Friday, June 26, 2009

The day the music died

I went to bed last night minutes after learning of Farrah Fawcett's passing. I woke up this morning to a text message saying Michael Jackson had died. My instant reaction was of incredulity; we can't have lost 2 pop culture icons within a span of a couple of hours. It's probably just another text hoax, I dismissed. But something compelled me to switch on my clock radio, and the very first word I heard the DJ say was "coroner", followed by the words "Michael Jackson: dead at 50".

My sleep-deprived brain attempted to process this jarring news. The crotch-grabbing, moonwalking King of Pop was gone.

Perhaps it doesn't come as much of a surprise that Michael died at such a relatively young age. Given his questionable lifestyle
and the turbulent twists and turns his life took, an early death was perhaps expected of the superstar. This was a man who skyrocketed to fame as a 6-year-old, and achieved more in a 4-decade career than any other recording artist in history. This was also a man who was obviously psychologically unstable and pathologically disturbed, and committed many bizarre acts-- and allegedly some very sick, criminal ones-- belying his superstar status.

Yet his death is no less shocking, nor less significant. Michael Jackson is dead. And while he may have been a laughingstock, he was also, inarguably, a legend. Say what you will about the man or monster he became, but no one can deny the sheer awesomeness of his talent and the staggering power of his music. His was a life smeared by scandal and touched by tragedy, but ultimately, the legacy Michael leaves lies in the songs that stirred generations, and the moves that made the world go wow.

Long live the King.

"Like a comet
Blazing 'cross the evening sky
Gone too soon

Like a rainbow

Fading in the twinkling of an eye
Gone too soon

Shiny and sparkly
And splendidly bright
Here one day

Gone one night...

...Born to amuse
inspire, to delight
Here one day

Gone one night

Like a sunset

Dying with the rising of the moon

Gone too soon

Gone too soon."

-Michael Jackson, 1958-2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

My cup of tea

About a month ago, one of the managers in our office discovered a small place in Little Baguio called Serenitea. When she learned they deliver within the Greenhills area, she started passing a copy of their menu around the office, and some of our staff would place orders for their afternoon coffee (tea?) break. When I noticed more and more tall vacuum-sealed plastic cups popping up on desks, I got curious and asked that I be included in their next group order.

Serenitea offers a wide selection of teas, from freshly brewed teas to milk teas to tea lattes and curious concoctions like Yakult Green Tea (which is actually not bad, if like me, you grew up loving Yakult). For the cold teas, one has the option to add any of the following: pearls (black tapioca), black bricks (coffee jelly), lime jelly, crystals (nata de coco), pudding, and QQ (a combination of pearls and crystals).
Serenitea also lets customers decide how much sugar to put in their drinks (100%, 75%, 50%, 25%, or no sugar at all), and as I like my tea on the bitter side, I always go for 50%. For my first Serenitea selection, I opted for the cold jasmine milk tea with pearls. The pearls were smaller than Zagu's or Quickly's, but of a good chewy consistency. But it was the tea I loved, with the jasmine flavor coming through, but blending really well with the milk. The next Serenitea afternoon in our office, I tried the cold hazelnut tea latte with the "black bricks", which was a refreshing fusion of tea and coffee flavors. So far I've also had the cold Black Dragon milk tea with pearls, the Yakult Green Tea with lime jelly, the cold Ceylon milk tea with pearls, and the hot Hokkaido milk tea, and all were pretty good, although my favorite so far is still the jasmine (I'm a sucker for jasmine!).

What amazes me most about Serenitea is that the sizes of their drinks are significantly larger than Quickly's, yet their prices are very reasonable. The average order costs about P85, and it's real value for money. Not to mention they deliver for free to my house! Serenitea is just one more reason for me to be glad I live in Greenhills... and a way to perk up dreary afternoons at work.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bookworm's progress report #3, 2009

The year's almost half over, and I have only finished 6 books in as many months. I have a feeling 2009's going to go down as a very bad year for this bookworm (not to mention my blog post output for June is alarmingly low-- what the heck have I been doing?).

