Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sentences That Changed My Life (RIP Maya Angelou)

Is it possible that as a man of words (at least that's what I aspire to be), I might be best remembered by my friends for ones I didn't even write? This became apparent to me after the May 28 passing of Maya Angelou at age 86, when several close friends posted on my Facebook timeline telling me that her death had made them think about me. One shared the following memory:
"Jeremy, I will never forget telling you about a painful boy breakup during our Teen People days and you telling me in my cubicle, 'The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.' One of my favorite quotes of all time, and I still live by that credo."
So do I. To this day, I carry it with me everywhere I go, across continents, decades and relationships. For one, it's succinct, which makes it extremely portable and easy to remember. For another, it's so damn true. It speaks to what I like to think of as my gift for accurately evaluating the character of people by seeing past facades, cutting right through them to the core, and then digging even deeper. Sometimes all it takes is one deed, one look, or one word. I listen. I watch. I learn. I believe.

Thanks to Maya's words of wisdom (as recounted by her friend and biggest celebrity cheerleader, Oprah Winfrey), nobody has ever hurt me more than once.
"When people show you who they are, believe them."
Some other masterpieces of literary expression (not written by Joni Mitchell, Morrissey, Fiona Apple, or Kubla Khan author Samuel Taylor Coleridge) that impress me, inspire me and sometimes make me want to toss my laptop out of the window because I'll never be able to express myself quite so eloquently...

"I can resist everything except temptation." -- Oscar Wilde
The first quote I ever loved. My mother bought me a blue sweatshirt with the slight rephrasing, "I can resist everything but temptation," written across the front of it when I was 7 or 8 years old, so I suppose it was she, not Morrissey, who kicked off my lifelong Wilde streak.

Other Wilde favorites:
"To be popular, one must be a mediocrity."
"Popularity is the crown laurel which the world puts on bad art."
For years, I misquoted Wilde, combining the two aphorisms into "Popularity is the crown laurel of mediocrity," which I actually prefer.

Then there is this incomparable passage from Salome, my favorite of all of Wilde's works.

HEROD: "The moon has a strange look tonight. Has she not a strange look? She is like a mad woman, a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers. She is naked, too. She is quite naked. The clouds are seeking to clothe her nakedness, but she will not let them. She shows herself naked in the sky. She reels through the clouds like a drunken woman.... I am sure she is looking for lovers. Does she not reel like a drunken woman? She is like a mad woman, is she not?"

HERODIAS: "No; the moon is like the moon, that is all."

"Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered." -- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
These sentences describe how Janie, the heroine of Hurston's Florida-set novel, felt after her husband struck her for the first time. It immediately became my favorite extended metaphor ever, until it was surpassed a few hours later by the one in the book's final sentences:

"She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see."
Notice a return of an idea from the previous passage, the inner-body experience, and then the image of coming in from the outside to see it. Brilliant.

"He began a sentence: 'I am --' but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he'd entered, he'd realize that the crumbs he'd dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds..." -- Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
And thus begins what is perhaps the longest sentence ever written, but before the mind starts to wander, it qualifies as a gorgeous stream-of-consciousness reflection of what it feels like to lose one's mind -- or one's train of thought, which is exactly what happens while reading the rest of the sentence, which adds to its genius. I once entertained a future boyfriend on the night we met by reading this entire paragraph from the first chapter to him in hopes of convincing him how awesome and maddening and perfect it was.

"God puzzled her and she was too ashamed of Him to say so. Instead she told Stamp she was going to bed to think about the colors of things.... By the time Sethe was released she had exhausted blue and was well on her way to yellow."
I was so moved by Baby Suggs' death scenes that I titled an entire section of my forthcoming book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, in honor of them: "Contemplating Color."

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster." -- James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
My book probably wouldn't exist without Baldwin's reflections on being black in a small-town Switzerland in the chapter "Stranger in the Village." I recently met a Zambian woman in Namibia who lives in small-town Norway with her Norwegian husband, and she described living a similar daily outsider existence. "I may not know any of them, but they all know me," she said of the Norwegian townsfolk who populate her everyday life. She didn't elaborate, but we both knew exactly what she meant.

"As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth." -- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
I've always appreciated the ideas behind the ideas more than the ideas themselves in Rand's work, and I find her writing technique to be somewhat awkward and occasionally unwieldy (understandable, considering that she wrote in English while her native language was Russian), but her prelude to a train crash in Atlas Shrugged may very well have been the single best sentence she ever wrote.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Mystery of Bob Marley: Why Didn’t Black Americans Really Get Him?

I've never been one to side with the masses. It's not that I agree wholeheartedly with what Oscar Wilde wrote -- popularity is not necessarily the crown laurel which the world puts on bad art, and whatever is popular is not always wrong, although that's frequently the case -- but just as I tend to root for the underdog, I gravitate toward the under-heralded. With music, this is self-evident in my taste in Bob Marley tunes.

One of the most curious realizations I've had in the last year, since I began revisiting Marley in Rome (thanks to Radio Capital TV's recurrent airing of the "Positive Vibration" video, which would become a key memory of my month in the Italian capital) is that the most iconic Marley songs are the ones that move me the least. They're also the ones that have launched billions of college parties and which I've always associated with beer bongs and frivolity despite their occasional lyrical gravitas. Until Rome, they were the extent of my knowledge of Marley's work, which explains why I was never much of a fan.

It wasn't until I started digging into his discography and discovered non-"hits" like "Talkin' Blues" (from 1974's Natty Dread), "Night Shift" (from 1976's Rastaman Vibration) and "Satisfy My Soul" (from 1978's Kaya) that I stopped taking his genius for granted and began to appreciate his music's hypnotic and addictive properties while succumbing to them, too. (The I Threes, which consisted of Marley's wife, Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt, may have been the most important '70s back-up singers this distaff side of the Pips.) Now Marley would certainly qualify as one of my Top 20 favorite artists of all-time, a relatively new ranking that has absolutely nothing to do with "Get Up, Stand Up," "Could You Be Loved" or "Three Little Birds."

