Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Thoughts on the UCLA/SI Expose

20 minutes of me talking to you about this UCLA article. I've also linked up the 2009-2010 and 2010-11 All-State teams that I spoke about in the article so you can see who UCLA did and didn't recruit.

Some key points to add. This isn't a UCLA problem. It happens at programs when winning is contagious and it attracts stars who don't buy into your system. It happens when coaches show favoritism to stars and those stars abuse that principle. It's a failure on the coaches and to a lesser extent, the players and as Remember the Titans said, "Attitude reflects leadership."

I also should add that athletic director Dan Guerrero deserves the lion share of the blame as well. I didn't address it in the video but Guerrero has overseen both the football and basketball programs declining and he's a lame duck AD in my opinion. This article is also an indictment of his laissez-faire attitude and not holding the basketball program to a higher standard befitting John Wooden's legacy. Throw in the issues with the football team and he needs to be fired as well.

As a journalist, I say don't always question the author's bias. Question the work to see if it reflects that bias or if it's information worth considering. I think George Dohrmann did great, investigative work and even if the story's purpose might be murky to some considering nothing illegal happened according to NCAA rules, it's a good insight into what I've suspected the last 4 years with UCLA and then some.

Let me know what you think. I'm still trying my hands at making videos and the lack of fear I had with doing this might be a good sign for the future.

School Violence: History sadly repeating itself

My heart aches to hear these words. Shots fired at a high school. Students dead. A gunman who was troubled. Chardon, Ohio is now the latest city to be shaken by violence at a school and the 17-year-old shooter picked kids at random. It's all too familiar to me and yet it's still so numbing.

In Long Beach, not too far from me, a fight between two girls this week resulted in one girl's death. The girls fought over a boy and surrounded by classmates, they lashed out and now one is dead and the other will most likely be charged. The girls were 10 years old.

Last month, a student at El Camino Real High School helped his team win a soccer game. A few hours later, he was killed outside his house. And I'm still reeling from an incident at South East High School where a student stabbed his girlfriend to death.

All of this things happen and I don't know why. Why are kids still resorting to extreme violence to resolve issues? Are they less able to cope with issues or is it the same level of despair people had when I was in school? Are all the anti-bullying measures enough or do we need to drive home the message that extreme violence creates more sadness than a solution? But what about kids who aren't bullied and just want to hurt peers out of anger like Columbine or the 4 cases I just mentioned.

It takes me back to my 8th-12th grade years. 1997-1998, I was in 8th grade during the year of school shootings.  I still remember the cities (Peducah, Kentucky and Jonesboro, Arkansas and Springfield, Oregon) and the senseless tragedies of seeing kids or older my age gunned down. It took me back to my fears of going to high school and getting shot. Why I had those thoughts as an elementary school kid speaks to how gang violence was a serious issue growing up in L.A. Granted my school was safe but I was worried about this.

9th grade was Columbine. 11th grade was Santana High School in my future college home of San Diego. So I grew up hearing about schools putting in metal detectors and the news wondering what was going on in schools and kids' minds back them. It was vivid and it was sad. Sadder because I was just getting out of my phase of being bullied.

When I was bullied, I never thought about killing someone. I thought about revenge but I was afraid that 1) I had brought this on myself, 2) I'd screw up my chance at college by fighting back. If I had a problem with someone, I'd try to handle it. People did that by fighting too and yet it feels like thanks to more reporting, more cameras, it happens more often.

Like this article, I wonder why kids - kids!! - feel the need to resolve things in a bloodier way (c) Eminem. It's not the music, it's something inside kids where they feel the need to lash out, take action and it comes out in tragic ways. It's a cycle that's not restricted to these times but since history is repeating, I just wonder how society is teaching kids to handle frustration.

There's violence due to bullying. Then there's violence due to internal conflict and lashing out. Either way, this has got to stop because both are leaving more problems than solutions.

I'm just tired of seeing kids murdered or shot or stabbed or resorting to extreme violence. I'm tired of seeing people blame music and other exterior forces - they didn't cause the school shootings in 10-13 years now and they didn't now. I'm tired of gun rights advocates saying the wrong things and this turning into a 2nd Amendment battle while switching focus from broken hearts, dead bodies and shaken spirits.

We've done PSA's on catchy, cute slogans that don't go deep enough. It's time to get real and dirty because we're losing our children in ways we shouldn't.

Maybe it's time we do more listening to kids about how they see violence. Maybe it's time we start talking straight about the impact of violence. Maybe we teach them in their younger years that violence is not the answer and nip that in the bud. 10 years ago, I saw the fear of HS violence around the country. Now I see it again in junior highs and high schools. This needs to change and not just treated like isolated incidents because clearly it's not.

I'll let Phonte of Little Brother/Foreign Exchange have the final word.

It may be harsh but it's real talk. Maybe we need PSA's showing what happens when and after violence strikes - invite victims and survivors similar to what Bowling for Columbine did at the end or this special I once saw in HS where troubled kids went to Columbine HS and saw firsthand what the students experienced. We need practical solutions that go directly to the source to change attitudes, perceptions, minds and teach how to handle anger - something that sadly many people never learn until it's too late.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Take 6: NBA Quick Hits for the 2nd Half

With the second half of this NBA season starting this week, I figure I'd tackle some issues on my mind. Let's start with Jeremy Lin.

1) 3 weeks in, Jeremy Lin no longer shocks me. The guy can ball and the novelty has worn off as I just watch him to see how he runs the Knicks offense. He's a great story but like all great stories, the shock wears off and you just watch to see how the subject continues to thrive. It's clear Lin is a great point guard who can run the pick and roll, get to the basket and has a decent (not yet automatic) jump shot while turning the ball over like any young player does.

