Sunday, December 30, 2018

Ranking the 45 Number One Songs on My Birthday

45 sucks. Yes, I'm probably biased, but hear me out. On March 30, 2018, I turned 45. The next day, while lifting an innocuous cooler of beer at my 14-year-old son's baseball game, I wrenched my back. Undisputed clinical proof that 45 is a pain. Over the summer, I stopped shaving. The results were decidedly... uneven. More proof -- albeit, aesthetic -- that 45 is a goddam embarrassment. Finally, in the fall, I was diagnosed with AERD and needed two days of controlled treatment. 45 is f cking insidious, fam. It needs its own #45sucks hashtag campaign or social media logo* or marketing**...thing.

** -- I graduated from San Diego State University in 1997 with a BS in Marketing. The internet made me irrelevant in under 18 months. Fortunately, I married way outside my league!

Way back in 2003 (you know it's a vital anniversary, because it's divisible by five) I began writing a weekly column called the Friday Music News Bootleg. It ran for three years and a few months after it ended, I started this bare-bones blog. Over the past 15 years, I've written about everything from deep-fried fair food to family eulogies, but music will always be where it began.

So, let's lift a collective middle finger to the face of 45, by revisiting -- AND DEFINITIVELY RANKING -- all 45 songs that charted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on each of my 45 birthdays. On the day of my birth, the #1 song in the country was Love Train by the O'Jays. 1973 also featured #1 classics by Stevie Wonder, Jim Croce, Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight. Physiologically and chronologically, the calendar makes me uniquely qualified to offer my ear to the best music from March 30, 1974 through 2018...but, we start with the worst!

45.) Butterfly by Crazy Town (2001) -- Oh, rap-rock. You weren't the first flash-in-the-pan fusion of musical genres, but you were undoubtedly the most unlistenable. Remember the four-day disaster of "Woodstock '99"? Limp Bizkit performed did did Insane Clown did Kid Rock! According to my math, that's one disaster for each day! Will modern-day cultural appropriation ever find its patient zero? Stay tuned!

44.) Sunshine on my Shoulders by John Denver (1974) -- As I entered elementary school in the late 1970s, few troubadours were as ubiquitous as the bespectacled Denver. When I was 5 or 6, I thought he might've actually been a Muppet for all his maudlin cameos alongside Kermit. Denver reportedly wrote this song at the end of an unforgiving Minnesota winter, but come on: "Sunshine almost always makes me high"? COME ON.

43.) Harlem Shake by Baauer (2013) -- Did I mention I'm 45-years-old? I've lived long enough for a single to hit #1 because of a YouTube video that became internet-meme infamy. The only thing about the story of this song that, say, 18-year-old me would understand is that no one made any money off it, because none of the samples were cleared. (Meanwhile, 45-year-old me only recently learned how to pronounce "meme".)

42.) Rock Me Amadeus by Falco (1986) -- The A&M label released 19(!) versions and remixes of this single, but MY favorite is the heretofore unreleased 20th...sigh. Look. Those of you who've been reading my writing since the beginning know where this is going. I am nothing if not beholden to the traditional crutch of this lightly-read blog. Anyways...the heretofore unreleased 20th remix!

41.) The Sign by Ace of Base (1994) -- Although considered one of -- if not THE -- greatest years for hip hop, the genre wasn't yet cranking out chart-topping singles. Instead, we get the Swedish pop stylings of Ace of Base. Ulf Ekberg and the Berggren siblings conspired to RUIN my 21st birthday with their repetitive, broken-relationship pap. What hath ABBA and Roxette wrought?!

40.) Rapture by Blondie (1981) -- This was the first number one single to incorporate rap vocals? Huh. I assume it was also the first to include "sacroiliac" as a lyric. The video debuted on -- and I'm excited to type this -- "Solid Gold" and was part of MTV's first video rotation. Has modern-day cultural appropriation found its "patient zero"? It has!

39.) One More Night by Phil Collins (1985) -- This list will NOT celebrate songs that celebrate simpin'. Hell was the Hart Foundation even talking about? (Yes, I know that's a different song. It's called a non sequitor. You, uh, new readers might wanna get used to it.)

38.) So Sick by Ne-Yo (2006) -- Speaking of simpin'. Ne-Yo is out here telling us he's "so sick of love songs" and asking "why can't I turn off the radio"? Negro, it's not that difficult! And, why in the hell did hip hop heavyweights LL Cool J and Jay-Z appear on various remixes of this? And, