Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Despite Some Progress, Black Is Still Not the New Black in Hollywood

As we reach the denouement of another year in real and reel life (with so many 2013 films left to see in 2014: When, oh when, will my beloved Joaquin Phoenix and Her finally arrive in South Africa?), my increased black consciousness in Cape Town and Hollywood's increasing consciousness of blacks (due, for the most part, to the work of a handful of black directors and a ticket-buying public that's clearly interested in the stories they have to tell) have got me thinking. Here are some of the thoughts running through my mind this New Year's Eve.

***I still remember People magazine's "Hollywood Blackout" cover story as clearly as if I were still working there. The article, which made me proud to call myself a People reporter (though I had nothing to do with the piece) bemoaned a year (1996) without any black Oscar nominees in the acting categories and only one in any of the others. My how things have changed yet haven't.

Though Oscar seems to have recovered somewhat from its blackout since People shined a spotlight on it, I've noticed some intriguing patterns in its increasing inclusiveness? In recent years, there usually have been multiple black Oscar nominees, and this century alone, seven black winners in the acting categories (three Best Actors, one Best Actress, one Best Supporting Actor and two Best Supporting Actresses). Curiously, though, many of the recent black nominees have been newcomers with hard-to-pronounce and/or remember names, like Gabourey Sidibe and Quvenzhané Wallis, who fail to become stars and are unlikely to be nominated again.

Despite being a Best Actress nominee this year for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wallis's name doesn't even appear on the poster for 12 Years a Slave, in which she has a don't-blink-and-you-might-still-miss-her role as the protagonist's daughter. I still believe Slave's finale would have been more effective had we had even one scene of Northup's family coping with his disappearance and hence a little more Wallis.

Perhaps next year's Jay-Z/Will Smith-produced Annie update will reverse that trend and possibly even get Wallis another invitation to the Golden Globes as a nominee. Will three of this year's seven main black Oscar-nomination contenders with names that don't necessarily roll off English-speaking tongues -- Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o and Captain Phillips' Barkhad Abdi, all Golden Globe-nominated -- be so lucky in the future? Will Mo'Nique (a Best Supporting Actress winner for Precious whose name practically sings star) finally get another acting gig?

***Djimon Hounsou bucked the one-nomination-wonder trend by going from the star of a Janet Jackson video ("Love Will Never Do [Without You]") to a two-time Oscar nominee (for 2002's In America and 2006's Blood Diamond), but it still feels as if he's waiting for his breakthrough. (Of all the black actors to be nominated more than once since 2000 -- a list that includes Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith and Jamie Foxx -- only Hounsou and Viola Davis weren't already established stars.) Why did someone with his good looks and considerable talent never quite go mainstream?

***On the flip side is six-time Oscar nominee Denzel Washington, who has been one of Hollywood's biggest stars since the '90s. Why is he the only black thespian who gets nominated for roles that could have been played by an actor of any color? (Incidentally, if Lee Daniels' The Butler's Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey get nominated for their roles in the 2013 film, it will be both of their second times scoring a nod for embodying characters that could have been played only by black actors.) It dawned on me while watching Captain Phillips that Washington would have been great in that movie, but Hollywood would sooner try to make Angelina Jolie pass for multiracial (which she attempted as Marianne Pearl in 2007's A Mighty Heart) before even thinking about casting Washington as a real-life white man.

***Why do most of the big '90s indie auteurs-turned-Oscar-caliber-directors (Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky), in the grand tradition of the Woody Allens and Robert Altmans of Hollywood past and present, rarely to never cast black actors in their movies? I guess Russell did put Ice Cube in The Three Kings and Chris Tucker in Silver Linings Playbook, but would the latter movie really have suffered without Tucker's character, the only one played by an above-the-title actor that Oscar didn't notice? People criticize Quentin Tarantino for peppering (okay, dousing) his screenplays with the N word, but at least he isn't afraid to put black actors in his movies.

***Speaking of black actors in Quentin Tarantino films (namely last year's Django Unchained), is being the star of one of the hottest shows on TV Kerry Washington's consolation prize for being under-appreciated and underutilized in movies? I've only watched Scandal in passing, but from what I've seen, Olivia Pope could have been played by an actress of any color, which for Washington (no relation to Denzel) might be an even greater accomplishment than scoring an elusive (for her, despite excellent work in Django, Mother and Child, Ray and The Last King of Scotland, the last two opposite Best Actors Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker, respectively) Oscar nomination.

***The fact that most of the recent black Oscar nominees and all of this year's black possibilities (including Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer) were playing real-life characters or characters from literary adaptations underscores a continuing trend. Although there are more opportunities for black actors in quality dramas, Hollywood filmmakers still aren't creating quality black movie characters -- and if they are, they're being played by white actors.

***Male black voices are finally being heard from the other side of the camera, with three of this year's most successful and/or critically hailed films (Lee Daniels' The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station) directed by black men (Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen and Ryan Coogler, respectively). Meanwhile, though, where are the black female directors? Halle Berry produces, but there seems to be few black women in positions of power on movie sets. If there were, perhaps Angela Bassett would finally get a post-What's Love Got to Do With It? role worthy of her talent, and Viola Davis, who seemed so destined for stardom after The Help a few years ago, would be getting better and meatier work than always being part of an ensemble or playing second lead to Maggie Gyllenhaal (in 2012's Won't Back Down).

***Since the days when Ally McBeal had a black boyfriend and his skin color wasn't a plot point, prime-time TV and daytime soaps have featured a number of interracial couples for which race isn't an issue or part of the storyline. Often it's not even mentioned at all. (Curiously, though, with the exceptions of Smash, Two and a Half Men and probably a few other shows, gay and lesbian couples remain largely white-on-white.) When will the big-screen play catch up? In big Hollywood movies, black actors get little to no romance. The biggest male stars, the Denzel Washingtons and the Will Smiths, rarely get cast in romances and no black actress has ever been a contender for America's sweetheart. The surprise success of The Best Man Holiday proves that people will pay to see black people in love, but it doesn't have to always be with each other. Despite the gains made by blacks over the last 17 years, they remain largely separate and unequal in Hollywood films. May 2014 and beyond bring greater strides in desegregation.

Monday, December 30, 2013

What "Enough Said" Taught Me About TV Typecasting, Love and James Gandolfini

During the first 30 minutes of Enough Said, for the very first time, I noticed the elephant that's probably been lurking beside my television screen since the end of the '80s: Julia Louis-Dreyfus basically has been playing the same character for the last 24 or so years, beginning with Elaine Benes on Seinfeld, whom she debuted way back in 1989.

