Sunday, February 15, 2015

You Must Love Sydney!

By now I've been a Sydney-sider long enough to know that whenever anyone who has lived here longer than six months asks what I think of the city, it's just a formality, a trick question. I answer at my own risk.

It's like "How are you?" -- or "How are you going?" in Aussie-speak. It's a rhetorical question. The answer is assumed before it's even asked. Of course, you must love Sydney!

With that in mind, I proceeded with caution when the American expat from Chicago asked me the expected question. It wasn't just that I knew exactly how he would react to my response. His forced confidence (he was like the hammiest actor chomping up the scenery) and smug demeanor made it feel more like a challenge than a conversation starter. He seemed almost to be daring me not to say the right thing about hallowed Sydney.

He wore his seven years here like a badge of honor, and just in case I didn't notice it dangling from the chest I half expected him to start pounding, he announced "I'm even an Australian citizen now" in a perfect Aussie accent. He looked at me as if he was expecting a standing ovation. He was, after all, a black American who had made it in Oz -- if obtaining citizenship and the ability to mimic the local dialect is your idea of "made it."

I can't say I was thoroughly unimpressed. I take note whenever any fish out water survives in new rarefied air. As an American expat for going on nine years, I respect the art of assimilation…and it is high art indeed. Kudos, I thought, as I started to answer his question…cautiously.

"You know, I understand Sydney's appeal. It's a beautiful place, but I just don't love it as much as everyone else seems to."

I winced, waiting for the whip to lash me across the face. The smack didn't come, but his response was just what I'd expected it to be, for I've been hearing it regularly since my first trip to Sydney five years ago.

"Give it time. Sydney takes a while to really appreciate, but once you do, you'll be totally in love with it."

And thus began the latest testimonial about the wonders of Sydney, how the city's appeal takes you by surprise and once it grabs you refuses to let you go.

I listened to his monologue and when he was finished, I just stared at him. I really didn't have anything to say. Obviously, there had been only one right answer to his question. There's always only one right answer to that question.

Then he asked another one.

"So what don't you like about Sydney then?"

I didn't want to go there yet again. I was over spinning my own broken record with the repetitive beat, the one where I go on about how Melbourne is warmer (the people, not the climate), more welcoming, more rock& roll, how the gay men in Sydney are flaky and cliquey, how Sydney promises endless sunshine and then fails to deliver it, how life is not a beach. I just couldn't bear to hear myself singing that same old song one more time.

Furthermore, his Sydney sermon had been such a turn off. He was pontificating in a loud, forceful manner that made me feel like he wanted me to justify my position, not explain it. I had tuned him out halfway through, hoping he would eventually lose interest in me and let me enjoy my quiet time in the park in peace. I did catch his explanation that whenever he really loves a city, like his hometown of Chicago, he wants everyone to feel the same way about it, so he might go overboard in his zeal to sell the place.

His explanation made sense, but I wondered why it seems to apply to everyone in Sydney who isn't from Melbourne. Sydney-siders are constantly telling me how I should feel about Sydney or how I will feel about Sydney after a few more months here. It's not like I hate the place. There are things that I really like about Sydney. But we just don't click the way Melbourne and I do. What's the big deal?

There are always going to be different opinions of any city, and every city will have its non-fans, regardless of how much time they spend there or how many friends they make there. Why should Sydney be exempt from that? It might partly be the constant pressure to love it that keeps me from falling in love with it.

My relocation here was strictly business. I came here for work, and one can be hired in far worse places. Once or twice I've felt like I was on the brink of getting it, but those were fleeting moments. Full appreciation has remained just out of reach. Shouldn't loving a great city be easier? I know that if I stick around, I'll eventually cultivate a little community here and become part of Sydney's social fabric, but there's more to city love than assimilation.

I may have said some of this, but mostly I sat there in silence, hearing him, but after a while, not really listening anymore. Eventually he got the message and left me in peace.

As he walked away, I wondered why Sydney-siders are so precious about their turf. In all the places I've lived, I've never seen anything like it. It's more than local pride. It's almost like some kind of manifest destiny to be able to call Sydney the world's most livable city (an honor that's already gone to Melbourne, which might actually partly explain the Sydney oversell).

Why else would it always be necessary to defend its honor? A lot of people adore Sydney -- most every non-Melburnian I know who has been here does. At least three of my former bosses -- two American, one British -- have lived here, and all of them rave about it to this day. Sydney is not wanting for admirers. So what difference does it make if little old me is not part of the breathless fan club?

