Sunday, June 30, 2013

Should the Austin, Texas, Police Slap Justin Carter's Wrist and Let His "Terrorist Threat" on Facebook Go?

People say the darndest, dumbest things.

I've known this since I was in kindergarten and someone called me the N word for the first time. I had no idea what it meant, but I didn't like the way it sounded. Ironically, the kid who uttered it was black, and he explained that it was a term of endearment for tall people, launching my childhood-long complex about always being the tallest student in class.

The years of stupid words that followed didn't prepare me for the ones I read some 19 years ago when I dared to dislike Mary Chapin Carpenter's Stones in the Road album (minus "Shut Up and Kiss Me," her only No. 1 country hit and one of the genre's best songs of the '90s) in my People magazine review of it. A few weeks after my critique ran, I received a letter from someone who didn't appreciate my unkind comments about the work of such a talented and acclaimed singer-songwriter.

"Young Helligar," the missive began, giving birth to a new workplace nickname that was intended to partly mock the reader and also acknowledge the fact that I was one of the youngest people on staff. And he was just getting started. His ire built over the course of the one-page handwritten letter, in which he blasted my taste in music and my lifestyle ("cushy," he called it, obviously unaware that I was living in a tiny studio apartment in Alphabet City), and, at the end, he firmly put me in my place: "One day, I'm going to hunt you down, and when I find you, I'm going to... laugh in your face!"

"..."? Really? Just laugh? For a second there, I had thought my life was in danger, that he was going to track me down and blow me away. Then I got to the punchline.

I know, I probably shouldn't have wasted even a split second on worry. When rational thinking returned, I somehow couldn't imagine a disgruntled reader traveling to the Time and Life Building in New York City to eliminate me (or even to simply giggle at me) just because we didn't share the same music taste. I know how rabid fandom can be, and as a blogger, I've gotten the nasty comments to prove it (especially when I once made the huge mistake of dismissing NCIS!), but sometimes readers only want to read opinions that line up with theirs. I try not to take it personally.

But then, you can never be too safe. That must have been what the Canadian woman who reported Justin Carter of Austin, Texas, to the police in February must have been thinking. During a Facebook altercation with someone involving an online video game called "League of Legends" (the playing of which may have been his biggest crime), Carter, 18, responded thusly to a charge of insanity made by the other person:

"Oh yeah, I'm real messed up in the head, I'm going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts"

The comment must have hit too close to the December shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 20 children and six faculty members dead. When the Canadian woman Googled Carter and found an old address for him that was near an elementary school, she panicked and reported him. The police responded by charging Carter with making terrorist threats and putting him in jail, where he's been since March 27. He now faces up to eight years in prison if he's convicted.

If you didn't think that Facebook could ruin your life, well, here's proof. As an adult, Carter should know better. When you write stupid, offensive things online, sometimes it's not enough to brush it aside with an "lol" afterthought. What he wrote was not particularly funny or clever, and I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't get a single "like."

But Carter's biggest crime (aside from playing silly video games) was typing without thinking and making a bad joke, which is hardly a felony. No, you can never be too safe when it comes to guns and children, but there are certainly more effective safety measures out there than locking up a kid for three months and threatening to ruin his life. Haven't they had plenty of time to thoroughly investigate Carter and determine if he's an actual threat?

I'm not going to cite the First Amendment as a viable defense as the online petition calling for Carter's release did because I think freedom of speech is already overused by people to defend harmful comments and ideas. But even without the "lol" and "jk," he was clearly being facetious. A slap on the wrist, or a fine would have sufficed, but if they must waste taxpayer dollars and try him in court, does he not qualify to be out on bail until then? Is the Austin legal system afraid that he'll get a gun and make good on his "threat"?

In a sense, I get it. In past incidents, ignoring obvious warning signs (like mental illness, or a history of borderline psychotic behavior) has led to tragedy, and the police probably want to avoid similar negligence on their watch. But this is not the way to go about it.

While they are focusing their attention on what is most likely a harmless, ignorant kid, dangerous people are out there developing sinister plots that they can easily carry out because of ineffective gun-control laws, terrible campus security and a legal system that is more preoccupied with punishing misguided sarcasm on Facebook than making preemptive strikes against bonafide threats.

I only hope it doesn't take a real one unleashing its deadly fury on Austin or some nearby town to help them see the error of their overreaction to Justin Carter's Facebook folly. It's time for them to move on and fight the real enemies of state, security and little innocent children.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

9 Random Thoughts I Had While Listening to Cher's New Single

1. Wait wait wait. "New"? Didn't I first hear Cher's latest single, "Woman's World" (the first from her upcoming studio album Closer to the Truth -- her first in 12 years -- due September 24), way back in November of 2012 when it was briefly floating around the Internet? So how is it possible that it was only just released on iTunes on June 18. Doesn't Cher know that music tastes have change immensely since November?

2. Not that she appears to be concerned with current music tastes. A '90s-style I-am-woman anthem (much in the vein of her own "Strong Enough," the 1999 single whose title she quotes here), "Woman's World" sounds like it could have been the follow-up to "Believe" that "Strong Enough" shouldn't have been. Or most recently, the completion of a musical tangent that producer Paul Oakenfold almost went off on while working on Madonna's 2009 single "Celebration."

3. I interviewed Cher shortly after she turned 50, and I remember her telling me how unhappy she was with her new age. "I loved turning 40," she said. "I was dating a guy half my age, I won an Oscar. Turning 50? Not so much." I wonder how she feels about being 67 and singing lines like "I'm dancing solo/In the dark/On the club floor."

4. But then, if Neil Tennant can record a hard-core dance album with Pet Shop Boys (Electric, out July 15) when he's pushing 60 -- How time flies! I remember interviewing him in 1993 and feeling kind of sorry for him when he said that he was planning on turning 40 the following year all alone in Berlin -- I suppose Cher can dance if she wants to, too. And unlike too many women in pop these days (including Miley Cyrus on her inexplicably huge new single "We Can't Stop"), she doesn't seem to want to be Rihanna. There's only one Rihanna.

5. The song sounds better now than it did when I first heard it online, but it doesn't sound like a future hit. Apart from the dated sound, it sounds as flat as "Believe" would have without the distorted-vocals bit, falling into a safe groove and just lying there. It could have used a guest rapper to spruce up the proceedings the way Pitbull lifted Jennifer Lopez's "On the Floor."

6. Is it me or did Cher seem a lot less interested during her recent performance of "Woman's World' on the June 18 season finale of The Voice than the four judges did, especially Adam Levine, who was bobbing his head like he was about to jump out of his seat and bust a move? I wasn't sure if she was actually bored, or if it was that patented Cher jadedness, or if it was the fact that all of her surgical enhancement has left her face practically immovable. She looked great, though.

7. I can't say for certain, but I suspect she was lip-syncing, which would be ironic, given that The Voice is a singing competition. I'd pay good money to know what was going through Usher's head. He appeared utterly captivated. Either he was hanging onto her every possibly pre-recorded word, or he was wondering exactly what I was wondering. Update: After rewatching the performance several times, I'm pretty sure Cher was singing live, perhaps with a bit of pre-recorded enhancement. It's apparent in the way she drops the ends of certain sentences and the slight vocal strain on the chorus toward the end. In that case, excellent work.