Christine Campbell on The New Adventures of Old Christine was Elaine with a young son, a gay-straight brother and an ex-husband, co-running a gym with Wanda Sykes. Selina Meyer on Veep is Elaine with a college-age daughter, a gay-straight assistant (fellow Emmy winner Tony Hale) and an ex-husband, playing second banana to the President of the United States. And Eva in the indie romantic comedy that's currently racking up end-of-the-year critical plaudits and awards-season nominations, is Elaine with a daughter about to go off to college, an acquaintance who calls her "a dyke" and an ex-husband, dragging a heavy massage table up a long flight of stairs.

If you think about it while tilting your heard slightly to the left, Louis-Dreyfus is basically Jennifer Aniston with more facial expressions and even better hair. She's been called the new Mary Tyler Moore, but even MTM got to play seriously against type in Ordinary People. Watching Enough Said, I started to understand why Louis-Dreyfus never became a bigger movie star (coupled with her lack of trying). We already have Aniston. Is there room for another likable TV actress repeatedly repeating her signature role on the big screen?

After watching Enough Said, I also understood why Louis-Dreyfus has won four Emmys for three of her variations on a theme: Goddess is in the details, and although she's yet to prove herself as an actress with, say, Lisa Kudrow's remarkable range, she knows how to nail the details of situations and tiny moments. I've never seen a Julia Louis-Dreyfus reaction onscreen that didn't feel 100 percent authentic. Maybe she's not just playing Elaine Benes over and over; she could be playing herself, too, and I mean that as a compliment. Every little thing she does is magic, so natural and realistic, something an actual person in the same situation might actually do.

In Enough Said, she made Eva's emotional state in every position she found herself in -- the tentativeness of an awkward first date, the exasperation of reaching out to a daughter who's pulling away from you, the utter embarrassment of having your new BF and new BFF (the new BF's ex-wife) find out that you've knowingly been dating them both for weeks, unbeknownst to them -- seem incredibly real-life. I've never had my boyfriend find out that I've been collecting damaging intel on him from his ex, but I'm pretty sure my reaction would be similar to Eva's. She was like a cockroach under a spotlight, trapped between a roach motel and a can of Raid. I half expected her to flap her arms and try to fly away.

As for the other great female actresses in Enough Said, Catherine Keener can pretty much play smug and brittle in her sleep (though I'd much rather spend an afternoon antique-furniture shopping with her character in writer-director Nicole Holofcener's previous film, 2010's Please Give, than eating vegan food with Eva's hyper-critical new BFF, who reminded me of a cross between Dorothy's pretentious writer friend, Barbara Thorndike, on an old episode of The Golden Girls and Robert Barone's ex-wife on Everybody Loves Raymond), and it's great to hear Toni Collette - an actress who never plays the same character twice -- getting a chance to use her natural Australian accent as Eva's old BFF.

The casting of an Emmy-winning TV star (Louis-Dreyfus) and a twice-Oscar-nominated indie actress (Keener) was something of a genius movie in that it mirrored the dynamic between Eva and Marianne: a soccer mom who was so insecure (a Louis-Dreyfus character specialty) and so honored to be invited to the cool table by the sophisticated poet (and friend of Joni Mitchell!) that she ignored all of her glaring flaws while zeroing in on those of the hapless third angle of the unconventional love triangle.

The film's real revelation, though, as that third angle, was James Gandolfini. I never had the stomach to watch The Sopranos regularly, so I'm not overly familiar with the role that made him a multiple-Emmy-winning TV titan, but I did see enough of it to know that Albert was no Tony Soprano. Thanks to Gandolfini's tough-but-tender approach to the material, Albert stood out as the film's only truly sympathetic character, a man who refused to badmouth his ex (or tolerate their daughter doing it) even while said ex couldn't say anything nice about him. I probably would have gravitated toward him and fallen for him, much like Eva did, even if Gandolfini's death three months before the film's September release hadn't turned me into mush. It was tugging at my heartstrings the entire time.

Sadly, Gandolfini's death from a heart attack last June also made me look at Albert in a way that I might not have were the actor still alive. (Did Gandolfini look so unhealthy in The Sopranos?) The cracks about his weight and his eating habits probably wouldn't have seemed quite so nasty. There was even a "Fat Albert" quip! The bit about how he doesn't know how to whisper (which I totally understood, and kudos to Gandolfini for getting it, too, even though Albert didn't) and separating the onions from the guacamole wouldn't have come across as being so mean-spirited. "He's a nice guy, appreciate him," I wanted to shout at the movie screen.

That said, Gandolfini earned my sympathy on his own by not overplaying the pathos of the character. He made Albert not someone to be pitied - not when Eva didn't know whether she wanted to kiss him on the first date, not when she couldn't bring herself to perform with him in bed - but rather someone to be admired for being so true to his true self. The premise of the film underscored the idea that one woman's (or man's) junk is another one's treasure, an idea that was previously presented in an episode of Sex and the City (the one in which Charlotte had the party where the invitees had to bring a boyfriend they were ready to dump on someone else). That's the thing about love: It doesn't matter if everyone else loves the one you're with because opinions are like exes. Everybody has one. (Incidentally, speaking of Sex and the City, Carrie also once collected intel on Mr. Big from an ex, and with far more calculation, yet she emerged totally unscathed. Enough Said's premise, though, has more in common with the 2005 Meryl Streep-Uma Thurman film Prime.)

Though Keener's Marianne was the film's least likable character, her unrelenting criticism of Albert felt as valid as Eva's opposite take on him, and that was largely due to Gandolfini's portrayal. He didn't turn Gandolfini into a wussy pushover, instead making Albert a man who was aware of his flaws but still comfortable in his imperfect skin. That "I'm not sure" uttered by Eva at the end of their first date when Albert leaned in to kiss her was as painful to watch as it must have been to hear. I wanted to jump into the screen and kiss him myself, not because I felt sorry for him, but because Gandolfini's reaction, a mix of wounded pride, resignation and fortitude that set the balance of noble strength and delicate vulnerability that would mark the rest of his performance, was so tragi-sexy.

Although the film had well over an hour to go, I was actually a little surprised when Eva suddenly showed up at Albert's house for the second date. I wish the film had included a scene of him summoning the courage to ask her out again because I'd like to know how he went from that deflating "I'm not sure" moment to requesting a second date.