But my issue is how Lin reminds me that Asian people still get a short stick on how people joke about them or promote them. Take one look at some of the signs about him at Madison Square Garden and if some of them don't make you slightly uncomfortable, do a double take. Consider how a former editor thought it clever to use "chink in the armor" - an old phrase referring to dent in the metal - and not realize it's danger. Or how Ben & Jerry's thought it clever to have Linsanity ice cream with fortune cookies among the flavors in it.***

***FYI, fortune cookies are an American popular item that is not served in China. While Lin is Taiwanese-American and it is popular with Chinese food, ask yourself what would happen if B&J offered  up watermelon flavored ice cream in conjunction with Black History Month. Instead of people trying to dismiss it as offensive, how about we start asking IF this is offensive first?***

Oh look, another clever pun on Jeremy Lin's name and hype. *cue the snickers and chuckles while I roll my eyes*
As somebody pointed out on Twitter, 2 weeks into his stardom, 2 companies have had to apologize to the Asian-American community. That's an unnerving ratio in 2012 to some but to me, it's not surprising because when you don't deal with things daily, you become ignorant when you see it in your face.

Maybe I'm unique because I've grown up around Korean and Filipino friends since 5th grade and hooped with them.  I'm a bit sensitive to Asian jokes because looking back on it, my HS peers said some jokes that'd be questionable and I've learned to respect them. And I consider my friends today who probably cringe when they see stuff like Yellow Mamba or fans with signs of fortune cookies.

Yes it's weird seeing an Asian-American on the professional hoops circuit. Now let's get over that. Unlike another phenomenon last year where a guy played every Sunday, Lin has played in double digit games already. Enjoy what we're seeing. Enough with the Linsanity puns and promotions that are done in ignorance and quite frankly, annoyance.

Basically let the boy play. He'll have highs and then he'll have games like when Miami shut him down. Speaking of which....

2) LeBron James is having one of the best all around seasons in recent memory. To think that a perimeter player could be shooting close to 55% is beyond looney and that's a tribute to how James has improved his midrange game and post game.

But as the All-Star game proved, even his peers are mystified by how he still lacks the consistent ability to kill until the final buzzer. Even Kobe had to tell LeBron shoot the bleeping ball. It's a reminder what separates LeBron from so many others. The last two years, LeBron led a charge in the 4th quarter only to pass it in the final moments. It's easy to say LeBron isn't clutch but to me it's 2 things - he's afraid or hates to fail and (what nobody is saying) he still has a point guard mentality.

I said this in 2010 when Boston knocked him out of the playoffs. LeBron is a natural PG in a big man's body. He may be able to physically impose his will but mentally he's thinking pass and set somebody up. He acts/walks/talks like a superstar but at his core he cares about how you like him. That's a point guard mentality and if you don't believe me, ask Rajon Rondo how he felt until 2009-2010 being around the Celtics.

That may not be a great enough excuse as pure point guards like Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas and Magic could kill. Maybe it's because LBJ has been insulated from pressure since he was 16 and he's finally facing adversity to challenge him. I don't fully know but we'll see what happens come playoff time. At some point, he's going to have to mentally block everything and attack the way D-Wade does (who has a bit of chokery in him too, I notice).

The ref's face says it all, he can't even believe the Spurs and Tony Parker are still playing a high level

3) The Lakers and the Spurs dominated the Western Conference in the 2000's. But one look at them now shows why one team prepared for transition and the other looks lost.

My squad has front office turmoil beyond belief, led by Daddy's Boy Jim Buss and his arrogance to exert his will. The Spurs have stability with Gregg Popovich, one of the best coaches/front office minds in NBA history.

My squad has old guys mainly in their rotation - minus Andrew Goudelock - who barely can rest. The Spurs have a healthy mix of old veterans (Duncan/Parker/Ginobli) and young blood in Dejuan Blair, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

My squad is floundering with no proven point guard and the possibility of signing Rasheed Wallace from the YMCA. The Spurs are No. 2 in the West, having only lost 1 game since January 30.

Yes I know the Spurs could lose early in the playoffs again but they're also the perfect mix of young and old balance to thrive and transition. Meanwhile, the Lakers are starting at possibly a 4 or 5 seed (which I predicted) and tense attitudes until the trade deadline shakes out. Yep, exactly the way we want to spend a year where Kobe is having one of the greatest late career scoring runs in NBA history.

Oh and the Clippers could finish with a higher playoff seed. Welcome to a better 2006 all over again - the year where Kobe went wild scoring and had a 1st round playoff exit - unless something happens.

Random Hits

- Kyrie Irving could be the first Duke player under Coach K to win the Rookie of the Year outright. Grant Hill shared the ROY in 94-95 and Irving right now is playing at a level I haven't seen a Duke rookie play at since Jay Williams 10 years ago.

As for this rookie class. Besides Ricky Rubio and Brandon Knight, not a lot of guys are standing out. I feel bad for Kemba Walker in Charlotte. MarShon Brooks averaging 14.6 points is a side story to New Jersey's free agent drama. It's still early but the obvious potential is lacking in this class.

- Who's going to be a worse trainwreck? The Washington Wizards or the Charlotte Bobcats? Right now, it's looking like a neck-and-neck race each week. Call it the fumes of the Michael Jordan curse - Wizards are cursed for letting him go like a dog and the Bobcats are cursed for him siding with the hardline owners in the lockout.

- Oklahoma City remains the scariest Western Conference team. Forget the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook drama the media wants you to buy into. Two alpha dogs can exist and it's clear they do as long as they are winning and Scott Brooks keeps being creative with the offense instead of trying to punish Westbrook being assertive.

(A key point of this "issue" is how Durant's nice guy persona hurts him on the court. His game is great to watch and admirable but not assertive enough. He'll have to learn that taking it to the basket and calling for the ball will allow him to kill with his jumper. It took Dirk almost a decade to figure that out so let's hope Durant does it sooner.)

