Tuesday, December 29, 2015

#GOALS: 16 things I want to do in 2016

Since I prefer not to make promises to myself that I can't keep, there'll be no New Year's resolutions again this year. Instead, I'd rather focus on things I can actually accomplish. And if these 16 goals for 2016 don't come true, well, there's always the year after next year.

1. Figure out the secret to getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. I'd like to finally know what it feels like to be well-rested in 2016.

2. Drive on the left side of the road. First stop: The Hunter Valley. Alas, it's not coming to me. Therefore, I must conquer my fear of turning into the wrong lane and drive like the wind.

3. Continue to explore Australia. Topping my to-go-to list: Hobart, The Gold Coast, Uluru

4. Finish my second book, a collection of essays I wrote during my year in South Africa

5. Meet a reason to give up gay hook-up apps. If he happens to be from Asia or Eastern Europe, paydirt!

6. Get published in The New York Times

7. Cross at least one of these places off my travel bucket list: Seoul, Reykjavik or the Great Wall of China

8. Dive into my better-late-than-never must-still-see-TV list: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards

9.. Return to the scene of the crime for the first time in six years. Yes, I'm talking about New York City.

10. Stop feeling guilty about relationships that have fallen by the wayside. It takes two to make or break a friendship/kinship or keep one going.

11. Skydive. Seriously. And I have Bridge of Spies on Qantas's in-flight entertainment menu to thank for the most unexpected urge of 2015. Watching a CIA guy eject himself from a crashing plane only to land in hostile Russian territory during the 1950s Cold War actually sort of made me want to jump out of a plane myself… preferably one that's not on fire.

12. Stop thinking about him… As James Taylor once sang, I've got to stop thinking about that.

13. Become a dad... or adopt a dog… or get a guinea pig.

14. On-the-job goal: Find a way to keep up with the Kardashians without making the messengers seem as mindless as what they're covering.

15. Allow myself to be more vulnerable. I'm romantic, idealistic, and I feel more deeply than the average person, but only those in my innermost circle would ever know that there are so many layers underneath the steely facade. In the last few months, I've had two very good friends tell me it's time to start dismantling the fortress around my heart... and I agree.

16. Succumb to my most superficial impulses and do a nude photo shoot (something a lot less low-budget than the one my first boyfriend Derek did on the roof of his apartment building in Hell's Kitchen in 1993). I may look better now than I did at 24, but let's face it: Gravity is only going to hold out for so much longer.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

11 insanely popular things in entertainment right now that I'm just not loving

I stand corrected on costume parties, drinking white wine at home alone, and "The Boys Are Back in Town," the joys of which I've discovered in the past 12 months after years of indifference. But when it comes to populist entertainment, there's still plenty that I'm not feeling.

Star Wars I watched the original of the series on HBO several years after its 1977 debut, and it bored me. I saw The Return of the Jedi in the cinema in 1983, and while I didn't hate it, I wasn't exactly dying for more. But "The Force" keeps coming back against my will. Aside from the coverage in which I was forced to immerse myself at work last week, I haven't given the series another minute of my time in 32 years. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher look pretty good, though.

Sequels to sequels I enjoyed Rambo, Rocky, Indiana Jones and Star Trek as much as the next kid in the '80s, but somewhere around adulthood, I outgrew "To be continued…and continued…" on the big screen. To date, I haven't seen a single entry in any of the big blockbuster series of this millennium -- Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger GamesTwilight -- and I don't feel like I've missed a thing.

Superhero movies that don't star Michael Keaton ...which is weird because I love a man in tights who can save the day. Maybe it's the sequel thing that turns me off.

Animated movies I was never really into Saturday-morning cartoons, and I just don't "get" The Simpsons. But I do love Disney's classics and the Peanuts gang, and I could spend all day watching marathons of The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Family Guy. Back in the '90s when we got one new Disney animated feature a year and the occasional Toy Story, I had a passing interest in them. But now that they're commonplace enough to be interchangeable, I'll always rather watch something else.

Taylor Swift I object to her phoniness, her string of celebrity boyfriends, her collecting celebrity BFFs, and her fake-shock posing, but mostly I object to her songs. I remember music in 1989, and it was a lot better than Tay-Tay would have us believe.

The Kardashians I may be forced to keep up with them for work, but you'll never get me to watch an episode of any of their shows, including I Am Cait.

The Grammys I've become the middle-aged guy I said I'd never be, the one who stopped listening to most new music years ago.

'80s nostalgia I'd say it's because I'm stuck in the '70s, but I'm totally down with '90s nostalgia. So maybe it's this: I didn't much enjoy living in the '80s in the '80s, so why would I want to keep going back there?

Kanye West I love to see him smile and listen to him ramble, but the minute he starts to rap, I tune out.

"White trash"/"Bogan"/"Fame whore" reality TV Let's face it: Putting aside the talent-based shows and the ones with celebrities (which I generally hate), how many accomplished, sophisticated people are clamoring to be the biggest loser... or get married at first sight? If I want to spend my downtime watching common people in action, I'd spend more time outside

Five billion channels and Netflix and Stan and… I love options, but who has time for all of the choices that TV currently offers? Sometimes I miss the days of three networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- when they could actually put together a once-a-TV-season event like Battle of the Network Stars (a precursor to celebrity reality competitions, by the way). Something's got to give, and it won't be the hours I spend doing things other than watching TV.

And five crazy popular things that I love too

Jennifer Lawrence Whether she's faking it or not, I love her when she falls down, too.

"Hello" by Adele It had me at, well, "Hello."

The new wave of hit shows led by black actors: Empire, black-ish, and How to Get Away with Murder As must-see TV for me now as those gleaming-white classics Sex and the City and Melrose Place were back then.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep Totally deserving of all the Emmy love -- though I wouldn't mind her sharing a little of it with black-ish's painfully underrated Tracee Ellis Ross.

Cate Blanchett in anything But especially in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Gift, Notes on a Scandal, Blue Jasmine and Carol.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Welcome back, romance: Thoughts on Carol

First, the obvious…at least to anyone who's seen The Social Network, Side Effects, Her, or anything in which Cate Blanchett has ever appeared: She and Rooney Mara are as brilliant as expected in Carol.

The two actresses are deserving of every accolade that's already been bestowed upon them and those that are yet to come. Blanchett is a near-lock for a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and the gold for Best Supporting Actress is as good as Mara's, though she's technically a lead as the movie unfolds predominantly from her character's point of view. (Clearly we're meant to identify mostly with her throughout).

The real standout in Carol, though, is romance. Remember her? In a galaxy long ago and far away, before the age of swiping left/right and rampant NSA, she ruled the hearts of men and women. Romance makes a comeback in Carol, and it's a breathtaking one.

Fairly faithfully based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, Carol is a love story set mostly in 1950s New York. That means it takes place in a time when you generally first laid eyes on a potential love match not via a phone app but from across a crowded room. Connecting meant closing the space between the two of you, both figuratively and literally. Given that Carol and Therese, the romantic heroines of the film, are both women living in a decade that wasn't particularly hospitable to LGBT, that space is just hurdle number one.

One of the most remarkable things about Carol is how it nails the dynamic of May-September romance without ever lapsing into cliche. Yes, Carol, who is fortyish and unhappily married with a young daughter, and Therese, a twentysomething-ish aspiring photographer paying the bills with a gig working behind the counter at a department store, assume familiar roles.

Sure, the early stages have a familiar ring -- the older and wiser one leads the way. But these aren't tired, predictable archetypes. Carol and Therese may not be peers, but they're equals in the romance. When the hunter gets captured by the game, the reverse happens, too. They're both the trophy and the victor, with so much to gain and to lose. That heightens the romantic stakes and thickens what there is of a plot.

But Carol is not about action. It's more of a character study. As the woman who gives the movie its title, Blanchett balances so many traits it's a wonder that she manages to maintain her poise and composure. She's brittle and haughty, yet fragile and insecure, chilly and remote but warm and tender. There are even hints of girlishness. Blanchett puts her sensuality on full display here (the love scene is as graphic as anything you'll find in a heterosexual romantic drama), and it's clear why Therese falls for her.