I'm glad he did, though. By the conclusion of Enough Said, I felt as one might feel after the break-up of a relationship that one doesn't want to end, not only because the movie was over but because after his next and final film (the 2014 crime-drama Animal Rescue), there'll be no more dates with Gandolfini.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Fruitvale Station," Trayvon Martin and the Year of the Black Martyr

You never know where the years, or the day, will take you -- or where it'll send someone else. That's the beauty and the tragedy of life. It applies to both Michael B. Jordan and to Oscar Grant III, the character he played in the mid-2013 release Fruitvale Station, for whom December 31, 2008 began pretty much like any other day.

Years ago, while visiting my friend Rebecca Budig on the set of All My Children, the daytime soap on which she was still playing Greenlee at the time, she introduced me to two of her teen costars, Leven Rambin and Jordan, both of whom played her adoptive younger siblings on the show.

The two young actors were sweet and exceptionally talented, and I was sure they both would enjoy successful careers as adults. But it was Rambin for whom I predicted super-size things. She was blonde and beautiful, and she had It, that indescribable X factor. I expected her to be the next Jennifer Lawrence years before Jennifer Lawrence.

But what did I know? Although Rambin, now 23, has done well (she even appeared with Lawrence in 2012's Hunger Games), Jordan, now 26, is the one who, following several powerful prime-time TV turns (I was especially moved by his performance as a blind patient in a 2012 episode of House), is enjoying Oscar buzz for his role in the Sundance and Cannes Film Festival hit Fruitvale Station. The film, based on actual events, details the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant before he was shot by a trigger-happy cop who supposedly mistook his gun for his taser at the Fruitvale Station on Oakland's BART line.

In a year with fewer potential Best Actor nominees, I'd call Jordan a shoo-in. My how he's grown since his years on AMC, when he was playing street kid with a heart of gold Reggie Montgomery. It was a fairly stock role, a Blackie Parrish-style archetype (a reference to the General Hospital role that made John Stamos a star in the '80s), and had he just played the Fruitvale script, Oscar might have been a variation on that theme. But Jordan went above and beyond plot and dialogue, telling so much of Oscar's story through facial expressions and body language.

His Oscar was as tough and angry as he was kind and generous. You could see him trying to keep his fury in check, as if he was pushed up against a door that the howling wind was threatening to blow open. When he did give in to his rage, as in the scene where his mother (Octavia Spencer) visited him in prison, he quickly and unexpectedly shifted to vulnerable, helping viewers to sympathize with the complicated youth, even while shaking their heads at his bad choices.

Jordan infused Oscar with just enough potential menace to override the script's attempts to sanitize him, to turn him into The Black Martyr, a la Trayvon Martin. I sat through the 85-minute film expecting him to blow up at every turn, waiting for it, but he rarely did. Too many violent outbursts would have undermined the goal of the movie, which clearly wanted us to love Oscar so that we would be all the more enraged by what happened to him. Jordan, though, didn't let Oscar off as easily as the movie did.

The script gave Oscar something of a split personality: For every violent outburst (the altercation with the fellow inmate when his mother visited him in prison, an argument with his former boss during which Oscar issued an idle threat), there was a random act of kindness/conscientiousness or two (calling his grandmother on the phone to explain fish fry to a pretty girl in the supermarket, giving away his marijuana for free rather than selling it, asking a shopkeeper to to open his closed doors to allow a pregnant woman to use the bathroom, the dog scene), seemingly thrown in to offset any negative impressions that his hot temper might have given us.

Those random acts of kindness/conscientiousness felt too manufactured and manipulative to me -- much more so than his mother's game-changing request that he and his friends take the BART instead of driving when they went partying on New Year's Eve, which is exactly what my mom would have done -- and the film didn't need them to convince me that Oscar didn't deserve what he got. I didn't need to see him tending to a cute dog that had been run down by a driver who didn't bother to stop to get his capacity for caring.

His paternal instincts were obvious in every touching scene with his young daughter, Tatiana. The quiet family moments were the ones in which the film really did Oscar justice. He was a doting father and son, and he loved his girlfriend Sophina, the mother of his daughter, despite his roving eyes and hands. Interestingly, the film opened with a very realistic scene of him and Sophina arguing over his recent infidelity (following a prologue that showed the final police altercation as captured on video). The scene was quietly understated, free of the sort of histrionics one might expect from a cheated-on girlfriend scolding her husband (kudos to Melonie Diaz, who handled all of her scenes with a similarly subtle touch, never lapsing into melodrama), giving the relationship context and subtext.

The quiet family moments and the tense ones were what I remembered while I was watching that police beatdown, dreading what was coming next, knowing what was coming next. I didn't need to see Oscar helping stray girls in grocery stores or stray dogs on the side of the road, to know that he was a flawed yet decent guy who had made mistakes but loved his family. He didn't deserve what was coming to him.

When the movie won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in January, I didn't realize that it was based on a real-life incident that occurred on New Year's Day 2009. At the time, almost exactly five years ago, I was living in Buenos Aires, so perhaps the news just didn't travel that far south. If it did, I don't recall ever hearing or reading anything about Oscar vs. the Oakland police, a precursor to the eerily similar Trayvon Martin case, which dominated media coverage this past summer, following the announcement of the verdict on July 13, the day after Fruitvale Station opened in the U.S. (Incidentally, Jordan's episode of House debuted in Canada on February 27, 2012, the day after Martin was killed.)

From Melbourne to Buenos Aires to Bangkok to Berlin, it was hard to miss the coverage of Trayvon Martin's murder in 2012 and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot him. I'm not sure why it was Trayvon and not Oscar who became an international symbol for Black Martyrdom. Trayvon was its poster child, literally, even before Zimmerman's acquittal, despite a lack of eyewitnesses (as detailed in the movie, shocked bystanders -- and Oscar himself -- used their cell phones to film the police's assault on Oscar and his friends) and despite evidence that up to the point of gunfire, Trayvon may have given as good as he got, possibly more.

Oscar doesn't get so much as his own Wikipedia page, even after the independent film's modest success ($16.2 million at the box office). I wonder if the movie didn't do better business because people felt they were already watching it on the news, and Trayvon Martin was a much bigger star than Oscar Grant or any of the performers in Fruitvale Station.

Perhaps it was Trayvon's age: 17. Oscar was only 22, but there's something that seems to be more inherently tragic about a teenager being gunned down by the police (or in Trayvon's case, a security guard), well before the prime of his life. Maybe it was Trayvon's baby face. He was such a cute kid, and his image was perfect for pins and posters and sweat shirts and other forms of sloganeering. Or it simply could have been timing: Were people too busy recovering from the holidays and trying to keep their New Year's resolutions to get too up in arms over a black kid in Oakland who had been killed after a night of partying?

