Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why Didn't Jennifer Lopez Become America's Sweetheart?

We're three days into "J. Lo Movie Month" on South Africa's Sony Entertainment Television, which is dedicating late November and December to running a portion of the filmography of the "hardest-working woman in show business" -- Anaconda, EnoughMaid in Manhattan and Monster-in-Law -- on a seemingly endless loop. After watching all of Monster-in-Law over the course of three airings, around the third time that I happened to pass by during yet another round of Maid in Manhattan, I realized something about Lopez that I hadn't considered before: She desperately wanted to be Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, but she ended up being Katherine Heigl instead.

Where did she go wrong? I'd say she was doomed from the day she decided she wanted to be a pop star. Before the 1999 release of her debut album On the 6 in 1999 when she was 29 going on 30, Lopez was coming off career-best reviews for her performance opposite George Clooney in Out of Sight, an acclaimed 1998 Steven Soderbergh-directed caper that earned only $37.5 million at the North American box office, making it slightly bigger than her 1997 breakthrough Selena ($35 million), though certainly no Anaconda ($66 million in '97) and not even Enough ($40 million in 2002).

I can understand why she wanted to add "pop star" to her name. She was working with A-list directors (Soderbergh) and costars (Clooney), but why should Britney Spears have all the fun on the Billboard charts? With a hit album, perhaps people would even go to see her movies. Her gambit initially seemed to pay off: Her first post-album film, 2000's The Cell, earned $61 million in North America well before her costar Vince Vaughn became the bankable one. It's hard to imagine that people didn't go to see it just because the girl who sang "If You Had My Love" and "Waiting for Tonight" was in it.

Lopez's music career epitomized the catch-22. She wouldn't be as wildly popular as she still is today without it, nor would she be an American Idol judge (a post to which she'll return for the show's 13th season on January 15, after sitting out the Mariah Carey vs. Nicki Minaj session). But while pop success made her a household name at the turn of the century and built interest in her acting projects, I believe it also had a negative effect on her Hollywood career, raising commercial expectations for her films to possibly unreasonable proportions while wildly overexposing her.

Cinderella stories in which the working-class girl meets the man of her dreams (2001's The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan and 2005's Monster-in-Law) brought Lopez her biggest film success and cemented her prevailing onscreen persona: shades of While You Were Sleeping-era Sandra Bullock and early Julia Roberts, complete with the wife-of-an-abusive-monster-fights-back role in 2002's Enough, in which she was Julia Roberts's Sleeping with the Enemy heroine without the great hair or the blockbuster box-office. (It peaked at $40 million.)

For a while, Lopez became a fairly bankable box-office star, scoring as many hits (the biggest of which, Maid in Manhattan, grossed $94 million) as misses. But for all of her Hollywood clout, and unlike every other romantic-comedy/drama fixture mentioned in this post (and some who are not, like The Family Stone costars Sarah Jessica Parker and Rachel McAdams), she never enjoyed a $100 million hit in any genre and still hasn't (unless you count 2012's $161 million-grossing Ice Age: Continental Drift, in which only her Bronx accent appeared).

The tabloids and celeb magazines didn't care, though. They covered her love life with gusto, like she was bigger than Tom Cruise and Will Smith. At one point during my 2002-2004 stint as a senior editor at Us Weekly, every morning-after (the Monday close) staff meeting began with the same question: "So what's our Jennifer Lopez story this week?" And it was up to our correspondents to come up with it.

Lopez didn't make their job hard, going through a string of also-famous steadies: Sean "Puffy" Combs (before he became "P. Diddy" and then, simply, "Diddy"), Ben Affeck and Marc Anthony, who would eventually become her third husband, from 2004 to 2012. During the early to mid '00s, following her love life was as popular a leisure pursuit among fans as going to her movies. She was the Kim Kardashian of the day, only everyone knew exactly why she was famous, even if she hadn't done anything particularly impressive to get that way.

But her ostentatious public displays of extreme wealth and her game of musical chairs with boyfriends, fiances and husbands made it hard to buy her as the girl next door that the movie studios were paying her to be. When she tried to sell herself as one in her songs (most notably, two of her biggest hits, 2001's "Love Don't Cost a Thing" and 2002's "Jenny from the Block"), she came across like a businesswoman attempting to convince us that she'd rather be a housewife while wearing a power suit.

America's sweetheart was supposed to be one of us. Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock were able to convince the public that they were everywomen offscreen even while earning upwards of $20 million a movie. Lopez, dripping jewels and fabulousness, was forever saddled with the "diva" tag. How was America going to call her "sweetheart," if most Americans couldn't relate to her?

She was less Cinderella than Erica Kane, or Elizabeth Taylor, who wisely never tried to be America's sweetheart, leaving that to Doris Day. When Lopez married her Larry Fortensky (Cris Judd), she quickly upgraded him for Ben Affleck, her financial equal, damaging her rooting factor on and offscreen. Her motto could have been "Love don't cost a thing, but it don't mean a thing either if it don't come with bling." Ben Affleck, apparently understanding this, gave Lopez a 6.1-carat pink diamond engagement ring as a sign of his devotion. Some girl next door. At least her love life was more entertaining that her movies.

Lopez and Affleck's joint 2003 flop Gigli ($6 million) is often credited with halting her Hollywood rise, but there were a few more film successes to come (2004's Shall We Dance and Monster-in-Law the following year). Like their predecessors, though, none of them became her Pretty Woman, or her Legally Blonde. By the time she said "I do" for the third time, to Marc Anthony, and gave birth to twins Maximillian and Emme in 2008, her Hollywood heyday was over.

It's possible that it would have ended sooner rater than later, even without the mixed messages of her pop stardom. Few performers in the history of Hollywood and recording have been able to manage simultaneous film and music careers. Frank Sinatra was one of them, but he was a far better singer and actor than Lopez. Diana Ross spent several years as a Hollywood star in the '70s, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (2007's El Cantante was supposed to be Lopez's Lady Sings the Blues and then never really happened), but Ross's iconhood had already been firmly established in the '60s as the head Supreme.

Today, Diana Ross, whose 1980 smash "I'm Coming Out" provides the soundtrack to Sony Entertainment Television's commercial promoting "J. Lo Movie Month," is a living legend. Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon are Oscar winners. Two of Lopez's male '00s costars, Vince Vaughn and Matthew McConaughey, would now get top billing over her. And J. Lo? She's still a pop star, though no longer a guaranteed hitmaker. In Hollywood, she's an also-ran romantic-comedy heroine alongside Kate Hudson, Jennifer Garner and Heigl: America's almost-sweetheart. She'd probably kill for that other Jennifer's (Aniston) film career. Even that other other Jennifer (Garner) gets juicy roles in Oscar-caliber projects like Dallas Buyers Club.

Idol, though, might be as good as it gets in front of the camera -- for now. Her first stint as a judge led to resurgent, if short-lived, Billboard success. (After a half-decade of flops, "On the Floor" was a massive 2011 hit, but none of its follow-ups have caught on.) Maybe her second round as an Idol judge will lead to another pop comeback, or -- finally -- a $100 million movie.

If not, who needs America's open arms embracing its latest sweetheart? There's always that reported $17.5 million a season from Idol, the millions from all her behind-the-scenes projects and Casper Smart to keep J. Lo warm at night.

Friday, November 29, 2013

What Do You Get the Guy Who Doesn't Want Anything?

As consumers and retailers worldwide prepare for what is billed as the busiest shopping day of the year, the 24 hours that follow what was always my favorite holiday of the year (and one that I haven't celebrated in the United States since 2005), I know what I won't be doing tomorrow.

For me, it will be just another day in paradise (aka Cape Town). Frankly, I haven't experienced holiday spirit in decades, which probably makes it a good thing that I'm still not a dad (though parenthood might very well change my holiday outlook). It's not that I'm a scrooge begrudging anyone peace on earth, goodwill to men and lots of presents, but how many people actually bother themselves with abstract gifts like peace and goodwill when tis the season to flock to the mall to pad retailers' coffins while stuffing stockings?

