Monday, September 30, 2013

Thank God There's More to "Lee Daniels' The Butler" Than Watching the Title Character at Work!

Calling a movie Lee Daniels' The Butler and then not showing said butler at work would be a lot like calling a movie Lee Daniels' The Butler when it was directed by Quentin Tarantino. That's the other director whose name kept popping into my head while I was watching Lee Daniels' The Butler (thusly titled for legal reasons, not primarily for reasons related to directorial ego, though I have a feeling the latter is as big as Oprah Winfrey's hair in the movie) because Lee Daniels' The Butler is the sort of inspirational, feel-bad-and-then-feel-good movie that Tarantino would never make.

In fact, early in the film when one black character objects to another black character calling himself a "house nigger" by slapping him and admonishing him for his self-description ("Don't you ever use that word, son. It's white man's word, filled with hate. Didn't your father ever teach you any better?"), it almost feels like a smack from one screenwriter (Danny Strong) to another (Tarantino) over Tarantino's alleged overuse of the N word in last year's Django Unchained. I say "alleged" because hard as it may have been to hear the N word so frequently in Django, I have no doubt that it was probably uttered even more frequently on slave plantations in the Deep South in the late 1850s than Tarantino would have us believe.

In black history according to director Lee Daniels (Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, for which the filmmaker with a penchant for awkward movie titles became only the second black Best Director Oscar nominee), Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th U.S. President and a strong supporter of black civil rights during his term of office, gets to utter it more frequently than any other character. Therein lies my biggest problem with The Butler -- not Johnson and the N word, mind you, but Johnson's presence (via Liev Schreiber, who totally looks the part) in the move to begin with.

Ironically, for a movie called Lee Daniels' The Butler about a butler, I found the on-the-job sequences to be the film's weakest links. There's no doubt in my mind that there's an excellent movie based on the behind-the-scenes White House shenanigans in Eugene Allen's account of his decades as a Presidential servant (the subject of the Washington Post article on which The Butler is based), but I'm not so sure that a movie that seems to be more interested in the simultaneous Civil Rights Movement is the best place to tell that story.

The five Presidents depicted in the film are too sketchily drawn -- and, ironically, it's the Democratic ones, especially that "nigger"-spewing Johnson, who come out looking the worst -- and their presence feels more like a marketing ploy ("And here's Jane Fonda as First Lady Nancy Reagan!") than crucial to the story, especially since the famous actors portraying the former U.S. Commanders-in-Chief aren't given much to do. I think the movie would have been better served had it taken the Veep approach and left the Presidents unseen, except in archival footage, as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are shown. (Fun fact: Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, as the mother of a vicious plantation owner, are in the same film for the first time since 1977's Julia, though at opposite ends of it.)

Speaking of famous actors, I'm glad Daniels cast Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, the wife of the titular character Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), instead of someone like Viola Davis, who would have sucked all the fun out of the role. Winfrey makes Gloria more than just the devoted wife. It's a fully realized character (in some ways, more so than Cecil himself), and Winfrey handles her delicately, never smashing us over the head with Gloria's ticks. It wasn't until well into the film that it dawned on me that she was an alcoholic! Winfrey's second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination is as guaranteed as Mo'Nique's win in the same category for Precious was four years ago.

Thanks, in part, to Winfrey's commanding presence in it, Lee Daniels' The Butler is most successful as a family drama (sort of like Precious) with the Civil Rights Movement as its backdrop. I wish it had focused on the butler's off-the-clock life without shoehorning in the Presidential elements like a history lesson presented by Cliff Notes. The lecture on the Civil Rights Movement from the black point of view is far more thorough and engaging than the overly simplified presentation of how the various U.S. Presidents reacted to it.

Yes, Daniels teaches with a sledgehammer instead of a ruler, but the white-on-black atrocities of the 1960s are not begging for a light, subtle touch. My main gripe here is that the film's suggestion that the Civil Rights Movement evolved from a non-violent one into a militant one mainly because of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is too easy. That said, the scene of the Freedom Riders' sit-in inside a Tennessee diner is fantastically filmed and nicely juxtaposed with the White House dinner scene, and the terror of the passengers on the bus in Alabama as it's torched by the KKK is palpable, making it one of the film's most effective and maddening moments.

My outrage while watching it felt like an organic response to a recreation that's presented with the journalistic authority and matter-of-fact (and public record) realism of a documentarian, unlike the manipulative opening flashback, which seems to exist solely to immediately rile up viewers, just in case they don't realize that the horrors of black life in the post-Reconstruction South weren't so much different from the horrors of black life before the Civil War. (Apparently, none of what transpires onscreen actually happened to Eugene Allen or his father and mother, who is briefly portrayed by an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey, looking even better with no make-up than she did in Precious.) The 1926-set scene, which wouldn't have seemed out of place on one of Django Unchained's 1850s plantations, is hardly crucial to the story of a boy who didn't grow up to hate white people.

Had that opening flashback actually happened to Eugene Allen, I would have expected him to end up more like Cecil's older son Louis, a Freedom Riding Black Panther, or like Django, than the servile "house negro" that Cecil turns out to be, one who has a front-row seat to racist attitudes and agendas, but lower pay than white servants aside, doesn't really seem to suffer too greatly from the injustices of racism after the opening incident. He's got a steady job, a nice home, and most importantly, immaculate duds.

I understand that the purpose of making Cecil such a passive character was to contrast his docile approach to black-white relations with his son's far more incendiary point of view, and I like that the movie challenges him on it, while resisting the urge to portray butlerhood as some noble calling. It's just a job. Instead The Butler holds the work ethic displayed by these domestic servants in particularly high regard and suggests that this strong work ethic itself was a form of Civil Rights activism.

It's an interesting idea, but I'm not really buying into it, especially since there are other ways for hard-working folks to express their work ethic that don't involve pampering over-privileged people and counting the number of shoes in Jackie Kennedy's closet. Ultimately, neither does Cecil, since his actions late in the film undermine that idea that he has done anything for which he should be proud. Clearly Cecil wishes he had fought harder on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement.