When The Trayvon Martin Story inevitably makes it to theaters, I hope it doesn't try as hard to make us love him as his family and the press did during the trial and throughout its aftermath. I also hope he's played by an actor as skilled as Jordan, one who will do justice not to the legend, not to the black martyr, but to a boy who shouldn't have died so brutally and so young, whether he was a great kid or not.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Days of Future Past and 10 for Fighting: A Boxing Day Soundtrack

"Every day deserves a good soundtrack."

That's what my best friend Lori's hairdresser once wrote to me in an email. At the time, Lori was trying to set us up because she thought we'd get along well, as friends, maybe more. He and I never did actually meet up, and I can't remember any of the songs that were on his daily soundtracks during our brief period of correspondence. I don't even know if he's still Lori's hairdresser -- or maybe he was her colorist. Whatever. The important thing is that I never forgot his words because they were/are so true.

The period between Christmas and New Year's has always been one of reflection on the past and resolutions for the future, and the best musical accompaniment for that is the music that defines the past that we'll forever be playing well into the future. I cooked up this idea this Boxing Day morning (my third, following two previous Christmas stints in London, in 1996 and 2004) while jogging to The Spencer Davis Group's 1967 Top 10 hit "I'm a Man."

That song always makes me think of the band Chicago because Chicago covered it in 1969, and Chicago later nailed the spirit of this season with two of its own classic-rock staples: 1975's "Old Days" (the past) and 1971's "Beginnings" (the future). (Yes, I might be a child of the '80s, but "retro" has always meant the '60s and the '70s to me.)

"Take me back to a world gone away/ Boyhood memories feel like yesterday."

"Only the beginning of what I want to feel forever."

Old days and beginnings: The end of one year always means the start of another one, with new hopes, new people, new places and old songs that still sound like brand-new ones.

And just in case you'd rather focus on a literal musical theme this Boxing Day (which actually has nothing to do with pugilistic sports), have I got a a soundtrack for you.

"Fight" The Cure

"Fighting Fit" Gene

"Boxers" Morrissey

"This Is a Call" Foo Fighters

"Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting" Elton John

"I Don't Want to Fight" Tina Turner

"Hit Me With Your Best Shot" Pat Benatar

"Sock It 2 Me" Missy Elliott

"Hit" Sugarcubes

"Hand in Glove" The Smiths

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Seven Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Captain Phillips"

1. Another Christmas Day, another Tom Hanks movie. Exactly 20 years ago, on December 25, 1993, my brother Alexi and I saw Philadelphia in a theater near the Santa Monica Pier while I was visiting him in L.A. Seven years later, my friend Dave and I spent Christmas evening in a movie theater on New York City's Upper East Side watching Cast Away. This year, it was just Captain Phillips and me in Cape Town, and it was my best holiday with Hanks yet. I haven't been so glued to the edge of my seat while watching a movie since the final 30 minutes or so of Argo kept my stomach twisted in knots during a smooth flight from Bangkok to Bali a little more than a year ago. I found Captain Phillips to be far more suspenseful than Gravity, even without the benefits of 3-D and spectacular special effects. It made its case with solid acting and good old-fashioned storytelling.

2. Tom Hanks in peril (thanks to his courier work), surrounded by water. Where did I see this before? Ah, yes, Cast Away, the last film for which Hanks was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. The first notable difference between Captain Phillips and Cast Away was how quickly I was pulled into Richard Phillips's home life and how Hanks was able to lay out the character's character with very little exposition. (Oscar nomination No. 6 should be a done deal.) The opening scenes were so full of subtext. The relationship between him and his wife (Catherine Keener, effortlessly making a huge impression with only a few minutes of screen time) was loving, yet it wasn't sugarcoated: There was a hint of tension, perhaps due to the demands of his job as a merchant mariner, or their son Danny not taking school seriously (he dominated the discussion during the ride to the airport, but it almost felt like Phillips was talking about something else), or maybe it was just Phillips's slightly prickly personality.

At two points during the film, we saw Phillips soften while writing to his wife, and by the second note, it was clear how much she meant to him. It's been years since I last saw Cast Away, but I don't recall being so drawn into Hanks's character's life on dry land, or wondering what Helen Hunt was up to during the time that he was lost at sea. I wanted him to survive, not necessarily get home to his loved one, and had she not been married to Mr. Big upon his return, I probably wouldn't even remember Helen Hunt in the movie at all. But while watching Phillips' plight, I kept thinking about the barely seen wife he left behind in Underhill, Vermont, hoping that he'd make it home to her alive.

3. It's not like me to root for the bad guys, and I didn't do it during Captain Phillips. But in a year with two Oscar contenders in which black vs. white (Lee Daniels' The Butler and 12 Years a Slave), with the black side of the equation in the position of submission, it was strangely refreshing to see four lone Somalians in the position of power on a massive American ship with a nearly all-white crew. I wonder if I would have felt the same way had I not been bombarded with so many slavery- and Civil Rights-themed movies in the last few years, or if I hadn't seen Phillips from the vantage point of being on South African soil.

4. Why would the U.S. government send a cargo ship into dangerous pirates-ridden waters without any kind of security other than water hoses built onto the ships? If the right to bear arms should apply anywhere, wouldn't it be while sailing through the Horn of Africa in an area known to be frequented by marine hijackers? I mean, where was the MV Maersk Alabama's security team?!

5. The movie certainly didn't go where I thought it would. I was expecting a two-hour movie version of the Australian series Sea Patrol, starring Tom Hanks, which would have been fine with me. (I love watching that show when I'm in Bangkok.) But what I ended up getting, Captain vs. "Captain," was far more captivating. The chemistry between Hanks and Barkhad Abdi (who gave Muse a dangerous, almost sexy, swagger; at times he was borderline likable) made it easy to see the grudging mutual respect and admiration between the two adversaries. "You're not just a fisherman; [softer] you're not just a fisherman" is still playing over and over in my head.

6. Was Captain Phillips a hero or wasn't he? I suspect that will be one of the big debates of this Oscar season since the movie was based on a true story. Though he had his heroic moments, the film certainly didn't present him as being a hero in the Harrison Ford sense. I saw the story's outcome as being clearly a team effort, but I give full credit to Hanks for showing us Phillips' bravery while making his fear so incredibly palpable and moving.

7. Pirates are people, too. No, I'm not condoning what the four primary villains of Captain Phillips were up to, but I appreciate how the movie gave them humanity without beating us over the head with it. If they had been heartless, soulless killing machines, there would have been a lot more carnage throughout the course of their piracy. They were deprived people who felt shortchanged by life, like they had no other options. Sadly, they also exhibited another unfortunate human characteristic: greed. Whether they were acting on behalf of their own avarice or that of the elders, $30,000 of free money should have been enough to send them on their way. Only, I don't believe that in the end it was all about the money. It had become a game to the pirates, particularly Muse, and all that mattered was winning. How human, all too human is that?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Bah, Humbug! What Happened to My Christmas Spirit This Year?

