Thursday, June 19, 2008

And Boston Beats L.A.!

The Boston Celtics just beat the Los Angeles Lakers.

After more than two decades of waiting fruitlessly. After seeing Larry Bird and Kevin McHale play their last games and get sent off without a championship. After seeing Reggie Lewis crumple to the floor and die a few months later. After learning Paul Pierce had been stabbed. After seeing Rick Pitino bully his way off the coaching roster. After countless and meaningless trades. The one pre-season trade that mattered finally bore fruit. This era’s Big Three – Pierce, Garnett, and Allen – finally have a championship ring to call their own.

And it was not just those Three who played their hearts out. It was Kendrick Perkins and his massive defensive presence in the paint. Rajon Rondo and his fearless attack off the opponent’s dribble penetration. Eddie House and his three-pointers that brought down the, well, house. James Posey and his reliable shooting. Leon Powe and his repeated moments of brilliance (particularly in Game 2). Sam Cassell and his reassuring offensive presence. PJ Brown and his defensive stops. (And the odd thing was I never really liked those last two players. And now I admit they were phenomenal during this Finals series.)

People said Kevin Garnett single-handedly remade the team into a mean defensive machine. And that may be true. He transformed the Celtics culture into one that was defense-oriented. They got together in very early mornings to practice their pick and roll plays, their screens, and their defensive positions. John Thibodeau, the team’s assistant coach, was also instrumental in helping the team turn the defensive corner.

And Paul Pierce, that magnificent franchise player, finally got his due. He and the team made their own history, hung up their own banner. In time, he might get his number retired and hung from the rafters, too. And he definitely earned it. As the Finals MVP, he clawed his way through the Lakers’ defense and shot impressively from the field. He worked the perimeter, the paint, the three-point area. He played with heart and passion. He has certainly defined his role in the team and everyone in Boston are just so proud of this man who morphed from rookie who tried to do everything, into an All-Star player who could do anything.

But no one made my heart swell that night than Ray Allen. Despite his inclusion into the Big Three, he was constantly ragged on his inconsistent offense. His shooting was erratic, and he was seemingly absent from the playoffs. Analysts said he had the most to sacrifice from the trade – from being the star player of the Bucks and the Sonics, to the third shooter on a team that was just full of superstars and potential stars. He seemed to always be adjusting to how the ball was rotated, and he had to buckle down and start polishing up on defense if he couldn’t get the ball himself.

Come the first two rounds of the playoffs, Allen played miserably. But when the Finals against the Lakers rolled in, he became a different player. On two nights when Garnett and Pierce were less than impressive, Allen stepped up and became the only constant among the Big Three. In the Celtics’ first loss in Los Angeles, Allen was the only player who made his shots. And in Game Six, he tied the NBA Finals record for most three pointers made. He was hot and he was money, and he never let up even when the lead was padded up to an astronomical 40 points. And he was terrific on defense, too. He was able to guard Kobe Bryant, the one player this season whose greatness was unquestionable, and shut him down on several occasions. He was closest to Larry Bird for me – a terrific scorer and defender who quietly did his role and stepped above it. He was way too classy to get physical in the paint, but he penetrated the inside as fearlessly as Kevin or Paul. Remember his mismatch with Sasha Vujacic, whom he lost on his way to the basket? Or him getting poked in the eye by Lamar Odom? His success at the three-point area has made people forget that he could play the inside, too.

But the fans knew. When Ray Allen came back from his eye injury, the fans rewarded him with a rousing cheer and a standing ovation. But he simply nudged his teammates aside and sat on the bench and kept an eye on the game. He didn’t swagger into the court; he got there quick and seemed to make a mental note as to how to help. I love his quiet passion, and I am so happy that he was rewarded for it. He got a lot of love from the fans that night. And from me. I am so so SO GLAD he won.

And Doc Rivers. The man who almost got his ass handed to him last season. He turned the team around with his Tutu mantra of “ubuntu”. And the whole team listened. He and Danny Ainge, that Celtics point guard who was easy to hate during those days – they both turned the team around this season. My hat’s off to Danny Ainge, who really looked at the big picture and stuck with it. And big props to him for sticking with Doc Rivers.

My favorite moment of the championship celebration happened twice. Once, during the immediate on-court celebrations after the clock expired, Michelle Tafoya encountered Garnett in near tears and asked how he felt. Garnett immediately thanked, among other things, Minnesota. The one city who welcomed him when he first arrived as a pro player fresh out of high school. And on the podium, when Pierce and Allen gave their speeches. Like Garnett, they both thanked a city. Both of them thanked Boston. Pierce thanked Boston for sticking with him, even on the not-so-great years. And Allen thanked Boston for having him. I’ll say. Boston, the city with the most pride to give, THANKS YOU, Allen and Pierce and Garnett and Rivers and Ainge and the rest of the Celtics. And thank you for keeping the Auerbach love (and win record) alive.

We’ll see you guys again next year.


Monday, June 16, 2008

A Father's Day post

I wrote this on January 19, 2007 on another blog. It was - to me - an emotional piece. Today, in celebration of Father's Day, and because I have a new home for my writing, I am going to re-post this. May everyone understand the importance of family in our lives.

Last night, Mr. Harold O'Malley died.

To those of you who don’t know, Mr. O’Malley is a fictional character. On a television show. He was played by a most wonderful actor named George Dzundza, and he played George O’Malley’s father on Grey’s Anatomy. He died on my television screen last night, and it was the saddest thing I have ever watched. Why does his death, his on-screen death, affect me so much?