My distaste for the holiday season isn't just that everything starts shutting down, or that it's nearly impossible to find a short-term rental in Cape Town because December is super-high season. It has more to do with what the holidays represent to me: extreme consumerism, materialism and, in an ironic Christmas Day twist, everything being closed for business on December 25. No consumerism for me, if I run out of eye drops or dental floss on Christmas Eve!

I used to embrace consumerism as enthusiastically as the next slave to stuff, even though I've always been a fan of non-traditional gifts. (My all-time favorite: the Billboard magazine I received for Christmas in 1983, the first issue of a one-year subscription.) But having to spend $500 to have the folks at 1-800-GOT-JUNK come to my storage space in Brooklyn in February of 2010 to haul off the belongings I'd spent nearly four years paying $130 dollars a month to hold on to didn't only clean out my proverbial closet. It cured me of my need to possess.

I now see physical gifts as just more kilos to add to my baggage allowance when I travel. (If you must spend money on me, put it toward a fabulous holiday, for which I can pack lightly.) My friend Nancy doesn't share my non-attachment to personal belongings, as she pointed out in an email this morning.

"You and I have very different views on stuff. I cannot live without stuff. This weekend, I lost a very expensive bracelet which I loved and wore several times a week. Losing it make me miserable and wishing the earth would open and swallow me up. I wish my happiness was less dependent on stuff."

I respect her desire to possess (though if it weren't for that, she wouldn't have had the expensive bracelet to lose), but at least she realizes that love need not cost a thing, to borrow from J. Lo's 2001 hit.

"Flowers and gifts are nice. They show that someone either cares about you, or is trying. Both of those are nice traits. But in truth, they don't mean anything. The only guy who ever gave me gifts and flowers regularly was the only one who ever cheated on me."

It's been years since a guy has given me anything, and I don't think any less highly of any of the guys I've dated since then than I would had they handed me the world on a silver platter. Love doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry, nor does it mean showing up on my front doorstep bearing gifts. If you want to show me love, do it with deeds, not stuff. Words work, too, but please, no cards. They're just clutter, which I hate. Oh, and don't call, just text.

Five love actions that won't cost a thing (other than the price of groceries and gas):

Cook for me. Taking me out to dinner is always appreciated, too, but if you prepare the meal, you're giving me something that I can't give myself: a delicious home-cooked meal. (BTW, Nancy hates it when guys cook for her: "People use so many herbs, and I hate having to pretend to like the food." That's my Nancy!)

Think about me. I've never been the needy boyfriend who has got to be joined at the hip with my significant other. Three or four (preferably three) dates a week works for me. A few nice text messages or emails a day to let me know I'm on your mind will pick up the slack and convince me that you care more than expensive flowers and chocolate, neither of which I particularly care for. I prefer personal, less generic food gifts anyway, like the $1.50 lemon poppy seed muffins that one early boyfriend in New York City used to bring over every night because he knew how much I loved them. That wasn't just a romantic gesture. It was a personalized -- and seriously yummy -- token of affection.

Pick me up at the airport. From the moment I saw Paolo waiting for me outside of the baggage-claim area when I went to visit him in Milan in 2000, I knew that it was one of the sexiest things a guy could do. He cooked for me every day I was there, too, but unfortunately, he wasn't so good with the emails when I returned to New York City.

Read my stuff. If you're not interested in what I'm thinking, even when it has nothing to do with you, how can you say you're interested in me?

Love me for me. Without acceptance, there is no love. If you love me for who you want me to be, you aren't loving me at all. Changing my wicked ways (and yes, I have a few), like checking into rehab, has to be my choice, not a means to acquiring anyone's unconditional love. That wouldn't actually be unconditional at all. Nothing says you love me like loving me in spite of my flaws, which, as gifts go, would be the greatest one of all.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Hey, Mate, You're Not in Australia Anymore!

If I've said it once in the last two weeks and two days, I've said it daily. So here it comes again: Cape Town is so Melbourne (with mountains). The South Africa-Australia connection isn't just a fantasy I've made up in my head because I miss Melbourne.

The first time I heard it, in August, almost exactly three months before my arrival here, a German girl in Berlin who I met through a friend from Bangkok was talking. She'd spent time living in Cape Town, and she was telling me what to expect. If I didn't believe her then, I'll never doubt her again.

Just as it was in Melbourne (and pretty much every city on the planet, except, perhaps, for Sydney), people who've lived in Cape Town forever are dying to get out. Apparently, paradise is just another dead-end town if you've spent most of your life looking at the breathtaking scenery there.

At least two South Africans in the last three weeks (since my arrival in their country) -- the boyfriend of my friend Dolores in Johannesburg and a publicist in Cape Town -- have expressed a burning desire to leave their beautiful country behind for greener pastures elsewhere. Everyone here seems to be obsessed with New York City, practically to Argentine proportions, but I have to keep reminding them that the grass is only green(er) in Central Park there. The rest of it is concrete.

When I suggested a change of scenery in Australia to the two restless South Africans, I figured that it would be easier to get a visa to relocate to another Commonwealth country than it would be to acquire one for an extended stay in NYC. Both of them shot me down: "That would be just like staying in South Africa." Their responses echoed each other.

Touché, I conceded after the second Oz rejection, but the more time I spend in Cape Town, the more I notice that it's only Melbourne with mountains on a superficial level. That might not be enough to make the grass down under any greener for South Africans itching to relocate, but it's enough to remind me that it's a long way back to there. What does Australia have that South Africa doesn't, and vice versa? Here's a list of 10 reasons why I no longer keep forgetting where I am.

1. Nobody calls me "mate" in South Africa. "Buddy" neither -- but I'm not complaining about that.

2. I haven't heard the phrase "hot as" to describe a sexually desirable person since the night before I boarded that direct Jetstar flight from Melbourne to Bangkok last June. I miss being "hot as." It has such a nice, colloquial ring, and it's much more colorful than a simple "Sexy."

3. Pedestrians apparently never have the right of way in Cape Town. In Melbourne, I used to get frustrated because cars would sit at the corner waiting for me to cross when I was still 50 meters away from the intersection. That meant I was constantly speeding up so they wouldn't have to wait too long. In Cape Town, I don't have to worry about keeping anyone waiting, because they won't. Cars race down mountains and turn corners like bats out of hell, pedestrians be damned if they happen to step off the sidewalk and into the way. It's actually a little like being back in Bangkok, minus the constant bumper-to-bumper traffic.

4. You don't have to take out a mortgage to enjoy a night out in Cape Town. I spent Saturday night downing Amstels, Jack and Cokes and shots of Jose Cuervo at Crew with friends, and the entire night out (taxi fare included) set me back only about $50. In Melbourne, it would have cost three times as much, though the guys would have been taller (1.85 meters and up up up), with more facial hair.

5. Speaking of tall, hairy guys in Melbourne, where are all the Bens, Nathans and Andrews in Cape Town? I still haven't come up with any defining first names here like there were in Melbourne, Buenos Aires (Federico, Alejandro and Sebastian, kiss, rinse and repeat) and Berlin (Alex, Alex and yet another Alex), but I'm working on it.

6. People actually dress weather appropriately in Cape Town. The climate here is frustratingly similar to the climate in Melbourne: In other words, expect the unexpected -- and bring a jacket, just in case. On yet another spring day in Cape Town that feels more like autumn, the only guy under-dressed in board shorts and Havaianas will probably be me.

7. Cape Town's DStv networks are obsessed with Fox/UPN U.S. TV from the '90s and '00s (Melrose Place, Half & Half, One on One, Sister, Sister, Arsenio Hall). In Melbourne, it's all about Nick-at-Nite-style series from the '60s and '70s (The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Love Boat, Green Acres). Frankly, I'd rather watch Maude, which, thanks to all of the YouTube episodes I watched in Tel Aviv, has replaced The Golden Girls as the vintage Bea Arthur sitcom that I'd rather waste an entire day laughing at.

