Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lost in Sydney: Is This Really My New Home?

Not lost "lost," so don't bother trying to offer me directions. It's not like I don't know my way around here (or can't figure it out on my own, for inner Sydney is fairly user-with-a-map friendly). Yesterday's landing at Sydney International was my eighth one in the city, which couldn't have looked more gorgeous from eight miles high (or wherever we were when we were no longer flying above the clouds). But I think it started before I went up, up and away in Qantas flight 64 from Johannesburg to Sydney.

My final hours on the ground in South Africa (two in Cape Town, two in Johannesburg) were imperfect caps to my last year abroad, so fraught with inconveniences that they seemed to be screaming "Get out while you can!" (..."and don't come back!" -- which is a twist for a future blog post once I make more sense of it) while confirming what has become my No. 1 travel truth: The worst parts of any long-distance voyage are the parts spent in airports.

The waiting isn't the hardest part of that part, though. It's dealing with airport speed bumps post-9/11: rigorously enforced weight restrictions (If I book a two-leg flight on, and Qantas uses a partner airline for the first leg, shouldn't Qantas arrange for me to have the same weight limit on both flights?), baggage checks (I'm still not sure what airport security has against liquids), and customs (a necessary evil that's still a pain in the ass). The latter was never actually a problem for me until I left South Africa this time, six days after my visa expired, which, again, is a story for another blog post.

Thankfully, my arrival/welcome in Sydney was smoother than my departure from South Africa. Although Australia's border patrol has a reputation for being extra-vigilant and strict (and it has its own TV series to document/show for it), in the dozen or so times I've entered the country, I've only once had an Immigration problem (the first time, as I didn't enter my middle name on my ETA visa application, making the ETA me, in essence, a different person than the me named in my passport), and I've never had my baggage inspected. That's probably not the reason why I click with the country and the people in it, but it's never a bad start.

So why have I felt so out of sorts since my latest arrival? Was it because of the gloomy overcast skies and the autumn-like spring chill that greeted me? I overheard a woman on the shuttle bus into the city complaining about how she didn't have to leave London to get such grim weather. Another compared it to Melbourne's notoriously capricious climate, citing the "four seasons in a day" cliché. For a moment, I found myself wishing I could be somewhere else: in London, in Melbourne, in a taxi. But I've been so looking forward to Sydney for weeks. I should barely be able to contain my glee.

Perhaps the reason for my continuing malaise is that I left South Africa, my home for the past 11 and a half months, under less-than-stellar conditions, but I feel like I'm already moving past that. God knows it's not my living arrangements in Sydney. My accommodation for the next three months is certainly welcoming enough, even without some of the necessities (towels, bed linings, toilet paper) that I might have expected to find in a furnished one-bedroom executive rental which is costing me more than twice what I paid per month for my apartment in Cape Town. (Aside from views of Devil's Peak, Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Signal Hill, it's the one thing I'll miss most about Cape Town).

On my way to a store to buy a towel to dry off with after washing myself clean of the grime my body had accumulated over 14 hours of air travel and several more of airport drama, I discovered that I live only a few blocks away from my new job at ninemsn, which will make the work commute my easiest ever and my temporary CBD address convenient, if not ideal on a social level. And I was immediately reminded of the unpredictable but excellent Aussie taste in music. The first two songs I heard in public after landing: "Best Friend" by Foster the People, which was playing over the loudspeaker en route to the customs and baggage claim area at the airport, and "To Know Him Is to Love Him," the 1987 No. 1 country hit by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt that was blaring from the radio at the 24-hour convenience store near my new home.

I think there may be a couple of key contributing factors to this peaceful but slightly uneasy feeling that's been washing over me since I woke up mid-flight from Johannesburg to Sydney somewhat panicked. For one, I'm about to start a new job (which, in itself, is generally a cause for some trepidation), one that will mark the first time I've been tied to a 9-to-5 gig in more than eight years. I'd better make it work. I'm a perfectionist that way, and the terms of my 48-month 457 visa demand it. The pressure is on.

For two, there's my social standing in Sydney, or rather, lack thereof. The last time I arrived in Australia thinking long-term (in March of 2011), it was under considerably different circumstances. I was arriving in Melbourne, my first Australian love, and my second Australian love (my boyfriend-to-be) was waiting for me. I've never been one to move to a new country or city for love and can't imagine myself ever being motivated to do so, but I now fully understand how having a human connection awaiting you on the other side of a relocation can make all the difference. The job may, for the first time, give me a legitimate reason to be in Australia, but reclusive as I am, I've always been driven mostly by human connections.

