Ghosts of Basketball Courts Past

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Every so often I drag my old bones out to a basketball court and try to relive the glory days. I tell myself I’m just going to shoot around since I’ve got a fragile back, but inevitably someone asks me to play a game. Hoisting an orange ball toward a metal rim you find yourself in the company of people you might never talk to. Now I’m an elder statesman, but it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was one of the young whippersnappers.

Those years when I spent every possible moment on a basketball court, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, most of the regulars were my age or a few years older, but there were a few oddball adults. There was Jerry who must have been six foot six and looked like an eagle and John Lithgow had a lovechild and there was Paul, a foul mouthed guy who if you left him open long enough would pretend to pick his nose before he took the shot.

As the years passed and basketball went from an obsession to a hobby to something I rarely do, I can’t say I thought too much about either of them. But not too long ago I heard that Paul had passed away.

Hearing he died kind of jarred all these conversations over the years we had loose. I think most of this dialogue was after my first year of college. I was supposed to have gotten a job that summer, but I was thrifty enough to avoid one and spent the afternoons playing basketball. Paul who had kids just a few years younger than me felt comfortable giving me advice beyond putting more arc on my jump shot. I remember him telling me (his fellow Jew) that Miami would be a great place to live if it weren’t for all the Jews and Cubans. I also remember him telling me it was better to live in nature than in the city, because cities you eventually get bored of, while in nature there’s always something new, a new swimming hole, a new trail to walk.

I remember us making a bet about the NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls had just won a record number of games and I bet him ten dollars that the Bulls would win the best of seven series in five games or less. The Bulls won the first three games and my bet looked good, but then somehow lost the next two games, before closing the series out in six. In other words I lost the bet and as a thrifty guy without a summer job, I wasn’t too unhappy that I didn’t run into him at the courts before I went back to school.

When I made it back the next summer he was never there. I don’t know if I asked what happened to him or it just came up, but the story was he got in an argument when he called a foul. The opponent disagreed about the call and punched Paul square in the face. I had seen Paul get obnoxious in games, one time he didn’t like a call and punted the ball fifty feet away, but as an eccentric character he could get away with it. This time that wasn’t the case. He didn’t fight back, he left the game and walked off the court never to return. There were disputing stories of who threw the punch. But I’d like to think it wasn’t one of the regulars.

That was almost twenty years ago.

Now when I go out to the courts and I’m the one dispelling wayward youths unsolicited wisdom, I kind of marvel at however slow the days might go, how fast the years pass. Off the top of my head I don’t have too many regrets, but one is that I skipped out on the ten bucks I owed Paul. Now I’ll have to wait until the game in the big basketball court in the sky to pay my debt.

Puppet Pigs and Escalators

I once thought when I had kids I would never let them watch TV.  But like many well intentioned bohemian dreams, reality put  a dent in that ambition. Toddlers are like drunks in so many ways, but mostly in the amount of energy you have to put into keeping them out of trouble. And so I often give my two year old my phone and let her pick her viewing pleasures. She likes watching videos of people opening play-doh packages and uncovering toys. She loves British cartoons like Little Princess and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom.

Her favorite though is Peppa Pig. Peppa is an English animated pig with a Daddy, Mommy, and little brother George. They jump around in muddy puddles or visit their grandparents. They have adventures or they don’t, and every five minute episode ends with all the characters falling on their backs laughing uproariously. My daughter can name all the characters and has even taken to speaking in Peppa’s British accent.

When I heard that there was a touring live stage show of Peppa Pig’s Big Spalsh coming to the Fillmore, I pitched to my editor that I could write about taking my daughter to the show. I figured it would make an entertaining story and at the same time make me the #1 Dad in her eyes, at least until the next time I take the phone away from her.

So Saturday afternoon I woke her from her nap, packed the backpack with a couple snacks and took the short drive to the Lincoln Road parking lot where half of South Florida’s toddler population had parents with the same idea. With all the concerts I’d attended at the Fillmore, it was jarring to see strollers, diaper bags, and cotton candy being passed around instead of joints.