It's hard not to think of Katharine Hepburn while watching Blanchett in action. Carol is the kind of role Hepburn would have relished in the 1950s if directors had been making lesbian love stories back then. Director Todd Haynes has so painstakingly re-created the '50s that at times one almost forgets it's a period piece and not an actual film from 60 or so years ago.

Mara has the more difficult role because it's less physical and more internal. She spends a lot of the movie reacting and not appearing to react. So much of her character is revealed through loaded silences. Mara gives a rich, detailed performance that merges the uncertainty of youth with the weariness of being an old soul.

If the movie has one flaw, it's that it's less apparent what Carol sees in Therese other than her beauty. One might presume that part of it is despite her general ride-or-die reaction to Carol, Therese still presents a challenge. In one of the most telling moments in the entire film, Carol makes a throwaway comment about how she's always asking Therese what she's thinking. In that one scene (watch it above), she reveals so much about her character and why she's fallen for Therese.

Carol and Therese don't exist in a vacuum, though that likely still would have made for riveting viewing. While it revolves around the two main characters and their romance, the supporting players aren't merely window dressing.

Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson, who play Carol's estranged husband and best friend, respectively, are best known from their TV roles, but both deserve to be more prominent presences in film. Paulson continues to astound with her versatility, and Friday Night Lights Emmy winner Chandler give brutish Harge Aird more layers than the screenplay does. Their characters' interactions with Carol as well as with each other in one tense scene offer hints to a juicy backstory that's probably worthy of a movie of its own.

That said, Carol doesn't really need a sequel or a prequel. It's perfect as is, at 118 minutes. By the time the credits roll, it's done what every great movie is supposed to do. It's left you wanting so much more.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I'm a little bit country and a little bit rock & roll…so what?

My boss made an interesting observation about me the other week during morning conference. It had absolutely nothing to do with my job performance…unless I missed his point completely.

We were talking about the company Christmas costume party that evening, and he was trying to get everybody into the party mood at 8am.

Now for those who have never lived in Australia, let me explain something about Aussies. They love their themed costume parties, and they take dressing up for them very seriously.

As I confirmed while putting together my latest party get-up, it's easier to find a costume shop in Sydney that will help you transform yourself into pretty much anything from the ankles up than it is to find a shoe store that sells gladiator sandals for men. Go figure.

Costume parties are particularly big here around the holidays. That means the December beach weather that I still can't get accustomed to after eight winter, er, summer seasons in the Southern Hemisphere isn't the only thing that has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas in New York.

I may not be able to adjust to the holiday climate in the South, but I've surprised myself by becoming the guy who always dresses up for a costume party. Back in my New York City days, that guy was never me…and he generally used to get on my last nerve.

I used to insist on going to everything as myself, and all the dress-up people only made me feel more out of place than usual. Maybe that's why I never really got into Halloween. Last October 31, though, I started the day wearing a truly frightening pirate mask, and by the end of the night, the power of make-up had transformed me into a black male Siouxsie Sioux circa "Hong Kong Garden" from the neck up.

The good thing about the costume obsession here is that you can walk through the streets of Sydney dressed as Captain America, or Julius Caesar, and not a single soul will give you the side-eye. They know exactly where you're going. You can also pick up a guy who has no idea what you actually look like until he tracks you down on Facebook the next day.

But getting back to morning conference, for some reason, my boss directed his attention toward me.

"Jeremy, you're coming, right?"

His phrasing suggested that there might be some doubt. Plus he looked slightly concerned, as if he was thinking I was thinking dress-up holiday parties were beneath me.

"Excuse me. Don't you remember last year's Christmas party?" I was overdoing the incredulousness for maximum comic effect.

"I wouldn't miss it. I already have my costume all picked out."

I could tell that Thursday night in mid-December 2014 was starting to come back to him: the dancing, the drinking, the unforgiving Captain America outfit. Of course, I was going to be there…with bells on…possibly literally.

My boss was clearly amused by the memory of me as the Yankee superhero, and he was confused, too.

"You know, Jeremy, you're an interesting set of contradictions. You're kind of shy, but at the same time you're this exhibitionist. There are all of these hidden sides."

Behind my poker face, I was pretty shocked. He was dead-right, but I didn't realize he had even been paying attention over the past 13 months and one week.

The more I think about his spot-on description of me, though, the more I'm not so sure about the "contradictions" part. While I know he wasn't being critical, the word itself has such a negative connotation. It suggests not only inconsistency but perhaps disingenuousness, too. It implies that one oscillates too wildly, never staying still long enough to actually stand for anything.

To be fair, it's a word I've often used to describe myself because it always seemed to fit. I'm uncomfortable in crowds and in social situations that aren't one-on-one, but I can work a room with the best of them. I'm the classic loner, yet to see me working that room, one might assume I'm a social butterfly.

I'm meticulous in the way I present myself (last week, during another offsite event, a colleague commented that I can even making bowling shoes look stylish), yet I've never been particularly crazy about a sharp-dressed man.

I'm driven by wanderlust (they don't call me "the world traveler" for nothing), but in my mind, there's no place like home…on the couch. I shy away from commitment, but I've often been a paragon of stability and longevity (so much so that I remained at my first job out of college for eight years). I have no problem being half-undressed in my gay-app profile pics, but I'm uncomfortable sleeping in the nude.

My music taste is all over the place, but when it's time to eat, I rarely venture outside of a handful of options. My friends can usually guess what I'm going to order off any given menu, but most of them would have a hell of tough time picking out a gift for me that I wouldn't have to pretend to love. I'm predictable and unpredictable like that.

My brother once described me as a "recovering introvert," and I don't think anyone has ever nailed my two-sidedness quite as accurately. He reads me better than anyone I know and has occasionally pointed out things about me that are barely perceptible to the naked eye.

After he read my book, he described it as "sometimes prudish yet sexually manic," perfectly encapsulating both the book and its author.

While I might seem maddeningly contradictory to some, I'm less about contradiction than duality. I like to think of myself as being the embodiment of yin and yang. Why do I have to be just one thing? Why can't I be a little bit country and little bit rock & roll...or New York wine and Tennessee 'shine?

I don't see the various sides of my personality opposing each other, or even contradicting each other, so much as complementing each other. Yes, I'm shy, but I never threaten to fade into the background, and for that I can thank my exhibitionist side. And yes, I appreciate attention, but I'm too timid to really work for it.

My shyness keeps my exhibitionism in check, while my exhibitionism stops my shyness from turning me into wallpaper.

And thank God for that. It was the emergence of my modest streak that kept me from going to this year's Christmas bash as a commando Julius Caesar. The evening was blustery enough that one unexpected gust of wind might have led to the worst wardrobe malfunction ever.

And that's one side of me that the entire world doesn't need to see. My inner exhibitionist might have kind of loved it, but my shy side never would have lived that one down.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Why my interview with Scott Weiland might be my saddest one ever

In my many years as a journalist, I've interviewed several performers who are no longer with us, including Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Barry White.

One late ex-interviewee, Material Issue singer Jim Ellison, committed suicide in 1996 at age 32. Coming four years after I interviewed him for Musician magazine, his truly untimely death was as shocking as it was devastating. His band's sprightly power pop didn't offer as much as a clue to how tortured he must have been. I haven't been able to listen to it in nearly 20 years for fear that I might notice the chilling specter of doom, despair, and agony that I spent years missing entirely.

But since the passing of Tammy Wynette in 1998, the death of no other ex-interviewee has affected me quite as deeply as that of Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland, who died in his sleep of cardiac arrest on December 3.

It's been more than 15 years since I interviewed him for the October 2000 issue of Teen People, but after I read about his death, memories I hadn't recalled in years came rushing back.

Our interview was in a rehearsal space in Burbank, and while I have no recollection of what I wore that day, I can see Scott as clearly as if he was standing in front of me right now in all of his post-grunge rock-star glory.

