Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What's Gladys Knight Doing Dancing with the "Stars"?

I choose my own TV poison, and one bad apple out of which I've yet to take a bite is ABC's Dancing with the Stars. Although I did watch a YouTube clip of Sade performing "Babyfather" on the DWTS stage two years ago (and how could I not?), I've never seen an episode of the reality-TV dance-off.

It's not that I have anything against B-to-D-listers dancing for dollars, or ABC plugging its own shows by inviting "stars" that nobody really wants to see more of (The View's Sherri Shepherd, just announced for Season 14, premiering March 19), but I've simply never cared for watching other people dance.

I hated doing it from the bleachers at high school dances, or from the cheap seats at office Christmas parties (yeah, that was me always leading the line dance in the middle of the action), and I liked it even less the one time I went to the ballet in New York City.

So no Dancing with the Stars for me this next season. But I do reserve the right to comment on the participants. Once again, they're a mixed bag, ranging from the "Why are they famous?" (Extra co-host Maria Menounos) to the once-famous (Family Matters' Jaleel White, Mellisa Gilbert, the actress formerly known as Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, and Jack Wagner, the actor formerly known as General Hospital's Frisco Jones, who was just let go from The Bold and the Beautiful) to the almost famous (singer Gavin DeGraw) to this year's new category.

Drumroll, please: "WTF?! They're still famous!"

In the season 12 running: Tennis legend Martina Navratilova and singing legend Gladys Knight. There comes a point in every icon's career when it no longer matters when you won your last championship or scored your last hit single. You're an A-lister for life. Knight and Navratilova reached that level ages ago. Since I'm no great tennis fan, I won't go on about Navratilova here except to say how much I enjoyed -- and agreed with -- her recent op-ed piece that I read in Australia's The Age newspaper on how to be or not to be gay is not a question that anyone gets to ask. It is so not a choice, folks!

Now off my soapbox I go.

As for my beloved Gladys Knight, what is she thinking? It's not like she has her own Psychic Friends Network to atone for (which I mention because Dionne Warwick appeared on Celebrity Apprentice last year, and because the one time I met Warwick and Knight, they were together at one of Clive Davis's pre-GRAMMY parties and have been sort of soul sisters in my mind since). If Aretha Franklin hadn't been born, Knight for sure would have been crowned the Queen of Soul.

So once again, I'll be sitting out another season of DWTS. Not because I can't stomach reality TV (which I can't), but because I can't stand the thought of Knight being symbolically put out to pasture, demoted to the D-list, which is where every DWTS loser inevitably goes. Right now, I'm going to get behind the music, her music, because that's why she'll always be near the top of my personal A-list.

My Top 5 Gladys Knight Musical Memories (with and without the Pips):

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine"

"The Makings of You"

"Save the Overtime for Me"

"Love Overboard"

"License to Kill"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

From Keane, with Love (?), on My Next Birthday

The timing couldn't be worse.

I'm not amused, not jumping for joy, about turning 43 on a Monday. Hell, I'm not looking forward to turning 43 at all. But on a Monday, bloody Monday? Does anything good ever happen on Monday? And isn't having a birthday on a Monday pretty much a guarantee that no more than five people will show up to help you celebrate?

Oh, well. Keane just eased my pre-birthday angst slightly by announcing that it will release its fourth album, Strangeland (whose title does seem to describe my life these days, does it not?), on May 7, which, incidentally, will be eight years from the day I bought the band's debut CD, Hopes and Fears, while in London for a wedding.

May Keane's new album be the huge hit that "The Lovers Are Losing," the second single from 2008's Perfect Symmetry, totally deserved to be, and may more than a half dozen people turn up to help me celebrate. If not, at least I'll have an excellent soundtrack -- yes, I'm already predicting all-around brilliance, and not just because Keane says it is so -- to ring in my new year!

Monday, February 27, 2012

10 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching the 2012 Academy Awards

1. Meryl Streep wins Best Actress! Somewhere is Halle Berry breathing a sigh of relief that she will continue being the category's only black winner?

2. I hope that Jean Dujardin improves his English soon. I'm eager to see him become a huge Hollywood player and not go the way of Life Is Beautiful's Best Actor Roberto Benigni. Whatever happened to him? But getting back to Dujardin, Hollywood adores those female Gallic beauties -- Caron, Signoret, Aimee, Deneuve, Adjani, Huppert, Binoche, Cotillard -- but there's a lot more to their male counterparts than Gerard Depardieu!

3. Two 2011 Best New Artist GRAMMY nominees in one Oscar telecast! Justin Bieber didn't sing anything (thankfully), but Esperanza Spalding's lovely rendition of "What a Wonderful World" during the In Memoriam segment proves that the best woman won. Now I might finally get around to checking out her music.

4. It's too bad Best Supporting Actor Christopher Plummer isn't gay in real life. Now that I'm done dating guys half my age (or so I say), he's exactly the type of man I'm looking for: debonair, talented, smart, funny and grown -- as he reminded us, just two years younger than Oscar himself.

5. My favorite tweet of the evening (afternoon, for me, Oz time), courtesy of my friend Vagner: "sandra bullock's face is either a mask or a real doll mold...."

6. Couldn't they have given honorary Oscar recipients James Earl Jones and Oprah Winfrey better seats? Or better yet, allow them onstage. It's still Black History Month, you know. Maybe the Academy is still sore over Oprah's Nielsen ratings drama.

7. When Viola Davis was the first one on her feet after Colin Firth called Meryl Streep's name, for a moment, I thought the Academy had pulled another Best Actress tie, like it did at the 1969 ceremony by honoring both the old school (The Lion in Winter's Katharine Hepburn) and the new (Funny Girl's Barbra Streisand). Nothing against Viola Davis, whom I loved in The Help and was fully expecting to win, but I'm glad I was wrong. Let Meryl Streep have her solo moment so that the Oscars can stop being all about her getting her third one and start being about getting Glenn Close and Annette Bening their first ones.

8. It's too bad that during her Best Actor testimonials Natalie Portman didn't acknowledge that she did her first film, 1994's The Professional, with Best Actor nominee Gary Oldman. Colin Firth had the balls to remind us that he and Streep co-starred in the dreadful Mamma Mia!, whose director helped win Streep her third Oscar for their second terrible director-actress collaboration. I wonder if Portman and Oldman hate each other.

9. Speaking of Firth, what film did he and Michelle Williams do together when she was 12 and he was 35? Did he appear on an episode of Dawson's Creek? I'm too excited over Jean Dujardin to do a proper Wikipedia/IMDb check. (Update: My good friend and Us Weekly film critic Mara Reinstein checked, and it was 1997's A Thousand Acres.)

10. Did I imagine Reese Witherspoon tearing up while talking about the 1987 Goldie Hawn film Overboard? Maybe she was thinking of that fact that Rachel McAdams, star of the romantic-drama hit The Vow and Best Picture nominee Midnight in Paris, is now a bigger box-office draw than she is. Sadly (for her), the titular declaration of her under-performing This Means War didn't go in her favor. Now this really means war!

The Best Female Singers Ever (Pt. 1): Alison Moyet

Before there was Adele, and after there was Dusty Springfield, there was Alison Moyet, one of the great purveyors of British blue-eyed soul.

The first time I ever heard her sing was when her 1984 single, "Invisible," became a Top 40 hit in the U.S. "She sounds like a man," I remember a classmate of mine saying at the time. It didn't matter to me. I was instantly in love with the full-bodied voice coming out of that full-bodied woman.

It was until college that I discovered Upstairs at Eric's and You and Me Both, the ground-breaking synth-soul opuses that she and Vince Clarke, an original member of Depeche Mode, recorded as Yazoo in the early '80s. To this day, every time I'm on the verge of breaking up with a guy, I hear Moyet singing "Nobody's Diary" in my head (please pardon the out-of-(lip)sync dubbing below).

Moyet has been on my mind lately. In the last week, two of my friends posted about her on my Facebook wall. The first was a clip of her performing with Paul Young at Live Aid in 1985, accompanied with a dig at Adele: "Kudos to Adele lately, but didn't ALISON MOYET do it WAY before her & better, some 25-30 years ago? What do you think?" (For the record, I agree.)

The second, courtesy of my best friend Lori, were simple instructions: "Google Moyet 2009 -- u won't believe it! First performance in 2 decades....I'll leave it at that."

Here's what I found.

Wow! Not only had Moyet dropped about half of her body weight, but she'd discarded about 20 years, too. (She turned 50 last year.) She's always been beautiful to me, but now she looked like the star she no doubt would have been had the pop world been kinder to full-figured talents pre-Adele.

Her 1991 album, Hoodoo, was a sadly overlooked pop masterpiece that, at the time, deserved all of the plaudits and commercial success that 21 is getting now. Her most recent album, The Turn, which, at times, sounds like the score to the greatest love of all (R.I.P., Whitney), was released in 2007. Five years is much too long for me to wait for an Alison Moyet fix. May she soon return with new music to go along with her new look.

I won't go on and on and on about why she's one of my Top 5 female singers of all-time, when I can let you see -- and hear -- for yourself.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

And the Oscars Will (Should) Go To...

Perhaps I've already said -- er, written -- too much on the subject, so I'll try to keep my 2012 Oscar predictions short and sweet.

Best Actor
Who will win Jean Dujardin
Who should win Jean Dujardin
Why? I could easily see George Clooney and Brad Pitt swapping roles and still pulling off nominations. But who else of the five nominees could have done what Jean Dujardin did in The Artist, offering such detailed characterization, while uttering a mere two words of dialogue? It's an iconic performance and Dujardin completely owns the role, which is actually what iconic performances are all about.

Best Actress
Who will win Viola Davis
Who should win Michelle Williams
Why? By now, Davis's lock on this contest is part of her manifest destiny as a strong black actress living, working, and (as she is quick to point out) struggling in America. This moment is hers. But why Williams over Meryl Streep? In The Iron Lady, Streep gave us the celebrity version of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not an actual human being. (Meanwhile, the current-day scenes were pure conjecture -- that old lady could have been anyone's dotty grandma.) In My Week with Marilyn, Williams gave us a real live woman, burdened by immense talent, beauty and insecurity, who just happened to be named Marilyn Monroe.

Best Supporting Actor
Who will win Christopher Plummer
Who should win Christopher Plummer
Why? I'll still stand and cheer if Kenneth Branagh's or Nick Nolte's names are called, but for Beginners' Plummer, this is more than a lifetime achievement award. It will be recognition of the artistry that went into creating such a positive, authentic portrait of man finally coming out at the end of the evening, without a hint of cliche or overt sentimentality.

Best Supporting Actress
Who will win Octavia Spencer
Who should win Octavia Spencer
Why? Nothing against Viola Davis, who turned in brilliant work, but The Help simply wouldn't have been the same without Spencer, balancing herself so nicely on that tightrope between comedy and drama, and her character's questionable baking habits.

Best Director
Who will win Michel Hazanavicius
Who should win Michel Hazanavicius
Why? For making me feel like maybe I was born at the wrong time. The Artist left me wishing it were 1929 again so that I could experience the silent-film era, in all its fading glory, firsthand.

Best Film
What will win The Artist
What should win The Artist
Why? Because it's the one nominee that I could watch over and over and over, and years from now, I still won't be sick of it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

I'm Not a Criminal, But I Can't Stop Watching Them on TV

I have no idea how it started, but I do remember exactly where I was at the time.

I was lying in bed in my apartment in Bangkok several months ago, watching a documentary on the Crime & Investigation Network about a New Orleans TV and radio sports journalist who murdered his estranged wife in the middle of a parking lot in broad daylight and wasn't even a suspect until more than halfway through.

I won't dive into all of the lurid details here, but the story was as juicy as anything I've seen lately on Days of Our Lives (except maybe Will Horton's coming-out saga, which is must-see TV).

Here's a guy (me) who has never been able to sit through an episode of Law & Order, one who's pretty much allergic to all police procedurals. In Bangkok, I tried to get into Criminal Minds, but not even special guest star Anton Yelchin, whom I loved so much in Like Crazy, could pull me in. But suddenly, I had a new obsession. I was hooked on crime-time TV. But just the facts, m'aam -- the real facts, not make-believe crime stories on Criminal Minds and Law & Order (even if they're supposedly "ripped from the headlines").

For the first time ever, I couldn't get enough of reality TV. Not those desperate housewives, or those pitchy kids itching to be stars. I was hooked on crime -- but only after dark. It's just not the same when the sun is up. Every night, if I wasn't at DJ Station, or fast asleep, I was sitting up in bed watching some real-life crime spree unfold onscreen. (It's all about the re-enactments, which occasionally, feature decent, if not quite Emmy-caliber, acting).

As much as it shames me to say it, the Crime & Investigation Network nearly stopped me from leaving Bangkok. Well, maybe not, but I had a hard time dragging myself away from it. Over the last two months in Melbourne, it's one of the things I've missed most about Thailand, and I'm looking forward to once again going to bed with it when I return. (There's a CI in Australia, by the way, but my TV doesn't get it.)

Thankfully, though, being back in Australia hasn't meant giving up my life of crime. My nights are often still filled with murder (start humming Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" here), thanks to the Discovery channel, which on any given evening airs blocks of similar murder stories, complete with re-enactments.

There was one on the other night about a detective who was trying to solve the Jack the Ripper cold case more than a century after the fact. I'm still not sure why he insisted on going there (to London and to the 1800s). It's not like he was going to arrest anyone. It's the only time I've fallen asleep before reaching the end.

One program focused on the young followers of Charles Manson, exploring why he so easily ensnared them into his web and featuring interviews with the ones who got away, the kids who somehow never got around to killing in his name. It was a side of the Manson saga that I hadn't seen covered, and it made me sad that Martha Marcy May Marlene got absolutely no love from the Academy. John Hawkes makes an excellent Manson manque.

Another night, there was a documentary on the serial killer who was going around Gainesville, Florida, in 1990, slicing up students. I'd lived through it firsthand, having been a journalism major at the University of Florida at the time, and I'm still not completely sure how I managed to relive what had been a truly terrifying experience the first time.

Indeed, after I posted about it on Facebook, Stephanie, my roommate from back then, who had gone through much of it with me, said she wouldn't be able to watch, and I completely understood where she was coming from. I can still remember imagining the face in the police sketch that I'd seen in the Gainesville Sun staring at me through the window while home alone one night and lying awake in my bedroom in Gainesville, after escaping to New Orleans for the weekend with my friend's band, all those years ago. But two decades later, I couldn't take my eyes away from the re-enactments of the killings on the TV screen. Most of all, I wanted to see justice served, and since I'd graduated from UF and left Gainesville before the case was closed, I finally got that.

