Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Have I Been Working on my Fitness All Wrong?

"My body stay vicious
I be up in the gym
Just working on my fitness."
-- Fergie, "Fergalicious"

Physical fitness has been a cornerstone of my life for two decades now. Ever since that day in 1994 when I joined the New York Heath & Racquet Club in New York City at a monthly rate of $100 (50 percent of which was paid by Time Inc., my then-employer), partly because I was told that John F. Kennedy Jr. was a member, I've gone only two months without a gym membership.

There was the month I spent in Rome last year, followed by the following month I spent in Tel Aviv. Not that I slacked off: Even during that gym-free period, I went running around town at least three or four times a week (and in Tel Aviv, I used the outdoor beach-side free gym, too).

You'd think that after 20 years of such dedication, I'd be an expert on my own physiology, but as I learned today during my one-hour complimentary training session with James at 360 Specialized Training in Woodstock, in the gym, I've only skimmed the surface of what I can do and should be doing -- and from only the waist up! Unlike my three-times-a-week weight-training regimen at Zone Fitness, the functional training in which 360 specializes focuses on the body rather than equipment. Among the things I learned:

1. I'm as wobbly as a Weeble. I've always been clumsy. Falling down has been a normal part of my daily routine for as long as I can remember. It's not unusual for me to lose my balance when I'm standing still. That might be part of the reason why I've never bothered to make lunges a regular part of my workout. Once a week, on abs day, I do three sets of 15 reps of a squat in which I stand with my feet shoulder width apart and hold an 18-kilo barbell in each hand. I then bend my body so that I'm in the seated position and return to standing.

It's one of my least favorite things that I do every week, but judging from how sore my ass and the back of my thighs feel for at least 24 hours after doing it, I've always assumed that I was doing my body good. After today's training session, though, I'm convinced that if James were to see me in action, he'd never let me do it again.

"Chest out." "Shoulders back." "Posture erect." "Keep your knees straight ahead, don't bend them in." "Don't fall down." Nothing I'd been doing all these years with those 18-kilo weights had prepared me for doing squats and lunges James's way (the right way?), using weight balls and kettlebells (the latter of which Ben, a trainer at Fit n Fast in Melbourne, introduced me to three years ago). I could barely get through five lunges on both sides. Doing each one was a major challenge, completing them a huge triumph.

Verdict: It felt great to get it right (the few times I did), but I work out in part to clear my head, which is easier to do when I don't have to concentrate too much on what I'm doing. I think I prefer my workout to be tough but a little mindless. If I'm putting as much effort into memorizing the choreography as I am into the performing the physical task (which was occasionally a problem I had with Pilates, with its added emphasis on breathing correctly, which, thankfully, James never brought up), something is definitely off.

2. Running is not the same thing as working out your legs. Ever since I started running about a month after moving to Buenos Aires, I've figured that my jogging routine was sufficient aerobic exercise and doing more for my legs that working them out in the gym ever could. After all, spending 90 minutes to two hours two or three times a week running from my apartment in Gardens to Sea Point and back again, or running through the hills of Tamboerskloof and under Table Mountain and Devil's Peak, as I've done for the last five and a half months in Cape Town,  is not exactly for the faint-hearted or weak-limbed.

But as James told me today, I'm testing and building my endurance and applying regular pressure to my knees, but I'm not actually working out my legs. And all of these years I've been shaking my head at those top-heavy guys who don't care about their spindly walking sticks! Apparently, I'm no better than they are. Thankfully, though, it wasn't my spindly walking sticks but my lack of balance that gave me away to James.

"Do you work out your legs?" he asked, after I wobbled over for the fifth or sixth time, as if he already knew the answer. I proudly told him about my running routine, expecting a gold star. Instead, I received another lecture that once again got me to rethinking my entire fitness regimen.

Verdict: Maybe it's time to start working my legs into my gym routine. According to James, not only will it help me to build up my endurance on the road, but it could possibly protect me from potentially debilitating injuries later.

3. I love my independence, but when it comes to working out, misery does love company. Not that I'm miserable when I work out, but there's something about another person that pushes me harder. I wouldn't have gotten through four and a half years of Pilates in Buenos Aires without a personal trainer (first, Ezekiel, then Pamela, and finally, Laurentio) to show me the moves and keep me going. To this day, I still can't do Pilates in any language other than Spanish!

In Bangkok, I had my most productive aerobic days when I went with my sometime running partner Sylvia. I'll never forget the conversation we had after our first time.

Sylvia: "That was a great run. You really made me push myself. I had to work extra hard to keep up with you."

Me: "Wait. I don't normally go that fast. I was trying to keep up with you."

I'm hoping that James might have the same effect on me. When I get back to Cape Town after spending my birthday week in Namibia, my plan is to train with him for one hour per week for one month at 360's new expanded digs in Woodstock, where they're moving next week. If I like the progress I'm making, I will commit to something longer term (three months, which, for me, is huge).

By the end of today's hour-long session, I had pretty much given up on ever getting those squats and lunges right, but James promised to develop a program for me that emphasizes the things I'm more comfortable doing. If he can help me to finally get my balance right while we're at it, I will consider it to be 600 rand per month (which works out to about $14 a session) very well spent.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

6 Things I'm Loving Right Now (Part 1)

1. Röyksopp & Robyn For those who think "The Girl and the Robot" might be the best thing either of them ever did (like me), May 26 can't get here quickly enough. That's when the Scandinavian smash-up will release the EP Do It Again. Hopefully, they will -- again and again and again -- because judging from the 1:37 snippet of "Monument" that's currently available on YouTube, five songs won't be nearly enough.

2. Chic Gamine Four girls and a guy who sound like an avant-garde barbershop quartet with a jazzy soul (the ladies sing, the boy bangs the drums) and who collectively offer another reason to hail Canada. I haven't bought anything on iTunes in years, but I went straight to the store to make a 99-cent purchase after hearing their song "Pale Chic" playing in the background during AJ Quartermaine's funeral on the April 23 episode of General Hospital. As far as I know, you can't find it anywhere else.