Near the end, when Cecil, in voice over, decries the American way of condemning human-rights abuse around the world, from the Holocaust to Vietnam to Apartheid, while ignoring the 200-year legacy of it at home, I nodded my head in agreement. So true. But did Cecil really have to spend so much time at work onscreen to figure that out?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

7 Random Thoughts on My First 7 Days in Tel Aviv

1. Tel Aviv is not a conventionally picturesque city, its Bauhaus-dominated architectural plan has seen to that. Emphasizing functional over decorative and vintage over modern, Israel's largest metropolis is like the classic but slightly worn sofa in your childhood living room, the comfortable beige one that showed its age and its layers of dirt, only without all the knick-knacks crowding the spaces around it. Tel Aviv is nothing if not uncluttered.

There's a certain genteel beauty, though, in its austere, all-white (and slightly off-white) color scheme, and as urban landscapes go, a body of water (in this case, the Mediterranean Sea to the west) is second only to a mountain range as the perfect accessory. It's also the tidiest city I've been in since I left Dubai, which means the streets are free of the litter and piles of garbage that, from a visual perspective, somewhat marred my Roman experience. Here I don't get the urge to take to the streets with a broom and a dust pan.

2. Every city has its cranky contingent (and in Tel Aviv, it seems to be male and over 50, in general), but I've never been surrounded by so many friendly, helpful people in one bustling metropolis. From the guy who showed me how to open the plastic bags at the 24/7 supermarket on Ben Yehuda, to the young lady who works at the cafe next to my apartment who opened my canned pineapples because my rental here, like the one in Berlin, comes with everything but a can opener, to my model-pretty neighbor whose rental doesn't have a can opener either, everyone is so cheerful here.

But there's one bone that I'm almost certain I'm going to have to pick before I go: Reminding me that it's customary to tip in Tel Aviv -- as the bartender at Cabina on Tel Aviv Beach under the Crowne Plaza Hotel did last night after having the gall to charge me the New Israeli Shekel equivalent of $10 for a beer -- will almost ensure that you don't get one. If you're going to have the nerve to be so tacky, at least do it with a smile so that I can pretend you're being ironic.

3. Which brings me to Tel Aviv's famously fabulous nightlife. On a scale from 1 to 10, I'd give the bars and clubs here a 5. They're disappointingly average. Maybe I'm just past the age where hot spots will excite me or be one of the main reasons why I fall in love with a city. As I've seen it so far, the bars and clubs in Tel Aviv are pretty much just where you meet the people with whom you'll have the real fun later, roaming the busy streets of Tel Aviv before sunrise. That I love it here anyway is either a testament to how much I've changed since the days when a Friday or Saturday night in was the end of the world (way back before 2am felt like 5am), a testament to Tel Aviv's multi-dimensional appeal, or a testament to both.

The Tel Aviv movida -- which, as my friend Rob pointed out on my very first night in town -- seems to be situated partly in the area around Allenby and Rothschild, and it's far more happening and interesting than any scene I've yet to see indoors after dark. And unlike in Rome, where street food is no longer an option after midnight, there's an abundance of round-the-clock eateries and convenience stores, ensuring that you'll never have to go home hungry at 5am (the real 5am) after several after-hours spent roaming the city streets.

4. Why pay 300 NIS ($84) to work out at Pure Gym for two weeks when you can use the free workout equipment in the paved outdoor mini-gym near Gordon Beach after running along the Mediterranean for one hour? At that rate, I suppose you can afford to hire one administrative employee who can tell you the monthly rate and one who can tell you the weekly rate but none who can tell you both. Memo to self: Remember to ask one of the myriad hot guys running around with fat-free torsos how they do it. Surely I'm not the only one who thinks $40 a week is way too expensive for the honor of throwing your body around in cramped quarters with outdated workout equipment and a bunch of sweaty, smelly people.

5. Or maybe, like everyone else in Tel Aviv, they do it on credit. I've never seen so many people paying with credit cards everywhere for everything in my life, which is the opposite of how the majority of business is transacted in Berlin and Rome. I haven't yet decided if this is a good or bad thing. I'll let you know when I get my next MasterCard bill.

6. I'll probably never get used to reading right to left or how the printed Hebrew word looks like it's upside down, but after one Shabbat in Israel, I'm already accustomed to the weekly weekday routine, which begins on Sunday (their manic Monday) and ends on Thursday. Thankfully, Shabbat Saturday in Tel Aviv pretty much felt like Sunday in any other city, which I've been told is not how it goes down in Jerusalem.

In the words of a new acquaintance, a 24-year-old from Galilee who studies in Jerusalem and was here for three days, Shabbat there "feels like The Day After Tomorrow -- you really have to experience it." Jake Gyllenhaal aside, I didn't love anything about The Day After Tomorrow, but if my new acquaintance is right, when Jerusalem shuts down next Saturday, maybe he can be my Jake.

7. When he said goodbye to me on the corner of Mapu and Yehuda, he did it with a big hug and an even bigger kiss, onlookers be damned -- not that anyone gave us a second look, or even a first one. Damn, I love this city!

Friday, September 27, 2013

7 Random Thoughts I Had While Listening To/Watching This Week's Top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100

1. Where did this pretty young thing who calls herself Lorde (real name: Ella Yelich-O'Connor) come from? I must have blinked and totally missed the 16-year-old Kiwi newcomer's 11-week ascent to No. 3, where she sits for another week this week. It's hard to believe that she's half a decade younger than the likes of Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus (incidentally, at No. 1 for the second week with "Wrecking Ball"). The guys in One Direction have a few years on Lorde, but she already sounds way too old for them, which is a lot more than I can say for 23-year-old Taylor Swift.

But how does Lorde sound? Like a low-fat smoothie blend of Fiona Apple, Lana Del Rey and 19-era Adele, with a swirl of dark, hip hop-inflected rhythm to give her musical dissertation on suburban ennui some color and flava. The slurred, lumbering percussion on top (right up there in the mix, alongside Lorde's vocals) makes "Royals" sound like it's slowly creeping up on you. Beware: Once it catches you, its grip is tight. Give in.

2. The Swedish/Scandinavian pop invasion continues. What sets "Wake Me Up!" (No. 4) by Avicii apart from recent DJ/producer-driven hits and even from his fellow countrymen Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child" (a song that snagged Top 10 status last year, before Icona Pop's "I Love It" continued Sweden's recent pop domination, which, sadly, still hasn't made Lykke Li's "I Follow Rivers," so ubiquitous in Europe, a similarly super-size smash in the English-speaking world), are its, um, levels of daring. It succeeds where "Levels," Avicii's previous international hit (and sadly, the source material for Flo Rida's dreadful "Good Feeling") didn't because you don't spend the entire song wondering where you've heard bits and pieces of it before. That's thanks, in part, to Aloe Blacc's distinctive vocals, but mostly it's for the way the song itself incorporates elements of folk, country and a bit of Irish jig into its musical mix, never lapsing into electronica cliche or becoming just any one thing.