Thankfully, I'm now in a place where it should be a lot easier to make them. I spent most of the last year mostly on my own, partly by choice, but partly because South Africa's social fabric, particularly in Cape Town, is so difficult to penetrate. The local gay scene is even tougher. Before I left, I hadn't been on a date in at least three months, which may have had something to do with my rare excursions into the nightlife and my temporary departure from the Grindr dating pool. One's skin color can be the hot topic for only so long before one begins to feel even more self-conscious than usual about it. Who needs that?

As valuable as the lessons learned in Cape Town were (and I got an entire second book out of them), I'm looking forward to living in world where the racial politics don't really apply to me. (As a black American, I've never felt more accepted than I have in Australia.) I know that eventually my diffidence will pass. Like jetlag -- killer, as usual -- it always does, leading to bright new (and hopefully, sunnier) days.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Did 2015 Oscar Host Neil Patrick Harris Just Become the Most Powerful Gay Man in Hollywood?

Honestly, I'm not a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan. But it's hard not to really admire the guy.

I'll never forget the night I saw Neil Patrick Harris blush. It was 2000, and I was an editor at Teen People magazine. Sebastian Bach's publicist had invited a couple of my colleagues and me to see the Skid Row frontman in the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde, and we'd jumped at the offer. Who knew we'd get two retro-celeb sightings in one night?! (Click here to read the rest of the story.)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off!

No matter how many crunches you do, a six-pack will never be a substitute for a great smile and an even better personality.

After several years of overexposure (mostly courtesy of topless Grindr profile photos), my body's going undercover: From now on, unless I'm in the shower or just getting out of it, I'm keeping my shirt on. I'm officially hiding my upper torso away. This should be a lot easier to do since I've deleted Grindr from my phone. Now I can go back to presenting myself to the world (and being appreciated) the way God intended, fully clothed. (Click here to read the rest of the story.)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

My 10 Most Memorable Moments in "Is It True What They Say About Black Men?"

They've been the best and worst of times, and they're almost over. We're less than one month away from the official November 4 release of my travelogue/memoir Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World (currently on pre-sale at Amazon) and the end of an eight-year journey. Now that my work is done and the book is being sent out into the world, I can finally reflect, from a comfortable distance, on how I got here.

The most difficult part of the three years I spent writing the book was reliving some of the experiences in it over and over and over until I got the wording just right. Sometimes it felt like picking at a scab until it multiplied into a series of fresh wounds that would heal overnight only to be reopened the next day. Other times it was nice to recall details I'd completely forgotten, some of which were funnier than they were when the stories happened. It wasn't all pain, no gain -- not by a long shot. I'm a gallows humor kind of guy. I live to laugh through tears.

Here are 10 high/low lights from the near-decade covered in Is It True What They Say About Black Men? To partially quote Morrissey (in "Break Up the Family," from Viva Hate), they will forever stay emblazoned on my mind.

1. The morning I came home and found a threesome in my Buenos Aires apartment. Alas, they were burglars, fully clothed and brandishing a deadly screwdriver!

2. The night my boyfriend sprung a life-changing and life-threatening secret on me.

3. The five hours I spent in a Buenos Aires jail.

4. The day after I lost 24 hours following a drugging in Rio.

5. The morning a one-night stand was removed from my apartment in handcuffs by the BAPD after threatening to kill me.

6. A word in Spanish. Actually, several of them, and one in English (the N-word) after a suitor went from wanting me to wanting me on a cotton plantation in the space of one rejection.

7. The night I met the future love of my life when he was out with his girlfriend.

8. The night I was touched inappropriately by a masseuse in Bangkok.

9. The 10-hour Bangkok-to-Melbourne Jetstar flight I spent seated next to a man who I didn't know was blind until after we landed in Australia.

10. The afternoon at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg when by the House of Bondage exhibit I sat down and wept. It was almost like a Tracey Thorn song...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

It's All About Me: 15 Songs By Artists Who Namecheck Themselves

You're nobody until your name has made it into a song -- even if it's one of your own! After all, if you're going to name-drop anyone, it might as well be you. Rappers (and super-producer Rodney Jerkins) refer to themselves all the time, but apparently, people who sing are a more modest bunch, less likely to call their own name. That didn't stop me from finding 15 who did it anyway.