The question in the title of this post is a rhetorical one. My Christmas spirit is exactly where it's been for the last eight holiday seasons, since I've been spending them fanning myself and wiping the sweat from my forehead in the Southern Hemisphere (2006-2010 and 2013) and in Bangkok (2011-2012). It's hard to conjure up images of Santa and snow under the red-hot summer sun. My Christmas spirit is miles away (to the north, to the north) and many years ago (decades, to be exact, somewhere around Christmas of 1983, which was the last one that really mattered to me).

With the exception of the random lady on the street who walked up to me and gave me a big hug a few Christmases into my stint in Buenos Aires, my favorite Christmas memory of the last eight years didn't even happen during the holiday season. It was July of 2008, and I was in New York City for my friend Amy's wedding. Some of us were staying at Moby's penthouse on the Upper West Side (he was on tour somewhere, I believe), and we had just gotten back from the reception. We were sitting on the terrace, looking down at the streets below, wondering who would deliver food to us in the wee hours.

I don't know what got into me, but suddenly the Christmas spirit hit me. "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." I was singing "The Christmas Song" as sung my Nat King Cole on a vinyl LP that my mother had when I was a kid, aping his immaculate phrasing and dramatic over-enunciation of words like "tiny tots." My friend Zena looked at me like she was witnessing the birth of Jesus himself. I don't know if it was the booze or hunger hallucinations, but we all thought me doing Cole was the funniest thing ever. I sang it over and over, until we fell asleep surrounded by pizza boxes and hamburger wrappers. (Yes, someone delivered!)

Now that I look back on this story, it makes sense that the Christmas spirit would hit me in the middle of July. For the previous few years, and for the ones to come, Christmas Day felt like a day in July. In Buenos Aires, although it was hot as hell, Christmas was a huge deal for everyone but me, unlike in Bangkok, where, aside from a few Christmas decorations scattered around town, Christmas came and went with very little fanfare, which makes sense when you consider that Thailand is primarily Buddhist. Last year, it fell on a Tuesday, and it was business as usual: Everything was up and running, from public transportation to the workers in the supermarket where I bought my groceries.

I couldn't have been more thrilled. The one thing I've hated most about Christmas as an adult is how everything shuts down, and for once, I didn't feel like I was in a ghost town on Christmas Day. (The previous year, it had fallen on a Sunday, so the city was as dead as it usually was on Sundays.) In Bangkok, Christmas was like any other day. And since Thais are friendly and helpful seven days a week, if you were a snow bunny missing your white Christmases, you could at least pretend that their disposition was Christmas cheer.

Christmas in Cape Town this year feels even less like Christmas than it did in Bangkok. It's a major holiday season where tourists from all over the world descend on the City Bowl to enjoy the warm weather and gorgeous natural scenery, but it's more about summer than Santa. Perhaps I just haven't been paying attention, but I haven't zeroed in on a single holiday decoration all season, and I don't believe I've heard "Happy holidays" or "We wish you a merry Christmas" more than twice. The mall that's adjacent to the apartment complex where I'm living wasn't much busier today or yesterday than any other day since I moved in last week.

I spent several hours of my Christmas Eve morning at Mediclinic Cape Town -- which I suppose is Cape Town's version of Bangkok's BNH Hospital, only the Mediclinic patient rooms must have stunning views of Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Signal Hill -- for a painful ear disturbance that came on late last night. There was no Christmas cheer going around Mediclinic either, and unlike, BNH, no custom bottled water or sweet smiling nurses wearing those body-clinging uniforms and pointy hats from the 1950s. The nurse who took my blood pressure and asked me what was ailing me was dressed like she'd just stepped off the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek, and she was all business, not cracking a smile nor regaling me with any perfunctory small talk. Lieutenant Uhura she was not.

I explained my ear symptoms and also told her about the recurring lower abdominal pain that I have been experiencing for the last few months, since I was in Tel Aviv. It comes and goes, usually coming when I go running or when I do abdominal exercises. She asked me how much the pain was on a scale from one to 10, the ear pain, not the abdominal one. "A five," I answered, reconsidering. "Make that a six."

After she did her bit, looking into my ears, giving me a urine test (which came back normal), and otherwise ignoring what I told her about my abdominal issues, and following a long waiting period that felt like forever, the doctor came in. I'm pretty sure he growled his first words to me. He was so gruff and impatient that I began to wish Nurse Starship Enterprise would return.

He asked me the same questions she had asked (clearly he hadn't bothered to read the notes that she'd spent five minutes writing down), and repeated all the steps she had (minus the blood pressure check) as if he were auditioning for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the hospital's production of A Christmas Carol. He pressed the area around my groin a few times, then my stomach and asked if I had any pain there. I told him no, and it was the last thing anybody said about my lower abdominal issues.

"Someone will come in and do an ear syringe - in both ears," he said as he was walking out. He never looked back, and he never returned. The nurse did, though, and after 30 uncomfortable minutes of having water pumped into both ears, only one, the one that hadn't been bothering me when I came in, was clear. The irrigation only half worked!

The nurse wrote down the name of ear drops for me to buy at any local pharmacy. They'd loosen up the wax over the course of two days and 20 drops, after which I could return for them to try again. "That'll be five hundred sixty-two rand [roughly $55]," the cashier announced on my way out. For what, I wasn't sure.

As I walked to the pharmacy, I prayed for a Christmas miracle for the first time this season: Please let the Waxsol ear drops work and clear out whatever is stuck in my right ear so that I won't have to go back to Mediclinic. That would be the best Christmas present since my 1984 subscription to Billboard magazine.

Now is that asking for too much?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

13 Great Things About Music in 2013

1. "212" by Azealia Banks featuring Lazy Jay in The Heat and The Bling Ring I love me some Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy (together and separately), but Azealia Banks' brief soundtrack cameo (via her 2011 debut single, which hit No. 12 in the UK) was what I liked most about the Oscar winner and the Oscar nominee's 2013 hit screen collaboration. It was my favorite marriage of music and movies since 2012's This Is 40 (which also featured McCarthy) gave us Fiona Apple's "Dull Tool."