My father had a heart attack at 2:30 am on November 1. Ironically, All Saints’ Day – also known as the day Filipinos remember the dead. Also ironically, on my side of the world, it was Halloween – also known as the day Americans celebrate spirits. I learned about it the next day, however, after the consternation of taking him to the hospital had gone and my family made sure he was stabilized before they could call me with good news, at least. I was in the middle of studying that night, when my mother called. She started out nicely, and then said to me, “Hazel, ang Papa mo…” ("Hazel, your Papa..."). She completely lost it. I kept my head. I told her to calm down, but she wouldn’t, and had to pass the telephone to my older sister. The news stunned me, but I kept a brave face throughout the conversation. I remember putting the telephone down, and looking at my hands. They were shaking. And then I cried.

The next day, I needed to be in school for an errand. I met two people that day, and to both I broke the news. I felt that it was unnecessary, considering that I was close to neither of them. But I did. I think it was because I needed an outlet of some kind. To vent. Not to rant. But to somehow tell them that I am sad today, nothing else. To be honest, nothing else mattered to me. I went through the day smiling at people and making conversation, but deep down inside, I was terrified. This persisted many weeks after. One time, I met with a faculty adviser about my plans to get a Ph.D. I had the most difficult time talking to her because I could not get my father out of my head. In fact, the first time I broke the news two years ago about earning a scholarship to UMass, he hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, “Baka gusto mo na rin mag-Ph.D. Ituluy-tuloy mo na.” ("You might want to get a Ph.D. You might as well go all the way.") I broke down and wept in my adviser’s office. Professionalism be damned, I guess.

I kept in constant touch with my family, particularly my oldest sister who is a doctor. Thank heavens that she went through medical school, because now, more than ever, we need her. As much as doctors need to be objective, sometimes, we need a little more than just the facts from them. My sister gave my mother and siblings the truth about my father, but she also held their hands. One of my father’s cardiologists was a classmate of my sister from medical school, whom we’ve known for a long time. He, too, held our hands and faced the truth with us. I am so grateful for the extra emotion she put in it. It gives her and my father’s team of doctors, the opportunity to do right by us. They would have thought, this is Ivy’s father, and we should take care of him.

On December 5 at 7 pm, EST time, my father went into the OR for quintuple bypass surgery. I had a class that day, and the whole time, my mind was elsewhere. I went to Mass every day, prayed the rosary, begged for my father’s health, and would not sleep nor study. I kept looking at my cellphone for text messages. Then, finally, at 2 am the next day, my brother called me with good news. “You can go to sleep now,” he said to me.

My father, thank God, is doing fine. He is walking, talking, and eating alright, even though he gets cranky whenever he could not eat the same food as he did before. Which was why on Christmas’ Noche Buena, everyone back home pared down the food on the table and ate food that he would have eaten. It was a gesture of solidarity with him, and I found it very touching. My mother tells me that he now goes out into our garden every day, looking at the flowers and orchids my mother tends to. She said he loves looking at them. I imagine my father, after his life flashed before him during the weeks leading to surgery, stopping to smell the roses now that he has been given a second chance. Even I would have kissed the grass and smelt the roses.

The worst part about the experience has been not living with it. I was here, in the US, alone and lonely and worried to freaking hell and I could not do a thing about my father except to talk to him on the telephone and pray for him. I have read the Grey's Anatomy message boards in the hours after that episode aired, and the writer’s blog… It is amazing, that blog. The whole episode is dedicated to the writer's father, who died under similar circumstances years ago. Everything, down to the fart joke in the middle of surgery, happened to her many years ago. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring, simply because it told me that I am not alone in feeling the pain. And the blog entry unleashed a torrent of comments from fans who have all experienced a death in the family in some form or another. And while the comments about the pain were numerous, I felt a different kind of pain that was never brought up. To me, worse than the thought of your father dying back home, is the pain of not being there. The pain is not shared; it is simply bottled up inside, and you end up crying on your pillow at night. It is the worst kind of pain, to not be there and actually SEE your father fight, and SEE your mother fight for him, and SEE your siblings fight for him. My father’s recovery was as much a testament to my family’s determination as it was a testament to the expertise of his doctors. My mother and brothers and sisters were by his side the whole time, and I... am here. I am not there. While I do not discount the power of my prayers and my comforting words which traveled through telephone lines, I am still not there. For a child to not be at her parent’s side is the worst kind of feeling. My obligation has been to my family and I failed that. I wished like hell that I went back home, but I couldn’t. My family has been understanding through it all, but I beat myself up about it. Because in the end, when all is said and done, I still was not there.

Watching the O’Malleys go through the excruciating pain of a impending family death made me relive my own excruciating pain. The “What if I was there?” question loomed in my head as I watched George obsess about his father’s condition. For weeks, anger lit up the internet forums as people criticized George for acting like a jerk. I wrote back, “What he is feeling is understandable. I certainly felt the whole world on my shoulders at the prospect of a sick parent. I know the feeling. I KNOW.” And then, after Mr. O’Malley had surgery for his esophageal cancer and his family was coming in his room to visit him, George’s reaction to seeing his father all scarred with tubes coming out of his body was similar to my reaction when my brother emailed me pictures of my father in his hospital bed. He looked so WEAK. It was the most depressing thing to see my father like that when I know him as a strong man who gave me piggyback rides, fixed the tires on our cars, and carried heavy things. I felt so sad for him. George’s reaction, clinging on to Meredith’s arm and repeating over and over again “He’s my Dad”, was the same as mine. He’s my Dad, he’s my Dad. My Dad, with the tubes and the scars and the bruises. He’s my Dad.