* * *

There's something about the way Indian authors write that lends their words a lyrical, almost rhythmical quality. Their manipulation and mastery of the English language are uniquely beautiful, and it's why I enjoy reading novels by Indian writers even if, quite frankly, I'm not really all that interested in their culture. Kiran Desai is one such author. I liked her novel The Inheritance of Loss primarily for her distinctly Indian writing style, which effectively immersed me in the atmosphere and lifestyle of the small town at the foot of the Himalayas. Desai also had me seeing her characters with a clarity both natural and startling: the stubborn old judge who shuts out everyone, including the ghosts from his past; his young orphaned granddaughter, who in the process of discovering love discovers herself; their cranky cook, whose devotion to his master, mistress and above all his own son, is both comic and tragic; and the cook's son, who struggles to forge a new life for himself in America, even as his heart pines for home.

I may not have been able to fully appreciate the socio-cultural and socio-political underpinnings of Desai's story (set against a Gorkha uprising in northern India in the 80s), but as a tale about family and home and the ties that bind, I did find it engaging and moving. I particularly liked how Desai depicts the life of illegal immigrants in the US, which, while possibly exaggerated for maximum effect, struck me as very poignant and real, even more so than the descriptions of squalid living conditions in India. I'm just not sure if I would consider this novel worthy of the Man Booker Prize in terms of content, and even stylistically Desai is no Arundathi Roy (author of The God of Small Things, one of my favorite books of all time). However, I'd still call The Inheritance of Loss a good read, and certainly deserving of a place on this bookworm's shelf.

* * *

There's something comforting about reading a favorite author, a familiarity with her style and language that makes the reading experience richer somehow. Whenever I pick up an E.L. Konigsburg book, I know I'm headed home. I love how I seem to get an intimate knowledge of even her new characters right from the get-go, how I recognize Konigsburg's "voice" in the narration of the story, how I get that bittersweet feeling of writer's awe/envy as I think to myself, "Now THIS is young adult literature!" In Konigsburg's latest, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, she tackles multiple themes of friendship, family, art, the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the meaning of true heroism. 2 boys helping a retired opera singer pack up the belongings in her mansion stumble upon something that unspools an interwoven history marked by much sadness, but also tinged with beauty, and touched by love.

Konigsburg is excellent at creating young protagonists who are wise beyond their years, and Heroic World's Amedeo and William are no exception. The friendship that unfolds between the 2 is developed wonderfully, as only Konigsburg can: subtly, serenely, with a sense of wonder and warmth that makes it almost magical (and isn't friendship magical indeed?). In turn, the larger-than-life personality of Mrs. Zender, the diva formerly known as Aida Lily Tull, plays off the boys nicely, as she becomes a source of amusement and affection, and a quirky commonality for them. But the best part about Heroic World lies in the secrets the boys unearth, and without giving anything away, there is more than one potential tear-jerker part in this book. Closet sap that I am, I came dangerously close to tears myself.

I might be just totally biased in favor of Konigsburg, but I really enjoyed Heroic World, more than I did her The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, which I read 2 years ago (incidentally, some characters from the latter were also in the former, following Konigsburg's penchant for overlapping storylines). Konigsburg's best work is still by far The View From Saturday (my favorite book of all time), but Heroic World has a lot of the soul that made Saturday so brilliantly beautiful. Not Newbery Medal material, this one, but it comes pretty darn close.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Not the train wreck I was expecting

I had not planned on watching The Taking of Pelham 123, but my mom was bored and wanted to watch SOMEthing, and since I did not really want to be dragged to Night at the Museum 2, I accompanied her to see Pelham. And now I am reviewing a film I had not even intended to watch, not so much because it's a great action/suspense flick (it doesn't suck either), but because at some point during the movie I was reminded that Denzel Washington and John Travolta really are fine actors.