"Talkin' Blues"


"Night Shift"


"Satisfy My Soul"


Shockingly, none of Marley greatest hits were actually U.S. hits. In the country of my origin, Marley enjoyed strictly modest commercial success during his lifetime. Although Legend, the 1984 posthumous Marley compilation that was released three years after his death from cancer at age 36, went on to become one of the most successful albums of all time, only one of his studio albums, Rastaman Vibration, ever entered the Top 10 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart. Meanwhile, his highest charting U.S. single, "Roots, Rock, Reggae" (from Vibration), hardly one of his best-known songs, peaked at relatively lowly No. 51, which means that one of the most beloved artists in music history, never had a Top 40 hit in the U.S.


Interestingly, in the U.K., where Marley lived for several years in the '70s, he enjoyed considerably more mainstream success, possibly partly because his London base made him more accessible for promotion there. Overall, he's made nine appearances in the Top 10 of the U.K. singles chart, with several more songs reaching the U.K. Top 20. Each of his studio albums from 1976's Rastaman Vibration to 1983's Uprising placed in the U.K. Top 20, with Legend, one of his three Top 5 compilations, soaring all the way to No. 1.

This underscores the appeal of Marley, and of reggae music in general, among white audiences. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that in the United States, Marley's legend is largely due to his popularity among white audiences, especially after the release of Legend, which you'd probably be more likely to hear playing in a club in Buenos Aires (as I have) than at an all-black party in the States. Even during his '70s heyday, black American audiences embraced Marley far less than one might have expected them to embrace a world-renown black artist writing and performing with such an Afrocentric point of view. It was a commercial shortcoming that wasn't lost on Marley and one that troubled him tremendously.

His lack of African-American support has always been perhaps the biggest Marley mystery of all. In the '70s, there were a number of notable black artists -- Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass, among them -- who, despite limited crossover success, were enormously popular with black audiences, which translated to considerably higher peaks on the R&B charts than on the pop charts. But from 1976 on, Marley wasn't significantly more successful on the American R&B charts than he was on the Americans pop charts, and in some cases, less so. Legend peaked at No. 18 on the Top 200 album chart but at a mere No. 34 on the R&B album chart, and Rastaman Vibration, his highest-charting effort on both the pop side and the R&B side, peaked on the R&B album chart at No. 11, three notches lower than it did on the Top 200.

Racism and musical segregation during the '70s might have prevented Marley from enjoying greater success in the white American market during his lifetime. His only association with a U.S. No. 1 single was via Eric Clapton's cover of "I Shot the Sheriff" on Clapton's 1974 461 Ocean Boulevard album, and reggae as a genre has historically been a mainstream force in the U.S. mainly through white British reggae-revivalist acts like The Police, Culture Club and UB40, the watered-down reggae of Maxi Priest and Big Mountain, and "Master Blaster (Jammin')," a 1980 Top 5 Marley homage by Stevie Wonder, one of the few black artists who was able to overcome the musical apartheid of the '70s and early '80s and enjoy sustained mainstream pop success.

Meanwhile, I would credit Marley's lackluster commercial standing in black America to the foreignness of his music and performing style (he could be a stunning singer, but his focus wasn't on coloratura and melisma, those vocal pyrotechniques on which black American music lovers tend to place such a high premium), and perhaps, in part, to his Jamaican heritage. Growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, I experienced xenophobia from black Americans firsthand. Despite my having been born in the U.S.A. (in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to be exact), I was ostracized by the black people around whom I grew up because of my strange accent, which they all assumed was from Jamaica. They'd call my family "noisy Jamaicans," which was tantamount to being called the N word by white Americans, while literally throwing stones at our glass house.

When I look at Marley's separate standing with black Americans and white Americans, the latter of whom began to embrace him en masse only after the release of Legend, it makes more sense when I consider my own experience. In South Africa, however, 35 years after his death, Marley's music continues to resonate with black Africans. The Marley soundtrack at Cafe Mojito, a restaurant on Long Street, one of Cape Town's most popular strips among its black and "coloured" population, has been largely responsible for expanding my appreciation of Marley.

I suspect that he was and continues to be beloved by blacks on this continent partly due to his acknowledgment of Africa-specific strife in songs like "War" and "Zimbabwe," a literal Afrocentrism that no doubt spoke to black Africans in the '70s in much the same way that rap and hip hop would to black Americans in the '80s. Emphasizing spirituality and political awareness, Marley was talkin' 'bout a revolution under the influence of ganja (the revolution and/or Marley). His songs of freedom and redemption were, for the most part, quiet and contemplative, with a gentle lilt that contradicted their calling to arms, while rap, with its emphasis on social awareness, made louder, brasher, more in-your-face declarations.

Marley's approach may have seemed too soft for black Americans. Even as they were being galvanized by the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy, reggae continued to fall well below the radar, and sadly, would only reach the black American masses in the '90s and beyond, through the apolitical and considerably less profound work of artists like Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, Mad Cobra and Sean Paul, all of whom fused reggae forms like dancehall and ragga with hip hop and all of whom had bigger singles in the U.S. than Marley ever did. (Despite a brief moment of popularity in the late '80s and a No. 39 single with "Tomorrow People," Marley's eldest son, Ziggy, never achieved even a Julian Lennon level of commercial success.)

