Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why Didn't Jennifer Lopez Become America's Sweetheart?

We're three days into "J. Lo Movie Month" on South Africa's Sony Entertainment Television, which is dedicating late November and December to running a portion of the filmography of the "hardest-working woman in show business" -- Anaconda, EnoughMaid in Manhattan and Monster-in-Law -- on a seemingly endless loop. After watching all of Monster-in-Law over the course of three airings, around the third time that I happened to pass by during yet another round of Maid in Manhattan, I realized something about Lopez that I hadn't considered before: She desperately wanted to be Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, but she ended up being Katherine Heigl instead.

Where did she go wrong? I'd say she was doomed from the day she decided she wanted to be a pop star. Before the 1999 release of her debut album On the 6 in 1999 when she was 29 going on 30, Lopez was coming off career-best reviews for her performance opposite George Clooney in Out of Sight, an acclaimed 1998 Steven Soderbergh-directed caper that earned only $37.5 million at the North American box office, making it slightly bigger than her 1997 breakthrough Selena ($35 million), though certainly no Anaconda ($66 million in '97) and not even Enough ($40 million in 2002).

I can understand why she wanted to add "pop star" to her name. She was working with A-list directors (Soderbergh) and costars (Clooney), but why should Britney Spears have all the fun on the Billboard charts? With a hit album, perhaps people would even go to see her movies. Her gambit initially seemed to pay off: Her first post-album film, 2000's The Cell, earned $61 million in North America well before her costar Vince Vaughn became the bankable one. It's hard to imagine that people didn't go to see it just because the girl who sang "If You Had My Love" and "Waiting for Tonight" was in it.

Lopez's music career epitomized the catch-22. She wouldn't be as wildly popular as she still is today without it, nor would she be an American Idol judge (a post to which she'll return for the show's 13th season on January 15, after sitting out the Mariah Carey vs. Nicki Minaj session). But while pop success made her a household name at the turn of the century and built interest in her acting projects, I believe it also had a negative effect on her Hollywood career, raising commercial expectations for her films to possibly unreasonable proportions while wildly overexposing her.

Cinderella stories in which the working-class girl meets the man of her dreams (2001's The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan and 2005's Monster-in-Law) brought Lopez her biggest film success and cemented her prevailing onscreen persona: shades of While You Were Sleeping-era Sandra Bullock and early Julia Roberts, complete with the wife-of-an-abusive-monster-fights-back role in 2002's Enough, in which she was Julia Roberts's Sleeping with the Enemy heroine without the great hair or the blockbuster box-office. (It peaked at $40 million.)

For a while, Lopez became a fairly bankable box-office star, scoring as many hits (the biggest of which, Maid in Manhattan, grossed $94 million) as misses. But for all of her Hollywood clout, and unlike every other romantic-comedy/drama fixture mentioned in this post (and some who are not, like The Family Stone costars Sarah Jessica Parker and Rachel McAdams), she never enjoyed a $100 million hit in any genre and still hasn't (unless you count 2012's $161 million-grossing Ice Age: Continental Drift, in which only her Bronx accent appeared).

The tabloids and celeb magazines didn't care, though. They covered her love life with gusto, like she was bigger than Tom Cruise and Will Smith. At one point during my 2002-2004 stint as a senior editor at Us Weekly, every morning-after (the Monday close) staff meeting began with the same question: "So what's our Jennifer Lopez story this week?" And it was up to our correspondents to come up with it.

Lopez didn't make their job hard, going through a string of also-famous steadies: Sean "Puffy" Combs (before he became "P. Diddy" and then, simply, "Diddy"), Ben Affeck and Marc Anthony, who would eventually become her third husband, from 2004 to 2012. During the early to mid '00s, following her love life was as popular a leisure pursuit among fans as going to her movies. She was the Kim Kardashian of the day, only everyone knew exactly why she was famous, even if she hadn't done anything particularly impressive to get that way.

But her ostentatious public displays of extreme wealth and her game of musical chairs with boyfriends, fiances and husbands made it hard to buy her as the girl next door that the movie studios were paying her to be. When she tried to sell herself as one in her songs (most notably, two of her biggest hits, 2001's "Love Don't Cost a Thing" and 2002's "Jenny from the Block"), she came across like a businesswoman attempting to convince us that she'd rather be a housewife while wearing a power suit.

America's sweetheart was supposed to be one of us. Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock were able to convince the public that they were everywomen offscreen even while earning upwards of $20 million a movie. Lopez, dripping jewels and fabulousness, was forever saddled with the "diva" tag. How was America going to call her "sweetheart," if most Americans couldn't relate to her?

She was less Cinderella than Erica Kane, or Elizabeth Taylor, who wisely never tried to be America's sweetheart, leaving that to Doris Day. When Lopez married her Larry Fortensky (Cris Judd), she quickly upgraded him for Ben Affleck, her financial equal, damaging her rooting factor on and offscreen. Her motto could have been "Love don't cost a thing, but it don't mean a thing either if it don't come with bling." Ben Affleck, apparently understanding this, gave Lopez a 6.1-carat pink diamond engagement ring as a sign of his devotion. Some girl next door. At least her love life was more entertaining that her movies.

Lopez and Affleck's joint 2003 flop Gigli ($6 million) is often credited with halting her Hollywood rise, but there were a few more film successes to come (2004's Shall We Dance and Monster-in-Law the following year). Like their predecessors, though, none of them became her Pretty Woman, or her Legally Blonde. By the time she said "I do" for the third time, to Marc Anthony, and gave birth to twins Maximillian and Emme in 2008, her Hollywood heyday was over.

It's possible that it would have ended sooner rater than later, even without the mixed messages of her pop stardom. Few performers in the history of Hollywood and recording have been able to manage simultaneous film and music careers. Frank Sinatra was one of them, but he was a far better singer and actor than Lopez. Diana Ross spent several years as a Hollywood star in the '70s, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (2007's El Cantante was supposed to be Lopez's Lady Sings the Blues and then never really happened), but Ross's iconhood had already been firmly established in the '60s as the head Supreme.

Today, Diana Ross, whose 1980 smash "I'm Coming Out" provides the soundtrack to Sony Entertainment Television's commercial promoting "J. Lo Movie Month," is a living legend. Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon are Oscar winners. Two of Lopez's male '00s costars, Vince Vaughn and Matthew McConaughey, would now get top billing over her. And J. Lo? She's still a pop star, though no longer a guaranteed hitmaker. In Hollywood, she's an also-ran romantic-comedy heroine alongside Kate Hudson, Jennifer Garner and Heigl: America's almost-sweetheart. She'd probably kill for that other Jennifer's (Aniston) film career. Even that other other Jennifer (Garner) gets juicy roles in Oscar-caliber projects like Dallas Buyers Club.

Idol, though, might be as good as it gets in front of the camera -- for now. Her first stint as a judge led to resurgent, if short-lived, Billboard success. (After a half-decade of flops, "On the Floor" was a massive 2011 hit, but none of its follow-ups have caught on.) Maybe her second round as an Idol judge will lead to another pop comeback, or -- finally -- a $100 million movie.

If not, who needs America's open arms embracing its latest sweetheart? There's always that reported $17.5 million a season from Idol, the millions from all her behind-the-scenes projects and Casper Smart to keep J. Lo warm at night.

Friday, November 29, 2013

What Do You Get the Guy Who Doesn't Want Anything?

As consumers and retailers worldwide prepare for what is billed as the busiest shopping day of the year, the 24 hours that follow what was always my favorite holiday of the year (and one that I haven't celebrated in the United States since 2005), I know what I won't be doing tomorrow.