8. During one backstage interview after The Voice finale, when asked about the inspiration for "Woman's World," Cher cheekily responded, "Some guy wrote it." Actually, three guys wrote it (Matt Morris, Anthony Crawford and Oakenfold), and I can't believe it took a virtual male village to come up with 3:45 of female empowerment cliches. I can live with the idea of romantic recovery through the groove (though it's a simpleton's prescription, more worthy of someone Beyoncé's age), but doesn't equating "I won't be no victim of love" with womanhood (yet again) just perpetuate the idea that women are always the ones who have to get over it because men determine their romantic fates, that with women, everything is always about love, that their lives are totally defined by the men in it? I wish the songwriters had left love out of it (what's love got to do with being moved by a groove?) and had just written a song about a woman having a good time without a guy on her mind at all (making it a woman's world in the truest sense of the words), because if you're singing about how you're so over someone, you probably aren't.

9. All carping aside, it's always good to have Cher back in the house, whether it's in Las Vegas, on her umpteenth farewell tour, on TV, in the movies or on brand new music. There's only one Cher.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Miserabilism: Morrissey's Best Solo Lines

The strange logic in his clumsiest line. It stayed emblazoned on my mind.

I borrowed that one from Morrissey because his own words (from Viva Hate's "Break Up the Family") perfectly encapsulate the way he makes me feel. I've been thinking about him a lot ever since a few days ago when my best friend Lori sent me an email asking for my favorite Smiths lyrics.

I have heaps of them, but as usual when someone asks me a musical question with so many answers, I couldn't think of any. So I sent her a blog post I wrote last year, on a day much unlike today, when it was gray both outside an in. The subject: 5 Songs (and Lyrics) by the Smiths That Describe Exactly How I Feel Today.

The truth is, I could write that post every day, using 5 different songs, and probably have enough material to see me through the end of 2013. Morrissey, more than any songwriter I can think of (the great, insightful Fiona Apple included!), has a knack for nailing my everyday emotions with a simple turn of phrase. If I ever meet him, we'll probably either love or loathe each other because we think so much alike.

He's a modern-day Shakespeare, a contemporary Oscar Wilde (my favorite writer, whom I discovered in 1988 after Morrissey quoted him in an interview), but his lyrical genius didn't end in 1987 when The Smiths did. Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr (Lennon, or McCartney, to Morrissey's McCartney, or Lennon) may have been the one to go on and have a U.S. Top 40 hit outside of The Smiths (as a member of Electronic -- also featuring New Order's Bernard Sumner and occasionally Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant -- with "Getting Away with It," which hit No. 38 in 1990), but Morrissey has had one of the most remarkable solo careers after leaving a legendary band in the history of rock & roll, all without ever scoring a hit U.S. single.

Without his partnership with Marr to inspire (or hinder) him lyrically, Morrissey solo relies less on gallows humor, resulting in more emotionally honest work with muted theatrics. It's not as instantly quotable as "She said, 'I know you, and you cannot sing,' I said, 'That's nothing, you should hear me play piano" (from "The Queen Is Dead"), but often equally compelling. Sure there have been rough spots, but had The Smiths lasted more than three years (1984 to 1987) as a recording ensemble, the band likely would have lived through creative stumbles far worse than "Paint a Vulgar Picture," an indictment of music-industry avarice from Strangeways, Here We Come that sounds like the clunky, clumsy rantings of a bitter, jilted pop star.

After the solo-career high of 1994's Vauxhall and I, 1995's Southpaw Grammar and 1997's Maladjusted were expendable, slightly tainting the solo proceedings, and then there was a seven year break before he came roaring back with 2004's You Are the Quarry. There's enough brilliance, though, in Morrissey's solo work to fill months of daily tributes to five songs that perfectly encapsulate the way I feel.

Today, I'll offer a random 12 and leave it at that.

"I'm so glad to grow older/To move away from those darker years/I'm in love for the first time/And I don't feel bad" -- "Break Up the Family" (His first solo coming-out song -- though Morrissey never has -- from 1998's Viva Hate.)

"But you were so different/You had to say no/When those empty fools/Tried to change you, and claim you/For the lair of their ordinary world" -- "The Ordinary Boys" (Non-conformity is hard work. His second coming-out song, also from Viva Hate.)

"God, come down/If you're really there/Well, you're the one who claims to care" -- "Yes, I Am Blind" (Self-awareness with a side of blasphemy, from 1990's Bona Drag.)

"God give me patience/Just no more conversation" -- "Our Frank" (Wanting to enjoy the silence, from 1991's Kill Uncle.)

"We hate it when our friends become successful" -- "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful (A song title that basically says it all, from 1992's Your Arsenal.)

"My love, wherever you are/Whatever you are/Don't lose faith/I know it's gonna happen someday/To you" -- "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday" (A rare moment of unguarded optimism, from Your Arsenal.)

There's gonna be some trouble/A whole house will need re-building /And everyone I love in the house /Will recline on an analyst's couch quite soon" -- "Now My Heart Is Full" (from 1994's Vauxhall and I)

"I will creep into your thoughts like a bad debt that you can't pay/Take the easy way and give in/Yeah, and let me in" -- "The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" (Crossing the not-so-fine line between persistence and stalking. His biggest U.S. hit -- No. 46 on the Hot 100 -- from Vauxhall and I.)

"Used to be a sweet boy/And I'm not to blame/But something went wrong/Something went wrong" -- "Used to Be a Sweet Boy" (Nature over nurture, from Vauxhall and I.)

"All of the rumours/Keeping me grounded/I never said, I never said that they were/Completely unfounded" -- "Speedway" (The last cut is the deepest, from Vauxhall and I.)

"So, close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire/And let me kiss you, let me kiss you" -- "Let Me Kiss You" (His typical self-deprecating wit, back in full force, from 2004's You Are the Quarry.)

"The youngest was the most loved/The youngest was the shielded/We kept him from the world's glare/And he turned into a killer" -- "The Youngest Was the Most Loved" (More nature over nurture, from 2006's Ringleader of the Tormentors.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How Do I Love Thee? If I Can Count the Ways, Is It Still "True Love"?

Have you ever really loved a woman -- or a man? (Yes, love again -- but I never really tire of one of my favorite topics.)

And if you've been in love -- if you're still in love, or recently fallen into it -- could you, can you explain why?

I'll never forget what my sister asked me years ago when I told her, to quote Morrissey's "Break Up the Family" (which, unfortunately, I didn't actually do), "I'm in love for the first time, and I don't feel bad."

"Why?" she wondered. "What do you love about this person that wasn't present in any of your other relationships? Why are you in love?"

That was a lot of questions for so early in the morning, and I didn't really know how to answer them. But I came up with a few reasons anyway. I wanted to satisfy her curiosity and my own youthful need to have an answer for everything. But I didn't really believe what I said as much as I believed (and still believe) in love. True romantics never die. They just keep getting disappointed.

I'm still not sure how I feel about being able to explain why we love someone. On one hand, I'm a big advocate for practical value-for-value love (and doesn't the use of the word "advocate" there just reek of value-for-value pragmatism?), but on the other, I love the idea of getting caught up in the rapture of crazy, supernatural love. It's just another one of my many contradictions: I'm a idealistic realist, a health-conscious bon vivant, a romantic pragmatist who loves being all alone in the big city full of millions of people.

In all my various forms, I've always loved the sound of "unconditional love," though I'm not sure I've ever really experienced it as either the lover or the loved one. But if we can readily come up with a list of reasons why we love someone, doesn't that automatically make it conditional? In the end, my pragmatism wins, because I do believe that all love is conditional, even the shameless, inexplicable love that Kate Bush sings about in "Why Should I Love You?," one of many great songs on her 1993 album The Red Shoes. (My favorite line: "Have you ever seen a picture of Jesus laughing?/Do you think he had a beautiful smile/A smile that healed.")

