Tuesday, April 30, 2013

10 Great Songs That I First Heard While Watching TV

Remember the "Fire and Ice"-to-"Ice Ice Baby" Age (1981-1990), when MTV was the visual forum most likely to launch a pop hit? Those days are long long gone, the network's increasingly non-musical programming in the '90s and, more recently, the rise and rise of YouTube have seen to that.

For a while, movies filled the hit-making void left by the de-emphasis of the M in MTV, but film soundtracks are no longer nearly as bankable as they were in the '70s, '80s and '90, when the ones to Saturday Night Fever, Dirty Dancing and The Bodyguard were among the biggest hit albums of their respective decades. In fact, a No. 1 single hasn't won the Best Original Song Oscar since Eminem's "Lose Yourself" 10 years ago, and had the Academy's most recent anointee, Adele's "Skyfall," come out circa 1984, I have no doubt that it would have spent more than just a lone week in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100.

Perhaps Adele's Bond theme would have fared better there had she performed it on Saturday Night Live, the TV show that sent her on her crash-collision course with megastardom after she appeared on it in 2008, six years after television started to really matter again in the creation of pop stars and pop hits. We can probably blame American Idol for upsetting the balance of pop power and shifting it back to TV for the first time since MTV ruled the '80s. In the years after its 2002 debut, Idol has been perhaps the most dependable launching pad for pop and country stars/hits, of which Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have been the biggest, and it also re-ignited Jennifer Lopez's pop career after she performed her comeback-hit-to-be "On the Floor" on the show in 2011.

Across the Atlantic, Britain's Got Talent turned its biggest loser Susan Boyle (who came in second in 2009) into a household name and a multi-platinum recording artist. Now Olly Murs, another 2009 runner-up (on Britain's The X Factor), is boldly going where Girls Aloud and Cheryl Cole (the massive-in-the-UK British girl group discovered on Popstars: The Rivals in 2002 and its biggest member) have yet to go, up Billboard's Hot 100, where he's gone as high as No. 29 with "Troublemaker."

Then, of course, there's Glee, the now-waning one-time pop phenomenon that spawned platinum soundtrack albums and turned "Don't Stop Believin," Journey's 1981 No. 9 single, into a hit all over again in 2009, via the Glee cover, which peaked at No. 4 in the U.S., No. 2 in the UK, and No. 5 in Australia. My 24-year-old Aussie ex once told me that he'd never even heard Journey's original -- which became a UK hit for the first time in 2010, reaching No. 6 -- until Glee.

Though it's been the most prominent non-reality TV hit maker in recently years, Glee hasn't been the only one. Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" owes its Top 5 status in the U.S. to its prominent placement in the 2006 season finale of Grey's Anatomy. Two years later, M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes neatly underscored the changing of the pop guard from film to television after being featured in the trailer for the film Pineapple Express but not in the movie itself. Shortly after hitting TV airwaves through the trailer, the song began its ascent to No. 4 on the Hot 100.

Over in the world of commercials, where a Mitsubishi Eclipse ad helped make Dirty Vegas's "Days Go By" a Top 20 hit 10 years ago, consumer goods and Seth Rogen/James Franco stoner comedies aren't the only things being sold. Last year, Alex Clare ensured that he'd no longer be best known as Amy Winehouse's ex after his 2011 flop single "Too Close" was resuscitated after appearing in an Internet Explorer 9 ad, climbing all the way to No. 7 on the Hot 100.

Now it's Icona Pop's turn. Their 2012 single "I Love It" began a steady upward chart trajectory after being featured on the January 27 episode of Girls, where I first heard it. I've since enjoyed it on dance floors from Melbourne, Australia, where it was a No. 3 hit last year, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. It now sits at No. 13, and will likely become 2013's second Top 10 hit by a Swedish act (following Swedish House Mafia, whose "Don't You Worry Child" recently reached No. 6) in a matter of weeks. (Sadly, mainstream U.S.A. continues to sleep on Robyn, Sweden's second-best export after ABBA, and has been ever since she was briefly a break-out pop success with back-to-back Top 10 hits in 1997.)

Even when it's not making hits, TV continues to be a dependable taste maker, introducing me to a number of great songs, some of which have taken up permanent residence on my iPod's Most Played playlist. "Turn up the radio," Madonna sang on a 2012 single. Turn up the TV (or whatever you use to watch your favorite shows) is more like it. Here are 10 of the best songs I may never have heard without it.