He was thin, but ripped, and barefoot, wearing jeans and a light blue shirt completely unbuttoned to reveal his smooth, toned upper torso. As he talked, my eyes kept darting down to the treasure trail between his hips and his belly button. I hoped he wouldn't notice me sneaking furtive peeks.

Ten  months sober at the time, his longest period of sobriety since being introduced to heroin six years earlier, Scott spent hours detailing his battle back from the brink -- the drug binges, the arrests, the overdoses. His story sounded like a Less Than Zero outtake, but with a happier ending than the one Robert Downey Jr.'s character had.

Scott was still there, alive, kicking, and excited about living. Clearly the demons remained, but he insisted he had them under control. STP was about to go on tour with Red Hot Chili Peppers, and he talked about bringing a counselor on the road to help keep him on the right path.

He'd just gotten married, and there was a baby on the way. Yes, Scott had been to hell and back, but from where I was sitting, with such a clear view of the grunge god I'd adored from afar since the mid-'90s, it didn't seem too bad to be him.

As I listened to him talk about his past, I wondered about his future. I'd dated addicts, one of whom I broke up with because of his dependency. He ended up in rehab after we split, so I'd had a close-up glimpse of addiction. I wasn't deluded by any illusions: It's not a fight that anyone ever wins. You just have to learn to live with it.

Scott talked about how he gave up one addiction for another, and I left with the cigarette stench to prove it. But better smokes than heroin, I figured. I didn't mind smelling like an ashtray if it meant Scott got to live.

And for one and a half decades he did. I'd kind of lost track of Scott in recent years, but I knew his life since our interview hadn't always been easy. When a rocker dies under 50, your mind immediately thinks the worst, especially when the rock star has waged a well-documented war with substance abuse.

Here's what we know for sure: Scott died in his sleep of cardiac arrest. Some sources claim he'd relapsed in recent weeks, but his widow insists he was clean and sober at the time of his death. (Scott had divorced Mary Forsberg, his wife at the time of our interview, and married his third wife, Jamie Wachtel, in 2013.)

If he was indeed clean and sober (and Mary's post-mortem Rolling Stone essay suggests that definitely was not the case), maybe his body belatedly reached its breaking point, having been previously abused for so many years. If Scott at 48 thought anything like how he thought when I interviewed him at 33, he didn't want to go.

Toward the end of our chat, I offered my theory that creative people are driven by a profound sadness, and he nodded in agreement.

"I think that early insecurity led to my pursuit of fame," he said. "Any person with a desire to be validated and loved by millions of people doesn't really feel comfortable in his own skin. I definitely fall into that category. I searched for validation through a lot of other ways, latching onto anything -- pot, alcohol, women -- trying to fill that void, and all it seemed to do was breed a lot of loneliness."

He ended our chat with what might have been his most telling and revealing words of the entire interview.

"I think a lot of successful artists had feelings similar to mine while growing up. when they came across a seemingly cure-all chemical, they latched onto it just as I did. A lot of those people were ultimately destroyed. Look at Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. For whatever reason, God wants me here for some purpose. Living is really an amazing experience. I feel pretty lucky."

My favorite STP song that isn't "Interstate Love Song"

Friday, November 27, 2015

9 great "Hello" songs that have nothing to do with Adele or Lionel Richie

"Hello Goodbye" The Beatles Along with "Something," this was my favorite Fab Four song for many years…and then I discovered "Within Without You."

"Hello It's Me" Todd Rundgren I'm not saying that Adele nicked her opening line from Runt, but he did go there first (in 1972).

"Hello Love" Hank Snow Here's the genius of Snow's 1974 classic, with which the then--one-month-shy-of-60-year-old became the oldest singer to top Billboard's country singles chart: Is he greeting love love, his beloved, or both?

"Hello Stranger" Emmylou Harris Not the often-covered Barbara Lewis classic but rather a Carter Family one. Emmylou's interpretation provided one of many standout moments on Luxury Liner, my favorite country music album of the 1970s not recorded by Freddy Fender.

"Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" Soft Cell That's right. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret wasn't all about "Tainted Love." In fact, the 1982 album's closing track went all the way to No. 3 in the UK.

"Hello Again" The Cars The kings of streamlined American new wave totally give in to over-the-top '80s production. Not only has it aged a lot better than I thought it would, but I still prefer it to Neil Diamond's Jazz Singer hit with the same title.

"Hello Darkness" Ric Ocasek "Hello" again, from the Cars frontman on This Side of Paradise, his 1986 second solo album.

"Hello Beloved" Angela Winbush and Ronald Isley Quiet-storm '80s R&B at its most sizzling. To quote '70s Dolly Parton, baby, I'm burning.

"Memory Song (Hello Hello)" Robert Plant I've never been sure what it's about, but I have a feeling if I did, I'd probably cry.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

20 things I have to be thankful for in 2015

Years ago, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my boyfriend Tommy and his family in Queens. Before we ate, we went around the table and listed all the things for which we were thankful. I remember struggling to pull together a list in my head as I waited my turn. It was not one of my finest internal moments.

Either my life has improved considerably in the 17 years since then, or gratitude just comes easier to me now. I haven't actually celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States since 2005, but it's so easy for me to think of things to be thankful for.

Here are the first 20 that popped into my head.

1. A job I enjoy doing.

2. A apartment I enjoy coming home to even more.

3. Old episodes of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 being available to download.

4. That I'm old enough to remember the 1970s (my favourite decade) and where I was and what I was doing when Elvis Presley died. It's the first decade I remember, and sometimes I feel like I dreamed all my memories of it. Reliving the '70s through throwback music, TV, movies and newsreels is almost like turning those maybe-dreams back into reality.

5. My health, give or take chronic headaches, occasional allergies, panic disorder and near-comical hypochondria.

6. Being occasionally mistaken for twentysomething by suitors who were born after I graduated from college. Is the next generation blind or what?

7. My friends all over the planet.

8. Expedia.com and Booking.com, both of which have been playing such vital roles in helping me to travel around the world for years now.

9. Words -- even when they fail me.

10. At least one family member who has always actively shown me he cares, whether or not I make the first move.

11. Body parts that, for the most part, still work.

12. My five relatively intact senses, The optometrist may have diagnosed me as being shortsighted and having an astigmatism yesterday, but I can still see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles.

13. My iPad. How did I ever live without it?

14. Art.

15. My youthful idealism and enthusiasm. Somehow I managed to avoid hopping on the jaded train that turns so many people my age into bitter middle-aged queens. I'm still excited to take the road less traveled (or any road, for that matter) and hopeful that it will lead to an amazing place.

16. My age. I don't necessarily want to get older, but I have no desire to be in my twenties and thirties ever again.

17. Facebook. I have my issues with social media and the havoc it's wreaked on our egos and communication skills. Twitter and Instagram are all about self-promotion, but Facebook can be so much more. When I think of all the people it's brought back into my life and the ones it's kept there, I can't imagine a world without it. I don't want to imagine a world without it.

18. EZTV. It's why I get to live abroad and still keep up with all the US primetime-TV shows that I watch religiously: Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish, Nashville, Veep, Girls, Devious Maids and Episodes.

19. Hillary Clinton. There, I said it. I've been solidly Team Hillary since 2008, and that's not about to change

20. My life. It's far from perfect, but I can't think of anyone else's I'd rather be living.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

One crime doesn't fit all: Why I just can't wrap my head around anti-Muslim rhetoric

One of the most flattering and memorable compliments I've ever received was from a boyfriend who said he admired me because I always root for the underdog. It wasn't a personal quality I'd ever considered before he noted it, as it never required any conscious effort.

I've probably always backed the underdog because as a perpetual outsider, I've always felt a bit like one myself. In some ways (being black, being gay, being the child of immigrants), my outsider status was thrust upon me through no choice of my own. Meanwhile, as an expat for going on a decade, I've been geographically, culturally and sometimes linguistically an outsider entirely by choice. I often feel like an outsider even within the groups that make me one.