But my hopeless romantic side likes dreaming about unconditional love, which, in my hopeless romantic heart (or at least in that particular chamber of it), equals true love. It's the kind of love that great and not so great pop stars sing about, the supernatural kind.

But here's the thing about that ole devil called supernatural love. If it's like a virus, a foreign body that randomly injects itself into a host, infecting his or her mind, body and soul, then no wonder it causes so much pain, why it's sometimes so hard to shake, why it sometimes suddenly vanishes with little warning, and why, if we're truly unlucky in love, it can be fatal.

Thank you, Kate Bush (with a lot of help from Prince), for giving me something to listen to and think about while running around Lumpini Park so early on this Hump Day morning.

I'm Not Crazy, I'm Just a Little Unwell

At least I've got my mental health.

Well, maybe not exactly. Sanity is relative when you're talking about a hopeless hypochondriac like me. Let's just say I've made some progress. I no longer spend hours at a time looking up medical terms on Wikipedia and poring over medical websites, trying to self-diagnose every time I feel the slightest ache or pain or spot any blemish barely noticeable to the naked eye.

Meanwhile, I'm kicking some other old habits, too. I wasn't sure that I could do it, but I've learned to co-exist semi-peacefully with my panic attacks. It's been a nearly 15 months since I popped a Klonopin or Rivotril pill, after a nearly six-year dependency on the anti-anxiety drug that was first prescribed to me in September of 2006, when I was diagnosed not by myself but by a licensed psychiatrist a few days before I left New York City as suffering from panic disorder. Although I still have regular anxiety episodes (about once or twice a week at last count), I no longer crave those 1 mg doses of Clonazepam to dull the scary sensation. I've learned to live with the panic. Eventually, it always moves on.

I've also learned to stop living in fear of occasional bouts of sleep paralysis. Now every time my mind wakes up before my body does, and I'm lying on my back (it always seems to happen when I fall asleep on my back), immobile, I tell myself, "Just don't give up. Keep trying to move, and eventually you will." It's always worked. So far.

Even more impressively, I've kicked my decades-long addiction to decongestants and antihistamines. For years, Actifed was my allergy drug of choice, one that my doctors in New York City all told me was perfectly safe. I'd pop one pill every night, get drowsy within minutes, and eventually fall into a light fitful sleep, my nostrils completely unobstructed. Nearly seven years ago, shortly after moving to Buenos Aires, I gave up Actifed (the brand that was sold in Argentina was missing a crucial decongestive ingredient, apparently, the one that gave me relief) and moved on to harder stuff on the recommendation of a 24-hour Farmacity pharmacist I went to seeking relief when I fell into a sneezing fit one Saturday night at Sitges.

For the next nearly six years, I was hooked on Dexalergin, a nasal decongestant with a combination of dexametasona, clorfenamina and nafazolina that wasn't intended for long-term use (as is the case with all over-the-counter nasal decongestants). So much for following instructions. For nearly six years, one daily drop per nostril was all I needed to keep me breathing freely for 24 hours at a time.

Then last October, fate stepped in and forced me to kick my Dexalergin habit in much the same way that I gave up Klonopin last year. (I misplaced my Klonopin stash in my Bangkok apartment and didn't have a prescription to get more, so I just quit taking it completely.) Before moving to Melbourne from Buenos Aires (the only country that I know of where Dexalergin is sold), I bought several 60 ml containers, which lasted me about a year and a half. As my stash dwindled down to the last drops, I started going from pharmacy to pharmacy in Bangkok, looking for something under a different name with the same ingredients, but I had no luck.

I knew I had to give it up (cue the intro of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" in my head), which actually ended up being easier done than said. One Monday morning early last October, I fell asleep after a wild night out and forgot to take my regular dose. When I woke up the next morning breathing freely, and I realized what I hadn't done, I knew I'd won another battle. I haven't touched the stuff since. I did get a 60 ml emergency fix before I left Buenos Aires three weeks ago, but I haven't even broken the seal on the container yet.

You'd think that I'd be happy to have control over my body again -- only I'm not. I'm not happy, and I'm not in control of my body. Or maybe it's my mind, my overactive imagination, that has all the power. Every night when I'm lying in bed in the throes of insomnia, I stare off to the side (never the ceiling -- remember, I try not to sleep on my back), listening to my body, searching for clues, waiting for any sign of irregularity.

I always seem to find something, whether it's a pain in my chest that bounces around from side to side, or a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I usually convince myself is the onset of appendicitis, or liver failure. It's gotten worse the last few days, ever since I heard the news about James Gandolfini's sudden death from a heart attack in Italy. He had nearly a decade and at least 100 pounds on me, and I have no idea what his medical condition was, but I've convinced myself that if it can happen to him, it can happen to me, too.

Yesterday, I decided to do something about it. I went to BNH Hospital for the first time since my return to Bangkok exactly two weeks ago, looking for answers -- or trouble. Thank God for Dr. Rekha Hanvesakul, MD. I don't know what it was about her, but she immediately put me at ease. Maybe it was her own calm demeanor, her perfect English, or the stylish eyeglasses that suggested that not only was she knowledgeable, but she was caught up with all the latest medical trends, too.

As she listened to me explain my myriad ailments (which, for once, didn't include headaches, a chronic and uncomfortable fact of my life that I never even thought to mention, though I'm secretly convinced will ultimately be the source of my medical undoing), there was no judgement on her face. She seemed politely concerned, and I got the impression that it wasn't because she thought there was actually something wrong with me but because she felt bad that I was having such a hard time convincing myself of that despite so much evidence to the contrary. She pointed out that in the 20 months since my first trip to BNH Hospital, I'd had a urine analysis, an ultrasound, an MRI, several EKGs and an echocardiogram, and everything came back normal. According to all the BNH doctors who had seen me, I was in perfect health.

After she did a routine physical examination, she concurred. I still wasn't convinced, though. I asked if she could do a blood test to make sure my cholesterol, my glucose, my blood cell count and anything else she could think of was where it should be. I liked her even more for humoring me. She was just the kind of doctor I'd been looking for all my life. For a moment, I even considered staying in Bangkok just so that I could see her every few weeks. I haven't had a female regular physician since I was a kid, though. Would that be kind of weird?

Today when I returned for the test results, as I looked around the waiting room at several patients and BNH personnel wearing mouth masks, I asked myself, as I have been since I first spotted the curious accessory upon my first arrival in Bangkok, "Why?" Are they trying to not to breathe in the polluted Bangkok air, which I imagine must be even worse inside a hospital? Or are they sacrificing good fashion sense to ward off germs? When I started pondering whether it was hygienic, or how a person could be enough of a germaphobe to spend all day wearing a mouth cover, I cut myself off: Am I any better than they are?

That was around when the nurse arrived to bring me to my fate, which in the worst-case scenario going round and round in my head, involved something dire that would require months of intense treatment. After spending way too much time questioning me about my current physical state, Dr. Hanvesakul finally announced that her suspicions had been confirmed. My blood work was normal -- better than normal, very good.

If I wanted to, she said, I could do another ultrasound, another MRI and more heart tests, but the results would likely come back the same. It was possible that the chest sensations -- which by then I was comfortable enough to admit to her may very well be all in my mind, the hypochondriac version of voices in my head -- could be from my workout routine, and the stomach discomfort was likely just a digestive issue that could be resolved with the week's worth of Miracid capsules that she prescribed. For the first time in years, I was convinced that I was going to be okay.