1. DB Boulevard "Point of View" (Sex and the City, August 11, 2002)

2. Chip Jenkins "All for Love" (Men In Trees, 2006-2008, Argentina's Warner Channel ads)

3. Bryn Christopher "The Quest" (Grey's Anatomy, May 22, 2008)

4. Temper Trap "Soldier On" (90210, November 10, 2009)

 5. Pink "Glitter in the Air" (52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards, January 31, 2010)

6. Boy & Bear "Mexican Mavis" (90210, April 25, 2011)

7. Regina Spektor "All the Rowboats" (Ringer,  March 13, 2012)

8. Massive Attack featuring Hope Sandoval "Paradise Circus" (Revenge, November 4, 2012)

9. Lenny Williams "Cause I Love You" (performed by Vincent Powell on American Idol, February 28, 2013)

10. Tame Impala "Elephant" (Girls, March 17, 2013)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

George Jones, 1931-2013: He Stopped Loving Her Today

To fully understand the greatness of George Jones, you must first grasp the profound effect he had on his fellow artists -- his country antecedents, his peers and his Nashville descendants. No other singer in the history of country music was as inspirational as Jones, who died on April 26 in Nashville at age 81.

I arrived at his altar relatively late, at age 10, when he was cresting Billboard's country singles chart with his signature song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a No. 1 comeback hit in 1980 that was my mother's favorite song at the time. I've been a devout worshipper ever since. To know him, to know his voice and his music, was to love him forever. His ex-wife and sometime duet partner, the late Tammy Wynette, to whom he was turbulently married from 1969 to 1975, pretty much said so much when I interviewed her and Jones together in 1995 while they were promoting their reunion album One.

Despite their troubled marriage, marred by the alcoholism that nearly sent Jones to an early grave, Wynette was clearly still in awe of her ex. I was astonished by the easy rapport between them, the way they still finished each other's sentences, after all those years apart. To know him was to never stop loving him or his music, and he gave love right back -- and not only through his songs. I was convinced then and now that George never really stopped loving Tammy. (Watch the video below until the end for evidence.)

The second time I witnessed the George Jones Effect on a fellow superstar, he wasn't even in the room, just in the building. It was one year later, 1996, and there I was starstruck and smitten, sitting across from Anne Murray in the bar at the RIHGA Royal Hotel (now the London Hotel) in New York City, and all she could talk about was Jones, who someone told us was staying in the same hotel. It was a significant moment -- Murray's first No. 1 country single was her 1974 cover of Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care" (retitled "He Thinks I Still Care"), itself a 1962 chart-topper -- and if I didn't get it before, from the way my mother adored him, from the way Wynette still clearly did, I got it then.

George Jones was not only a legend, he was a legend who inspired others to greatness (including Patty Loveless, on whose "You Don't Seem to Miss Me," featured in Wednesday's blog post, Jones provided memorable harmony), and that becomes a legend most.

Seven George Jones Hits That Defined My Youth

1. "Still Doin' Time" (No. 1, 1981) My favorite Jones single. The steel guitar motiff that begins and ends it remains one of my Top 5 moments in the history of recorded country music. So simple and so simply devastating.

2. Two Story House (No. 2, 1980) Not necessarily my favorite of his duets with Tammy Wynette (in retrospect, that honor would go to "Near You," No. 1 in 1976), but that "Oh, what splendor!" exemplifies his vocal greatness. Oh, what splendor!

3. "I Always Get Lucky With You" (No. 1, 1983) Jones's final country chart-topper. If you're gonna go out, you might as well go out at the top of your game, still kicking ass, effortlessly.

4. "I'm Not Ready Yet" (No. 2, 1980) How do you follow a great, unforgettable hit like "He Stopped Loving Her Today"? With another equally great, unforgettable one, of course.

5. "Yesterday's Wine" (No. 1, 1982) A chart-topping duet with Merle Haggard, a song whose greatness I recently rediscovered while running around Lumpini Park in Bangkok. Been there, tasted and offered that.

6. "Same Ole Me" (No. 5, 1982) Featuring The Oak Ridge Boys, the best backing vocal group of the early '80s, who also could be heard delivering their harmonic magic on 1980's Top 10 "Broken Trust" by Brenda Lee, who, incidentally, duetted with Jones on 1984's Top 15 "Hallelujah, I Love You So."

7. "Her Name Is" (No. 3, 1976) The first George Jones song I can remember loving, way back before I even knew George Jones was singing it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

6 Things I'd Forgotten I Love About Buenos Aires

It’s not exactly La Grande Jatte, but I love Plaza San Martin anyway.
I'll never forget about all the great friends I have in Buenos Aires, the delicious ensalada de fruta, the tree-saving bidets (How did I go so long without them?), or those ridiculously cheap Pilates classes -- which are included in the 380 pesos (or roughly US$45 at the black-market exchange rate) I just paid for a one-month membership at my old gym. But the joy of six other great things about BA had almost slipped my mind.