That's a shame because it's hard to imagine that rap would have flourished as such a powerful social and political musical art form without the antecedent of Marley (and Wonder and Marvin Gaye), and the influence of reggae can be found all over contemporary pop and R&B, particularly in the work of Rihanna, who, tellingly, is probably a bigger star in white markets than in black ones. "Roots, Rap, Reggae," Run-D.M.C. announced on a song from the rap trio's landmark 1985 King of Rock album. It would be nearly 30 years before I discovered that they lifted that title from Marley's biggest U.S. hit, which means that despite the apparent under-appreciation of Marley's music among black Americans, some of us were truly listening.

Now so am I, and I'm finding it impossible to stop, which is one thing about Marley that's no mystery at all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

So Many Jennifers!

Jennifer: According to Wikipedia, it's a Cornish variant of Gwenhwyfar that possibly means "white fairy," "white phantom," "white ghost" or, simply, "white," which might explain why Miss Hudson aside, you rarely find black women named Jennifer.

Did you know that Genevieve and Guinevere are variations on Jennifer, as is Gaynor, which means that Gloria Gaynor and Janet Gaynor are/were Gloria Jennifer and Janet Jennifer, technically and respectively? So is Geneva, which means that the city in Switzerland can go by Jennifer, too. And when you consider that Gwen is a shortened form of Jennifer's origin, you start to realize that Jennifer in all of its forms just might be the most pervasive female name this side of Mary.

Indeed, did you know that Jennifer was the most popular given name among newborn girls in the U.S. between 1970 and 1984, possibly because it was the name of the character played by Ali McGraw in the 1970 film Love Story, which was not the first movie to feature an Oscar-nominated actress named Jennifer or one playing a Jennifer, and far from the last. (The Oscar-winning Jennifers include Jones, Connelly, Hudson and Lawrence.)

I once saw an episode of the MTV animated series Daria in which Daria Morgendorffer and her best friend Jane Lane* were trying to get into a party but weren't on the guest list. Jane calmly told the guy at the door that her name was Jennifer. He glanced at the list, and they were in! When Daria asked how she did that, Jane said something along the lines of "There's always someone named Jennifer."

She could have been talking about Hollywood, too. While I haven't hung out with a preponderance of Jennifers at any one time in real life (despite having eight Jennifers as Facebook friends, including one of my former roommates in Jersey City, N.J., and another who was one of my best friends at the University of Florida), or encountered a gaggle of them at any party I've ever been to, I haven't spent much time in Hollywood. If I lived there I might not be able to cross Sunset and Vine without bumping into yet another Jennifer.

So you want to be a Hollywood star? Try changing your name to Jennifer. It's possibly the most frequently recurring name among Oscar-winning actresses, and variations of Cate/Kate/Catherine/Katherine/Katharine and perhaps Julie/Julia/Julianne/Juliette aside, I can't think of a given name and its associates that have been bestowed upon more leading female talent. Because I live to list things, and I have nothing better to do at the moment (or perhaps because I'd just rather continue to put off doing everything I should be doing right now), I've come up with a list of famous Jennifers, including the aforementioned Oscar winners.

(*Though Jane -- more or less the feminine equivalent of John, and considering its overlapping variants with Jennifer, probably a distant relative -- is now more associated with B-and-below talent than in the days when Jane Fonda ruled, it's still pretty big in entertainment when you consider its myriad variants. They include Hana, Hanna, Ivana, Ivanka, Jana, Janet, Janice, Jayne, Jean, Jeanette, Jeanne, Jeannie, Jenni, Jennie, Jenny, Joan, Joanna, Joanne, Johanna, Jonie, Juana, Juanita, Nana, Shana, Shauna, Shawn, Shawna, Sheena, Sinéad, Siobhan and Vanna, among many others.)

Jennifer Aniston

Jennifer Beals

Jennifer Connelly

Jennifer Coolidge

Jennifer Ehle

Jennifer Esposito

Jennifer Finnigan

Jennifer Garner

Jennifer Grey

Jennifer Love Hewitt

Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Jones

Jennifer Jason Leigh

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Morrison

Jennifer Nettles

Jennifer Warnes

Jennifer Love Hewitt

And let's not forget...

Jenna Dewan

Jenna Elfman

Jennie Garth

Jenifer Lewis

Jenny Lewis

Jenna Malone

Jenny McCarthy

Songs About Jennifers

"Jennifer Juniper" Donovan


"Guinevere" by Crosby, Stills and Nash


"867-5309/Jenny" by Tommy Tutone


"Jennifer" Eurythmics

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why I'm So Over "Selfies" (The Word and the Photos!)

A mirror and a little distance might be a selfie's best friends.
My worst enemy: the close-up selfie!
Please, no more.

I'm not talking about food pics on Instagram, which has apparently hastened their decline on Facebook -- at least in my News Feed. But since I'm on the subject, let me continue for a few paragraphs: Going from Facebook staple to Instagram staple is just the relocation of an annoying trend to a new house with cool special effects. Yesterday, I had to "unfollow" someone on Instagram because I was tired of scrolling past pictures of everything he was about to eat.

I know my distaste for food pics puts me firmly in yet another minority. As I've said before and will probably continue to say until I choke on it, I'm just not a foodie. Cooking shows bore me, and if presentation is everything, for me, it's not when it comes to food. Unless it's weather-related, fleeting beauty doesn't interest me. No matter how elegantly a dish is presented, we all know what the food -- and the plate from which it is eaten -- will look after it goes down. Furthermore, I'm generally completely indifferent to what the person sitting across from me in a restaurant is eating, so why would I care what an online acquaintance (and barely that) on another continent had for dinner last night?

(If anyone knows how to hide people from your Instagram "timeline" the way you can on Facebook, please fill me in. "Unfollowing" makes me feel like such a bastard.)

Today, though, I'm raging against another social-media annoyance: the dreaded, dreadful selfie. To be honest, I'm not sure what I object to most about them: the extreme narcissism involved in constantly taking photos of yourself, or the word "selfie."