We got to our seats exactly at 5:00 which was showtime according to the ticket. My daughter placed her doll on the part of the seat she wasn’t occupying. She was amazed by all the action taking place around her. The kids her age and those a little older, the massive room and the red curtains on the stage. She was in awe until I could see she wasn’t. I looked at my phone. It was 5:15 and I started having flashbacks from our first trip to the movie theater. We had gotten there early and by the time the feature started she was already saying, “Go home Daddy. Go home!” But since that time she’s gotten older and her parents have grown wiser. Mommy told me to pack some chips, they would distract her and they did.

At 5:20 the lights dimmed, and the curtains rose. There was a Crayola hued set and the Peppa Pig theme song played. A woman dressed as a kid in overalls who introduced herself as Daisy came on to the stage and screamed “Where are all my friends?” Life sized puppets of Suzy Sheep and Pedro Pony  giggled as they came into view from the bushes they were hiding behind to the crowd’s delight. But there was still no Peppa. Daisy suggested to the crowd, “Maybe if we scream her name she’ll come out. One… two… three… Peppa Pig!” We did that several times. My daughter turned and smiled at me every time she yelled “Peppa Pig”. Out came Peppa. My daughter clapped like she was having the time of her young life and then began the show’s first point of tension. The late arriving crew sitting in front of us took their seats. My daughter started moving her head trying to see, I stuck her on my lap, but then it came, “Go home Daddy! Go home!”

I tried to distract her. “Look, it’s Mr. Bull!”

“Go home Daddy! Go home!”

I took out the chips, but she pushed them away. “Go home Daddy! Go home! Go home Daddy! Go home!”

This is another example of how drunk friends are good training for parenthood. you have to save these toddlers from themselves. If we were to go home, there would be no life size animal puppets. So we went into the lobby and took a few rides up and down the escalators until that thrill ebbed and returned to find some empty seats with clear views ahead of them. We got back just in time to jump up and down to help get George’s toy dinosaur out of a tree. We missed how it got up there, but I don’t think it was too important for plot purposes.

The plot from what I could piece together was that there was a hole in the school’s roof and Peppa and her friends threw a fair to raise money to fix the roof. There was a scene with talking pineapples that had the parents behind me joking in a South American accent about LSD.  At this point I got a little distracted because my daughter began swinging from the waist high bar in front of us. She’s not the toddler equivalent of the friend who when they get drunk passes out, she’s the one who dances on the tables.

Daisy on the stage asked for more jumping. My daughter would not disappoint. They asked for more cheering. She screamed, ran ten feet away and screamed again. I looked around the room.  Keeping up was not just my struggle. It was pandemonium. This must have been like when Rome was sacked by barbarians. When the kids got at their craziest, the show called it quits. My daughter saw everyone clapping, put her doll down and joined in the clapping. As we walked out of the theater the two of us spoke about what we saw. We recounted Peppa and her Daddy jumping in muddy puddles and all the fun hi-jinks we witnessed.

When we got home Mommy (her Mommy not Mommy Pig) asked our daughter how the evening and the show was.

In a British accent she answered. “Daddy and I went on an escalator.”

We all fell on our backs and laughed uproariously.

2016

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Every new year I head into it thinking this is going to be my year.

2016, the Chinese year of the red fire monkey, I’m taking a different philosophy. This will be my tax write-off of a year.

Too often I raise expectations thinking a new calendar will make all the difference and come January I will have grand epiphanies, memorable accomplishments, and carve some ambition into my lazy bones. By February it becomes clear that all my thoughts have been recycled, my actions have had no meaning, and the only carving I’ve done is an imprint of my buttocks into the couch.

2016 will be different.

I will expect nothing.

2017 will be my year.

Holidays

A few Novembers ago a friendly neighbor shattered the driver’s side window to break into my Love Interest’s car. We called some glass guy to replace it. He did the job and afterwards he wished us a happy Thanksgiving. That morning and exchange has stuck with me.