1. The scenic running routes There are so many of them in Palermo that the Buenos Aires barrio rivals the entire city of Melbourne as an ultimate jogger's paradise. The heat and humidity isn't so disagreeable here that one must do his or her running around town at the crack of dawn, as I was forced to do in Bangkok last year, but if you choose to sleep in, it's your loss. Buenos Aires is loveliest in the half hours just before and after sunrise, which I'd also forgotten until I woke up on Tuesday at 6am for my first BA run in more than two years. The low-rise layer of fog floating over the lake in the center of Plaza Holanda as an orange glow started to peek over the brightening black-and-blue horizon almost stopped me dead in my jogging tracks. Going around Holanda's 1.5-kilometer running path was a breeze with such a lovely view to distract me from the pain in my feet.

2. Its R-E-S-P-E-C-T for retro pop stars As far as I know, BA hasn't hosted the Queen of Soul lately -- or ever. But Liza Minelli has made it here several times, including one trip in 2007 for a Liza-inspired cabaret show, in which my first Pilates teacher moonlighted as a dancer. ("She was amazing," he said, predictably, the morning after meeting her at the after-party.) And during Tuesday's early morning run, I passed a sign announcing the BA arrival of another golden oldie: Peter Cetera is coming to town -- again! How could I have forgotten about all the random vintage music acts who used to come around here, ones you might not even expect to have much of a South American following, like Dionne Warwick, Michael Bolton, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, Boy George and the former lead singer of Chicago, who played Luna Park in 2010 and will hit Teatro Gran Rex on April 30. Hmm... I wonder if someone can convince Bobby Womack to swing by BA before his Melbourne gig on May 21, the day I fly back into Sydney.

3. The soundtrack No, not tango, which was never really my thing. If you aren't willing to shell out the pesos required to see your favorite vintage middle-of-the-roader live, there are always unexpected pleasures for free courtesy of pop radio in BA. I can still remember walking through the supermarket while singing along to random non-hits like Tracey Thorn's "It's All True" and Keane's "The Lovers Are Losing" playing on the loudspeaker, which would probably never happen anywhere else. And who needs reading material during lunch when you've got a radio playlist that includes Keane's "Is It Any Wonder?" followed by Santana featuring Michelle Branch's "The Game of Love" to keep you entertained?

4. French fries I don't know what they do to make them taste so good here, but they don't even need ketchup. In the U.S., they were always too skinny or too soggy, and in Melbourne too dry or too cold -- except at Burger Edge, where the burgers are just an excuse to get to the fries. It's that way all over BA: People rave about the prime Argentine beef, but for me, the meat has always been pretty much just a side dish (una guarnicion) to the fries, not the other way around.

5. Spanish I'm a timid perfectionist, so speaking Spanish was never really my forte. As with English, I was always a greater communicator when writing it. But one really has no choice when dealing with customer service personnel in person or on the phone. Getting my point across and understanding theirs always gave me a certain sense of accomplishment second only to completing a writing assignment (in English or in Spanish) or a particularly grueling workout. I imagine it must be something like how Ikea addicts feel after they've assembled a shiny new white shelf.

6. Siestas It's so good to pass out in bed in the middle of the afternoon and not be wracked by guilt, for according to Argentine custom, that's right where you should be. So please, close the blinds on your way out. Zzzz...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

10 '90s Hits That Sound Even Better Today

Since we were on the subject yesterday, why let a great decade go now? So here's yet another '90s list and possibly my most random one ever.

1. "No Scrubs" TLC (1994) My favorite girl group of the '90s (followed by En Vogue, SWV, Brownstone, Total, Zhane and Xscape, with Destiny's Child bringing up the rear by the end of the decade) was always more consistent than its fellow '90s sisters with voices, who were, for the most part, better on the singles scene than they were in long-term relationships. In other words, their hits were a lot better than their hit albums, which wasn't the case with TLC, whose entire Fanmail opus (1999) was an R&B highlight of the '90s that still sounds current today. Unfortunately, the type of guy TLC was singing about on the third of its four No. 1 singles hasn't gone out of style either. (Honorable mention: TLC's first No. 1, 1994's "Creep," was nearly as good, but despite the implication of its title, which used the word as a verb and not as a noun, it wasn't another guy-basher.)

2. "Mockingbirds" Grant Lee Buffalo (1994) My two favorite Grant Lee Buffalo moments of the '90s: 1) Seeing the band live in 1994 upstairs from the Hammerstein Ballroom at the Manhattan Center on a triple bill with Saint Etienne and American Music Club. 2) Going to the apartment of a guy I met in Copenhagen in 2002 and having him try to seduce me to the strains of "Mockingbirds," an obscure GLB "hit" that reached No. 36 in 1994 on Billboard's Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart. Like Grant Lee Phillips' simmering, then soaring, "Mockingbirds" vocal, great taste in music is as sexy today as it was back then!