How silly does "selfie" sound? It reminds me of those cutesy Aussie-isms -- "brekkie" for breakfast, "matey" instead of mate -- that might be the only thing I hate about the land down under. What are we, 7? Can't we just say the whole word? "Self-portrait" sounds so much more elegant and flattering. But then, when I think of self-portraiture, I think of Vincent Van Gogh or the most sublime example of it from Pablo Picasso's "Blue Period" (right). A framed print, which I purchased at the Musée Picasso in Paris (along with the sculpture garden at the Musée Rodin and crepes, one of the few things I loved about my three holidays in that greatly overrated city), used to hang in my New York City apartment. I suppose we wouldn't want to associate "selfies" with genuine works of art!

I can remember when there wasn't even a word for them. That was a few years ago in Buenos Aires when my friend Luciano and I used to make fun of twentysomething Argentines for constantly taking photos of themselves and their entourage with the digital cameras that they all seemed to carry everywhere. (This was before smart phones with camera apps made them virtually obsolete, the same fate that befell CDs, land lines and probably those photo booths that produced the precursors to selfies.)

Back then, I just chalked it up to Argentine self-absorption. I still do. But now I have to grudgingly give them credit for being ahead of the curve. As if inventing tango didn't contribute enough to their already oversized egos.

I'm not sure when these snapshots became known as "selfies." For months, I saw the word everywhere but I never gave any thought to what it was referring to until Oscar night 2014, when it started trending on Twitter, en route to becoming a permanent part of our lexicon. (I suppose we also have The Chainsmokers and their 2014 Top 20 hit "#SELFIE" to thank for that.) It was a cute running gag in the hands of Ellen Degeneres, but the one that became the talk of the Oscars just confirmed what I suspected well before I knew what a "selfie" was: They're unflattering to almost everyone, even Hollywood stars. (Is it me or did Lupita Nyong'o's brother come out looking the best in that one?)

I guess it's less that people in group selfies look technically bad than that they look too desperate to be a part of them. (And that would include Lupita's brother most of all.) Anything that has the power to make Channing Tatum look like a chump who's trying to squeeze his way into a celeb photo -- I didn't even know who that head between Jennifer Lawrence's and Julia Roberts' belonged to until one of my blog readers pointed it out to me -- can't be good.

But alas, that appears to be just the unfortunate selfie fate of Channing Tatum and me and most people. There does exist, however, a select few who can actually rock a selfie as effectively as any professional photo shoot. They might be the biggest reason why I dislike them as much as I do.

By looking so good in primitive self-portraits, they just remind me of all the physical flaws that make me look like an alien in my extreme close-ups. I admit it: That's another reason why I had to delete that food-pic offender from my Instagram feed. His meals weren't the only thing he was obsessed with documenting. What kind of person is constantly taking photos of himself, or herself? (Though in my social media circle, the selfie seems to be a largely male obsession.) And what kind of person has the nerve to look so great in them?

If his food pics made me hungry, his selfies made me insecure. In mine, my jaw area appears to become twice its already-unfortunate size. Aren't there enough ego crushers on Facebook, plenty of proof that everyone else has it so much better than we do. Must social media also have to make us look bad, literally? Haven't I -- um, we -- suffered enough?

I guess I could always continue being my regular bastard self and just revel in the fact that he's the exception, and I'm the rule. Years from now we'll look back at selfies and reconsider the retro pics from the '70s and '80s that we now mock as being the height of our poser days. Until then, I'll have to learn to just cringe and bear selfies and remember, better an unflattering (or too flattering) self-pic than yet another sweet treat or perfectly arranged salad.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Pretty Rosebud Breaks Free

"O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy."

-- The Sick Rose by William Blake

As you might have guessed from the above invocation, today's blog is penned not by our illustrious columnist, but by his friend Nancy, whom Jeremy has graciously permitted to be a guest contributor.

Keeping in harmony with the themes and spirit promoted in Theme for Great Cities, the subject on which I am writing today is Pretty Rosebud, a new movie written by, produced by and starring my very dear friend, Chuti Tiu (The Internship). Pretty Rosebud won numerous awards at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema, including Best Film, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. On May 18, Pretty Rosebud will be screened at the Cannes Film Market (Marché du Film).

Chuti and I first met in the mid-'90s, when we were across-the-hall neighbors in Los Angeles. I liked her from the start. A recent New York transplant, I tried to get in and out of my apartment unseen. This went on for a matter of weeks. Eventually she intercepted me. Introducing herself with the same beautiful smile that had persuaded the state of Illinois to give her a title, Chuti handed me a UPS box containing some kitchen items I'd purchased at Bloomingdale's for which she had signed. I then met her tortoiseshell cat, Diva, whom Chuti had rescued from abandonment.

On getting to know her, I learned Chuti was kind and friendly to everyone -- even this half-crocked, ill-tempered old woman in our building whom the rest of us avoided. I also learned Chuti was a feminist and a Northwestern grad, and that she had recently moved here herself from her native Midwest. With a shared love of cats and a fondness for Frangelico, she and I became fast friends. So now that she is starring in a new movie, I am helping her to spread the word.

Pretty Rosebud is the story of Cissy, a woman who is enduring, rather than living, a life. Like the subject of Blake's poem, her exterior beauty masks a corrosive interior pain. In Cissy's case, the pain is caused by her inability to express how she feels. To the outside world, her life seems perfect (handsome husband, good job, loving family). The reality is, of course, quite different. Yes, her husband is a looker, but being out of work for two years has made him depressed and withdrawn. Yes, she is successfully marketing an up-and-coming politician, but his consistent advances are wearing on her. Yes, she has devoted parents, but their incessant pushing their "Rosebud" to "have little rosebuds of your own" is irritating at the very least.