3. Technically, "Holy Grail" (No. 6) is a Jay-Z song, and Justin Timberlake is the guest vocalist, but it sounds the other way around, particularly on the YouTube lyric-video version, which has logged nearly 8.5 million more views than the official video version. The confusion over what song is Timberlake's latest single (a mystery compounded by the release or "TKO," which debuts at No. 54, and the several Jay-Z-free versions of "Holy Grail" floating around YouTube) might be why "Take Back the Night," the first single from Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2 (out today), couldn't get higher than No. 29.

The songs were released a mere two days apart in July, and since radio rarely embraces two simultaneous singles by the same headliner, one was probably destined to fail. Personally, I prefer "Holy Grail" to the color-by-numbers mirrorball pop of "Night," but "Grail" would have been better had Jay-Z sat it out entirely. That might have meant losing the clever lyrical props to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but its not like it's as pivotal to the song as Billy Squier's "The Stroke" is to Eminem's "Berzerk" (No. 11).

4. Following in the chart-hopping footsteps of Sia Furler and Florence Welch after trying on their dancing shoes, Lana Del Rey is the latest avante-pop singer-songwriter to ride the glittery coattails of a DJ/producer into the Top 10 for the first time. My question is this: Why wasn't the original version of "Summertime Sadness" good enough music for the masses? I suppose I should give credit to Cedric Gervais for accomplishing the previously unthinkable with his "Summertime Sadness" remix (No. 9), on which he shares equal billing: He's made a Lana Del Rey song sound like everything else.

5. The duo known as Capital Cities is going to have quite the pop challenge stopping "Safe and Sound" (No. 10) from being its one hit wonder. The debut Capital Cities album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, thus far has climbed no higher than No. 66 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart, which indicates that the people who are loving the song probably have no idea who is singing it, nor do they particularly care. I suppose the odds for continued chart success are more in their favor than they are for the Top 20's other duo, Norwegian comedy team Ylvis, who are No. 13 in three weeks with "The Fox," whose viral-on-YouTube status makes me wonder why, when the entire world catches on to something at the same time, is it never very good?

6. This week's Top 20 is a hit list of extremes: On one side, we have nine headliners who are charting with their breakthrough hits (three of whom -- Avicii, Gervais and Zedd, at No. 18 with his former Top 10 "Clarity" -- are DJ/producers), and on the other, we have now-veteran hitmakers like Justin, Jay-Z and Eminem, along with, Lady Gaga (No. 8 with "Applause"), Britney Spears (debuting at No. 12 with "Work B**ch") and Katy Perry (No. 2 with "Roar" and debuting at No. 17 with "Dark Horse"). It's the most genre-hopping, genre-blurring and all-inclusive Top 20 I've seen/heard in as long as I can remember, with the exception of the exception of a straight-up soul diva.

Here's how far we haven't come, part 2: In May of 1997, when Meredith Brooks released her future No. 2 hit "Bitch," it was spelled out without asterisks on the cover, while 16 years and four months later, Spears sidesteps profanity -- and potential controversy -- with two. In the Spears vs. Perry showdown, I was totally prepping to root against Perry, just as I'd done a few weeks ago when it was Perry vs. Gaga. Then I heard the songs, and I didn't want "Dark Horse" to end. Now I'm actually kind of looking forward to the release of  Perry's Prism on October 18. After treading too-familiar ground with "Roar," she steps slightly outside of her comfort zone on "Dark Horse," sliding into a Rated R Rihanna-style dirrty groove. It's the best thing she's done since "Hot and Cold" and her blackest song ever (I wonder how John Mayer's "white supremacist" penis reacted the first time he heard it), and unlike "Work B**ch," it's not all production no substance. I miss the dark minimalist grooves of Blackout Britney. I want that b**ch back.

7. Someone, preferably a decent stylist, really needs to have long talk with Justin Bieber (who debuts at No. 19 as a featured artist on Maejor Ali's Lolly," which also features Juicy J, the rapper also featured on Katy Perry's "Dark Horse"). Now that he's all of 19 years old, if he wants to be perceived as a grown up with street cred, what good are arm tattoos, hip-hop accessories and a guest rap (yes, Bieber raps, and he doesn't sound half bad), if he's going to wear a tank top that's a few sizes too big and makes him look like he's 19 going on 12?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Rockin' Rio!: Sunny Days and Bossa Nova Nights

As oceanfront/seaside meccas go, frankly, I'd rather be where I am right now, in quirky-beautiful Tel Aviv, with its blindingly white buildings, hot guys and ridiculously warm and friendly people. But Rio is not without its considerable following -- and charms, some of which I attempted to capture in the second of my six travel essays for the Bangkok Post's the magazine.

Life’s a beach. So goes that old tropical cliché, the one most likely to evoke vivid images of endless summers filled with lazy days and sultry nights. It’s the ultimate bacchanalian fantasy where everyone lives for long weekends spent on the shores of paradise, watching cold waves roll over warm sand while roasting under a red-hot sun. In those wildest dreams, life’s a beach indeed.

And in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that holiday reverie ventures breathtakingly close to the realm of reality.... (Click here for the rest of the story....)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Tel Aviv Will Bring Out the Wild in You"!

There are few "Welcome to our country!" moments more auspicious -- and, well, welcome -- than being singled out by a handsome guy moments after exiting the aircraft. Unfortunately, my Don Johanan was an airport official, and none of the 20 questions that followed included "What are you doing later?" By the time he got to "What do you do?" and asked me to present my "journalist card," my exasperation was evident.

"I've never been asked that one before," I answered, sighing and rolling my eyes. "I don't have one, but feel free to Google me."

"You seem to be a little upset. Is everything ok?" I was as disarmed by his genuine concern as I initially had been by his good looks. Despite his frustrating line of questioning (Is there a law against going to Palestine? Isn't that where Bethlehem is?), he was incredibly friendly. Frankly, though, if I had wanted to be questioned by a beautiful stranger, I would have gotten on Grindr. All I wanted to do at that particular moment was get to Customs before all of my fellow passengers, most of whom were proceeding without delay, did. I'd heard the horror stories about the rigorous line of questioning there, but not en route.