3. "Sex and Candy" Marcy Playground (1997) Speaking of sex(y)... A true one-hit wonder ("Sex and Candy," a No. 8 hit, was the band's only single to chart on Billboard's Hot 100) and a one-hit-album wonder, too. (Though I never put the two together at the time, now it sounds to me like a slightly peppier distant relation to "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," as in Crash Test Dummies' own lone U.S. hit, from 1993.) After its platinum parent album -- MP's eponymous 1997 debut -- not one of the group's five studio follow-ups between 1999 and 2012 charted in the U.S., Canada, or the UK. Not one. To quote the title of an '80s TV show that's as long forgotten as the still-active Marcy's Playground, that's incredible!

4. "Twisterella" Ride (1992) A No. 36 hit on the UK singles chart that also reached No. 12 on Billboard's Hot Modern Rock Tracks list, "Twisterella" today remains better than sex, to quote the description that a colleague back then applied to its still-in-heavy-rotation-on-my-iPod parent album (and one of the best-titled ones of the decade) Going Blank Again.

5. "Too Funky" George Michael (1992) When people think of George Michael in the '90s, this is probably the last of his solo Top 10 hits (No. 10 on the Hot 100) that comes to mind, possibly because it came not from one of his three studio albums that decade but from the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Dance. Alas, I never realized my early '90s fantasy of sashaying down a catwalk while this song was playing, certain that George Michael only had eyes for me.

6. "Ain't Nobody Like You" Miki Howard (1992) I was so certain that Howard's second No. 1 R&B hit (and her highest charting Hot 100 single, peaking at No. 68) would finally change the course of her crossover fortunes. (Of her six Top 10 R&B singles between 1986 and 1990, only 1989's "Love Under New Management" managed to graze the Hot 100.) How wrong could I be? Howard would hit the R&B chart only three more times through 1996, never rising above No. 43.

7. "Mary Jane's Last Dance" Tom  Petty and the Heartbreakers (1993) Someone in Bangkok or Melbourne recently brought up Petty's penultimate Top 20 hit (No. 14), and all I could think was where the hell is Kim Basinger anyway?

8. "Bones" Radiohead (1994) Ok, so it wasn't a "hit." It wasn't even a single. But no discussion of '90s music would be complete without at least a mention of Radiohead, my magnificent mid-decade obsession, and The Bends, one of my Top 10 favorite albums of the '90s, so highly regarded mostly for its Three B's: "The Bends," "Bones," and "Black Star." At some point in the last 19 years, one B ("Bones") replaced another ("Black Star") as the album's song most likely to get me to press repeat over and over on my iPod.

9. "You Don't Seem to Miss Me" Patty Loveless (1997) Loveless's Top 20 country hit really hit home the day I returned home after a business trip to Chicago and was greeted with the most lukewarm reception ever. Although the guy I was dating at the time said all the right things over the phone, I sensed that he wasn't really so thrilled that I was once again in the same area code. "What? Tuesday night? You don't want to see me today?" It was Sunday, and I was feeling as loveless as Loveless and even more so when he later revealed that his reluctance to see me that night, or the next, was due to the fact that his ex was back in town for the weekend and not leaving until the following evening. My instincts about loveless guys haven't failed me since.

10. "Fools Gold" The Stone Roses (1989) There are three things I love about Revolver Upstairs in Melbourne: 1) The excellent company (thank you, Dov!), 2) The great Thai food, half-price on Thursdays, so nearly as cheap as it would be in Bangkok, 3) The soundtrack, which is usually chock full of '90s gems. When The Stone Roses greatest hit (an end-of'-'89 release that hit No. 8 during the first of three chart stints in the UK, but didn't impact in the U.S. until the beginning of 1990) came on during my most recent dinner there, I nearly spit up an extra-spicy mouthful. Along with Happy Monday's "Bob's Yer Uncle" (a 1990 single from Pill 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches that was equally unexpectedly heard last year during a first date at Sukhumvit's Bar 23 in Bangkok), "Fools Gold" was the best thing to come out of the UK's late-'80s/early '90s Madchester musical movement. I'm still a total, utter fool for its luster.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Essential Black Crowes (Or, Why Kree Harrison Is My Favorite Would-Be "American Idol")

About two months ago, my iPod shuffle landed on The Black Crowes' "A Conspiracy" as I was running around the Tan in Melbourne, and I had one of my increasingly semi-regular '90s moments. They were, after all, some of the best years of my life so far.