Why doesn't Cissy bonk the womanizer over the head, kick her husband in the butt and tell her parents to F-off? Because that's not what good girls do, certainly not those from a strict, Asian, Catholic household. Such girls do not speak out, unless it is to the family priest (indeed, the confession scenes are some of the best in the movie).

In Cissy's case, she instead acts out by having extramarital affairs. Not soft, gentle sex: Sweaty sex with a guy who works in her office building -- in his car. Gritty sex in the locker-room after a kick-boxing lesson with her instructor (played by Chuti's real-life husband, actor Oscar Torre (The Hangover Part III), who also directed the movie). The story is how and if she can break free of the repression, of the self-loathing; in short, to become a rose that is not sick.

The movie left me with a lot of questions, so I sat down with Chuti for an interview. Here is what she had to say:

It was hard for me to watch this beautiful woman in such pain. Did you want to make people uncomfortable?

"One of the things I hope people understand are Cissy's and Phil's [her husband's] avoidance tactics. He sleeps, plays video games, gambles. She acts out sexually, but her form of acting out just as easily could have been shopping or alcoholism. She takes no pleasure in it; it comes from an angry place. The first time, okay, maybe fun, but cheating becomes more and more unpleasant to watch.

These are two people on a path that is totally diverging; they're similar but both lost. They aren't reaching out to each other anymore. She tries in the beginning, but he doesn't respond. Had he reciprocated, there'd be some hope. At least they'd still be playing. But if the balls just drops... It's a very uncomfortable place."

So many of Cissy's problems come from men hitting on her. Most women don't have that problem. Do you think unattractive women can relate to Cissy?

"I hope so. I'm not sure. I have faith in women in general -- women feel each other's pain more than men can. The situation is that Cissy's miserable, and she's in an unhappy marriage -- that's something I think a number of women can relate to. On top of that, she's the sole bread-winner and feels as if there's too much responsibility placed on her shoulders; that's something that both men and women can relate to.

And I don't think everyone has to have the same experience to relate. A friend of mine who is gay saw the movie and told me that he was a 'recovering Catholic.' He'd been told all his life how being gay was wrong, which made it so much more difficult to come out. Regardless of age or gender, everyone needs to find their true calling. It's about finding and listening to your gut."

You're a former Miss America contestant and America's Junior Miss. You once told me that due to your pageant training, you felt you couldn't be yourself around people. You couldn't speak your mind. How much of Cissy's repression comes from your pageant background?

"One percent. Ninety-nine percent of it was being Asian.

Pageants were a great vehicle for expression of what was already there. Always put your best foot forward. No matter how bad the situation, you must set an example. That is part of the Asian culture as well. It's about proving yourself, about excelling. Being Asian in the Midwest was also an issue. There weren't tons of us, definitely not commonplace. I felt the need to prove things to prove that I fit in."

Oscar mentioned at the premiere that it was important to make Cissy likable.

"We worked at that. We did things like cut out moments where she cried, because she couldn't cry throughout the entire movie, even though she was in a lot of pain. We didn't want her to look melodramatic."

Did you like Cissy?

"I want to say yes. I felt sorry for her and her pain, the growth she needed to go through. As an actor, I don't choose to like or dislike my characters. I don't want to judge them.

A friend came up to me after one of the screenings, and she couldn't stop crying. She said that she saw so much of her life: her family, her culture and its drama and secrets. I told her that I wrote the story for people like her, so that her story could be shared, and that other people could listen."

Why make this movie now?

"I couldn't have made it sooner. With new technology, we were able to shoot the movie in 2011 for a lot less than if we'd done it ten years ago, even five years ago. We shot it on the Canon 7D and 5D over sixteen days. I started writing the script as a stage play in 1999 and converted it to a screenplay in 2001. Plus, I didn't know the people who helped me to make the movie back then. I met our producer Rebecca Hu in 2009, when I was working on a documentary called I [heart] Hollywood, which is about actresses wanting to make their dreams come true."

Having made the movie, how do you feel now?

"After principal photography, I had a huge sense of self. This is a milestone that I had to accomplish to be happy with myself. Now that I've gotten the first film under my belt, making more movies is less daunting. I'm excited to keep creating."

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Burning Questions: The May Edition (Featuring Jay-Z Vs. Solange, "Revenge" and Katherine Heigl)

How different would the fallout from "Hate in an Elevator" -- Jay-Z vs. Solange featuring Beyoncé -- have been if Jay-Z had been the attacker, not the attackee? On daytime TV, it's okay for women to drug men and rape them, and in real life, they can physically assault them and be rewarded with their best press week ever. Solange has never warranted the kind of coverage she's been getting since "#WhatJayZSaidToSolange" -- which seems to place the blame squarely on the rapper -- became the hashtag of the moment. (Click here to watch the entire altercation.)

Chris Brown would probably kill (a guy because his career could possibly get away with that) for all the Solange-is-a-badass props she's been getting. The Village Voice even ran an entire piece criticizing the digs at her career because anger management is less important than great songs. I agree that her music deserves more respect, and in those few minutes in that elevator she was a lot more interesting than her big sister has ever been (if a bit too Jerry Springer for my normal tastes), but I'd stop short of hailing her as the next action heroine.

In related burning questions, is it me, or was that the longest elevator ride ever? Wouldn't a stairway to heaven have gotten them there more quickly?

Can any random person have you committed? I loved the third-season finale of Revenge. The final two episodes was some of the best TV I've seen all season (R.I.P. Aiden Mathis and possibly Conrad Grayson, played by the astoundingly talented and underrated Henry Czerny). The Graysons' comeuppance has been a long time coming, and after three years of witnessing their dastardly offenses, it was thrilling to see Victoria Grayson finally get hers. (Memo to the powers that be at General Hospital, aka the house of Ava Jerome: If you're going to have a major character commit unspeakable sins, she's much more rootable and viable if she has to pay the piper for a few of them.)

