Monday, June 20, 2011

Americans the beautiful: Wishful thinking, or are my fellow countrymen unfairly maligned?

By now I'm used to it. After nearly five years living abroad, I've heard pretty much every dig, every stereotype, every misconception and every half-truth about big, bad Americans.

They're fat. They're greedy capitalists. They never travel, and they don't speak a second language. They're rude, racist, loud, and they have terrible taste -- in clothing, in food, in politicians. The other night I was talking to a fellow American in Melbourne, and he had very few nice things to say about the folks we'd both left behind. I wasn't surprised. Most of my expatriate friends in Argentina are not particularly fond of the American way, and to be perfectly honest, I probably still would be living there if I didn't harbor some anti-American sentiments myself.

But hey, we all have our flaws. Four and a half years living in Buenos Aires magnified the shortcomings of Argentines to such a blinding degree that I sometimes had to look away. And after four months in Australia, I can see clearly now that Aussies are not without their own not-so-appealing quirks. A new Australian mate (to use a word that now grates rather than endears) recently pointed out that the cliché laid-back Australian is more flippant than easygoing. I agree. But more on that in a future post.

What irks me about all of the negative American stereotypes -- aside from the fact they often are upheld by people who have never set foot in the U.S. and get all of their information from the media and prime-time TV -- is that the same folks who spend so much time damning Americans, embrace their TV shows, flock to their movies, obsess over their celebrities and dream of one day making it over there. It might be the modern-day equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it's nice work if you can get it in the U.S.

Which brings me to Russell Watson, the British tenor who also has tried to make it in the U.S., with some degree of success. Today I was reading an interview with him in the Sunday Herald Sun, and he was talking about being diagnosed with a brain tumor twice, in 2005 and 2007. Of course, he received the first diagnosis in -- where else? -- the U.S.A.

"It was my worst fears confirmed. I was in L.A., and it was like a scene out of ER. I went to an office where an American man in a white coat said: 'Mr. Watson, please sit down.' I felt like I was back at school in the headmaster's office. It was all very American and dramatic in the way it was presented. 'Mr. Watson, you have a brain tumor and from the images we're getting, I'd say it is a big one.' There was a sense of 'Oh.'"

"It was all very American and dramatic in the way it was presented"? Very American because it was presented so dramatically? Hospital-set TV shows tend to give us this peculiar image of stoic, stone-faced doctors handing out bad news like they're dealing with pesky customers at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Don't get emotionally attached I've heard them say over and over. But perhaps Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and One Life to Live have got it all wrong. Maybe there's actually a lot of hand wringing, desperate looks, and occasionally, tears even. It would seem fitting to me as being told you have a brain tumor, as a family member of mine recently was, is a dramatic experience that probably deserves a dramatic presentation. Is that "American" or simply human? I'd say the most baffling part of Watson's trip down memory lane would be that "sense of 'Oh.'"

Oh. Maybe he was referring to the formality, the this-is-a-very-important-moment-please-cue-somber-music approach. In Argentina, I often was disarmed by the inappropriately casual manner of medical workers. "Tranquilo," they'd say to me when I unleashed my inner hypochondriac, assuming the worst possible diagnosis every time I went in because of some minor ache or pain or blood-test results that didn't fall into the optimal range. Of course, I never received bad news from any of my doctors in BA, so I have no idea how they adjust their tone to deliver it.

I wonder how it's done back in England. "Oh. By the way, you have a brain tumor. Would you like another cup of the tea?" I was hoping that the writer would get Watson to clarify his "It was all very American" comment, which I interpreted as being unnecessarily pejorative, as well as that sense of "Oh," but his name is Nui Te Koha. God only knows what he thinks of Americans!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The things we do for love

There's a very good reason why I avoid dating musicians and actors. Everyone comes with a little bit of baggage, but get involved with someone who sings, plays music or acts for a living, and you have to be nearly as committed to what they do as they are.

But what if I hated my rocker boyfriend's music? Even if I loved his work, I still couldn't imagine having to sit through all of his gigs, applauding after every song, pretending that I'm happy to be supporting him in the crowd when I'd much rather be propped up on a bar stool anywhere but there. How does Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and all those starlets who fall for rockers do it? I love Coldplay and Muse, but how many times do I need to see them live in one lifetime? Then again, I suppose that if Chris Martin has to pretend to love his wife's work on Glee, and if Matthew Bellamy had to sit through Something Borrowed, the least Paltrow and Hudson can do is stand by their men.