There's a lot that I miss about New York City, but right now, I'm really homesick for the take-it-or-leave-it New Yorker attitude. No New Yorker would ever waste their time trying to explain why anyone should love New York. Either you do or you don't, and if you don't, well the exit door is always open.

Oh, there's no place like home.

Friday, February 13, 2015

I'm Not in Love: An Anti-Valentine's Day Soundtrack

While I consider myself to be a hopeless romantic, romance has never really been my thing. There's a difference, you know. Romantic is a state of mind; romance revolves around gestures.

I'm in love with love and the closeness that it brings. (Though I always reserve the right to sleep alone, I'm a diehard spooner/cuddler.) I get swept away with the best of them. But when you start lighting candles and drawing bubble baths, I'm so out of there. I'm like Miranda Hobbes that way.

As for sweet nothings, I'm still waiting for someone to put it in a love song. Until then, email or text will do. It's been nearly eight years since I received a handwritten love note. I hope I get another one someday, once again on a plain piece of white paper. That'd be enough for me. If I never get another Valentine or Hallmark card, I won't miss either. They're clutter, and then they're trash. So are flowers. Yeah, I'm a cheap love interest. My love really don't cost a thing.

So guess how I feel about Valentine's Day and its commercialization of romance. I'm not saying I'd turn down a big red heart if one were to fall out of the sky, but I'd be perfectly fine with rain. And should it come pouring down on V Day, I'll have the perfect soundtrack.

"I'm Not in Love" Will to PowerThis version, not the 10cc original. I love them nearly equally, but when she starts singing about his picture on the wall, I just lose it. (And yes, I get the irony of the lyrics.)

"When You Get Right Down to It" Phyllis Hyman…A woman falling out of love.

"I Don't Need You" Kenny Rogers…So much more my speed than "Lady."

"Move a Mountain" Robert Cray…Is it just a coincidence that the blues are named after my favorite color?

"I Hate Myself for Loving You" Joan Jett and the Blackhearts…I love rock & roll, too, but I doubt Joan and the guys would have sneaked into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without this bitter anthem in their back catalog.

"I Love to Hate You" Erasure…I've never actually hated anyone, and I don't think I could possibly love it if I did, but I totally get what he's singing.

"Never Had No One Ever" The Smiths…Ah, Morrissey, the kind of un-wishful thinking.

"I Want a Dog" Pet Shop Boys...Sorry, but the appeal of cats has always gone right over my head.

"Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex" Rachel Stevens...Yeah, f**k off.

"Get Mine, Get Yours" Christina Aguilera...And sometimes, it's just about the sex.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Date to End All Dates...At Least for the Next Six Months!

The other day I remembered why I rarely go on dates anymore. He was a loud, voluble and robust reminder: 6'4", with salt and pepper hair and an annoying way of blurring the line between an insult and a compliment.

The first thing he said to me: "I can't believe you're American. But you use English so well. Are you sure you're not from London?"

When I pointed out that Australians mangle the Queen's English more badly than people in any English-speaking country, he was obliged to agree. Ah, a glimmer of hope. But it didn't flicker for long.

His next anti-Yankee crack arrived when I mentioned that the AC in my apartment has been out of order since I moved in three weeks ago. I was happy to be out enjoying the cool Saturday evening breeze.

"Oh, you Americans and your AC!"

It wasn't long before I found myself wondering why I hadn't followed my gut instinct, which had told me to cancel on him for the second time. But I didn't want to be that Sydney-sider I've grown to semi-hate. I couldn't even remember the last time I went on a decent date, though. It was a wonder I was still willing to occasionally go on them.

Who needs to spend a couple of hours sitting across from a guy who has too much to prove? (Gay men and their insecurity masquerading as arrogance…ugh.) I would have preferred to have been home watching an Oscar-nominated movie on my laptop (the obnoxious music instructor in Whiplash was less of a blowhard than this guy), but I knew I'd have to get off the couch if I was going to meet people and make friends in Sydney.

Is it worth it? No disrespect to Pat Benatar, but dating is the battlefield. I love a good game of chess once every few decades only, but the last thing I needed after a challenging work week was a meet-and-greet that felt like a sword fight.

During this particular match, I could have sworn I heard a voice whispering "en garde" in my ear before every sentence my opponent/date uttered. It was the only whisper I'd hear all night. My opponent/date had another annoying habit of keeping his volume between 8 and 10. Oh, and about blurring the line between insult and compliment... He was certain I had to be a Londoner, yet he couldn't understand why I would want to live in such a shitty place.