It was very early November which seemed a little ridiculous to already be wishing us a happy Thanksgiving. But that Thanksgiving came and went. As did that Christmas and New Years.

Perhaps it is never too early to get in the holiday spirit.

Deja Vu – Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed

spaceballs06In the 1990’s the original Star Wars trilogy was the Bible to pop culture nerds. When Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 the anticipation was what it must have been like 2000 years earlier when the New Testament came out.

Except instead of Jesus Christ we got Jar Jar Binks.

I fell asleep both times I tried to watch The Phantom Menace and the next two Star Wars movies weren’t that much better. So I didn’t have much hope when it was announced Disney was going to crank out a new Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future. In fact I dreaded the new movies as a cynical cash grab that would destroy the childhood innocence Star Wars and all its action figures, Underoos, and Pizza Hut limited edition cups represented.

So what a pleasant surprise Star Wars: The Force Awakens was. Someone who wasn’t a fan of the original Star Wars movies could point out plenty of plot holes, some wooden acting, and the fact the whole two and a half hour feature was basically a commercial for the next chapter, but they could say the same about the originals.  It would be more accurate to describe The Force Awakens as a two and a half hour love letter to those original three Star Wars movies.

This is a children’s movie not made for kids, but for 40 year olds who grew up on R2D2’s beeps and Chewbacca’s roars. Our heroes Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker are even older and grayer than us, but it gives you goosebumps to see them back on the screen again. The final shot left my jaw agape. All of a sudden the next Star Wars movie can’t come soon enough.

Critics have pointed out that many of the plot points for The Force Awakens were nearly identical to that of the original Star Wars movie, which I think was a brilliant move. That is also the strategy the new movie Creed took. Creed followed the same template of its 40 year old forefather, Rocky. In Creed, Rocky is now the wise old Jedi, teaching kind of young boxer Adonis Creed how to use the Force to come out of nowhere and get a chance at a title fight.

I don’t know how much I would have enjoyed Creed and The Force Awakens if I hadn’t grown up on Rocky and Star Wars movies, but I did and so I’m grateful they provided that welcoming nostalgia I’m always chasing when I go to the movies.

 

The Thanksgiving Story

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As I bought a loaf of bread I wished the man at the counter, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“I know of this holiday.” The gray bearded Italian said, “but I do not know what that means.”

As someone who sees it as my duty to educate the ignorant I felt obliged to bring class to session in the bakery. “It is a day when you come together with your family and give thanks.”

“For what?”

“Some people express thankfulness for the bounty of food placed in front of them, others for the company they get to keep. Some are grateful for a day off to watch or play a little football, for some it’s a marker that they made it through another year. I guess in a nutshell gratitude is what Thanksgiving is all about.”

“Oh, yes Thanksgiving. The day you Americans commemorate Native people feeding you when you were starving and reciprocating their charity with a genocide that would have made Pol Pot and Hitler blush, you then celebrate with gluttony and flatulence with the ritual slaughter of millions of birds and by watching a game where underprivileged men are highly paid to try to knock their fellow gladiator to the ground.”

“I suppose that’s one way to put it. But I thought you didn’t know what Thanksgiving was?”

“Do you take me for an idiot?” He asked. “Of course I know about Thanksgiving. It is happiness I wish to learn about.”

We’re Going To Disney World

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I always said the only way I would ever go to Disney World again was if someone dosed me with a truckload of psychedelics or if I had a kid.

Last time I went was 1992. My family took in a French foreign exchange student, as a thank you the school packed the visitors and their host kids on a bus and shipped them up to Orlando. I was thirteen so I had a blast with any dose of freedom. The most memorable moment was on The Pirates of the Caribbean ride when the French boys in the boat ahead of us threw the scrawniest of their number in the water right where the cannonballs seemed to be shooting. The kid was evidently not related to Jacques Cousteau. He screamed and cried as he jumped back in the boat.

Since those innocent days though I have grown a deep seated fear of Disney World and all it seemed to represent. The crowds, the commercialization, the crass idea that you can manufacture and market happiness.

If a trip to Ikea had me one step away from a panic attack, I could not imagine what Disney World would do to me.

And so when my Love Interest requested that we take our daughter there I always turned her down. “Go with your friends and their kids.” or “I’ll drive up there, drop you girls off at the theme park, and I’ll find some  watering hole to disappear into.”

But last month I relented. I rented a car, packed us in, and took the four hour drive to Orlando. The first rule I made to help myself get through this trip as a cheapskate was not to ask how much anything cost. If they started to tell me a price, I’d cover my ears, sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” and hand over the credit card. I broke this rule almost instantaneously as I drove into the theme park and they told me parking cost twenty bucks.

We got out of the vehicle and I prided myself that I walked the extra few booths down to find a shorter line. “These stupid tourists” I snickered as I saved us a few minutes, but I was going in with the wrong attitude. At Disney World as in life you will never defeat the line.

I don’t know if it was the high price of admission, but it wasn’t nearly as crowded as I feared and the clientele was not how I remembered it. In my memories every other person at the theme park was morbidly obese and every parent was threatening their kids with a whoopin’, but most of the people were trim and civilized towards their children.

You don’t see as many of the costumed characters anymore. You have to pay extra to get your pictures taken with the big dogs like Mickey Mouse or the princesses from Frozen. There were long lines for random supporting characters like the monkey from The Lion King who we started waiting in line for when he walked off and we were told he had to take a break to drink a banana milkshake.

Fortunately the lines for the rides weren’t bad. We went on the Jungle Boat which was filled with bad puns and African stereotypes. Our daughter’s favorite ride was the carousel. Mine was It’s a Small World which would be the safe zone if you did go to Disney World on a truckload of psychedelics.

When you’re there with a two year old though, the rides aren’t that important. The most amazing aspect is seeing it through her eyes, that all this manpower and resources were spent in celebration of an animated rodent.

This is a crazy world we live in, this Disney World.

 

The Great Whiteside Hope – 2015-2016 Miami Heat Season Preview

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As a fan of the Miami Heat since their inception the stakes and my expectations always seemed to rise. When the team first started in 1988 I was happy for them to beat anybody. When we got a few decent players like Glen Rice, Steve Smith, and Alan Ogg my expectations at the start of the season were that we would make the playoffs. When Pat Riley came in 1995 I expected a lengthy run in the playoffs.  When we got Shaquille O’Neal I expected a championship and in 2010 when LeBron, Bosh, and Wade joined forces I expected solar eclipses of legendary hoops.

Now that a year has a passed since LeBron James, Ray Allen, and any realistic hopes for a championship left Miami I’m still numb. It was annoying to watch last year’s Finals and know a Miami Heat team with LeBron and Ray Allen would have clobbered the champion Golden State Warriors.

But without a realistic hope for greatness it’s hard to feel anything with a new season upon us. After going four years where every Miami Heat game beckoned with the possibility of athleticism and skill that had never before been seen on a basketball court, where every playoff game had the pressure often reserved for the fate of civilizations, I’m left wondering now what’s the point of watching? To hope and pray they win 49 games and get home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs?

I got spoiled.

And if the Miami Heat fans feel ennui toward the upcoming season how must the players and the coaching staff who were along for the epic four year ride where they went to the Finals every year feel? If last year is any indication when Dwyane Wade decided to sit out every other game, Birdman cut off his mohawk, coach Erik Spoelstra made player substitutions like he wanted to be fired, and Chris Bosh made up some auto-immune disease so he could take the second half of the season off, they were also in a state of existential crisis.

Now it’s year 2 post-LeBron. Dwyane Wade is back. Chris Bosh has recovered from his fictional illness. We have Goran Dragic as a point guard, who is an offensive upgrade from Norris Cole. Rookie Justise Winslow was by most expert’s opinions a top five player from the draft who somehow fell to the Heat at #10. Gerald Green is an athletic shooter even though he has only nine fingers and Amare Stoudamire is instant offense who bathes in red wine.