8. Bilingual (and multilingual) rules in South Africa. Australians, like non-Hispanic Americans, are notoriously monolingual. Someone told me that South Africa is one of the most bilingual countries in the world, and every time I listen to (or eavesdrop on) conversations flowing between Afrikaans and English, or English and some other language I don't recognize, I realize that he's probably right.

9. In Cape Town, fish and chips, not chicken parma, seems to be the pub grub of choice for those who aren't in the mood for an ostrich burger. (It's all about chicken schnitzel here.) And at something like 55 ZAR ($5.50) a plate, the fish and chips at Long Street Cafe cost nearly one-fourth of the AU$20 that you'd pay for the chicken parma at Windsor Castle in Melbourne.

10. The other day when I spotted a squirrel scurrying across the street, I realized that it's been months since I saw a possum (or a kangaroo, or a wallaby, or a koala, or a bat, or a cockatoo). I'm going to have to book an African safari soon because I'm ready for some exotic wildlife. All of these dogs that look like the 21st U.S. President Chester Alan Arthur resurrected as a canine just aren't cutting it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Do You Believe in Shame?

This morning my friend Nancy in L.A. sent me another one of her provocative emails that always get me thinking. Today, she asked a million-dollar question: "Do you ever feel ashamed, or embarrassed at something you've done?"

Answering one-half of that was easy. I live my life in a perpetual state of embarrassment. I get a rush of blood to the head (thankfully, undetectable to the naked eye, which is one of the good things about being black) every time I'm using the pull-up bar at the gym, and my iPod falls out of my pocket and lands on the floor with a thud. I'm certain that everyone is looking at me, laughing on the inside and thinking, Clumsy fool!

But Nancy's wording was interesting. She asked if I ever feel ashamed or embarrassed by something I've done. If I know her -- and I know that I do -- she chose her words carefully and specifically. As embarrassed as I often feel in everyday life, it's generally not due to something I've deliberately done but rather something that's happened to me, either by chance or through the deliberate action of someone else.

Back when I was a Teen People editor, I used to edit a page in which celebrities and regular teens recounted their most embarrassing moments. I can't recall a single one of them at the moment, but I do remember that they often involved slips of the tongue and exposed body parts, none of which necessarily required deliberate actions by them, though I'm pretty sure a few of those body parts were revealed via someone else's practical joke.

Speaking of exposed body parts, one of my most embarrassing moments came when I was 8 years old and in the hospital undergoing neurological tests for chronic headaches. (My mother couldn't understand what her baby possibly could have to worry about that would cause his cranium to throb constantly, and the doctors were no help. My head pounds chronically to this day.) I was standing in my hospital room wearing nothing but a towel, and when the nurse came in to check on me, my towel fell down to the ground.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure that my 8-year-old self had nothing to be embarrassed about (and even less to expose!), but there you go. I've always been weird about my body, particularly when it comes to revealing that danger zone between my upper torso and my lower appendages (the ones I use to walk on -- get your mind out of the gutter!). No wonder the walking-around-in-public-naked dream is my most recurrent one.

Since the episode with the nurse, I've probably been embarrassed at least once a week. Like the scene in that hospital room, it generally doesn't involve any deliberate action on my part but rather some chance occurrence, like falling while I'm running -- or simply walking -- down the street, having someone's eyes linger too long on my gnarly toenails, having someone be publicly rude to me, or getting kicked out of a bar or club. The latter two might spring from something I've done, but what causes my embarrassment isn't my action but someone else's public reaction to it. Embarrassment is a party of two or more.

Shame, on the other hand, is a solitary experience, whether it involves a solitary experience or a group one (as was the case with Michael Fassbender's character in the 2011 movie Shame, pictured above). It's more internalized. It has deeper psychological roots, and it's longer term than embarrassment, revolving around how we view ourselves as opposed to how others do. A parent or a holier-than-thou type might say, "I'm ashamed of you," over something we've said or done, but what they're feeling is probably more fleeting disappointment than shame. When we're actually ashamed of someone, or embarrassed by them (say, a family member who's in prison or an alcoholic parent who sleeps around), it's typically over habitual behavior that we perceive as reflecting poorly on us.

That "me" in "shame" is there for a reason. Shame is personal, whether or not our own actions bring it about. But getting back to self-shame, unlike embarrassment (or being ashamed of someone or embarrassed by them), there doesn't have to be any witnesses involved. It's a private hell. I must be the most shameless person on earth because I can't think of the last time I've felt shame over anything I've done in public or in private. Maybe I'm just one of the lucky ones who lives a life that's beyond reproach.

Hardly. I might not be inclined to walk around with my head bowed in shame, but guilt is something with which I'm well acquainted. People tend to use guilt and shame interchangeably, but there are significant differences. Guilt is public, even when we grapple with it in private. Shame is much more personal. As I already pointed out, it doesn't necessarily involve another person, and it tends to have moralistic undercurrents.

Recently on Days of Our Lives, Victor Kiriakis and an unwitting Marlena Evans screened a sex tape showing Kristin DiMera and Eric Brady (Marlena's son) in flagrante delicto (after Kristin drugged Eric, therefore it was a rape in action) at the wedding of Kristin and Brady Black (Eric's stepbrother, Marlena's stepson). Yes, only on a soap!

I'm pretty certain that the overwhelming feeling bubbling over inside Eric, who, by the way, is a priest, was shame, and probably embarrassment, though not guilt. If he felt any guilt in that moment, it was probably not over the tape but due to the realization that he'd previously falsely accused his good friend Nicole Walker of the rape, based on some vague flashbacks of himself in bed with a tall blonde.

But as for the tape itself, to paraphrase Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, he had nothing to be guilty of. Like shame, guilt generally involves some wrongdoing (or what we see as wrongdoing), but it's our own. (There was also a Teen People column in which teens confessed terrible things they'd done that they had every right to feel guilty for, but I can't recall any of those misdeeds either.) A rape victim might feel shame for months, or years, after the assault, but it's the rapist, if he or she has any conscience, who should be wracked by guilt forever.

Guilt is a less personal experience than shame, as it actively involves other people and how they perceive us, or how they would perceive us if they were privy to our wrongdoing or whatever it is that's making us feel guilty. In addition to the legal angle that often accompanies it, guilt is as likely to involve inactivity as activity. We might feel guilty, for example, for not keeping in touch with our friends and family (which would be my primary source of daily guilt), or for not coming forward and admitting some crime, or over the actions of our forefathers toward some ethnic group. We talk about "white liberal guilt," not "white liberal shame."

Personally, I'd rather be wracked by guilt than by shame. You might not be able to undo a crime once you've committed it, but by confessing, you can go a long way toward easing your guilty conscience. And if no fatalities are involved, you might even get over it eventually. The shame, however, you'll have to carry around for much longer, possibly forever, like a tattoo. I wouldn't wish that burden on my worst enemy, and I'm thankful that I, to answer Nancy's question, have yet to experience it first hand.

And may I never do anything to deserve to.

Songs About Shame

"Shame" Evelyn "Champagne" King

"Shame" The Motels

"Shame" OMD

"Shame" Eurythmics

"Shame" Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow

"Shame, Shame, Shame" Shirley & Company

"Shame on Me" Donna Fargo

"Shame on the Moon" Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band

"Such a Shame" Talk Talk

"Do You Believe in Shame?" Duran Duran

Monday, November 25, 2013

Oh No! Not Another Cape Town Conversation About Black and White People!

You'd think that with all of the stunning scenery around here, there'd be much nicer things to talk about while admiring it, but here we go again.

Nature in Cape Town offers so many lovely shades of blue, green and brown, yet somehow, it seems, so many of the conversations I've had since my arrival in town two weeks ago, end up returning to the same old same old hues: black and white. I'm not blaming anyone for this because, frankly, those particular two colors are always on my mind here, too.