"No, I'm okay. It's just that I've been traveling all day, and I'm exhausted." Like my answers to all of his previous questions, this one was no lie. Although I'd only been up in the air for four and a half hours (two and a half from Rome to Istanbul, two from Istanbul to Tel Aviv), the four-hour layover in Istanbul, the two glasses of wine I had there, and all the various security checkpoints and long lines I had to deal with en route had zapped the pep from my step. Mr. Handsome seemed to understand.

"Ok, enjoy your stay." As I walked away, I felt a pang of guilt. I suppose I could have been nicer. I considered going back, apologizing, and suggesting he Whatsapp me later, but judging from my fellow passengers on Pegasus Airlines flight 779 (particularly the tall, dark, handsome male ones), I figured that on the other side of Customs, there'd be plenty of guys as attractive as my first interrogator.

At 190 NIS (New Israeli Shekel), which is equivalent to U.S. $53.70, the cost of the taxi ride from Ben Gurion Airport to the apartment where I'm staying on Mapu Street, just two blocks east of the beach, seemed to confirm what I'd read: Tel Aviv is the most expensive city in the Middle East. But the sight I saw when I got out of the taxi -- two guys walking by, nonchalantly holding hands -- suggested that it might be worth it.

One hour later, as we drank our $9 pints at Evita, a gay bar not too far from my apartment (apparently, Tel Aviv is compact enough, and I"m central enough, that everything is not too far from my apartment), Rob made the point, too. I'd have so much fun here that I wouldn't mind having to take out a mortgage to afford it. He reiterated it a couple of hours later as we were eating our $3.50 slices of pizza on the corner of Allenby and Rothschild, his favorite Tel Aviv intersection.

Unfortunately, he had to catch a flight back to London at 8am, which was only four hours away. We had planned on spending the entire weekend in Tel Aviv together, but I'd somehow gotten my dates wrong and booked my arrival for September 22, the day of his departure. I'd been wondering why he was getting there after the weekend.

Ah, well. At least we got to meet up. Not only was it great to see him in person for the first time since my going-away despedida in Buenos Aires three and a half years ago, but his enthusiasm for Tel Aviv was positively contagious. By the time we said our goodbyes, I was even more excited about what the next two to four weeks might bring than I had been upon my arrival in Tel Aviv.

The following day, Rob checked in on me via Facebook email, and I offered my first report on "the white city" (so-called for the second of its two main architectural motifs: functional and white), Rob's now second-favorite city in the world (after BA -- natch!).

Rob: "How's Tel Aviv treating you?"

Me: "I love it so far -- although I still haven't come up with the words to explain why, or to write a blog post about it. I guess right now I just feel really happy and comfortable here. Everyone is super nice; the weather is beautiful; I can see the beach from my balcony window; and the guys are HOT. [About that "super nice": They are, but as in Rome, cashiers in Tel Aviv insist on ignoring your outstretched palm and placing your change on the counter, which I always found incredibly rude when select testy cashiers in New York City used to do it. The check-out staff at Woolworths on Chapel Street in Melbourne wouldn't dream of doing anything so ghastly.]

"This morning, I went running along the beach, up to Jaffa, through the hills of the old town, and then back to the apartment, along the sea. This afternoon, I walked over to your favorite corner in the world, and while I was walking down Allenby, I was wondering, Why is this Rob's favorite street? It's like a mix of Once in BA and 34th Street in NYC! Then I got to Rothschild and realized that is the one you were talking about. Gorgeous! I may hang out with your friend Moshe tonight, or one of the cute guys that I've been talking to on Grindr/PlanetRomeo. There are a lot to choose from!

Rob:  "You're absolutely right! I even made that comment to Ricky about Allenby. I said it looks just like Once! The promenade from Jaffa to Tel Aviv is stunning! And the scenery (men) is even better. I've never seen so many hotties running on a street in my life, ever! Rothschild is gorgeous -- pretty and tree lined, it's one of my favourites in the world!! A lot of nightlife happens around there, too. Aren't the guys like ridiculously stunning? There is probably a party tomorrow night as it's a holiday eve. 

"It seems like the hotties only go out on the big nights, but you can see them on the street. Don't miss the beach on the holiday! Hang out with Moshe, he's so nice! Such a nice guy. Plenty of others like him. They are all keen to meet up and do stuff, even in a non-sexual way, which I found was very nice. Keep me very updated, I want to live Tel Aviv through you!

Me: "You are making me even more excited than I was after I just returned from walking around in the beach area after dark and picking up beer and wine from the supermarket. It's really not as expensive here as I thought it was, not if I think in terms of euros instead of dollars. If I do, it's really not so much more expensive than Rome and Germany were -- and at least booze in the supermarket is very reasonable: 39.99 NIS for a 6-pack of Carlsberg and 32.26 for a bottle of white wine. That's less than $12 for the six-pack and about $9 for the wine, which would be a STEAL in Melbourne!

"The one thing I find very strange, though, is the Hebrew script. Am I imagining things, or does it read right to left instead of left to right? For a while, I thought it might be upside down, too, but that would be ridiculous!

"So which holiday is Thursday? I picked up the latest Time Out Israel and got the lowdown on all the September holidays. Rosh Hashanah is past and so, thank God, is Yom Kippur (I did enough fasting in Dubai during Ramadan!), so it must be Sukkot. But doesn't it end tomorrow? Do they celebrate after it's over? Or is tomorrow like New Year's Eve and the next day like New Year's Day, the actual holiday but not the really important day? Boy, I may not have timed this right for us to get more face time, but it looks like I timed it perfectly in every other way!"

Rob:  "I need to find out which holiday is Thursday. It's some weird holiday that's after Sukkot. It's a one-day holiday; I heard from the guys in TLV that the holiday was again on Wednesday. I'm not sure what it is, but Jews love their holidays! You did time it right, definitely. You aren't imagining things, though, they read everything from right to left! So when you have a regular-looking menu or something, it looks like everything is upside down because the book opens the opposite way. The weirdest part is when you have an English menu and a Hebrew menu. You never know which side to open it from! You'll see. What's on tonight?" [So that's why Moshe's smiley faces on Whatsapp looked like this -- (: -- instead of like this -- :)!]