Before the surgery, George and his dad were playing cards, and Mr. O’Malley confessed to lying about running over his pet dog. He apologized. George realized what he was trying to do, and told him not to act as if he was dying. When the realization hit him that his father is never going to wake up, George, while giving his sleeping father a shave, confessed to another childhood sin that he lied about. “I lied to you; and you thought I never lied.” He said sorry, just like that time when his father said he was sorry about running over the dog. I remember the day my father came home from the hospital following his heart attack and before bypass surgery. He told me on the telephone that he loved me and was so proud of me for being where I am, and I broke down. Again. On the telephone. If you had seen Babel, and saw Brad Pitt sobbing on the telephone while his son was talking on the other line, that was pretty much how I was. My father cooed at me, and told me everything was fine, but I kept right on sobbing. “I love you!” I kept saying over and over again. You never really know when you need to say it, and I said it.

The scene where the doctors were advising the O’Malley family of the option of keeping the father on life support or not was very sad. The brothers and the mother all deferred to George’s opinion, whether he thinks it is time to “let him go”. I can only imagine that, when the time comes, it will be my physician sister who will also make that choice. She was there when my father was rushed to the hospital the first time, and was there during his surgery, and was there during his recovery and checkups. She will know. And I will count on her to know. She will be the rock of the family, and I am just grateful that she is there.

My tears flowed non-stop when Mr. O’Malley was finally unplugged from the life support system. I had seen a family member die, and the sad repercussions that followed it. My brother and his wife lost a baby a few years ago, and I thought that was the saddest thing to happen to our family. To see my brother, my big, strong brother, crying and railing against the hospital staff after my nephew died, was just heart-rending. It is something I do not want to experience again, and the fact that my father was on the verge of it – it was just too much. And so I watched that scene play out and relive my worst fears and I just cried again.

In the end, Cristina had the best words to say about it to George. “There’s a club. A Dead Dad’s Club, and you can’t be in it until you’re in it. They can try and understand, they can sympathize, but until you feel that loss … My dad died when I was nine. George, I’m really sorry you had to join the club.” George, appreciating her saying that, but also feeling sad as hell, tells her “I don’t know how to exist in a world where my Dad doesn’t.” And Cristina, her face betraying her uncharacteristic empathy and sadness, said “Yeah, that never really changes.”

I dread that moment. And I never will imagine how I can exist in a world where my Dad doesn’t. But until I join the club, I can feel at least happy in the thought that my father is many many miles away, sitting on a chair at home in the middle of my mother’s garden, writing away on a crossword puzzle. He is my Dad, and that is how I will always remember him.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

American Idol Highs and Lows

Yeah, still working on getting the recently-concluded AI season out of my system. Here are the highs and lows of Season Seven.


No American Idol season wrap-up would be complete without a list of some kind. So I made two of them: my favorites, and my least favorites. I decided to include all the performances starting with the Hollywood Round, and I've included Finale and sing-outs as well. Unfortunately, no audition piece made my jaw drop this year, unlike in season five, the only season to do so (see Taylor Hicks and Paris Bennett, both of whom sang twice and were amazing in both). But I found out that I am easy to please and so, without further ado:

Michael Johns – Bohemian Rhapsody (Hollywood Round)

I missed Michael's audition, and with my sister's constant buzz about him, I was prepared to hate him. Imagine my surprise when he sang Bohemian Rhapsody with conviction, and hit all the right notes.

Carly Smithson – Alone (Hollywood Round)

I was never a fan of Carly, she of the constant screech and wail. But I must say I liked her take on a song that Carrie Underwood IMPRESSED ME SO MUCH with. The fact was she phrased the song her own way, and that made all the difference.

Josiah Lemming – Grace Kelly (Hollywood Round)

There was so much hype about this kid that, even though I missed his audition, I was compelled to seek it on Youtube. I thought the British singing accent would grate, but I found it endearing (especially since he said he knew no other way to sing). I loved his rendition of Grace Kelly. It was vocally interesting and, by accompanying himself on keyboards, made himself adorable. Unfortunately, he got cut at the Chair, and that made me sad! But I think he's doing well on his own. I heard he got signed, so I'm looking forward to that.

David Hernandez – In The Midnight Hour (60s Week)

David H was the AI type that usually does well on the show, since he had the typical big voice that many of the other male finalists this season did not have. Except that he was my least favorite. Not only was he not likeable enough, he had this irritating tendency to slow down the tempo of a song even though it was a fast number (see "I Saw Her Standing There" on the first finals week). But judging on performances, this one was my favorite of his. Apart from it being a terrific song choice for his kind of voice, his slowed-down type of singing was perfect for this song, as he drew out the chorus to sweet effect.

Garrett Haley – Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (60s Week)

He may have been one of the first ones eliminated in the semifinals, but I will admit that I loved this rendition of his. He stood out to me on the basis of personality (despite having only heard from him that week), and by being among the first to connect to the emotion of a song – a recurring theme for this season. I was really sad to see him go so early (sort of like how I felt when Judd Harris was voted off in week one in season 4).

Jason Castro – Daydream (60s Week)

His performance captivated me instantly. Add to that, his video package showcased his good nature, and the show's very first guitar appearance made an impact. Need I say more? See earlier blog post on this.