But the key for them this year will be the play of my 6th Man of the Year fave James Harden and Serge Ibaka, who's a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. If they play well, look out.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Electric Relaxation: What I'm Listening To

It's been a while since let's bring back Electric Relaxation to hip you to what I'm listening to.

M83 “Midnight City”

I stumbled on this song by accident, thanks to Lupe Fiasco’s last mixtape. Lupe created a song that not only was a perfect ending calling for justice and shouting out Occupy Wall Street, but gave you optimism that change could happen if we seek it. I had to hear the original just to make sure, I got the same feeling.

I’m a fan of big sounding songs and electro music that captures a grand feeling like MGMT “Electric Feel” or LCD Soundsystem “Dance Yrself Clean”. I loved this song right away and I still can’t get enough. Anthony Gonzalez was inspired to make this song being in Los Angeles and I totally could imagine hearing this song driving down the streets late at night.

It sounds like pure energy and when you hear Gonzalez’ haunting vocals, it lulls you into a sense of calm before the music just overwhelms you. And what’s better than a sax solo? Something straight out of the 80’s yet it doesn’t feel cheesy. It just makes you feel good.

This quickly became one of my favorite songs of 2011 right before the gun (similar to how Dance Yrself Clean became one of my 2010 faves in the last month) and it’s still a fave in 2012 as folks catch up. I'm so glad 

(I did listen to Hurry Up, I’m Dreaming yesterday. It’s gonna take a few more listens cause on first glance, it didn’t have enough oomph and was too dream-like and indie without the groove. Funny thing is Gonzalez wanted that).

B.O.B. “Play the Guitar” f. Andre 3000

First time I heard this, I was curious to hear how B.O.B. would sound since he said he was going back to rapping harder, not the poppier stuff on his debut album. Well I don’t know because I was too busy replaying Andre’s verse.

The song gets high marks for sampling Bo Diddley’s classic self-titled track with his famous beats. It’s natural that Bobby Ray and 3 Stacks would fit on here since both play the guitar and have the light-hearted flows to match it.

B.O.B. does have some ill lines and his usual razor sharp cadence fits the beat perfectly without being overwhelmed. But this all about Andre stealing the show, no surprise. The minute he starts his verse, he runs away with the track literally with lines, double entendres and good advice to show why he’s “Silverback Stacks” – going gorillas and killing this beat.

Every time I hear this, I feel like dancing a jig and covering my face at what Bobby and Dre did on this. So far, it’s my favorite hip hop track of 2012 and shouts to Salaam Remi doing wonders on the beat.

The Fray “Heartbeat”

Full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of the Fray’s lighthearted music. I wasn’t fond of “How to Save a Life” or “Over My Head” cause it sounded like Coldplay-lite yet they did do an amazing cover of Kanye’s “Heartless” that I thought captured the soul and bleakness Kanye hinted at.

But this song got my attention. Maybe it’s the driving music that sounds more rock-oriented than the piano-driven earlier music. Maybe it’s the repeating of “You gotta love somebody, love them all the same.” It didn’t sound like The Fray I remember and I like it.

If their latest album is more of a rocking direction like this, I can dig it. Plus the lead singer said this song was inspired by his time in Africa and meeting somebody who survived the Rwandan genocide. It’s powerful and that urgency comes across in him singing this.

Kendrick Lamar “Cartoons and Cereal” f. Gunplay

I’m a Kendrick fan and dude deserves his own space on here to explain his greatness. If you haven’t heard Section.80, you’re missing out big time. We’re already moving on to his latest gem right here.

This song could’ve been a B-Side on that album cause it fits with his themes of criticizing modern society and how the youth are being suckered into it.  Over a spaced-out beat, Kendrick’s preaching some truth about waking up to reality while reliving memories watching cartoons – something I can relate to in my former life.

“Things we will never learn soon. In this era where we wanna earn soon, That’s an error, you can smell it in the air and everybody’s doomed”

Gunplay also has a powerful, soul-bearing 3rd verse that I’ve come to expect and gladly appreciate from a Southern rapper. If Kendrick is Andre 3000 on this beat (in terms of being spaced out), Gunplay brings it home with talking about living the street life but not glamorizing it.

It’s an excellent song and Kendrick’s hot streak isn’t cooling off.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Whitney Houston - The Voice, The Tragedy, The Memories

One of my first memories of hearing Whitney Houston was when I was 5 or 6 in a mall. Back then, they used to play music videos in certain sections to keep kids entertained and this time, I heard a song that sounded pretty good. I didn't listen to much popular music so I liked this song and I kept watching to see who it was. Turns out it was Whitney singing "I'm Your Baby Tonight"

Another memory is always hearing "All the Man I Need" in my Dad's car whenever I'd go with him to run errands. It seems like that song always came on the radio every time and I don't know if he sang it, but it always would either put me to sleep or be in the background while I played my Game Boy.

Being a kid in the 90's meant hearing girls try to sing "I Will Always Love You" at talent shows or seeing people joke around with that long note Whitney sang near the end. One way or another, you knew that voice. She made Dolly Parton's classic even more powerful the same way Johnny Cash would do with Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"

That's why losing Whitney Houston is such a big deal. It's another person gone that I grew up with. Another global icon dead just like perhaps the biggest male entertainer ever three years ago in Michael Jackson. It's someone that I've come to know and appreciate long before she became a poster child for addiction.

That voice of hers was a gift. Coming up in church, I know excellent singing when I heard it and Whitney not only had one of the biggest ever in terms of sound, but also had incredible control. Most singers will tend to oversing, but Whitney's voice was precise, pure and steady. Yet she was able to use it powerfully like a boxer who can throw jabs and uppercuts while dancing around the ring. Always focused, always in control and never afraid to show you exactly how strong they are.

Go back and listen to "I'm Your Baby Tonight." - the double-timed harmonies in the final verse are some of my favorite vocal acrobatics. "I Have Nothing" where she rises with the music and always appears in control.