As flashbacks of Bill and Hillary Clinton filled my head, I remembered that Atlanta's Robinson brothers and company were my second-favorite rock & roll group of the decade (and the genre's top squawkers, high above Sheryl Crow and Counting Crows), and promptly spent the next 24 hours or so listening to no one else. (R.E.M., fellow Georgians and my favorite '90s rock band, is the only other one whose entire '90s discography I bought and loved, despite the occasionally harsh reviews.)

I meant to say something about them at the time, but I must have been distracted by another golden memory that popped up on my iPod. Now I've been sidetracked again -- thankfully, from my constant whining about the sorry state of Buenos Aires these days -- this time in the Crowes' favor. It happened last night when I finally got around to watching last week's American Idol performances by my two favorite remaining contestants, Candice Glover and Kree Harrison.

The latter's rendition of the Crowes' "She Talks to Angels," the band's 1990 fourth single (released the year she was born, which also happened to be the year before I graduated from college), rocked me gently and literally moved me to tears. I'd forgotten how that opening line -- "She never mentions the word 'addiction' in certain company" -- used to kill me every single time when I was around Kree's age. Interestingly, "Angels" was one of only two Top 40 Crowes singles (the other being a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle"), making the quintessentially American band more successful on the UK singles chart, where it logged four Top 40 hits with four other songs.

In its heyday, The Black Crowes was often criticized for being derivative (too Faces!), but at a time when rock & roll was all about grunge and alternative, proudly wearing your middle-of-the-musical-road badge was a lot more rebellious than dressing down in flannel. There were no forays into experimentalism just for the sake of it. You always knew what you were getting with a Crowes album: tightly written and tightly played old-time rock & soul sung by the most technically proficient '90s frontman this side of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell.

Kate Hudson has made three very smart moves in her life, and the one that wasn't hooking up with Cameron Crowe (no relation -- for Almost Famous, the 2000 film that brought the actress her first and probably last Oscar nomination) and Muse's Matthew Bellamy (for her second son, Bingham, almost 2) was hooking up with The Black Crowes' frontman Chris Robinson, father of her first son, Ryder, 9. In my rock & roll fantasy where Robinson is the perfect soul man, I'm certain that letting him go might have been the dumbest thing she's done -- yes, folks, dumber than Bride Wars!

But this isn't about her, it's about him and his band, and I guess Kree Harrison, too, who I've got to give credit and perhaps a slight Idol edge over Candice Glover (Kree's cover of Faith Hill's "Stronger" has been my favorite Idol moment of the season thus far), for reminding me and, hopefully, others of the national treasure we've been taking for granted. Now for five Crowes gems that I couldn't do without.

(Blogger's note: The Crowes' YouTube presence is dominated by live performances while there are relatively few studio tracks and high-quality video clips, so for your optimal listening pleasure, you should check out the albums containing these key Crowe moments.)

5. "Remedy" (from The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, 1992) When I was younger and more likely to pull them off, I wanted a pair of trousers just like the ones Chris Robinson was rocking in the video.

4. "Midnight from the Inside Out" (from Lions, 2001) Was I the only one who thought it strange that the Crowes' hardest rocking effort to date at the dawn of the new millennium was produced by the same guy (Don Was) who'd previously helped make Bonnie Raitt Grammy-bait (with Nick of Time), The B-52's Top 40 darlings (with Cosmic Thing) and Was (Not Was) a two-hit wonder (with "Spy in the House of Love" and "Walk the Dinosaur)?

3. "Under a Mountain" (from Three Snakes and One Charm, 1996) I don't believe I've ever been under a mountain, but I have been on a slow train coming around one (in the Pyrenees, in 1993). The instrumental introduction to the first track on the Crowes' fourth album has always sounded kind of like how that slow-train experience felt three years earlier.

2. "A Conspiracy" (from Amorica, 1994) The one that kicked of my recent Crowes fixation, from the group's third album and it's final one to be certified (merely gold, for shipments of 500,000 copies), which would make the Crowes, despite its multi-platinum start, one of the most woefully underrated bands of the second half of the '90s.

1. "No Speak No Slave" (from The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, 1992) Or better yet, tracks 5 to 9 on the best Crowes album and the first one that I bought on CD. (I was still slumming with cassettes when I purchased Shake Your Money Maker, The Black Crowes' 1990 debut, at Spec's Music and Video, where I was working at the time.) It might be my favorite five-song sequence on any album in the '90s, and its penultimate part remains the most essential Crowes song on my iPod.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Being Boring: Is Working 9 to 5 the Only Good Reason to Get Out of Bed?