But who would I be if I didn't give myself something new to worry about? Yes, I'm okay now, but for how long? I'm no longer a spring chicken. How many weeks, months, years will it be before I go to the doctor, and I get the bad news that I've been looking for, expecting, for as long as I can remember? Yes, I'll probably die another day. But how long will it be before I'm lying in bed (on my side), once again listening, waiting, anticipating the worst?

Until then, maybe I'll make an appointment to have a colonoscopy and a prostate exam next week. You can never be too safe, you know.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Thoughts on the N Word and Paula Deen

I hate to admit it, but until a day or two ago, I'd never heard of Savannah, Georgia's own Paula Deen. Her biggish, frost-colored hair, lacquered face and phony smile, though, did look strangely familiar -- and just straight-up strange -- when I saw it above online headline after online headline that wondered if her career as a celebrity cook could be saved.

Having moved from the Virgin Islands to Florida at age 4 and living there until I graduated from the University of Florida at age 22, I spent 18 years of my life surrounded by hair, faces and smiles just like hers, and they were recurring nightmares after I moved to New York City, too. I'm pretty sure that in recent years I saw Deen's, too, maybe while I was channel surfing and landed on some cooking show for a second or two. But I don't do cooking shows, so I never stuck around for long.

Though unfamiliar with Deen herself, I can't say the same about her racist streak. It's all too familiar to my ears. During a deposition for a lawsuit filed by a former Deen employee claiming sexual and racial harassment against Deen and her brother Bubba Hiers (and doesn't that name say it all?), when asked if she'd ever used the N word, a simple "yes" or "no" wouldn't do. "Yes, of course," Deen flippantly responded as if she were merely admitting to cooking with honey, pretty much sealing the fate of her already-crumbling reputation. (She then went on to explain and excuse herself by telling the story of a black bank robber who pulled a gun on her and got the slur he deserved when she later recounted the tale to her husband.)

Well, yes, of course.

I wasn't surprised. Look at her. She has that same Southern-fried aura that I hear characterizes her food. I spent many years looking women who looked just like her dead in the face as they hurled that epithet in my direction -- or in another direction when they figured I wasn't looking, or listening. It's no big shock. I've heard it all. When I lived in Buenos Aires, on at least two occasions, I was called a "nigger" by guys who went from lusting to loathing in the space of five seconds after being rejected by me.

The first time it happened, I posed a question to my Facebook friends in which I asked who among them has ever used -- or thought -- the N word. One of the first responses was from a former classmate who said, "Let's face it; you know people are going to lie about this answer!!! I, on the other hand, have said it! And  no, it is not because I am prejudiced. I haven't ever directly said to someone's face either, but whoever was with me at the time has heard it come out of my mouth."

I admired her public honesty. I believe she was the only one with the guts to admit it. That doesn't make it right. And I'm still not sure if thinking "nigger" is as bad as saying it. I'd generally say that we're not responsible for the unspoken thoughts that pop into our head, but we are responsible for maintaining the mental environment that breeds those thoughts.

"When people show you who they are, believe them." -- Maya Angelou

Now that I know who she is, I find Paula Deen deplorable. Not only for her foul language but for her opportunism -- the unhealthy eating she promotes, despite the fact that she suffers from Type 2 diabetes, a fact that she didn't reveal until it was financially beneficial to her as the spokesperson for a Danish corporation that markets a non-insulin diabetes drug.

Yes, she seems like a horrible person. But she spoke some uncomfortable truths. I wonder if people are upset because she's used the N word, because she admitted to using the N word, or because they are just as guilty of using the N word themselves. When it shines on society, the glare from a mirror is the harshest, most unflattering light.

"How quickly Americans don't forget," Boy George once told me when I asked him about his own experiences with bad PR. Paula Deen is about to learn this the hard way. And it couldn't happen to a more deserving racist.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

6 Other Second Fiddles Who Deserved More Leads

Yesterday's thoughts on Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé (and I forgot to mention prematurely ousted Destiny's Child LeToya Luckett, who beat Kelly to No. 1 on the album chart, a place Kelly still hasn't been, with 2006's LeToya) got me contemplating other talented wingwomen and wingmen who spent their careers crouching in the shadow of a main attraction....

Jermaine Jackson Although he scored two solo Top 10 hits on Billboard's Hot 100 (with 1973's "Daddy's Home" and 1979's Stevie Wonder-penned-and-produced "Let's Get Serious," both of which went to No. 9), seven Top 40 singles (including "Let Me Tickle Your Fancy," his 1982 No. 18 collaboration with Devo), and two R&B No. 1s, Michael's big brother remains arguably pop's second banana most deserving of more love.

Jane Wiedlin Every time I hear her lone solo success ("Rush Hour," which peaked at No. 9 in 1988), I imagine the Go-Go's rhythm guitarist (who co-wrote the all-female band's greatest -- as in best -- hit "Our Lips Are Sealed") somewhere, staring at a voodoo doll of Belinda Carlisle, shouting, "Belinda! Belinda! Belinda! Why not me, Lord?!"

Lisa Fischer After scoring a No. 11 pop and No. 1 R&B hit her first time at bat with "How Can I Ease the Pain" in 1991 (from the album So Intense) and winning that year's Best Female R&B Performance Grammy for her considerable effort (tying with Patti LaBelle, in a memorable '90s Grammy moment), I was sure that Luther Vandross's longtime backup vocalist -- and The Rolling Stones' current one (see left, from this month) -- would go on to become the Janie Fricke of R&B and pop. (For those unversed in the history of country, Fricke went from backup singer and wingwoman for Charlie Rich, Johnny Duncan and Moe Bandy, among others, in the '70s to being one of the biggest female country stars of the early '80s.) Instead, Fischer never released another album.

Martha Wash She was the uncredited voice -- on record and in videos -- behind early '90s hits by Black Box ("Everybody Everybody," "I Don't Know Anybody Else," "Strike It Up" and "Fantasy") and C+C Music Factory (including the chart-topping "Gonna Make You Sweat") and also one-half (the still-living half) of The Weather Girls (formerly Two Tons O' Fun, who recorded the iconic 1982 gay club classic "It's Raining Men," a massive pop hit everywhere in the English-speaking world but, of course, the U.S., where it only sprinkled up to No. 46 on the Hot 100). Alas, to this day in mainstream circles, the ton o' fun who is arguably pop and R&B's greatest vocalist post-Aretha Franklin remains relatively unknown by her own name.

Darlene Love A major '60s backup and lead vocalist (the latter most notably on hits by The Crystals, including the 1962 No. 1 "He's A Rebel"), a TV and Broadway actress, and a 2011 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Love, like Wash, has never gotten any chart love under her own name.

JC Chasez The male Kelly Rowland to 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake, he had the looks and the talent (arguably more of both than JT) and occasionally the collaborators (including Basement Jaxx, on whose 2003 Kish Kash track "Plug It In" Chasez sang lead), but not the material or the charisma to go as far.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Beyoncé Vs. Kelly Rowland: Destiny's Divas with "Grown Woman" Pains

Despite the implications of the title of this post and a number of recent articles I've stumbled across online, the former (and hopefully future) Destiny's Children aren't feuding. At least I don't think they are. Not at the moment anyway.