3. Lagare Cape Vintage Although everyone I know seems to prefer it, red red wine (both the song and the liquid) has never been my thing, for a number of reasons: 1) It's too bitter. 2) It's too thick and heavy. 3) It gets me tipsy too quickly. 4) It turns my lips an odd shade of dark red that renders them less kissable. 5) When it spills -- and it always does -- it leaves a stain. I'd never bought a bottle of it that wasn't for someone else, until Wednesday at Beyerskloof winery in Stellenbosch when I purchased the Lagare Cape Vintage for 90 rand (about $9). I've never particularly cared for chocolate either, but the Lagare, the eighth and final selection during the Beyerskloof tasting, was like the wine equivalent of chocolate, which, ironically, made me love it. I'm even considering taking the sommelier's suggestion and pouring it over a scoop of ice cream, which, also ironically, I've never had much use for either.

4. Hot in Cleveland 's fifth season This is the closest we're likely ever to get to another Golden Girls. But while I sometimes had to wonder if older women like Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia would actually be friends in real life, the ties that bind on TV Land's Ohio-based sitcom knot so effortlessly (and with a paucity of the sentimental sap that made Golden Girls episodes like the one in the homeless shelter borderline unbearable --  note the absence of a hokey theme song, too), I would have a hard time believing that the actresses who play Melanie, Joy, Victoria and Elka (Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and original Golden Girl Betty White, respectively) aren't friends in real life.

5. AT 40 Chart Store Now I can revisit the radio show that most defined my youth, thanks to the website that sells high-quality downloads of old '70s and '80s three-hour episodes of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 for $1.19. If you're of a certain age, nothing will make you feel young again like hearing Casey Kasem say "Van Halen is the name of the group. They're newcomers. It's their first hit. They're at No. 38 with "You Really Got Me" (on the March 11, 1978 show, which was the first one I downloaded). I dropped 36 years right then and there!

6. 45 Now that I've settled comfortably into my current decade, the thought up moving up another year no longer fills me with dread. Look how good my soon to be new age looks on Jennifer Aniston! We'll see how I feel when I wake up in Namibia (where I'll be spending my birthday week) on May 7.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Wednesday in Wine Country: A Sip of Pinotage and a Taste of How South Africans Really Feel About Americans

During my nearly eight years living abroad, I've spent so much time sighing over preconceptions about black men and misconceptions about gay people that one of my other distinguishing expat characteristics has often gone lost in the shuffle inside my head.

Yes, folks. My name is Jeremy Helligar, and I'm an American.

To be honest, I seldom admit it outright. I realized this yesterday during a wine-tasting excursion at several vineyards in Stellenbosch. Nearly all of my fellow tasters seemed to be from Germany -- not Cologne, not Düsseldorf, not any of the country's myriad well-known cities (no European country outside of Italy has more of them), at least not until someone (usually me) prodded them to name their specific city of origin.

I've noticed that about travelers and expats abroad. Unless they're from London, their geographical allegiance is usually to a country rather than to a city. Any German will tell you that Berliners are unique, highly unlike Germans outside of the capital, and they'll list the attributes that differentiate various German cities and regions and the people who live in them. But at the end of the day, they're all Germans first.

Ditto Australians (despite the ongoing Sydney vs. Melbourne rivalry), including the bartender at The Power and the Glory in Cape Town, who probably figured I'd never heard of the Gold Coast. How was she to know that I sometimes live in Melbourne part-time? Then there was the young Parisian couple that I first spotted on the train from Cape Town to Stellenbosch with whom I ended up spending the entire day. When asked by anyone where they were from, they always said France.

Americans are different, though. Most of them will answer the name of a major city or of one of the 50 states before saying "I'm from the United States" because, presumably, being from Iowa and being from San Francisco are such completely different things, not unlike being from Portugal and being from Belgium. Americans abroad will proudly call themselves "American," but they won't necessarily say they're from "America."

It wasn't until yesterday that I noticed that in conversation with strangers, the words "America" and "United States" rarely leave my lips either, as doesn't "I'm American." Where am I from? "New York City... I'm a New Yorker." I announce it proudly and defiantly, almost like I'm daring anyone to consider me anything else, despite the fact that I haven't been in NYC since 2010, and I haven't lived there since four years before that. I'm probably subconsciously trying to prevent people from forming any more preconceptions and misconceptions about me than necessary. Don't most people from other countries think of the United States and New York City as two separate entities?

For years, it's worked. Usually I've been able to bask in the universal admiration for New York City, the greatest show on earth, and sidestep most of those pesky stereotypes about Americans who are from anywhere but there. Then yesterday in wine country I met my driver, a middle-aged man of mixed ancestry who may have been the first South African I've encountered who was not impressed by my adopted city of origin.

"Oh," he said, his voice suddenly turning somber. "Are you OK? Is everything alright over there?"

"Over where? In New York?"

"In America. Is everything okay?"

"Why wouldn't everything be okay?" I thought maybe I'd missed some breaking news while I was en route from Cape Town to Stellenbosch.

"I've heard that things are very bad there. Very bad. It's almost like being in a country run by communists. The government controls everything, and they're taking away all of the people's rights. Things are supposed to be very bad over there." He was talking like it was some imaginary hell, a figment of someone's nightmare.

"Well, it's not perfect, that's for sure. But unless something happened in the last few hours, people there aren't suffering any more than usual."

He didn't appear to be convinced. I prayed he would drop the subject -- the French couple looked concerned for my well-being! -- but he just getting started.

"And what about the people there? Are they like they are on Jerry Springer?"


"Jerry Springer. You know that show?"

"Yeah, I do. But what does he have to do with Americans?"

"Well, you have to understand: We get shows like Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake and all of your talk shows in South Africa, so that is the way a lot of us who have never been to the United States see real Americans."

I was horrified. I'd always thought that people abroad thought badly about Americans because of George W. Bush (as had been the case in Palestine last year), or the haughty behavior of Americans on holiday (as is typically the case in Europe), or just out of habit (see Brits and Australians). It never dawned on me that those loud, obnoxious Americans on TV shows like Trisha and Cheaters (both of which I discovered in Cape Town), the ones who think nothing of airing all of their dirty laundry while the cameras are rolling, might be the ones who are setting a standard by which all Americans are judged.