But our only true chance at greatness lies in center Hassan Whiteside. Last year the  seven footer had a triple double of over ten points, rebounds, and blocks. It’s a feat that hadn’t been done in the NBA in years and it took him less that half a game to accomplish that. He had more 20 rebound games in his first 50 games than any player since Shaquille O’Neal.

In a league that is over reliant on shorter perimeter players, having a true beast in the center like Whiteside often was last season, could be a chance to stand out. Under coach Erik Spoelstra I am a little concerned that won’t happen. In this year’s first game he benched Whiteside four minutes into the game. Whiteside only took four shots and had a sorry stat line of four points and six rebounds. Perhaps our coach thought that would motivate him and maybe it will, but Spoelstra’s track record of getting young players to reach their potential has not been solid, he gives up on them fairly quickly.

But if the Heat are going to go for greatness or at the very least have us spoiled Miami Heat fans care about this upcoming season, it’s Whiteside or bust.

The Pier

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We used to jump off the pier at the south point of Miami Beach. Some would do flips or dive head first, I was only brave enough to jump. It wasn’t life threateningly high, though someone once told me their stepdad spent his adult life in a wheelchair because of a tragic leap off it, but it was a rush that lasted as you sunk ten feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and stayed with you like the salt on your skin until you washed it off.

The pier was closed off and under renovation forever. Maybe a year ago it reopened, child proof with clear signs that there is no jumping or diving allowed.

I took my daughter out there on a beautiful day. Though there was no way she could slither through the fence I still do the math in my head of how long it would take me to dive after her if she did and how I could climb up the rocks while holding her.

But there is no drama or action to this day. We sat in a shady area and the water was so calm and clear even with my awful vision I could spot a parrotfish swimming by. When a tugboat motored through, the waves in its wake scattered out even more sea life. I asked my daughter if she saw the fish, she acted like she did but I’m pretty sure she’s pretending. Then she points out a turtle. I act like I see it as well.

Proper Identification

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I carried my California driver’s license until it expired. My photograph was taken at the Redwood City DMV, months before 9/11 and somehow when I got it renewed they allowed me to keep the same picture from when I was 22 years old. I like to think I aged gracefully, but when I sold my car to a junkman he questioned whether I was using someone else’s ID card.

Last May I finally got my Florida license. I waited in a long line behind a man who kept complaining how long it was taking which in turn was getting me riled up. Eventually it was my turn and I had a new picture taken.

It had been over a year since I had cut my hair and my locks had gotten long. It wasn’t until I stared at my picture that I realized how long my hair had grown. I looked like Michael Bolton. The frightening thing was I actually liked that I looked like Michael Bolton.

But the summer is hot and my hair kept growing and in a fit of energy I decided to rid myself of my hair. I had been threatening to do it all summer with each dread that I felt knotted up in my mane, but every time I pulled out my ID I thought I should keep my hair. Nobody has heard from Michael Bolton after all since he cut off his hair. And if there was one lesson I learned from the Bible it involves poor Samson.

But for the umpteenth time in my life I went against religion. I walked into a barber shop that promised ten dollar haircuts. A man was in the back reading a book. I asked how much he would charge to shave my head.

“You want me to shave that? No, I won’t do it.”

So I began to walk out of the store, when he stopped me. “You OK if I shave it with the machine.” He took out an electric razor.

I said “Yes.” His English wasn’t so great, but I guess he thought I wanted him to shave it with a straight razor. It didn’t take him more than a couple minutes to lop off all the hair I had been growing for months. I asked him what he was reading.

“The Bible.” he said. I started wondering how much the chapter on Samson had to do with him refusing his services.

He finished it up. In the mirror I thought I looked younger, though less like Michael Bolton.

Now when I hand someone my ID I have to explain, it is me but I shaved my head.

And it doesn’t expire until 2023.