Frankly, I've never really understood people's reaction to my reaction to London. Years ago when I was more actively dying to live there, people would often say things along the lines of "The grass is always greener" whenever I broached the possibility of moving to London. So, I figured, I wasn't allowed to like London, and I certainly wasn't allowed to want to live there either.

Huh? But it's a world-class city, and it wouldn't be one if someone didn't love living there. But who even cares whether anyone else loves it? I don't care for Paris or Rio, and I'm not as big a fan of Sydney as most people who aren't from Melbourne, but I can understand their appeal. I'd never challenge anyone for loving any of them, or hating a place that I love. What difference does it make to me anyway? It's simply a matter of personal taste. Why rain on someone's parade when it comes to a city they love? London is moist enough as it is!

Oh, but well-traveled people can be so insufferable, especially when they've parked themselves on several continents for more than one year. Some of them seem to think that having lived in numerous places not only gives them special insight into how everyone should feel about those places, but it also somehow gives them the edge in every conversation because most people aren't particularly well traveled. Oh, dear God in heaven, please don't let people think I'm one of those obnoxious world travelers!

Too late for my opponent/date. He was a well-traveled fortysomething know-it-all from Melbourne who has lived in New York City, London and Hong Kong and has visited Buenos Aires. In other words, he knew everything. He seemed to have very little interest in anything I had to say about anywhere I've lived because, well, he'd seen it all before.

He was the kind of person whose gestures are like semaphores. He talked too loudly, announcing instead of stating, pronouncing rather than offering opinions. Some would accuse me of sometimes doing the same thing, but I pick my battles. Every topic isn't fodder for debate. So you hate London? Why?... Oh, really? That's too bad. Pass the wine, please.

This guy seemed to be listening to me only long enough to figure out what he wanted to say next. After two hours spent conversing/clashing with him in a cute little bar off Crown Street, I decided to hang up my sword. I won't be going on another date for a while. At this point, I only go on a handful a year. This one should carry me through September.

My opponent/date's three most absurd comments/reactions:

The idea of a New Yorker never having lived above 34th Street is unfathomable. I thought he was going to have a seizure right there on the sidewalk when I dropped the bombshell that I'd never lived in midtown or higher. Actually, I didn't even realize it was much of a bombshell when the words were coming out of my mouth. I know plenty of downtown types who have never lived above 14 th Street. And considering that I lived in three apartments over the course of my 15 years in NYC, spending three years in Alphabet City, three near Penn Station and five in Union Square, I'd say I got around just fine.

Somehow I brought all of my travel misadventures -- positive and negative -- on myself. So, I had to ask, how exactly did I bring about having my apartment burglarized by three men and being attacked by them on a sunny Sunday afternoon six months after moving to Buenos Aires? Was it my fault for having the nerve to come home after lunch and walking out of the elevator on my floor mid-burglary? Should I have never dared to buy an apartment in a building that was under-construction, leaving it vulnerable to inside-job break-ins after I moved in?

If you don't have anything intelligent to say, keep the cheap psychobabble to yourself. That's always been my rule. Oh, but my date/opponent couldn't possibly do that. He was the kind of person who so loved to hear himself talk that he had some declaration to offer about every sentence I uttered, whether it be an unsolicited opinion, a generalization, or a sort-of-matching story. (Guess what: He was robbed once, too...on the New York one guy...Not the same thing!)

Chances are if you're a non-Londoner who moves to London you'll hate it because, well, everyone is addicted to sunshine. I really should know better than to bring up London, especially to people who have already gotten on my bad side. But I did anyway, and when I dared to call it the one city I've never lived that I would love to live in, my date/opponent looked at me as if I'd just chopped off one of his arms.

He suggested I'd hate London after the first winter because five hours of sunlight a day would simply be too little to bear. I asked him what led him to this conclusion about someone he barely knew. What if I'm a fan of dreary weather? Maybe I don't suffer from seasonal affective disorder. I could be a night person…or a rainy day kind of guy. After spending an hour mostly talking at me, did he really know enough about me to lump me into the category of "most people" when it came to London?

When I dared to suggest that he didn't, he got frustrated. How dare I challenge his all-knowingness, or be contrarian? That was his thing. At that moment, I knew the date was unsalvageable. Thirty minutes later, it was mercifully over.

Thank God. My opponent/date and I parted with a hug, and as he walked away, I deleted his number from my phone. Yes, I was laying down my arms. Let someone else fight the good sword fight. From now on (for now), dateless is the new black.