I wanted to tell him that those people are nothing like me. I'm well-educated, I have perfect grammar, and if I want to air my dirty laundry, I do it in writing, not on reality TV. But I didn't bother to say anything in defense of Americans, which of course, led to an afternoon of accusations.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, genuinely concerned, when he picked up our group after the tasting at Beyerskloof, the first winery. "I know how Americans like to drink too much. They usually end up getting sick and acting really crazy."

"Wait: Are you confusing us with the Brits and the Aussies."

"No, Americans are always drunk, aren't they?"

I wasn't yet, but he was making me want to be.

At Simonsig, the second winery, a group of us -- the French couple, a German couple, a German soloist and me, the New Yorker -- enjoyed a 45-minute sit-down lunch during which everyone talked about places they'd been to on this and previous holidays. (Do strangers in strange lands ever talk about anything else amongst themselves? Get them together, and it's like everything in the world outside of travel ceases to exist.) When we were finished, the driver was outside waiting for us.

"Did you have enough to eat?" he asked, looking directly at me. "I know our portions here are very small. In America, they're so big. Everyone there eats so much. It must be really hard to come here and eat our tiny portions."

Well, at least he didn't call Americans -- and by extension, me -- fat, but I was still hoping he'd move on to something else, and after the sit-down tasting at Delheim, the third and last winery of the day, he did.

"Do you know George Zimmerman?"

Ah, finally! What would a conversation in South Africa be without race entering into it? Interestingly, as much as I've discussed Trayvon Martin in other cities and countries and as frequently as race has crept into my conversations in Cape Town, it was the first time last year's big international U.S. story had come up since my arrival in South Africa last November. I'd spent so much of the afternoon hearing Americans this and Americans that, I'd almost forgotten that I'm black, too, which might have been a first for me.

Although the Pinotage that had gone to my head made it a less hospitable environment for the contemplation of weighty matters, at the very least, I knew I wasn't in for an "Americans are racist" screed. No South African could possibly defend a statement like that with a straight face.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why the Top of the Pops Is Losing Me

Thank God I wasn't born after my time.

If I were a tween today, what a different one I'd be from the one I was circa 1981, when my obsession with Billboard magazine's weekly charts pretty much ruled my world -- or at least my weekends. If I wasn't begging for a ride to Record Mart at Mill Creek Mall in Kissimmee, Florida, to check out the latest Billboard Hot 100 list that was always posted over the singles display (pre-Cassingles, when they were still in the 45-inch vinyl-record format), furiously writing down Nos. 1 through 40 so that I could copy them neatly to my loose-leaf folder at home, I was sending my big brother Jeff to do it for me.

Or I was hitching a ride to Newsstand, a books and magazines store in another strip mall that always stocked the latest issues of Billboard. (What a wonderful year 1984 was, for I had a subscription to Billboard and no longer had to depend on the kindness of family members with wheels.) Or I was spending three hours every Saturday and Sunday afternoon listening, respectively, to Bob Kingsley's "American Country Countdown" and "American Top 40," hosted by Casey Kasem, my childhood hero. No wonder they still call me "The Chart King"!

The music charts, particularly Billboard's Hot 100, were like another world back then, as exciting as the daytime soaps with which I was concurrently obsessed. (Casey Kasem sure knew how to spin a chart cliffhanger!) The charts were as suspenseful as the soaps, too: Would the latest singles by the biggest stars make it to the Top 10, or would they run out of steam before their arrival in the upper echelon, unsuspectingly leapfrogged over by some out-of-nowhere hit that nobody saw coming.

I still get goosebumps thinking about that Sunday in 1982 when "Heart Attack" by Olivia Newton-John jumped from No. 39 to No. 13, en route to No. 3. (Bonus points for anyone who gets the mathematical pattern of that scenario. Hint: 13 X 3 = 39.) Or the one that same year when "Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye was a Top 40 debut at No. 19 (also en route to No. 3).

Back then, pre-1991, when chart placings were determined not electronically via Nielsen SoundScan but by easily manipulated radio and retail reportage and therefore more vulnerable to record-label subterfuge, making them possibly as fictional as the soaps (though I had no idea at the time), superhuman jumps and sky-high debuts were far rarer than they are today. Every so often you'd have a "Physical" or a "Bette Davis Eyes" or an "Endless Love," songs that seemed to park themselves at the top of the Hot 100 forever (9 to 10 weeks), but usually there was enough turnover at the top to keep things engrossing.

What a difference three decades has made. If I were 30 years younger today, I'd probably take one glance at the Top 10 and demand, "Take me out to the ball game. Please!" Up until recently, I'd never let a Thursday go by without checking for the coming week's official charts as soon as they were posted. I gave up writing them down in loose-leaf folders decades ago, but I never stopped following them religiously. General Hospital may have fallen by the wayside for years at a time, but the Hot 100 never did.

Now that I am back on my GH kick, I've slacked off considerably on my chart watching. One is so much more compelling than the other. I sometimes don't bother to check the Hot 100 until the weekend, or a week later, and I often don't make it lower than the 30s. Unlike GH, if you miss an episode -- er, a week -- you hardly miss a thing. (I guess you can say it's sort of like Days of Our Lives that way, though I'm still loving Days a lot more.)

In recent years especially, the Hot 100 has become like the slowest-moving soap, with the same characters taking up all of the airtime and very little advancement of story. Back in 1981 when Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" spent a record-setting 10 weeks at No. 2, held out of the top spot for nine of them by Newton-John's "Physical," which held down the summit for 10 weeks, it was a major event. Songs rarely spent that long at No. 1, much less at No. 2, making "Waiting" an instant classic.

These days, though, it seems songs regularly enter the Top 5 and take up residence there for months, occasionally trading positions with another track that's also been there for months. For the last four weeks, the Top 3 songs have been, in descending order, "Happy" by Pharrell Williams, "All of Me" by John Legend and "Dark Horse" by Katy Perry featuring Juicy J, and the entire Top 7 has been unchanged for three weeks, a record in the Hot 100's 55-year history. Once upon a time, an unchanged Top 3 for three weeks would have been ground-breaking front-page news. In 2014, it's just another three weeks in the Top 5.