Denzel plays Walter Garber, a New York subway dispatcher who becomes involved in negotiating a hostage situation when one of the trains on his watch is hijacked by a group of men led by one Ryder, played by Travolta. The plot follows the route of the standard Hollywood hostage-taking, and there's really nothing particularly memorable about the story. Director Tony Scott throws in some gratuitous vehicular collisions to get the audience's pulse racing, but the pointlessness of it all is actually acknowledged in the script itself when the mayor (played by an uncomfortable-looking James Gandolfini) demands to know why they didn't just use a helicopter to deliver the ransom money. Everything is predictable, but reasonably plausible, so there's enough to keep the viewers mildly entertained, but not on the edge of their seats.

Luckily, Denzel and Travolta earn their combined more-than-4-times-the-amount-of-the-ransom paychecks by delivering solid performances as protagonist and antagonist, respectively. Over the years I have developed a real affection and respect for Travolta, and I think he doesn't get adequate credit for his range as an actor. I like him best in roles that let him shake his booty, but a close second is when he plays the bad guy (in Face/Off I much preferred him as Castor Troy-trapped-in-Archer's-body). In Pelham, he is just the right combination of menacing, murderous, and maniacal, and one can sense that Travolta relished portraying such a villain.

But whereas I have come to love Travolta, my appreciation of Denzel's acting abilities has waned over time. I find he tends to speak in the exact same way in almost all his roles: in an emphatic drawl (an oxymoron, I know) flavored with that distinct brand of Denzel cockiness. However in Pelham, he gives a very controlled performance as the cool and collected Garber. The one pivotal scene he could have very easily overacted (a verbal showdown via radio with Travolta) was handled with all the restraint and finesse of a veteran thespian, and in effect made that moment the most tense and dramatic of the whole movie.

The Taking of Pelham 123 offers little suspense and no surprises, but at least it allows 2 good actors to take the wheel and drive. And with talent like that, there's no way a movie-- weak plot and action cliches and all-- can crash.

Monday, June 08, 2009

He had it coming

Finally, #14.

And finally, Roger Federer conquers Roland Garros, winning his first ever French Open title, completing a career
Grand Slam, and tying Pete Sampras' record of most number of Grand Slam events won. Some say this now makes him the greatest tennis player of all time (even Sampras himself says so). Some say this was written in the stars, a destiny deserved by an "extraordinarily talented" player, as Andre Agassi put it. I say this is the storybook ending everyone wanted for a man who has brought so much skill, style, and class to the sport, and I couldn't be happier for the handsome hero.

When Roge lost to Nadal at the Australian Open earlier this year and had an emotional breakdown during the awarding ceremony, I truly did doubt that even the Swiss Maestro could overcome age, injury, self-doubt, and a passel of younger, bigger, faster rivals to reach #14. Even as I watched Federer in his first few matches at the French Open a couple of weeks ago, I harbored no false hopes of him reaching the final, much more winning the championship. The Mighty Fed struggled against supposedly lesser opponents, nearly sending me into cardiac arres
t more than once, especially during his doozy of a 4th round match versus unseeded relic Tommy Haas. But Roge somehow managed to win every time, advancing toward the final like some charmed grizzled warrior (if you can actually describe someone that gorgeous as "grizzled"). And the Fates assisted him along the way by tripping up the players who posed the most threat to him: Djokovic. Murray. And the King of Clay himself, Rafa Nadal.

When Nadal fell to Robin Soderling, as much as it disappointed me, I did suddenly feel a glimmer of hope for my darling Roge's chances. It really did seem as if the path was being cleared for Federer to win the French Open this
year. And win it he did, appropriately enough, by defeating the same guy who took out the reigning champion. It was as if Soderling had already done Roger a favor, and then helped him further by not bringing his cold-and-calculated-killer instincts to Court Philippe Chartier. Federer just schooled Soderling, even by the Swede's own admission, and beat him in straight sets in classic Federer fashion: simple, graceful, composed, and exquisitely refined. Not even the disruption caused by a crazy fan who rushed the court in the middle of a game and came dangerously close to Roger did much damage. Roge was on a roll, the crowd was chanting his name, and the heavens ordained that he get his due.