I wouldn't have it any other way. Always feeling like I'm on the outside looking in has contributed immensely to my character, building my independent spirit and, to a large degree, making me the loner with reclusive tendencies that I am today.

On the downside, when you're a minority outsider, in the eyes of many on the inside (the supposedly superior majority), you become less an individual than a symbol, an archetype with a checklist of characteristics assigned to your minority group. As a gay, black man, I've spent my entire life being shoved into two boxes, having immediate assumptions made about me that most in the supposedly superior majority (i.e., straight white men) never have to worry about.

If you're a straight white man, you'll rarely be identified or described as such. Chances are you're just a man -- your own man. The actions of extremist white groups like the Ku Klux Klan, or white supremacists, or neo-Nazis, have never been seen as reflective of all white people. The sins of several are theirs alone.

Sadly, as the aftermath of last week's Paris attacks have reminded us all, this hasn't applied to Muslims since September 11. The actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, terrorists who hide behind their religion, in the minds of too many, have become representative of the entire religion. So what now? Do we start feeding followers of the Islamic faith to the lions as the ancient Romans did with the Christians, or do we send them to concentration camps as the Nazis did with the Jews last century? Hasn't history taught us anything?

The other day, I saw a very touching video of a CNN reporter being interrupted by a young Syrian boy while giving a live report in Greece. They exchanged a few sentences in Arabic, and the boy was on his way. The end. I was extremely moved by the video, perhaps because in times that are so fraught with tension, it was such a simple and honest moment.

I cringe a little because as the video went viral, it became all about the reporter's gesture of "humanity" toward the young boy. How condescending. That interpretation of the brief encounter suggests that she was, in some way, superior to the boy, who may or may not have been legitimately "human." It's such a patronizing white-savior narrative.

To me, the video was noteworthy less for the reporter's gesture than for the boy's. He could be a kid from anywhere. He underscores the common thread in children around the world. Syrian youths are, in many ways, just like our own.

The boy in the video reminded me of my interactions with Arab children three summers ago when I spent time in Jerusalem and Palestine. I was touched by how warm and welcoming they were. The Syrian viral video star had the same cheeky charm as many of the children who approached me as I walked through the Arab quarter in Jerusalem, just to greet me and make me feel welcome in their neighborhood.

My moment of sweet reflection was interrupted when someone made a most offensive comment, presumably speaking as the boy in the video: "I want to grow up to be a suicide bomber."

I couldn't believe my ears. So now because members of a terrorist group happen to be Muslims and use their religion to justify their murderous actions, every Arab child wants to grow up to be a suicide bomber? ISIS does not equal Iraqis or Syrians any more than the Nazi Party equaled Germans during World War II.

A racist murderer descends upon a black church in South Carolina, killing members of the congregation. White cops routinely brutalize and sometimes kill unarmed black men and women. Does anyone assume that every white American child wants to grow up to brutalize and kill black people?

Of course not. But why does it only seem to be straight white men who follow mainstream Western religions that get the benefit of the doubt? If we won't make knee-jerk connections for all of them every time a straight white man acts up, why are we so quick to make them for pretty much anyone who falls outside of that racial/religious/gender demo?

Perhaps it's my lifelong outsider status that makes it easier for me to see people as individuals rather than representatives of specific groups. I'll probably never know what it feels like to just be me in the eyes of most people and not "the black guy," or "the gay guy," or "the American." I'll probably never know what it feels like not be on the outside.

But I'd rather be stuck out here with some degree of enlightenment than on the inside and totally in the dark.

Friday, November 13, 2015

8 more things I just don't understand

Donald Trump as a viable U.S. Presidential candidate

Come on, America. Are you for real? The average voter probably doesn't give a damn about those Hillary Clinton emails that are following her candidacy around like a bad penny. Meanwhile, Trump gets to be both a punchline and a viable Republican Presidential candidate (which might actually say more about the Republican Party than it does about Americans).

If a Democrat had Trump's checkered celebrity past (he's a former reality TV star, for God's sake) and his gift for almost always saying the wrong thing, he or (especially) she would be laughed off the flight to Washington D.C. before their candidacy could even get off the ground.

"Do you want coffee?"

Sydney's coffee culture/obsession perplexes me. Must everyone always announce when they're about to get a cup? Does anyone offer to get me water when they're going to the tap?

You'd think that if the folks at my favorite breakfast place know that I want a feta wrap before I even order, they'd have figured out by now that I never want coffee to go with it. If I did, why wouldn't I ask for it? Do Australians not want coffee unless it's offered to them?

Enough with the coffee, everybody.

"I'm sorry if I offended you"

The first rule of apologizing: Be sorry for your misdeed and not just its effect. And definitely don't do it through your publicist…in a carefully worded statement…delivered on 20/20. Damn, Katie Holmes.

After the former The King of Queens star Leah Remini publicly accused the ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise of being a mean girl to her during their Scientology days, Katie's response was swift, concise and dismissive: "I regret having upset Leah in the past and wish her only the best in the future."

If you're going to offer the lamest apology ever - Was that an apology to Leah, to 20/20, or to the world? - you might as well not even give the person a chance to reject it.

"I'm sorry for your loss"

I've never actually heard anyone say this in real life, only on TV and in the movies, and no matter who says it, it always sounds awkward, impersonal and kind of insincere. "I'm sorry" - period - has such a nice ring, yet they seem to be the hardest words. Charley Pride, Chicago and Sir Elton John certainly weren't alone.


Yes, I know, to forgive is divine, but if you haven't forgotten, have you really forgiven? Even if you resume your relationship with the person who has wronged you, doesn't the dirty deed continue to hang over your heads, waiting to be dragged down whenever the person who has wronged you dares to do so again?

"Down to earth"

It's a pretty condescending concept if you think about it. Despite the fact that Taylor Swift only seems to have A-list friends and date A-list guys and she travels in a private airplane, is she down to earth because she likes cool music and, unlike Justin Bieber, she gives the time of day to the people beneath her (the adoring fans)?

And what does it mean when non-celebrities - say, like guys on Grindr - describe themselves as "DTE"? It implies a hyper-awareness of their elevated status, which, if you think about it, isn't so down to earth at all.

And what are they really saying anyway: that they're rich but act poor, that they're rich but happily slum with the poor, that they're rich but fly economy, or that they're simply not assholes? Well, why not just be "nice" instead?

The continuing hullabaloo over "cultural appropriation"

Doesn't everyday life pretty much revolve around so-called cultural appropriation? And what's wrong with that? It's in the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, and the food we eat. It's the reason why when we travel, our food options include more than just the local cuisine.

Mocking other cultures is never acceptable, but borrowing from other cultures only seems to be unacceptable when white people do it. If a white person is wrong for wearing dreadlocks or cornrows, does that make black women wrong for straightening their hair, or wearing blonde wigs?

Speaking of blonde, for a while in the '90s, I went there and it didn't go over well with one family member who accused me of wanting to be white. Huh? I didn't understand what that had to do with anything. I did it because at the time it was trendy, and I liked the way it looked. It infuriated me that she made a simple style choice into a racial thing. Let's stop making everything about race.

Why the ones you don't not want but aren't particularly crazy about keep coming back

Even the ones we once obsessed over only seem to return after we're over them. Don't you get the feeling that the guy Adele is phoning in "Hello" is screening the call? He's so over her, and of course, that's when she chooses to document her return in the biggest song of the year.

At least the success of "Hello" is something I do understand. The song is a masterpiece. We've all been there…on the other side…done that…from the outside.

Monday, November 9, 2015

How to get away with a TV heroine who will break every commandment but one

"How do you sleep at night?" - a sex worker just acquitted of poisoning her lover, due to some questionable courtroom tactics by defense attorney Annalise Keating, to Annalise Keating on How to Get Away with Murder

"Alone, on very comfortable sheets. I like expensive bottles of vodka." - Annalise Keating

As portrayed by Emmy winner Viola Davis on How to Get Away with Murder, Annalise Keating is the new Emily Thorne… only not quite so noble… and with a fiercer wardrobe.

