than any Pad Thai I've had outside of Chiangmai, but it was better than anything I can recall ever eating in Paris, where my mother often complained about the bread and butter being served rock hard during our 2004 trip there. Although I rolled my eyes on the inside, I totally agreed. Five-star ambiance with a view of the Eiffel Tower, for me, doesn't a great meal make -- even if Mr. Right (at that moment) is sitting across the table from me. I know because I've been there, staring into his eyes, then past them at the night colors of the Eiffel Tower, wishing I were on St. Mark's Place in New York City, eating a slice of cheese pizza.

I adore the south of France, which gets away with being sort of sleepy and dull because it's supposed to be. Unfortunately, severe allergies prevented me from going more than once. I've been to Paris several times, though -- on my own, with my mom, with my mom and my boyfriend, alone with my boyfriend (the same one, twice, 10 years apart) -- and while the beauty of it was never lost on me, I need more than that to keep me interested, just as I do with humans. I missed the rush, the excitement, the big gay hot spot that should be the payoff of being in any major city.

But if someone had thought to throw in a great job and a dozen or so friends with that all-expenses-paid trip, I probably wouldn't have wanted to leave.

10 Themes for Great Cities

"London" The Smiths

"Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" Morcheeba

"New York City" The Cult

"Los Angeles" Frank Black

"One Night in Bangkok" Murray Head

"San Fransisco Days" Chris Isaak

"Dublin Sky" Darren Hayes

"Vienna" Ultravox

"Buenos Aires" Madonna (from Evita)

"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" The Four Lads

Monday, May 21, 2012

One Week, Two Great Losses (R.I.P. Robin Gibb)

I've already paid fitting tribute to the late Donna Summer and Robin Gibb, who died on May 20 at age 62 in London after battling colon and liver cancer for much of the past year. So what can I say now that hasn't already been said, and that won't be said in the coming days and weeks and months of eulogies for the two disco-era icons?

Instead I'll leave you with what could possibly be the only existing film of Summer and Gibb together onstage (along with Gibb's brothers, Barry, the sole surviving Bee Gee, and the now-also-deceased Andy and Maurice, his twin). It's from a 1979 ABBA charity concert for UNICEF that I would much rather have had a ticket to than Lady Gaga's May 25 Bangkok show, but thanks to YouTube, I can enjoy bits and pieces of it from a prime seat in front of my laptop without a bunch of screaming fans blocking my view.

There was so much star power on that stage: Summer, the Brothers Gibb, Earth, Wind & Fire, Olivia Newton-John, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Rod Stewart, John Denver (now also dearly departed) and, of course, ABBA. I consider myself lucky to be old enough to remember when it shined brightest. R.I.P. Donna and Robin.

Kissing to Be Clever (and Failing): Why I Secretly Wish Will Smith Had Slapped That Reporter Harder

Just when I was getting kind of bored with Will Smith and his all-around-swell-guy act (not that I think it's a total act), he goes and does something that reminds me why I used to occasionally sort of love him, before he started trotting out his offspring as the next generation's superstars-by-birthright.

All it took was a hit and near-kiss. They happened on the red carpet at the Men in Black 3 Moscow premiere on May 18, after Smith gamely greeted and hugged a male reporter, who apparently wanted more. The overzealous journalist tried for a kiss on the lips and got a smack across the face instead.

"He's lucky I didn't sucker punch him," Smith, trying to maintain a somewhat good-natured pose, said a few moments afterwards. Had he done that, I might actually consider going to see MIB 3. God knows, he would have had just cause.

As someone who has occasionally been the target of overly amorous men and women during my years as a sexual delicacy abroad, I feel Smith's pain, and I've wanted to respond in the same way once or twice. So I see no reason to justify his reaction, or wonder if he went too far (not that anyone is, but I'm just saying). If it had been his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, walking the red carpet in his shoes, not only would the smack have been immediately justified without question, but the reporter might have been led away in handcuffs, or at least escorted off the red carpet. (Then again Adrien Brody did have his way with Halle Berry when accepting his Best Actor Oscar for The Piano in 2003, and he got away with it -- or not, depending on what you think of his career since then.)