When championship point had been won and Federer fell to his knees on the red clay, the clay he had finally mastered, his face crumpling with emotion just as I had seen it do when he won Wimbledon in 2007, I felt my throat constrict with emotion too. I had been so tense throughout the entire match, terrified down to the last game that Robin the Giant Slayer might suddenly regain the form he had used to eliminate Nadal and Davydenko. In light of how he had sobbed like a baby after coming in the runner-up in Melbourne, I had the sinking feeling that Roger might never psychologically recover from a 4th loss at Roland Garros, not to mention another missed opportunity to notch Grand Slam #14. So imagine my relief and elation when his French Open fairy tale got its happy ending.

As tears rolled down Roger's face while Switzerland's national anthem played, my own eyes welled up with joy for the athlete I most admire and adore. I realize I may sound like such a pathetic fangirl, but hey, it's not everyday
you get to witness one of your heroes achieve something amazing, something historical, something legendary. And what happened today in Paris was just plain peRFection.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Sound the drums, join the chorus

On June 3, 2009, like thieves in the night, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's merry band of goons in Congress passed House Resolution 1109, calling for a Constituent Assembly (a.k.a. ConAss), the initial step toward Charter Change or Cha-cha, that diabolical dance choreographed by those with delusions of despotic grandeur. It is beyond both injury and insult that the HONORABLE gentlemen and women of the House of Representatives would have the Filipino people believe that this underhanded, unconscionable move is NOT part of a plot to put our pygmy President in power permanently. With HR 1109, the Lower House has taken upon itself, WITHOUT the involvement of nor intervention from the Senate, to convene as an assembly with the intent to amend the Philippine Constitution, the foundation of our nation's democracy.

It's like allowing a bunch of incompetent interns to perform open-heart surgery on an already dying patient with no supervision from their residents. And then when the patient flat-lines, the insidious interns harvest the organs and deliver them to Dr. Frankenstein. A diminutive, devious Dr. Frankenstein with a mole on her face and an Igor of a fat bastard husband by her side.

Yet instead of angry townspeople spilling onto the streets brandishing pitchforks and torches to go after the villains, we have meager media coverage of the issue (while Hayden Kho got the rock star treatment), and millions of clueless citizens who don't even know what ConAss stands for, much less understand the ramifications it could have on our country. Worse still, many of our fellow Filipinos DON'T CARE that something this big, this serious, this DANGEROUS, is happening right under our noses, perpetrated by the very people we elected into public office to serve our nation, not serve it up to the avaricious appetites of the Arroyos.

I know we are all weary of hearing about how our sorry excuse for a government has failed us, betrayed us, and sucked us dry, particularly under this administration. I know we are sick of protest rallies and noise barrages and petitions and other attempts at dissidence and demonstration, which all turn out to be for naught. I know it is easier to be fatalistic and apathetic and go about our daily lives tolerating the corruption and crimes of our nation's leaders. But the day we stop feeling galled by the shameless greed of our government, the day we stop feeling disgusted over the filth and scum that coat our politics, the day we stop feeling pained that our country is spiraling into economic, social, and moral decline-- is the day we let the Dark Side win. And how can any decent human being stand by and let evil prevail? And now, how can anyone with any shred of loyalty or gratitude or love for this country not be outraged at what has been accurately described as a "gang rape" of the Constitution, the very bastion of our civil rights and liberties?