The most disturbing thing about my latest guilty pleasure, this obsession with these true-crime stories, is that Manson and the Gainesville murderer aside, sometimes, when they're told from the point of view of the criminals and not the victims, the victims' loved ones, or the police, I find myself rooting for the bad guys. I haven't been so wracked with guilt since I read The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1996, and spent a week running around Prague, introducing myself to people as Tom Ripley!

There's one series dedicated to criminals who spend years eluding the cops, and the interviews with the formerly on-the-lam crooks years after the fact make them look like not-so-bad guys. Though they fall just short of becoming sympathetic characters, I often find myself watching the re-enactments and secretly wanting them to continue avoiding capture, because I'm enjoying the chase so much. The show must go on.

The good news? Despite my recent nightlife of true crime, I'm no more inclined now than I was six months ago to physically assault an innocent man before taking him out to a deserted field to shoot him in the head, or to make a living selling pirated DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters (though I still think the cops who spent years chasing that copyright-infringement kingpin should have had better things to do). I continue to lead a crime-free life when tomorrow comes.

And I still can't make it through an episode of Law & Order.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Five Things I'm Praying for on Oscar Night

This year, I already have so much to be thankful for. As of yesterday, I know that the 2012 Academy Awards have a network home in Australia -- Channel 9, aka GO! -- which means three things: A) I won't have to watch with them in badly dubbed in Spanish, which I did every year I was living in Buenos Aires (except one -- see C), until 2011, when my friend Roberto taught me how to turn off those annoying voices.

B) I won't have to scramble to watch them live online. Maybe those TV-on-your-computer websites work in the U.S., but I've yet to find one in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok or London that has allowed me to see more than a few stop-start images before freezing up completely.

C) I won't have to rely on live blogging, which I did the year I was in London (2010) and Sandra Bullock won her once-in-a-lifetime prize. As you probably can imagine, reading the Oscars isn't nearly the same as watching them.

It's going to be strange watching the drama unfold on Monday, 27 February, beginning at 12.30pm, instead of on Sunday night (as Melbourne is 16 hours ahead of United States Eastern Time), but I'll adapt, especially if it means I can anticipate a drama-free Oscar experience for the first time in six years, and I won't have to stay up late to make it to the bitter end. (Also, it means no middle-of-the-night viewing -- er, reading -- as in London!)

Now, on with the show, and what I'm hoping happens -- or doesn't -- on Hollywood's biggest night.

1) Please, no musical performances! The GRAMMY Awards were just a couple of weeks ago, and frankly, I've had my fill of pop stars wowing us with their blindingly gaudy celebrity, and Adele blowing us away with her voice. (Okay, we get it! She can sing!) And since there are only two nominees for Best Original Song this year, it's not like the Academy cares about music anyway. After seeing the YouTube clip of Jason Segel and Jim Parsons performing the nominated song from The Muppets in the film, I'm convinced that I never want to hear that thing again.

Oh, and is there anyone who isn't convinced that the contest over who gets to sing the In Memoriam tribute is a two-woman race, between Academy Award winner (and go-to Whitney Houston-tribute girl) Jennifer Hudson and -- who else? -- Adele. Now there's one very good reason to consider a vocal-free montage to honor the dearly departed.

2) I'm begging to you, just one upset! How many years do we have to watch the same actors accepting the same prizes on every single award show? This year, we're way overdue for at least one shocking moment -- and don't let it be in Best Supporting Actor. Christopher Plummer earned that prize, dammit, and he's not going to live forever.

But I've certainly grown weary of the canonization of Viola Davis over the last few months, and (I can't believe I'm saying this) I'm secretly hoping for a Michelle Williams Best Actress upset. (Keep in mind, Williams fans, that very few actresses -- Kate Winslet, Shirley MacLaine, Geraldine Page and Susan Hayward come to mind, and no one else -- lose three times and go on to win.) Five-time loser Glenn Close would be even better but is as unlikely as a win by Charlize Theron, who wasn't even nominated. In lieu of all that, I'd certainly go back to Bangkok (on Tuesday) a happy man if Jean Dujardin snatches the prize from George Clooney's greedy paws. (Isn't one enough, George?)

3) Can we just lock Billy Crystal in for lifetime hosting duties after the show? There have been respectable mediums (Hugh Jackman, Steve Martin) and embarrassing lows (Anne Hathaway and James Franco) in the eight years that Crystal has been away, but not a single high. I'm convinced that hosting the Oscars is a one-man job: Billy Crystal's.

4) Let's leave the fashion parade to People magazine and Us Weekly. Not that I've ever been the most serious journalist alive, but if you put me on a red carpet with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, or George Clooney, or Meryl Streep, the one thing I would never ask is "What are you wearing?" I've always been convinced that only fashion editors care. Does anyone watching at home give a damn, frankly? Does the average human being even know the difference between Armani and Givenchy? I think not.

5) More Uggie, please! No, I didn't get my fill of that adorable Jack Russell Terrier in The Artist -- nor on The View the other day. I don't know about the other four, but I'm pretty sure this is one prayer that's destined not to go unanswered.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

High Anxiety: This Panic Disorder Is Killing Me!

Where was I? What was I doing? I can't recall the details of my whereabouts -- mind or body -- when I found out that I may or may not be mentally ill.

Somewhere I read, or heard, that panic disorder is a mental illness. But there is a lot of contradictory information out there on this, so it's less medical fact than medical theory, and a highly debatable one at that. I've also read that the children of overprotective parents are more likely to develop panic disorder as adults because they aren't as well equipped to deal with fear. That sounds reasonable, but my parents have enough on their plates, so I'm not going to dump this on them. One thing is certain, though: I never feel less sane than when an anxiety attack is coming on, or when I'm waiting for the next one.

If I'm not mentally ill, in those moments, I certainly feel mentally unsteady. I'll never forget my first panic attack. It was in 1997, the night I'd gone to see Cocteau Twins at the Roxy in New York City. It was a great concert, but hardly the standout event of that particular evening. Shortly after I drifted off to sleep, boom! I shot up in bed, wide awake!

My heart was racing, my palms were sweating, my body was vibrating. A sense of complete doom overtook me. This is it, the big one, I thought: I was having a heart attack at age 28. For me, there'd be no more tomorrows, no more "I love you's."

So what do I do? I get on the phone and call my friend Deirdre. I don't know why I thought she'd be awake, but she's one of those people who actually means it when she says to call her if you need her, day or night. She tried to talk me through the ordeal and offered a diagnosis and prognosis, courtesy of her roommate, who was a nurse. "Tell Jeremy that if he were having a heart attack, he wouldn't have time to get on the phone and call all of his friends to tell them," said Nurse Diana. "He'll be fine."

It made sense, but I wasn't convinced that I'd die another day. I phoned my friend Maureen, who lives in San Francisco, three hours behind me, so she wasn't too exhausted to humor me. She stayed on the phone with me until I was too drowsy to hold it up any longer.

The next morning, life was back to normal -- almost. I was terrified of the next time it would happen. And it did. Not too often, maybe a few times a month, but it was always without warning and always when I had just fallen asleep. For nearly a decade, I lived in a precarious mental state with fear bubbling just under the surface right before bed time. I slept with the TV on for several years (I was sure the voices and lack of total darkness would scare off the panic), stopped, and started again after 9/11.

And then on July 3, 2006, the night after I'd gone with Dave and his parents to see Madonna at Madison Square Garden, the biggest one yet arrived. For the first time, that feeling of intense panic, that sense of doom, arrived while I was fully awake and sitting upright.