Dating can be complicated for me because I tend to be attracted to creative types because we generally have more in common. It would be so easy to date a banker because he'd never bring his work home, and even if he did, I wouldn't mind an evening spent looking at cash. The color of  money is pleasing to the eye, but what in the world would we talk about?

My first boyfriend was an artist. Going out with a painter was relatively painless because experiencing his work required a minimal time commitment. I'd look at every new canvas for a minute or two and come up with with some insightful point of view. He painted donkeys, so it wasn't easy. But at least I didn't have to get dressed and go anywhere. Accompanying him to museums and old churches in New York City, Boston and Europe was so much more time consuming, but I was in love, so I tagged along cheerfully and even started reading biographies of Willem de Kooning, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cadmus. I never got around to those books on Pablo Picasso and the two Franciscos -- de Goya and de Zurburán -- and thankfully, we broke up before I had to.

Writers are trickier, and I sort of feel for anyone who dates me. Not that I require boyfriends to read everything I write. I'd prefer that they check out my work because they want to, not because they have to. If I were to date a journalist/blogger like me, chances are we'd probably both be too headstrong and opinionated to make a good match, but at least reading his work wouldn't take up more than 10 or 15 minutes of my time.

Falling for a novelist would be tougher. There already are so many books on my to-read list, I couldn't imagine having to move his to the top just because he's the love of my life. And then I'd have to read it, too! I'd rather wait for the movie, which would make dating an actor easier, except that the ones I've always had access to performed on stages and not in films. I've seen so many dreadful Off-Off-Broadway productions starring friends and acquaintances that I'd do anything to never again have to sit through another one.

All that said, I believe that when you love someone, you are automatically interested in what they do. I may avoid dating musicians and actors, but if I ever fell in love with one by accident, I imagine that I'd want to go to every show, see every play. I've always had something of an aversion to poetry, but I suspect that nothing would reverse my fear of rhyming prose like falling for someone who writes it for a living.

I recently met a guy whom I told all about this blog. He asked for the URL and said he'd check it out. I didn't think he actually would, but when I saw him the next day, he had so thoroughly read through it that he brought up things about it that I didn't even remember writing. Either he had a lot of free time, or he was genuinely interested in me. I like to think it was the latter.

I recently was involved with someone who had neither the time nor the interest. Eight months after we met, he still had never read a single word I'd written, unless it was in an email or text message. He said it wasn't me, it was him. He's just not much of a reader. "Maybe I'd be interested if you wrote something about me," he had the nerve to tell me when I called him on it once and for all. That comment told me everything I needed to know about him and what he thought about me, and none of it was good. Strangers and people who barely know me are more concerned about what I do and what I think than someone who claims to care about me.

Ironically, now that I'm finally writing something about him, I couldn't care less whether he reads it or not.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dating outside of your league: Should we be raising our standards, or is chemistry -- and a good story -- what really count?

Aside from my best friend Lori, I can't think of anyone who knows me as well as my big brother Alexi. Over the years, he's made some interesting observations about me. He was the first one to call me a "recovering introvert," a phrase that stuck and one that I still use whenever anyone asks me to describe myself.

One of his more interesting conclusions: That I spend way too much time dating outside of my league -- not up, down. Now Alexi hasn't met all of my exes, but he's met enough of my dates to notice a trend if indeed there is one. While I'm not inclined to dismiss his point of view (I have dug deep in the dirt on occasion), I also wouldn't dream of disparaging the ghosts of my past relationships. After any romance ends badly, don't we all sniff, "He wasn't good enough for me anyway" and crank Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable," Cher's "Believe" or whatever your recovery anthem of choice might be? (Just please, don't let it be Gloria Gaynor's dreadful "I Will Survive"!)

But what makes one person "good enough" for another? I'm not going to say that all men are created equal, because a world of equals would be a dull place indeed. But I'm not crazy about the idea of assigning values to people and refusing to slum under a certain level. I do have my standards, and they are higher than my brother thinks they are (a good-looking, creative non-smoker with a wry sense of humor, a strong point of view and a love of pop culture who is taller than me -- 6'1" and above -- out of the closet, living on his own and not too attached to mom would be my romantic holy grail), but I rarely refer to them when I date someone. Does that guy even exist? If so, I've never met him. So I negotiate my standards until they're all thrown out the window, and my overriding concern, for better but usually for worse, is whether we click.