For those who have forgotten about the anti-heroine of the dearly departed Revenge, let me remind you of one of her key characteristic: For all the asses she kicked (and names she took while she was at it), not once did Emily ever actually kill anyone.

She pointed this out to her half-sister Charlotte in one episode when Charlotte pegged Emily as an old hand at murder after she herself had killed someone. And her non-killing ways was a major plot point of the series' denouement: Emily was about to off Victoria Grayson, but her father David showed up and did the dirty deed instead because he didn't want his little girl to be haunted forever by having human blood on her hands.

Unlike Annalise, however, Emily's general motive was a lofty one: She wanted to avenge her father by seeking revenge on the people who had framed him for a crime he didn't commit. Though the body count was high by the end of Revenge, Nolan Ross aside, Emily was ironically the only main character who never killed a single person... or shot someone several times in the abdomen with intent to kill (take a bow from the grave, Daniel Grayson).

As for Annalise's overall goal, she just doesn't like to lose. To the brilliant defense attorney, winning is everything, and to get to that end, she'll frame innocent people, tamper with evidence, lie, cheat and steal. But up to now, she's drawn the line at the one crime for which she defends her clients.

In one interesting storyline twist, the terminal wife of Annalise's ex-extramarital lover Nate asked Annalise to help her kill herself. I spotted the dying wife's ploy a plot twist away. Of course, she wanted Annalise to help her kill herself so that in death she could bring down her husband's former lover.

Maybe Annalise saw it, too, but that's not why she didn't do it. "I'm not the woman you think I am," Annalise said when the dying wife, as Charlotte had with Emily, assumed she was an old pro at killing people.

The greatest irony of How to Get Away with Murder is that as the series progresses, Annalise is close to becoming the only major character who actually hasn't gotten away with murder. (For the record, the woman who asked her how she sleeps at night was also guilty as sin.) Nate's wife eventually got him to do what Annalise wouldn't, making him the latest in the main cast to kill.

Yet, somehow, all of these characters with blood on their hands peg Annalise as the monster. I suppose their hypocrisy allows them to sleep at night. Maybe they don't sleep at night. No one has asked. And if someone did, I doubt they'd have as amazing a comeback as Annalise.

I can't think of a TV character since Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls who's as skilled at comebacks as Annalise. Here are two from the November 5 episode:

"Me not paying attention to you is the best compliment you could ever get. 'Cause that means I don't have to worry about you. Now go back to the office and stop being needy."

"Sharon hates you, Dale. You're a stalker, you're pathetic, and you're fired."

Although Murder can be maddening (for one of several things, the manic non-linear approach feels gratuitous - Revenge also tampered with time but only sparingly), Annalise never is. Her sartorial eloquence, her occasional flashes of vulnerability, and her quick wit are the main reasons why I can't not root for her.

But most of all, I'm solidly #TeamAnnalise because she's a flawed, tortured, complicated, bisexual (yes!) anti-heroine who knows that one should always deliver the punchline right before walking away.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Writer's block, trailblazing, and not keeping up with the Kardashians

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." 
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that I've gone a bit AWOL lately. No, I haven't dropped off the face of the earth, as my work colleagues, who are probably enjoying their Jeremy-free weekend, well know. I've just been hit by the worst writer's block I've had since I started writing for fun and not just for work in the middle of 2008.

At first, I was reluctant to call it writer's block. After all, I've been operating at full writing capacity at work, churning out copy on a daily basis. But that's just it: "Copy" says it all. It's functional, impersonal, and non-personal - all about people and things that have nothing to do with me. It's the more introspective and confessional stuff that's been stumping me.

But why? Did I actually have writer's block, or was I just too worn out after work to string words together in any meaningful way? Or was it simply a lack of inspiration? Were the words always there, just waiting for a trigger, a new tale to tell.

Right now, it hardly matters because for the moment, the writer's block - or whatever - has passed. The floodgates have temporarily opened, and all it took was the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above. Who said Men's Health isn't good for anything...well, besides those hot Liam Hemsworth photos in the UK December edition?

Getting back to Ralph, his words made me consider  my own life...and life in general. Was he onto the true meaning of life - or rather, the purpose of it?

One of the things I love most about the quote is the distinction between a path and a trail. I'd never thought of it before, but paths are typically shallow, almost lightweight. They're easily blown away. Trails, on the other hand, are deep, closer to permanent. They have a certain indelible gravitas, from the Cherokee Trail of Tears to k.d. lang's "Trail of Broken Hearts."

In my own life, I've certainly ventured where there is no path, particularly during the past decade, minus this last year in Sydney. But am I trailblazing? Do I inspire others to follow me - not in the Instagram/Twitter sense, in a way that actually matters,

One can inspire in a number of ways. Of course, there's the artistic sense and the motivational one, but you can also inspire others to face demons or difficulties by being open about yours. You can inspire people to fight racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of discrimination through words and deeds. You can inspire someone to want to be a better person, which some call the true meaning of love.

Inspiring doesn't have to be done on a large scale. The best compliments I've received in my life have been the ones from people who tell me that my words have touched them in some way. That makes the labor of love that is writing for minimal financial compensation so worth it and, in many ways, more valuable to me than the writing that pays the bills.

Maybe that's why I've felt so off these past few weeks. Writing for me is like therapy, as much as running is. I took a detour from my trail and got a little bit lost. It's good to be back.


One of the places I wandered into during my detour was Rebel Wilson's head. I can't stop thinking about a comment she made this week during an interview with Australian radio hosts Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O. She said that MTV asked her to present an award at the VMAs this year with Kendall and.Kylie Jenner, but she turned them down because, "Their careers aren't based on talent."

She said a lot of other really uncomplimentary stuff, but you've heard it all before. Hell, you've likely thought it all before. Although Rebel didn't break any ground or blaze any new trails with her comments, I was kind of surprised that she went there.

I have my issues with the Kardashians, and before I took my current job, I never felt the need to keep up with them. To date, I've watched only one episode of their show. That particular one, which I saw on Bali TV three years ago, revolved around Kim vs. Rob, a familial dynamic that overlaps my own brother-sister experience. As semi-compelling as Kim vs. Rob was, I never felt the need to tune in again.

My issues with the Kardashians aren't just about the Kardashians, though. I actually have issues with all reality-TV stars. Their wanton pursuit of fame feeds into the idea that you're worthless if you aren't famous, They're a symbol of our selfie society where your value is determined by Facebook "likes" and  Twitter and Instagram "followers."

But the Kardashians have become such an easy target that we often forget that the youngest ones, Kendall and Kylie, are 20 and 18, respectively. We judge these young girls the way we judge grown ass people. Do you know anyone their age who has grasped the meaning of life, or its purpose?

How many 20 year olds do we know who even have careers? Or discernible talent? What were we all doing at 18 or 20? Not everyone can be a legitimate child performer, or start out as Stevie Wonder...or Lorde.

Furthermore, MTV has actually been celebrating the talent-free for decades now, via the VMAs, via the network's own reality shows, and via music videos (back when MTV played them). Some might even dump Rebel into the talent-free box. Where are her Oscar-caliber performances? At least there's social commentary in Amy Schumer's schtick...and she has an Emmy.

But talent is in the eye of the beholder. And the Kardashians are famous because of talent. It takes a certain level of talent to become famous for doing nothing. No, the Kardashians and the Jenners (including, at this point, Caitlyn) will never give Julianne Moore or Cate Blanchett a run for their credibility, but neither will Rebel.

And let's not kid ourselves: The VMAs aren't about talent anyway. They're about self-congratulation, self-promotion and looking good. So if the Kardashians don't belong there, they don't belong anywhere.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dr. Feelbad and the raging hypochondriac

I was preparing myself for the worst…again.

Two nights before, an air bubble had taken up residence near the top of my throat for several hours, refusing to pop. I convinced myself I was in the throes of what would be a fatal heart attack. Who would find my corpse? I live alone.

I got dressed and walked around the block several times. If I collapsed in public, at least my decomposing remains wouldn't have to wait until the next day to be found, after I failed to show up for work.