It was Monday around 6pm, and the TV didn't save me. In fact, I was watching that day's episode of All My Children on SoapNet. I felt a strange twitch go through my body, and then I felt like I was having some kind of out-of-body experience. My heart was racing, my body tingling, and I couldn't stand still. It didn't feel like I was having a heart attack or a stroke, but I was certain I was about to die. This one lasted longer and was more intense than any of the others. (That first hours-long 1997 episode aside, they usually didn't go on longer than 15 to 30 minutes.)

I figured that I should go outside. If I expired, I wanted to do it on 14th Street, in the middle of a huge Manhattan crowd. That way, they'd find my body immediately, not days later, rotting on the living room floor.

I called several close friends. None of them were home. So I walked. Eventually, I ended up in the emergency room at St. Vincent's Hospital on 12th Street and 7th Avenue. I couldn't stand still. The woman at the desk was very understanding, and allowed me to pace the floor while I waited for what seemed like forever because I felt like if I stopped moving, my body would explode. By now, I had reached my friend Zena. She was on her way. After a few hours in the ER, during which I received an EKG, a CT Scan, a magic pill, and a clean bill of health, I felt like the Angel of Death had passed. I went home, hoping that he, or she, wouldn't be back.

I had about two panic-free months, and started to convince myself that I was cured of those scary anxiety episodes. Then, on Sunday, September 10, five days before I moved from NYC to Buenos Aires, I ended up in the ER twice in less than 24 hours. The first time, it was the worst one yet. My extremities went cold. I felt disoriented, body trembling, heart racing, mind literally attacking my body. This time, my best friend Lori, who happened to be shopping near my apartment when the shakes set in, was there to see me through it.

That night, shortly after I fell asleep, it happened again, though not as frighteningly as earlier. It was just like the first time back in 1997. Death never crossed my mind, but it was the first and, to this day, the only time I ever had more than one in a single day.

So off I went to the ER at 3am, where a doctor sat me down and tried to explain what was going on with me. "You are perfectly healthy," she said soothingly, holding my hand. "What you have been having are panic attacks." It was the first time anyone had actually used those words to describe it. "They are a lot more common than people think and perfectly treatable.

She arranged for me to see a psychiatrist the following day. The shrink evaluated me, officially diagnosed me with panic disorder and prescribed me Clonazepam, the same drug I had been given during my July trip to the ER. A few days later, I had an appointment with Dr. Andrilli, my personal physician, who assessed my situation and told me that the medication I had been prescribed, 1mg of Clonazepam, would help me, but I should be very careful as it is highly addictive.

Why me, Lord -- I mean, Dr. Andrilli? He didn't have any answers. He did say that although I was not stressed out on the outside, moving to a different continent is an extremely high-stress situation, and I was probably internalizing a lot of my fear of the unknown. This, too, hopefully, would pass.

It didn't, not entirely. Over the next five and a half years, I had occasional panic episodes, never as intense as the ones that sent me to the ER in New York, though usually much longer in duration than the ones that would interrupt my sleep. Those 1-mg Clonazepam tablets never failed to dull the symptoms -- except for the one time shortly after I moved to Buenos Aires, when they kicked in while I was on a date, and I didn't want to mix a pill with the beer I'd been drinking, so I didn't take one. (Not that I even had any on me: Those panic symptoms normally hit me when I was home alone, so I never left the house prepared for the worst.) I took it not as a preventive measure, but only when I felt doom coming on strong, on those days when the physical sensations attacking my body made me feel like I was pounding on death's door.

Clonazepam continues to be a semi-regular presence in my life, some weeks and months more regularly than others. I'll go a month without it, then pop a 1-mg pill a week for several weeks. I never ended up in the ER again, and as much as I enjoy the mental and physical calming effect of Clonazepam (so this must be why potheads are always stoned, I've often thought), I've never taken the stuff for fun.

I've always figured I have everything under control, but something about being dependent on a pill, even if it's not a dependency, or an addiction, troubles me. I rarely take pain medication, and, with my doctor's blessing and guidance, I managed to wean myself off of my blood-pressure pills before I moved to Melbourne last year. Clonazepam, a sort of magic drug, harmless in small, controlled doses, has been my one concession to pill popping. But I pop with caution.

Celebrities are dying from mixing these prescription designer drugs with alcohol. It's a dangerous game of Russian roulette because overindulging in alcohol, then stopping, leads to withdrawal, whose symptoms can be alleviated with this class of medication, leading to a vicious cycle and a potentially deadly double addiction. I've luckily been able to sidestep all of that, but every so often, I still worry about the fact that I use it at all -- even if it's in tiny doses that never exceed 1 mg.

Though I probably should be just as concerned about the time I spend worrying about the next panic episode, it's the effect on my self-image that vexes me most. I also suffer from migraines, and I've resisted every drug any doctor has ever prescribed to me. Neither Advil nor any other painkiller will do either, even if they worked. I clench my teeth and bear it. I'm an independent guy, and I don't like anyone or anything, not even a harmless-looking white pill, upsetting my do-it-yourself-or-die nature.

That's what I was telling myself this afternoon in the shower when it hit me. My head got heavy, my face started tightening, and that sense of impending doom set in. Whitney Houston's death in the bathtub weighing heavy on my mind, I hung on as tightly as I could, lest I pass out in the shower. I stepped in, stepped out, stepped in, stepped out, trying to remain active because someone who can work out in the shower couldn't possible be dying.

All week I've been having terrible headaches, a malady that's affected me since I was 8 years old, and one, I've been told by doctors, that would have killed me by now if it were going to kill me at all. But as I stood under the water, I considered various fatal scenarios -- death by brain tumor, death by aneurysm. Why was I letting my mind torture me like this? I stepped out of the shower and headed straight for my stash of Clonazepam tucked away in the safe.

One mg later, inner and outer calm once again had been restored. I guess it wasn't a tumor, or an aneurysm, something I tell myself every time my mind works against my body, and the anxiety relief kicks in. I'm not sure where I go from here. I think this week -- a three-1-mg week so far -- has been a particularly stressful one because in a few days, I'll be leaving Melbourne for Bangkok, and I have no idea what to expect this time around.

Maybe my first order of business will be to go to BNH Hospital on Convent Road, just a short walk from where I'll once again be living, for an MRI, or a CT Scan, you know, just to stay on the safe side.

Being told that nothing is growing in my head and nothing is about to explode there might not give me the sense of physical calm that Clonazepam is so good at providing, but it should give me something better: peace of mind that lasts for more than just a few hours.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My Afternoon with Marilyn: How I Learned to Stop Rolling My Eyes and Love Michelle Williams

Among those who know me, it's common knowledge that I'm lukewarm on Michelle Williams. I recognize her talent, but could there possibly be a name with less star quality? For the first third of My Week with Marilyn, now (finally) playing in Australia, I kept wondering why she didn't change it to something more marquee worthy. It sounds like it should belong to a now-forgotten former school mate who sat behind you in English class and got A's on everything, or the girl in Destiny's Child that nobody really cared about.

Off screen, in interviews, on the red carpet, Williams comes across the way she does on celluloid, a little dour and joyless. I usually love whatever she is wearing, but has Hollywood ever created a star with less charisma and a blander name?

It didn't help that she always seemed to be playing variations on a theme: Jen Lindley, the character who made her famous on TV's Dawson's Creek in the late '90s and early '00s. I was no fan of Lindley, so by extension, I never really cared for anyone Williams played in the movies. What did Ryan Gosling see in her in Blue Valentine anyway?