But if we are to go by the lyrical content of Kelly Rowland's "Dirty Laundry" (not to be confused with Don Henley's 1982 hit, his biggest outside of the Eagles, which went by the same title), all has not always been well between Destiny's main Child and her second-in-command. (Poor Michelle Williams. She'll forever be seen as the third wheel who got incredibly lucky.) The first single from Kelly's fourth solo album, Talk a Good Game -- which was released last week and which features Beyoncé (and Williams, once again along for the joyride) on the next track, "You Changed" -- suggests that some bad blood has been spilled all over those soiled diva duds.

"Post-'Survivor,' she on fire, who wanna hear my bullshit?"

Frankly, Kelly and Beyoncé's relationship has always confused me, but not as much as the public's reaction to them as separate entities. Like Beyoncé, Kelly was an original member of Destiny's Child. She's just as talented; she's just as beautiful; and in general, her material is just as hit and miss. So why isn't she a huge star in her own right, too? Her loyalty to the Beyoncé brand has been rewarded with moderate solo success, but from the moment DC hit the top, for the second time, with 1999's "Say My Name," it's been all about bootylicious Beyoncé.

Which is actually a shame because Kelly is no Andrew Ridgeley. Far from it. Sure she has had a bit of an image problem over the years -- Is she a dance diva? A beatnik soul mama? A blue-funk temptress? A television presenter/talent-show judge? A child still looking for her true destiny? -- but as a solo artist, she's had at least three flashes of near brilliance: "Stole" (a No. 2 UK hit) and "Train on a Track," both from her 2002 solo debut Simply Deep, and "Motivation," from 2011's Here I Am.

Still, despite getting off to a rocking solo start via "Dilemma," her No. 1 2002 collaboration with Nelly (which was as big as any of Beyoncé's five No. 1 hits outside of Destiny's Child, but was ultimately Nelly's single), Kelly's solo career never really happened. She went to No. 1 solo on the R&B singles chart and Top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100 with "Motivation" (featuring Lil' Wayne) in 2011, but she's yet to score a true across-the-board smash as a headliner.

"Motivation" was out at the same time as Beyoncé's solo single "Best Thing I Never Had," and while Kelly's song was considered a huge success for her, Beyoncé's, which peaked at No. 16, one notch above Kelly's high mark, was a career lowlight (commercially speaking), highly unlikely to make it to a future Best of Beyoncé compilation. But then comparing Beyoncé and Kelly chart placings is like comparing apples and oranges, and whichever would be Kelly's remains far from ripe.

To make career matters worse, in "Dirty Laundry," Kelly (who, incidentally, shares a birthday, February 11, also Whitney Houston's date of death, with similarly under-appreciated R&B-pop diva Brandy and Jennifer Aniston) hints at an abusive boyfriend in her past. I don't know if declarations like "I was battered/He hittin' the window like it was me, until it shattered" make her another Rihanna (if only her confessional was as interesting sonically as Rihanna's Rated R ones), but good God, hasn't this woman suffered enough, publicly playing second fiddle for years in an industry where, The Beatles and Genesis aside, no supergroup ever seems to produce more than one solo superstar?

My career advice to Kelly, who's expected to sell only up to 65,000 copies of her new album in its first week, would be fourfold: 1) Stop appearing as a guest vocalist on every other throwaway single. (She's been "featuring Kelly Rowland" on at least 10 since 2011.) 2) Disappear for at least two years. (She's already done her time as a judge on the UK X Factor, why does she have to do the U.S. one next season, too?) 3) During her hiatus, decide once and for all who she is and who she wants to be. (Beyoncé gets by largely on the sheer force of her personality, which is as distinct as any in pop. She never blends into the woodwork of overproduction.) 4) Return no sooner than the summer of 2015 with a kick-ass opus in collaboration with one producer/production team.

I'd suggest the red-hot again Pharrell Williams, who produced the Talk a Good Game standout "Stand in Front of Me," or someone outside of the normal R&B rotation, someone as unexpected as David Guetta was when he and Kelly scored their 2009 global hit (except for in the U.S., where it peaked at No. 76 on the Hot 100) "When Love Takes Over."

There's no telling where Beyoncé stands on the subject of Kelly Rowland and her solo career, but there's some curious subtext lingering in the background behind her new single, "Grown Woman," from her own upcoming fifth solo album. The song itself is throwaway, typically frenetic, shapeless, aimless, and hardly likely to end Beyoncé's recent string of non-hits. (None of the seven singles from 2011's 4 -- more than half of the album -- made it into the pop Top 10.) The most interesting thing about it is how it swipes the title of a 2010 Kelly Rowland single in what I'm inclined to believe wasn't a complete coincidence.

What exactly was Beyoncé thinking, releasing her own "Grown Woman" at 31 going on 32 (on September 4)? It's not exactly the type of song title you'd expect to hear twice (like, for instance, "Work," the title of a 2008 Kelly single and a 2009 Ciara single, neither of which should be confused with "Work It Out," Beyoncé's 2002 debut solo single), and surely Beyoncé is familiar with Kelly's own "Grown Woman" (even if hardly anyone else is -- it never charted).

In my fantasyland where it's every diva for herself, it's no mere coincidence but a deliberate ploy to put Miss Kelly in her place. It's Beyoncé's way of saying, "I'm grown, too, and not only can I take the title of your flop and turn it into a hit, but I can also re-team with the co-writer and producer of your new single -- The-Dream, who co-wrote "Grown Woman" and co-wrote and co-produced Beyoncé's solo signature, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It"), which shouldn't be confused with "Put Your Name on It," from Talk a Good Game -- and take him higher than you can ever hope to"?

End of fantasy.

The jury is still out on who wins the chart battle of Destiny's divas this time around. Neither song has charted on the Hot 100 yet, and after five weeks in circulation, Kelly's audio track has some 2.3 million YouTube views, while Beyoncé's has only 1.2 million after four weeks. I can't wait to see whose dream, if either, of a The-Dream-produced hit becomes her destiny fulfilled. I'm hoping that for once, it's Kelly's.

The Definition of Love

"I wanna know what love is. I want you to show me." -- from Foreigner's 1985 No. 1 hit "I Want to Know What Love Is"

Last night, my brother Alexi and I had an interesting debate about God and love and the definition of both in which, thank, well, God, nobody dared to utter that tired old cliché about how "God is love." If He were, it would be love with conditions and expectations and the ever-looming threat of eternal damnation if we don't bend to His will -- the kind of love we would find completely unacceptable coming from a mere mortal -- but trust me, that's a topic for another post.

In the end, Alexi delivered what is perhaps the most satisfying description of love -- specifically, romantic love -- that anyone has ever offered me outside of music, poetry and cinema. It included the perfect doses of magic, passion and realism, with a nice dinnertime metaphor thrown in for literary effect. This morning, when I woke up thinking about it, craving it (as the lover and as the loved), I knew I had to share it. For those of us who haven't been in the throes of this kind of love or aren't currently caught up in the rapture of it, may we all someday get to live it with another person who feels as strongly as we do.

"Full romantic love encompasses all the loves: the need to be a better lover; the need to be a better friend; the need to help the helpless; the need to help the stranger. All these things together make us better persons. And in the midst of romance you see your partner as lover, friend, helpless in their love for you, a strange person you want to get to know more of, and, figuratively and literally bring inside of yourself. Apparently, these actions are powerfully mediated by oxytocin and vasopressin. When those initial effects eventually fade there must be an intellectual foundation based on shared experiences and values for there to be a lasting union between the romantic partners. The love drugs only set the table. What happens after the love drugs are gone is the meal. The Reality of day to day, month to month, year to year, decade to decade love is the magic."