For me, it will be just another day in paradise (aka Cape Town). Frankly, I haven't experienced holiday spirit in decades, which probably makes it a good thing that I'm still not a dad (though parenthood might very well change my holiday outlook). It's not that I'm a scrooge begrudging anyone peace on earth, goodwill to men and lots of presents, but how many people actually bother themselves with abstract gifts like peace and goodwill when tis the season to flock to the mall to pad retailers' coffins while stuffing stockings?

My distaste for the holiday season isn't just that everything starts shutting down, or that it's nearly impossible to find a short-term rental in Cape Town because December is super-high season. It has more to do with what the holidays represent to me: extreme consumerism, materialism and, in an ironic Christmas Day twist, everything being closed for business on December 25. No consumerism for me, if I run out of eye drops or dental floss on Christmas Eve!

I used to embrace consumerism as enthusiastically as the next slave to stuff, even though I've always been a fan of non-traditional gifts. (My all-time favorite: the Billboard magazine I received for Christmas in 1983, the first issue of a one-year subscription.) But having to spend $500 to have the folks at 1-800-GOT-JUNK come to my storage space in Brooklyn in February of 2010 to haul off the belongings I'd spent nearly four years paying $130 dollars a month to hold on to didn't only clean out my proverbial closet. It cured me of my need to possess.

I now see physical gifts as just more kilos to add to my baggage allowance when I travel. (If you must spend money on me, put it toward a fabulous holiday, for which I can pack lightly.) My friend Nancy doesn't share my non-attachment to personal belongings, as she pointed out in an email this morning.

"You and I have very different views on stuff. I cannot live without stuff. This weekend, I lost a very expensive bracelet which I loved and wore several times a week. Losing it make me miserable and wishing the earth would open and swallow me up. I wish my happiness was less dependent on stuff."

I respect her desire to possess (though if it weren't for that, she wouldn't have had the expensive bracelet to lose), but at least she realizes that love need not cost a thing, to borrow from J. Lo's 2001 hit.

"Flowers and gifts are nice. They show that someone either cares about you, or is trying. Both of those are nice traits. But in truth, they don't mean anything. The only guy who ever gave me gifts and flowers regularly was the only one who ever cheated on me."

It's been years since a guy has given me anything, and I don't think any less highly of any of the guys I've dated since then than I would had they handed me the world on a silver platter. Love doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry, nor does it mean showing up on my front doorstep bearing gifts. If you want to show me love, do it with deeds, not stuff. Words work, too, but please, no cards. They're just clutter, which I hate. Oh, and don't call, just text.

Five love actions that won't cost a thing (other than the price of groceries and gas):

Cook for me. Taking me out to dinner is always appreciated, too, but if you prepare the meal, you're giving me something that I can't give myself: a delicious home-cooked meal. (BTW, Nancy hates it when guys cook for her: "People use so many herbs, and I hate having to pretend to like the food." That's my Nancy!)

Think about me. I've never been the needy boyfriend who has got to be joined at the hip with my significant other. Three or four (preferably three) dates a week works for me. A few nice text messages or emails a day to let me know I'm on your mind will pick up the slack and convince me that you care more than expensive flowers and chocolate, neither of which I particularly care for. I prefer personal, less generic food gifts anyway, like the $1.50 lemon poppy seed muffins that one early boyfriend in New York City used to bring over every night because he knew how much I loved them. That wasn't just a romantic gesture. It was a personalized -- and seriously yummy -- token of affection.

Pick me up at the airport. From the moment I saw Paolo waiting for me outside of the baggage-claim area when I went to visit him in Milan in 2000, I knew that it was one of the sexiest things a guy could do. He cooked for me every day I was there, too, but unfortunately, he wasn't so good with the emails when I returned to New York City.

Read my stuff. If you're not interested in what I'm thinking, even when it has nothing to do with you, how can you say you're interested in me?

Love me for me. Without acceptance, there is no love. If you love me for who you want me to be, you aren't loving me at all. Changing my wicked ways (and yes, I have a few), like checking into rehab, has to be my choice, not a means to acquiring anyone's unconditional love. That wouldn't actually be unconditional at all. Nothing says you love me like loving me in spite of my flaws, which, as gifts go, would be the greatest one of all.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Hey, Mate, You're Not in Australia Anymore!

If I've said it once in the last two weeks and two days, I've said it daily. So here it comes again: Cape Town is so Melbourne (with mountains). The South Africa-Australia connection isn't just a fantasy I've made up in my head because I miss Melbourne.

The first time I heard it, in August, almost exactly three months before my arrival here, a German girl in Berlin who I met through a friend from Bangkok was talking. She'd spent time living in Cape Town, and she was telling me what to expect. If I didn't believe her then, I'll never doubt her again.

Just as it was in Melbourne (and pretty much every city on the planet, except, perhaps, for Sydney), people who've lived in Cape Town forever are dying to get out. Apparently, paradise is just another dead-end town if you've spent most of your life looking at the breathtaking scenery there.

At least two South Africans in the last three weeks (since my arrival in their country) -- the boyfriend of my friend Dolores in Johannesburg and a publicist in Cape Town -- have expressed a burning desire to leave their beautiful country behind for greener pastures elsewhere. Everyone here seems to be obsessed with New York City, practically to Argentine proportions, but I have to keep reminding them that the grass is only green(er) in Central Park there. The rest of it is concrete.

When I suggested a change of scenery in Australia to the two restless South Africans, I figured that it would be easier to get a visa to relocate to another Commonwealth country than it would be to acquire one for an extended stay in NYC. Both of them shot me down: "That would be just like staying in South Africa." Their responses echoed each other.

Touché, I conceded after the second Oz rejection, but the more time I spend in Cape Town, the more I notice that it's only Melbourne with mountains on a superficial level. That might not be enough to make the grass down under any greener for South Africans itching to relocate, but it's enough to remind me that it's a long way back to there. What does Australia have that South Africa doesn't, and vice versa? Here's a list of 10 reasons why I no longer keep forgetting where I am.

1. Nobody calls me "mate" in South Africa. "Buddy" neither -- but I'm not complaining about that.

2. I haven't heard the phrase "hot as" to describe a sexually desirable person since the night before I boarded that direct Jetstar flight from Melbourne to Bangkok last June. I miss being "hot as." It has such a nice, colloquial ring, and it's much more colorful than a simple "Sexy."

3. Pedestrians apparently never have the right of way in Cape Town. In Melbourne, I used to get frustrated because cars would sit at the corner waiting for me to cross when I was still 50 meters away from the intersection. That meant I was constantly speeding up so they wouldn't have to wait too long. In Cape Town, I don't have to worry about keeping anyone waiting, because they won't. Cars race down mountains and turn corners like bats out of hell, pedestrians be damned if they happen to step off the sidewalk and into the way. It's actually a little like being back in Bangkok, minus the constant bumper-to-bumper traffic.

4. You don't have to take out a mortgage to enjoy a night out in Cape Town. I spent Saturday night downing Amstels, Jack and Cokes and shots of Jose Cuervo at Crew with friends, and the entire night out (taxi fare included) set me back only about $50. In Melbourne, it would have cost three times as much, though the guys would have been taller (1.85 meters and up up up), with more facial hair.

5. Speaking of tall, hairy guys in Melbourne, where are all the Bens, Nathans and Andrews in Cape Town? I still haven't come up with any defining first names here like there were in Melbourne, Buenos Aires (Federico, Alejandro and Sebastian, kiss, rinse and repeat) and Berlin (Alex, Alex and yet another Alex), but I'm working on it.

6. People actually dress weather appropriately in Cape Town. The climate here is frustratingly similar to the climate in Melbourne: In other words, expect the unexpected -- and bring a jacket, just in case. On yet another spring day in Cape Town that feels more like autumn, the only guy under-dressed in board shorts and Havaianas will probably be me.