Maybe it was that wounded-bird quality. I once read an interview with Ang Lee who said that he cast Williams in Brokeback Mountain because she has this special thing where you want her to be happy in the end. So perhaps Marilyn Monroe was the perfect role for her, after all. There's absolutely no physical resemblance between the two, but who doesn't want to turn back time and give Monroe her happy ending?

She finally gets one in My Week with Marilyn, but only because the movie focuses solely on the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, the 1957 movie she made with Laurence Olivier, who also directed it. I'd always been under that impression that Elizabeth Taylor was the most famous woman in the world during the '50s, but apparently, Monroe gave her a run for her bombshell status and gossip-column supremacy.

If there's a problem with the film, it's that the central character is Colin Clark, the 24-old third assistant director who is played more or less unremarkably by Eddie Redmayne. I mean, who cares about his near-romance with the girl from the Harry Potter films?! But by telling the story from his point of view and not Monroe's, we get the vantage point of flies on the wall during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, seeing Monroe from an angle other than the doomed beauty who suffered for and because of her art.

She becomes the movie star who was always playing one. Even when she's alone with Clark, she's still playing a role: little girl lost who just wants to be loved. I'm not really buying that her psychological problems can be wrapped up in a neat little bow -- unlovable for being unloved by her parents -- but since we've been down that path in countless biopics and documentaries, I'll let it slide because, unlike The Iron Lady's assessment of Margaret Thatcher, the movie doesn't strain trying to figure out what made Monroe tick tock like a time bomb.

Watching her popping pills, surrounded by enablers, it was hard not to think about Whitney Houston and wonder how the film might have affected me differently had I seen it before Houston's death rather than one week later. I wonder how long it will take Hollywood to get Houston's story onscreen, and who will play what will surely be the role of a lifetime. Is Alicia Keys, at 31, already too old?

But getting back to Monroe, why put up with all of her crap? Arthur Miller, her third husband, certainly didn't and abandoned her mid-shoot. But I can understand why Clark, who was assigned to watch over her during filming, did. It wasn't just about keeping his job. Monroe was a handful, but the film gives her sweet side equal screen time. Williams, though playing someone who treated life as a stage, manages to make Monroe sympathetic and likable. Despite the demons and despite being maddeningly high maintenance, she's charismatic enough to make us all want to walk in Clarke's confidante shoes. I wanted to jump into the water in my undies with her, too -- and I can't even swim!

Yet it never comes off as hagiography. Miller's contempt seems justifiable, and Olivier (nicely resurrected, never imitated by Oscar-nominated Kenneth Branagh, who, sadly, doesn't stand a chance against Christopher Plummer in the supporting-actor category) has every reason to love her and loathe her, though I'm glad the movie didn't go the predictable route and make it all about the Prince vs. the Showgirl. Branagh's part is sizable and meaty, but Olivier still spends most of the show fuming on the sidelines.

If Williams didn't quite nail Monroe's physical stature the way Branagh did Olivier's, she did hit the emotional bullseye everywhere else, perfectly capturing the insecurity and immense, but tentative, talent. I didn't realize just how impressive her performance was until last night when I looked up Monroe on Wikipedia and was surprised to see a photo of Monroe. I was fully expecting to see Michelle Williams.

Now there's a feat that not even her Best Actress Oscar competition, the great Meryl Streep, could pull off with Margaret Thatcher!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Burning Question: What the Hell Happened to Adam Lambert's New Single?

There's a saying out here in the blogosphere: If you want to hear from your readers, write something about Adam Lambert.

Well, not really (about the saying being big in these parts), but how true. For weeks, I've been toying with the idea of a blog post called "Why You Don't Know Me Better Than I Know Myself," in honor of Lambert's current single, "Better Than I Know Myself," but I couldn't come up with an opening line. And I couldn't really think of a way to work Lambert's name into the title.

Nothing I write ever gets as many responses as something with "Adam Lambert" in the title. A post I wrote about him for The Faster Times in September of 2010 received 86 comments. And my OurStage Lambert piece, from last December, inspired 18 pieces of commentary.

Those Glamberts are a vocal bunch -- passionate, loyal, and extremely outspoken when it comes to speaking up for their favorite singer.

So where were they on December 20, 2011, release day for his new single, the first from his second album, Trespassing, whose March street date has been postponed, likely due to the underperforming single? The song has thus far debuted and peaked at a dismal No. 76 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Not even the video, launched on February 3, the same day that Madonna featuring Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. sprung "Give Me All Your Luvin'," currently No. 10 on the Hot 100, could reverse its chart fortunes, despite some 3 million YouTube views, still nearly 7 million less than M.I.A.'s "Bad Girls," released the same day.

Though the song, like Lambert's music, for the most part, is not really my thing, the Hot 100 could do so much worse, and currently it is (in the form of LMFAO and anything with David Guetta in the artist credits).

Meanwhile, on February 13, Katy Perry released "Part of Me," her latest bid for No. 1, from the upcoming expanded edition of her 2010 album Teenage Dream (Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection, due March 26, also known as the release date of Madonna's MDNA). Despite its being unbelievably rote, Digital Spy, via Billboard, says it's already on track to sell between 400K and 420K in its first week, a Perry personal best. Look for a Perry vs. Kelly Clarkson duel for No. 1 in the coming weeks.

What does Perry have that Lambert doesn't? For one, an invitation to last Sunday's GRAMMY Awards, where she performed the song. Also, she's a lady, which in pop these days automatically gives you a chart edge. Unless you're Bruno Mars or a rapper, solo male recording artists, especially white ones, get very little love on the Hot 100 these days, no matter how popular they are. Note that Chris Brown didn't sing a note on "Look at Me Know," the sole Top 10 single of his "comeback," and Usher and Enrique Iglesias have had their recent Top 10 successes in conjunction with other artists.

But never underestimate those Glamberts. I have no doubt that they'll turn out in droves to download Trespassing, whenever it finally sees the light of release. And if anyone bothers to read this post -- and have anything to say about it -- it will most likely be them.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Did I Shave My Chest for This?

If the competition wasn't exactly fierce, it was about half my age -- at least three out of five of them.

Then there was Carlos, a beautiful Argentine with heaving pecs, perky nipples and an abdomen that was about two cans short of a 12-pack. The crowd went wild for him. Surely he, not me, would win Sircuit's Saturday night Bear Chested Competition.

I'm still not sure what possessed me to enter. I'd had a couple of pints, so I was feeling pretty good, but it's not like all those carbs had done anything for my own upper torso. Still, I figured, if I would dance topless onstage at G.O.D. in Bangkok for nothing, why not take it off onstage at Sircuit for something?

Wait, what was I getting for this anyway?

It didn't matter. I was in. I was a little intimidated by the harness I would have to wear during the the second part of the competition, but after the guy in charge let me try one on to see how I looked in it, I actually considered wearing it for the rest of the night. I'm still not convinced that it's my look, but I'm hoping there's one tucked away in the gift bag I received for winning first place.

Ah, yes, did I mention that I came in first? I think by one point, just ahead of Carlos, who seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed. I'm not sure how the three judges decided who would win. I think they devised a point system based on pectorals, nipples, abdominals, face, tattoos (?!) and stage moves. Thankfully, legs had nothing to do with it because mine are nothing to write home about. I've seen better ones on a chicken.