The Most Satisfying Lyrical Approximation of True Love in the History of Songs

"She Is His Only Need" Wynonna Judd (who, incidentally, covered Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" on her 2003 album What the World Needs Now Is Love -- and I thought she already had it figured out on her first solo hit 11 years earlier)

Friday, June 21, 2013

We Must Believe in Magic

"I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic." -- Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire

That Blanche DuBois. She may have been some hot mess (and pure Oscar-bait for Vivien Leigh, who won her second one for portraying her in the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams' classic stage play), but I'll give her this: The woman knew what she wanted. As aspirations go, hers was a lofty but worthwhile one. It's what every big dreamer (and I would certainly fall into that category) desires.

It's what fictional characters in daytime soap operas seem to want, too. In the past few weeks, I've heard at least three of them (Neil and the mysterious Rose on The Young and the Restless, and Rafe on General Hospital) quote or paraphrase Blanche's take on magic and realism.

But what is this magic that they -- we -- are searching for? When you think about it, it's not so different from God, or the big Love with a capital L. Christians seek everlasting life through their faith in God. Romantics pursue their own brand of immortality through everlasting love. Meanwhile, dreamers crave transcendence through magic.

None of these intangible conduits to happiness are particularly steeped in realism. The existence of God has yet to be proven. Nobody has ever been able to define love. And many are convinced that what David Blaine and David Copperfield do is just elaborate trickery. In most minds, magic, whether it's the brand that entertains and enthralls audiences and makes certain practitioners of it extremely rich, or the force of supernature to which Blanche was referring, has nothing to do with realism.

But why do they have to be mutually exclusive? Why can't magic and realism co-exist, side by side? Why can't we have both? If man can take flight, create a machine that fits into the palm of your hand that allows you to pull up any information you need and communicate with people all over the world, is it such a stretch to believe in love, or God, or magic? (And for the record, I definitely believe in two of those things, and I'll probably never completely rule out the third one until death proves me right or wrong.)

Reality would truly bite without magic, and without reality, there'd be no magic, just commonplace transcendence, which wouldn't be transcendent at all. Consider the artistic aspect, a painting like Vincent Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters. It's one of his most magical works of art, yet it depicts the cold, hard facts of poverty at its most sobering, utter realism. Or revisit Woody Allen's 1978 masterpiece Interiors, a film that mined cinematic magic (in my humble opinion) from some of the harshest aspects of stark reality -- infidelity, familial strife, jealousy, envy and suicide. Or listen to any beautiful song sung blue -- magic and realism in music.

Just like pleasure doesn't pack quite the same punch without pain to give it context, magic is most powerful when it's framed by reality. For me, it's in the little things, all indisputably "real": art, a long shower during which the water temperature and pressure are just right, a massage that hits all the right spots and knots, riding down a bumpy, treacherous, two-lane dirt road through the stunning Cambodian countryside, a baby's smile, the eyes of a child, an unexpected phone call or email from someone you were just thinking about.

Like happiness, I don't believe it's sustainable over the course of a lifetime. It comes and goes, in waves. I wouldn't want to be surrounded by magic all the time anyway. I wouldn't want to fall madly in love and spend all day staring into another person's eyes. I want to look away, go out into the cold, cruel world and come home at the end of the day to a haven from the raging storm outside.

I want realism with a side of magic. Yes, yes, magic moments. But realism has to be the main course. That may mean occasional servings of pain, heartache and despair, but those are the very flavors that make magic, when it comes along to spice up reality and light up our lives, all the more magical.

10 "Magic"-al Songs

"A Kind of Magic" Queen

"Magic" Olivia Newton-John

"Strange Magic" Electric Light Orchestra

"You Can Do Magic" America

"Magic" The Cars

"Don't Lose the Magic" Shawn Christopher

"Magic Carpet Ride" Steppenwolf

"Love Sex Magic" Ciara featuring Justin Timberlake

"Night Time Magic" Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers Band

"Magic Stick" Lil' Kim featuring 50 Cent

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Thoughts on the 40th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards

The Daytime Emmy Awards get no respect -- just like the actors and actresses they honor. The prizes, which were handed out for the 40th time on Sunday, June 16, are to the Primetime Emmys what the Primetime Emmys and the Tonys are to the Oscars, only worse. Or what the Golden Globes are to the Oscars. No, what the Critics' Choice Awards are to the Oscars. Or what the American Music Awards are to the Grammys.

Personally, the only Daytime Emmy categories that interest me are the drama/acting ones. If I were The Price Is Right's emcee, I suppose I'd be thrilled to win Outstanding Game Show Host, but I can't understand why anyone else would really care.

The best thing about the Daytime Emmy's drama/acting categories is how unpredictable they are. Every year, the experts weigh in on who they think will win, and every year, most of them are wrong. That's half of the fun, watching them fail. The other half is looking for patterns among the winners and nominees. Here are a few I've come up with this year.

If there's a clear consensus among prognosticators in any acting category not involving General Hospital's Anthony Geary as Luke Spencer, the Daytime Emmys will defy it. Who else but Ellen Degeneres was going to win Outstanding Talk Show Host? But the moment every pundit and his/her mother (yes, the moms of the moderators actually occasionally weigh in on the podcasts and radio shows that I listen to) started rooting for The Bold and the Beautiful's Susan Flannery (as Stephanie Forrester) and Katherine Kelly Lang (as Brooke Logan) for Outstanding Lead Actress and Outstanding Supporting Actress, respectively, and saying those awards were theirs to lose (a virtual kiss of death), I knew they were bound to do just that (see below).

The Academy likes to hand out Daytime Emmys as consolation prizes/parting gifts. Especially in the Outstanding Younger Actor/Actress categories. In recent years past, David Lago, Drew Tyler Bell and Britanny Allen all won awards after being fired from/leaving their respective soaps. This year, two-time Outstanding Younger Actress winner Julie Marie Berman won Outstanding Supporting Actress after vacating her role as Lulu Spencer on General Hospital, and first-time nominee Kristen Alderson won Outstanding Younger Actress for her long-time One Life To Live/General Hospital role as Star Manning after trading it in for the new GH role of Lauren "Kiki" Frank.

This year if you were an actress with ties to The Bold and the Beautiful's Outstanding Supporting Actor Scott Clifton, you had a better chance of winning. Check this out: When Alderson played Starr on One Life to Live, Clifton played high-school teacher Schuyler Joplin, on whom Starr had an inappropriate crush. As Dylan Quartermaine on General Hospital, he not only took the virginity of Berman's Lulu Spencer, but he got her pregnant, too. Finally, Clifton's Bold character Liam Spencer is the stepson of Outstanding Lead Actress winner Heather Tom's Bold character Katie Logan. (Fun fact: Like his former GH costar Berman, Clifton won in the Outstanding Supporting category after winning in the Outstanding Younger one, an accomplishment previously realized by Tom.)

This year, if you were an Outstanding Supporting Actor nominee with ties to Heather Tom, you had a better chance of winning. And the two guys who tied for the prize both fit that bill. In addition to the step status of Tom's and Clifton's Bold characters, Outstanding Supporting Actor Billy Miller won for the second time in that category for playing the Young and the Restless character, Billy Abbott, for which Tom's younger brother David won Outstanding Younger Actor in 2000. (Fun facts: Both Toms, incidentally, are the siblings of Nicholle Tom, who played the eldest Sheffield child on The Nanny, and Yvonne Zima, the sister of Madeline, who played the youngest Sheffield child, previously appeared on Y&R as second-generation villainess Daisy Carter.) Miller's version of Abbott is now married to Victoria Newman, the role for which Heather Tom won Outstanding Younger Actress in 1993 and 1999.