7. Cape Town's DStv networks are obsessed with Fox/UPN U.S. TV from the '90s and '00s (Melrose Place, Half & Half, One on One, Sister, Sister, Arsenio Hall). In Melbourne, it's all about Nick-at-Nite-style series from the '60s and '70s (The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Love Boat, Green Acres). Frankly, I'd rather watch Maude, which, thanks to all of the YouTube episodes I watched in Tel Aviv, has replaced The Golden Girls as the vintage Bea Arthur sitcom that I'd rather waste an entire day laughing at.

8. Bilingual (and multilingual) rules in South Africa. Australians, like non-Hispanic Americans, are notoriously monolingual. Someone told me that South Africa is one of the most bilingual countries in the world, and every time I listen to (or eavesdrop on) conversations flowing between Afrikaans and English, or English and some other language I don't recognize, I realize that he's probably right.

9. In Cape Town, fish and chips, not chicken parma, seems to be the pub grub of choice for those who aren't in the mood for an ostrich burger. (It's all about chicken schnitzel here.) And at something like 55 ZAR ($5.50) a plate, the fish and chips at Long Street Cafe cost nearly one-fourth of the AU$20 that you'd pay for the chicken parma at Windsor Castle in Melbourne.

10. The other day when I spotted a squirrel scurrying across the street, I realized that it's been months since I saw a possum (or a kangaroo, or a wallaby, or a koala, or a bat, or a cockatoo). I'm going to have to book an African safari soon because I'm ready for some exotic wildlife. All of these dogs that look like the 21st U.S. President Chester Alan Arthur resurrected as a canine just aren't cutting it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Do You Believe in Shame?

This morning my friend Nancy in L.A. sent me another one of her provocative emails that always get me thinking. Today, she asked a million-dollar question: "Do you ever feel ashamed, or embarrassed at something you've done?"

Answering one-half of that was easy. I live my life in a perpetual state of embarrassment. I get a rush of blood to the head (thankfully, undetectable to the naked eye, which is one of the good things about being black) every time I'm using the pull-up bar at the gym, and my iPod falls out of my pocket and lands on the floor with a thud. I'm certain that everyone is looking at me, laughing on the inside and thinking, Clumsy fool!

But Nancy's wording was interesting. She asked if I ever feel ashamed or embarrassed by something I've done. If I know her -- and I know that I do -- she chose her words carefully and specifically. As embarrassed as I often feel in everyday life, it's generally not due to something I've deliberately done but rather something that's happened to me, either by chance or through the deliberate action of someone else.

Back when I was a Teen People editor, I used to edit a page in which celebrities and regular teens recounted their most embarrassing moments. I can't recall a single one of them at the moment, but I do remember that they often involved slips of the tongue and exposed body parts, none of which necessarily required deliberate actions by them, though I'm pretty sure a few of those body parts were revealed via someone else's practical joke.

Speaking of exposed body parts, one of my most embarrassing moments came when I was 8 years old and in the hospital undergoing neurological tests for chronic headaches. (My mother couldn't understand what her baby possibly could have to worry about that would cause his cranium to throb constantly, and the doctors were no help. My head pounds chronically to this day.) I was standing in my hospital room wearing nothing but a towel, and when the nurse came in to check on me, my towel fell down to the ground.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure that my 8-year-old self had nothing to be embarrassed about (and even less to expose!), but there you go. I've always been weird about my body, particularly when it comes to revealing that danger zone between my upper torso and my lower appendages (the ones I use to walk on -- get your mind out of the gutter!). No wonder the walking-around-in-public-naked dream is my most recurrent one.

Since the episode with the nurse, I've probably been embarrassed at least once a week. Like the scene in that hospital room, it generally doesn't involve any deliberate action on my part but rather some chance occurrence, like falling while I'm running -- or simply walking -- down the street, having someone's eyes linger too long on my gnarly toenails, having someone be publicly rude to me, or getting kicked out of a bar or club. The latter two might spring from something I've done, but what causes my embarrassment isn't my action but someone else's public reaction to it. Embarrassment is a party of two or more.


Shame, on the other hand, is a solitary experience, whether it involves a solitary experience or a group one (as was the case with Michael Fassbender's character in the 2011 movie Shame, pictured above). It's more internalized. It has deeper psychological roots, and it's longer term than embarrassment, revolving around how we view ourselves as opposed to how others do. A parent or a holier-than-thou type might say, "I'm ashamed of you," over something we've said or done, but what they're feeling is probably more fleeting disappointment than shame. When we're actually ashamed of someone, or embarrassed by them (say, a family member who's in prison or an alcoholic parent who sleeps around), it's typically over habitual behavior that we perceive as reflecting poorly on us.

That "me" in "shame" is there for a reason. Shame is personal, whether or not our own actions bring it about. But getting back to self-shame, unlike embarrassment (or being ashamed of someone or embarrassed by them), there doesn't have to be any witnesses involved. It's a private hell. I must be the most shameless person on earth because I can't think of the last time I've felt shame over anything I've done in public or in private. Maybe I'm just one of the lucky ones who lives a life that's beyond reproach.

Hardly. I might not be inclined to walk around with my head bowed in shame, but guilt is something with which I'm well acquainted. People tend to use guilt and shame interchangeably, but there are significant differences. Guilt is public, even when we grapple with it in private. Shame is much more personal. As I already pointed out, it doesn't necessarily involve another person, and it tends to have moralistic undercurrents.

Recently on Days of Our Lives, Victor Kiriakis and an unwitting Marlena Evans screened a sex tape showing Kristin DiMera and Eric Brady (Marlena's son) in flagrante delicto (after Kristin drugged Eric, therefore it was a rape in action) at the wedding of Kristin and Brady Black (Eric's stepbrother, Marlena's stepson). Yes, only on a soap!

I'm pretty certain that the overwhelming feeling bubbling over inside Eric, who, by the way, is a priest, was shame, and probably embarrassment, though not guilt. If he felt any guilt in that moment, it was probably not over the tape but due to the realization that he'd previously falsely accused his good friend Nicole Walker of the rape, based on some vague flashbacks of himself in bed with a tall blonde.

But as for the tape itself, to paraphrase Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, he had nothing to be guilty of. Like shame, guilt generally involves some wrongdoing (or what we see as wrongdoing), but it's our own. (There was also a Teen People column in which teens confessed terrible things they'd done that they had every right to feel guilty for, but I can't recall any of those misdeeds either.) A rape victim might feel shame for months, or years, after the assault, but it's the rapist, if he or she has any conscience, who should be wracked by guilt forever.

Guilt is a less personal experience than shame, as it actively involves other people and how they perceive us, or how they would perceive us if they were privy to our wrongdoing or whatever it is that's making us feel guilty. In addition to the legal angle that often accompanies it, guilt is as likely to involve inactivity as activity. We might feel guilty, for example, for not keeping in touch with our friends and family (which would be my primary source of daily guilt), or for not coming forward and admitting some crime, or over the actions of our forefathers toward some ethnic group. We talk about "white liberal guilt," not "white liberal shame."

Personally, I'd rather be wracked by guilt than by shame. You might not be able to undo a crime once you've committed it, but by confessing, you can go a long way toward easing your guilty conscience. And if no fatalities are involved, you might even get over it eventually. The shame, however, you'll have to carry around for much longer, possibly forever, like a tattoo. I wouldn't wish that burden on my worst enemy, and I'm thankful that I, to answer Nancy's question, have yet to experience it first hand.

And may I never do anything to deserve to.