"My Home's in Alabama" Alabama (1980)
Self-referential lyric: "My home's in Alabama, southern born and southern bred"

"In a Big Country" Big Country (1983)
Self-referential lyric: "In a big country, dreams stay with you, like a lover's voice fires the mountainside"

"We Are the Jonzun Crew" The Jonzun Crew (1983)
Self-referential lyric: "Who are we? The Jonzun Crew!"

"Freak-A-zoid" Midnight Star (1983)
Self-referential lyric: "We are Midnight Star. We're gonna show you how to do it, yes, we are"

"Bruce" Rick Springfield (1984)
Self-referential lyric: "My name is Rick, I'm gonna stick it to you, babe"

"Everybody Have Fun Tonight" Wang Chung (1986)
Self-referential lyric: Everybody wang chung tonight"

"Nasty" Janet Jackson (1986)
Self-referential lyric: "No, my first name ain't baby. It's Janet. Miss Jackson, if you're nasty"

"Love Overboard" Gladys Knight and the Pips (1987)
Self-referential lyric: They tell me, Gladys, you know you love too hard"

"Living in a Box" Living in a Box (1987)
Self-referential lyric: "Am I living in a box? Am I living in a cardboard box?"

"Joyride" Roxette (1991)
Self-referential lyric: "Roxette!"

"My Name Is Prince" Prince (1992)
Self-referential lyric: "My name is Prince, and I am funky"

"Come When You Call" Oleta Adams (1993)
Self-referential lyric: "Say 'Oleta, baby. Well, I need you, baby'"

"Robyn Is Here" Robyn (1997)
Self-referential lyric: "Robyn is here. Gotta let you know"

"Fergalicious" Fergie (2006)
Self-referential lyric: "I'm the F to the E, R, G, the I, the E"

"S.A.M.S.P.A.R.R.O." Sam Sparro (2008)
Self-referential lyric: "My name is S.A.M.S.P.A. double R.O. jazam"

Monday, October 6, 2014

Is It Healthy to Keep Dipping Into the Same Dating Pool: In Defense of Rayna + Luke on "Nashville"

Some girls have all the luck, even if they're unlikely to count their blessings as blessings. Rayna James, for one, probably didn't consider her love life to be particularly charmed at the end of Nashville's second season. Who needs the drama of getting a pair of unexpected marriage proposals -- both in one night? Oh, the turmoil of being torn between two handsome, talented suitors!

She wasn't torn for long. During Nashville's September 24 season-three premiere, the country superstar made a move that was a lot smarter than launching her own record label in this era of diminishing album sales. She let go of the stone that had been weighing her down: her past -- namely, an ex named Deacon Claybourne, would-be fiancé No. 2. That's something people on daytime soaps rarely do for good (see "Villy" on The Young and the Restless, "EJami" on Days of Our Lives, "CarSon" on General Hospital, etc.). But while I'm not convinced that Deacon is completely out of Rayna's picture, I applaud her for at least trying to put away their broken frame.

I have to admit, I wasn't previously a big fan of Luke Wheeler -- Rayna's choice…for now -- and I'm still not. He's uncomplicated, and he's got sexy swagger, but he's a little too smooth, a textbook cowboy. I'm also wary of hot tempers (one of the reasons why I'm not loving Abigail with Ben on Days, although he's her sanctimonious equal), even when the exploding guy is otherwise charming and easygoing.

Luke scored with me, however, when, unlike Deacon, he gave Rayna time and space and didn't pressure her into choosing his marriage proposal over Deacon's. Good move, one that clearly wasn't lost on Rayna. When she let Deacon down gently by citing the "clean slate" she has with Luke, she made a lot of sense. For those crying "They're soul mates!" and "He's changed!" in defense of Rayna + Deacon, let us not forget that his alcoholic relapse as recently as the end of the first season nearly caused Rayna her career and her life.

The threat of relapse will forever be a dark cloud hovering over them, and I'd much rather live under mostly sunny skies. There's nothing like shared romantic history and a teenage daughter to keep you in an ex's orbit, but sometimes love is better -- and safer -- the first time around, when it's still baggage free. (I wouldn't have minded seeing first-time sparks fly between Deacon and Rayna's exiting sister Tandy because it would have made for some juicy sibling rivalry and given the shamefully underused Judith Hoag something better to do.)