2. "Applause" by Lady Gaga There's nothing like a healthy dose of self-awareness to drive a good electro beat home. I prefer Gaga in ironic self-deprecating mode than when she's trying to make grand statements ("Born This Way"? Blah) or shock us into watching and listening. "Applause" was a bigger hit than you might think (peaking at No. 4 and spending months hovering in the Top 10), but considering the inferior female-driven pop that cruised right past it to the top (Katy Perry's "Roar," Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball"), it wasn't nearly big enough.

3. "The Way" by Ariana Grande featuring Mac Miller As 2013 pop's new teen queens go, Grande's wasn't as fresh and inventive as Lorde ("The Way" sounds like the kind of debut single Mariah Carey might have made had she debuted circa 2000 instead of 10 years earlier), but while I never need to hear "Royals" again (it sounds cool, but how am I supposed feel it when she sounds so detached singing it?), I love the way "The Way" still makes me feel like hearing it over and over. Play it again, iPod!

4. Music from the second season of Girls Of all the great songs that season two of Girls introduced me to in 2013, including but not limited to Icona Pop featuring Charli XCX's "I Love It" and Tame Impala's glam-rocking "Elephant" (from the current Best Alternative Music Album Grammy nominee Lonerism, which would have made my 2012 best-of list had I known about it back then), Icona Pop's worldwide monster hit was the one that the rest of the world couldn't deny either.

5. Texas The Conversation It came out on May 20 (13 days after my birthday, which would have made it the best birthday present since Keane's Strangeland was released on the big day last year), but somehow I managed not to know about it until nearly four months later, on September 15 (my brother Alexi's birthday), when I consulted Wikipedia to see what my favorite Glaswegian band was up to. I spent most of 2013 slacking off when it came to keeping up with new releases, and it had been so long since Texas had offered one (2005's Red Book), I'd sort of given up hope.

Sometimes, though, good things do come to (and from) those who wait. The long hiatus meant that The Conversation didn't quite pick up where Red Book left off but rather blended elements from every phase of Texas's musical history, from the rootsy Americana-style rock & soul of early Texas (particularly Rick's Road) to the Motown-inflected blue-eyed soul of the band's commercial peak (White on Blonde and The Hush) to the glossy pop of its later efforts and frontwoman Sharleen Spiteri's two solo albums (2008's Melody and 2010's The Movie Songbook), while standing on its own as a singular statement in the group's body of work.

I've always found it interesting that Texas insists that it's named after the 1984 Wim Wenders-directed film, Paris, Texas, and not the Lone Star State, as if distancing itself from the U.S., yet Texas's music has always been so unabashedly American-influenced: There's no question what (or rather, where) inspired "Detroit City," the second Conversation single, which rocks like Vegas's The Killers covering Jersey's Springsteen, quotes Detroit's (and Motown's) own Martha and the Vandellas, and shares its title with a country classic co-written by Tampa, Florida's Mel Tillis and made into a 1963 crossover hit by Ohio's Bobby Bare. The album's other two singles, "Dry Your Eyes" and the title track, were probably too elegant, understated and American-sounding to reverse Texas's diminishing commercial returns in the UK and become hits with pop fans who are now too busy getting their kicks from former The X Factor contestants (like One Direction -- ugh!) to enjoy an adult Conversation. Their loss.

6. Britney flops! I so didn't see this coming: Britney Jean sold a relatively paltry 107,000 copies its first week out, which was only good enough for a No. 4 debut on Billboard's Top 200 album chart. Ouch! Now she knows how Christina Aguilera feels! But for both, there's life after multi-platinum pop stardom on other people's songs: Britney Jean scored with will.i.am on "Scream & Shout" this year, as did Aguilera as a guest on Pitbull's "Feel This Moment" and A Great Big World's "Say Something," currently cresting in the Top 5. Aguilera deserves more (like her very own hit), but if Britney is going to keep insisting on not giving us Blackout 2, she deserves exactly what she's finally getting.

7. "Flourescent" by Pet Shop Boys The best song on PSB's excellent Electric and one that was inspired by former teen queens like Britney herself ("You've been living in a looking glass scene/Since you were seventeen"). The Australian-expat DJ who shocked me by playing it one Saturday night at Bar Saint Jean in Berlin (the same place where I'd discovered Solange Knowles's "Losing You" weeks earlier) clearly agreed.

8. Vincent Powell's performance of Lenny Williams' "Cause I Love You" during the Top 40 Las Vegas semifinals on American Idol Nicky Minaj hated him because he was too "old-fashioned," but what the hell does she know?

9. Kree Harrison's performance of Faith Hill's "Stronger" during the Top 20 Vegas semifinals on American Idol I loved Candice Glover, but her much-celebrated take on The Cure's "Lovesong," though well sung, was shapeless and dull. Kree's gentle, effortless reading of Faith Hill's "Stronger" was stronger -- than Glover's "Lovesong" and Hill's own 2002 version.

10. Bob Marley & The Wailers Rastaman Vibration The album actually came out in 1976, but I didn't discover it until 2013. Marley's only Top 10 U.S. studio album (it hit No. 8), it also includes his lone charter on Billboard's Hot 100, "Roots Rock Reggae," which hit No. 51. Oddly enough, though Sinead O'Connor covered "War" on her 2005 reggae tribute album Throw Down Your Arms, none of the songs on Rastaman Vibration are among the "hits" for which Marley is best known. In other words, you won't be hearing any of them at your next frat party, and they're so much better because of that.

11. Radio Capital TV The soundtrack to my month in Rome, which introduced me to the aforementioned masterpiece, via the video for Marley's "Positive Vibration."

12. Those Polish kids singing along to Rihanna at Glam Club in Warsaw Music, like love, is a universal language, and when I heard the twentysomething crowd at the other Glam (not the one in Buenos Aires!) nailing the lyrics while watching Rihanna perform "Stay" live in concert on Polish TV in July, I got it: a sad song for a sad people. Bonus points to Glam for being the place where I heard Lykke Li's 2011 European hit (curiously, everywhere except in Denmark, the UK and her native Sweden) "I Follow Rivers." May she and Norway's Mr Little Jeans become the next big Scandinavian things in 2014.

13. At last: Linda Ronstadt gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Too bad it had to happen in the same year that she announced her Parkinson's diagnosis, which might give the impression that she garnered some sympathy votes. But considering that Daryl Hall and John Oates are getting in, too, maybe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is finally thinking outside of the classic-rock box. Better luck next year, Chic!