Sometimes, in fact, I find it hard to think about or see anything else. When the white American expat from Iowa who has been living in Cape Town full-time for 10 years first described my neighborhood of Tamboerskloof as being "very white," he wasn't saying anything I hadn't already thought to myself dozens of times. By the time he repeated this observation yesterday evening while we were driving to watch the sun set over Hout Bay, I'd heard and thought it myself so many times that it sounded absolutely banal. He might as well have been talking about the weather, which everyone in Cape Town tends to do as well.

Frankly, all of the constant talk -- and thoughts -- about black and white in Cape Town makes me uncomfortable, nearly as much so as usually being the only black person in the room and constantly being reminded of it in Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Bangkok once did. What was a much-welcome novelty 15 days ago in Johannesburg, this new sensation of blending into the crowd, is slowly becoming just another source of social unease.

I might be one of many black people in Cape Town, but that doesn't mean the color of my skin isn't the first thing that people notice about me. I'd been having trouble putting my feelings about this into words until last night when I was explaining to the American expat how life as a black man in Cape Town was different from life as a black many everywhere I've lived since leaving the U.S. and how my personal experience -- being the son of West Indian immigrants and growing up in the Deep South facing racism from both white and black people -- has affected the way I'm affected by Cape Town color dynamics.

That's when I finally nailed the point that I'd been trying to make to myself for two weeks: "The hard thing about Cape Town is how the black and white thing is always so in your face here, more so than it ever was for me in New York City." It's in the rampant segregation that's left over from the Apartheid era (and harder to ignore here than it was in Johannesburg because the greater white presence in Cape Town makes it more glaring), in the grim (all black) township standing right next to one of Cape Town's richest neighborhoods (all white, naturally) on the way to Hout Bay, in the borderline racist thoughts that, shamefully, creep into my head whenever two or three guys hog several machines at once or hover impatiently at my predominantly black gym (Zone Fitness on Strand), in the comments that white guys make to black guys on Grindr (like "tbh, you're the 1st black guy i've been turned on by" --  which someone actually wrote to my new black American expat friend from New York City yesterday).

At first, in Johannesburg, it was enlightening, educational. Now I just want it all to stop. I want to talk about something else. I want to think about something else. I don't like to encourage shallow people or conversations, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little relieved every time talk turned to how windy it is in Cape Town, or how the weather here is so unpredictable (something else it has in common with Melbourne).

As Morrissey once sang (on his 1991 single "Our Frank"):

"Wont somebody stop me
From thinking
From thinking all the time
About everything"

To be completely fair, it's not as if the American expat from Iowa and I didn't hit on a variety of topics yesterday. We covered everything from our backgrounds, to family dynamics, to parenthood, to mental health, to addiction, to panic attacks, to dating, to wanderlust, to real estate, but somehow the conversation always came back to black and white.

Along the way, I learned a fascinating lesson on black-on-black race relations in South Africa. I had no idea that there is so much friction between black South Africans and black African immigrants from neighboring countries. As it was described to me, it sounded like a mix of the way many Argentines regard people from South American countries like Peru, Paraguay and Bolivia (as inherently inferior), and the way the black Americans who tormented me when I was growing up thought of black Caribbeans (with jealousy because how dare we move to their country and do better than they were doing).

It made me wonder what is really going on in their heads behind the warm smiles and friendly greetings that black South Africans are always offering me. Are they sizing me up negatively, placing me in a black hierarchy based on my origins. Am I just another American to them? What do they think about Americans? Do they realize that I wasn't born in one of the 50 U.S. states, that my paternal homelands like many African countries had sprung from Caribbean colonialism by imperialistic European nations?

Perhaps the most astonishing revelation of the evening arrived when I pointed out that it once was my dream to adopt a baby from Tanzania. Years ago, I edited a Teen People feature on a teenage girl who completed an AIDS Walk benefiting kids in Tanzania, and I fell in love with the beautiful children in the photos. The American from Iowa was surprised. Tanzanians, he pointed out, were the least attractive of all Africans. It's a dishonor which, in his humble opinion, they share with another African country, but I was trying too hard to maintain my casual facial expression while wondering why he'd say such a thing to process the name of the other country.

As he started going down the list, beginning with the most attractive Africans (people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which he insisted on calling "DRC"), I was too shocked that he'd bothered to sort this out in his head to take in all the specifics of his countdown. When he commented that Ethiopian women are among the most beautiful females of the species, I wondered what he thought about the men there. (Incidentally, Dave, a straight Australian who has spent time traveling in Africa and used to live in Bangkok, said the same thing to me earlier this year without specifying gender and throwing Somalians into his too-beautiful-for-words mix.)

I wondered what the Iowan thought about me. Where did I fit into his hierarchy of black beauty (or ugliness)? Did I rate as high as the guys in Senegal? As low as the Tanzanians? Despite the strangeness of his commentary, it was obvious that he does indeed think that black is beautiful. And I quietly gave him kudos for recognizing that we don't all look alike. Walking through the streets of Cape Town, I often wonder if I'm blending in that way, too, for white passersby.

I wondered what the Iowan would make of the sexual discrimination against Asian men that I've encountered in Australia, Bangkok and the rest of Southeast Asia (from whites, blacks and other Asians, too), and how so many Westerners lump the physical characteristics of people from so many countries on the entire continent of Asia into one lookalike group based on the shape of people's eyes in some of its countries. Did you have to actually live and/or travel extensively in Asia, as he'd done in Africa, to notice the differences?

It was probably the one topic that we didn't touch on yesterday, nor did we organize Europe's countries according to the physical qualities of the people in them. I won't be coming up with hierarchies of European and Asian beauty any time soon, though. Even if I weren't totally over race, isn't lumping all of the citizens of one country under a hot or not column based on perceived physical characteristics of the entire populace (as if everyone in any one country all look alike) just as bad as doing it with an entire continent?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The '90s ARE Back!: 10 Reasons Why South Africa Is Making Me Nostalgic for Days of Thunder, Grunge and CrazySexyCool

Arsenio Hall As one of my high school friends pointed out yesterday when I mentioned The Arsenio Hall Show (version 2.0) on Facebook, "Woof, woof, woof!!" I had no idea that Hall's 1989-1994 syndicated late-night talk show had even been revived (as of September 9, 2013) until I caught its first two airings this week on South Africa's DStv's Sony channel. Immediately, I was taken back to my old flat-top days when (first) Joan Rivers and (later) Hall were the two comedians who offered me the best reasons for staying up past my 11pm bedtime on school nights. (Sorry, but Carson, Letterman and Leno were never my thing.) I don't know which impresses me more -- that Hall got another shot at the couch, or that at 57, he looks like he's barely aged a day since he was Eddie Murphy's BFF in Coming to America.

Arsenio's guests As much as I've always appreciated Hall's one-of-us approach (unlike other celebrity talk-show hosts -- see Queen Latifah below -- he's not constantly reminding viewers that he's famous, too), I'm excited about his return less for his still-intact congeniality than for how his guests make me feel like I'm twentysomething again. In his first two days back on the air, the celebs that Hall welcomed were almost exclusively products of the '90s: Chris Tucker, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Lisa Kudrow, with a dazed and confused-looking Tara Reid in the house. (On night two, musical guest Mac Miller, a rapper who was born during Hall's previous stint as a late-night talk host, was wearing plaid that could have come straight out of Kurt Cobain's closet circa '93.) All first made their mark in that decade, and Reid aside, all remain gainfully employed today, so the resurrected Arsenio Hall Show isn't just about nostalgia. And thank God, for one hour, I can pretend that Justin Bieber and One Direction were never born in the '90s.