But I really had to suspend my disbelief to buy the final scene. Can any random person stage an elaborate crime, knock me upside the head with a shovel, pin the crime on me, convince the authorities that I'm mad, and have me committed without a single family member present? I realize that Emily Thorne/Amanda Clark enlisted the assistance of Victoria's turncoat ally/"shrink" for her credible professional opinion, but would that flimsiness actually hold up in the state of New York?

Is Nick Fallon really dead on Days of Our Lives? I have a theory: He staged the entire thing. The show recently made a point of including a talk-to-himself scene in which Nick sketched his devious plot to make all of his enemies pay. "They won't even see it coming," he said -- or something to that effect.

The odds are in favor of a murder hoax Stefano DiMera-style. First, I've read no official reports that Blake Berris is leaving the show, and considering how all of the recent impending Days departures have been such breaking news (from Chandler Massey's to Camila Banus's to Alison Sweeney's to James Scott's), wouldn't BB's departure have been right up there? Also, how does one get three shot three times, collapse to the ground and then manage to get from the park to Horton Town Square -- a 10-minute trip on foot with no gunshot wounds, as Detective Hope Brady so astutely pointed out -- just in time for all of the suspects to convene there? I mean, this on-the-brink of death guy wasn't crawling, he stumbled into that town square still upright.


The big twist was his contrite phone call to Dr. Marlena Evans saying that he wanted to change his evil ways. That couldn't have been part of his master plan since if it was, there would have been no need for those very sincere-looking tears. (Make that penultimate stand the highlight of your 2015 Daytime Emmy reel, Blake!) Was it already too far in motion -- like EJ and Sami's planned hit -- to rescind? All will be revealed in time no doubt. This is one "murder" mystery I'm looking forward to, and I generally hate murder mysteries.

Speaking of things to hate, why does everyone seem to despise Katherine Heigl? This is something I've been wondering for a few years now. (Click here to read my 2010 True/Slant post on the subject.) Is it because she was, for a while, so successful, or is it because of her lack of respect for the Grey's Anatomy creator, writer and executive producer (one Shonda Rimes) who made her a star?

While I can appreciate Heigl having to eat humble pie and crawl back to prime time after her short stint as a mid-level box-office draw, the generically titled State of Affairs actually looks a lot better than the fellow NBC fall offerings from Kate Walsh (Bad Judge, speaking of lame titles) and Debra Messing (The Mysteries of Laura). I love the chemistry between Heigl and the great Alfre Woodard in the trailer, and revenge, that dish best served cold, is always in season, so it's very possible that Heigl's career trajectory is about to swing upward again.

For the record, I still like Heigl, especially after recently seeing Knocked Up for the first time. She has a limited range and always plays the same girl, but she plays her well. I'd rather spend an hour or two with her than with Jennifer Morrison, a thoroughly unappealing actress who, despite having no discernible fan base, has been gainfully employed for most of this century, first on House, then on How I Met Your Mother, and for the last three TV seasons, on Once Upon a Time (on whose set, I've been told by a very good source, she is quite the mean girl). Now hers would be a hate club I could totally get behind.


Why am I still surprised, then indignant, every time someone on Grindr asks that dreaded thing? 



Why does time both fly and crawl? Sometimes time goes so slowly that it feels as if I've lived an entire life in one day while other days (most days), it seems to take only an hour or two to get from noon to 6pm (which might very well be because I'm not spending those hours clockwatching while chained to a desk in an office). My six months in South Africa so far feel like they've gone by in a flash, as has the first half of my forties, but when I think of all I've done in the last five years -- circling the globe several times, traveling to three continents (Australia, Asia and Africa) for the first time and also living on them, hitting numerous new cities and countries, selling two apartments, finding and losing the love of my life (so far), writing countless blog posts, articles and a book, and having every single one of my Grindr experiences -- 40 seems like a lifetime ago. I'm praying that the five-year march to 50 will be the slowest procession ever, on all counts.

Monday, May 12, 2014

6 More Things I'm Loving Right Now

1. Namibia's Atlantic Coast The "Go West" command has never resonated quite like it does in Namibia. After a weekend in lackluster Windhoek, my four days and five nights to the left in Swakopmund turned my birthday week around. Sure the sunset-to-morning fog that shrouds the town on a near-daily basis can give it an eerie, intimidating effect (it wasn't until it lifted the morning after my arrival that I began to appreciate Swakopmund's German-accented appeal), but it also contributes to the entire area's distinctive character, which was so lacking in Windhoek. I wouldn't want to live there, and Village Cafe might be the only thing I'll miss about Swakopmund a week from now, but it was a fascinating place to turn 45.


2. The Namib Desert As a solo traveler who prefers to improvise and plan as I go, I had two strikes against me in Namibia. Unless you're willing to rent a four-wheel drive and brave Namibia's occasionally difficult terrain (which is not exactly my idea of a relaxing holiday), you're at the mercy of tour companies, most of which have a two-person minimum. Being a party of one and arriving in Namibia on the Saturday of a three-day weekend drastically reduced my options, which meant I couldn't book a three- or four-day camping tour to the spectacular desert sights around Sossusvlei. Thankfully, Swakopmund is teeming with tour planners, including the local Tourist Information center, where I booked my three day trips, including two to local parts of the Namib Desert (the dunes adjacent to the coast and the "living" desert further inland). Looks like I'll have to plan another trip to Namibia (and this time actually plan) if I want to climb the more than 170 meters up Dune 45, which would have been such a perfect place to celebrate my 45th.


3. Seals The colony of seals at Pelican Point in Walvis Bay might be even better than the penguin colony on Boulders Beach on South Africa's Western Cape. You haven't experienced adorable until you've watched a seal swim frantically to catch up with your boat as it crosses Walvis Bay and then use its flippers as "arms" and "legs" to crawl onboard. Awww.


