London 101

My brief time in London, England would likely be categorized among anyone else’s worst travel stories. Arriving already sick with a cold, I departed sicker. I racked up nearly twice the amount of debt I’d anticipated just covering expenses such as trains to and from airports, and an “upgrade” for a rescheduled flight home that cost me an extra $400. Yes, at the time I was there, London was cold and wet and I was not in the best physical shape, but it was still a fascinating time.

The first thing you’ll find yourself doing upon arriving in London is searching for a US-to-UK adapter so that you can charge your phone and laptop, both of which are probably dead or dying. You see, if you’ve never traveled anywhere in Europe before, you wouldn’t know this, but most European countries have their own specially designed outlets, which of course, American chargers aren’t compatible with. You need to get an adapter. In the airport in Lisbon, Portugal, I was forced to steal one such adapter out of desperation (well, that, and I wasn’t going to pay the $25 asking price, fuck that extortion). Anyway, UK chargers have plugs that are THREE TIMES the size of an American charger.

Oh.

So my first real night in London (you’ll sleep most of your first day away, don’t even try to fight it), I’m running around looking for a UK charger adapter, but I’m also looking for anyplace with good WiFi so that I can reach my friend to figure out where we’re meeting up exactly. I’m in Leicester Square (pronounced Lester), which is kind of like Union Square, only far more charming (and walkable). I find a shop that sells charger adapters pretty quickly, and it’s only £5 (thank god). Finding stable WiFi on the other hand proves to be a challenge. Note to self: when traveling overseas again, find some way to bring phone service with you. Running around trying to find a hotspot strong enough to make a WhatsApp call is just as it sounds: frustrating and time-consuming. Argh!

Once you take care of the technical difficulties though – get your phone(s) charged, your commute(s) planned – London is yours for the taking!

I spent much of my time in London as an observer, only talking to my friend Michael, who was the reason I was there, and his friends, all Londoners of course. The average Londoner seemed to me to be strikingly cosmopolitan, almost too well dressed, and a bit unflappable. This is not a city where people stare, it occurred to me. As a result, I felt mostly at ease, because no one was judging me as an (obvious) non-Briton, but also because the city seemed to have a very laid-back almost tranquil vibe. This is not to say that there wasn’t urgency in the air. Londoners are very fast, especially in the Underground stations. On the streets, they walk in an orderly but rapid pace, rarely stopping to idle or look through shop windows or at passerby, the way we do in New York. These people are composed: they know where they are going, and if they don’t look at other people on the street, it seems to be out of respect or civility.

In New York, you can get lost in the existential sense. In London, that didn’t really happen to me. Everything about London is so quaint, and small: it’s not a city that threatens to overwhelm you, or swallow you whole. You can get lost in the literal sense though, as the streets are jagged, go off on tangents. If you’re traveling to an Airbnb in a more remote part of the city, be prepared to walk around in circles for a bit.

London is a big party city, and I did a lot of that there. A lot of eating too. I had DIRTY BURGER, which was fuckin’ delicious, thanks Michael. Is that solely a UK franchise?

I did drink. Three beers on the second night there at a club called G-A-Y, then I danced my head off at a club called Heaven. The next night, I had a few beers, and a shot of tequila with a cutie named James. Whatever, I still claim sobriety. A few drinks whilst visiting a country 3,000 miles away from home does not a relapse make. When in Rome, does as the Romans do (and the English are renowned for their binge drinking).

HUGE FUCKING CLICHÉ ALERT – I felt like a different person in London. Calmer, somehow. It wasn’t regular life. I was just… there. In London, walking around. Not even a tourist really, just, bloop, in a foreign country. Of course I was a bit anxious, but also stimulated, excited. There were moments of complete frustration in London, of course, as there would be while traversing any odd and unfamiliar territory for the first time, but also moments of complete liberation and exhibition *wink wink*

This trip did wonders for my mental health, simple enough. If you’re ever in a rut, or just need to get away, taking a spontaneous trip like this is a good idea. Put it on your credit card, hop on a plane, visit an amazing city, worry about the bill later. Best decision I’ve made in a while.

Why Rihanna Matters

Rihanna turns 29 today. 2-9. Remember that bare-bellied girl who arrived out of nowhere with “Pon De Replay” way back in… 2005. She’s grown now… barely! She still showing up at awards just for the kiki, as she did last Sunday at the 59th Grammys, with a diamond-encrusted flask no less.