Jeremy:  "I'm not sure. I might meet up with Moshe, if he gets back from visiting his mom. He said tonight would be a big going-out night. I think it's every Tuesday, though, nothing to do with the mysterious holiday. If I don't hang out with him, I might meet up with one of the guys I've been chatting with online, or (more likely) head out alone to meet people the old-fashioned way. I have my beer and wine, so we'll see where it leads me!:)"

Rob:  "OMG, I wish I could be there with you! Maybe I'll come back at the end of October:) I don't know why today is such a big going-out day!"

Me: "I know! I wish you were here, too. Those few hours on Sunday weren't enough. And after going out in the cool night air to get stuff from the supermarket, I feel a little bit of old-school adventurous Jeremy coming back. But I'm going to have to try to stay out of trouble!"

Rob:  "Tel Aviv will bring out the wild in you. But a civilized wild, unlike the BA wild. You can meet and get to know nice locals where it isn't all about sex -- but you can have plenty of that if you need to:)"

Me: "After Rome, that's exactly what I want -- and need. So far I haven't gotten too many crazy messages online, so I'm already feeling like things will be a lot better on that front. Is there any place that'd you'd recommend other than Evita? I have a guide that lists a bunch of places, but they all look the same to me."

Rob:  "Evita is the only place I would recommend today, unfortunately. I only know of other things starting on Wednesday. is a good place to go for that, too, and also to meet guys, apparently. All the guys have the Atraf app or Grindr. I think people are more respectful in Tel Aviv, but wild, if you get wild with them. Also, I get the feeling that everyone knows each other like BA, so you get that whole small scene, but people don't ignore each other like they did in BA. People are not that big of bitches.

"Well, actually I hear they are bitches to each other but not the tourists!

"And I only heard TWO 'I want to fuck you because you're black' comments, which is FAR less than ANY city I've visited and gone out in a bunch of times (outside the US). One of those comments came that night that I was with you!"

Me:  "I was just about to mention that guy!!! At least he didn't lead with it!

"Gay men wouldn't be gay men if there wasn't some bitchiness going on. Well, maybe I'll go back to Evita then. I know how to get there from here. I'll have to find out the places for the rest of the week from you. I've been hearing so much about TLV's great nightlife (not only from you), and I'm almost afraid to sample. Not sure my 44-year-old heart can take it!!!"

In the end, I didn't have to find out -- yet. I was in bed by 11, watching Spartacus on my laptop. Crassus coming on to Antoninus as the latter gave him a sponge bath (?!) would be the only action I'd be seeing. Modern Roman guys could learn a thing or two about sexual subtlety from Crassus's oysters and snails analogy. I pray the boys in Israel have already learned that lesson!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When Did I Become the Type of Guy I Hate?

"Sorry seems to be the hardest word," the great Elton John once sang. What a touching sentiment -- and song. I recently saw the video on Radio Capital TV in Rome, and John's 1976 No. 6 hit sounds just as lovely today as it did when I was 7 years old and could feel every word he sang even if I didn't completely understand what he was singing about.

Now that I do, though. I have to say I can't quite relate, which might surprise a certain good friend of mine. Several years ago, when she was visiting me in Buenos Aires from L.A., she asked me a strange, fascinating question: "When was the last time you cried?" She insisted that she couldn't imagine me ever crying over anything. Later, she added apologizing, too -- not because she thought someone with my unimpeachable character would never need to, but because, as I later found out, she thought she had one coming from me.

Had I known I'd done anything to offend her (and agreed that I had indeed been offensive), she wouldn't have had to ask. In her assessment of me, she was right on the first count: My tears don't fall freely or regularly. I have a recurring dream in which I receive devastating news and struggle to cry just a little bit, as if my life depends on it. But on the other count, she was dead wrong: "I'm sorry" comes incredibly easy for me.

That's a good thing because lately I've had to say it a lot, mostly because I have a considerably harder time saying, "No." My former therapist might blame my people-pleasing tendencies, which at the time, he concluded, was damaging some of my relationships. I may have shed some of my people-pleasing ways in the ensuing nine years (along with a few of those relationships), but "No" still seems to be the hardest word," especially when an unwanted suitor should be on the receiving end of it.

In the past, I've been labeled everything from a tease to a "nigger" when I wasn't upfront with guys I didn't want from the start. That character flaw may have reached a critical point during my most recent stint in Rome, as the guys there brought out the worst in me. Previously, I wouldn't have expected it from Italy, considering that it's the site of two of my most fondly remembered romances of my late 20s and early 30s -- the ones I had with Massimiliano and with Paolo.

Thanks to them, for years, Italian men enjoyed a position of high estimation in my mind, despite all of the horror stories I heard to the contrary, the ones about how they're after only one thing, and how they'd say practically anything to get it. That's really not much different from most of the guys I met in Buenos Aires, and for years, I'd been unwilling to chalk up the worst of their romantic shortcomings to the Italian heritage that so many of them share, because, well, in my mind, Italian men were just so incredibly charming and sexy.

Then I returned to Rome for the third time, which, as far as the guys there went, was so not the charm. When Paul, a UK expat who is a university professor in Rome, dismissed them as unbelievably shallow on my first night in the capital, I didn't want to believe he might be right. I still wouldn't dream of filing them all under that particular heading, but after experiencing them firsthand on their turf for the first time in nine years, I see he had a point.

It only took me all of 24 hours to get it. I'm still not completely sure if it was because I've changed or because the men there have, but everything seemed so different between us. It could be that I'm just scarred for life from love's battlefield, but by the time I left, I regarded every guy I met as the enemy, and I'd more or less lost my will to fight.

Perhaps the shift had something to do with the past month having been the first time I'd experienced Italy's gay culture in the age of Grindr. With the introduction of online hook-up tools like Grindr and PlanetRomeo into Roman gay life, guys no longer have to talk to you when they single you out in a crowd because they'll probably find you later online. And when they do, they now can jump right over language barriers and land in the middle of a king-size water bed with their pants hanging down below their knees.

"Sex?" is not something most guys would have said upon meeting someone in a club in Rome, or in Milan, or pretty much in any place that didn't have dark rooms, in 2004. But on Grindr and on PlanetRomeo, it's perfectly acceptable -- at least in Rome, which was the first place I'd ever been routinely approached online in such a crass, brutal, blunt and monosyllabic manner. (The guys outside of Rome had a bit more finesse when offering their opening lines, but their restraint never lasted long.)

After several weeks of openings like "MI SCOPI OGGI POMERIGGIO" (or "FUCK ME THIS AFTERNOON") and "ciao ti va di fare una bella scopata?" (or "hello you want to do a good fuck?") and being asked out by Romans (the ones with better opening lines than "Sex?" or "Looking for?" or "Hung?") and then ultimately being blown off by them after agreeing to meet them, I lost my appetite. In the end, with the exception of a few hours on my first Sunday evening in Rome, I spent my entire five weeks in Italy pretty much celibate, hoping for but not expecting just one guy to restore my faith -- and interest -- in Italian men.

I encountered a few decent ones online and off, but perhaps scarred by all the "Sex?" talk (not to mention, years of bullshitters in Buenos Aires and Bangkok), I declined without with actually declining. I found myself intentionally leading them on, giving the impression that I might be interested when I knew I wasn't, because it was a lot easier than just saying, "No." Eventually, after I played noncommittal long enough, they'd catch my drift, and disappear before I ever had to be the bad guy, though in a way, that's exactly who I was being.

Sergio got farther than most. He'd spotted me at Coming Out, a bar across from the Colosseo, on my first night in Rome and contacted me on PlanetRomeo the next day (so typical of the new Rome-antic gay guy). I told him when I agreed to meet up with him that I wasn't interested in anything physical and spent our entire dinner date trying to think of ways to end it early.

Eventually, though, he reeled me in with decent conversation and the unexpected revelation that we'd actually met several years ago at Glam in Buenos Aires. I probably shouldn't have sent him mixed signals by inviting him up to my place afterwards, but the people pleaser in me knew that he would have been disappointed had I just called it a night after we split the bill, and I couldn't have that on my conscious.

We'd spent the previous 90 minutes or so communicating on a purely platonic level, and I'd actually started to warm up to him. I wasn't sure if I was attracted to him, but I was pretty certain that he wouldn't give me time to figure it out or settle for mere friendship. I was relieved when, after we'd spent a half hour watching videos on Radio Capital TV, with him suggestively trying to decrease the space between us on the two-person sofa while I awkwardly attempted to widen it, he announced he should go home because he had to work at 5am. But instead of leaving, he started putting his hands all over me. One for the road? I cringed on the inside as the 190-meter-tall octopus pawed me, while on the outside, I just sat there like a lifeless blow-up doll.

Eventually, Sergio got the message without my having to say a word (like "No"), because I hadn't said a word. "Well, at least I know it's you and not me," he announced, pressing his body up against the supposed evidence. Then he quietly left. I felt a mix of emotions: first relief, then guilt, then relief again because at least he only lived a few blocks away and hadn't traveled far for nothing. When I closed the door on Sergio, in my head, I was closing it on the prospect of making any kind of meaningful romantic connection in Rome. Even if I met a guy I liked, would he give it more than one date to develop?

Then two and half weeks later, I met Gianluca. When our eyes locked at Circolo degli Artisti the Friday night before last, and he came over and introduced himself, I thought he might have potential. By the time he bought me a beer and ignored his friends to struggle speaking in English with me, I was certain he did. He moved pretty quickly, as apparently, is customary in Italy. Within moments of getting my number (and calling me while I was still standing there), he added me on Facebook.

The next morning, when I woke up and saw several messages from Gianluca along with his Facebook friend request, I felt a twinge of foreboding as I accepted. I knew where this story was headed, and it would probably have as much to do with my actions as his. Neither one of us disappointed.

During our several conversations on Whatsapp, he kept bringing up the things he wanted to do with me (Sample: "And I want stay whit you and want you inside of me sex"), asking if I wanted the same thing. How was I supposed to tell him no? Instead I took the coward's/tease's way out, not saying, "Yes," but definitely not saying, "No," either. (When he asked, "You want sex whit me and aleep tigheter?", I replied, "I'd like to meet up.")

No offense to Gianluca. He's a sweet, good-looking guy and, at age 39, refreshingly age appropriate. But I think a confluence of factors ruined any chance we might have had getting more than halfway to first base. Had we both spoken the same language, our conversations might not have been so one-note and one-track. Had my impression of Italian guys not been so poisoned by the ones I'd been coming across, I might not have been so wary and weary. Had I just told him "No" when he asked if I wanted what he wanted, I wouldn't have had to keep promising to let him know when I was free. Had I not turned into the type of guy I hate, I wouldn't have kept failing to be true to my word.

Last Friday afternoon, a day and a half after I arrived back in Rome from Tuscany (naturally, neglecting to contact Gianluca as promised), he gave me one final chance.

Gianluca: "I want you when you free?"
Me: "Hey, are you going to Circolo later?" [I thought it would be the perfect way to meet him in a crowd and, hopefully, avoid all the premature pillow talk.]
Gianluca: "I don't kniw, but I think no
Eanna meet me at 18:30 near my home?
Or after dinner, I want you"
Me: "Where do you live? Not at 18.30 but maybe later.... I will message you later."
Gianluca: "Ok sexy don't forget me ok? I want you this night"

I didn't forget him, but I didn't write either. The discomforting thing is that I didn't feel guiltier than I did. They (Italian men) had driven me to it.

On Saturday morning, he sent me two final messages:

No serios man. Delete my contant. Bye"

Then he deleted me from Facebook.

I was relieved, and in one brief remorseful moment, I considered writing him to explain why I'd been such a jerk. In the end, though, I merely offered the one word that comes so easily to me.


At least I never had to tell him "No."

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Goodbye, Rome!

After one month spent in Rome doing as the Romans do, it's time to move on. Tomorrow I will make my final exit (for now), and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I feel as if I've done a city right: I didn't overstay my welcome in Rome, nor am I'm leaving too soon.

I've been based here for one month and two days (with time off to visit Florence, Pompei, Siena and Chianti), which has been just long enough to leave me completely sated with my Roman experience. I'm ready to go, and I will do so with all of my admiration and adoration intact. If I were leaving today, it might be too soon. If I were leaving on Monday, I might be overstaying my welcome. Sunday afternoon feels just about right.

Next stop: Tel Aviv! I enter into this living arrangement with no small amount of fear since, unlike Berlin and Rome before my recent stints in both, Tel Aviv is a place I've never been. I feel like I'm going on a blind date that will last anywhere from two weeks to one month, with a guy about whom I've heard nothing but amazing things. I've seen pictures, too, and he's ruggedly handsome in a way that I can appreciate, even if it's not exactly my type. But will the chemistry be there?