Deacon's niece Scarlett O'Connor seems to have inherited his knack for romantic repetition. Loving Avery Barkley was easier the second time around last season, but it didn't last long, due to lack of spark. We all know that's as good as the kiss of death in serial dramas. Turbulence makes the world turn. Stability is as boring as a good guy. Take Daniel Grayson over on Nashville's fellow ABC nighttime soap Revenge. Neither he nor his scenes with Emily Thorne (nee Amanda Clarke) were ever more interesting than they were after he shot her in the stomach on their wedding night. Of course, that was after their dreaded second courtship.

I'd like to say it's over for good between them -- How do you come back from firing the bullet that renders your now-ex-wife unable to bear children? -- but we know how soaps work. Sami once shot EJ in the head on Days, and they still have a shot at happily ever after.

But getting back to Scarlett's fever (a love hangover that I wish was caused by record producer Liam McGuinnis, who brought to Nashville what it needs most: a sexy bad boy with a heart of slightly tarnished gold), I don't think things have cooled completely between her and Avery, judging from how he still looks at her. It's the same way her other ex, Gunnar Scott, gazes at her, all awe and admiration, despite his now-semi-long-distance relationship with Zoe Dalton. He even got hard-headed Scarlett to stick around Nashville.

Despite all the chemistry in that quad, the "Will they or won't they -- again?" angle has gotten mouldy. Rayna and Juliette Barnes make a far more interesting pair than any configuration of Avery/Scarlett/Gunnar/Zoe, and Nashville did begin as a rivalry between the country queen and the rising princess. That, sadly, has been backburnered. Now they're more occasional frenemies, a sometime Sami and Kate on Days, with less scheming.

Their relationship has as many fascinating layers as any of their romantic entanglements, and it's a shame that they have yet to share a single scene this season. In the absence of Rayna, I'd rather watch Juliette's inner life unfold than her love life. I've convinced myself that her slow unspooling as she cried all over "Crazy" while auditioning to play Patsy Cline was about more than Avery. Redemptive you-make-me-want-to-be-a-better-person romance -- like the one she shared with Avery, her ex and possible baby daddy -- is a snoozefest. True love means accepting someone as is, a dynamic that's sometimes easier to find with someone new.

I don't want Juliette back with Avery any more than I wish him on Scarlett, who is probably the Nashville character I care about most. That's as much for her moral compass as for that steely magnolia thing Bowen brings to the character. I once read an interview with Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee in which he described one of his stars, Michelle Williams, as having a sympathetic quality that makes you want to see her be OK. That's how I feel about Scarlett. For me, she is to Nashville what Sharon Newman is to Y&R, what Elizabeth Webber is to GH, what the writers want Abigail Deveraux to be to Days. Thus far, Abigail is the only one who is trying out the Rayna road to happiness, while the days of the others' lives continue to revolve around their exes.

Unlike prime-time and daytime heroines, I've never been able to share much of a storyline with any of mine, though I've tried at least twice. (Luke Spencer was right: People don't change; they just get older.) I'm not saying that reunions can't click, but try and try again becomes less likely to succeed with each failed attempt, as GH's Lucky Spencer eventually learned. How do you think he ended up as Avery on Nashville?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

6 Things Westerners Get Wrong About Africa

Teach your children well. It's so much more than "the place with all the animals."

Misconception No. 1: The ties that bind the countries in Africa are more than geographic.

This is not "America." Africa is as much a collection of very separate and distinct individual countries that happen to share a continuous expanse of land as Europe is  --  more so, since you need a passport, a visa, and a currency exchange to travel from one country to the next. There's no cultural or even ethnic norm. When we use the demonym "African," we're being as vague as when we describe someone or something as "Asian." (Read the rest of the story on Medium.)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Deal Breaker No. 1: Why I'll Never Again Date a Guy Who's in the Closet

I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but I'll certainly never do that again.

I'll never forget the year when "discreet" became a dirty word. It started when I fell in love with a boy who had to sneak out of his house to see me. I say "boy" not because we were teenagers breaking curfew. Shane* and I were grown men, consenting adults who had been seeing each other for several months. We had everything: chemistry, passion, heat. But only when we got behind closed doors. (Click here to read the rest of the story.)