Jason Castro – Hallelujah (80s Week)

As I mentioned before, he sang Jeff Buckley and went straight for my heart. The praise from the judges made my heart swell. To me, this was his best performance throughout the whole season, and the best performance of the season BY ANY CONTESTANT. It had the beautiful vocal, depth of emotion, and solid stage presence that is required of any American Idol showstopper (see Fantasia's Summertime, and Bo's Whipping Post). Plus the fact that he had EVERYONE, from the studio audience to those in front of their televisions, pleasantly surprised to even hear that song sung on American Idol. His performance was both an unexpected surprise and a beautiful revelation.

Brooke White – Love Is A Battlefield (80s Week)

Her unplugged version of this Pat Benatar rock song was a pleasant surprise. And her unique voice that broke in all the right places gave it a beautiful twist.

Brooke White – Let It Be (Lennon-McCartney Week)

On a week where the finalists were sweating out over how to make these iconic songs "their own", Brooke showed them that sometimes it is best to just "let it be". David Cook said it best when he complimented the performance, saying it was "organic". The raw emotion that she displayed in the last moments of her performance was deeply touching, and added to the power of the song.

Chikezie – I Saw A Face (Beatles Week)

This was one of my favorite Beatles songs EVER, and it got Chikezie in my good graces for the time being. He gave it a unique spin (bluegrass! punk!) that complemented the song's tempo, even though his vocals faltered towards the end. It did sound familiar, coming off the wildly successful bluegrass rendition of She's A Woman the week before. But I loved this one because I love the song, and his version did not take anything away from the original.

Michael Johns – It's All Wrong But It's All Right (Dolly Parton Week)

One of the sexiest vocal performances ever on American Idol (neck-and-neck with Mandisa's I Don't Hurt Anymore)! It was bluesy and soulful – two words that were never used on Michael Johns before. He turned a sentimental country song into something more sophisticated and desirous.

Michael Johns – Dream On (IGB Week)

My favorite Aerosmith song ever. Despite what the judges thought of it, I thought it was an amazing vocal. Of course there was a problem with the falsetto scream. Even Steve Tyler had problems with it! And to try to perform such an iconic scream just invited comparisons to the original. But I listen to it over and over and I it still amazes me. And he gets points from me just by choosing the song itself.

Jason Castro – Somewhere Over The Rainbow (IGB Week)

The week the Swaybots fell captive to the ukulele. It's hard to imagine that he just learned how to play it that week. But such are the powers of Jason Castro. This was the week (apart from the Semifinals 80s Week) where his was the best performance of the night. Although it was a night when seemingly everyone else brought their D- and even F-games, this performance still wowed me.

David Cook – Always Be My Baby (Mariah Carey Week)

This was my favorite Mariah Carey song, and I was really skeptical how a guy could sing it. Especially if that guy was David Cook. But he literally blew me away with an awesome emo rendition of the song. It showcased his performing smarts: he managed to hide his vocal deficiencies in the first part of the song by immediately going into it with the electric guitar, and he built up to an emotional crescendo towards the end, inviting all of us to soar with him. While he was known for covers of covers, this time, he was his original self and he was damn good. I liked him after that.

Jason Castro – I Don't Want To Cry (Mariah Carey Week)

I, too, was afraid as to how Jason was going to perform that week. And when I realized he was in the pimp spot AND going after the brilliance that was Always Be My Baby, I got even more nervous. But the performance was magic and beautiful and, most importantly, clever. Jason didn't try to go after the bells and whistles; he made up his own. And he succeeded. The best part was in his video package, when he said he chose the song because he liked the melody. It revealed to us for the first time that Jason does not choose songs based on what he could do with it (i.e. suit his voice, was in his range, etcetera). He chose songs because he liked them. And that explained why he was able to be so emotionally invested in all of his performances. He finally revealed that he's a musical snob. And a genius.

Jason Castro – Forever In Blue Jeans (Neil Diamond Week)

Like Paula said (before the gates of hell was unleashed), Jason showed a BEAUTIFUL lower register. And the song was perfect for him – it was quirky, and it had great guitar lines.

Brooke White – I Am I Said (Neil Diamond Week)

Her time was obviously up, but she awed us one last time with a pretty piano performance of this song. It was not in the league of Let It Be, but it did show us why we love her in the first place.

Syesha Mercado – Hello Again (Neil Diamond Week)

For the first time in so many weeks, Syesha managed to impress me with a performance. Sure, it was inconsistent in spots. But I remember being genuinely surprised with the very first line. She sang it straight, and strong, and clear, and precise. There was a hint of emotion underneath that slowly faded away as she gave in to her usual theatrics. But the initial part of her performance was admittedly lovely. That strong first impression never really left my mind for a while.

Jason Castro – I Shot The Sheriff Reprise (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Week)

My heart was slowly breaking while he did this. And I think his was, too, when he sang about them taking him home. But it reminded me of the attitude and pluck that he displayed the night before, to Simon's genuine consternation (and Jason's genuine bafflement as to why Simon would even question his song choice). His reprise was the only sing-out I liked, due to the emotion behind it, and the bravado before it ("We're doing the Marley one, what's going on?").

Jason Castro – Hallelujah Reprise (Finale)

People thought it was a backhanded compliment to let Jason sing solo on the Finale (either they love him for it, or they just couldn't find someone else to sing a duet with him). But I am thankful for small joys such as this. He reprised his best performance ever to an even LARGER crowd, reminding everyone why he got this far. And I'd like to think of it as the show reaffirming my choice of Hallelujah as the single best performance of any contestant this season.

I noticed that my favorite performances were mostly based on my favorite songs by certain artists. It seems that I really took song choice seriously when I decided if I liked a performance or not.