The big-picture question is this: Has the world become way too touchy-feely? I remember the days when a nice firm handshake would do when meeting anyone for the first time. Nowadays, if you are in Buenos Aires, you have to kiss total strangers on both cheeks upon arrival and departure. If you're at DJ Station in Bangkok, prepare to have your butt grabbed or your crotch fondled. I'm not sure how things are done in Russia, since I've never been there, but I've met a few Russians, and not once have I had to respond to unwanted advances from any of them.

Apparently, though, hugging superstars on the red carpet is perfectly acceptable there. Alright then. If Smith doesn't mind, neither do I. But trying to kiss them on the lips? In the case of this particular reporter, kissing celebrities -- both male and female -- is reportedly part of his red-carpet schtick, which implies that it's not necessarily acceptable, just funny. LOL!

I guess one could call this guy the Richard Dawson of the Russian media. But Dawson is so 30 years ago. Although PDA between total strangers is more acceptable today than it was in the '70s and '80s when Dawson was hosting Family Fued, could you imagine a game-show host in 2012 getting away with kissing every female contestant on the mouth? I cringed a little when guest celebrity panelist Patti LaBelle pecked a male contestant on the lips on and episode of The Marriage Ref that I recently saw, and she's Patti LaBelle.

As I watched the action at the MIB 3 premiere unfold on camera, I was reminded of Smith's refusal (at Denzel Washington's urging) not to kiss a male costar in his first big screen role as a gay grifter in the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation. That said, I don't see this as a gay-straight thing. (Smith, incidentally, has publicly supported gay marriage.) It's a reporter-who-crossed-the-line thing. I imagine that a female reporter who pulled the same stunt would have had to deal with Jada, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

Maybe it's time for me to find my inner Will/Jada. I've had people in Buenos Aires call me Will Smith in the past, or say I could be his brother (give them a break -- they're not accustomed to seeing black men in real life, and to them, there are probably, like, two of us), so the next time someone touches me in the wrong place, maybe I'll let them have it and blame it on Will.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

I Lie: A Belated 80th Birthday Tribute to Loretta Lynn

I've always known that Loretta Lynn is immensely talented, but who knew she was so gifted at keeping a secret? For 26 years, the country icon led the world to believe that she was married at 13, a tall tale told in her 1976 autobiography Coal Miner's Daughter -- and repeated in the 1980 film, for which Sissy Spacek won a Best Actress Oscar -- and one that she likely would have lived out her days retelling had it not been for the Associate Press reporter who recently uncovered her actual birthdate: April 14, 1932.

I'm not sure what led the AP to dig into Lynn's vital statistics, but evidence from Lynn's birth certificate, her marriage license and a 1940 census revealed her birth year to be 1932, not 1935, as had previously been believed. That means she was married not at 13, but at the still-not-quite-ripe age of 15. More importantly, though, it means that Lynn is now 80 years old, and she has been for more than a month now.

On the plus side, Zooey Deschanel, 32, who will play Lynn in the upcoming Broadway musical version of Coal Miner's Daughter and is two years older than Spacek was at the time of the film's release, should have an easier time passing for 15 (should the story be reworked to make it chronologically correct). And it's not like Gabrielle Carteris, Meredith Monroe and Stacey Dash haven't already tested the believability of thirtysomething actresses playing high schoolers on Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson's Creek and Clueless, respectively.

Since Lynn cheated herself out of receiving special birthday tributes and me out of giving one to her, I offer belated 80th-birthday props. May the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so remiss in honoring towering female talent, get to Lynn next year. If I ever make it to 80, I hope I look as great as she does.

The Best of Loretta Lynn

"Success" Did Sinead O'Connor do Loretta justice on Am I Not Your Girl?, her 1992 covers album?

"Your Squaw Is On the Warpath" Mad love!

"One's on the Way" The first Loretta Lynn song I ever heard. What's that about "the pill" (which, incidentally, would be the title of another Lynn hit in 1975, four years after this one)? Could anyone get away with this sort of thing today? Who'd even try?

"Out of My Head and Back in My Bed" No one does unwieldy, classic country song titles quite like Lynn.

"After the Fire Is Gone" (with Conway Twitty) Still burning 31 years later.

"Feelins" (with Conway Twitty) No not the Morris Albert pop standard and so much better for it.

"Portland, Oregon" (with Jack White) So this means she was actually in her 70s when she rocked out on her last album, 2004's White-produced Van Lear Rose.

"I Lie" She does indeed!