Will there be an immediate reaction like that instant attraction between Melbourne and me three years ago? Will the connection take a week to develop, as was the case with Buenos Aires in 2005? Will it hit me suddenly and unexpectedly just as I'm about to leave, prompting me to stay for three months more? That's exactly what went down with Bangkok in 2011.

Will Tel Aviv welcome me with open arms, put me immediately at ease, charm my pants off me, and make me wish our blind date would never end? Stay tuned.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Performance and Art: Is Making History By Getting People Talking Enough?

A very grudgingly extended congratulations to Miley Cyrus today (insert slow, deliberate hand clap here). This week, "Wrecking Ball," Miley's latest single to chart on Billboard's Hot 100, unseats Katy Perry's "Roar" atop the hit list to become her first No. 1.

I wish I could say, "Well done," but, well, it wasn't.

It's hard to imagine that a pretty, decent but pretty ordinary song like "Wrecking Ball" would have enjoyed such an easy rise to the summit had it not been for the perfect storm of controversy that preceded it there: first, Miley's much-criticized performance of her previous hit, "We Can't Stop," at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 25, followed by another body-baring turn in the "Wrecking Ball" video, which became an instant YouTube smash more for its soft-core XXX factor than for the song itself. (Quick! Sing one line -- any line -- from it!)

This week, nearly one month after kicking off her Bangerz publicity blitz at the VMAs (the album, the former Hannah Montana's fourth as the "Miley Cyrus" brand, is due October 8), everyone is still talking about her performance there. Leave it to Cher, a singer who was stirring up controversy decades before Miley was even born, to leave me with mixed reactions to her own mixed reactions.

Cher's initial comments to USA Today had me cheering her on because they were so spot on:

"She could have come out naked, and if she'd just rocked the house, I would have said, 'You go, girl.' It just wasn't done well. She can't dance, her body looked like hell, the song wasn't great, one cheek was hanging out. And, chick, don't stick out your tongue if it's coated."

Then after several moments of careful consideration, the irony dawned on me. What a blatant case of the navy-blue pot calling the kettle black! Sure Cher is a certifiable "legend" with the sturdy discography to back up her well-deserved icon status, but she's spent decades baring it nearly all onstage just for the hell of it. She may have had better material than Miley (even when she was shaking her fishnetted ass in front of her 12-year-old son Elijah Blue in the 1989 "If I Could Turn Back Time" video, I was still paying attention to the song), but it's not as if she was the greatest dancer either.

Then Cher went and did a complete back track on Twitter that had me shaking my head as much as I did the first time I watched Miley's VMA performance and her performance in the "Wrecking Ball" video. While I agree that it's not cool for artists to publicly dis each other, a quick "my bad" in 140 characters or less would have sufficed. Instead, Cher seemed to go out of her way to offer hollow props to Miley over the course of five tweets. According to the middle one:

"What I should have said,"I didn't like it that much,but she's Pushing The Envelope,being an ARTIST ! She's Talented,& DIDNT COMMIT A FELONY".

I'm sure Miley would agree. In fact, she's said something along the lines of Cher's "TRUTHFULLY SHE WAS Fkng BRILLIANT..CAUSE...WE'RE STILL TALKING ABOUT IT":

"I don't pay attention to the negatives. I've seen this play out so many times. Anyone [who] performs, that's what you're looking for. You want to make history."

Bottom line: Who cares what you're doing as long as people look, and then talk, and then talk some more? It's the sort of justification one might expect from a 20 year old, someone who has only lived in a world where anyone who has a video camera and a YouTube account can be a celebrity (talent: optional). Kids of a certain age treat it almost as a birthright, and since Miley's dad, "Achy Breaky Heart" singer Billy Ray Cyrus, was famous for a minute in the '90s, it's double her birthright. So what if you can't act or sing? If someone like Britney Spears can become a superstar with limited raw talent, why can't we all?

On American Idol we've watched the likes of William Hung become stars (for all of 15 minutes perhaps, but that's longer than most of us get) by staging egregiously bad auditions. Rebecca Black nabbed a YouTube sensation, a spot in a Katy Perry video and months of media coverage for singing a bad song ("Friday") badly. But who cares if the song sucks? At least it got us talking. In Miley's eyes, if a "performer" provokes people and gets them talking, then said performer has done his or her job, right?

In Miley's defense, she said "performer," not "artist," though I'm certain that she considers herself to be the latter, too. I keep reading comments by people other than Miley and Cher who take the banal "It is what it is" approach -- She made us look! -- justifying low-brow means to the same low-brow end (the attention of the masses), all in the name of celebrity, which should never be confused with artistry.

Yes, the best art provokes and creates a dialogue, but not in lieu of or at the expense of artistry itself. Aside from the nicely sung verses of "Wrecking Ball," I haven't seen or heard anything approaching art in anything Miley has done in 2013.

That's a lot less than I can say for someone like Adele. Just a few years ago, Adele became the biggest female singer in the world with neither a whiff of controversy nor a single exposed cheek other than the two above her neck. All she did was shut up and sing. Miley's one-time BFF Taylor Swift might date famous bad boys for material, but when she scored her own first Hot 100 chart-topper one year ago with "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," it was all about the song (love it or hate it -- and I still hate it). Swift's career, shockingly, remains free of scandal, controversy, or spare, bare body parts, and we have been talking about her for several years straight now.

Here's the cold, hard truth about celebrity: If you're willing to make an ass of yourself, or go to prison, anyone can get people talking, or, as naive Miley put it, "make history." Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got on the cover of Rolling Stone by blowing up the Boston Marathon on April 20. Aaron Alexis entered the annals of the notorious by shooting 12 people to death on Monday in Washington D.C. Either one of them could rip a page from the fictional celebrity diary of General Hospital's serial-killer artist Franco (a character originally played by James Franco and now played by Roger Howarth) and call their murderous actions "art," justifying it by saying all those people died for their "art," but it's still cold-blooded murder.

I'm not saying that anything Miley has done comes even close to approaching the heinousness of those crimes (like Cher said, she didn't commit a felony), but my point is that getting people talking and making history is not hard, nor is it always admirable. Getting people talking and making history for positive reasons, purely on the strength of what you create, is.