Anyway, I didn't like to rank my favorites, since there were so many that I could easily get bogged down with the details, and since some really don't compare with each other. But I can easily choose my top four based on the criteria of vocal, emotional intensity, and stage presence. Ranked from absolute best to fourth: Jason Castro's Hallelujah (Semifinals 80s Week), Michael Johns' It's All Wrong But It's All Right, David Cook's Always Be My Baby, and Brooke White's Let It Be. (Yep, there’s my ideal Final Four right there.)


Because they are human, I will desist from further criticism. But this is a list that I have thought about, and I really tried very hard not to skew the list, but it really can’t be helped. Some of the performances were rather good vocally, and that the real issue lay with something else entirely (e.g., the intention, or what happened immediately following the performance). At any rate, I’m not expecting many to agree with my choices here. These are my opinions, and mine only:

David Archuleta – We Can Work It Out (Lennon-McCartney Week)

Kristy Lee Cook – 8 Days A Week (Lennon-McCartney Week)

Kristy Lee Cook – God Bless the USA (IGB Week)

All of Andrew Lloyd Webber Week

David Cook – Baba O' Reilly (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Week)

Syesha Mercado – A Change Is Gonna Come (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Week)

David Archuleta – With You (Top 3 Week)


Castro Bump! Who's Right Fucking On? Me! And Jason's Fans Aplenty!

Would you look at that? I get a Castrocopia award! Yay!

I am just starting my blog, and it’s already made a friend. How cool is that? My very own Permalink!

I love the folks over at Castrocopia. Whenever I felt unduly harassed by non-Castro fans, whenever my AI-loving self got no love from TPTB, whenever I’d read up on some very misleading press about Jason, I’d head over on to Castrocopia for my dose of Castro comfort.

It is a virtual community that was full of laughs and genuine musical appreciation. We appreciate and celebrate the guy who, and the music that, brought us all together. And to take the camaraderie a little further, CUSP was born. That Castro movement that promises to make the world a little better.

The fact is that Jason Castro has the BEST FANS IN THE WHOLE WORLD. People who would set aside time to volunteer, after giving the gentlest and sweetest of nudges to a guy who deserves to be heard in public more often. Some AI fans would settle for simply waiting for an album to come out. Not the Castrocopians, the Dreadheads, the Castrofans, the musical souls of this planet. They looked at what Jason represents, and sought to follow his lead. Of course, they will wait for that much-anticipated solo album. But they can do more than that. And this is why I love this community of Jason lovers. We have the maturity and the grace to look at the world beyond us and see how we can give ourselves to it. Much like Jason has done the whole time AI was on air.

It reminded me of that little “mixup” a while back. When the charity that was supposedly Jason’s “pet” charity was not the actual one. And yet people still gave. And Jason’s reaction to all this? “There are no accidents. Everything happens for a reason.”


You wonder… what can the Archey Angels do? Those Cougars for Cook? What if they banded together and planted trees? Or collectively shut off the lights when they leave a room? That would have made a difference. Despite the flash and panache of an Idol Gives Back, there is still much to do. And more often than not, people don’t have the money to give. But they have time to give. And that is something to think about.

But back to the best fans in the world. Jason’s. Isn't it amazing how someone’s music can turn his listeners into change-seekers and do-gooders? How someone’s personal convictions can be filtered into the mindsets of those who think and love alike? Isn’t it great? Musician and listeners become one. I don’t care what the others think of us who have proudly stood by Jason all these weeks. It is not just the pants, you know. The universe is a much better place with us in it.

Note to Liz Lemon, McLovin, and spinningwheel: Thank you.


Okay... I gotta say it again. Jason's fans are the best ones ever! I nearly forgot to check for comments, so it was quite overwhelming to see a lot of them. Here's hoping it's not the same Anonymous person writing something different each time! The comments are sweet and great to read through. Thanks so much!

To the person who felt bad about me criticizing the other contestants. I guess, being in the public eye, they are fair game - just as Jason was for so many weeks. And he will continue to be fair game, mark my words. Unfortunately for me, my attempts at sarcasm and snark got lost in translation. I'm no David Cook or Michael Johns. In this instance, I wish I was. But thank you for that. I think I got too caught up in my thoughts. After all, the other contestants are his friends, too. My apologies to those who found it a little unpleasant to read through.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Castro Bump!

I initially thought of writing a "closure" piece of sorts for Jason Castro, the one AI contestant I rooted for the whole season. But it wouldn't be fair. Not when he's just starting to rocket into the stratosphere of the music industry. So I'll just call this a "thank you" piece to Jason - singer, songwriter, guitar player, fellow music fan. Maybe, after more than two weeks since the AI Finale, I will "bump" up Jason and remind everybody of his accomplishments, and what a fantastic person he is. Here's my own version of the "Castro Bump".

It has been two weeks since David Cook was crowned American Idol of Season 7, but I find it hard to let go of some fantastic performances during the many weeks the show was on air. And even harder to let go of a certain phenomenal performer who captured my attention and held it for far longer than any AI contestant ever had. Jason Castro, with his trademark hairstyle and vocals, was the show's singular breakthrough performer. Forget about David Cook's "originality", or David Archuleta's "talent beyond his 17 years". Forget the fact that Carly Smithson and Michael Johns were the frontrunners leading up to the semifinal weeks due to relentless camera time. To me, Jason Castro was the true discovery of Season Seven after all was said and done.