Carlos, with whom I'd later have a lovely conversation in Spanish, put on his most gracious loser face and clapped as enthusiastically as Meryl, Michelle, Glenn and Rooney will on Oscar night when Viola Davis's name is called.

So, it seems, this Black History Month will go down in history for more than being the one in which two black actresses won Oscars. For me, it will forever be known as the month in which a 42-year-old black guy doffed his shirt onstage in Melbourne, Australia, donned a harness, and pretended to unbutton his trousers -- and nobody laughed.

In fact, I think I heard applause. Were they clapping for me and not in anticipation of Carlos, who'd be coming out next? For a moment, as I started undoing the buttons on my jeans, I considered dropping trou completely -- until I remembered that my "Playboy" briefs might be deemed a bit too much.

Plus, this wasn't Shame. I'd be leaving the full-frontal stuff to Michael Fassbender, who's better equipped to pull it off, and win this the old-fashioned way -- shirt off, pants on. And I did.

Friday, February 17, 2012

I'm an American, Get Me Out of Here!

Last week I received an unexpected Facebook email from Mike, an old New York City colleague. He'd recently quit his job at Apple and come to Australia for a few months with his wife and young daughter. He figured that his little girl would be starting school pretty soon, so it was now or never.

He chose now.

How funny, I thought, as I read his message. He had crossed my mind earlier on that very same day. I'd read an interview in one of the Melbourne daily newspapers, maybe the Herald Sun, with Daryl Hall, who was touring Australia with John Oates for the first time in aeons. I know Mike is a huge fan -- possibly the only admitted one I know -- and I'd wondered if he knew they were here. (He did.)

But then, isn't everyone these days? Oprah Winfrey's first trip to Australia was announced while I was here for the first time in 2010, and since then, the stars, past and present, seem to keep coming. I just saw a TV news teaser about Roxette's first Oz concert dates in 17 years; Adam Ant arrives in March for the first time in 30 years; and New Order was here a few minutes ago. Considering Australia's fertile contemporary music scene, and that it's not nearly as nostalgia-obsessed as Buenos Aires, in my mind, it wouldn't be an obvious host to acts like Hall & Oates, Roxette, Adam Ant, or New Order, all of whom are so 20 years or more ago.

Yet here they come, joining Rod Stewart, right here right now, Soundgarden, who recently played Oz for the first time in 14 years, and Erykah Badu, who's coming through next week. Madonna has announced that she will be swinging down under for the first time in 20 years in early 2013, just in time to wave goodbye to Lady Gaga, who's coming around before 2012's up.

Australia: now or never. Well, maybe not never. But why not now?

For ex-colleagues as well as for pop stars. Earlier this week, Traceye, another former co-worker, contacted me on Facebook after talking to Mike. She's in Melbourne, having recently embarked on a six-month world tour that had already taken her to Sydney, and would bring her to Southeast Asia in the coming weeks. She was ticking off all of the boxes there: Bangkok, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma.

While debating internally whether I should tell her that nobody calls it Burma anymore, I mentioned that the country now known as Myanmar might not be the safest place for a woman traveling alone. But here's someone who is planning on going skydiving and bungee jumping in New Zealand. Clearly this single lady doesn't need a safety net any more than she needs a guy to put a ring on it.

Australia is not the only destination for Americans desperately seeking something different. It seems not a week goes by that I don't hear from a friend who has a friend who is taking a few months off to spend quality time in Buenos Aires, in India, in Bangkok.

There's restlessness in the air back home. Just last week, Andrew, an Australian, told me that the general consensus among Australians is that Americans don't like to travel, that they have no real sense of adventure. No, we don't live to go trekking the way all Aussies seem to (why rough it on the side of a mountain when you can luxuriate in five-star splendor, I always say), but we're starting to get out more.

"The new 'get me out of here!' is also tied to New York and the U.S. no longer being the promised land," my best friend Lori wrote to me in an email this morning. "There are no jobs and no money. One can live cheaply on the other side of the world."

And maybe Eat Pray Love -- the book, not that tired movie that only had soon-to-be Academy Award winner Viola Davis going for it -- had a far more profound effect than I'd previously dared to imagine. As someone who has spent nearly six years on my own personal journey of enlightenment in search of a way to live far from the maddeningly crowded New York City rate race, I know where they are coming from.

My fantastic voyage will take me back to Bangkok in a week and a half, where I will dive full-time into writing the book that I've been intending to begin ever since I launched this blog nearly four years ago as a means to learn how to write like David Sedaris.

"Where do you think you'll end up after you've finished your book?" Andrew, who lived in Bangkok from February of 2010 to April of 2011 and, coincidentally, will be going back there for holiday on March 2, asked me last Saturday morning.

His guess is as good as mine, maybe better. I'm too close to my own story to look at it with any objectivity. Lately, I've been considering Africa, one of two continents I've yet to visit, one that became even more appealing last night, while I was having drinks with Traceye. She told me about her last three holiday seasons in Cape Town and showed me photos of her recent trip to Zanzibar.

Ah, the joy -- and beauty -- of wanderlust, I thought, gazing at all that blue. How lucky am I to get to decide where I'm going to be? How lucky all of my fellow wayfarers are! The beauty of living without a game plan, without a final destination, is that when life becomes an open road, you can end up anywhere.

Yes, I'll be back in Bangkok soon. Other than that, I can't say where I'm going. But I'm sure I'll know it when I get there.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Songs That Sound Even Better Now Than Then

Part 1. "Double Dutch Bus" Frankie Smith 

Whatever happened to Frankie Smith, and why don't more people today talk about what I believe must have been his only hit?

A bridge between post-disco funk and early rap that still holds up, Smith's 1981 No. 1 R&B crossover single (it got as high as No. 30 on the Hot 100), sounded pretty ridiculous the first time around, and 31 years later, I'm still not sure what he was getting at. I'm mean, who writes a song about jumping rope and driving a bus? One doesn't really make me think of the other.

But who cares what all that izz-ing is about when the song is so impossible to resist? Today, for the third time in the last few months, "Double Dutch Bus" made my work out go by so much faster that I was tempted to do it all over again just so I could keep listening to the song. In popular music, that's what we call aging well. Time has been similarly kind to Yarbrough & Peoples "Don't Stop the Music," A Taste of Honey's "Sukiyaki," and Kool and the Gang's "Take My Heart," all great, seldom-discussed 1981 No. 1 R&B hits.

Let's see most of today's hit parade pull that off.

Now where's my jump rope? There's a "Double Dutch Bus" pulling up in my iPod, and I want to be on it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why 'Shame' Might Be an Excellent Argument Against Casual/Anonymous Sex

Look, I'm no prude. As I declare beside my photo to the right (I'll pause while you scroll to find it...), I'll do anything twice. Within reason, naturally. One has to set some limits.

Unless you're Brandon, the New York City boy Michael Fassbender plays in Shame, which opened in Australia a few days ago to all of the expected, and deserved, rave reviews. Brandon makes me feel like a bit of a monk, and not just because of his sexual escapades. (God knows I've had my share of those). Here's a guy who will jump naked on top of his little sister (played by Carrie Mulligan, whose interesting and appealing character deserves a movie of her won) and, unflinchingly, start fighting with her.

In some ways, Brandon reminds me of the character Ryan Gosling plays in Drive (which coincidentally, also co-stars Mulligan). Both are haunted anti-heroes of few words whose hard-edges are sandpapered just enough to give them rooting value. They may not say much, but they're the kind of guys with whom I wouldn't mind sharing an after-work beer (and not just because Fassbender and Gosling are two of the most gorgeous guys in Hollywood). You want them both to get happy endings.