One of my Facebook friends called Alexis my twin on my Timeline (presumably because my Facebook friend, who is also black and thus presumably could get away with making such a race-based claim, sees some physical resemblance, though I'm hoping it was an in-joke that I just didn't get). That's certainly not the kind of attention I desire. Nor would I want to get people in Rome looking at me and talking about me and remembering me by walking through Piazza Venezia, down Via dei Fori Imperiali, past the ruins, right up to the Colosseo in the nude. I could call that sort of street performance "art," but ultimately, it would just be me walking around Rome without any clothing on.

The real work of art would be the Colosseo, which has been attracting people and getting them talking for centuries. It's history that's made history without ever resorting to twerking, sticking out its tongue, or taking off a stitch of clothing.

A few days ago, my friend Lori compared Meryl Streep, whom she recently encountered in an elevator in New York City, to a Roman ruin, for her natural, vintage elegance. Miley may have millions of YouTube hits and, now, a No. 1 hit to go along with all of our attention, but she and the rest of Generation Y are going to have to work a lot harder -- which will begin with not trying quite so hard -- to approach even a fraction of the elegance and artistry of a Meryl Streep, or a Roman ruin.

Southern Skies: Lasting Impressions of Melbourne

I recently wrote a series of six travel essays for the magazine, the Bangkok Post's bi-weekly lifestyle glossy. The first article was on Melbourne, my sometime home in the land down under.... 

Tales of two cities. If you could lose yourself in just one country’s epic, which would it be? The United States’ story, with New York and Los Angeles as its main characters? Brazil’s volume on São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro? The Spanish saga of Barcelona and Madrid? Or an Australian page-turner that revolves around Sydney and Melbourne? (Click here for the rest of the story....)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Contemplating Love, Friendship, Technology and "Before Midnight" in Tuscany

Wow. That was the best word to describe my reaction to seeing Lori in Piazza del Campo in Siena, our first meeting since she'd visited me in Bangkok one and a half years earlier. I wasn't shocked because she looked so great -- I'd seen all of her recent photos on Facebook -- but rather because I felt as if we’d spent an entire afternoon together just last week. We immediately launched into our old routine, telling bits and pieces of stories until a tangent sent us in a new direction, laughing at things that no one else (including Lori's husband John) would understand, completing each other's thoughts, and mentally predicting them.

They say the mark of true-blue friendship is that after a considerable lapse of time, you can meet again and pick up right where you left off. What Lori and I have is certainly true blue, but I wonder how much our ongoing close friendship and its endurance over time and space owe to technology, social media and Facebook.

When I left the New York City in 2006, before the invasion of social media and the Facebook revolution, Lori and I kept in touch regularly by email. Our missives to each other painted broad strokes of our respective lives, and we occasionally indulged in long existential conversations like we used to in the old days, only with me in Buenos Aires and Lori in New Jersey or New York, they were in the form of monologues delivered via the written word, not the back-and-forth bouncing of ideas during downtime at work, in taxis on the way home, on my living room sofa on Saturday afternoon, at Bar Six for Sunday brunch, or on the telephone during the Super Bowl.

That face-to-face (or voice-to-ear) interaction is where we really get to the core of who people are, as we observe their process of realization, changing their mind, or refusing to. With email, we have time to carefully edit our thoughts, controlling how we present them so that people see -- or read -- what we want them to.

With modern technology -- Facebook, instant messaging, Skype video -- person-to-person interaction becomes less rehearsed, more real. Our long-distance friends can get an undistorted, un-airbrushed view of us -- literally, on Skype -- without our make-up on. Meanwhile, we can keep track of all the minutiae of our loved ones' everyday lives, sharing tidbits that we wouldn't necessarily think to include in an email. Sometimes it feels like we're actually in the same room.

The benefits of technology can't be overstated in regards to friendship, but what about love?

One of the first things Lori and I discussed was Before Midnight, which we'd both seen and loved for the thoughts it provoked. Interestingly, had Lori, a dedicated reader of my blog posts, not somehow overlooked the one on Before Midnight, she wouldn't have had to ask if I'd seen it. She already would have known how much I loved it, thanks to the power of social media.

We broached some of the intriguing ideas in the film, and she mentioned the young couple in the extended lunch scene and how they were like a 2013 version of Celine and Jesse in 1994, only with this century's technology, an idea that I'd mentioned in my blog post. Indeed, they were the twentysomething Celine and Jesse, but while serendipity brought them together, too, technology was helping to keep them together -- at least for now.

Had Celine and Jesse had cell phones and had been able to text each other that day they were supposed to meet in 1994, who knows what direction their relationship would have taken after Before Sunrise? The film's two sequels might have gone so differently, or perhaps not at all. They may have burned brightly as a couple for a while and exploded in a matter of weeks, months, or well before Before Sunset, the 2003 sequel to Before Sunrise.

I've already mentioned the benefits of technology on friendship, but its effect on love and romance is trickier territory. Social media enables us to keep in touch -- if only virtually -- but people tend to use it to communicate in soundbites, often in 140 characters or less. How much can you truly know someone if that's how you are interacting most of the time when you are apart. When you're together, in-depth communication might be backburnered because technology has fooled you into thinking you already know everything you need to know.

Do couples have the sort of revealing, explosive conversations that Celine and Jesse had in the second and third Before films on social media? Do they have them when they're logged on to Facebook or even chatting by video on Skype? Those are the sort of warts and all that show up when we're face to face, getting into each other's, not when we're online or texting, talking in short sentences, not paragraphs.

A film like 1998's You've Got Mail, with its AOL-related gimmick, might seem quaint by today's communication standards, but it was the first mainstream movie to explore love and technology in an in-depth way. I'm convinced that Tom Hanks' and Meg Ryan's characters are still living happily ever after, but that's probably because they spent most of the movie getting casually acquainted online while unknowingly (at least for Ryan's romantic-comedy heroine) truly getting to know each other – warts and all, mostly warts – in person? I imagine that they had so much more to talk about after the credits rolled, having battling each other in person for close to two hours (in real time), than they would have had they finally met as near-virtual strangers at the end.

When you're hooking up online, breaking up by text, and having sex on Skype, what's left to say when you're face to face? No wonder so many 24-year-olds are conversationally challenged. I'm not saying that young love has less of a chance of surviving today than it did in the mid '90s, but it's really missing out. Those beats of old-fashioned love -- spending hours on the phone, writing letters, receiving letters, longing for each other long-distance, being overjoyed when you finally reunite -- beat anything you can do today on your iPad or smart phone.

For me, it's so much better to have loved and lost that way, than to have never loved and lost that way at all.