It hasn't worked too well for me, but not because the guys I've dated weren't good enough for me. I think a healthier post-break-up attitude would be, "He wasn't right for me." I haven't been lucky in love, but I've been fortunate in the sense that most of the guys with whom I've gone on more than a few dates have been pretty decent people. Yes, they all have been flawed, but so am I.

Over the years, I've convinced myself that my first boyfriend, a German artist five years my senior whom I dated for a year and a half when I was in my early 20s, might have been the one who got away. We travelled together (I made my first trip to Europe -- Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, Segovia, Sitges, a train across the Pyrenees from Spain to France, Toulouse and Provence -- with him), had scintillating conversations about art and philosophy (he introduced me to Nietzsche, I brought Dostoyevsky to the table), and we were almost always on the same wavelength. He even stopped eating red meat and chicken in deference to my vegetarianism.

Alas, I was in my early 20s and my young heart wanted to run free. He was ready to settle down at the ripe old age of 28. When we broke up, he left me a message telling me that he'd been listening to the 10,000 Maniacs song "Noah's Dove" on repeat all day and thinking of me. He insisted that Natalie Merchant might as well have been singing about me -- and he was sure to point out that I should not take that as a compliment. I pulled out my Our Time in Eden CD and listened carefully to the lyrics. I cried for an hour. I still can't listen to that song without tearing up. Uh oh, here comes the rain again.

My brother would have approved of him had they ever met as he was squarely in my league, meeting nearly all of the above standards (a high-art snob, he looked down on low-brow pop culture -- definitely one for the con column), but our time in Eden wasn't meant to last any longer than it did. When we broke up, I remember crying on the phone to my mom that I'd never find anyone to love me again. She assured me that I would, but it would just be a different kind of love.

She was right. The guys that make up my ongoing love story have been a varied bunch -- they've loved and lived in very different ways. Should I have been more selective, had higher standards? My brother might say yes, but I regret nothing. I've never been cheated on (to my knowledge), mentally or physically abused, or ripped off by any of my exes. I've been snubbed and insulted, and I've cried myself to sleep, but I've never really had my heart broken. For that alone, I should be grateful.

There have been a few strays along the way whose charms I probably should have resisted. But I'm glad I didn't. If it weren't for the guys who stood me up, the ones who lied to me, the one who dumped me by email while I was on vacation in Brazil, what would I have to write about? What would I have learned? Someday my prince will come. Until then, I'm just thankful for the lessons, and all the good material.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Last Friday night: Do I relate to the morning after in "The Hangover Part II" a little bit too much?

Just because it barely made me laugh doesn't mean I didn't know exactly what The Hangover Part II was trying to say. Know what I'm saying?

Anyone with a weakness for tequila shots with beer chasers does. In my time, I've had some killer hangovers accompanied by mysterious memory loss. I think that's what you call blacking out, but that just sounds so low class. I prefer to think that I set aside certain memories and save them for a rainy day when I have nothing better to do than relive the sordid details of my misspent youth and similarly semi-depraved middle age.

I've never cut off a finger (thank God!), tattooed my face, or woken up in a strange congested metropolis that wasn't home, but I did once rise from a drunken slumber in a strange bed somewhere in Brooklyn and had no idea how I got there. Another time, I spent an entire evening cavorting on the dance floor with a long-lost love from Milan (ah, Paolo!), and the next morning, the only evidence I had of having run into him was his phone number in my cell phone. Many is the beautiful stranger I totally would have forgotten about if he hadn't bothered to store his digits in my phone or send me a message at 8.30 the following morning. (That's how Jeremy met Jayden!)

In the olden days, when people actually talked on the telephone, I was the king of drunk dialing. I'm a happy drunk, so my comments usually were something along the lines of "I'm so glad we're friends" and "I love you so much" -- things I wouldn't really say in the light of day during regular business hours. Still, despite my decent track record of not saying anything to piss people off, many was the morning when I woke up petrified by what I must have said the night before and to whom I must have said it.

As talking on the phone gave way to Internet communication, drunk emailing became my embarrassment method of choice. Unfortunately for me, no matter how bad my memory loss was the next day, the "sent" box -- one of the most evil of all computer creations -- contained all the evidence of my mental instability when under the influence of too much José Cuervo. Interestingly, my drunken online rampages ended as mysteriously as they began. Maybe it had something to do with my newfound outlet: sexting.

Boy did I sext some whoppers! Some were tirades (so much for being a 100 per cent happy drunk). Some were non-sequiters. Some were booty calls. A few guys actually showed up. Too bad I usually passed out by time they arrived and didn't hear them buzzing to let them in!