Songs About Shame

"Shame" Evelyn "Champagne" King



"Shame" The Motels



"Shame" OMD



"Shame" Eurythmics



"Shame" Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow



"Shame, Shame, Shame" Shirley & Company



"Shame on Me" Donna Fargo



"Shame on the Moon" Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band



"Such a Shame" Talk Talk



"Do You Believe in Shame?" Duran Duran



Monday, November 25, 2013

Oh No! Not Another Cape Town Conversation About Black and White People!

You'd think that with all of the stunning scenery around here, there'd be much nicer things to talk about while admiring it, but here we go again.

Nature in Cape Town offers so many lovely shades of blue, green and brown, yet somehow, it seems, so many of the conversations I've had since my arrival in town two weeks ago, end up returning to the same old same old hues: black and white. I'm not blaming anyone for this because, frankly, those particular two colors are always on my mind here, too.

Sometimes, in fact, I find it hard to think about or see anything else. When the white American expat from Iowa who has been living in Cape Town full-time for 10 years first described my neighborhood of Tamboerskloof as being "very white," he wasn't saying anything I hadn't already thought to myself dozens of times. By the time he repeated this observation yesterday evening while we were driving to watch the sun set over Hout Bay, I'd heard and thought it myself so many times that it sounded absolutely banal. He might as well have been talking about the weather, which everyone in Cape Town tends to do as well.

Frankly, all of the constant talk -- and thoughts -- about black and white in Cape Town makes me uncomfortable, nearly as much so as usually being the only black person in the room and constantly being reminded of it in Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Bangkok once did. What was a much-welcome novelty 15 days ago in Johannesburg, this new sensation of blending into the crowd, is slowly becoming just another source of social unease.

I might be one of many black people in Cape Town, but that doesn't mean the color of my skin isn't the first thing that people notice about me. I'd been having trouble putting my feelings about this into words until last night when I was explaining to the American expat how life as a black man in Cape Town was different from life as a black many everywhere I've lived since leaving the U.S. and how my personal experience -- being the son of West Indian immigrants and growing up in the Deep South facing racism from both white and black people -- has affected the way I'm affected by Cape Town color dynamics.

That's when I finally nailed the point that I'd been trying to make to myself for two weeks: "The hard thing about Cape Town is how the black and white thing is always so in your face here, more so than it ever was for me in New York City." It's in the rampant segregation that's left over from the Apartheid era (and harder to ignore here than it was in Johannesburg because the greater white presence in Cape Town makes it more glaring), in the grim (all black) township standing right next to one of Cape Town's richest neighborhoods (all white, naturally) on the way to Hout Bay, in the borderline racist thoughts that, shamefully, creep into my head whenever two or three guys hog several machines at once or hover impatiently at my predominantly black gym (Zone Fitness on Strand), in the comments that white guys make to black guys on Grindr (like "tbh, you're the 1st black guy i've been turned on by" --  which someone actually wrote to my new black American expat friend from New York City yesterday).

At first, in Johannesburg, it was enlightening, educational. Now I just want it all to stop. I want to talk about something else. I want to think about something else. I don't like to encourage shallow people or conversations, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little relieved every time talk turned to how windy it is in Cape Town, or how the weather here is so unpredictable (something else it has in common with Melbourne).

As Morrissey once sang (on his 1991 single "Our Frank"):

"Wont somebody stop me
From thinking
From thinking all the time
About everything"

To be completely fair, it's not as if the American expat from Iowa and I didn't hit on a variety of topics yesterday. We covered everything from our backgrounds, to family dynamics, to parenthood, to mental health, to addiction, to panic attacks, to dating, to wanderlust, to real estate, but somehow the conversation always came back to black and white.

Along the way, I learned a fascinating lesson on black-on-black race relations in South Africa. I had no idea that there is so much friction between black South Africans and black African immigrants from neighboring countries. As it was described to me, it sounded like a mix of the way many Argentines regard people from South American countries like Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia (as inherently inferior), and the way the black Americans who tormented me when I was growing up thought of black Caribbeans (with jealousy because how dare we move to their country and do better than they were doing).

It made me wonder what is really going on in their heads behind the warm smiles and friendly greetings that black South Africans are always offering me. Are they sizing me up negatively, placing me in a black hierarchy based on my origins. Am I just another American to them? What do they think about Americans? Do they realize that I wasn't born in one of the 50 U.S. states, that my paternal homelands like many African countries had sprung from Caribbean colonialism by imperialistic European nations?

Perhaps the most astonishing revelation of the evening arrived when I pointed out that it once was my dream to adopt a baby from Tanzania. Years ago, I edited a Teen People feature on a teenage girl who completed an AIDS Walk benefiting kids in Tanzania, and I fell in love with the beautiful children in the photos. The American from Iowa was surprised. Tanzanians, he pointed out, were the least attractive of all Africans. It's a dishonor which, in his humble opinion, they share with another African country, but I was trying too hard to maintain my casual facial expression while wondering why he'd say such a thing to process the name of the other country.

As he started going down the list, beginning with the most attractive Africans (people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which he insisted on calling "DRC"), I was too shocked that he'd bothered to sort this out in his head to take in all the specifics of his countdown. When he commented that Ethiopian women are among the most beautiful females of the species, I wondered what he thought about the men there. (Incidentally, Dave, a straight Australian who has spent time traveling in Africa and used to live in Bangkok, said the same thing to me earlier this year without specifying gender and throwing Somalians into his too-beautiful-for-words mix.)

I wondered what the Iowan thought about me. Where did I fit into his hierarchy of black beauty (or ugliness)? Did I rate as high as the guys in Senegal? As low as the Tanzanians? Despite the strangeness of his commentary, it was obvious that he does indeed think that black is beautiful. And I quietly gave him kudos for recognizing that we don't all look alike. Walking through the streets of Cape Town, I often wonder if I'm blending in that way, too, for white passersby.

I wondered what the Iowan would make of the sexual discrimination against Asian men that I've encountered in Australia, Bangkok and the rest of Southeast Asia (from whites, blacks and other Asians, too), and how so many Westerners lump the physical characteristics of people from so many countries on the entire continent of Asia into one lookalike group based on the shape of people's eyes in some of its countries. Did you have to actually live and/or travel extensively in Asia, as he'd done in Africa, to notice the differences?

It was probably the one topic that we didn't touch on yesterday, nor did we organize Europe's countries according to the physical qualities of the people in them. I won't be coming up with hierarchies of European and Asian beauty any time soon, though. Even if I weren't totally over race, isn't lumping all of the citizens of one country under a hot or not column based on perceived physical characteristics of the entire populace (as if everyone in any one country all look alike) just as bad as doing it with an entire continent?

Friday, November 22, 2013

How to Get Over: The Ways to Unlove a Man (or Woman)

"My mother told me good
My mother told me strong
She said, 'Be true to yourself
And you can't go wrong
But there's just one thing
That you must understand
You can fool with your brother
But don't mess with a missionary man.'"
-- Eurythmics, "Missionary Man"

Good God, lessons in love! My mother has taught me a few excellent ones, too. The best and by far the most memorable of the bunch came on the morning after I broke up with my first boyfriend. I was sitting on the bed/twin mattress on the floor in my first New York City apartment, a small studio on Avenue B, sobbing and venting to her, wondering, What's next?

"What have I done, Mom?" I asked the wise, concerned parent at the other end of the line. "I'll never find anyone else. No one will ever love me like that again?"

"You're right," Mom replied. "No one will ever love you like that again. But you'll love again, and someone will love you again. It will just be in a different way. But it won't be any less meaningful."

Mom's words unlocked my confidence and evicted my self-doubt -- at least until my inferiority complex returned, once again offering it free room and board. Almost immediately, I began to feel better. I wasn't 100 percent certain that she was right -- at 23, perhaps this was the end of the line for me. But you gotta have faith, and thanks to my mother's sage counsel, I now I had hope, too.