Jason, whom I have NEVER heard about prior to the first semifinals week, became my instant favorite the moment I heard him sing "Daydream". Sure, he had a smidgen of airtime during the "Chair" round (where Ryan called his reaction to moving on to the semis as "understated", and his dork dance reminded everyone of Bob Marley on high) and there was that one fleeting shot of him rehearsing with his guitar backstage during Hollywood Week. But here was a guy who never had any screen time whatsoever, and yet he succeeded in drawing people to him. His voice was raw yet beautiful, his camera presence solid. For a guy without a lot of stage experience, he certainly knew how to work the camera. He was the first contestant to accompany himself on a musical instrument, which allowed him to stand out even more. And needless to say, his appearance was definitely an eye-catcher – dreads, jeans, rolled up sleeves, and eyelashes all. "Daydream" seemed like the perfect song choice for him. In a musical generation that bordered on the raw and the punk, he managed to find a song that could capture his essence in 90 seconds – that of unabashed optimism and sentimental quirk.

And his stock peaked when he sang "Hallelujah" the week before he was voted into the Top Twelve. To me, anyone who sings Jeff Buckley automatically gets my heart. And his version, in my opinion, was the one on which ALL the other versions that followed are based. I don't think anybody can top the original, or even try to. Jason went after Buckley's version but made it his own and was simply WONDERFUL. It was the first performance of his where he wore his heart on his sleeve, and it showed. Botched ending be damned – the power in the performance was all in the emotion that he displayed. Jeff Buckley, the man who always sang like his heart was on fire, would have been proud of Jason that night.

That performance was also the first in a series of "Castro Bumps", where he would help bump up sales of the original on the iTunes charts. Jason Castro proved that he was radio-ready AND relevant. And his raw emotion that night also proved that there was more to the quirky essence that "Daydream" provided. He could carry stronger themes, and he had the maturity to understand them (something David Archuleta and Syesha Mercado sorely lacked).

Over the following weeks, I found myself rooting for him and following his performances closely. And time and time again, he was consistent. Too consistent to some, in fact, that some thought he was merely coasting. But the fact could also be said of many other Idol contestants in the past. Bo Bice and his rock song choices, Ruben Studdard and his R&B vocals, and Blake Lewis and his constant need to be hip, to name a few. And even some season seven contestants were guilty of not moving beyond the box as well – David Archuleta and his ballads, David Cook and his emo covers, and Carly and her constant need to shout something to the high heavens. The thing with Jason is that his consistency stands out in its restraint. He did not have the loud rock grit that Cook possessed, or the vocal runs of Archuleta, or the white soul sound of Michael Johns. He was not a belter like Syesha or Carly or Ramiele. But he had his own special niche that demanded a different kind of musical skill, a different sort of gravitas. And what was most impressive about it is that, in spite of his musical restraint? He could still draw listeners to him. Say what you will about his inadequacies, but Jason needs no more than what he already has to command a crowd. Did you see how, while singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", he enraptured the Swaybots so much that they forgot to throw their hands in the air? Jason is commanding in his quiet presence, and he doesn't need to belt or flail about onstage in order to captivate an audience.

In a way, he is much closer to fellow contestant Brooke White in terms of skill and musical inadequacies. They both have a limited vocal range, a vulnerability whenever they were onstage without an instrument, and a tendency to eschew the bells and whistles of a song. Instead, they let their vocals do the talking, and their emotions do the convincing. Both are throwbacks in a sense. They reminded us of that era in music when the vocal was just the medium, that it was the lyrics themselves that wielded the power, that music had the ability to transport, and sincerity was the platform on which the artist stood. A time when it was just the artist and his music and his listener, and that musicianship was not a production but a creative journey. The folkies embodied it the most, which is why these two were lumped into that category. And people are now saying that Jason and Brooke have forged a commercial path for all the young folkies and troubadours out there. But the truth was that Jason and Brooke can encompass any genre of music and still sound like themselves, and not just as folk artists.

Take Jason's performances of "Fragile" and "September Morn". He did not deviate from the originals so much, and yet it sounded very different from Sting's and Neil Diamond's. "I Don't Want To Cry" was another – an R&B song that Jason twisted into an almost-stripped down reggae-pop sound. And can anyone forget "Memory"? Neither can I. And it's a good thing. It was stripped of its raw anguish, and replaced with muted desperation. And usually, it's that quiet air of hopelessness which makes it more deeply troubling, and Jason, hampered by his own private illness, did the song even more justice than Andrew Lloyd Webber could achieve. And truly, none of these examples sounded like a folk song. And while the vocals had much to do with it, I would also like to say that attitude and sincerity plays a large role with it as well, which certainly encompass musical genres. As Paula Abdul said again and again, Jason was that contestant whom you could easily distinguish vocally. Given any type of music, you get Jason every time. (And for Brooke, I've listened to her "Songs from the Attic", and I must say, I am genuinely surprised and pleased.)