I occasionally still wake up with head trauma after a night of too much imbibing, like last Friday night, to quote the title of Katy Perry's new single. But I've learned my lessons. I turn off the computer before I go out. (Turning it on requires motor skills that just don't function when I'm stumbling and slurring.) I leave my cell phone at home, or I hide it in my sock. (Nothing promotes drunk sexting like a switched-on cell phone easily accessible in your pocket.)

The good news is that my morning afters are no longer cause for alarm. I may not always rise and shine looking or feeling my best with all of my memories intact (and sometimes I'm surrounded by food that I don't recall eating), but for the most part, the only embarrassing conversations I can't remember are live ones from the night before with people who probably remember even less than I do. I'm not quite sure how I always manage to find my way home (especially in Melbourne, where I've already had three addresses, none of which roll off the tongue), but it's been ages since I've woken up in a bed that wasn't mine, and best of all, I'm almost always alone.

I can't think of a better end to a straight tequila night.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Are we arguing or just talking loudly?

Lord knows I have my shortcomings, but a lack of self-awareness isn't one of them. I am fully aware that at times, I can be endlessly annoying, and patience is not a virtue with which I've been blessed. I've been told (by my mother) that I give up on people too easily, (by my brother) that my standards and expectations of people are too high, and (by myself) that I don't know when to shut up.

Those who know me well might agree with my mother and brother (I do), and those who regularly read my blogs, might concur that sometimes I might be better off zipping it. Yet I never seem to know just when to stop. I'm a typical Taurus: headstrong and opinionated. I think first and talk later.

My friends love and loathe me for all of those strong qualities (or perhaps it's my loyalty, another quintessential Taurean trait), but most importantly, they accept me as is because, you know, that's what friends do. Friendship with me is not for those who don't like to be contradicted or those who prefer their conversations to remain at volume 5 and below. An ex once asked me why I have so much invested in always being right, and I asked, "Well, if I don't think I'm right, who will?" Why open your mouth if you think what you're saying is possibly wrong?

But talking about the passion, if I have a point of view (which, in the strictest sense of the term, are neither right nor wrong, just informed or misguided), I feel compelled to share it, especially when the wheel of fortunate conversation topics lands on a subject I really care about. Racism and homophobia will rile me up, but nothing gets me going like music and pop culture.

I once interviewed Sharleen Spiteri from the band Texas, and she told me that the night she met her then-boyfriend and the future father of her daughter, they were arguing about rock & roll. It was love at first fight. I recently clicked with someone while debating the pros and cons of Lady Gaga. It's so much better than talking about the weather!

So when does a conversation or discussion go from being heated and turn into an argument? Probably when tempers flare, but not all arguments are created equal. An argument doesn't become negative until it gets personal. We strike nerves, say things we can't take back but later wish we could. Sometimes a slap is thrown in, or a drink gets tossed in someone's face.

It usually begins with a personal observation: Why do you always leave the cap off the toothpaste and/or the toilet seat up? Must you always be at least a half hour late? Who is he and what is he to you? If you tell me you love Lady Gaga (which pretty much everybody does these days), and I tell you I don't (what a broken record I've become), we aren't really arguing until I blurt out (loudly) that you're a fool for being taken in by Born This Way and all its hype.

But I'd never ever do that.

The other day I had a heated discussion with someone about a subject very near and dear to me. (I won't reveal the topic lest he read this and know I'm talking about him.) Voices (well, mine) were raised, spit flew (again, probably mine) and opinions were expressed. As far as I recall, there were no insults, no threatening looks, no ill will (at least not on my part), until I was mid-retort and he announced, "I don't want to argue about this anymore."

Wrong answer!

I think he was just tired, or maybe it was that time of the month, but if we weren't arguing before, we were about to now. I understand that some people don't like confrontation. They'd much rather watch a boxing match or a good old cat fight between two spunky divas on TV than get their hands dirty disagreeing with someone in real life. I get that raised voices turn some people off. But we all disagree sometimes, and sometimes when we do, we talk above a whisper. If you hold it in now, there's always the danger that it will come out in a more inconvenient time and place. And like No. 2s, expression comes in all shapes, sizes and volumes. (I know, gross!)

Passion has its place outside of the bedroom, too. But regardless of where you stand on the touchy subject of whether it's polite to raise one's voice in the presence of company, one thing's for certain: It's worse to interrupt someone mid-sentence, especially to announce that the conversation is over.