4. "Problem" Ariana Grande featuring Iggy Azalea The one singer in her 21-ish age group with undeniable talent, Ariana Grande deserves all of those comparisons to a young Mariah Carey. Alas, image trumps talent a lot more in 2014 than it did in 1990, so Grande is not yet the queen of the crop. If it were 24 years ago, she'd already be the biggest thing since Whitney Houston, with more than just a pair of Top 10 singles, the latest of which debuted this week at No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100.


5. "You Lie" Reba McEntire I recently saw an episode of The Voice in which Blake Shelton assigned someone on his team the unenviable task of tackling Reba McEntire's 1990 No., 1 country hit. The judges all loved it, but I thought the contestant did a terrible job, possibly because I'm too familiar with the original. Years ago, Kelly Clarkson and I bonded during a commercial break at the MTV Video Music Awards because it was both of our favorite Reba song. Adam Levine said he couldn't imagine anyone singing it better than the girl on The Voice did, but clearly, he's unfamiliar with Reba's oeuvre. When she starts somersaulting while scaling the upper end of her range at the fade out, her technical mastery and vocal control are nothing short of astounding.


6. 45 I may have missed Dune 45 in Sossusvlei, but I've still got the next year to enjoy 45.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My Favorite Place in Swakopmund

The nourishment was palatable, the staff delightful, and the signage amusing (see photos below). The convergence of those three qualities convinced me by the time I finished my white wine and chicken schnitzel that I'd be coming back to Village Cafe every day during my four remaining days in Swakopmund.

What I wasn't expecting from my second trip to Village Cafe on Wednesday, my birthday, was to be so thoroughly entertained by a soundtrack (courtesy of 94.9 FM) that highlighted the best of '80s country music (with one '70s and one '90s hit thrown into the mix). What do the people in Namibia even know about Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry? Apparently, they know enough to know that with country (as with people), the oldies really are the goodies.

I have The Sea Horse, the place where I spent my first night in Swakopmund before moving to Pebble Stone House for the subsequent four nights, to thank for my taste of Nashville on the coast of Namibia. (The four hours of nothing but country that I listened to on my iPod en route from Windhoek to Swakopmund was a long, filling appetizer.) Sea Horse's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the recommendations of Doug, the proprietor, aside, I can't exactly rave about my experience there. That might have more to do with location and timing: Sea Horse is somewhat removed from the center of Swakopmund, which made finding dinner something of a scavenger hunt, even at my arrival time of 7pm, and from sunset to mid morning every day, the entire town is enveloped in a dense layer of fog, which made it seem like an ocean-side resort at the end of the world.

If it hadn't been for that one night at Sea Horse, though, had Doug never told me about the one place in Swakopmund that I just couldn't miss (intel that came in much handier than that he's heading to Cape Town next month for, as he insisted on specifying, a gay wedding), I might have missed Village Cafe and my birthday helping of good old country music completely.

Until tomorrow!

94.9 FM's Retro-Country Hump-Day Morning Birthday Playlist

"Do You Love As Good As You Look" The Bellamy Brothers
"I Wish You Could Have Turned My Head (And Left My Heart Alone)" The Oak Ridge Boys
"Queen of Hearts" Juice Newton
"Golden Ring" George Jones and Tammy Wynette
"I.O.U." Lee Greenwood
"I Feel Lucky" Mary Chapin Carpenter
"She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)" Gary Stewart
"Stranger in My House" Ronnie Milsap










Village Cafe's Wall of Yuks


 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Slightly Bored in Windhoek

"Windhoek could be any little city in the States, Oregon, for instance (well, I don't know Oregon, but this is how I imagine it)."

That's Daniel from Spain summing up the place where I kicked off my birthday week yesterday. Take away the hills surrounding the valley in which Windhoek's city center lies and all the evidence of Namibia's past as a German colony (signs that say Platz, street names that end in strasse and buildings that are pointy on top), and you probably could be somewhere in Oregon. There are tons of German tourists here in Windhoek, but I meet tons of German tourists pretty much everywhere I go, so I imagine Oregon wouldn't be much different.

As for the locals, they're probably my favorite part of what I've seen of Windhoek over the last 24 hours. I could spend all afternoon standing on a crowded sidewalk downtown watching the interesting faces of passersby, and the weather (clear skies, warm in the sun, comfortable in the shade) is perfect for outdoor people watching. As in Cape Town, the populace here appears to be diverse, attractive and stylish, strikingly and surprisingly so. I have to admit, I was expecting far less cosmopolitan things from a population of only some 250,000.

The people here are also incredibly laid-back and friendly, regardless of their age. (I haven't seen so many adorable children in one place since I was in Cambodia nearly three years ago.) "Are you playing a game? Can I play?" the sweetest little boy with two missing front teeth asked as he crawled beside me on the bench on which I was typing notes into my mobile phone.

"Where's your mom?" I asked him, surprised that anyone would let such a precious little tyke out of their sight.

"She's right over there," he said, pointing to the female security guard at the store several meters away. She smiled at us as if it was the most normal thing in the world for her kid to be warming up to a perfect stranger. I chalked it up as less bad parenting than a sign of the Namibian disposition.

The nourishment has been palatable, but aside from the chicken and potatoes and veggies that I had for lunch yesterday in a German beer garden, it hasn't been particularly remarkable. One week from now, I'll remember the kind staff at Sardinia, the congenial German owner (Or was he just the manager?) who kept coming over to check on me, how exhausted I was when dinner was over at 7.38pm ("Wait, isn't it midnight?" I asked myself after checking the time) and even the house white wine better than I'll remember the rigatoni al forno I ordered there for my main course.