I survived to see the next morning, when a sudden migraine jab on the left side of my head at the beginning of my 5am shift had me preparing for the worst for the second time in less than 12 hours. A stroke? I braced myself for one side of my body to go numb. An hour or two later, it hadn't, so I went about my day, cranial discomfort and slight nausea be damned.

The following morning at 5.30am, I tried to ignore the sharp pain below my right armpit extending to about halfway under my rib cage. It had started creeping up on me the night before. I was being productive at work, but in the corner of my mind, I was once again preparing for the worst…which brings me back to the beginning of this post.

Three days, three death watches. It was time to stop preparing for the worst (again) and take action.

I tried to make an appointment with Dr. Rawlings, the first doctor I've had since leaving Buenos Aires four and a half years ago who makes me feel like I'm in the hands of someone who cares. It might be an act, but that's pretty much all you need when you're a hypochondriac like me. Go through the motions. Touch me with your stethoscope. Look down my throat. Then tell me I'm perfectly healthy and I'll die another day.

Unfortunately, Dr. Rawlings wasn't in, so I was given an appointment with Dr. Way. I was assured by Susannah the receptionist that I'd like him. She knew about my previous unpleasant experience with a doctor there who was not Dr. Rawlings. I can't even recall now why I'd seen him. The only thing I remember is that he called me the Aussie slang word for hypochondriac. I laughed it off at the time, but on the inside I was seething.

Dr. Way didn't call me any names, but he made me feel a lot worse before I started to feel better. When I walked into his office and he asked me what was wrong, I explained my symptoms and added that I thought I might be having a heart attack. I knew how ridiculous I was being. A heart attack is faster on its feet - it would never wait overnight and through half of the morning to catch up to you. But the bottom line was fear. What the hell was wrong with me?

Dr. Way looked dubious. He stood up and pressed my upper right torso in a few places. Then he laughed.

"You're fine," he announced. "But since you're already here, if you want me to find something wrong, I can keep looking."

I was shocked. It wasn't that I was actually expecting a dire diagnosis, but I had anticipated at least some semblance of an examination, followed by a good reason why I felt like shit on my right side, from the neck down and abs up.

When I pressed, he at least gave me a name. I had something called costochondritis, which is an inflammation of cartilage in the chest area. He printed out a few sheets of paper and handed them to me. I wasn't having a heart attack but the assumption he had ridiculed me for hadn't been so off.

According to the costochondritis literature he gave me: "It might feel like you're having a heart attack. If you are in doubt, see your doctor as soon as possible…"

So there.

"But if you were having a heart attack, I hope you'd go to the ER before coming to me," he said.

Then the lecture began. On my previous visit to Dr. Rawlings two weeks earlier for an assortment of ailments (some real, some possibly imagined, none serious), we had talked about the panic disorder I was diagnosed with before I left New York City nine years ago. She recommended treatments that didn't involve taking potentially addictive sleeping pills.

Having looked at my chart, Dr. Way had apparently done the math. He deduced that I was a raging hypochondriac before I even entered to room. Dr. Rawlings' notes in my file about those panic attacks aroused his suspicions, and one minute with me confirmed them.

Yes, my name is Jeremy Helligar, and I'm a hypochondriac. So what?

I may not have been dying, but I had something. I wanted answers.

Instead of giving me any further details about the diagnosis he had handed to me - what brought it on, how to ease the pain, how long it would last - he started to lecture me about being a hypochondriac. He told me a story about a lifelong hypochondriac who, on his deathbed, said, "See, I told you I was sick." The implication was that I would go out in a similar fashion.

Maybe I would, but what about the pain I was actually feeling and the diagnosis he had given me? I wasn't there for a therapy session. I was there for physical relief from discomfort that I definitely was not imagining.

I may not have been having a heart attack, but I was suffering from something. I wasn't crazy. Should I have gone about my business wracked with pain, not sure what was going on, when there was clearly something - albeit something non-threatening - ailing me?

He agreed, but I could tell I had lost him. He wasn't going to take me seriously. I felt like Dorothy Zbornak in the "Sick and Tired" double episode of The Golden Girls. She was feeling ill and doctors kept dismissing her until one finally diagnosed her with chronic fatigue syndrome.

As with my costochondritis, there was no specific cause of her ailment and no cure, but just knowing that what was wrong with her had a name made Dorothy feel better.

I felt better, too. And I felt worse. The diagnosis was worth the trip to the doctor, but I felt my $85 would have been better spent had it come with compassion and maybe the motions of a routine check-up…you know, just in case something else was wrong.

The irony: Dr. Way's lecturing and hectoring will probably result in more anxiety during future bouts of hypochondria. Now every time I feel any strange physical sensation, I won't only be preparing for the worst…again. I'll also be terrified about what the doctor might say if the doctor isn't Dr. Rawlings.

I hadn't had a female doctor before, and at first I was a bit wary of having one. But when I returned to work and explained what had happened to my colleagues, one of them warned me about male Aussie doctors. They had a habit of being breezy and dismissive, she said.

That's not the treatment any hypochondriac needs. We need reassurance without ridicule. I've always embraced a certain gallows humor, but when it comes to my health, I laugh alone.

The last thing I need in my life is more fear. That was the highest cost of my latest doctor visit. Sadly, my insurance (which pays less than 50 percent) can't reimburse me for that.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The gay problem: Why did Days of Our Lives kill off Will Horton without a fight?

Death becomes great actors. Kassie DePaiva has been proving that week in, week out for weeks now, ever since the daughter of her Days of Our Lives character Eve Donovan Larson died at the hands of the show's latest serial killer. Now the murderer has struck again. Victim No. 3: the beloved legacy character Will Horton.

Will's death, predictably, has led to impressive grief scenes from pretty much the entire cast, especially Deirdre Hall, Camila Banus and Alison Sweeney, who has returned to the show to offer a grief-stricken coda to her exit storyline last year in which her character Sami Brady, lost her husband EJ DiMera to a day player's bullet. In show time, Will's death was exactly one year after EJ's demise, and Alison's performances since her return have been flawless.

But are wonderful performances and a few weeks of storyline worth the loss of someone with ties to nearly every person on the show, not to mention one of daytime TV's few gay characters? The soap blogosphere has been seething because in killing off Will Horton, they've not only effectively ended daytime's first gay supercouple -- Will and his husband Sonny Kiriakis -- but it feels like they've undone all the LGBTQ progress they made over the past several years, first with Will's coming out story and then with Will and Sonny's wedding, daytime's first gay nuptials.

It would be especially stinging if killing off Will was the result of homophobic viewers and advertisers who didn't want to see such supposed sinfulness on their TV screens (the same ones who don't have a problem with serial killers on TV because they're not as bad as gays). The show recently changed its head-writing team, and during the transition process, WilSon (as Will and Sonny are affectionately called by fans) had already been effectively ruined. Wasn't that enough?

Sonny left town to take a job in Paris after portrayer Freddie Smith left the show. And Will, who had turned into a nasty, scheming bitch boy after cheating on Sonny with Sonny's former flame Paul Narita, pretty much disappeared for weeks. They dragged him back out of the closet (pun intended) only a few days before stuffing him back in there (permanently, in a body bag).

After grieving for a week or so, Sonny will exit again, leaving Paul, mostly MIA for weeks until a few days after Will's death, as the only gay in Salem because, well, gays and Days just don't mix.

OK, maybe that isn't fair. Honestly, I have no idea why the powers that be at Days decided that Will had to die. In real life, everyone has to go sometime, and death, like shit, happens all the time in soaps. I made my peace with that and moved on shortly after the rumors surfaced that Will would soon be a goner.

My problem isn't so much that Will was killed off but how it happened. He was strangled by Ben Weston, a lame character whose previous victims had all been women. One of his intended stranglees, Deirdre Hall's Marlena Evans, happened to be Will's grandmother. She was saved from certain death by Chad DiMera, the guy that most of the town thinks is the serial killer.