I recently found myself sitting across a dinner table in Melbourne from one of the most frustrating people I’ve ever known, once again having to explain/justify my life to him. 

As usual, he was having trouble with the idea of being a “freelance” anything, free of any obligation to go into an office for at least eight hours a day five days a week – something I haven’t done since the summer of 2006, shortly before I gave up the traditional 40-hour work week (which, in my case, had always been more like 60), and the regular paycheck that goes with it, and left New York City for Buenos Aires.

“So what do you do all day?” he asked, after a nine-months-pregnant pause. I took offense, and not just because I’ve never been busier in my life. (These near-daily blog posts don’t write themselves, nor do any of the hundreds of freelance articles I've done since 2008, when I started writing regularly again after a two-year hiatus.) There was more than a hint of judgment in the way he asked his loaded question (note the emphasis on the second "do"), one he seemed to ask every time he saw me.

The last time I’d seen him, some eight months earlier when he was on holiday in Bangkok, he’d actually had the audacity to question my finances ("So how do you make money?" he'd inquired, as have many before him -- as if they all have every right to know), and I was pretty sure he was getting ready to go there again. When I tried to stop him before he started, his reaction was like an explosion in a tightly sealed bottle. He spoke slowly and deliberately, looking off to the side as if he was addressing an unseen jury. His voice was at volume 5, but his righteous indignation was unmistakable. On a scale from 1 to 10, it was hovering around 20. He was really milking playing the misunderstood victim.
He insisted that he couldn’t care less how I made my living and called me on getting defensive every time the conversation took a predictable turn into the realm of my unconventional (by Western corporate standards) lifestyle. I asked him why I had to answer the same questions every single time I saw him. I may have switched cities several times since we’d met, but I hadn’t changed careers. I'm a writer. What does he think I do all day?

“I was just trying to make conversation,” he responded, unconvincingly.

He later admitted that it wasn’t as simple as him trying to keep the conversation going. I’d already dismissed that excuse in my head as the lamest justification ever for asking a stupid question. It’s not as if we had ever run out of things to talk about in the three years that I'd known him, and we were comfortable enough together not to have to frantically fill every single moment of silence with idle chatter. As I suspected, there was more to this obnoxious interview.

He simply didn’t know how I do it, live life without structure that's imposed on it by someone else. Though he didn’t love his job, he had no idea what he’d do without one. For reasons that had nothing to do with supporting himself financially, it was his lifeline. It may not have always kept him busy or particularly interested (judging from his Facebook status updates, which were as boring to read as they must have been to live), but it kept him social. Without it, he might have been forced to spend large chunks of the day alone, and how was he supposed to do that? He was the kind of person who claimed to be excited about going on a solo vacation until a few days into it, when he could no longer stand being alone with his thoughts. 

I know a lot of people who are like that, and I don't think there is anything wrong with them. It's just not me. The fear of being alone is a common aspect of the human condition, but it’s something with which I have no personal history. When I say I’m a loner, I actually mean it. I’m neither self-involved nor narcissistic (unless those who have described me as a good listener and a compassionate and sympathetic friend were lying, or mistaken), but if I were about to be stranded on a desert island, and I could only have one person along for company, I’d probably choose myself.

I can understand the confusion of someone whose brain has a limited capacity for imagination or creativity, but there must be a better way to ask how I do it (like, for instance, “How do you do it?”) than to ask, “What do you do all day?” That’s a question you pose to a burnout slacker or a destitute fool without the resources to keep himself busy in any meaningful or meaningless way. I'm pretty sure that even a care-free and career-free person like Paris Hilton finds ways to occupy herself during regular business hours. Surely she's not counting flowers on the wall all day.

But that's not me either. This so-called friend knew that I'm a writer. He’d “liked” enough of my blog posts on Facebook and commented on them, too. He also knew that I’d spent the better part of the previous year working on my first book. Did he think all of that just magically happened without any effort on my part? 

Does anyone wonder what David Bowie or Kate Bush or Sade Adu or Shania Twain do all day while they're taking a decade between albums? We assume they are living life, enjoying it, being creative. Does being a writer not qualify as a full-time creative undertaking whether you’re punching the clock or not, if you happen to not be famous?

In "trying to make conversation," he made me wonder if he hadn’t been paying attention during any our previous ones. He also revealed a number of negatives about himself. I’d never considered him to be a person of remarkable depth, but for the first time, I was certain he was someone who was bored with life. Why else would he need a 9-to-5 job, especially one that didn't reflect any of his personal interests (if he even had any), to fill the hours of his day? Why would he think of the hours of his day as something needing to be filled?