Queen Latifah Like Hall, Latifah is once again chatting with the stars under a recycled name: The Queen Latifah Show, which also premiered in September, one week after The Arsenio Hall Show. Unlike Hall's new old post, Latifah's new old talk gig is another day job, though not a continuation of the original Queen Latifah Show (1991-2001). The most memorable thing I saw her do in the two episodes I've watched on SZone was literally give an audience member the shirt off her back, which doesn't make her the new Oprah, the former humanitarian Queen of Daytime. Frankly, I've never really gotten Latifah the non-rapper. Despite her Oscar nomination for Chicago, which was all about her singing performance of "When You're Good to Mama," she's a middling actress, and when she's interviewing people, she comes across as the half-interested friend who's thinking about the mountain of things she has to do later, like look for a new agent. She clearly would rather be somewhere else (in a hit movie?), and I'd rather be watching someone else, like Arsenio Hall.

Jerry Springer I was never a fan of The Jerry Springer Show, which debuted in 1991, shortly after I moved to New York City, and apparently is still soldiering on in syndication. I was living in the Big Apple, for God's sake. If I wanted to see grown people behaving badly, all I had to do was step outside. For Middle America, though, it was a new daytime talk concept, putting a then-unique twist on a creaky format, much as Springer recently did as the host of Baggage, a dating game that focused on potential deal breakers rather than compatibility. Still airing on South African TV (on DStv's Sony channel) despite being cancelled nearly two years ago after three seasons, Baggage is sort of like The Dating Game crossed with The Bachelor/Bachelorette crossed with Dating in the Dark crossed with Dismissed.

In the two episodes I've seen, two guys got to choose which bachelorette of three had the most tolerable baggage. This was clearly not The Millionaire Matchmaker, as the guys were neither rich nor particularly swoon-worthy, but I appreciated Baggage for what it said about how society changed in the decade between the '90s and 2010. Back in the day, a dating show featuring a black bachelor would have offered him three black bachelorettes to choose from, but in 2010-11, we got an Asian woman and two white women fighting over a chocolate brutha. How far we'd come.

Trisha Or not. I'd never heard of Trisha Goddard, a 55-year-old British TV presenter who looks at least 15 years younger, until I caught her talk show on Sony a few days ago. She's like a cross between Jenny Jones, Sally Jesse Raphael and Mother Love refereeing the sort of talk-show throwdowns that Jerry Springer made such popular TV-viewing sport in the '90s. Dirty laundry is aired, and fists fly on Trisha, but there are a few twists. Goddard plays scolding therapist as well as referee, coming across as Dr. Phil-lite, without the academic credentials, and she uses a lie detector and DNA tests to settle scores.

Judge Judy She's no Joseph Wapner, and Judge Judy is no The People's Court, but I love Judith Sheindlin's crankiness and her sideways glances (she's like the difficult boss that you're desperate to please and terrified not to) and her occasional sidebar comments to the bored-looking bailiff (in the episode I saw yesterday) who couldn't be bothered to treat her with anything resembling obsequious deference. Curiously, the two cases in that episode both involved incidents that happened in 1999, which explains why 71-year-old Judy still looked fiftysomething. Surprisingly, hairstyles (including Judy's) haven't changed so dramatically in the last decade and a half.

A Different World The other night, when a new acquaintance described the scene at Sophiatown Bar Lounge in Johannesburg as "1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920's jazz," it made me want to go to YouTube to watch old episodes of The Cosby Show spin-off that ran from 1987 to 1993. I recently saw Dawnn Lewis playing a doctor on Days of Our Lives (making her one of three black female '90s TV stars -- along with Any Day Now's Lorraine Touissant on The Young and the Restless and In the Heat of the Night and Melrose Place's Anne-Marie Johnson on Days -- to recently play doctors on daytime TV), but I wonder what Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison are up to, and how long it'll be before they're reunited on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Anaconda Before Jennifer Lopez became a global sensation, she was a B-movie star peddling dreck like this 1997 film, which also starred Ice Cube, who isn't even shown in the TV commercials for its airing on South African TV.

Pebbles As far as I know, you can't catch Wendy Williams' daytime talk show on TV in Cape Town, but it forever will be the city where, thanks to 2013 magic of YouTube, I saw one of my favorite late-'80s/early '90s pop-R&B divas resurrected. Pebbles stopped by to have her say on the allegations made in CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, the VH1 biopic that premiered on October 21, which I, sadly, haven't seen but oh so clearly need to. (Incidentally, it was she who introduced me to the trio, before TLC had even released its first single, at a Clive Davis-hosted Arista Records party in New York City in 1991.) I will love "Girlfriend" and "Giving You the Benefit" always and forever, but Pebbles, who evaded more questions about the TLC vs. Pebbles legal drama (pleading confidentiality agreement) than she answered and now has a 30-year-old pit bull of a daughter who could pass for her baby sister, is clearly hiding something. Where's Judge Judy when you really need her?

Jackee Harry I never watched a single episode of the sitcom Sister, Sister back when it aired in the '90s, but if I ever need a Jackee fix (and really, who doesn't?), I now know where to get it (Sony, again).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why I Think I'd Rather Climb Ev'ry Mountain Than Date in Cape Town

So this is what I've been missing?

That was my thought exactly when I read the digital display on the iPhone that my new acquaintance was holding up in front of my face. I wasn't sure what to think, but he clearly had an agenda. He wanted to elicit a specific response from me -- not shock, not outrage, but the ah ha! of enlightenment. He was waiting for me to finally get it.

We'd met two days earlier through a mutual friend, and we'd immediately found common ground. We were both gay black men from the United States who had spent a significant amount of time living and traveling abroad. A self-described "academic" (translation: professional student) whose specialty was African studies, he told me that he's been based in Cape Town for one year, but he's been coming to South Africa for 10. He seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Cape Town that was similar to the one I used to have with Buenos Aires (before the hate took over). We had a lot to talk about.

I told him about my experiences at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and how my background played into my reaction to everything I saw there. He nodded. He understood. I told him about Sophiatown Bar Lounge, and how on my final night in Joburg (or Jozi, as Cape Town locals also call it), the jazz scene there had reminded me of something out of the Harlem Renaissance. He knew exactly what I was talking about and described it as "1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920s jazz." Bingo!

I told him about the book that I'm working on, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, which documents my experiences as a gay, black man living abroad, with a focus on my various romantic entanglements over the last seven years. He got everything I was saying in a way that most of the (white) people I told about it never fully grasped because it hadn't happened to them. Nothing I said surprised him. He'd lived it, too.

When I saw him last night, he asked me about my experiences dating in South Africa so far. I was ashamed to say that I had nothing. I haven't been out on a date since my second week in Tel Aviv nearly two months ago, nor have I enjoyed (or not, which is typically the case these days, hence my inactivity) any romantic encounters in nearly just as long.

I go through these celibate, hermetic stages with increasing regularity as I get older. I suppose that years of romantic disappointment have taken a toll. That and the fact that I simply haven't come across anyone who has captured both my eye and my mind. I've seen plenty of attractive men, and I've even been pursued by a few of them, but I'd rather spend my nights in my own company than that of a relative stranger who is too busy wondering what I look like naked (or fiddling with his smart phone) to be listening to anything I'm saying. Been there, done that. I'm better off alone.

But I've occasionally wondered if I'm missing out while staying in. Not on any potential Mr. Rights -- I gave up on his existence ages ago -- but on new, fascinating stories to add to my gallery of exploits. I'm in South Africa, after all, a country in which I'm no longer the racial minority, the exotic forbidden fruit. There shouldn't be the same mystique about me here that there was in Argentina, or Australia, or Bangkok, or any of the places I've visited these last few years. 

I had imagined that if I were to dip into the Cape Town dating pool, my experiences might be a lot like they had been in the United States, where there were enough black guys to go around that nobody ever wanted me simply because they'd never had anything like me before. And South Africa's history of racism and segregation (both of which continue to be blemishes on the gay scene, judging from what I saw at Crew and Zer021 last Friday night) would see to it that I'm just as invisible among the white gay population here as I had been in the U.S.