The city might suffer a similar fate, being so perfectly pleasant yet fairly forgettable. It's telling that my favorite part of today has been finishing this blog post while lounging in a hammock by the pool of the Maison Ambre Guest House (up the hill, to the left, in the top photo above), surrounded by the low hum of nature and being feasted on by blood thirsty mosquitoes. Booking accommodations 1.5 kilometers from the city center might have been the smartest thing I did in preparation for this trip.

Like Bangkok and Lima, Windhoek is a capital that seems to be regarded by visitors mostly as a launching pad to the country's more picturesque locales, but unlike Bangkok and Lima (two of my favorite cities on their respective continents), Windhoek is unlikely to distract me from the grand prizes of this particular holiday: Swakopmund on the coast (where I'm headed tomorrow) and Sossusvlei, gateway to the Namib desert (where I will be spending my birthday on Wednesday).

I'll be back, but only long enough to fly out on Saturday afternoon.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Thoughts on the 2014 Daytime Emmy Nominations

1. Poor General Hospital. Last year it had the most buzz (centered largely around the 50th-anniversary episodes), but with only six contenders for Outstanding Drama Series (including All My Children and One Life to Live, both of which were briefly resurrected in online incarnations), it couldn't even parlay all of its good press into a measly nomination. GH was also overlooked for its writing and directing. Had it been left off the final ballot in only one of these categories, it would have been easy to blame it on the episodes that were submitted. But a three-way shutout signals sometimes more.

I have a theory: While GH is endlessly entertaining, always fully stocked with supervillains, outrageous plot twists and comic relief, it falls short of one long-time hallmark of the daytime soap: It lacks heart. I'm rarely bored while I'm watching GH, but aside from Robin and Emma's reunion during Patrick's wedding to Sabrina (above), I don't recall ever being moved by the soap in 2013. In some ways, executive producer Frank Valentini and head writer Ron Carlivati have created the daytime equivalent of the nighttime serial Revenge (not exactly a Primetime Emmy darling), one in which characters are constantly doing dastardly things and getting away with it. This might make for an hour of riveting television. But whom are we supposed to root for and relate to?

2. Who does Alison Sweeney have to sleep with to get her first Daytime Emmy nomination? Will they finally reward her next year for her final season on Days? (Based on what she's done so far, her work during last week's "dream" sequence in which Sami found out about EJ and Abigail's affair would be her best bet)? And why are there only four Best Actress nominees compared to five in the other acting categories.

Although the final four is a pretty formidable line-up, I wish GH's Maura West and especially Finola Hughes had made it in. But the problem, once again, might be GH's current style. West's Ava Jerome is like the Virginia Grayson of GH, which might affect overall love for her performances. Meanwhile, Hughes' work during the episodes in which she was playing another character (Dr. Liesl Obrecht, normally brought to deliciously evil life by the also sadly overlooked Kathleen Gati) pretending to be Anna Devane while wearing an Anna Devane mask was some of the best acting I saw in 2013, but the details of the storyline were so intricate and arcane that the greatness of Hughes' work might not have been apparent to those voting on the submitted reels if they weren't regular GH viewers. In this case, their loss.

3. Days did so much right last year, but it really fumbled Nick Fallon's prison-rape storyline. Blake Berris did exceptional work in 2013, and should have been a Best Supporting Actor shoo-in for an arc similar to the one that got GH's Chad Duell the first of his three Outstanding Younger Actor nominations. But they rushed through Nick's healing process, showing a few scenes of post-traumatic anguish with Gabi and Maggie but no follow-up therapy. After a few episodes of contrition, he was back to scheming, which didn't allow Berris time to garner more audience sympathy while showcasing other sides of his talent.

4. The CM nominated in Outstanding Younger Actor category should be Casey Moss, not Chandler Massey. I'm at a loss to explain this one. Moss (right) did some incredibly powerful work as J.J. Devereaux in 2013, particularly in the scenes after he found out that his late father, Jack Devereaux, once raped his aunt Kayla. He exhibited all of the fire and rage that first made us notice Chandler Massey at the beginning of Will's coming-out story. Meanwhile, Massey spent most of 2013, grinning and underplaying everything, coasting up to his exit in January of this year.

5. It's about time Emmy finally noticed the most underrated hunk in daytime. Kudos for the inclusion of first-time nominee Eric Martsolf in Best Supporting Actor. In the past few years, he's successfully transitioned Days' Brady Black from a milquetoast, square-jawed hero into a frequently sloshed antihero who can make you want to slug him and hug him in one scene.

6. The One Life to Live love is a few seasons too late. How ironic that OLTL scores an Outstanding Drama Series nomination for a season that was vastly inferior to that of fellow Prospect Park online soap All My Children, especially when it couldn't get arrested in the category during its last few years on ABC, when it was arguably the best daytime soap on TV. I can't argue with the inclusion of Kelly Missal (OLTL's Dani Manning) in Outstanding Younger Actress. If there is a soap goddess, she, not her former TV sister Kristen Alderson (who won in the category last year for playing Starr Manning on GH, but is nominated this year for playing Kiki Jerome, a different character) will be making an acceptance speech on June 22 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.

7. Where's Greg Vaughan? Best Actress nominee Arianne Zucker (Days' Nicole Walker) couldn't have worked her magic in Days' The Thorn Birds storyline last year without Greg Vaughan (Father Eric Brady) as her costar. Vaughan submitted himself in the Best Supporting Actor category, but he belongs in Best Actor along with GH's Maurice Benard, whose hallelujah moment while betraying his son Morgan (Outstanding Younger Actor contender Bryan Craig, who deserves that prize more than anyone, save non-nominee Casey Moss) was one of the soap's most-rewindable moments of 2013. Did The Young and the Restless's Peter Bergman and Doug Davidson do anything in 2013 that you just had to see more than once?

Click here to read a complete list of the nominees.