Anyone who has ever loved and lost and loved again understands where she was coming from. Unfortunately, the dream of a bright future doesn't diminish the harsh reality of the present: Breaking up is hard to do. It hurts like hell. Yes, love will find its way back to you, but what do you do in the meantime, when you can't think of anything else but the one who just got away?

"The best way to get over one man is to get under another one" is an approach that most of us probably have considered, regardless of whether we're familiar with that crude aphorism. Alas, sexual rebounding is just a temporary fix. It only works for a little while. It's like going out and guzzling booze to wash away the blues. For a few hours, all is right with the world, but the morning after, when you're lying in bed, alone (or not), with a pounding headache, all of the hurt and regret is magnified. Random sex is no more the answer than getting smashed. I'm sure my mother would agree.

In the years since my mom schooled me in letting go, I've turned to six simple remedies to help ease, if not avoid altogether, break-up pain and soothe the soul during those sleepless nights that inevitably follow any break-up.

1) Delete his number from my phone. This is how I ensure that I won't text or phone exes in moments of weakness, and more importantly, it stops me from doing so after I've had a few to many tequila shots with a beer back in a vain attempt to delete him from my memory, too. (I haven't had to worry about de-friending and/or blocking my last couple of exes on Facebook because they saved me the trouble.)

2) Delete all of his emails. Nothing rubs salt in the fresh wound of a break-up more than crying over spilled milk while rereading old conversations looking for clues or, if your final argument was over email, reliving that painful last chapter. The harshness of words spoken subside in our memory over time, while the brutal written word becomes more sinister every time we read it, as we pile on context and hidden meaning. While I'm pressing delete, by the way, I lose the email address, too, just to curb the temptation to write. (I do, however, insist on keeping all photos and keeping them intact, for the point of deleting exes' emails is not to completely erase them from your past.)

3) Go for a run. I have some of my best imaginary conversations while engaging in aerobic road work. It not only clears my head, but the rush from those endorphins must boost my self-esteem. His loss, not mine!

4) Write him an email. But I now know better than to ever send it! (Which isn't a problem after I've done No. 2.) As a writer, I find it much easier to express myself in writing than orally, especially when standing face-to-face with someone, tongue tied, or when he's constantly interrupting my train of thought. For me, organizing my jumbled thoughts and putting them in writing is excellent therapy, but when the intention is to press send at the end, it's hard not to edit the expression of my raw emotions. That perfect grammar and painstaking punctuation might make it come across as less sincere, like a rehearsed or teleprompted speech. Better to keep it messy, real and too ourselves.

5) Listen to the music. No phony I've-got-my-shit-together anthems like "Believe" and "I Will Survive." That's denial with a beat. Go ahead and cry along to a tearjerker because sad songs say so much. And it's always good to know that someone else knows the pain you're struggling through, even if it means wallowing deeper in it. But I'm masochistic like that.

6) Go on holiday. Yes, it's running away from your problem, but sometimes a change of scenery also offers a new, healthy perspective. Living at the scene of heartbreak can be like staying behind in a burning building. As Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn sang on their great 1971 country hit (their first No. 1 as a duo), "There's nothing cold as ashes after the fire is gone." Get out while you still can -- at least for a long weekend.


Over the years, these approaches have worked with varying degrees of success, for they're one-time treatments that offer temporary solace, not the key to systematic behavior that's more likely to lead to long-term healing. It's the difference between popping a pill to offer relief from symptoms and sticking to a preventative and proactive treatment plan. How many letters that you'll never send are you going to write? How many trips will you take? Once you delete his number and all of his emails, it's not like you can continue to repeat those actions indefinitely.

David Vickers, a fictional character on the now-defunct daytime soap, One Life to Live, once described his interesting systematic approach to broken love. He said he pretends that his ex is dead. Once they break up, poof! They're gone. Just like that. If they're dead to him, there's no urge to call, send emails, or stop by in the middle of the night. After all, ding dong, the ex is dead. Nobody would be home!

While I appreciated David Vickers' getting-over-it routine, it seemed unnaturally cruel -- one step away from wishing your ex actually were dead -- and like the ultimate in denial (without the entertainment benefit of a disco beat or an Auto-Tuned sentiment). I could never go there. And what would you do when you bump into your ex on the street, or on a night out? Pretend you've seen a ghost? No how, no way. There has to be a better method to get over someone.

Ultimately, time is probably the best medicine. It heals all wounds. But what to do while waiting for the healing properties of time to kick in? How to deal with the obsessive thoughts, the uncertainty about the future, the nagging certainty that your best love is behind you?

Despite mom's wise words, that nagging certainty that I'll never again do better has been a consistent component of my emotional state following every break up since. For me, relationships are a lot like writing. Whenever I finish one big assignment (as I did two days ago), I lapse into a mini-depression. I worry if I'm good enough, if I'll ever be able to do it again. One of the reasons I blog is to keep convincing myself otherwise. If only there were an equivalent remedy for heartbreak.

I think I may have finally found one to use the next time I fall in and out of love. It came to me last night, not in a dream, but after one. Thank God, I fell asleep at 10pm because had I not, I probably wouldn't have been wide awake at 2.30am, watching 3 Talk with Noeleen on Cape Town TV's channel SAB3. I'd never seen or heard of the show in my life, but I was immediately drawn to the host Noeleen Maholwana Sangqu and her mellifluous South African accent. I'd listen to anything she had to say.

The format of the episode I saw was like a talk-show version of "Dear Abby," with an emphasis on love. Viewers wrote in their romantic woes, and Noeleen and a panel of four, not three, experts offered sage advice. All of them had interesting things to say to the viewer who was struggling to get over a bad break-up, but it was the words of motivational speaker and author Justin Cohen that showed me the light in the middle of the night.

"Focus deliberately on the negative about that person."

It's such simple advice, and it seems almost too obvious. But how many of us actually do that? We're often too busy idealizing our exes, reliving in our head the perfect relationship that never was, while focusing on the negative in ourselves. That's certainly what I was doing that morning in bed while I was crying over breaking up with my first boyfriend. That's pretty much what I've done at the end of nearly every relationship I've had since then.

I've always known when to leave -- when Justin said, "Just because we like someone doesn't mean they're right for us," he was preaching to the choir -- but when I leave with lingering feelings, saying goodbye is the easy part. Saying "good riddance," despite what I know in my heart, is tougher. Memories are tricky things. When they arrive in the form of nostalgia, we instinctively accentuate the positive, remembering the good times when perhaps we should be making a point of recalling the bad.

Think of it not as dwelling on the negative but rather, constantly reminding yourself of all the reasons why you broke up in the first place. Who knows? Maybe you'll even get yourself some brand new deal breakers and avoid dating the same mistake again.

"How Can I Unlove You" Lynn Anderson

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The '90s ARE Back!: 10 Reasons Why South Africa Is Making Me Nostalgic for Days of Thunder, Grunge and CrazySexyCool

Arsenio Hall As one of my high school friends pointed out yesterday when I mentioned The Arsenio Hall Show (version 2.0) on Facebook, "Woof, woof, woof!!" I had no idea that Hall's 1989-1994 syndicated late-night talk show had even been revived (as of September 9, 2013) until I caught its first two airings this week on South Africa's DStv's Sony channel. Immediately, I was taken back to my old flat-top days when (first) Joan Rivers and (later) Hall were the two comedians who offered me the best reasons for staying up past my 11pm bedtime on school nights. (Sorry, but Carson, Letterman and Leno were never my thing.) I don't know which impresses me more -- that Hall got another shot at the couch, or that at 57, he looks like he's barely aged a day since he was Eddie Murphy's BFF in Coming to America.