This consistency and lack of tricks are why his performances have been criticized as lackluster and uninspiring. But can you fault a performer who has been wonderfully consistent every time? Or would you rather get a Courtney Love or a Damon Gough, interesting artists though they may be, but have been woefully unreliable performers at most? Give me Jason any day, and it will never feel like a waste of time. They said Jason is unexciting to watch, as opposed to, say, Carly and the strained vocals, or David Cook prancing about the stage with a guitar, or Michael Johns gyrating with the microphone. But Jason is exciting in a different way. His song choices alone Рbeing the only contestant who has sung Leonard Cohen, Sting, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan (Rock and Roll Hall of Famers ALL!) in one season Рhas impressed the heck out of me, and keeps me tuning in to find out what he is going to sing next. The fact that he is radio-ready and musically relevant makes him exciting. His offstage persona makes him even more doubly exciting, and triply adorable. The mere fact that he gives his all in every performance, no matter what people think, means that he has the passion for the business and has the potential to come up with something intriguing. Who can call that blas̩? Many artists have tried to veer off from their original sound, in the hopes of becoming more "exciting", but most of the time, in the end, they go back to the old sound. In time, I suppose Jason will do that, too. He is too much of a multi-faceted performer to stick to one musical direction. Plus, he is still evolving and still discovering who he is musically. In time, he will surprise us, and he will keep us on our toes. But in the meantime, he is cherishing the sound he has now and he will only get better before he moves on to something bigger.

As much as I appreciate American Idol for giving Jason the musical opportunity of a lifetime, and for giving us music fans an artist to feel excited about, I am also disappointed at how the show treated him, and the other contestants as well. He was burned out, and admitted that his inexperience caused him to falter. The judges were also unforgiving (Paulagate, anyone?), and seemed to trample on his spirits. Many people thought he wanted to leave, when all he really wanted was to just make music. Really, all he ever wanted was to make music, and the show disappointed him in that regard. But the upside? Is that Jason now knows how much hard work is required to succeed in the business, regardless of whether or not it is even related to the music itself. Which is why Adam Levine has given the best advice thus far: "Get ready to work, baby. It's gonna be really tough, you'll have to work a lot. And then you're gonna get jaded, and then you're gonna say, 'God, I hate this'. But you really love it. So try to remember that." Jason now knows it firsthand. All he has to do is learn from it. The reassuring thing is no matter how much the show may have disappointed him, his passion for music is still alive and that he now knows that he loves it, warts and all.

Despite speculation, I don't think the show ever broke Jason. He sang what he knew and loved, which meant that he sang from the heart. And nowhere was it more evident than in the week when he was eliminated. He sang Dylan, the foremost troubadour of our time, cementing the image in our heads of Jason as a folkhouse progressive. And he sang Marley, which was the strongest sentiment he could possibly give about himself and his universe. Almost saying, "Here, this is what people think of me and I embrace it. Not because they are right, but because I am right about myself and the people have caught on." On the one night that he simply performed as himself, he was eliminated. Irony much? That aside, he went out on a high note. He went out as himself. He never followed the dictates of the AI machine, never fit the mold of the usual Idol. He was no fool, and was as anti-establishment as they come, but in the sweet gentle package that is Jason. He followed his own artistry, and emerged happy as he sang the Marley song in the end that some people hated but he loved in his gut. He refused to give in to criticism, and continued to follow his heart. If he displays that same kind of passion and bravado in his career, there will be no stopping him. (And if you ask me, I thought "I Shot The Sheriff" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" were inspired song choices and were performed brilliantly. Because – seriously! – how can you judge the vocals on these two songs? The former required a certain kind of attitude and pluck to pull off, and the latter required emotional sincerity – all of which Jason displayed that night, despite forgetting some words. So, ask me about these two performances and I will say that they were AWESOME.)

I trust that he will follow his own path and just have a grand time with his music. And seriously, I cannot WAIT to see where his music takes him. Right now, there is a slew of online non-Idol material that does his talent justice. He has drummed for a rock band, sang Christian contemporary in church, and performed reggae and folk and pop songs in clubs. And I'm sure there is so much more out there that he has done that will serve to take my breath away some more. At the moment, he is a one-man musical variety show, and now, as his hometown visit shows, he is taking a more acoustic and sentimental approach to his music. Meanwhile, on a personal level, he has already earned my deepest respect and profound admiration for being the spiritual and gentle person that he is. His interviews made me realize that he is an even better and lovelier person than what he chooses to publicize. I commend his family for keeping him grounded, and for letting him loose to find his passion. I also thank his parents for raising him to be the person that he is now. I can only hope that the universe conspires to give Jason his moment in the sun.

It might take some time before we find him at the mic again, guitar or drumsticks in hand. But it doesn't matter to me. To me, good music is good music and is timeless. I have eclectic tastes of my own, and Jason's sound fits in comfortably within my musical universe (and it is a very forgiving and appreciative one!). Follow your own music, I say. Discovering where all this takes him will only make him a better artist. And it will only mean sweet music to my ears.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Beat L.A.!

The Boston Celtics make their 20th trip to the NBA Finals.

Last Friday night, they displayed tenacity and poise as they surged ahead of the Detroit Pistons in the dying minutes of the game. It was the Celtics of old – great defense and a fantastic offensive trio backed by a supportive bench and a coach who kept his composure. I felt so proud of them. Finally, a championship series – against the Los Angeles Lakers! – that I can watch with pride.

When I was ten years old, I was stricken with chicken pox. I caught it from my older sister, which I should have expected since we shared a room. And I was extremely upset about it, since it meant missing weeks of school and staying cooped up in my room, all itchy and feverish and miserable. They sent me soup to eat in my bed for dinner. Alone. I was so upset, even as I turned on the television while eating, surfing for something to watch while I stewed on my own. As it turned out, there was a replay of the 1986 NBA championships that day – the Boston Celtics versus the LA Lakers.

I had forgotten what game it was, but I distinctly remember seeing the now-familiar parquet floor of the Boston Garden. I remember watching as I ate, transfixed by the action unfolding on the screen. It was the very first NBA game that I saw, and realized much later on that I was watching the two teams who were the best at the game at the time. Basketball fanatics called it the Golden Age of the NBA. Now that I am older, I realize that it may have been an exaggeration, especially since the eras of Havlicek, Russell, and Cousy also deserve mention. But I grew up in the eighties, and to me, my sports heroes consisted of the Boston Celtics’ starting five of that decade: Bird, McHale, Parish, Johnson, and Ainge.