It's why her version of "The Star Spangled Banner" resonated in 1991 and in 2001 when it came back for  the 9/11 aftermath. The power and conviction in it to soar with the music. Marvin Gaye's version was smooth and cool, Jimi Hendrix's version was raw and political. The Holy Grail of Nat'l Anthem Performances in my opinion.

Junior high, I saw Whitney in "The Preacher's Wife" with Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance. She was a convincing church wife which reminded me that was her roots. "I Believe in You and Me" was another song that hit me close.

In high school, I remember hearing Whitney updated for a new era. "It's Not Right, But It's Okay" was all over the pop radio while "Heartbreak Hotel" was on the R&B stations. Funky and smooth, it was a restrained Whitney but no less powerful. But there was nothing better than watching Prince of Egypt and hearing "When You Believe".

Her and Mariah coming together remains one of my favorite pop moments growing up because it was two divas of sound coming together. They sounded so perfect together, not fighting for attention on the track but meshing their harmonies/voices to elevate an inspirational song even higher. It also led to a memorable MTV VMA exchange where they both showed up wearing the same outfit but found a way to make it hilarious.

Sadly after 2000, that was the last of Whitney as we remember. I feel sorry that 90's babies missed out on hearing her in her prime and saw her addicted and consumed by her life. Even being an 80's baby, I missed out on being stunned on young Whitney in her early years selling records out the gate and shocking people with her ahead-of-her-time vocals.

I didn't realize what Whitney accomplished before 1990. Two #1 albums (including the biggest selling female debut ever), 7 straight No. 1's. She could've retired after that and gone down as one of the biggest female artists of all time. I didn't realize she went 8 years between albums (1990-1998) so I came of age knowing her off soundtracks.

But my last memory of her will be positive. Her last hit, "I Look To You" was an inspirational song that showed me that while her voice wasn't the same, she could still deliver a powerful message. Something a friend of mine showed as she danced to it in church. That's the Whitney I'll remember.

It's a tragedy that her demons began to take her away from us. But it's even more tragic that her life will be reduced to that by some who only see her as a fallen addict with no sympathy. As if she were Amy Winehouse instead of perhaps Billie Holiday. I'll choose to look at the full measure of her life and remember her good and bad.

I'll remember that she has a teenage daughter without a mother, a mother who lost her daughter, friends in the music industry who knew her as a precocious child singing backup to Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman." I'll remember her inspiring songs that will speak to us and try to forget how the very industry that raised her up didn't do more to save her.

Let's let our dear sister get the last word. One of my favorites, from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. Rest in eternal peace Ms. Houston and thank you for your gift, your music and the memories I won't forget.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

2012 Grammys: Adele and a ceremony of Old vs. New.

This is my fourth year doing a Grammy recap but this is the first time I didn’t care about who won an award. I only wanted to see Adele’s reactions and the performances. The Grammys were pretty much going to be a coronation for Ms. Adkins and her gift of touching so many this past year. So this year’s Grammy was gonna be about the performances – as the awards show has typically been. Especially with fewer categories awarded in general and shown on TV.

The Good
- Bruno Mars is better being retro than he is being current.  He’s fun to watch and that performance channeled that era  - down to the moves, precision, voice, energy. Loved it.
- Paul McCartney showed how to be understated and tell a story with his ballad.
- Glen Campbell’s swan song. Do Not Go Gentle Into the Good Night, face your future boldly and kicking your heels. Much respect to him and his amazing farewell
- The Beach Boys!!! I wished Maroon 5 and Foster the People weren’t so out of place there because hearing Mike Love sing and Brian Wilson play and hearing those harmonies was beautiful! They still got it!  
- Bruce Springsteen doing what the Boss does best. Rocking out and showcasing the E. Street Band continuing on without the Big Man Clarence Clemons.
- Tony Bennett’s smoothness/Carrie Underwood being underrated. By the way, it amazes me how many folks Tony Bennett has outlived
- Bon Iver’s speech was a win for art. He spoke on how he was in it to make music, shouted out those  who didn’t make the stage and reminded people that an award isn’t the highest goal as much as it’s making great music.

The Bad

- Memo to Taylor Swift. Grow up. Writing the same songs about living a dream in such cutesy, but childish ways. Taking shots at people who think you can’t sing live. You’re an adult now. Time to step up and reflect that instead of selling a lie to these girls who buy your music.
- Chris Brown’s live music video. That was a nice light show with great dancing. Not much for singing

(Sidenote: CB’s career has revolved around the Grammys if you will. 5 years ago, he did the tribute for James Brown and performed with Lionel Richie and Smokey Robinson. 3 years ago, we all know what happened with Rihanna. Now, his “comeback” is complete.)

- Don Cornelius getting briefly mentioned with no soul tribute. In my mind, Don is as important as any musical figure in the last 40 years and he deserved not just his own mention but a reminder of how urban music changed the pulse of America.
- Rihanna and Katy Perry. No conviction. Just flash and sizzle. No wonder they sat next to each other. Partners in looking good with not much else to matter. For that matter, Rihanna and Coldplay too. I'm a  big Coldplay fan but Paradise might be one of my least favorite singles they've done.

The Grammys showed how popular Black music in a terrible state. When Chris Brown and Lil Wayne are “performing” with David Guetta over house and dubstep, it doesn’t bode well for the future. But I don’t think we’re in trouble because despite the Grammys not always highlighting the best of Black music recently, there’s always hope because we never needed popular validation for what’s dope.

Case in point, Diana Ross’ first Grammy was her Lifetime Achievement Award. To quote Phife Dawg, “I never let a statue tell me how nice I am.”

It also says how limited the future is if the older acts outshined the younger ones - at least the ones the Grammys highlighted. Part of that is their habitual problem not showing enough love to talented young acts. Foster the People, for example, should've had their own set to shine and we can already think of many younger acts who could've been nominated and performed briliantly.

That’s why Adele’s triumph was so great. I was hoping she’d do more than just stand there and sing but she performed and delivered well. She showed how to deliver a song with expression, sass and oomph! Well done after not having her voice for so long.

I felt genuine emotion in watching her win because it felt like talent was being rewarded. A coronation of a queen who gave us her pain, her voice and brought some earnestness back to music. An earnestness that we lost Saturday with Whitney Houston.

I’ll speak more on her in depth later but hearing her perform at the beginning was too chilling. I was angry that we were robbed of seeing that voice, that command, that brilliance. Then to hear Jennifer Hudson do it in her own way, I got chills. I started crying cause those words felt like Whitney talking to us from the grave.

Her demons took her apart and then took her away. An industry built on building up stars watched another flicker away. That’s what made Nicki Minaj’s performance so appalling, weird and disturbing.

There’s art and then there’s something showy that could be something sinister. From an artistic standpoint, Nicki put on an over-the-top show that showed how much she lacks as a musician but succeeds as an entertainer. Her fierce raps lacked bite cause you could barely hear them or focus on them.

But on a deeper level, I saw something worse in her exorcism, which I guess was failed? I saw an artist who was symbolically embracing the dark side shrouded in warped religious imagery.  Considering Whitney Houston succumbing to her demons was partially aided and abetted by an industry that didn’t help her, it was a terrible performance and made me fearful for Nicki messing around with that.

Other artists have done that before. Yet given my state of my mind and the folks around me tweeting around her, it was disturbing to my soul in a way I haven’t felt for something. The first female rapper to perform solo at the Grammys and that’s what we saw? I guess.

But ultimately the 2011 Grammys will be remembered for saying goodbye to a legend and celebrating a new talent realizing her greatness. Congrats to Adele.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Escape to Echo Mountain

Last month, my girlfriend invited me to a hike at Echo Mountain in Altadena (about 30 mins north from downtown LA). She's an adventurous person who's hiked the Grand Canyon and me? Well I haven't gone on a hike since I was in junior high and I felt like a fish out of water. Needless to say, when I found out this hike was 2.7 miles and we were going up 1,400 feet, I was thinking "Oh man, how will I survive this."

She was super excited and I was nervous but thinking, "Hey, this could be fun. Doing something out of the ordinary and creating a good memory (not to mention a hellacious exercise)." So we woke up in the AM and rolled down the 110 to brave this beast.

We parked down by the entrance and I looked up at the mountain. I figured it couldn't be too hard once we started right? Why even bother stretching? That'd haunt me later but in the meantime, there were trails to be hiked so we walked in past the entrance and began the trek up the hill.

(A little background. The Echo Mountain trail used to be one of the earliest mountain railways in California in the 1890's and at the top was the Echo Mountain House, a grand house (40 rooms!) of the day that hosted parties and other social gatherings while also having an observatory.)

The trail was pretty well-maintained but it was just rough walking up and up knowing my legs aren't conditioned for it. We took a few breaks to look out on the city and gain our strength and as we kept climbing, the road got tougher and tested us even more. When we passed two miles, we thought the last 0.7 miles would be a breeze. Nope!

These smooth red rocks looked so cool.
The higher we got, the more I kept telling myself "If you made it this far, keep going." I almost told myself that I was going to stop and just wait for her to come back. Finally we reached the top. There are still trails to go up 2.7 miles further to Inspiration Point but I said no way! Let's explore where we are.

It was a beautiful sight to see. There's an Echo phone not to far away on the grounds where you can yell and I gotta say it was cool doing that in nature. Seeing the city from on high as the clouds covered the city was amazing.

Going down was a lot easier than coming up. But I enjoyed every minute of it, even if I was sore for the next couple days. Enjoy the pictures and videos. Maybe it'll be the start of something new for me embracing more of nature.

The edge of the railway running off to nowhere

The grounds of the Echo House

If you use the Echo phone, you can hear yourself in these mountains
Twitter for the early 20th century, anyone?

The last 3 taken with my Droid phone. iPhoto touched em up pretty good. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Biting the Bullet and Watching "The Help"

I didn’t want to like this movie. From the minute I saw the previews in the theatre, I thought it was going to be a predictable tale of Black struggle where White people save the day and it’s done in a neat Hollywood way that glosses over it. I figured it was targeted for women and I had no interest in supporting a film that reminded me of “The Blind Side.”

So then why am I sitting here torn? Why do I feel like my preconceived notions were wrong because I (gulp!) actually thought “The Help” was good? Why do I want to still hate it but I can’t totally because it had good merit and I enjoyed it unlike "The Blind Side". Did I just type that?

Full disclosure, I vowed I wouldn’t support “The Help”. But after expressing my thoughts on Twitter and encountering some backlash, I needed to see it so I wouldn’t criticize in ignorance. I believe in seeing things for yourself so I took the plunge and studied myself and this film.

I liked how the story was told – with good humor (Minny’s revenge), yet seasoned with realness. I wanted to see how it ended up. I sympathized with Viola Davis’ character. I hated the racism in the movie and it riled me up. It reminded you of the bigger picture the brief mention of Medger Evers’ funeral and even briefer mention of The March on Washington

It had its weak moments too where it reminded me of a bizarro chick flick with the cattiness and unnecessary drama. It was distracting and while it may have showed the South from a female perspective and was historical fiction, to completely leave out the men altogether made it feel like I was watching it removed from total reality.

What can I say about Viola Davis, though. Her acting was masterful. She made you feel Aibileen’s pain with every step, every expression, every word. Her face wasn’t that of an actress, it was showing the pain of servants and Black women everywhere carrying a heavy burden. She should get the Oscar for her merit, without question. 

The movie praised the Black maids for not just their support, but their agency. It made them not just sympathetic but admirable. That was my worry. It gave them more credit than I expected.

(Let me explain that more. When you feel sorry for somebody, you don’t necessarily respect their full person all the time, just feel sorry for their situation. When you admire someone, you see the person, their strength, their ability to push, their dignity).