So far this year, as of the chart week ending April 26, only four songs have reached the Hot 100 summit: "The Monster" by Eminem featuring Rihanna (2 weeks), "Timber" by Pitbull featuring Kesha (3 weeks), "Dark Horse" (4 weeks) and "Happy" (8 weeks and counting). Two of them are currently in the Top 3, making 2014 so far one of the most static years in the history of Billboard's Hot 100. It's a trend that's been developing for a while now. During the first four months of 2013, five songs topped the charts, compared with seven in 2011 and 2012. In 1980, 17 singles went to No. 1. Last year, only 11 did.

Meanwhile, over in the UK, the situation is the complete opposite. There's always been considerably more turnover in the UK singles Top 10, but this year it's been practically unrecognizable from week to week, and not just because there so little overlap with the U.S. Top 10. Almost all of the artists who have topped the charts in 2014 are ones that most people had never heard of at this time in 2013 (in contrast, only one U.S. chart-topper, Juicy J, was a first-timer) and most of them may very well be forgotten by the same time next year.

In three and a half months, up to the chart dated April 13, a whopping 10 singles hit No. 1, and only three of them ("Timber," "Happy" and "Tsunami [Jump]") featured artists with significant chart pedigrees. Alongside Pitbull, Kesha, Pharrell and Tinie Tempah (a guest artist on "Tsunami" by DVBBS and Borgeous, neither of whom were even active before 2012), we've had Sam Smith, 5 Seconds of Summer, Sigma and Jess Glynne, the featured artist on No. 1s by Route 94 and Clean Bandit.

Meanwhile, recent singles by established acts like Coldplay, Lily Allen and Kylie Minogue have struggled, peaking in the lower reaches of the Top 10 or just outside of it. It's like a daytime soap overrun by newbies while the vets languish on the backburner (see General Hospital's recent death of Nina Clay storyline). The UK singles chart sure could use some more star power at the top!


While this might make it easy for a geezer like me to tune out and focus on other things, I wonder about the future of today's musical youth. In 30 years, when they look back on 2014 and talk about the good old days of music, when artists were more exciting and so were the charts, will they still be talking about the 1980s?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Is That Viagra in Your Medicine Cabinet or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."

"You are what you eat."

"What five things are always in your refrigerator?"

"Please pack up your knives and go."

Am I a terrible person for not giving a damn what people eat? Frankly, unless it's going directly into my mouth, food bores me almost as much as cats do -- and that includes pictures of it on Facebook and Instagram, which are right down there with YouTube videos starring cuddly felines.

Oh, please. I don't even care what the person sitting across from me in a restaurant is having. I never pay attention when my breakfast, lunch or dinner mate is ordering unless he or she is taking forever to decide or making a big fuss over ingredients and having everything done just right. One of my least favorite small-talk questions has always been "What did you have/are you having for lunch/dinner?" I mean, who the hell cares?!

I've always been much more fascinated by what people are hiding in their medicine cabinets. I think what's behind that closed door is far more revealing than what's always in the fridge. Your staple groceries might provide clues to what medical maladies lie in your future, but there's no better indicator of one's medical present than what's on the other side of that mirrored door.

Though I haven't snooped in someone else's medicine cabinet in years, probably since my early days in New York City, I never did it in search of inside information about anyone's medical state: Unless we're having unsafe sex, what's going on under your skin is between you and your doctor. I used to do it purely for entertainment purposes. I got a kick out of seeing what people were storing in there. Of course, those were the days before you were likely to find the really interesting stuff, especially little round pills whose names end in "-zepam" suffixes. To this day, I still don't even know what Viagra looks like, which I partly blame on the end of my bathroom-snooping ways.

Mostly, though, I blame my fear of having a heart attack right in the middle of a party in my pants. No erection would be worth my life. I can't say I've ever been even almost tempted to pursue a manufactured hard-on, though at least two people have offered to take me there. The first was a guy I went out with in Manila nearly three years ago. When he picked me up, he was horny-high on Cialis, which I believed to be B-list Viagra (see, that's how much of an expert I was/am on the subject), and he had more where that came from, in case I was interested. I politely declined, though I did accept the stack of Cialis pens he offered me. I still have them, though I've yet to use even one.

My second invitation to try the "hard" stuff arrived today via Whatsapp. Ironically, it came from someone who recently told me that he's going to Manila as part of his pre-40th-birthday celebration in June. He and I have been doing the Whatsapp mating dance for months, and this afternoon he invited me over to his place with the lure being not just his company but an arsenal of sexual enhancers, including Viagra. Last time I heard from him, he was suggesting we meet for coffee. What's with him and things I have no intention of trying?

An afternoon nap on my own couch was a bigger lure than what he was offering, but I'd be lying if I said I'm not now dying to know what's inside his medicine cabinet. It's the only place in his Devil's Peak apartment that I am picturing in my head, even though I'm sure the place is stunning, if the photos he once showed me of his place in Greyton are any indication. Who cares what he's having for dinner? I want to see what else he's been popping.

Maybe my lack of concern over what's going on in other people's refrigerators/kitchens has to do with the fact that my own eating habits are so lame. I don't cook, and my mother and future boyfriends aside, I don't care if nobody ever cooks for me again. Sometimes I wish we could all just take a nourishment pill and be done with it.

I basically eat the same foods every day, and the only thing that I ever keep in my fridge for more than a few hours is water and milk for my granola (a breakfast, lunch and dinner eating habit that I picked up with my first boyfriend, Derek, ditched for about two decades, and rediscovered last year in Tel Aviv). So if anyone were to judge me by what's always inside my refrigerator, they'd probably go away thinking "What an empty life" he must lead.

There are far better stories inside my medicine cabinet, none of which, by the way, would provide any significant clues to my current medical state or come in particularly useful in the case of an afternoon tryst.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Best Things in Life Are Three

"Two's company, three's a party." -- Dr. Liesl Obrecht, General Hospital

For someone who was born in Switzerland with German as a native tongue and spends much of her screen time on General Hospital making disparaging comments about the uselessness of Americans and their language, Dr. Liesl Obrecht has certainly taken the time to master both. She's an expert manipulator of the American legal system (at least as it's depicted in GH's fictional Port Charles, New York), and she knows how to use a language she didn't grow up speaking (though her portrayer, Kathleen Gati, is Canadian) to maximum dramatic and comedic effect.