Daytime Emmy love tends to come in waves. Anthony Geary won the first of seven Outstanding Lead Actor Emmys for playing Luke Spencer in 1982 and then had to wait 17 years before he won the first of his next six, which he racked up between 1999 and 2012. On the distaff side, after winning two Outstanding Younger Actress awards for playing Victoria Newman on The Young and the Restless in eight consecutive nominations, Tom was un-nominated for three years, went 0 for 2 (in the Outstanding Supporting Actress race) during her three years as Kelly Cramer on One Life to Live, and was again un-nominated in 2009 and 2010. Now the Academy adores her once more: She's won prizes for playing Katie Logan (one Outstanding Supporting Actress, two Outstanding Lead Actress) three consecutive years and counting.

Unlike with the Academy Awards, there's really no such thing as overdue with the Daytime Emmys. Although there are some exceptions (the late Jeanne Cooper, who won Outstanding Lead Actress in 2008 on her eighth nomination), most multiply nominated actors and actresses score the bulk of those nominations after their first win, not as an extended prelude leading up to it. Susan Lucci may have finally earned Outstanding Lead Actress honors in 1999 on her 19th nomination, but just because you get a nod year after year after year doesn't mean you'll eventually win. All My Children's James Mitchell (Palmer Cortlandt), Days of Our Lives' Susan Seaforth Hayes (Julie Olson Williams), Search for Tomorrow's Mary Stuart (Joanne Gardner), General Hospital and Port Charles's Kin Shriner (Scotty Baldwin), The Young and the Restless's Joshua Morrow (Nicholas Newman) and General Hospital's Leslie Charleson (Monica Quartermaine) all are among the numerous actors and actresses who have been nominated four times or more without ever winning.

Sometimes the Daytime Emmys get it just right. And then there's The Young and the Restless's Doug Davidson, who won Outstanding Lead Actor on his fourth nomination on Sunday, almost exactly 35 years into his stint as Paul Williams on TV's No. 1-rated daytime drama. His acting throughout the storyline in which Paul shot and killed his son Ricky was the best I saw on TV, in daytime and in primetime, in 2012, and it rivaled pretty much anything I saw in film, too.

Surely the Daytime Emmys won't be televised in 2014 (for the second year, HLN did the honors this year). There. I said it. Every year everyone predicts doom and gloom the following year, and every next year, everyone is wrong. So maybe if we all say it again this year, next year we'll all once again be wrong. Here's to hoping.

Monday, June 17, 2013

All Around the World: The Best and Worst of Every City I've Been To

Today, as I'm about to book my next travel adventure (Dubai! Berlin!), and after reading, pondering and reconsidering my friend Rob's Facebook list of his Top 10 favorite cities (Paris all the way up at No. 3? WTH?), I'm inspired to revisit some of the places I've already been. I couldn't begin to rank my 10 favorite in order, so instead, I'll tackle the far less daunting task of highlighting some of the bests and worsts (and mosts and leasts) among them.

City I'm most likely to fall in love with a visit or two from now: Sydney I've now flown into Sydney six times (seven, if you count the landing when I stayed just long enough to catch a connecting flight to Melbourne), and on each trip I discover something that makes me like it more. Two trips ago, it was the beaches of Manly. The trip before last, how close the city center is to the international airport. Last trip, a restaurant on Macquarie Street that serves the most succulent grilled chicken (in three generously cut fillets) with chips and salad and a can of soda for only $9.50. I think I could even learn to love to run around Hyde Park (top, above), though negotiating the city's steep inclines on foot might be all the aerobic workout that I need. Runner up: Singapore

Best looking men: Melbourne The Aussie boys in Sydney are a bit too metrosexual for my taste, but Melburnian guys, in general, are less plucked and pruned, the perfect mix of rugged, boho and hipster. When did razors go out of style, though? If the typical males in any city can pull off the unshaven look, it would be the ones in Melbourne, but I still prefer to have a smooth, stubble-free cheek next to mine. Runner up: Buenos Aires

Most beautiful women: Bangkok I'm not talking about the lady boys and drag queens (who, truth be told, don't look all that bad either), but the real, live women, the ones who are so perfect and delicate they sometimes seem to belong perched up on a shelf somewhere. If I were straight, I'd be a fortysomething cliché (homely middle-aged farangs with young, gorgeous local eye candy on their arms are such the norm here), but I'd have the most stunning accessory that money can sometimes buy. Runner up: Buenos Aires

Nicest people: Bangkok No, they don't all act like they're welcoming you into their five-star hotel, but in the roughly 16 months that I've spent based in Bangkok, I've yet to have an unpleasant experience with a local here. By being so unfailingly polite, they inspire me to be nicer, too, and considering what a testy old codger I am, that's a considerable achievement. Runner up: Dublin

Rudest people: Buenos Aires Say what you will about New Yorkers (and most of it would probably be true), but at least underneath their gruff exteriors beat hearts of gold. With porteños, what you so often see in passing (cranky dispositions, arrogant demeanors, cunning and plotting in the eyes) is exactly what you so often get. And don't get me started on government employees and customer-service personnel! Runner up: Atlanta

Cutest babies: Thailand Every time I arrive I tell myself I'm not leaving without one. Someday that will be true. Runners up: Argentina and Cambodia

Most deserving of a second chance (after Berlin, which is about to get one): Athens Like Bangkok and Lima, it's used primarily as a pit stop en route to more picturesque destinations. But unlike my first (and second) impressions of Bangkok and Lima, I hated Athens on sight, and by the time I left a few days later to sail to Mykonos (much better indeed!), my opinion hadn't improved. I'd like to experience it again, though, because I'll try anything twice, and because I wouldn't mind one more trip up to the Acropolis, which I didn't fully appreciate the first time because I was too busy griping to myself about the stinky madhouse down below. Runner up: Colombia

Never again!: Ho Chi Minh City Perhaps I was blinded by the national ban on Facebook, but I can't think of a single redeeming quality or one reason why I'd ever go back.

Most underrated: Lisbon Standing on one of its many hills, looking down at the blue Tagus River below, I almost felt like I was in San Francisco, only hotter and surrounded by more old-world charm. I'd love to see Lisbon experience a surge in popularity, along with the sad, beautiful fado folk music that it inspired. Sadly, the guy who introduced me to Amália Rodrigues (the Queen of Fado) and Madredeus, and showed me sides of Portugal's capital that I might not have otherwise seen, died a few years after my 1997 visit of lung cancer when he was still in his 30s. He was buried in the Algarve, and I can't think of a more beautiful final resting place. Runner up: Lima

Best views: Istanbul The next best thing to waking up in the middle of a '60s crime caper (at least one, 1964's Topkapi, was actually filmed in the city). In my Istanbul action-adventure fantasies, I'm running up and down hills to escape the bad guys, trying not to be distracted by the breathtaking views -- of mosques, of other hills, of the Sea of Marmara, of the Bosphorus, of the clear blue sky above and beyond them -- from the top of each incline. Runner up: San Francisco

Best natural scenery: Antigua What do I remember most about going with my mom back to the Caribbean island where she was born? The view of fellow Leeward island Montserrat from the edge of one of its cliffs and the random donkey sightings while driving down the road. Runner up: Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia

Most character: Buenos Aires Every Capital Federal neighborhood has its own distinct vibe, but in Palermo, home for four and a half years and, recently, seven additional weeks, I love the quiet calles running parallel and perpendicular to the bustling avenidas. They're lined with trees in full seasonal bloom whose giant trunks extend upward and forward from the edge of the pavement on opposite sides of the roads, like leafy, green military lines, creating a chiaroscuro cathedral effect that's most stunning in the early morning when the sunlight is just starting to peek through. This is the BA that I fell in love with back in 2005 and one that, thankfully, remains largely intact. Runner up: London

Best food: Melbourne I know, it's not known for its cuisine, and chicken parmigiana with chips and salad aside, there's really no signature dish, and that might be a large part of its culinary appeal. Because there's no focus or specialty, there are few limitations, resulting in an abundance of variety. I've had killer Thai, Indian, Mexican, Argentinean, Korean, Greek and pub grub, and Base might make the best pizza I've had outside of New York City. I wouldn't expect anything less from a city filled with passionate foodies where there's always another cooking show coming up next on TV. Runner up: Bangkok

Dullest food: Buenos Aires Man can only live on so much pollo, carne, queso, pan y postres before he drops dead from a heart attack.

Best shopping: London King's Road. Kensington-High Street. Oxford Street. Carnaby Street. Camden Town's Sunday market. Portobello Road's Saturday market. If I still gave a damn about shopping, I probably wouldn't want to do it anywhere else. Runner up: New York City

Best nightlife: Buenos Aires New York might be known as the city that never sleeps, but BA, a place where the average person doesn't go to bed until 6am on a weekday morning, is just as unlikely to fall into a deep slumber. Also, no city on earth is as gorgeous when the night falls as BA. Runner up: London

City I've only been to once that I'm most dying to visit again: Istanbul For all the reasons stated above and because I'd love to see more of Turkey while I'm at it. Runner up: Dublin

City I've been to more than once that I'm dying to go to again: Amsterdam For some reason, when I think of the quintessential European city, an image of Amsterdam (a snapshot taken from one of its canals, with a row of colorful buildings lining the water hogging the frame) always pops into my mind. Runner up: Gainesville, Florida

Most pleasant surprise: Manila Two years later, I still can't pinpoint the source of Manila's appeal for me, but the fact that there's a source to pin point makes it so much more than I was expecting. Runner-up: Auckland

Best use of history: Rome Walking through it is like walking through picture postcards and occasionally wandering into hi-res photos on the pages of a history book. Runner up: Machu Picchu/Cuzco

Best weather: Los Angeles I don't believe I've ever spent a dreary day there. Runner up: Lima

Biggest bore: Colonia If the Uruguayan town weren't such an easy destination for Buenos Aires expats looking to renew their 90-day visas, there'd be absolutely no reason to go, which is even less than I can say for Vientiane in Laos, which is to Bangkok what Colonia is to BA. Runner up: Paris

Most overrated: Paris. Sorry I just don't get it. As much as I enjoyed strolling down the Champs-Élysées, standing under the Arc de Triomphe, admiring the sculptures in the Musée Rodin garden, gazing into the eyes of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and wishing I owned an authentic painting from Pablo Picasso's Blue Period while staring at the Picasso Museum's permanent collection, I left Paris feeling underwhelmed each of the three times I visited. Once you've done all of the above (which you can do in one afternoon) and seen the Eiffel Tower (which you can view from practically anywhere in the city worth going to), there just isn't much more to do in Paris, unless you want to spend the rest of your days sitting in cafes eating croissants and crepes and discussing how haughty the French are. Kristin Scott Thomas, the British actress who calls Paris home, once described it to me as a "small town." She meant that as a compliment, but therein lies its biggest problem. A major city with such a world-class reputation should have a stronger pulse, but Paris is dead on your arrival, and it pretty much stays that way. Runner up: Rio de Janeiro

Most disappointing: Pisa The only reason to go is because of the Leaning Tower, which looks so small and lonely tilting to the side in the middle of nowhere. The most memorable part of going there was running into my first boyfriend Derek and his then-boyfriend in the middle of the train station in Florence before embarking on my onward journey to Pisa.

Most spectacular train route: The Pyrenees If the stunning mountain views hadn't been compensation enough for the hours spent in transit from Madrid to Toulouse, getting off in the part of France -- the southern portion -- most worth going to, certainly would have completed the payoff.

Most interesting bus ride: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap It's not for the fainthearted (I kept expecting the crowded, rickety old van I was traveling in to drive off the bumpy two-lane road into the filthy floodwater that was threatening to deluge the houses on stilts off to the side), but it's probably the most authentic view you'll get of Cambodia if you're sticking to its two most visited cities (both of which are fabulous).

Biggest tourist trap: Florence The various replicas of King David around town only begin to hint at the chintziness of it all.

Best song named for a city (after "London" by The Smiths): "Vienna" by Ultravox A 1981 No. 2 hit that's as memorable and timeless as the city that inspired it.

Best museum: The Prado in Madrid I'm a classicist who prefers the work of long-dead masters when it comes to painting, so getting to see the best of Goya, Zurbarán and el Greco, among others, during my one visit to the Prado, was a once (so far)-in-a-lifetime treat. It remains better than any experience I've ever had at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Louvre in Paris, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, or any other art shrine anywhere else in the world.

The place where I most felt like I had stepped off of a time machine into another century: Cuzco Even if it weren't Peru's gateway to Macchu Picchu, it would have been worth the flight time from Lima to get there and the ensuing altitude sickness. Blackout aside, there was only one downside to my three days spent wandering through the town that's surrounded by layers of mountains, exploring its colonial streets (night lamps paint them a gorgeous golden hue after dark): If anyone ever asks if I remember where I was when I found out that Heath Ledger died, my answer will always be "In the lobby of the Casa Andina Classic hotel in Cuzco."

Cities that most remind me of each other: Lisbon and San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto, Prague and Budapest

Five cities that are least likely to inspire any reaction, positive or negative: Bogotá, Montreal, Philadelphia, Santiago de Chile, St. Louis

Four cities that are not the best, worst, most or least anything, but I want to name drop anyway because I love them: Kuala Lumpur, New Orleans, São Paolo, Washington D.C.

Best country: Italy I can't think of another country other than the one I'm from that has as many major cities that I love as Italy (and all of them have such distinct visual qualities!): Rome, Milan, Genoa. And I still haven't done Venice, the countryside, the south of the country, or Sicily yet! Runner up: Thailand

Best island: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands Mostly because I was born there, but even had I not been, among traditional holiday retreats that are surrounded by water, it would beat Bali, Bermuda, Sitges, Phuket and Fire Island, and probably be tied with Mykonos. Runners up: Manhattan, Great Britain, Australia

Best city: London Nearly 18 years after my first trip there and almost three and a half years since my last one, my heart still belongs to the London capital (for the music, for the theatre, for the architecture, for the history, for the cinema and literature it's inspired, for the pubs and nightclubs, for the peculiar and endearing comedy of British manners, for the memories, for a few other things I can't think of at the moment). When Nicole Kidman -- I mean, Virginia Woolf -- was so desperate to get there in The Hours, I completely understood that "violent jolt of the city" that she was craving and knew she'd find in London. It's something Paris lacks (and perhaps why the French capital has always left me cold and bored) and the reason London is so magical and mythic for me. My one-time obsession for it has matured into an ardent appreciation that keeps it atop the list of places I'd choose to be if I could choose to be anywhere in the world at this very second. Runner up: New York City