Monday, February 2, 2015

We Don't Need Another Hero: My Problem with "American Sniper"

I love a good awards-season controversy as much as the next Oscar buff. It can perk up a dull January/February, and create the illusion that movies or actors or living legends or whatever/whoever is central to the controversy are more interesting than they are.

That said, controversy is most effective when it's warranted, and frankly, I don't get all the bickering over American Sniper. Sure, parts of it could almost double as propaganda for the right to bear arms, but as far as the Iraq War that is central to the story is concerned, Sniper's political stance concerning West vs. the Middle East is less obvious than, says, Argo's was two years ago. So there's that.

And this: I don't see Sniper as being pro- or anti-Muslim, nor necessarily pro-war or anti-war. If I had to go with one side, though, I'd say it leans closer to being against military bloodshed. The movie easily could have been subtitled War Is Hell on the Homefront, Too, which certainly would not have been a celebration of it.

But getting back to Sniper's depiction of Muslims, is it inherently anti-Muslim because its story is told from an American's point of view? The movie is, after all, called American Sniper, so I went in expecting a Western focus. While I'll cheerfully concede that Eastwood could have painted the Iraqis with less broad strokes, I see that more as a result of his shallow directorial style than as a political statement or a personal agenda.

Perhaps someday someone will make a movie about the Iraq War from the other side's point of view. What a fascinating movie that would be. In the meantime, we have this one. Being that it was based on the title character's memoir, I'd say Eastwood told the story he was supposed to tell.

That doesn't mean he justifies the killing of 160 to 255 Iraqis. To say that telling the story through Kyle's eyes is an indictment of Muslims and tantamount to racism and xenophobia is like saying that if any screenwriter is ever brave enough to write a movie about slavery from a slave owner's point of view, that movie would automatically be racist.

Calm down, people. The Talented Mr. Ripley, one of my favorite books, had a killer as its protagonist and practically dared you to identify with him. That didn't mean its author, Patricia Highsmith, condoned murder. She was simply telling a story -- one that made for such a disturbing read because it so effectively got inside its main character's head and helped you understand his motivation and, dare I say, identify with it to a certain extent.

That is precisely what doesn't happen with American Sniper, and for me, that's its greatest flaw. It's not that Chris Kyle killed 160 to 255 people. That's a documented fact. There's no way to get around that while making a movie about him. What I never got from the movie was why. Was it his unwavering patriotism? Was he just protecting his fellow Navy SEALS and Marine comrades? Was he a racist and xenophobe who simply hated Iraqis? (His reaction to the little boy who picked up the gun and then put it back down suggests that it wasn't so simple.) Was he just doing his job?

After two hours and 13 minutes, I felt like I knew Kyle's story, but I still didn't really know the man. The movie fails to go deep into his head. We have scenes of his wife telling him how he feels, scenes of him staring off into space, a scene of him attacking a dog in a PTSD fit, but once it was all over, I didn't feel as if I knew anything about Chris Kyle other than what he did.

Why did he seem to love his work so much until he didn't? Why was he such an excellent marksman? Why did killing seem to come so easily to him? Clint Eastwood is the king of wrapping up plot points in neat little bows, but I'm going to need more than a scene with Kyle's father warning him to be neither the wolf nor the sheep but rather the protector to understand what shaped him.

While I enjoyed this biopic more than I did The Theory of Everything, I had a similar problem with both movies. Their depictions of complex, complicated men are too simplistic and borderline hagiographic, which, in Sniper's case, is particularly confusing because Bradley Cooper specializes in playing flawed, complicated men. He does the material he's given justice, but it's far from an "Oh, wow!" performance.

Just in case we don't get that Chris Kyle is considered a hero by pretty much everyone he encounters when they stop just short of bowing down to him, we have that scene with Jonathan Groff, sounding a lot like Patrick, the character he plays on Looking, telling Kyle's son that his dad is an icon. By vaguely announcing, just before the end credits roll, that Kyle was killed shortly after the final scene by a veteran he was trying to help, the movie paints a halo over his epitaph.
As I watched the scene with Groff, I almost wanted Kyle to recognize him as Groff's gay TV character and pull his little boy away. It would have been the most homophobic move ever, but at least I would have felt like I was looking at a real person and not just a variation on the strong, silent Dirty Harry archetype that Clint Eastwood has spent so much of his career glorifying.

The big difference: Dirty Harry never actually existed. Chris Kyle did.