Arsenio's guests As much as I've always appreciated Hall's one-of-us approach (unlike other celebrity talk-show hosts -- see Queen Latifah below -- he's not constantly reminding viewers that he's famous, too), I'm excited about his return less for his still-intact congeniality than for how his guests make me feel like I'm twentysomething again. In his first two days back on the air, the celebs that Hall welcomed were almost exclusively products of the '90s: Chris Tucker, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Lisa Kudrow, with a dazed and confused-looking Tara Reid in the house. (On night two, musical guest Mac Miller, a rapper who was born during Hall's previous stint as a late-night talk host, was wearing plaid that could have come straight out of Kurt Cobain's closet circa '93.) All first made their mark in that decade, and Reid aside, all remain gainfully employed today, so the resurrected Arsenio Hall Show isn't just about nostalgia. And thank God, for one hour, I can pretend that Justin Bieber and One Direction were never born in the '90s.

Queen Latifah Like Hall, Latifah is once again chatting with the stars under a recycled name: The Queen Latifah Show, which also premiered in September, one week after The Arsenio Hall Show. Unlike Hall's new old post, Latifah's new old talk gig is another day job, though not a continuation of the original Queen Latifah Show (1991-2001). The most memorable thing I saw her do in the two episodes I've watched on SZone was literally give an audience member the shirt off her back, which doesn't make her the new Oprah, the former humanitarian Queen of Daytime. Frankly, I've never really gotten Latifah the non-rapper. Despite her Oscar nomination for Chicago, which was all about her singing performance of "When You're Good to Mama," she's a middling actress, and when she's interviewing people, she comes across as the half-interested friend who's thinking about the mountain of things she has to do later, like look for a new agent. She clearly would rather be somewhere else (in a hit movie?), and I'd rather be watching someone else, like Arsenio Hall.

Jerry Springer I was never a fan of The Jerry Springer Show, which debuted in 1991, shortly after I moved to New York City, and apparently is still soldiering on in syndication. I was living in the Big Apple, for God's sake. If I wanted to see grown people behaving badly, all I had to do was step outside. For Middle America, though, it was a new daytime talk concept, putting a then-unique twist on a creaky format, much as Springer recently did as the host of Baggage, a dating game that focused on potential deal breakers rather than compatibility. Still airing on South African TV (on DStv's Sony channel) despite being cancelled nearly two years ago after three seasons, Baggage is sort of like The Dating Game crossed with The Bachelor/Bachelorette crossed with Dating in the Dark crossed with Dismissed.

In the two episodes I've seen, two guys got to choose which bachelorette of three had the most tolerable baggage. This was clearly not The Millionaire Matchmaker, as the guys were neither rich nor particularly swoon-worthy, but I appreciated Baggage for what it said about how society changed in the decade between the '90s and 2010. Back in the day, a dating show featuring a black bachelor would have offered him three black bachelorettes to choose from, but in 2010-11, we got an Asian woman and two white women fighting over a chocolate brutha. How far we'd come.

Trisha Or not. I'd never heard of Trisha Goddard, a 55-year-old British TV presenter who looks at least 15 years younger, until I caught her talk show on Sony a few days ago. She's like a cross between Jenny Jones, Sally Jesse Raphael and Mother Love refereeing the sort of talk-show throwdowns that Jerry Springer made such popular TV-viewing sport in the '90s. Dirty laundry is aired, and fists fly on Trisha, but there are a few twists. Goddard plays scolding therapist as well as referee, coming across as Dr. Phil-lite, without the academic credentials, and she uses a lie detector and DNA tests to settle scores.

Judge Judy She's no Joseph Wapner, and Judge Judy is no The People's Court, but I love Judith Sheindlin's crankiness and her sideways glances (she's like the difficult boss that you're desperate to please and terrified not to) and her occasional sidebar comments to the bored-looking bailiff (in the episode I saw yesterday) who couldn't be bothered to treat her with anything resembling obsequious deference. Curiously, the two cases in that episode both involved incidents that happened in 1999, which explains why 71-year-old Judy still looked fiftysomething. Surprisingly, hairstyles (including Judy's) haven't changed so dramatically in the last decade and a half.

A Different World The other night, when a new acquaintance described the scene at Sophiatown Bar Lounge in Johannesburg as "1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920's jazz," it made me want to go to YouTube to watch old episodes of The Cosby Show spin-off that ran from 1987 to 1993. I recently saw Dawnn Lewis playing a doctor on Days of Our Lives (making her one of three black female '90s TV stars -- along with Any Day Now's Lorraine Touissant on The Young and the Restless and In the Heat of the Night and Melrose Place's Anne-Marie Johnson on Days -- to recently play doctors on daytime TV), but I wonder what Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison are up to, and how long it'll be before they're reunited on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Anaconda Before Jennifer Lopez became a global sensation, she was a B-movie star peddling dreck like this 1997 film, which also starred Ice Cube, who isn't even shown in the TV commercials for its airing on South African TV.

Pebbles As far as I know, you can't catch Wendy Williams' daytime talk show on TV in Cape Town, but it forever will be the city where, thanks to 2013 magic of YouTube, I saw one of my favorite late-'80s/early '90s pop-R&B divas resurrected. Pebbles stopped by to have her say on the allegations made in CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, the VH1 biopic that premiered on October 21, which I, sadly, haven't seen but oh so clearly need to. (Incidentally, it was she who introduced me to the trio, before TLC had even released its first single, at a Clive Davis-hosted Arista Records party in New York City in 1991.) I will love "Girlfriend" and "Giving You the Benefit" always and forever, but Pebbles, who evaded more questions about the TLC vs. Pebbles legal drama (pleading confidentiality agreement) than she answered and now has a 30-year-old pit bull of a daughter who could pass for her baby sister, is clearly hiding something. Where's Judge Judy when you really need her?


Jackee Harry I never watched a single episode of the sitcom Sister, Sister back when it aired in the '90s, but if I ever need a Jackee fix (and really, who doesn't?), I now know where to get it (Sony, again).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why I Think I'd Rather Climb Ev'ry Mountain Than Date in Cape Town

So this is what I've been missing?

That was my thought exactly when I read the digital display on the iPhone that my new acquaintance was holding up in front of my face. I wasn't sure what to think, but he clearly had an agenda. He wanted to elicit a specific response from me -- not shock, not outrage, but the ah ha! of enlightenment. He was waiting for me to finally get it.

We'd met two days earlier through a mutual friend, and we'd immediately found common ground. We were both gay black men from the United States who had spent a significant amount of time living and traveling abroad. A self-described "academic" (translation: professional student) whose specialty was African studies, he told me that he's been based in Cape Town for one year, but he's been coming to South Africa for 10. He seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Cape Town that was similar to the one I used to have with Buenos Aires (before the hate took over). We had a lot to talk about.

I told him about my experiences at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and how my background played into my reaction to everything I saw there. He nodded. He understood. I told him about Sophiatown Bar Lounge, and how on my final night in Joburg (or Jozi, as Cape Town locals also call it), the jazz scene there had reminded me of something out of the Harlem Renaissance. He knew exactly what I was talking about and described it as "1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920s jazz." Bingo!

I told him about the book that I'm working on, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, which documents my experiences as a gay, black man living abroad, with a focus on my various romantic entanglements over the last seven years. He got everything I was saying in a way that most of the (white) people I told about it never fully grasped because it hadn't happened to them. Nothing I said surprised him. He'd lived it, too.

When I saw him last night, he asked me about my experiences dating in South Africa so far. I was ashamed to say that I had nothing. I haven't been out on a date since my second week in Tel Aviv nearly two months ago, nor have I enjoyed (or not, which is typically the case these days, hence my inactivity) any romantic encounters in nearly just as long.