Unfortunately, I never got around to saying any of this because my friend shut down, which, of course, made me angrier and resulted in a full-blown argument. The irony? There were no insults traded, no raised voices. In fact, barely a word was spoken. But we were having a full-blown argument for sure, and it couldn't have been more personal. I was infuriated by the dead silence when there was so much more I wanted to say -- about the subject that had been at hand, about him and his lousy attitude, about '70s TV stars whose hair never moved. I hate screaming matches, but surely shouting must be better than this!

It wasn't the end of the world, or the friendship. I eventually finished the thought that he so rudely interrupted, though I'm not sure that he was even listening. The next time I feel the spark of passion igniting inside of me, I'll try to keep it down, but I'll probably fail. There's a time and place for loud eruptions of passion, and for me, it doesn't have to be when I'm horizontal.

I know that's annoying, but fortunately, the people who really love me wouldn't have me any other way.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New Zealand's appeal: How 'Hobbit Land' took me completely by surprise

I won't make the supreme blunder of trying to speak for all of my uninformed fellow Americans, but I'd always imagined that New Zealand was merely an extension of Australia, a poor man's Oz. (Come on, didn't you, too?) A sort of Canada to Australia's United States. Uruguay to Argentina. Wales to England and maybe even Scotland, too.

At best, it was a country rich and beautiful enough to have hosted the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I'll never watch but appreciate because it helped Annie Lennox score a Best Original Song Academy Award). At worst, it was the place that spawned the public-relations nightmare known as Russell Crowe and according to an Australian acquaintance, has been dubbed (perhaps pejoratively) "Hobbit Land" by the Aussies.

It took only three days in Auckland on NZ's north island to turn my thinking around. I had as much fun out on the town (specifically, at Family Bar on Karangahape Road, which, as gay-friendly drags go, is to Auckland what Oxford Street is to Sydney) on Friday night as I've ever had in Melbourne or Sydney, so by Saturday morning, I already was kind of crushing hard.

Saturday was rainy, and were it not for the fact that I spent it in the excellent company of my new Australian friend Guy (he's from a small Queensland town called Chinchilla -- population: 3,681, according to Wikipedia, and the Melon Capital of Australia -- which is four hours outside of Brisbane), I may have backtracked in my high estimation of the city. Not even the dreadfully dreary The Hangover Part II -- which we saw to get out of the rain and for me to research my upcoming planned trip to Bangkok -- could ruin my excellent first impression. A former New Zealand colleague of mine had described the Central Business District, where I stayed in a sprawling two-bedroom apartment with a wrap-around balcony and where we saw the movie, as a "soulless architectural hodgepodge," and although I don't disagree, I fell for it, too.

But it was really Sunday that got me uttering the L word to Auckland and, by extension, New Zealand. My good old Kiwi friend Melanie, whom I hadn't seen since going to her wedding in London seven years ago, took me to lunch in Mission Bay. Mel, her 2-year-old daughter Joni and I dined al fresco at a lovely restaurant on the beach. Melanie explained that Auckland is a city built on volcanoes, which accounts for its hilly beauty, and which, had I done my normal extensive pre-travel research, wouldn't have been such an unexpected treat.

As far as its metropolitan appeal, it's not right up there with other cities I've lived in -- New York, Buenos Aires -- but three months in Melbourne have taught me to appreciate the placid beauty of suburbanish life just outside the bustling CBD. I'm not making any promises, but if I ever move back to New York City, I actually might consider living in Brooklyn. Queens, though, remains off the table!

I wasn't expecting so much cultural diversity or great food. (If you ever find yourself in Auckland's CBD, get thee to De Niro Ristorante -- no relation to Robert -- located in Elliott Stables, which is like an upscale food court without the mall, and order the chicken and potato cannelloni.) I'd read that Auckland has the world's largest Polynesian population, but I really had to see it to believe it. In spots, it has a Pacific Island feel that took me completely by surprise. On the complete opposite end of the cultural and visual spectrum, Devonport on the North Shore almost felt like a quaint English town with gorgeous rolling hills. I would have stuck around longer there, but I suspected that had I climbed the green green grass of the centerpiece hill, I might not have wanted to come back down.

All in all, Auckland -- and New Zealand -- was an unexpected thrill. (The only glaring downside: the rationing of Wi-Fi, which, I suppose, either means that Kiwis will do anything for an extra buck, or they've got better things to do than spend all day surfing the Internet.) It was like a blind date you grudgingly go on, with no-to-low expectations. But surprise! You wake up sort of head over heels and find yourself -- miracle of miracles! -- actually looking forward to date No. 2. I'll be back!