Octavia Spencer played Minny Jackson well, albeit not Oscar worthy well.. While she didn’t look like a total Mammy, I’d lie if I said she wowed me the same way Davis did. I’ve seen the character before and while she acted well, it wasn’t a revelation. But she did have the coldest line/plot in the movie when she got her revenge against Hilly.

Yet that “Frying chicken tends to make you feel better about life” comment was so stereotypical and borderline troubling. Minny’s complete reaction while saying that line made me cringe like Prissy’s act in Gone With the Wind.

How the heck did Jessica Chastain’s character get an Oscar nod? Celia Foote was sweet, beautiful, but wildly ditsy and a clear type. Maybe I’m unfamiliar with Chastain’s range (heard she was brilliant in “Tree of Life”) but I found that character weak despite her sympathy and good heart. It was a typical White outcast with a heart of gold, but nothing overly special? Bryce Dallas Howard deserved an Oscar nod more for giving Hilly Holbrook the right amount of venom and coldness as the movie's villain. 

Skeeter was a noble character yet I had a problem with her leaving the scene to leave the maids to face what happens. While they had strength to handle it, it felt flawed because in the real world, their heads would be on the line. Yet I understood her concern about not leaving. I admired her genuinely wanting to change things and that even in her initial naivety/charity, her intentions were noble and a sign for what more people should do.

My problem is never with White folks helping the cause. My problem is how it’s made to seem it’s their idea to help Black people instead of working with them to fight something they’ve already been fighting.  Too often, they’ll get the praise (from others, not their own desire) instead of sharing the credit.

Ultimately I am torn because I liked this movie and I’d could actually recommend this movie. I don’t want to say I liked it but I can’t not say it. It was well done. The movie was good, Viola Davis was stunning and I genuinely enjoyed it even if it bothers me saying that. All I ask is that a story is told and sold well and The Help was. I am curious to see if the book showcased more of the horrors of it.

My issues are still with the bigger picture that if these kinds of movies, no matter how well done they are, are successful, what will the future hold. Tyler Perry’s films are successful and so we see that same model instead of balance (or the balance doesn’t get promoted enough). It’s not an overtly stereotypical flick if you’re looking for caricatures and demeaning attitudes (most of the time) but yet it’s a subtle reminder of who’s the star, who plays the bigger role and what Hollywood wants to tell you about race.

Will Viola Davis get another chance to shine in a leading role? Heck Octavia Spencer has less hope of being anything than a supporting actor? In 2012, why are Black women winning awards for maids after Hattie McDaniel did in 1939? You can play a demeaning role with dignity but yet why is that Davis’ first leading role? It speaks to the lack of variety for older actresses, especially Black ones.

Seeing the legendary Cicely Tyson in the movie scared me because that’s the fate of older actresses – bit roles that make us say “Oh, I remember you” instead of “Wow, what a talented actress who still has it” (a la Ruby Dee in American Gangster). Somebody made a joke that Tyson's on call to play those kind of roles but it's a shame because we forget how great an actress she is.

This interview with Viola, George Clooney, Charlize Theron and others shows that dilemma more.

It was a feel good movie. It gave the Black characters some dignity and recognized their power and boldness. It helped them find their voice although I know historically, that voice was always there but it was silenced by the times and expressed differently in private. The story gripped me and forced me to ease up on how I felt beforehand. With all I said, it was well done and I hope it leads us to talking more about how we treat those who help us and well as Hollywood and race.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Football Wrap: On Eli, Tom and Legacies

Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I woke up today and I'm scratching my head at that fact *Cue Schooly D's "What Does It Mean?"*

Fact: Eli has more rings than Peyton. Raise your hand if you saw this coming.

Fact: Peyton's 2nd Super Bowl saw him commit only 1 turnover, a pick-6 that cost him the game. Eli's 2nd Super Bowl? 0 turnovers.

Fact: Eli has beaten the best QB of our era (Tom Brady) 3 times with 4th-quarter scores. He's beaten Brady in two Super Bowls, including this one in Peyton's house. In other words, imagine beating up your big brother's bully/rival at his school while everyone's watching. Awkward much?

Fact: Tom Brady led the Pats on a record-tying 96 yard scoring drive before halftime to take the lead. Eli topped it with an 88-yard scoring drive in the final three minutes. 88 isn't greater than 96 but in this case, it is.

Fact: Eli's WR's have much better hands than Tom Brady's. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez should be ashamed of themselves. Mario Manningham's catch may not have been as flashy as David Tyree's (nor did Eli have to make that throw as he did 4 yrs ago), but it was just as pivotal in terms of momentum and setting up the drive.

So what does all of that mean? Eli can sing that he's got more rings than big bro and brag that he stared down Tom Brady twice.** In the playoffs, he beat the MVP on the road (Aaron Rodgers) and avenged his loss to the 49ers.

**(A big chunk of the credit goes to his ferocious defense, led by Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck, and that the Patriots' defense choked down the stretch. Remember, they were a missed FG from overtime vs. Baltimore after Joe Flacco drove on them.)

It means that Little Brother's legacy is a strange one. While he's feasted on two Super Bowls, he's also good for famine, as indicated by him losing one-and-done in the playoffs three previous times. I really have no idea how great Eli is because he's wildly inconsistent. For his great fourth-quarter heroics and desire to be seen as elite, he's had his shortcomings too.

Eli and Ben Roethlisberger have two rings since Brady won his last. Let's just leave it at that and praise them both as Top-5 quarterbacks (assuming Peyton doesn't returns back to his greatness and my man Philip Rivers keeps regressing, which I HIGHLY DOUBT). I'm not saying Eli is a better version of Tim Tebow (average QB with 4th Q heroics) but I am saying let's not go crazy and say he's better than Brady/Peyton.