I'm not saying we all have to take to the streets, or storm the Bastusang Pambansa (as Manuel Quezon III has renamed it). There are many ways to express dissent and contribute to the fight against one of the most contemptible CONs being committed by the ASSes in Congress. For one thing, we have to keep ourselves INFORMED and UPDATED on the issues; knowledge is power. For another, we have to SPEAK UP and SPEAK OUT. Don't be afraid to be contrary, don't be afraid to start an argument. The truth is ugly, but it has to be told. And since we live in a digital age, let's exploit the channels available to us: put those social networking sites to good use. Spread the word among your contacts. Tweet or Plurk about it! Get discussions going on Multiply pages or forums. Blog about your thoughts and views. Many Filipino bloggers have already made their voices heard, and hopefully the online outcry will reach the right people, trigger the right reactions, and ignite the indignation needed to galvanize others into action.

Knowing GMA and her minions' malevolent machinations, ConAss is but their first strike. I'm sure they have many more dirty tricks up their sleeves, all with the end goal of securing GMA's stranglehold on our country. I say let's give 'em hell to pay. I say throw all the monkey wrenches we got in their pernicious plans. Let's fan the flames of righteous anger, and let's show them we're NOT going to go quietly into the night. Let's make their first strike our last straw.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How to fall with grace

For someone who's not athletic at all, I'm a pretty avid sports spectator. It's not just the vicarious thrills and spills I'm after; I like how sports dramatically draw out and underscore strengths and weaknesses of body, mind, and spirit. And human character is seen none the more starkly than in the glaring light of victory or defeat.

An article in the Los Angeles Times contrasts two such cases: two guys gunning for greatness, both falling short of their goals. But one handled it like a man, the other like a diva. The former is Rafael Nadal, ranked the #1 tennis player in the world, reigning 4-time champion at Roland Garros and the heralded King of Clay, who bowed out in the
4th round of the French Open in a stunning upset by world #23 Robin Soderling. The latter is LeBron James, star player of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reigning NBA Most Valuable Player and hailed King James, who failed to carry his team to the Eastern Conference Championships and the NBA Finals. The pressure on both these young athletes was tremendous, and when defeat came unexpectedly, it would have been understandable if they had just gone to pieces.

But whereas LeBron left in a huff without acknowledging any of the Orlando Magic players who had bested the Cavs, didn't show up to the post-game press conference along with his teammates, and refused to face the media until a few days later, Nadal had the cajones to not only show up to his post-match press con, but own up to his shortcomings
AND congratulate his opponent, a man he doesn't even like very much.

Speaking of Soderling, I really wasn't sure at first why my student and die-hard Nadal fan (and future fiancee) Tommy calls the Swede a "douchebag", but when I read his comments after he had beaten Rafa, I realized the guy IS a bit of an a-hole. Nadal had been quoted by the AFP saying this about Soderling: "He didn't surprise me because I know how he plays and how dangerous he can be. I didn't play my best. I played very short and I couldn't attack. I made it easy for him to play at his level." The seemingly innocuous statement apparently rankled Soderling, who retorted with "...if he thinks that he made it easy for me then that's his choice. I would never say anything like that." Bitter much? Dude, you already won. Quit being so defensive. Even Nadal's attempts at diplomacy ("what we say in the locker room stays there, and we said nothing") were dismissed by Soderling as Nadal being in "his complaining mood", as quoted by Reuters.

How one conducts himself in victory and in defeat is very telling indeed, not only of the
kind of player he is but the kind of person he is. Most of the sports figures I admire and respect are not just skilled athletes on-court, but prove to be upstanding sports off-court (I've written their praises here and here). Sadly, we hear more accounts of individuals who do not know how to be gracious winners or losers (see this and this and this and this), and it's getting increasingly difficult to find role models we can look up to and emulate. When questioned about his not shaking Dwight Howard's hand after their last game, LeBron James said unapologetically: "I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them. That doesn't make sense to me. I'm a competitor. That's what I do. It doesn't make sense for me to go over and shake somebody's hand." Really. That's the MVP right there?

Thankfully, for every LeBron, we can still find someone like Rafael Nadal, who even at the top of his game maintains a humility that helps him accept defeat with all the class of a champion. Says Rafa: "It's not a tragedy, I had to lose one day. I must accept my defeats with the same level of calm that I accept my victories." Spoken like a true winner.