The interesting twist is that Marlena, who must be pushing 70 like her portrayer, put up one hell of an impressive fight. That's a lot more than I can say for Will. In a scene last week with Will's mother Sami, Marlena talked about how she was initially in a state of denial after finding out about her grandson's death. The killer had been targeting women only, and Will was young and strong. Surely he'd put up a fight. Right?

Exactly. Only the writers let Will go without much of a fuss from him on his own behalf. He struggled with Ben for a few moments and fell and hit his head. When he came to. Ben was choking the life out of him. The end.

As I watched, I thought about a recent murder/suffocation scene on How to Get Away with Murder where both the victim and the killer were women. The former was tied up at the time, which made the latter's task a cinch. We know why the victim didn't put up much of a catfight. But why didn't the writers let Will at least have that?

Was it because they think all gay men are weaklings? Do they believe that a gay man isn't a real man and can't fight back? Eight and half years ago, shortly after I moved to Buenos Aires, I was attacked by three burglars in my apartment. I fought like hell on the bathroom floor, and for a while, I was winning. I even managed to get what I thought was the intended murder weapon -- a screwdriver! -- away from the robber who was waving it in front of my face.

I'd never been much of a fighter before that fateful Sunday afternoon, but that bathroom scene proved that I was willing to give as good as I got when my life depended on it. I know Will wasn't meant to survive, but couldn't they at least have let his final scenes alive be colored by an emotion other than fear?

It's possible they weren't even considering Will's sexuality when they wrote his wimpy exit. And if that's the case, shame on them. A good writer knows to consider things from all angles. Perception can be everything, regardless of intent. When writing for minority characters -- gay, black, or whatever -- it's important to consider all the possible implications of how their scenes play out.

But without consciousness, there's no awareness. I keep hoping that the writer's will let Will come back as a ghost. He'd taunt Ben, maybe even slap him around a little. Wait, make that punch him around a little. It won't bring Will back for good, but at least in a way he'll finally get to go out fighting.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A belated 30th birthday tribute to The Golden Girls: It really WAS the new Maude

In one of the early episodes of The Golden Girls -- even possibly in the 1985 pilot -- Dorothy Zbornak said something that's stayed with me all these years. She and her BFFs Blanche Devereaux and Rose Nylund were sitting around the kitchen table (of course) talking about the trials of getting older. I don't think Dorothy's "ma" Sophia Petrillo was in the room for this particular declaration.

Dorothy acknowledged that she was at an age (55 when the series began, though Beatrice Arthur, the actress who played her, was closer to 63) when 40 actually seemed young. I never thought I'd reach an age where I'd understand exactly what she was saying.

In honor of The Golden Girls' 30th anniversary this month, I've done nothing...so far. I couldn't think of anything I could do that every gay blogger under the sun hadn't already done...until now. As I was thinking of Dorothy's take on 40 this morning, I remembered a blog post I started writing about two years ago when I began revisiting old episodes of Bea's pre-Golden Girls series, the groundbreaking '70s sitcom Maude.

As I started watching those old Maude episodes during a trip to Johannesburg in 2013, I noticed some interesting similarities between not only the shows but also the characters Bea played in them, Dorothy and Maude Findlay. Yes, there were major differences: Maude, unlike Dorothy until the Golden finale, was married...sometimes happily. She was also less restrained and less gullible than Dorothy. Remember that haughty author that Dorothy befriended and Blanche and Dorothy hated? Maude would have had her number from the first sentence.

But one look at Maude's kitchen, and I noticed that it looked almost exactly like the one in which Dorothy offered that memorable take on 40. That's when I started to realize that if you replaced Maude's husband Walter with Stanley Zbornak, The Golden Girls could have been a kinder, gentler Maude's life after divorce and a relocation from New York to Miami. Remember, Dorothy was from New York, too.

Were Maude Findlay and Dorothy Zbornak the same person in different decades and zip codes?

Among the similarities and overlaps between the shows and the top-billed characters...

1. The biggest one is the presence of Rue McClanahan, who played Maude's bestie Vivian, who often came across as Rose in Blanche's body.

2. Both Maude and Dorothy pronounced "despicable" DES-pic-able.

3. Maude performed "Hard-Hearted Hannah" is season 2 episode 10, as did Dorothy in the final Golden Girls season when Blanche was consumed by jealousy after Dorothy became the hit of her favorite watering hole.

4. Two episodes of Maude were dedicated to Maude getting a facelift. Dorothy once admitted to having had her eyes done.

5. The polygamist that Blanche almost married in The Golden  Girls' pilot was played by the same actor who played the older man that almost married Maude's daughter Carol. Incidentally, both Blanche and Carol got involved with younger men over the course of their respective series.

6. Season 2 episode 11 of Maude featured an appearance by the actor who played the man Sophia met in the personals whose dying wife wanted Sophia to replace her.

7. The actress who played wife of the guy who died of a heart attack in Rose's bed appeared in the third episode of Maude's fourth season, "Maude Gets a Job."

8. "What fools these mortals be." That's a Shakespearean line Dorothy once pretentiously quoted, as did Maude in the ninth episode of the second season.

9. Remember when Rose announced that she always sang the song "Over There" when she was scared and the gang broke into it as Blanche was being wheeled into the operating room to have a pacemaker installed? Well, Maude also sang it in season 2 episode 14.

10. In season 3 episode 1 of Maude, the one with a guest appearance by John Wayne, Maude uttered the line: "I for one, intend to question Mr. Wayne on the important issues of the day." Dorothy said the same thing about President George Bush when she learned he'd be coming to their house.

11. Both Maude and The Golden Girls devoted an entire episode to a supposed UFO sighting.

12. There was an episode of Maude in which one of Maude's friends was fighting with her daughter over an inheritance that the younger woman's deceased dad had left her. A similar scenario played out between Rose and her daughter over Rose's late husband Charlie's estate.

13. A character by the name of Miss Devereaux popped up in Maude's "Business Person of the Year" episode. Eerie, right?

14. Both shows had amazing theme songs. Maude's was sung by the late Donny Hathaway, who had Top 40 hits with Roberta Flack in the '70s. Meanwhile, The Golden Girls' "Thank You for Being a Friend" was written by the late Andrew Gold, who had a Top 40 hit with it in the '70s.

15. In addition to the aforementioned double-dipping guest stars, a number of others appeared in episodes of both sitcoms.

Edward Winter appeared in the Maude episode "The Ecologist" and later as the blind guy Blanche dated.

The actor who played with fire when the girls were held hostage by Santa on Christmas Eve in the help center where Rose worked also appeared in the Maude episode "The Gay Bar."

Herb Edelman, who had a recurring role as Dorothy's ex-husband Stanley, was in "Maude the Boss," season 3 episode 11 of the earlier series.

Conrad Janis who played the host of Beat the Devil in the Maude episode "The Game Show" (sounds a bit like The Golden Girls' game show Grab That Dough, no?) was also the dance-off emcee in "One for the Money" on The Golden Girls.

And the winner is...all of us! Maude and The Golden Girls were two of the best sitcoms of all-time, and Bea Arthur remains a national treasure. We're lucky to have had her as a regular in our homes...twice.

Friday, September 25, 2015

9 classic songs that wouldn't go away…and they're not the ones you think!

I recently listened to a 1981 episode of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 countdown, and one of Casey's trivia moments changed the way I view pop history.

When I think of the biggest vintage songs of the rock & roll era, a few immediately pop into mind: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones, "Respect" by Aretha Franklin -- you know, those usual 1960s suspects.

When Casey listed the five songs that made the Top 40 via different versions in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, he kind of blew me away. They were songs that were so beloved they entered the Top 40 again…and again…and again, but not one of them come to mind when I think of the quintessential classics from the last 50-plus years.

I mean, the Stones' "Satisfaction" is the band's signature single, and it's been covered by artists as diverse as Franklin, Otis Redding, Devo, and Britney Spears, yet it's only enjoyed one Top 40 trip. How is that possible?