Shame has been described as a psychological study of sex addiction, but Brandon is never diagnosed in the movie, and I wouldn't be too quick to pass judgement (the film isn't either). Yes, his sexual proclivities cause him to be late to the office. His work suffers, his computer hard drives as well as his closets are full of porn, and he gets his ass kicked for messing with the wrong guy's girl.

Still, many people would kill for his lifestyle (great job and one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with a view), minus the constant pursuit of 30-minute stands. And look at Brandon's married boss. He appears to chase women with all the vigor that his marital status will allow. Were he single, Shame might have been a two-man show.

Brandon could be one of Samantha's conquests on Sex and the City, the cinematic counterpart to the character Charlie Sheen used to play on Two and a Half Men, the straight counterpart to Brian Kinney on the U.S. Queer As Folk, the hunky boy next door, or one or two cubicles over. In other words, so-called sexual addiction might be more pervasive among the general populace than we think, a point driven home graphically, and perhaps stereotypically, in a gay bar that's a hell of a lot seedier than any I've ever been to in real life. It's makes sex clubs and saunas from Buenos Aires to Bangkok look high society!

If any scene in the film rings false and gratuitous, it's this one, and I'm not just saying that because of how broadly and unflatteringly it depicts gay men in New York City. Here the movie seems to be saying, "This is how low the straight guy will go in the pursuit of temporary bliss and a happy ending." Misstep.

Fassbender's performance is a marvelous balancing act of the physical and internal. I'm not going to say that he deserves George Clooney's or Brad Pitt's spot on the Best Actor Oscar short list, but it might be time for the Academy to force Clooney to stretch a little, and start rewarding actors who flaunt their penises as readily as they do actresses who show us their tits.

Brandon may have a cocky gait, especially when walking out of his bedroom in all his full-frontal glory, but Fassbender plays it so that his insecurity shows, too. He's a player who, the occasional hiring of prostitutes aside, never makes the same move twice. We see him playing shy guy and jerk at the bar, and both work for him.

The pose that doesn't work for him is bachelor No. 1, the guy who goes on a normal date with his co-worker Marianne and reveals that he isn't necessarily wired for commitment, or conversation. His interactions with his colleague are some of the most uncomfortable to watch because they say the most about how damaged Brandon is. Did his obsession with sex lead to this, or did this lead to his obsession with sex? The movie doesn't give him much of a back story beyond hinting that he and his sister were raised in extreme dysfunction.

Though I wouldn't call the banter between Brandon and Marianne particularly scintillating, it reveals so much, about Brandon, about many guys who are driven purely by sex. His unsuccessful attempt here to give into carnal desire indicates, on Brandon's part, a lack of a fundamental ability to connect without anyone sexually unless it's anonymously. (Of course, the cocaine he snorts beforehand probably doesn't help matters.)

While watching Brandon running around town in Shame (curiously, via subway rather than in taxis, possibly because it's not as easy to score in the back seat of a cab), I was reminded of a conversation I had this past weekend with Andrew, a 26-year-old accountant who does not appear to suffer from sex addiction or addiction of any kind. We talked about travelling and that near-euphoric feeling you have for the first 36 hours after arriving at a new destination, even somewhere you've been before. He made an interesting analogy between peripatetic types and people who indulge in rampant casual sex.

Some frequent travelers, he suggested, reach the point where they can never really settle, call anyplace home, because they are always chasing the high that one feels when landing in a new place. Similarly, after years of having anonymous sex, one might lose the ability to connect with people in a meaningful way because they are constantly chasing the high of sexual discovery, a body they've yet to experience, as is the case with a Thai rent boy he knows. Out with the old, in with the new. Fuck, rinse and repeat.

After watching Brandon go through the motions for nearly two hours, I wondered if he would ever be able to connect with anyone. I don't think I saw him laugh during the course of the entire film, and the only real conversations he had were shouting matches with his sister. Sure he scores, he gets lucky, sometimes without even trying to, but in the end, he's as unlucky as any beautiful loser in Buenos Aires, Bangkok, or New York, New York.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney Houston: 1963-2012

Today I received an email from my friend Lori.

Subject line: "Whitney Houston is dead."

"What a way to break it to me gently," was my first thought. The second: "No way." I'd just returned from a morning run that Houston's "It's Not Right but It's Okay" (the nine-minute Thunderpuss Club Mix) had helped get me through. She couldn't be dead.

It must be another hoax. In recent weeks, we'd "lost" Jon Bon Jovi and Eddie Murphy. Surely there'd soon be some press release insisting that Houston was alive and well, relaxing at home in New Jersey.

Sadly, there wouldn't be. I logged on to Facebook, and the tributes were already pouring in. One included a link to a story in which Houston's publicist confirmed the tragic news: She's gone.

As I write, the place and cause of her death are still unconfirmed, but many are prematurely blaming drugs because Houston's years-long battle with substance abuse has been well-documented. We've already lost so many music greats in recent years. Some, like Etta James, Teena Marie, Nikolas Ashford, Vesta Williams, Phoebe Snow, Billie Jo Spears, Dobie Gray, had been mostly out of the public eye for years, so we were more saddened than shocked by their passing.

I'd never been able to imagine Michael Jackson growing old, so his untimely death in 2009, while devastating, wasn't completely unexpected. With Amy Winehouse, it had always seemed like it was only a matter of time. There were a lot of parallels between Winehouse and Houston -- substance abuse, tumultuous marriages, erratic concert behavior, frightening weight loss, tabloid reports of impending death -- but somehow I always expected Houston to win her battle.

Her voice was no longer the beautiful instrument we'd first heard in the mid-'80s, but at 48, she still looked fantastic. She was even due to make a return to the screen in August in a remake of the 1976 film Sparkle. I felt like she might be on the cusp of a revival. She had every reason to live. Now that movie will have to serve as her professional epitaph.

Houston left behind many flawless vocal performances, but the one that touched me most of all didn't belong to one of her best-known hits: "Miracle," a No. 9 single from 1991. I discussed the song with its writer, Babyface, during an interview in the early '90s, and he told me about its genesis.

He'd intended it as a firm statement against abortion, a reaffirmation of the sanctity of life. Though she loved the song, Babyface said that Houston was uncomfortable with that divisive point of view, and when she recorded it, in her mind, she assigned a more universal meaning to the lyric. The miracle wasn't just an unborn baby; it was each and every one of us.

"How could I throw away a miracle?" she sang in the opening line. In later years, her voice and her life ravaged by drug abuse, those words would take on a whole new meaning. In a sense, Houston had thrown away hers. The greatest tragedy of her passing is that now she'll never be able to get it back.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Baby-Making Music

Greetings from the gutter.

That's where my mind is at the moment, and in honor of Valentine's Day on Tuesday, I'm going to spend the weekend splashing around down here, paying musical tribute to the next best thing two people can do together after falling in love (which, if you're lucky, will lead to even more of this).

For those who prefer some music on the side, I've curated the perfect V-Day soundtrack. I didn't realize until I was halfway through that it's dominated by male performers. Female singers may move me more overall, but I suppose it's the guys who put me in the mood.

"Heaven Hooked Us Up" Love is so much more than just a four-letter word. It's also Ronald Isley's velvety tenor melting like butter over a smoking red-hot Isley Brothers groove.