That same logic means Terry Bradshaw is one of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time since he has four rings. And anybody who says Bradshaw is better than John Elway, Dan Marino, Brett Favre is a fool when Bradshaw is barely a Top-15 QB. Same with arguing Joe Namath is better than Marino or Jim Kelly.

What Eli's win means is we should kill the rings is better than argument because this is the classic case where fools will show themselves. Appreciate the moment and realize he has one of the most peculiar career trajectories we've seen in a while.

As for Tom Brady? What does yesterday's loss mean for him. Besides the fact his WR's have shaky hands and that Rob Gronkowski played decently on a bad ankle, he's exactly where Kobe Bryant was 4 years ago.

2008 saw Kobe lose in his 5th Finals appearance. Just like Brady, he tasted success early in his career and struggled to get back to the mountain top despite great individual success. At this point, his reputation was being re-evaluated as he was getting respect as a leader and a player. Yet people felt he wasn't as great because he hadn't won a ring minus Shaq.

Brady is somewhat there right now. 3 rings early in his career and now haunted by 2 Super Bowl losses that could easily be wins. Wes Welker catches that first down yesterday, his defensive line sacks Eli Manning 4 yrs ago instead of letting him get away to find David Tyree. He's also grown into a much better QB since 2004 just like Kobe became a much better player after those first 3 rings.

It's been 8 years since he's tasted the fresh Lombardi steel and while he'll go down as one of the 10 best QB's ever, you have to wonder if he knows that he doesn't have much time left to get back there. Will his legacy be defined by early success or late greatness without the rings. I say both because Brady has validated his early success wasn't luck but while he's gotten better, his teammates (and defense) haven't and he knows getting back won't be easier because of it.

He had a stretch going 16-for-16 at one point. A Super Bowl record for consecutive completions. And yet, just like his record-setting drive, it's all for naught.

If this brilliant Dan Wetzel column is any indication, Brady's demeanor afterwards says that he's fully aware of it. He lost a game, lost a chance to enhance his legacy and knows that even though his greatness doesn't change, it's a bit dimmed. He's bested one Manning brother but he knows the other beat him at his own game. Just like Kobe in 2008 - the feeling of wondering what more can you do?

Anybody who says Brady isn't the best QB of our era (respect to Peyton) is foolish. Just like people saying Kobe Bryant isn't the best player of this era (respect to Duncan). But had Kobe not won two more rings, people would look at him differently. Maybe the same way they're looking at Brady now - fast success but can't repeat it at the peak of his playing ability.

Yet I'm not going to be one of those people. Tom Brady's legacy doesn't dramatically change as much as Eli's did. You can't take away his rings, his career just like you can't add anymore to Eli's. It's a mark but a whole body of work must be evaluated when all's said and done.

I guess that's the story of Super Bowl 46. Not the Giants D playing well or Hakeem Nicks continuing his postseason resurgence or Mario Manningham's huge catches. It's two men whose legacies are being re-altered and I'm choosing how I fit to see it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Football Wrap: Deja Vu All Over Again (Preview and Storylines)

So we meet again. 4 years later, the Giants and Patriots will be doing battle in the Super Bowl. The QB's are the same. The Patriots are expected to win. Tom Brady has set a record (Passing Dan Marino after Drew Brees did - 4 yrs ago, the Pats scored the most points in an NFL season and he threw for the most TD's). And all I can think about is what could've been.

Four years ago, the Patriots could've been the greatest NFL champion in history. Tom Brady to Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth. They showing no mercy on a league and proving why Moss might be the greatest WR not named Jerry Rice. 18-0 and unstoppable. Sure they had to hold off the Giants in the regular season finale but they'd beat them again right?

The Giants didn't deserve to be there. My beloved Cowboys were 13-3 and home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Needless to say, plans didn't work out and instead of us repping the NFC East, it was the hated Midgets. They got to the game and all a sudden, they looked like they belonged.

Well when Randy Moss caught that TD, I figured the game was done. No way Eli Manning's wack arm could march down the field, right? Oh, but I was wrong. Somehow the Patriots couldn't tackle Eli to end the game and somehow he slung that ball down field and somehow David Tyree pinned it to his head. I still remembering losing my mind like OOOOOO WOW! Needless to say when Eli found Plaxico Burress wide open in the end zone later, the dream of watching perfection ended.

Nothing says 2nd best like being perfect all the way til the end and losing. Eli's success doubly hurt being a Chargers fan when I reveled in his failure for spurning the team that drafted him.

But 4 years later, things have changed or have they? Tom Brady has a new weapon in Rob Gronkowski. Eli has 2 top WR's in Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and an always dangerous 3rd in Mario Manningham. The Giants defense is intimidating. Oh yeah, the Giants beat the Pats earlier this year with Eli throwing a late TD to win it.

Here's some of my favorite storylines leading into the big game - ending with my predictions.

1. How will Rob Gronkowski hold up? His high ankle sprain is a stinger but there's no doubt that Big Gronk isn't playing. The reason this is a debate is because folks need something to talk about. He won't be  100% but he'll play just like Jack Youngblood and Terrell Owens before him. And I won't be surprised if he or Aaron Hernandez has a great game.

2. Will the Patriots D be abused? As good as the Pats are on offense, their defense is shaky and their secondary is downright ripe for abuse. This isn't Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and those guys from 7 years ago. They've been lit up a few times and going against one of the best WR corps in the league, it could be Bubba Sparxxx Ugly.

3. Is Chad Ochocinco going to be a factor? I'm pretty happy that Chad has finally made it to a Super Bowl. This isn't the same happy-go-lucky Chad who's mouth dominated the season or was a heavy contributor. This is an older, near the end of the hill Chad. Yet you can bet he'll be happy as a jaybird when he gets on the field and if he scores, nobody should be upset. His mouth makes you forget that was a top WR for a while and the fact he's been quiet during Media Day speaks volumes about where his head's at.