I wondered about the new love of his life that he’d found online a few months earlier. What did they see in each other? Were they both just looking for someone to fill the empty space beside them and those hours of the day which weren't already being filled by their jobs? Of all the things he’d said about his new boyfriend, the ones that stuck out most were that they had the same first name, and that they new boyfriend worked out twice a day. 

Ah, so that’s what he does all day! 

I probably should have felt more of that compassion I'm known for instead of such annoyance. It must be tough spending your life depending on the presence of other people to keep you not only occupied but content, too. The guy sitting across from me had never spoken of any interests or passions, so as far as I knew, he didn't have any. Perhaps that was why he was so dependent on his job and a boyfriend who worked out twice to day to help him ward off loneliness. Perhaps if he had interests, passions, he wouldn’t have to “make conversation.” It would just happen. He certainly wouldn't wonder what I do all day.

I didn’t say any of this, of course. I didn’t want to offend him any more than I already had. Plus I really wasn’t interested in “making conversation.” I was too busy thinking about all the things I’d do the next day, alone, things that had nothing to do with going into an office or answering stupid questions posed by people who didn't care enough to remember the answer a few months later.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Burning Questions: The Back in Buenos Aires Edition

1. Is my The Big Bang Theory theory true? Have only about 20 episodes of the CBS sitcom actually aired over the course of its six seasons on the air? As was often the case with Nine in Melbourne, it always seems to be on all night long on the Warner Channel in Buenos Aires, but the same few episodes must be on a continuous loop on the networks in both cities.

Every episode I heard playing in the background as I went about my business my first three nights in town, I had already watched during the Qantas flight from Sydney to Santiago and the LAN flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires. They were the same ones that always seemed to be on Nine in Australia. I love the show, and the priggish musings of Sheldon Cooper never get old, but I'm kind of over laughing at the same ones over and over.

2. Has my Palermo Hollywood apartment actually shrunk in two years? It was never a grand palace -- only about 40 square meters, balcony included, on a good day -- but when I returned to the scene of so many crimes today for the first time since March of 2011, I felt the same way I did when I returned to Osceola High School in Kissimmee, Florida, in 1997 for the first time in nearly 10 years. Had I gotten bigger, or had everything I'd left behind gotten smaller?

And although it was spotless, and the blinds were pulled all the way back, letting tons of sunshine in, why did it seem so grim and dark? Was this really home for four years and three months? If I had any doubts about selling it, they were all pushed out of my mind the minute I saw the still-banged-up front door, a souvenir from the last home invasion, which was exactly one week short of one year ago.

3. When I lived in Buenos Aires, did I live on bread and cheese and sweets alone? Those empanadas are as yummy as I remembered them being, and the pizza -- basically cheese slapped onto bread without tomato sauce -- is still so not pizza, but it's so easy to fall into a pattern of eating facturas, sandwiches de miga (left), empanadas and pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you don't want to go to the trouble of cooking or eating out in proper restaurants. Disco and Carrefour just don't have the microwavable frozen-food selection of Woolies and Cole's in Melbourne, and I'm trying to resist the temptation of Subway and Burger King on Avenida Santa Fe, a few blocks away from my rental apartment.

Tonight I'm having dinner with my friends Cara and Mariem, and it will be more of the same: Piola, a Palermo Hollywood pizzeria, which Cara describes thusly: "like a fancy Romarios, haha, but I swear it's real pizza, not a thick slab of bread with a big hunk of cheese in it!" Sounds yummy, but there goes my figure -- again! Pilates to the rescue? Even if the price of classes has doubled, it still will be a lot cheaper than in Melbourne.

4. Should I be thankful that the Argentine government is sort of inept? Some would add "corrupt," particularly the citizens who were marching down the streets of BA in protest of the government's policies my second night back in town. Since President Christina Kirchner's administration set the "official" exchange rate at around AR$5=US$1 and banned the use of dollars in trading, a black market for U.S. dollars has emerged where you can sell your physical cash for AR$8-$9 per greenback. (According to my friend Erin, that's the "legitimate" exchange rate, where it would be if it weren't manipulated by a desperate administration.)

What a sweet deal! If you've got the dollars, and you don't mind flouting the law -- and in BA, everyone does it, so why shouldn't you? -- BA, despite the ridiculous inflation, can actually be a far cheaper place than it was two years ago. No, I'm not in love again, but I'm happy to spend the next month in a totally loveless marriage with BA, if its going to be that easy on my bank account.