What I also remember from watching that game of basketball many years ago was the serious competition displayed by the Lakers. I committed them to my memory just as strongly as I committed the Celtics. They were just as good as the Celtics were, both individually and as a team. I realized that Abdul-Jabbar was a force to be reckoned with, that Worthy lived up to his last name, that Magic Johnson gave Bird a run for his money, and both had benches that dug just as deep. But the Lakers were the flashier team – a culture spawned by the city they were in, I suppose. Even their coach, Pat Riley, was clothed in flashy Armani. Which was probably why I sided with Boston – they seemed to be the more hardworking and gutsy team, and played with a lot more heart. The ever likable coach KC Jones even had the quiet passion and fortitude to match. I related to that kind of attitude, and so I found myself immensely happy when Boston turned out the winner.

There was no cable television at the time, so whatever NBA games I watched on television were not live, and were not shown in chronological order. So after that first Celtics-Lakers game, I watched the conference playoffs. I got to know the Pistons and their troublemakers, the Rockets and the twin towers, and the other teams and players who made that generation awesome, such as Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone, Spud Webb, and that amazing, AMAZING Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton.

The NBA shaped my love for all things Boston – and New England, by extension (which is why I decided to go to graduate school here). I started rooting for the Bruins, the Patriots (not anymore, though), the Red Sox. However, the nineties found the Celtics not winning as many games as before. Larry Bird retired, and the starting five that I have grown to associate with championship trophies and popped champagne have retired or left the team. Other teams, such as the Chicago Bulls stepped into the winning path paved by the Lakers and the Celtics. Younger upstarts dominated the game – Iverson, Shaquille, Jordan. Yet, although the Celtics may be down, they were not out. The team also had an upstart of its own who showed immense promise at the time – Reggie Lewis. I followed the games by reading the newspapers, and knew that, with enough time, Reggie could fill Larry’s shoes.

However, that promise was cut short when Reggie died of a heart ailment. I remember reading about it in the paper the day after he collapsed during a Celtics game. I was in my school uniform, getting ready to leave for class, when I picked up the newspaper on the driveway and turned straight to the Sports section. And there was a huge black and white photo of Reggie, on the Garden floor, with medics attending to him. I was extremely worried for him. And sure enough, three months later, he collapsed and died during a pickup game.

Reggie’s death signaled a downward spiral of sorts for the Celtics, for they never found their championship footing after that. I found myself rooting for other teams, simply because I admired certain players. They possessed the quiet passion but hard work ethic that Larry Bird also displayed. One player in particular stood out to me as having just that – Ray Allen, who was on the Milwaukee Bucks back then. Another player also displayed the same work ethic, although was a lot flashier than Bird was – Kevin Garnett, he of the very recognizable profile (next to Michael Jordan). And also during that time, Paul Pierce began to break through as the franchise player that could resurrect the Celtics legacy.

Paul Pierce was quite remarkable. He toiled for the last ten years on the team, never wavering, and giving his all in each game he played. He was a great defender, a reliable scorer, and received league accolades, including stints on the All-Star team. But I felt sorry for him since the team was not as great as he was, and coaches came and went. There were the occasional bursts of brilliance, reaching the playoffs, but never moving on to the Championship. But this season was different.

My two most beloved non-Celtics players found themselves on the team. The buzz for this so-called Big Three was so great it seemed to eclipse everything else. I almost worried that they were looking at the big picture too much to actually do the nitty gritty of winning games and playing good defense (besides, with Sam Cassell and PJ Brown also on the team, I definitely had cause to worry!). Thank God that was not the case.

For the first time in two decades, the Boston Celtics had the best record in the league. And they plowed through the Atlanta Hawks and the Lebron-charged Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, the road to the Finals was difficult. Both series went to Game 7. But they learned from it and powered their way against the Pistons in six games. And now, the dream Finals match-up everyone has been waiting for. And I mean everybody. Even those who have been casual observers of the game, leisure watchers of the NBA. Even those who know little about basketball history certainly knew that a Lakers-Celtics series was special. A dream. And history was about to unfold again.

And I would get to cheer on my beloved Boston once again. I never really turned my back on that team. Even when they were down. Even when my sisters and friends teased me for it. Even when they were as maligned as the Knicks. Even when Danny Ainge was besotted with youth over experience. Even when Pitino did not fit in. Like Pierce, I stuck with them. When my graduate classmates took a trip to the storied Celtics office, I was the only one who found excitement in everything. Including Red Auerbach’s chair. I believed in the history of the Celtics, and in what the future holds. The franchise had changed since they last won a championship, but the heart remains strong as ever. And I have Paul Pierce to thank.

Yes, Garnett and Allen had made their mark on the team. But I will always look to Paul Pierce as the glue that held the team together and kept their focus on winning. The guy on SportsCenter was right when he said Pierce was often ignored and forgotten, but not this time. He won the game in Detroit, and all the fans – the real ones – knew it. To me, as great as the opportunity to win the Finals against the Lakers would be, the Conference Championship was just as good. Sure, a championship ring would be sweet, but I think, getting there was sweeter. For the first time in his ten years with the team, Paul Pierce finally has a shot a winning a title. And the Celtics fans finally have a reason to celebrate. Thank you, Paul.