4. I feel bad for Steve Smith. This is a soft spot for one of the best high school athletes California has produced in the last decade. Smith was a minor part of the Giants' Super Bowl team and was blossoming as one of the top young WR's in the league. He got hurt and the Giants traded him to the Eagles. He barely played this year and I could only imagine how much deadlier the G-Men would be. Instead of playing for his 2nd ring, he's watching at home.

5. Eli Manning's rep won't change with a win (dramatically at least). Eli is still little brother in the Manning household. Some people have said that 2 Super Bowl wins over the best QB of the last decade will make him better than Peyton. To those idiots, I'll suggest Terry Bradshaw is also better than Payton too. If Eli wins, you give him a lot of props and acknowledge his clutch gene. You acknowledge he's made the most of 2 wild card opportunities. But if this doesn't kill the more rings makes you better than (insert name), nothing will.

6. Peyton Manning will be mentioned as much as the game. Doctors cleared Manning to play Thursday to play and Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted Thursday night that he has NOT been cleared. Manning's future weighs in the balance as his rival and kid bro will duel and this could be the beginning of the end. Jim Irsay has planned a bloodless coup by getting a new GM and coach and the potential #1 pick has been spotted in Indy giving his opinion. So yes, Peyton will be as big a story as anyone and if the Colts are smart, they think long term no matter what. Andrew Luck will be a Colt for insurance at the worst and we see if #18 will ever suit up again.

The Virgo Prediction: I can't root for the Giants despite their WR's and that defense. I can't root for Eli Manning even though he may be the only QB I'd take against Brady who isn't intimidated. Tom Brady was rattled by the Ravens in the AFC Title game and the Giants could do the same. It'd be easy to pick the Giants as the underdog and the hot team who caught lightning twice.

But I'm seeing other factors. I see Tom Brady getting revenge because he knows what this could mean for him. I see Brady and Belicheck thinking they are almost a decade removed from their last ring and one more makes them elite. Because 10 years ago, Brady saw his career begin in the Super Bowl with a surprising win and nothing would make it sweeter than winning rings in two decades like his hero Joe Montana.

In a battle of wills, I see the Patriots haunted by four years ago and being driven to amend what happened.  I see hunger, not cockiness that crept in last year. This is going to be a close game just like earlier this year and I predict the Patriots winning on a last drive. Much as I hate to celebrate Boston's success, I hate to see to see New York celebrate again and seeing Robert Kraft hoist the Super Bowl trophy while thinking of his late wife would move me to tears

Oh and I say take the under on both teams scoring 40 points combined, watch Gronkowski end up with 90 yards and a TD minimum, and expect a pop-heavy but disappointing halftime show. Madonna doesn't need two shuffling fools or Black Barbie Nicki to make a great show but I hope M.I.A. shines.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Love, Peace and Soul to Don Cornelius

(This is a great tribute from ?uestlove - well written and a big sign into Don's influence)

Don Cornelius dying on the first day of Black History Month is ironic. Don Cornelius dying in a month devoted to our history, something he did incredibly more to uplift after the civil rights era, is spooky. And it's a perfect reminder to thank him for what he gave my community and America.

As a kid, I remember watching Soul Train after our Saturday morning cartoons went off. We'd watch to see who'd be performing and I loved watching all the dancers. Even in the 90's and early 2000's, Soul Train was still popular and vital, something Cameron Diaz showed in Charlie's Angels when she had a memorable dance scene. And of course, we all knew what the Soul Train line was. At the end, we all tried to do our own version of it.

The genius of Soul Train was how it brought everyone together to watch Black culture. The dancing, the music, the guests. It was a chance for America to see us be ourselves. And fresh after the 1960's, it was a beautiful thing to jump into the 70's and see a self-contained enterprise lead the way.

Don Cornelius was the first African-American to create, produce, host and own his first show. He wasn't just the face of it, he was the engine and the muscle. He crafted the vision of it and with Black music emerging as cool and mainstream, he gave it a platform. The same way American Bandstand gave teenagers a voice, Soul Train gave Black music and its community a positive outlet - ironically Dick Clark was an influence to Cornelius.

(I love this clip for a few reasons. James Brown speaking some truth and a young Al Sharpton giving him an award. Sharpton said today James encouraged him to be on that show and it was a great help to him.)

The best way to break down any barriers is to find a common goal. Music has played a huge role in that - whether it was James Brown saving Boston from rioting after Dr. King died, Bob Marley uniting rivaling candidates in Jamaica, or even helping strangers break the ice. The genius of Cornelius was to take our music to the masses and show them how to have fun. How to enjoy each other and find a common bond that transcended race.

He helped make Black culture cool the same way James Brown did. Not just cool to White America but cool to us as well. He uplifted a community that was beginning to express itself in new ways and in the 70's, it came on the verge of Black culture booming in movies, music, slang and much more.

When you watched Soul Train, you wanted to know what was cool. And Cornelius embodied that cool with his catchphrases, sharp suits and fresh look. It was sad watching him in 2009 at the BET Awards look unhealthy and speak so slowly because the Cornelius I remember hearing about was cool, poised, confident. Yet he still had a presence that reminded you of who he once was.

Soul Train gave voice to funk, R&B, disco, soul, hip-hop. It was a time capsule for what was happening in our culture and popular music and it was a beautiful thing. It crossed racial/generational barriers and for those of us who watched it at any point of our lives, we were blessed for it.

I watched the Soul Train Awards last year for the first time in a while. Gladys Knight was honored (the first guest on Soul Train). Earth Wind and Fire performed. Heavy D's life was celebrated by Whodini, Big Daddy Kane, Goodie Mob and others. That's what Soul Train and Don Cornelius represented - being the voice of our culture and touching so many genres that brought everyone from 8 to 80 together.

Thank you Don Cornelius. He's a vital piece of Black History and American media history. Rest in Love, Peace and Soooooooooooul!