5. Are Argentina guys actually more sensitive than I remember? Today when I was going through the things I'd left behind in my BA apartment, I came across El Principito, a book that Alejandro, a guy I dated for a few weeks around the halfway mark of my time in BA, once gave to me as a gift. (Ironically enough, right after a pizza date with Cara and Mariem.) On the inside cover, he wrote the following: "Porque me encanta que te allas cruzado en mi vida. Y espero conocerte a vos, y al nino que llevas dentro... Alejandro 02/09" Wow, that's sexier than the Lady Gaga song, and with the exception of the birthday dinner that Jayden cooked for me two birthdays ago, possibly the nicest move any guy has made on me since I left the United States. If I must run into any more old flames while I'm here, I sort of hope one of them is him.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Thank You, Buenos Aires, for the Harsh Reminder of Why I Left You?

The thing is, I was willing to overlook so much. Since my arrival in Buenos Aires two days ago, I'd noticed several bright red flags that clashed with Argentina's blue, white and yellow one. I thought I might have just been imagining that the city seemed a little dirtier than I left it. (Melbourne, after all, must be one of the cleanest, most orderly places on the planet.) Then my friend Roberto confirmed it for me on night two: Buenos Aires is definitely kind of a filthy mess.

But that was always part of BA's appeal for me. I used to tell anyone who'd listen that I loved it for its "tarnished glamour." It was like an aging beauty queen who may have lost her youth but not her stunning looks. The wrinkles and imperfections only enhanced her character. But after spending three and a half months walking and running through the pristine white-washed streets of South Yarra, what I saw from the window of the taxi en route from Ezeiza to Palermo Soho didn't look so much like tarnished glamour as ordinary grime.

Then there were the prices: bright red flag No. 2. The cost of nearly everything has doubled in the last two years, while the exchange rate has only gone from US$1=AR$4 to roughly US$5=AR$5. I haven't been able to work everything out perfectly because as I admitted in a previous post, my memory of BA isn't what it used to be. But I'm pretty certain I was paying a lot less than AR$7.50 for yogurt two years ago. For a moment, I thought I was back in Woolies on Chapel Street in Melbourne!

Now a car to Palermo from Ezeiza Airport, which was around AR$90 the first time I took one in 2005, and definitely not more than AR$130 the last time, is AR$220 -- and the guy who handled my bag demanded a tip! My favorite lunch -- omelette con queso y papas fritas con jugo de naranja -- once roughly AR$30, is now AR$40, sin jugo! Taxis now begin at AR$10.90, which is how much it used to cost me to get from my apartment on Guatemala y Carranza to Cordoba y Gascon, the corner where I always got off en route to Sitges or Amerika.

The cover charge for Sitges is now AR$40, which is now the cost of two Quilmes beers, and Friday night's Canilla Libre is up from AR$40 to AR$65. The cover charge for Thursday night at Glam, once AR$30 is now AR$60. At least you still get one beer, a glass of wine or gaseosa for your expenditure. And the scenery still rocks: The guys are as hot as I remember them being, possibly even hotter, since the ones with whom I used to tangle, several of whom I ran into at Glam last night, are wearing those two extra years quite well.

I paid the new prices grudgingly because it actually felt good to be back. The weather has been gorgeous, much warmer than drafty Melbourne. My rental apartment in Palermo Soho is almost perfect. And it's great to be AR$30-$40 away (by taxi) from my old BA friends and in a time zone that's only an hour or a few ahead of my people back in the U.S. Shortly after my arrival, I updated my Facebook status -- "Buenos Aires, baby" -- and minutes later, I received an email from an old NYC friend. He'd just arrived in BA, too. What a coincidence, I thought to myself. Obviously, I'm right where I'm supposed to be.

Oh yeah, and Facebook strikes again, bringing together people who haven't seen each other in years. Just two weeks ago, I discovered that another old NYC friend I hadn't seen in years was in Australia when I happened to see his Facebook check-in at the Sydney international airport in my news feed. Now this.

It's a good thing Facebook is so effective because today, anyone who wants to reach me will have to do it on Facebook since I won't be taking any calls. For the first time in more than two years, I lost my cell phone last night. More accurately, it was stolen. One minute it was in my left pant pocket, the next it wasn't. Someone must have noticed me checking out my big bulge every few minutes to make sure it was still there, and then gone in for the kill when I wasn't feeling it.

It's something that happened on a near-monthly basis when I lived in BA, but it had been so long that I almost forgot what it felt like. A wave of extreme emptiness swept over me, like the sensation of waking up alone the morning after a horrible break up. This morning, I would have been a lot happier to have found my phone lying next to me than one of my exes, though.

But as the last one would say, "It is what it is." The phone is gone. I wasn't too crazy about it in the first place, so it's a good excuse for an upgrade. But it's the thought that counts, and right now mine are revolving around all the reasons why I'll never live in BA again. And it only took two days and three red flags!