Friday, December 20, 2013

My Friday Morning iPod Shuffle Running Mix

"Did We Not Choose Each Other" Sophie B. Hawkins

"Horse Nation" The Cult

"Cake and Eat It" Dead Or Alive

"Alone Again Or" Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

"Come As You Are" Brandy

"Stop Your Sobbing" Pretenders

"Dirt Off Your Shoulder" Jay-Z

"Washing Up (Tiga Remix)" Tomas Andersson

"Those Were the Days" Aaliyah

"Hot Boyz" Missy Elliott

"Mi Tierra" Gloria Estefan

"Land of Confusion" Genesis

"Puss 'n' Boots" Adam Ant

Why I’m Really Staying in Cape Town (It's Complicated)

"Cape Town is a very racist city."

I didn't say it. Alex did. Only I didn't hear him the first time he said it. We were talking on the phone, and the reception wasn't so great on the 16th floor of Gardens Centre apartment complex, my home in Cape Town for roughly the next month.

"I'm looking forward to hearing more about your screenplay -- and maybe getting some tips on how to write one, too."

"Did you hear what I just said?"

"Um, no, I guess I didn't." I had figured it was something pretty benign, like "So I'll see you around the 28th." That's the date that Alex, a 41-year-old screenwriter and playwright from Alabama, by way of Boston, who has been living in Johannesburg for five non-consecutive years (which were split in half by a two-year stint in London), will be arriving in Cape Town for a visit.

"I said Cape Town is a very racist city.... I just hope you know what you're getting yourself into." Ah, of course. No conversation in Cape Town would be a conversation in Cape Town without that being brought up.

"Yes, I know exactly what I'm getting myself into."

I heard him perfectly that time. And although I hadn't been here long enough to offer my unqualified concurrence, Alex's five-second review echoed the longer ones that Cape Town has received from a number of locals and expats I've encountered since my arrival here five and a half weeks ago. (Not since Buenos Aires, have I been in a city that has been so damned by its resident devotees, all of whom adore it anyway, half of whom seem genuinely surprised that I want to stick around.)

Alex, apparently, knows cities. He knows that Kissimmee, Florida, where I grew up, isn't the Florida that most non-Floridians think about when they think about Florida. He described Florida as being like three different countries: South Florida, Central Florida, and the Panhandle. Exactly.

He loves London, but he hated living there, not because of the weather (which is not as unrelentingly dreary as its reputation has it, but rather more ephemeral, like the climate in Melbourne) or because of those stuffy Brits ("I probably have more friends there than any other place in the world," he admitted). His problem with London seemed to have everything to do with his inner life at the time when he was living there. If London were a woman, he might have told her, "It's not you; it's me" – and he would have meant it.

I got what he was saying about London, just as I got what he was saying about Florida, just as I got what he was saying about Cape Town. When I started toying with the idea of taking the commitment plunge and settling for at least one year in Cape Town, everybody assumed I had fallen madly in love – either with the city, or with a guy here. My friend Adriaan, a Cape Town native whom I met in New York City in 2000 and kept in touch with ever since (even before Facebook made it easy), patted himself on the back: "I told you Cape Town gonna bite you like a bug."

I didn't know how to break to him. I haven't really been bitten by anything – not yet. There's nothing metaphysical about it: My attraction to Cape Town is purely physical. I can't stop looking at her (and taking pictures). That's not why I'm sticking around, but it will sure help ease the lonely nights.

"I'm not in love with Cape Town. I'm in like with it." I was talking to Elliott, my 31-year-old American friend from New York City who has spent the past year working on getting his master's (or is it his doctorate?) in African Studies. He was actually the second person here to suggest to me that Cape Town is a racist place, one week after my arrival. The first was Adriaan. As much as I admire Adriaan's intelligence and respect his point of view, like Alex, he's white. So he has his own perspective. Experiencing racism as a conscientious objector to it is a lot different from being its target, as Elliott, who is black, has. He has the shockingly offensive Grindr messages to prove it. Now so do I.

"I’m the kind of person who likes to punish myself." I explained to Alex. It's why I had such a love-hate relationship with the five weeks I spent climbing up and down Signal Hill at least twice a day to go back and forth between my apartment in Tamboerskloof and civilization on Kloof and Long Streets. I like the idea of pushing myself to the limit and deserving my reward at the end, even if it's just a seat in front of the TV, my laptop and a fan after ascending a long 45-degree incline to get home. That's a large part of why I run. At the end of every jog, there are the endorphins and often a fully-written blog post or freelance article in my head. That's some great reward!

Living in Gardens certainly won't be that much of a physical challenge, but the challenge of Cape Town's racial politics is a large part of the reason why I'm staying. It takes more than a month or two to begin to understand the racial politics of any country, as I learned during my extended stays in Argentina, Australia and Thailand. But the racial politics in those countries mostly involved other groups. Yes, I dealt with racism, but usually it was in the form of stereotypes and being objectified sexually. There weren't enough black people for there to be any kind of systematic movement against us.

In Cape Town, though, it's different. Here the racial politics seem to envelop aspects of the racial politics in all of the countries I've lived in, including the United States. I don't know enough about South African history to explain it, but it's even more intense in Cape Town than it seemed to be in Johannesburg. I suspect that has to do with the fact that a smaller percentage of the population in Joburg is white, creating a different dynamic. Cape Town is a much whiter city ("more European," white visitors often say, hardly masking their relief). If I were to compare what I've seen of the black-white dynamic here so far to anywhere in the U.S., it would be Atlanta, the city where my mother has lived for more than 25 years, a landlocked place to which I've never quite taken.

But the racial politics in Cape Town (and, I suppose South Africa in general) are far more complicated than the racial politics in the U.S. (It's frighteningly easy to read them into the one aspect of life in Cape Town that I actually do despise, the one I haven't experienced everywhere else: Pedestrians don't have the right of way, and people drive with little to no regard for their well-being.) In America, black and white people are two centuries removed from the blight of slavery. South Africans have had only two decades and change to recover from Apartheid. There's still a long long way to go.

One of the most surprising things about Cape Town is that being here I haven't escaped the big-black-man stereotypes that were constantly being thrown in my face by non-blacks in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok and everywhere in between. And curiously, I feel just as sexually objectified by non-black gay men (and even by a few black ones) in Cape Town as I have anywhere I've lived these last seven years. "Is it true what they say about black men?" is alive and well here.

Considering that there are black men all over Cape Town, you'd think there wouldn't be such a mystique surrounding us. Sadly, though, rampant segregation (social and sexual) seems to have created a gay community that in some ways is similar to all of the others I've experienced since 2006. Despite the preponderance of black men here, we're still the forbidden fruit for many whites. They might want to squeeze us in the produce department, maybe even sneak us into the bathroom and take a bite. Few want to actually take the apple home.

That's my early impression anyway. As I told Alex, I want to live with this for a while, as difficult as it might sometimes be, figure it out, understand it, maybe even do something to help change it. No pain, no gain: I want to earn, and I want to learn.