Case in point: "Two's company, three's a party." That's not the saying, as Prince Nikolas Cassadine so astutely pointed out (oh, there's another word Obrecht would use: "astutely"!), but I prefer parties to crowds anyway, especially parties without crowds -- and mad gun-wielding doctors. Plus, I'm absolutely mad about the number three.

33 3's

1. Three natural Cape Town wonders: Signal Hill, Table Mountain and Lion's Head

2. The tri-state area: New York, New Jersey and Connecticut

3. Three's Company: My guiltiest childhood pleasure and all-time second-favorite TV sitcom (after The Golden Girls, before The Jeffersons)

4. Three colors: red, white and blue

5. Variations on three: trio, triple, triplets, trilogy, triumvirate, trinity and, of course, threesome

6. Threes in Greek Mythology: The Fates, The Gorgons, The Three Graces, Cerberus

7. Three brothers: Greek mythology's Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, Bee Gees, The Gap Band, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers Band, Hanson, The Isley Brothers (1991-96), The Jonas Brothers, The Brothers Karamazov, My Three Sons

8. Three sisters: August: Osage County, Charmed, Crimes of the HeartHanging Up, Hannah and Her SistersHocus Pocus, Interiors, The Sisters Rosensweig, The Andrew Sisters, The Emotions, The Pointer Sisters

9. Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Witches of Eastwick

10. Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton in The First Wives Club

11. The Three Faces of Eve

12. Return of the Jedi (aka Star Wars III, the only one of the original trilogy that I saw in the theater)

13. Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colors trilogy

14. Rocky III (for giving us Survivor, "Eye of the Tiger" and Mr. T)

15. Classical threes: The Three B's (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms), The Three Tenors

16. Goth Rock in three parts: Bauhaus vs. Tones on Tail vs. Love and Rockets

17. Trio: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt's 1987 masterpiece

18. Honky Tonk Angels: Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette's 1993 Trio wannabe

19. Three '70s soft-rock trios: America, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, Three Dog Night

20. Three '70s female trios: Labelle, Love Unlimited, The Three Degrees

21. '80s Pop trios: Bananarama, Crowded House, Genesis, Heaven 17, The Outfield, The Police

22. '80s Hip-hop trios: Run-D.M.C., Whodini, Beastie Boys, Salt-n-Pepa

23. Late-'80s Latin-freestyle trios: Exposé, Seduction, Sweet Sensation, Cover Girls

24. Late '80s-to-early '00s R&B/Pop vocal trios: Atomic Kitten, 3LW, 702, Blaque, Brownstone, Destiny's Child, Jade, Sugababes, SWV, TLC, Total, After 7, Bell Biv Devoe, H-Town, Levert, LFO, Next

25. Rock trios (1990-present): Ash, Blink-182, Everclear, Foster The People, Grant Lee Buffalo, Green Day, Keane (from Hopes and Fears to Night Train), Muse, Nirvana, Silverchair

26. Dixie Chicks

27. The O'Jays

28. The Supremes

29. Two guys and a girl: Deee-Lite, Digable Planets, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Loose Ends, Saint Etienne, Shalamar, Swing Out Sister, Thompson Twins

30. Three-hit wonders (click here)

31. Three and The Cure: Three Imaginary Boys, the then-trio's 1979 debut studio album, and "Three," track 5 on the band's 1980 follow-up album, Seventeen Seconds

32. "Three": Britney Spears' forgotten 2009 No. 1 hit

33. The Three Stooges

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

When Pop Stars Stop Dissing Each Other and Start Slamming Themselves

I've long lived to debate the finer points of music with people who don't necessarily share my taste in it. Sharleen Spiteri, lead singer of the Scottish band Texas, once told me that was how she met her then-boyfriend (and future father of her daughter), and I suppose I've always hoped to get lucky like that. But it's hard to argue in favor of the merit of a song or an album when the one who hates it is the one who made it?

David Bowie once told me that every album he did in the '80s -- from 1983's Let's Dance until his end-of-the-decade creatively rejuvenating Tin Machine collaboration -- he did for the money. Would that include such '80s-Bowie highlights as "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" (from Let's Dance) and "Day-In Day-Out" (from 1987's Never Let Me Down)? I'm afraid so, '80s-Bowie fans.

During the second of my three sit-downs with Mary J. Blige (quite possibly my second all-time favorite interview subject, after Bowie) in 2003, shortly before the release of Love & Life, she, too, disparaged her own work. When I asked her to critique her output up to that point, she stunned me by declaring her 1997 Share My World album the low light.

"What are you talking about?" I asked, incredulous and floored. "That album includes some of your strongest material: 'Round and Round,' 'Seven Days...' Those are incredible songs."

"Well, I'm glad you like them, but that doesn't mean I do, too." She was touched my generosity, but she was prepared to fight for what she didn't really believe in.

Olivia Newton-John was similarly unimpressed by herself when I interviewed her by phone in 1996, and the subject turned to "Soul Kiss," her 1985 Top 20 single and final U.S. Top 40 hit. It remains one of my favorite Olivia Newton-John singles, as much for the red-hot sultry song itself as for its red-hot sultry video, which featured Olivia, red-hot sultry in red, writhing around on a bed of red-hot sultry red. It was sexy in a way that "Physical" was too perky to be, more full-on scandalous than "A Little More Love," womanly in ways "Make a Move on Me" could only dream of. It was "Landslide" after several cocktails, "Tied Up" without any underwear on. More than a decade later, ONJ was still gasping.

"Today when I look at that video, I have no idea who that woman is," she said.

You can dismiss most negative reviews as the mad ramblings of frustrated artists-turned-critics, clueless civilian listeners or bitter fellow performers angling for publicity, but when musicians slam their own material, it carries a certain critical weight. Who was I to contradict Olivia, or argue with Mary (though I tried)? If anyone should know why he made 1984's dreadful (with the exception of "Blue Jean") Tonight album, it would be Bowie. So it wasn't my place to tell him that Let's Dance exists for any reason other than that it made him richer quick.