I left the U.S. before the rise in social media, the acceptance of online dating, and the emergence of Grindr as the principal meet market for gay men, so I have no idea how the new technology would influence how guys back home would respond to me now. Grindr in South Africa, though, has offered more of the same old, same old in the proposals I've been receiving. (I've pretty much retired from making the first move because I deal with enough rejection in other areas of my life.) I easily could be in Melbourne or Bangkok or Berlin or Rome or Tel Aviv, the only difference being that for the first time, a few black men are thrown into the mix of guys who approach me. 

For the most part, the guys on Grindr in South Africa are, surprisingly, white. I'm not sure if the reason for this is social (homosexuality being less accepted among African blacks) or economic (African blacks being less likely to have smart phones with which to use the Grindr app), but the lack of a black presence on Grindr in South Africa has brought out the same response to me online as the lack of a black presence in everyday society brought out in every predominantly white or Asian city I've spent time in since 2010, whether I was online or off, surrounded by gays, straights or a mix of both.

I'm bombarded by the same indelicate messages from horny guys who are only looking for one thing. For many, my skin color continues to make me the fresh catch of the day. "So want a black cock!!" one guy, a tourist from Greece, indelicately announced, as if there weren't plenty of those to go around in Cape Town. (Tourists and expats, incidentally, appear to comprise a larger portion of the Grindr population in Cape Town than in Joburg, which might explain the resurgent awareness of "black" here.) Others, some South African, have resorted to the question that has been the bane of my bachelorhood for more than seven years: "Is it true what they say about black men?"

They make it so easy to lapse into dateless celibacy, which might be as much of a reason as the places I've been in for the peaceful easy feeling I've enjoyed these past two months. But sitting across from my new acquaintance who was inquiring about my impression of gay dating in South Africa, I felt uneasy because I had nothing to contribute. Then there was the Grindr conversation I was looking at. It was one in which he had approached a shirtless white piece of beefcake who appeared to be in the shower. My acquaintance began the exchange with a simple "Howsit?" followed by his own shirtless pose.

The second sentence of the guy's three-sentence response sent a chill down my spine:

"I'm sorry, but I don't cross racial lines in dating."

I was as disarmed by his perfect punctuation as I was by the declaration it had been wasted on. He simply could have ignored the message, or he could have offered some vague reason why he wasn't interested. Despite the formal tone, there was a certain level of hostility in his message. He came across like a well-educated bigot. I'd encountered plenty of those, though I'd never been rejected by a guy who specifically offered my color as the reason. 

"I guess that's the kind of reaction I'd get if I were online dating in the U.S.," I concluded. While allowing gay guys to hide behind fakery, Grindr has also had the effect of making them more brutally honest, often to a fault. Maybe the modern American gay guy who doesn't do black wouldn't have any qualms about bluntly saying so either. Could "I don't cross racial lines" be a delicate way of doing it without getting too specific and bogged down in "black" and "white," sort of like subbing "fun" for "sex"?

My new acquaintance begged to differ regarding the U.S. comparison. Clearly I didn't get it. This response, he pointed out, was uniquely South African, because it had the lingering thumbprint of Apartheid all over it. It wasn't just a personal choice, nor was it personal, not exactly. It was a cold, clinical reflection of the institutionalized racism and segregation that had defined South African society for decades. He hadn't said, "I'm not attracted to black guys," or "I don't date black guys." His specific wording (without being specific at all) seemed to imply that it wasn't just about preference or attraction but rather adherence to a long-standing principle. In his dating world, the events of the early 1990s in South Africa hadn't changed a thing. It might as well have still been 1984.

Wow. I hadn't even thought of that angle. I am, after all, new in South Africa, and he is someone who has had an entire year of dating experience in this country, plus his African studies, to influence how he contextualizes Grindr messages. He'd seen and read it all before. I thought I had, too, but this was a first for me. I was glad I had ventured out for a beer after a day spent climbing Lion's Head and scaling Signal Hill, if only to experience vicariously something I had no desire to live firsthand. 

I was even more grateful for my current dateless, sexless existence. I don't need ugliness like that ruining all of Cape Town's breathtaking views.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Burning Questions: The Cape Town Edition

1. Is there such a thing as comfortable underwear? Don't the steep inclines of Cape Town make walking around the city challenging enough? Ironically, I typed that first question as a commercial for the SZone South African television premiere of Magic Mike was playing in the background.

Unfortunately, going commando hasn't been an option for months, ever since I read an online article about Mad Men star John Hamm's manhood (so much M-M-M alliteration -- mmm!). The story went to great lengths to prove that Hamm is one of Hollywood's, er, biggest stars, offering photographic evidence featuring Hamm, with all that God bestowed upon him flapping freely behind the cotton curtain of his trousers.

Now that's investigative journalism at its most probing and scintillating!

Had it not been for the headline, I probably would have missed Hamm's battle with the bulge completely. My eyes never instinctively go for that area when I zero in on male passersby on the street, or when I look at photos of male celebrities, which is pretty ironic, because I don't believe I ever miss a woman's heaving bosom when it's peaking up and out over a too-low-cut top. Upon my arrival at Saffron Guest House in Johannesburg and Poyser Guest Suites in Cape Town, I was actually distracted from the gorgeous scenery around me because the women who checked me into both were attired in such a way that my eyes kept popping back to the grand canyons slightly down below.

I wondered if they feel that same way about bras that I do about tighty whities, boxers shorts and boxer briefs, none of which offer me much comfort while providing support. If they're not clumping up under my trousers, disrupting my clean lines, they're riding up into nether regions where the sun doesn't shine. Bras have always looked similarly uncomfortable and confining to me. Alas, after that John Hamm article, going au natural is out of the question, except for when I'm home alone. I'd always thought of underwear as being a strictly hygienic measure, but I now realize that it's about hiding a multitude (if you're lucky) of sins, too. My skin color already, um, raises enough burning questions. (Is it true what they say about black men?) Do I really need to arouse more?

2. Have I lost the will to party? Last night my friend Adriaan took me out on the town not only for the first time since I arrived in Cape Town but for the first time since about two weeks into my stint in Tel Aviv. I'd almost forgotten how brutal nightlife can be the morning after, which surely wasn't the case for at least one of our party companions, a 41-year-old recent arrival in Cape Town from Kentucky who told me he'd never had a hangover in his life. At first I was jealous, until I realized that hangovers were probably the one thing preventing me from falling into full-on alcoholism during my terrible twenties and thirties. It takes me too long to recover from a weekend of drinking to ever turn it into a nightly, much less, daily, habit.

But even if it weren't for hangovers, I'd rather stay in. It's not like I'd be missing anything new. Judging from the evidence I saw last night, the gay scene in Cape Town isn't much different from the gay scene in any of the other cities I've gone out in these past few months, only the drinks are cheaper (25 ZAR, or about $2.50 for an Amstel Light), and the bars seem to be more segregated. Blacks in one corner (Zer021), whites in the other (Crew). Unlike the two separate-but-equal main stories of DJ Station in Bangkok (locals and the foreigners who love them on the ground floor, foreigners and the locals who want them above), going back and forth between Zer021 and Crew, only a few blocks apart, wasn't an option in last night's pouring rain.

It was interesting to see how both sides party, separately. At Zer021, under way too-harsh lighting (or maybe the sparser crowd just made it appear to be brighter inside), they were selling communion over sex. At Crew, hunky under-clad bartenders, all white, most of them blond, smiled and strutted in slow motion behind the bar. At both, the same tired dance-pop provided the soundtrack.

Despite the laughter and the excellent company, I didn't love either place. When I woke up, I was thankful that a rainy Saturday (and a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of continued rain) would give me the perfect excuse to stay in later, which never would have been the case years ago, when the most violent nor'easter wouldn't have kept me out of Starlight on a Friday or Saturday night. Even if tonight were to bring clear skies and perfect going-out weather, I'd have no desire to return to either Zer021 or Crew. That king-size bed with all of the pillows on top is looking too comfortable. I'd rather be under its covers tonight and every other night of the week.