More like the Jammies!

Rihanna GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Rihanna is my exact same age. Well, I’m two months older, being born on the butt-end of 1987, but we grew up together. Sure, I’m not as sexy, stylish, poised, or in the same galaxy when it comes to wealth and fame, but I feel a kinship with her.

Rihanna is special, and I think she would be special even if she had stayed in Barbados and never become Intergalactic Hitmaking Sensation Rihanna™. She is electric without trying, and doesn’t take the fame game as deathly serious as some of her peers. She’ll often drop music, skip the promotion thing, and still go top 10. Instead, you’ll find her on Instagram, posting charming selfies (oxymoron? She may be the only person on Earth who makes them work) and other snapshots from her lavish life. To be young, black, beautiful, and loaded…

How did Rihanna, a little girl from the island of Barbados, make it this far? Why have we allowed her to? She’s the one pop icon the public hasn’t built up just to tear down. There’s a certain confidence we have in her, a certain level of calm with her. Is this due to her authenticity and earthy charisma? Perhaps she’s just less threatening, more inspirational than aspirational, as most American cultural figures tend to inflame or gnaw at our insecurities.

She may also just be more likable: she’s completely disarming and genuine in a way that is antithetical to modern celebrity. Remember when she got on a random London train and chatted with fans, or ran and jumped into an adoring sea of them? She (literally) isn’t untouchable.

Sure, Beyonce gets all the glory (and she is a force to be reckoned with), but Rihanna doesn’t want it anyway.  She is self-possessed in a way that perhaps Beyonce and others aren’t: she doesn’t demand you worship her, only that you have a good time when with her. Tellingly, her music is more eclectic and purely enjoyable than many of her peers’. She traverses sounds, often within the same cultural moment. In 2013, she released the gorgeous piano ballad “Stay”, followed by a trap record, “Pour It Up”, proving that she is one of the few music stars with clout on pop and urban radios. On her eighth and best album Anti, she gives us a grungy opener like “Consideration”, followed by the majestic “James Joint/Kiss It Better”, and her #1 hit “Work”, which blurs the lines between dancehall and electronica. The Motown-inflected ballad “Love On the Brain”, might just hit the top 10 on the Billboard chart this week, a nice birthday gift indeed.

Rihanna is gold in an era of trash: a celebrity worth celebrating, and maybe even deifying, even if she doesn’t want the pedestal – just the money, clothes, endless weed re-up, and following that comes with it. Rihanna matters for many reasons, but perhaps most because she reminds us to live life as if no one is watching, pay our haters dust, and keep it moving.

Live your life, girl, as fearlessly and fiercely as we all should.

 

8 Great Series for Intensely Therapeutic Viewing

The shows that we watch (and re-watch) say a lot about us – our temperaments, our tastes, but mostly, what we find enjoyable, and even soothing. After a long day of work, while sick (or nursing a hangover), amidst a bout of depression or general malaise, our favorite series can be a balm, improving mood with brutally honest humor, allowing us to reflect, or to get lost in situations with people whose problems are much worse than ours.

A great series can improve empathy, make us think, laugh, cry, and even change us. Here are eight series I’ve found great comfort in over the years.

1) Homeland (2011 – present)

Homeland, starring Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA operative with bipolar disorder, is perfect “misery viewing” – cathartic to watch, especially if you are down in the dumps. I first watched the series in its entirety a month into sobriety, and then again after leaving a particularly draining job. It levels me every time. The emotional highs are highhh and its lows are lowwww, mimicking Carrie’s own disorder in a way. When it’s hitting stride as a straight-ahead thriller (as in the fourth season, set in Pakistan), it becomes highly addictive.

There is nothing like Homeland on TV: campy melodrama and high-stakes storylines involving domestic and Middle Eastern terrorism intersect, mostly with precision. Start with the gripping first season, and if you find you’ve had enough of the “Brody era” by the end of season two, jump ahead to the stand-alone fourth and fifth seasons set in Pakistan and Berlin.

2) Veep (2012 – present)

At its core, Veep is a joyous and uplifting series. Technically, it’s a situation comedy about a US Vice President grappling for power and influence, wrangling her incompetent staff, and dealing with the endless politicking that comes with the job. It’s dark and cynical for sure, but it’s poignantly written, and, though set-and-costume designed within an inch of its life, moves with uncommon spontaneity and fluidity, thanks to a cast who makes it all look effortless. The dialogue moves at a rapid pace and the jokes, which are scatching and yield endless returns, never feel forced.