"Don't Stop the Dance" Bryan Ferry Not quite better than sex but close. Am I the only one who thinks Ferry spends most of his waking hours making love, pausing occasionally to crank out another great song to do it to?

"Sanctified Lady" Marvin Gaye Sexual healing at its most potent.

"Your Love Is Like the Morning Sun" Al Green The seminal soul of the 1973 Call Me album, which serves up this gem of a love song halfway through, is Green at his seductive peak, the perfect score for the perfect love that closes with an ode to the god of love himself called "Jesus Is Waiting."

"Cruisin'" D'Angelo Like sex on a stick -- and I'm not just talking about the guy who's singing it.

"A Bit Old-Fashioned" Babyface A bracing musical testament to the power of heterosexual love (from For the Cool in You, one of the best R&B albums of the '90s).

"Sara Smile" Daryl Hall and John Oates Before the duo became '80s icons, Daryl Hall was one of the earliest -- and best -- purveyors of blue-eyed soul. Along with the first 20 seconds of "One on One" (a Top 10 hit from 1983 that deserves to be more widely, and fondly, remembered today) this might be the best thing Hall and Oates ever did -- at least that's what I'm thinking today, down here in the gutter.

"Sho' You Right" Barry White Let's raise the tempo and get this party for two started! When I interviewed White years ago, he commended me for having the good taste to love this song. I, in turn, applaud UK music buyers, who once again showed their superior (to their Yankee counterparts) musical sophistication by sending this to No. 14, which is three notches higher than it went on the U.S. R&B chart. Fo' real.

"Love It" Bilal Another one of life's great mysteries: Why do so few people know Bilal's name -- and even fewer this song, one of the greatest things to come out of late-'90s/early '00s neo-soul movement?

"Lovers Rock" Sade What would any musical celebration of love be without her?

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Perfect Day?

What does it take to make a brand new day worth waking up for? Not necessarily the promise of great adventure nor the love of a lifetime, though I wouldn't dream of tossing either out of bed.

Yesterday is hardly a blur, but on paper, it wouldn't qualify as the most memorable one ever, the greatest one-man show on earth, featuring a very special guest.

So what did I get up to on Thursday, February 9, 2012 -- the 40th day of the year -- then? Most notably, after nearly an entire week, I broke my non-vow of silence. I had an 8am breakfast in South Melbourne with my friend Kimba, who offered me lots of valuable advice about the book that after three and a half years of blogging, and at the much-appreciated urging of friends and former colleagues, I'm finally getting around to writing.

On the way to Cafe Sweethearts on Coventry Street (if you ever go there, order the scrambled-eggs-and-bacon sandwich), I stopped and asked directions from a good-looking guy working in a car-repair shop.

"Excuse me, sir. Could you tell me where Coventry Street is?"

He looked around, confused. "Coventry Street?"

"Yes." I was certain it was the road we were on, but there was no visible street sign. "Is this Coventry Road?"

"Ah, yes, yes. I think so. I think we are on Coventry Street."

I thanked him and walked away. Several meters later, I got my confirmation in the form of a street sign. Idea for a future blog post: people who don't know the name of the street on which they work.

The rest of the day was business I usual. I went running around Albert Lake. I booked a flight to Sydney, where I will spend eight hours next Tuesday. I worked on my book proposal (which received two thumbs up and some helpful edits from Kimba). And I even completed a chapter, a tale of lust, longing, racism and five hours in lock up in Buenos Aires, which I hope will lure a qualified agent or a publisher willing to take a chance on a literary newbie.

What didn't I do? I didn't eat lunch or dinner in a trendy setting (unless the couch in my living space would qualify), see any good movies (though as of yesterday, My Week with Marilyn is now showing in Australia), or spend the day looking forward to a hot weekend date. I haven't been asked out in forever, and aside from the clueless guy who has no idea where he works, nobody has caught my eye in just as long.

I didn't indulge in comfort food, get drunk and dance shirtless on a stage, have sex, or kiss anyone. With the exception of Kimba and garage guy (whom I might not even recognize if I wake up next to him tomorrow morning), I can't recall a single person I saw yesterday. They're all blurs.

Still, Australian Day aside, it must have been the closest thing I've had to a perfect day since I returned to Melbourne five weeks and two days ago. It involved two of my favorite, most-therapeutic things: running and writing. Most importantly, it reinforced an important lesson that I actually learned some time ago but occasionally forget: nice scenery, human and otherwise, is always-appreciated window dressing, but I don't need the glory of love, nor the comfort of a man, to make my day.

Now there's an epiphany worth getting out of bed for.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Monday, February 6, 2012

8 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching 'The Artist'

Better late than after the Oscars, right? The Artist finally hit Australian screens last Thursday, so 11 weekends into its U.S. run, I at last can add my two cents to the hundreds of shiny pennies that already have been tossed into the critical pool.

1.  Was there a better-cast actor in 2011 than Jean Dujardin? He not only perfectly captures the carriage and mannerisms of a 1920s screen star, but his dark good looks actually seem to be straight out of the early part of the last century. Every time I see him on the red carpet or at award shows, I need to check my calendar to make sure it's not circa 1930.

2.  I'm still not sure how a (mostly) silent film gets a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nod, but "Make way for the young" might be one of the most resonant movie lines in years. So declares Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) during an interview on the eve of the 1929 stock-market crash/fall of George Valentin (Dujardin). The movie's turning point hinges on this bold statement, which is applicable not only to the film's 1929 silent-to-talkies setting but to the chronological middle ages, too. As anyone who's ever turned 40 knows, Hollywood celebrities aren't the only ones who have to learn to adapt and reinvent when fresh meat arrives on the scene.

3. Is Peppy short for Penelope? It took me a minute to make the connection: Is Peppy Miller, the rising star played by Bejo, somehow related to Penelope Ann Miller, the actress who was almost famous in the '90s and appears here as Valentin's wife? It's a pretty thankless role, but she does get one of the best unspoken lines. Too bad it comes when the actress is off screen, at the end of her character's "Dear George" note.

4. Is James Cromwell 7 feet tall or what? The former best supporting Oscar nominee (for 1995's Babe -- did anyone else make the connection when Valentin jumped over that pig?) towers over Jean Dujardin, and in one scene his head practically touches the top of the doorway.

5. I must love dogs because this movie wouldn't have been the same without Jack. I wonder how many takes it took for them to get the adorable Jack Russell terrier played by the adorable Jack Russell terrier Uggie to roll over and play dead on cue.

6. And the award for my favorite film of 2011 that I can enjoy as much as admire goes to... You know you are watching a near-perfect movie when A) you could you watch it all day on repeat, and B) you wouldn't mind seeing the full-length versions of the movies within the movies.

7. In lieu of Tears of Love, I'd take The Lost Weekend. Director Michel Hazanavicius really nails the look and the feel of Hollywood's silent era right up to the '40s (though the film only goes up to the early '30s). Dujardin's later scenes, from when he drunkenly hallucinates in the bar on, remind me of The Lost Weekend, the 1945 portrait of an alcoholic for which Ray Milland won the Best Actor Oscar.

8. Speaking of the Best Actor Oscar, it might not be as much of a done deal as people might think. Even if he hadn't won the Screen Actors Guild award, I'd say Jean Dujardin, ironically, playing a George Clooney-type star some 70 yeas B.C. (Before Clooney), might have a slight edge over Clooney and Brad Pitt. And I secretly want Berenice Bejo to pull the Oscar out from under Octavia Spencer, too, though that's about as likely as a full-blown silent-movie revival!