Unfortunately, I couldn't fight with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's Andy McCluskey either over what he had to say about The Pacific Age, his group's 1986 album, in Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s (told by the artists themselves!), a new page-turner of a book co-authored by my former Teen People and Us Weekly colleague Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein that comes out today. His comments so infuriated me that I went to bed angry the night I read the OMD chapter and almost vowed never to listen to the group's music again.

To be honest and considerably less dramatic, what he said pales in comparison to what Ian McCulloch had to say about Bono, what Morrissey had to say about at least one of his former bandmates in The Smiths, what the members of New Order and Kajagoogoo had to say about each other, and what seemingly everyone had to say about A Flock of Seagulls. Those '80s stars are one catty bunch! Their rampant cut downs are a huge part of what makes Mad World such an engaging must-read.

But what the various artists have to say about their own work is the cornerstone of the book, and I couldn't believe that McCluskey had the nerve to call The Pacific Age OMD's "musical nadir." His subtle dig at Americans for loving it anyway did nothing to ease my rage.

OMD's '80s can be divided into two distinct halves (or as Bernstein suggests in the book, "phases"): the band's output between 1980 and 1984, spanning its eponymous debut to Junk Culture (though Bernstein's "Phase 1" ends with 1983's Dazzle Ships), and the band's output between 1985 and 1988, encompassing Crush to The Best of OMD and including "If You Leave," the 1986 Top 5 U.S. single from Pretty in Pink.

During the first half, OMD were chart stars in their native UK but not in the U.S., and during the second half, U.S. pop fans sent five OMD singles up Billboard's Hot 100 while former fans in the UK pretty much moved on until 1991's Sugar Tax. If you consider how black-or-white-and-not-afraid-to-be-vocal-about-it Brits can be when it comes to pop (Do the stars of any other country more freely dis each other in public and in books like Mad World?), it's hardly surprising that McCluskey would so loudly and un-proudly tag The Pacific Age his least-favorite OMD album, an unmitigated aural disaster.

For me, it has too much sentimental value to dismiss. Nicholle, my best friend in high school and college, bought it for me on cassette for Christmas in 1986, so every time I played it, I thought of her. Every time I listen to it now, I still think of her. But even without the Nicholle connection, I would have connected to The Pacific Age.

I can't speak for all of my fellow Americans, but the very things that McCluskey criticizes it for in Mad World -- "no concepts, no weird ideas, no 'Enola Gay' and oil refinery songs and Catholic saints" -- are the reasons why I love Pacific tracks like "Stay (The Black Rose and the Universal Wheel)," "Watch Us Fall," and the Top 20 U.S. single "(Forever) Live and Die." They're melodic and memorable without lapsing into jejunity, artful without the whiff of the pretentious and the arcane. Those are the things I love most about OMD's '80s, Part 2.

"(Forever) Live and Die" OMD

Those Crush singles -- "So in Love" and "Secret" -- were my introduction to OMD, required listening, along with INXS's Listen Like Thieves album (which was on side two of the Memorex cassette that contained Crush), during the second half of 1985 and early 1986, and the direct precursors to both bands' greatest U.S. hits (in OMD's case, "If You Leave," in INXS's, "Need You Tonight"). Without Crush, I might never have bothered to discover the best of OMD's '80s, Part 1: "Tesla Girls," "Talking Loud and Clear" and Architecture and Morality's trio of brilliant singles ("Souvenir," "Joan of Arc" and "Maid of Orleans").

All that said, as much as I appreciate the Crush singles and The Pacific Age (and the fact that OMD took the trouble to secure the rights to sample Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream..." speech on The Pacific Age's "Southern," the fact the OMD sampled MLK at all, suggests that the album was much more than the afterthought McCluskey implies it was), I can't argue with him for appreciating OMD's 80s, Part 1 more. I love OMD in 2014 mostly for the UK hits that I missed when they were flopping in the U.S.

"Southern" OMD

If I only knew OMD for the group's two biggest U.S. chart hits, "If You Leave" (No. 4, 1986) and "Dreaming" (No. 16, 1988), I'd probably mention the group today in the same breath as Breathe (Remember "Hands to Heaven"?). On the other hand, if the band had done nothing else after Junk Culture, there might be no OMD chapter in Mad World, but I'd nonetheless still consider them to be one of the best bands to come out of the '80s. I'm just glad they didn't quit while they were ahead in the UK, for reasons that have nothing to do with Pretty in Pink and everything to do with The Pacific Age.

"Stay (The Black Rose and the Universal Wheel)" OMD

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Gayest Music Videos Ever

When I made the pronouncement that "Pop Music Could Use Another Decade as 'Gay' as the '80s" in my latest HuffPost Gay Voices blog post, I was envisioning a future pop world that was less "bro"-centric, with fewer affected macho-isms and more sensitivity. (Bruno Mars is a nice start, but he's so vanilla -- i.e., "straight acting" and, well, straight.) I was hoping for the antithesis of "Blurred Lines" -- the video, not the song.

Then along came the following tweet from somewhere in England (actually, London).

AKA Sam wasn't kidding. Not even Boy George, for all his flamboyance and out-ness, ever got to kiss the boy (or Culture Club drummer John Moss, with whom he was on-off) in his videos. True to AKA Sam's teaser, the video for The Plastics' cover of "XO," otherwise known as track 10 on Beyoncé's current self-titled album, is a bold celebration of gay love (or lust, depending on how you want to look at it) that probably would have been too hot for the 1980s. In my mind, the video, which was posted on YouTube on April 10, cements Beyoncé's spot as pop's reigning female gay icon, now that everyone seems to have lost interest in Lady Gaga.

Here's the interesting thing about Beyoncé that The Plastics inadvertently made me realize: Gay men adore her, but is there a straighter female pop star on the planet? Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it, on her MTV Unplugged Miley Cyrus came on to Madonna, who's made out with both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Video Music Awards, while Rihanna, whose Rated R single "Te Amo" (see below) promoted Sapphic love/lust, came pretty close to jumping Shakira's lovely bones in the recent video for their duet "Can't Remember to Forget You."