There are a couple of those triple players that I'd consider to be bonafide classics, though none of them on par with the aforementioned classics. I suppose, however, that I could imagine a post-millennial choosing a few of them as audition songs on any of the reality-show talent contests. Then again, Stevie Wonder's "Lately" was an American Idol staple for several seasons and Stevie's original only made it to No. 64 on Billboard's Hot 100. Not a particularly iconic chart showing.

After some careful consideration, I threw in the '90s and added four songs to Casey's triple-play list (all of which joined the club after the August 1981 AT40 episode aired). Hmm… I'm still scratching my head and wondering, These are the songs that Americans loved so much they sent them into the Top 40 at least once in at least three consecutive decades? Huh?

Well, who said there are no more surprises? There are a number of them among Billboard's biggest decades-spanning hits.

(Interesting aside: The title "Venus" has topped the Hot 100 in three non-consecutive decades -- the '50s, '70s, and '80s -- via Frankie Avalon's 1959 classic, a completely different 1970 Shocking Blue hit, and Bananarama's 1986 Shocking Blue cover. Despite the No. 1 success of "Venus" by both Shocking Blue and Bananarama, would anyone consider it to even approach the classic status of, say, Aretha Franklin's iconic "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which went to No. 8 in 1967, never to grace the Top 40 again? Mysteries!)

"Stand By Me": 1) Ben E. King, 1961, No. 4, 2) Spyder Turner, 1967, No. 12, 3) John Lennon, 1975, No. 20, 4) Mickey Gilley, 1980, No. 22, 5) Ben E. King, 1986, No. 9

"Cupid": 1) Sam Cooke, 1961, No. 17, 2) Johnny Nash, 1970, No. 39, 3) Tony Orlando and Dawn, 1976, No. 22, 4) The Spinners, 1980, No. 4

"The Loco-Motion" : 1) Little Eva, 1962, No. 1, 2) Grand Funk Railroad, 1974, No. 1, 3) Kylie Minogue, 1988, No. 3

"Hey There Lonely Boy/Girl": 1) Ruby and the Romantics, 1963, No. 27, 2) Eddie Holman, 1970, No. 2, 3) Robert John, 1980, No. 31

"I Only Want to Be with You": 1) Dusty Springfield, 1964, No. 12, 2) Bay City Rollers, 1976, No. 12, 3) Samantha Fox, 1988, No. 31

"The Way You Do the Things You Do": 1) The Temptations, 1964, No. 11, 2) Rita Coolidge, 1978, No. 20, 3) Hall & Oates featuring David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick, 1985, No. 25, 4) UB40, 1990, No. 6

"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)": 1) The Four Tops, 1965, No. 1, 2) Donnie Elbert, 1972, No. 22, 3) Bonnie Pointer, 1980, No. 40

"Everlasting Love": 1) Robert Knight, 1967, No. 13, 2) Carl Carlton, 1974, No. 6, 3) Rex Smith and Rachel Sweet, 1981, No. 32, 4) Gloria Estefan, 1995, No. 27

"Baby I Love Your Way": 1) Peter Frampton, 1976, No. 12, 2) Will to Power, 1988, No. 1, 3) Big Mountain, 1994, No. 6

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dear white people (and Nancy Lee Grahn): There is no criticizing Viola Davis' beautifully human Emmy speech

What is it with daytime soap actresses I love putting their feet in their Twitters? Several years ago, it was Days of Our Lives' Melissa Reeves defending the right of the powers that be at Chick-fil-A to hate gay people.

Now General Hospital's Nancy Lee Grahn has tried to turn what was a beautiful historic Emmy moment -- How to Get Away with Murder's Viola Davis becoming the first black actress to win Outstanding Lead Actress in Drama Series -- and turn it into something ugly.

I will admit that for one moment, the one where Viola was quoting Harriet Tubman, I was a bit perplexed. Wait, when were beautiful white women reaching out to you from across the great divide? I wondered. But once she attributed the lovely quote to Tubman, I recognized it for the amazing analogy that it was.

I was right with her for the rest of the speech. I'm pretty sure I must have stifled a tear. I was surrounded by colleagues at work. I didn't want them to see how touched I was. I try to be tough like that in public, but had I let the waterworks flow, I'm convinced they all would have understood.

Thank God, I don't work with Nancy Lee Grahn. She probably would have been rolling her eyes while crafting her tweet in her head.

Here's what she ended up writing:

"I wish I loved #ViolaDavis Speech, but I thought she should have let @shondarhimes write it. #Emmys"

Of course, you can't go there and just run away. NLG didn't. She wrote a succession of follow-up tweets criticising Viola for singling out black women and not making her speech about all women. She griped about Viola getting better roles than she does, paid her some backhanded compliments, then delivered the zinging kicker:

"She has never been discriminated against."

Whoa! I thought as I read her series of tweets, wondering how it was possible that she could have survived the half hour-plus it took for her to write them without any oxygen getting to her head.

But after Matt Damon's lesson on discrimination last week -- he had the nerve to tell a black director that it doesn't matter if you have diversity behind the camera as long as there's diversity in front of it -- I'm convinced that when it comes to racism, white Hollywood (including many who consider themselves to be hyper-aware liberals) just doesn't get it.

Unless you know what it's like to be denied opportunity because of the color of your skin, to be denied jobs and housing, to be told you are not as good as everyone else, as beautiful as everyone else, because you happen to be a minority, you simply cannot tell me how racism works.

Yes, there is discrimination against women in Hollywood. But Viola Davis is not contractually obligated to speak for all women. (And didn't Patricia Arquette already cover that -- painfully so -- after winning her Oscar earlier this year?) Nancy Lee Grahn is a fantastic actress -- one with a pair of Daytime Emmy Awards, by the way -- and I certainly think she's talented enough to be a major movie star. Why she isn't is a discussion for another night.

But on the night when Viola Davis becomes the first black woman in history to win an Emmy Award in her field, yes, I think the discussion needs to be about black actresses, not actresses in general. (P.S. Since The Jefferson's Isabel Sanford won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1981, she, Gimme a Break's Nell Carter, and The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad have been the only black women to be nominated in that category, the last black nominee being Rashad in 1986.) Despite what NLG sees as her professional deprivation and Viola Davis's privilege, this is an award for which women, most of them white, have been competing for decades, and it took decades for a black woman to finally win it.

What does that say about the Academy? What does it say about Hollywood? What does it say about the United States? For all the discrimination against women in general, the fact remains that white women have it much better than women of color. Yes, they don't receive the same pay as men. Yes, in Hollywood, they struggle to find work after turning 40.

But black women have a tougher time climbing over that brick wall. How often do we see them headlining movies, being cast as the romantic lead, being cast at all in roles that aren't specifically written for a black character? Things have gotten much better on TV in recent years, but Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to female minorities.

In the 13 years since Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a leading actress Oscar and Denzel Washington became the second black leading actor to take the prize, two black men (Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker) have won, but there have been no follow-up black female winners and only three black female nominees (one of which was Viola).

Viola Davis may be highly employable these days, but she was no overnight success. How dare NLG tell her that she has never been discriminated against? She is a 50-year-old woman who has only just begun to hit her stride in film and TV. As NLG said in one deleted tweet, she herself has been an actress for 40 years, and she's been a gainfully employed one since the 1980s, well before anyone had ever heard of Viola Davis.

Unless she's actually walked in Viola's shoes, how can she say what Viola has experienced? Unless NLG has experienced racial discrimination firsthand, how can she address it with any real expertise? Rather than using a landmark moment to bemoan her own status or perceived lack thereof in the industry, perhaps she should have put her hashtagging effort to better use and congratulated Viola.

A win for black women is a win for all women. Who knows? If NLG had put aside her sour grapes and really listened to what Viola was saying, she might even have learned something.

Later NLG apologized for her comments, but she kept defending herself at the same time, proving she hadn't actually learned anything at all.

Dear white people: Stop wigging out and getting so defensive when black people start talking about racism. If you're not racist, bravo. But it's not just about you. So shut up and listen. You might learn something about us. You might learn something about yourselves, too.