I go through these celibate, hermetic stages with increasing regularity as I get older. I suppose that years of romantic disappointment have taken a toll. That and the fact that I simply haven't come across anyone who has captured both my eye and my mind. I've seen plenty of attractive men, and I've even been pursued by a few of them, but I'd rather spend my nights in my own company than that of a relative stranger who is too busy wondering what I look like naked (or fiddling with his smart phone) to be listening to anything I'm saying. Been there, done that. I'm better off alone.

But I've occasionally wondered if I'm missing out while staying in. Not on any potential Mr. Rights -- I gave up on his existence ages ago -- but on new, fascinating stories to add to my gallery of exploits. I'm in South Africa, after all, a country in which I'm no longer the racial minority, the exotic forbidden fruit. There shouldn't be the same mystique about me here that there was in Argentina, or Australia, or Bangkok, or any of the places I've visited these last few years. 

I had imagined that if I were to dip into the Cape Town dating pool, my experiences might be a lot like they had been in the United States, where there were enough black guys to go around that nobody ever wanted me simply because they'd never had anything like me before. And South Africa's history of racism and segregation (both of which continue to be blemishes on the gay scene, judging from what I saw at Crew and Zer021 last Friday night) would see to it that I'm just as invisible among the white gay population here as I had been in the U.S.

I left the U.S. before the rise in social media, the acceptance of online dating, and the emergence of Grindr as the principal meet market for gay men, so I have no idea how the new technology would influence how guys back home would respond to me now. Grindr in South Africa, though, has offered more of the same old, same old in the proposals I've been receiving. (I've pretty much retired from making the first move because I deal with enough rejection in other areas of my life.) I easily could be in Melbourne or Bangkok or Berlin or Rome or Tel Aviv, the only difference being that for the first time, a few black men are thrown into the mix of guys who approach me. 

For the most part, the guys on Grindr in South Africa are, surprisingly, white. I'm not sure if the reason for this is social (homosexuality being less accepted among African blacks) or economic (African blacks being less likely to have smart phones with which to use the Grindr app), but the lack of a black presence on Grindr in South Africa has brought out the same response to me online as the lack of a black presence in everyday society brought out in every predominantly white or Asian city I've spent time in since 2010, whether I was online or off, surrounded by gays, straights or a mix of both.

I'm bombarded by the same indelicate messages from horny guys who are only looking for one thing. For many, my skin color continues to make me the fresh catch of the day. "So want a black cock!!" one guy, a tourist from Greece, indelicately announced, as if there weren't plenty of those to go around in Cape Town. (Tourists and expats, incidentally, appear to comprise a larger portion of the Grindr population in Cape Town than in Joburg, which might explain the resurgent awareness of "black" here.) Others, some South African, have resorted to the question that has been the bane of my bachelorhood for more than seven years: "Is it true what they say about black men?"

They make it so easy to lapse into dateless celibacy, which might be as much of a reason as the places I've been in for the peaceful easy feeling I've enjoyed these past two months. But sitting across from my new acquaintance who was inquiring about my impression of gay dating in South Africa, I felt uneasy because I had nothing to contribute. Then there was the Grindr conversation I was looking at. It was one in which he had approached a shirtless white piece of beefcake who appeared to be in the shower. My acquaintance began the exchange with a simple "Howsit?" followed by his own shirtless pose.

The second sentence of the guy's three-sentence response sent a chill down my spine:

"I'm sorry, but I don't cross racial lines in dating."

I was as disarmed by his perfect punctuation as I was by the declaration it had been wasted on. He simply could have ignored the message, or he could have offered some vague reason why he wasn't interested. Despite the formal tone, there was a certain level of hostility in his message. He came across like a well-educated bigot. I'd encountered plenty of those, though I'd never been rejected by a guy who specifically offered my color as the reason. 

"I guess that's the kind of reaction I'd get if I were online dating in the U.S.," I concluded. While allowing gay guys to hide behind fakery, Grindr has also had the effect of making them more brutally honest, often to a fault. Maybe the modern American gay guy who doesn't do black wouldn't have any qualms about bluntly saying so either. Could "I don't cross racial lines" be a delicate way of doing it without getting too specific and bogged down in "black" and "white," sort of like subbing "fun" for "sex"?

My new acquaintance begged to differ regarding the U.S. comparison. Clearly I didn't get it. This response, he pointed out, was uniquely South African, because it had the lingering thumbprint of Apartheid all over it. It wasn't just a personal choice, nor was it personal, not exactly. It was a cold, clinical reflection of the institutionalized racism and segregation that had defined South African society for decades. He hadn't said, "I'm not attracted to black guys," or "I don't date black guys." His specific wording (without being specific at all) seemed to imply that it wasn't just about preference or attraction but rather adherence to a long-standing principle. In his dating world, the events of the early 1990s in South Africa hadn't changed a thing. It might as well have still been 1984.

Wow. I hadn't even thought of that angle. I am, after all, new in South Africa, and he is someone who has had an entire year of dating experience in this country, plus his African studies, to influence how he contextualizes Grindr messages. He'd seen and read it all before. I thought I had, too, but this was a first for me. I was glad I had ventured out for a beer after a day spent climbing Lion's Head and scaling Signal Hill, if only to experience vicariously something I had no desire to live firsthand. 

I was even more grateful for my current dateless, sexless existence. I don't need ugliness like that ruining all of Cape Town's breathtaking views.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Can Spotless Minds Really Bring Eternal Sunshine?

Yesterday I had a Channing Tatum night. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean I spent it with someone who looked like Tatum, or as good as Tatum, or -- better yet! -- the real thing. Instead, I passed a portion of my Sunday evening marveling at Tatum's specimen of physical perfection on display in two of his three 2012 hits, The Vow and Magic Mike, which were playing simultaneously on two different South African DStv channels, while being underwhelmed by his acting range, or rather, lack thereof.

I'm no expert on his oeuvre, having now seen exactly four films starring or costarring Tatum -- She's the Man, Magic Mike, Side Effects and, as of last night, The Vow -- but judging from my personal viewing evidence, he seems to excel at playing hunky nice guys in bad-boy packaging because muscles and taut washboard abs scream bad to the bone. (Well, I suppose his white-collar criminal in this year's Side Effects was no pillar of society, but we caught up with him after he'd done his crime and his time, which, unfortunately for him, wasn't his final price to pay. Ouch!)

Although I missed the first 15 minutes or so of The Vow last night, having read the reviews last year when it was out in theaters (and on the way to becoming the sixth highest-grossing romantic drama in history, according to Wikipedia), I knew the back story. So I understood why there was so much quiet tension in the first scene I saw, the one in which Tatum's character, Leo, was about to take home his amnesiac wife (Paige, played by Rachel McAdams, who is a far more effective and exciting actress in brittle, bitch mode -- see Mean Girls and Midnight in Paris). If I remembered what I had read in those negative reviews correctly, the couple had been in a terrible car accident that left Paige without several years worth of memories after she regained consciousness. (Hey, what was Jessica Lange doing in this picture?! She's always welcome on my TV or big screen.)

Watching Paige stare blankly at Leo, I asked myself, "Where's the drama?" Was I supposed to feel sorry for a sleeping beauty who awakens from her slumber with no memory of a guy who looks like Channing Tatum standing over her, love and concern gushing forth from his eyes? There should be only one thing left to say: "Take me... home!" That lucky girl.

Of course, for the sake of drama, the movie pretended that Leo wasn't being played by one of the sexiest men alive, so Paige was torn. She didn't remember her beautiful, devoted husband, and her memory was being extremely selective when it came to her family (and how thrilled her parents, played by Lange and Sam Neill, appeared to be about that little twist), from whom she apparently had been estranged before the accident. 