Beyoncé, from a musical standpoint, couldn't possibly be more straight and narrow. She sings about holding out for an engagement ring (in "Single Ladies" -- natch!), limo and kitchen sex (in "Partition" and "Drunk in Love," respectively), and even switching genders (in "If I Were a Boy") from a decidedly hetero point of view. She's publicly supported gays and lesbians, but to my knowledge, she's never gone there in her work, which makes me wonder what she really thinks of the legion of fans that she says she appreciates but still more or less ignores when she's on the clock. Would she approve of The Plastics' video? Her husband, Jay-Z, has, like his wife "Miss Carter," publicly supported gay marriage. I wonder what he'd think.

Will the future in music videos look more like The Plastics' "XO" more often? I hope so. I long for the day when a video like this one won't need a "NSFW" disclaimer, when the most remarkable thing about a video for a Beyoncé cover that features young, shirtless gay men expressing their sexuality with their asses hanging out isn't the boy-on-boy aspect (or the tame nudity, compared to "Blurred Lines" and Justin Timberlake's "Tunnel Vision") but that the new arrangement of a Beyoncé original, so haunting, so sad, so throbbing, might actually be even better than the real thing.

10 Other Music Videos That Play for the Other Team

"DJ" David Bowie (1979)

"Physical" Olivia Newton-John (1981)

"None of Your Business" Salt-n-Pepa (1994)

"Outside" George Michael (1998)

"Beautiful" Christina Aguilera (2002)

"Trapped in the Closet" R. Kelly (2005)

"The Last of the English Roses" Pete Doherty (2009)

"Te Amo" Rihanna (2009)

"Shame" Robbie Willams and Gary Barlow (2010)

"Same Love" Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert (2012)

Linda Ronstadt: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Class of 2014 M.I.A. V.I.P.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has gone and done it again. For the second time in its 28-year history, it took so long to get around to inducting one of my favorite female singers that by the time it finally did (last night, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn), the deserving songstress in question was unable to attend.

The first one was Dusty Springfield, who was eligible two years after 1986's inaugural induction class but didn't get voted in until 1999. By that time she was suffering from a recurrence of breast cancer, which she had spoken proudly of beating when I interviewed her for People magazine in 1995. Sadly, she would die of complications from the disease at age 59, less than two weeks before being officially inducted by Elton John.

This year the too-late inductee/no-show was Linda Ronstadt, who had been eligible as a solo artist since 1994. Ronstadt, 67, is suffering from Parkinson's Disease, which has forced her into retirement and left her unable to sing and presumably unable to travel around the country to attend the opening of envelopes, or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

What a pity. As thrilling as it must have been to see Glen Frey of The Eagles, her one-time backing band, welcome her to her rightful place in the mostly boys club (alongside fellow new inductees, including Nirvana, Cat Stevens, KISS, Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall and John Oates) and see/hear Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris and Stevie Nicks pay musical tribute to her, you haven't seen rock & roll until you've seen Linda Ronstadt perform live.

Luckily, I got my chance on May 13, 1995, when she came to Radio City Music Hall in New York City on tour while promoting her Feels Like Home album. She proved that crashing guitars and banging drums, contrary to popular belief, are not what make rock & roll. The spirit of rock is in the pure force of your musical statement, which can roll in from a whisper to a scream.

Ronstadt always delivered both masterfully. She could deliver almost everything masterfully. Since she scored her first hit in 1967 as lead singer of The Stone Poneys with "Different Drum," she's sung in multiple musical languages (and actual languages, too), nailing every one of them: country, pop, soul, new wave, Broadway show tunes (via 1981-82's stage version and 1983's film version of The Pirates of Penzance, for which she was Tony- and Golden Globe-nominated), big-band jazz/The Great American Songbook, Mexican mariachi, Cuban pop, adult contemporary, children's lullabies and, of course, rock & roll.

I interviewed Ronstadt for People the same year I interviewed Springfield, and I found her to be chatty and no-nonsense. She didn't suffer fools -- or Dolly Parton -- gladly. When I asked her why there still wasn't a sequel to Trio, her landmark 1987 album collaboration with Parton and Harris, she said they had tried, but "Dolly just wasn't into it." (They would release the fruits of that aborted effort as Trio II in 1999, to far less critical or commercial fanfare.) So it's entirely possible that even if she had been well enough to travel to her induction, Ronstadt would have had better things to do.

And wouldn't that have been just like her: talented, gutsy, uncompromising? That, folks, is rock & roll.

Ronstadt Whispers

"Heart Like a Wheel" (from Heart Like a Wheel, 1974)

"Sorrow Lives Here" (from Simple Dreams, 1977)

"What's New?" (from What's New, 1983)

"Telling Me Lies" (Trio, 1987)

"Winter Light" (from Winter Light, 1993)

Ronstadt Rocks

"Willin'" (from Heart Like a Wheel, 1974)

"Heat Wave" (from Prisoner in Disguise, 1975)

"How Do I Make You" (from Mad Love, 1980)

"The Waiting" (from Feels Like Home, 1995)

"When We Ran" (from We Ran, 1998)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Lost Art of Making New Friends After 40

"With regards to friends, I think we reach a point in life where we just can't make them anymore. It's a lot easier when you're 20 and drinking."

The words of my friend Nancy in an email she sent to me this morning kept playing on repeat in my head. After hitting pause, I wondered, Did she have a point?

I remembered a quote I once read from Whitney Houston, who must have been in her mid thirties at he time. She said that she was done making new friends. The ones she had were the only ones she wanted. She wasn't interested in new friendships, she said, because people are "disappointing." That ship had sailed, and as far as she was concerned, it wasn't returning to port.

It was a sobering, dramatic pronouncement, one that aside from the people being disappointing part, I didn't quite understand at the time. I wouldn't say I agree with her point of view now, but it's easier for me to see where she was coming from. In my middle age, it's almost as difficult for me to make new friends -- and I'm talking actual real-life friends, not Facebook "friends," Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest/etc. followers, acquaintances, or people you go out drinking with -- as it is for me to make new romantic interests. Am I older and pickier, older and crankier, or just living in the wrong cities?