3. Is Cape Town really Melbourne with mountains? I've been saying it since my arrival, and last night, after I told a local where I live part-time, he said it, too. An African performance artist who was about to begin a two-week gig in Paris, he was well-traveled enough to immediately peg my American accent as Caribbean, and he had the pop savvy to recognize Rihanna as the most influential woman on the charts right now.

I'd add Cape Town's considerably lower cost of living to the shortlist of differences, but Cape Town is so Melbourne, which might be part of the reason why I immediately took to it. There's the quaint, colonial toy-story architecture style of Tamboerskloof and Garden, which reminds me so much of South Yarra (Long Street is Toorak Road with black people), the Atlantic Ocean view at the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront, which screams St. Kilda Beach, the excellent dining options, and the Woolworths supermarkets, but there's something more intangible, too, that I can't quite pinpoint.

Then there's my apartment here. The thick walls produce a springtime chill that tempts me to turn on the thermostat, much as the ones in my South Yarra place on the slope of Darling Street did last summer. I may be borderline freezing on the slopes of Signal Hill, miles away from anything I'd previously known, but it sure feels like home.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My First Impressions of Cape Town


Cape Town, no doubt, has heard that before (along with the ooh's and the aah's). She's seen it, too, the same old expression (eyes bugging, jaws dropping to the ground) every time someone new lands in her ample bosom. Though she probably appreciates the appreciation, she doesn't need our awe. She knows how stunning she is.

But what are we supposed to do? Cape Town's mountainous cityscape made for perhaps my most visually arresting landing ever -- and I didn't even catch a glimpse of the water that surrounds her from my exit-row aisle seat in the descending aircraft. Surely she understands that when a city nestles herself in such a prime location between an ocean and mountains -- as Rio, which could pass for her sister, or at least a first cousin, has done -- her appearance won't elicit mere sighs of approval.

"When you grow up here, do you ever stop looking around and going "Wow," I asked Karen, the roommate of my friend Dolores who picked me up at Cape Town International Airport. The drive to my apartment in Tamboerskloof was so breathtaking -- the geological upswells (Table Mountain, unlike, say, the Sydney Opera House, looks even more spectacular in person, at close range), the edge of the deep blue sea (technically, the Atlantic Ocean) and beyond -- Cape Town quickly trumped Krabi in Southern Thailand as having the most stunning introductory scenery of any place I've ever landed in (despite the corrugated squalor of the township we passed en route to Tamboerskloof). How was Karen even managing to keep her eyes on the road?

"I'm from Zimbabwe," she replied. "But for my first 10 years here, that's exactly what I did. It's such drama."

She'd taken the word right out of my mind. The first thing that had popped into it after landing, when I once again had been able to form coherent thoughts was "What a drama queen!" Cape Town must revel in the over-the-top affection and attention showered on her by everyone who visits. If jaded world travelers approach her thinking they've seen it all before, what glee she must derive from proving them wrong.

My home for the next month is located in the mountains of Tamboerskloof, an area in Cape Town's so-called "City Bowl," an amphitheatre-shaped cluster of neighborhoods surrounding the northernmost part of Table Mountain. Poyser Guest Suites is at the top of a steep slope heading toward Signal Hill.

You know you've arrived when you see three donkeys milling around by the entrance gate. It feels like the middle of nowhere, yet it's only 200 meters or so from the bustle of Kloof Street and Buitengracht. Alas, you must descend a steep incline of 45 degrees to get to Tamboerskloof's city life. I was looking forward to the exercise, having to earn my trips to civilization and back home again, the challenging morning runs that lay before me.

While jogging, I'd just have to remember to keep my eyes focused ahead, which has turned out to be as great a running challenge as getting up and down that hill, with all of the incredible scenery vying for my attention. Cape Town, or at least my little part of it, is unlike anything I've seen before, yet it feels somewhat familiar. The area around Milner and Buitengracht and going down to Kloof, which runs parallel to Buitengracht, has a quaint, colonial, toy-story feel that reminds me of South Yarra, one of my three Melbourne stomping grounds. No one would ever confuse Melbourne for Cape Town, but it was also the last city to grab me so immediately.

The one city of which Cape Town doesn't remind me at all is Johannesburg. In some ways, the two don't even seem to belong to the same country. Johannesburg was such a rich, cultural experience (the Jerusalem of South Africa to Cape Town's Tel Aviv). My final night in town, when I walked into Sophiatown Bar Lounge, a restaurant on 7th Street in Melville that was hosting a live vocal-jazz band, I felt like I was entering a scene straight out of the Harlem Renaissance.

I'm still trying to process the differences between South Africa's two best-known and two largest cities, but I suspect that had I not spent time in Johannesburg first, South Africa wouldn't have inspired the same enlightenment and evolution within me. Two days in, Cape Town's appeal seems to be more visual than cultural. Aside from the Melbourne connection, I'm still having a difficult time pegging the city and the people in it. Thus far, nothing about it appears to be quintessentially African, though I'm certain that side will eventually reveal itself to me.

"Tamboerskloof is nice. Very white, but nice," someone -- an American expat who has been living in Cape Town for 10 years and who, of course, is white -- declared when I mentioned the part of the city in which I'm staying.

I'd noticed the same thing, but something about the context in which he said "very white," like it was such a negative thing, troubled me. Would I be missing out on blackness by staying here, despite the fact that I live with blackness 24/7, regardless of where I am? Or should I take my blackness elsewhere because fraternizing with white people, him included, was beneath me?

Ok, maybe I was overreacting. I knew what he was getting at, but if a black person in New York City for the first time was staying in Harlem, and he, or she, met a longtime Upper East Sider who said, "Harlem is nice, very black, but nice" (as if its niceness was in spite of its blackness), how would that go over? To me, it sounded like reverse racism, words one might hear from someone who was in recovery from white liberal guilt or from someone who would consider himself to be color blind, even if color was always the first thing he saw when he looked at anyone.

He also said that Johannesburg "is more of a proud African city than Cape Town is," which makes a lot of sense. But regardless of how I feel about the atrocities committed by white South Africans against black South Africans during Apartheid (and ongoing attempts since then to sweep that blight on South Africa's checkered past under the proverbial rug), both are legitimate parts of South Africa's history and the country's current cultural fabric, even if one doesn't necessarily reflect what it means to be "proudly African." I hope to experience more of that when I eventually make it to places like Rwanda and Mozambique, but it's not what I was expecting from Cape Town. That said, I don't believe I'm getting less of a proudly South African experience in Tamboerskloof or in Cape Town, just a different one.

Perhaps my new acquaintance simply prefers to be surrounded by black and "coloured" people, which would be fair enough. To each his own -- or the opposite of his own. (I'm still trying to decipher the meaning of "coloured" in the South African context. It's an official ethnic designation that has nothing to do with "colored" in the context of the United States from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era, yet to me it seems as inclusive and vague, and therefore as meaningless, as "Asian.")

I was exhausted, and with all that I'd seen in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg still fresh in my mind, I was particularly sensitive to racially charged comments, even ones that seemed to be made in favor of non-whites. But I didn't pursue a debate. His words, though, made me wonder about similar comments I'd heard from other people in the past, in places like Bangkok and New York City.

When does "white" become such an undesirable thing? Did it qualify as one here because we're in Africa? I don't want my experiences in this part of the world to be entirely political and/or colored by color. No, I probably won't be having any 1920s jazz flashbacks walking up and down (literally) the streets of Tamboerskloof, but then I don't have them walking through Melbourne, a lily-white (and increasingly Asian) city that's still my third-favorite in the world.

I've never had a problem with being surrounded by white people. It's only when they treat me like an exotic alien that I grow weary of them. But so far I've seen enough black people in Tamboerskloof and the areas around it (Bo-Kaap, De Waterkant and Gardens) -- indeed, the clientele at my new gym, Zone Fitness on Strand Street, is 98 percent black -- to keep me from feeling like the novelty, to not interrupt my ongoing personal South African evolution.