I have other reasons for staying in Cape Town: 1) There's less urban bustle here than in Bangkok, so I can indulge my obsession with independence and relative solitude while being surrounded by gorgeous nature. 2) Since the U.S. dollar is quite strong compared to the South African rand, it makes economic sense to be here. (No more $7 beers, as was customary in Melbourne.) 3) It’s a great base from which to explore the rest of the African continent (like Bangkok to Southeast Asia). 4) Although I had more of a richer religious experience in Johannesburg (as I like to say to anyone who compares them, it's Jerusalem to Cape Town's Tel Aviv), Cape Town has a better infrastructure. It's easier to move around here.

But Joburg isn't going anywhere. I can take a short flight there anytime I want to. For the foreseeable future, though, my home will be in Cape Town. Perhaps I will finally grasp its complex racial politics, fully understand them, and finally fall madly in love with the place anyway. Maybe I'll stumble upon the love of my life here and consider myself smitten and bitten.

I'm open to myriad possibilities, and in Cape Town there are myriad possibilities. But I won't find what I'm not looking for unless, for once, I stick around long enough to find it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

13 Life Lessons for 2013: Things I Learned in the Past 12 Months

1. Sex with an ex rocks (for one night only), but going full steam behind with one is risky business. As time goes by, we tend to remember old relationships the way they weren't -- happier, calmer, sexier -- only to pull out the ex files and get smacked by cold, harsh reality: People don't change. They just get older.

2. Friends (and strangers) are more likely to cheerfully offer their help to you if you don't ask for it. During Days of Our Lives' Will Horton vs. Nick Fallon storyline earlier this year when EJ DiMera suggested that his father, Stefano DiMera, was more likely to join Team Will if they made him think it was his idea, I thought, How Stefano. But really, as I found out late in the game, how everyone.

3. Oh, so that's what Bluetooth is for! Seriously, I only figured it out in August when I had to find a way to transfer music from my computer to my smart phone so that I could have both my tunes and a camera with me when I went on my scenic runs around Rome.

4. Speaking of cameras, never leave home without one. (It's even more important than owning an umbrella, which I haven't done in nearly three years.) You never know what or whom you'll run into while walking down the streets of any great city. And pouring rain often makes for quite lovely images, which are harder to capture when you're lugging around an umbrella.

5. Italy must be the most compact, easy-to-get-through country on the planet. Either train travel has improved immensely in the last nine years, or I've gotten a lot more patient than I once was because train trips between Italian cities used to feel interminable to me. But in all of the cities I visited during my recent stint in Italy (Milan to Venice to Bologna to Rome to Florence to Rome to Pompei to Rome to Sienna), I was never more than two hours by train away from the next major one. And extra props to the Trenitalia trains with Wi-Fi!

6. I can actually live without AC! Unlike my sticky month in Berlin this past July/August, I've spent five weeks and counting without it during the summer in Cape Town, and I haven't really missed it at all. Of course, it helps when you spend the first month living on a hill in the middle of the woods in what must be the windiest city in the world before moving into a high-rise apartment with 16th-floor windows overlooking Table Bay to the north (no direct morning or afternoon sunlight!), and there's a fan in both pads to keep things cool. (I wonder if, like microwaves, fans are considered environmentally unsound in Berlin.) When I return to the land of the air-conditioned on 20 January (the date I move into my first Cape Town pad with AC), will I even bother to turn it on? Of course, I will.

7. The best place to be on any given weekend night is in whatever accommodation I happen to be calling home that weekend. This might be the first year of my adult life during which I spent more weekend nights in than I did out on the town, regardless of the town. In Tel Aviv, the so-called gay capital of the Middle East, I had minimal motivation to find out why/how it earned that label, and I'm still not completely sure what that MCQP (Mother City Queer Project) "Space Cowboy" party this past Saturday night at Cape Town Stadium was all about. (No, I didn't go.) On one of my favorite nights out in 2013 -- a Monday in Jerusalem -- I was in bed by midnight! Clearly I'm officially immune to Saturday night fever, which makes Sundays so much more enjoyable.

8. The mark of true friendship isn't how often you see each other when you're living in the same city, or whether you stay in touch when you aren't. It's how you reconnect after months, or years, apart. I don't believe I've ever enjoyed so many reunions during one calendar year (in Melbourne, in Buenos Aires, in Berlin, in Italy, in Tel Aviv, in South Africa), and in almost every case, the chemistry was just as we'd left it. Now that I'm probably closer to the end than I am to the beginning (and thanks to Facebook, which, despite its flaws, does more than anything I can think of to keep people in touch with each other so they can know when and where to reunite), "friends forever" is so much more than something naive teenagers write in their high-school yearbooks.

9. It'll never feel like the holidays when its blistering hot outside (thank God). This is my eighth Christmas season living outside of the United States, and my sixth in the Southern Hemisphere, where it literally feels like Christmas in July back home. I haven't heard anyone sing "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" in ages because, well, it never is. I thought that after a few years, I would get used to it, but nearly a decade later, Christmas without all of the winter trappings that I've always associated with it still doesn't feel like Christmas at all, and considering how I feel about that holiday season in general, that works just fine for me.

10. Walking down that hill can be just as challenging as running up it. That's something I've learned maneuvering the steep inclines of Jerusalem, Amman and Cape Town. Despite the constant threat of making one small misstep during the descent and tumbling from top to bottom, I don't know that I could ever again live on flat earth.

11. Fifteen minutes is all you need to close the deal. Who knows where I'd be living after January if I hadn't asked the rental agent to show me the apartment at 9.45 in the morning, 15 minutes before the open house was scheduled to begin. By 9.55, he was on the phone telling everyone who had scheduled a viewing not to bother coming, and I was already making myself at home.

12. I still have it in me to make a commitment. Signing a one-year lease might not seem like such a big deal to most people, and considering that I've bought two apartments this century, you'd think it would be next to nothing to me, too. But when you've spent nearly three years living in month-to-month rentals, avoiding long-term rentals with as much dedication as you direct toward avoiding long-term relationships and winter, signing an agreement that will tie you to one city, Cape Town, until January 31, 2015, can feel a little bit like signing your life away.

13. But who knows what the future holds? Although I know where I'll be spending 2014 (or at least where I'll be based, as I do plan on exploring Africa a bit), I'm more at a loss than ever to predict what it has in store for me or to even describe what I want it to bring. And I'm actually kind of good with that. As ready as I am for life with a little bit of stability, may it never be at the expense of possibility and unpredictability.