Was she better off without all of the bitter memories of her terrible falling out with her folks and all of the pain it had caused, even if it meant that she didn't remember her own hot husband? At least she had her other selectively positive memories, the ones of her former love Jeremy (played by Scott Speedman), who was ready to pounce again despite now being spoken for. Channing Tatum or Scott Speedman? That lucky girl. Again, where was the drama?

I suppose the drama would be in losing huge chunks of your life and having people you don't remember telling you how important you are too each other. It must be like those mornings when you wake up momentarily not knowing who you are or where you are. Imagine if that confusion lasted all day, every day, indefinitely. Or waking up from a blackout night out, and having your friends tell you about all of the embarrassing things you did the night before, none of which you can recall. That must have been how Paige felt.

The Vow played as torture what had been the main goal for Jim Carrey's and Kate Winslet's characters, ex-lovers reunited in reverse, in the 2004 film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the later movie, we were meant to identify with the trials and tribulations of waking up with a blank slate, and in the earlier one, we were sold the benefits. Both had a similar effect on me. After watching them, I found myself dwelling on the pros of pressing delete on some of the sordid, but unforgettable aspects of my past. If I happened to have Channing Tatum hovering over me, vowing to get me through, all the better.

But now that I've had a night to sleep on it, I realize the folly of my desire to edit my own history. As much as I'd like to file away some of those low points in a place where I can no longer access them, I couldn't imagine the person I would be without them. Would I be as bland and cranky as Paige in The Vow? What would I talk about? What would I write about? What would I think about? It's as much my pursuit of happiness as my memories of sadness that drives me every day, makes me the person I am. Without one, would the other have any meaning?

I'd rather go on spending way too much time focusing on lost loves and hard times, if it means that I'll appreciate the good times ahead even more, if it guarantees that despite the occasional bout of writer's block, I'll always eventually have something to write about. Without your memories what is there to talk about, to laugh about, to cry about, to think about? 

The way I react to so many things in the present -- like my recent trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg -- depends on the personal history that I bring to my experiences. It might not always be pleasant, but as I learned yesterday, after a rainy, blustery Friday and Saturday gave way to a sunny Sunday, stormy weather makes clear skies appear even more blue.

I wouldn't want to forget the dreariness of the first half of the weekend because I'll need it for future reference, when the storm clouds roll in again. Then I'll remember that with weather, as with life, every time the rain starts to fall, a rainbow is right behind it. Sunshine always eventually follows.

"Sweetness Follows" R.E.M.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Burning Questions: The Cape Town Edition

1. Is there such a thing as comfortable underwear? Don't the steep inclines of Cape Town make walking around the city challenging enough? Ironically, I typed that first question as a commercial for the SZone South African television premiere of Magic Mike was playing in the background.

Unfortunately, going commando hasn't been an option for months, ever since I read an online article about Mad Men star John Hamm's manhood (so much M-M-M alliteration -- mmm!). The story went to great lengths to prove that Hamm is one of Hollywood's, er, biggest stars, offering photographic evidence featuring Hamm, with all that God bestowed upon him flapping freely behind the cotton curtain of his trousers.

Now that's investigative journalism at its most probing and scintillating!

Had it not been for the headline, I probably would have missed Hamm's battle with the bulge completely. My eyes never instinctively go for that area when I zero in on male passersby on the street, or when I look at photos of male celebrities, which is pretty ironic, because I don't believe I ever miss a woman's heaving bosom when it's peaking up and out over a too-low-cut top. Upon my arrival at Saffron Guest House in Johannesburg and Poyser Guest Suites in Cape Town, I was actually distracted from the gorgeous scenery around me because the women who checked me into both were attired in such a way that my eyes kept popping back to the grand canyons slightly down below.

I wondered if they feel that same way about bras that I do about tighty whities, boxers shorts and boxer briefs, none of which offer me much comfort while providing support. If they're not clumping up under my trousers, disrupting my clean lines, they're riding up into nether regions where the sun doesn't shine. Bras have always looked similarly uncomfortable and confining to me. Alas, after that John Hamm article, going au natural is out of the question, except for when I'm home alone. I'd always thought of underwear as being a strictly hygienic measure, but I now realize that it's about hiding a multitude (if you're lucky) of sins, too. My skin color already, um, raises enough burning questions. (Is it true what they say about black men?) Do I really need to arouse more?

2. Have I lost the will to party? Last night my friend Adriaan took me out on the town not only for the first time since I arrived in Cape Town but for the first time since about two weeks into my stint in Tel Aviv. I'd almost forgotten how brutal nightlife can be the morning after, which surely wasn't the case for at least one of our party companions, a 41-year-old recent arrival in Cape Town from Kentucky who told me he'd never had a hangover in his life. At first I was jealous, until I realized that hangovers were probably the one thing preventing me from falling into full-on alcoholism during my terrible twenties and thirties. It takes me too long to recover from a weekend of drinking to ever turn it into a nightly, much less, daily, habit.

But even if it weren't for hangovers, I'd rather stay in. It's not like I'd be missing anything new. Judging from the evidence I saw last night, the gay scene in Cape Town isn't much different from the gay scene in any of the other cities I've gone out in these past few months, only the drinks are cheaper (25 ZAR, or about $2.50 for an Amstel Light), and the bars seem to be more segregated. Blacks in one corner (Zer021), whites in the other (Crew). Unlike the two separate-but-equal main stories of DJ Station in Bangkok (locals and the foreigners who love them on the ground floor, foreigners and the locals who want them above), going back and forth between Zer021 and Crew, only a few blocks apart, wasn't an option in last night's pouring rain.

It was interesting to see how both sides party, separately. At Zer021, under way too-harsh lighting (or maybe the sparser crowd just made it appear to be brighter inside), they were selling communion over sex. At Crew, hunky under-clad bartenders, all white, most of them blond, smiled and strutted in slow motion behind the bar. At both, the same tired dance-pop provided the soundtrack.

Despite the laughter and the excellent company, I didn't love either place. When I woke up, I was thankful that a rainy Saturday (and a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of continued rain) would give me the perfect excuse to stay in later, which never would have been the case years ago, when the most violent nor'easter wouldn't have kept me out of Starlight on a Friday or Saturday night. Even if tonight were to bring clear skies and perfect going-out weather, I'd have no desire to return to either Zer021 or Crew. That king-size bed with all of the pillows on top is looking too comfortable. I'd rather be under its covers tonight and every other night of the week.

3. Is Cape Town really Melbourne with mountains? I've been saying it since my arrival, and last night, after I told a local where I live part-time, he said it, too. An African performance artist who was about to begin a two-week gig in Paris, he was well-traveled enough to immediately peg my American accent as Caribbean, and he had the pop savvy to recognize Rihanna as the most influential woman on the charts right now.

I'd add Cape Town's considerably lower cost of living to the shortlist of differences, but Cape Town is so Melbourne, which might be part of the reason why I immediately took to it. There's the quaint, colonial toy-story architecture style of Tamboerskloof and Garden, which reminds me so much of South Yarra (Long Street is Toorak Road with black people), the Atlantic Ocean view at the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront, which screams St. Kilda Beach, the excellent dining options, and the Woolworths supermarkets, but there's something more intangible, too, that I can't quite pinpoint.

Then there's my apartment here. The thick walls produce a springtime chill that tempts me to turn on the thermostat, much as the ones in my South Yarra place on the slope of Darling Street did last summer. I may be borderline freezing on the slopes of Signal Hill, miles away from anything I'd previously known, but it sure feels like home.