But we'll see how I see things a few days, weeks, or possibly months from now. I'm looking forward to discovering where South Africa takes me next. And I couldn't have asked for a more stunning backdrop.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Coming to Terms with the Skin I'm In: How South Africa Is Already Changing My Life

It's now been four and a half days since my arrival in South Africa, and already, I can feel the stirring of a profound evolution deep inside my soul. It's percolating, bubbling under, almost certain to eventually erupt in a big bang of mental and emotional transformation.

It began with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on Friday afternoon, around the time that I was fully engrossed in the exhibit dedicated to Ernest Cole's House of Bondage, transfixed by images I'd never seen before but looked strangely familiar. As I stood there with tears welling up in my eyes, I felt this unsettling sense of deja vu. I'd seen those images before, not the exact same pictures, but ones just like them. (Not all of them black-themed either, for I couldn't stop thinking of the white Dust Bowl family in Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" when I saw Cole's depiction of a black Apartheid mother and child in House of Bondage.)

I've been bombarded with them all my life -- in stories I've been told, in chapters of history books I've read, on pages that I've pored over in encyclopedias, in movies that I've sat through uncomfortably (most recently, The Butler), all of which revolved around Civil Rights in the United States. Interestingly, the travesties of the Civil Rights era on one side of the world were being committed concurrently with the travesties of Apartheid on the other side of the world, as depicted in Cole's photos.

I suddenly felt connected to South Africa, to Africa, in a way I was always told I was supposed to, because I'm black, because this is where my ancestors came from. Well, if history is to be believed, this is where all of our ancestors originated, whether we're white or black. From what I've been hearing from various local sources, including Solly, the driver who took me to the Apartheid Museum, the cradle of mankind is within driving distance of Johannesburg, roughly one hour away.

As I stood looking at the black-and-white photo of the little boy melting in the sweltering heat of the classroom, struggling to concentrate, I saw myself. I never had to study under those conditions, but I felt as if I knew exactly how he felt -- awkward, uncomfortable, stifled, eager to learn. I wondered where he is now. If he is now. An old but new thought crept into my mind: We are the world. We are one world. For the first time in my life, Africa truly felt like the mother land. It had nothing to do with black pride and everything to do with what I saw in the eyes of that little boy: myself.

If nothing else, I expect my time in South Africa (which will be at least one more month, but likely longer) to be a time of intense healing and self-acceptance. The latter because I'm already beginning to feel more comfortable in my own skin. It's partly because for the first time in years, when a non-black person looks at me for too long, I actually will have to wonder why. It won't be because they so seldom see people with my coloring. It won't be out of curiosity (Is it true what they say about black men?). It will likely be for something that's uniquely me and belongs to me only.

That's the self-acceptance part, which is already beginning to be be overshadowed by the healing. That part actually has nothing to do with white people and everything to do with black people, with whom I've had a life-long complicated relationship. It began when I was 4 years old, and my family moved from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the U.S. mainland, in Kissimmee, Florida. We eventually settled in an all-black neighborhood, and despite the physical similarities I shared with our neighbors, I probably wouldn't have felt more like an outsider had we ended up in the whitest community in town.

The racism I felt coming from a certain segment of Kissimmee's white population while I was growing up couldn't compare to the racism and xenophobia I often encountered from portions of the American black community that resented my entire family and me because we were black and foreign -- "noisy Jamaicans," they called us, pejoratively (more for the second word than the first), apparently because to them, the Caribbean equaled the land of reggae and Rastafarianism. (Some day I'll have to explore the relationship between American blacks and Jamaica, which has always struck me as being somewhat uneasy, considering that in the U.S., reggae has always seemed to be more embraced by whites than by blacks.)

We spoke with strange accents, and we kept to ourselves. Who did we think we were? What did we think we were: better than them?

When I was in first grade and people asked me where I was from because of the funny way I spoke (coming from me, the number three sounded like "tree," and at the hardly ripe young age of 6, I still couldn't tell the difference), I sometimes lied and said the Virginia Islands, hoping they wouldn't realize that no such thing exists. I was too ashamed to say the Virgin Islands. I wanted to fit in, and if the way I talked was going to lead to my being singled out in a negative way by some of my black classmates (interestingly, I can't recall a single white kid ever ridiculing me for that), at least I could come from a place that wasn't so exotic, one that was associated with a U.S. state.

The white racism directed toward me while I was growing up was contained to strictly verbal cut-downs. It never touched me physically. "I smell nigger" coming from rednecks on the playground messed with my 11-year-old psyche in dangerous ways, but the black-on-black racism left physical as well as emotional scars. It scared me so much more. When they weren't sure that their words were getting to me, the black kids who picked on me started picking up sticks and stones.

The physical bruises healed, but the emotional ones never did completely. It wasn't until I went to college at the University of Florida in Gainesville that I finally escaped the emotional and physical cruelty. For the first time in my life, the majority of black Americans I met accepted me and didn't make fun of me. If I eventually overcame the fear and resentment of black people that was borne from the way some of them treated me in my youth, I never forgot it completely. It continued to haunt me, contributing to the racism that I harbored toward my fellow (black) man. (Yes, I choose to own it because, as James Baldwin suggested in Notes on a Native Son, it's immoral not to.)

But in South Africa, being around such a large and diverse black population, I sense something shifting inside my soul. I feel a certain camaraderie with my fellow blacks here, a comfort around them that I've never felt around blacks anywhere else. I don't know if they are able to look at me and tell that I'm from somewhere else, but when I open my mouth to speak, I can't imagine they would ever ridicule the accent that I never quite lost. They speak English with an exotic accent, too!

That's not to say that they don't acknowledge our cultural differences -- when Solly was explaining to me the housing situation in Johannesburg and he used the word "ghetto," he started to explain what a "ghetto" is and seemed surprised that I already knew -- but so far, it's been done with the utmost respect and acceptance. I don't know how far that respect and acceptance will extend into other aspects of who I am, but the fact that I've seen several gay couples walking down 7th Street, holding hands, without onlookers so much as flinching, is encouraging.

Of course, being that I'm a creature of contradiction (beginning with the dueling introvert and extrovert sides of my personality), no profound evolution would be complete without a little bit of contradiction sprinkled on top. With my burgeoning newfound appreciation and acceptance of my skin color has come a different kind of awareness of it. It creeps up on me every time I sit down in a restaurant here. Most of the waiters who have served me in Johannesburg have been black, and on 7th Street in Melville when I go from restaurant to restaurant and I see the mostly black staff, it's hard for me not to feel pangs of guilt.

Are the owners, like the ones at Lucky Bean beside Saffron Guest House, white? Do the black employees commute to and from the townships to earn minimal wages? Who are the invisible occupants of all the beautiful homes in Melville? In my new black fantasy (the first one I've enjoyed since Django Unchained), the black employees work for black bosses who go home at night to the houses here.

I hate that I'm even thinking along these lines, which is something I never did in the United States because the division of labor in the restaurants I went to there didn't appear to be determined along white-black color lines. Most of the people who served me were white, and I never wondered where they lived.

It doesn't matter that the clientele in most of the places in Melville is largely black as well, though it matters more when the clientele is mostly white. Sadly, I'll leave Johannesburg tomorrow, before I can understand why the white people in Melville flock to certain places on 7th Street and not to others, which is one more reason to hate this looming color awareness. Why does it even matter to me?

I'm still trying to process this aspect of my current evolutionary process and what I can only describe as my personal version of white liberal guilt, the seeds of which may have been planted on the way back from the Apartheid Museum when Solly explained the difficulties that blacks continue to face when applying for white-collar work. I never thought liberal guilt looked particularly good on white people, and it's not doing me any favors.

I'm owning it, though, which might the first step in conquering it. I hope that my ongoing evolution in South Africa will lead not only to complete comfort in my own skin but perhaps, at last, it won't matter to me what color anyone else's is either.