The other day I was talking to a man from Istanbul, a 31-year-old fellow expat in Cape Town who was commenting on how difficult it is to make friends here. I agreed. So would have the Capetonian native who recently told me that Cape Town is "a friendly city but a friendless city." Translation: People are congenial and welcoming here, but don't take it too personally. For the most part, you're still on your own.

The young Turk described Capetonians as being "closed," which is a charge I've heard leveled at them from both outsiders and insiders, who have also frequently called them "cliquey" in my presence. I wouldn't disagree, though I can't say I've made much of an effort to engage them in more than the most superficial ways. Presumably, he has, yet since he moved here for work one year ago, the only friends he has made are people he's met at work.

As a writer unattached to a regular gig, I don't have the luxury of meeting people that way. Even if I did, I'm not so sure I would become friends with them. I haven't made a friend at work since 2003, and I left the 9 to 5 in New York City in 2006. I've met some lovely colleagues through my work since then, but with one exception (and if he's reading this, he'll know who he is), I wouldn't describe any of them as being particularly strong presences in my life, not even on Facebook and Twitter. I'm quite fond of a few, but I'd never describe them as being true "friends," not in the I'll-be-there-for-you sense.

I've now been in Cape Town for nearly five months, and I can't say I've made a single new friend in all that time. I barely see the ones I had here when I arrived! I've met people. I can always find a lunch or dinner partner, or a wingperson for Crew on Friday or Saturday night, if I don't want to be alone, but they wouldn't be people whom I see or communicate with on a regular basis. It's a two-way street: They have as little use for me as I do for them. No one can accuse me of not returning their messages and vice-versa.

So I can't say for sure that Capetown is "friendly but friendless" because I haven't necessarily gone out of my way to make it anything else. Of course, I could say the same thing about myself in Buenos Aires and Melbourne, but porteños, for all their flaws, pursue new friendships tirelessly, while I have more in common with Melburnians than I do with Capetonians, which paved the way to more effortless and natural connections in Australia. I never would have thought to write this blog post one year ago, when I was in my final days in Melbourne.

One could also say that I'm just older now (by one year, which, in the context of personal evolution, could make a huge difference), and the socializing aspect of friendship has become less important to me. Have I turned into someone like Patti LaBelle? When I interviewed her when she was in her early fifties and asked whom she hung out with, she looked at me like I was crazy. "I don't hang out," she replied. When she wasn't working, she insisted, she was at home with her family, or by herself.

I was still in my 20s at the time, so I figured it was an age thing. In my mind, if I didn't see you or at least hear from you regularly, we weren't really friends. (This was pre-Facebook, when you had to actually make an effort, particularly with people in other cities and countries, and you couldn't keep track of people's whereabouts without saying a word to them.) I assumed that people in their thirties and forties were too busy with families and careers to make time for friends or to make new ones, but now I wonder if there's something more. As we get older, do we subconsciously close ourselves off from forming new meaningful connections? If we've stopped drinking, do we stop trying, too?

For me, I believe a number of factors are at play, the biggest being my lonerism. The older I get, the more I embrace it, to the point that I sometimes find myself resenting other people for encroaching on my solitude. I've had great times with good pre-existing friends over the last few years, and memorable experiences with complete strangers, but my favorite moments have been the ones in which there has been no one else around.

There's also the aforementioned fact that I don't go into an office five days a week, and I rarely go out drinking anymore, which removes the two top friendship possibilities from my twenties and thirties. With the exception of a handful of friends I was introduced to by other friends, most of the friends I made after college I met in the office, on a bar stool or on the dance floor. So now that the three are diminished if not altogether eliminated presences from my life, it makes sense that new friendships would be fewer and farther between.

As I said before, it's not that I don't meet people. It's incredibly easy to meet people in Cape Town, and I sometimes have quite enjoyable exchanges in restaurants, in bars, on the street, online, in the Pick n Pay across the street from my apartment. But unlike the old days when my social life was equal to my professional life, I'm less inclined to try to take it any further, to make lunch plans, dinner plans or drinking plans, or to go over to someone's house just to hang out (the latter of which was never really my thing). I hate talking on the phone, so I certainly wouldn't call someone who isn't one of my best friends or a family member on the phone just to talk.

A German from Stuttgart who was recently in Cape Town for 10 days told me he was visiting a couple he met a few years ago on holiday in Mozambique, and he was staying with them, too. I would never do that! The people I casually meet in everyday life often end up becoming the platonic equivalent of the one-night stand: the one-lunch stand. Or if I'm on holiday, the one-holiday stand. If our connection is romantic in nature, file it under foreign affair (except for my last boyfriend, Jayden, who became my next boyfriend).

It's possible that the rise of social media plays into my approach to local friendships. (It's so much more crucial to my long-distance friendships, most of which probably wouldn't exist without it.) With Facebook and Twitter and even my blogging, I'm constantly communicating with people, so I rarely feel as if I'm not being social. If it weren't for social media and modern communication (Skype, Whatsapp, even email), which allow us to keep in regular contact with people in far-flung places, I'd probably feel more alone than I normally do, which might encourage me to reach out to people who are closer to home.

Perhaps my recent friendlessness is a symptom of my peripatetic lifestyle, which has found me based on four different continents in the last three years. Friendships are trickier when you don't stick around to watch them grow. If I were back in New York City, or Buenos Aires, or Melbourne, which is the last place where I would say that I made actual friends as opposed to actual acquaintances, I would naturally want to spend time with my friends there, but would making new ones still be important?

The catch-22 is that making new friends becomes more important (or it would, if I were normal) when you're constantly relocating, which, in turn, makes it harder. But then, my decision to stay in Cape Town for an extended period of time hasn't affected my social life here in any significant way. I'm going to put most of that on me: Making new friends is simply not the priority for me that it was 20 or even 10 years ago.

I'm not quite as fatalistic with regards to friends as Nancy is, though. I'm sure there'll be new ones, but they'll probably take me completely by surprise. Those new relationships will likely evolve over time without any conscious effort on anyone's part, blossoming into enduring friendships when I'm not even looking.