Veep is so brilliant because its characters are people who could (and probably do) exist in real life. You’ll cringe at how horrible and human these people are, and maybe fall apart with them when their tireless and futile efforts end in bitter disappointment (as in the fifth season finale “Inauguration.”) At 10 28-minute episodes a season (only 48 episodes total so far), it’s also a fast watch.

3) Buffy (1997 – 2003)

Buffy was the first show I fell in love with, and the first show I couldn’t get enough of. Watching Buffy was like inhabiting a dangerous, sexy, scary, and inimitably cool world that helped me make sense of my own confusing and at times scary experiences. I could relate to the story of a young woman coming to terms with her lot in life, having to shoulder incredible burdens, often alone and in silence, and trying to reach some level of peace with it all. I suspect most of the young people who tuned in, struggling with their sexualities and identities, thrashing about, trying to find their place in the world, felt the same.

4) Mr. Robot (2015 – present)

Mr. Robot is one of those shows that seeps into your pores, and fucks your shit up for a while. In the first season, where we meet Elliot, a young hacker planning the “largest redistribution of wealth in history”, the story functions as a red pill, forcing us to acknowledge our slavery, to institutions and corporations, to our perceptions and those of others, to our own human desires, and frailties. By season two, the writers have dosed us with a powerful hallucinogen, and maybe a tranquilizer, asking us to accept the madness  we’ve found ourselves in, to find comfort in it, if only, like our wide-eyed hero, for a brief moment.

5) Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)

Breaking Bad is more than cathartic; it’s incendiary. It challenges notions of what it means to be American, what it means to be good, and what it means to be a good American. It is the story of a man who is just fed up with everything. Fed up with being pigeonholed into a life and a role he never wanted, fed up with living life on life’s terms. To break bad is a Southern colloquialism meaning to “raise hell” – and high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White does just that, and much more.

6) Shameless (2011 – present)

The central question behind Shameless is: do the poor have any chance of getting ahead in America? Or do their destructive behaviors and addictions (often the side effects of living in poverty) threaten to keep them where they are, or destroy them? So far, the story seems to be going in an uplifting direction, implying that the Gallaghers, a hardscrabble gang of Irish-American siblings living in Southside Chicago, have a pretty good shot of making something of themselves – with myriad fuckups along the way, of course.

In the show’s final years, we’ve seen the Gallaghers become business owners, (failed) college students, and civil servants despite obstacles such as criminal records and mental disorders. With the show’s upcoming and likely final eighth season, hopefully these kids get a collective break, and if they can’t get out of the ghetto, at least end up stable enough to weather the wave of gentrification heading their way.

7) Everybody Hates Chris (2005 – 2009)

I remember watching this show every day in the afternoon and it had such an earthy and charming vibe. Chris’ family was lower middle-class; his father worked as a delivery truck driver, his mother was a wise, no-nonsense disciplinarian with a heart of gold, his younger brother and sister were equal parts annoying and adorable. This was my childhood (if it had been halfway decent), complete with ass whuppings and maternal death stares.

Everybody Hates Chris was the only “black show” on TV made with any restraint and inventiveness, and that’s likely because it wasn’t a “black show”, but a sitcom about a young black boy growing up in Brooklyn in 1985, who, as we know, goes on to become one of the most famous comedians ever. The set design and period details were perfect, and you could tell every episode was made by a cast and crew that genuinely loved working together, such as in the finale, which paid homage to The Sopranos’ final episode, “Made in America”.

8) Nurse Jackie (2009 – 2015)

Poor Jackie Peyton, the beleaguered and drug-addicted nurse played so deftly and movingly by Edie Falco (The Sopranos). Did she die in the final episode? Or was she merely enjoying the high and wishing everyone would fuck off and let her enjoy it? I’d like to think it was the latter. Three lines of heroin couldn’t have been enough to take out our beloved Jackie, the tough-as-nails, (re)lapsed Catholic who said to herself once, “Make me good Lord, just not yet.”

To anyone who has craved the thrill, for whom everyday mundane life was not enough, who has used drugs or alcohol as a means to not just cope, but to get the full feel of life – this show hits where it hurts, but it’s also painfully funny and true.

Honorable MentionsHow to Get Away With Murder, Atlanta,  The X-FilesAbsolutely Fabulous, The Sopranos, The Wire, Dead Like Me.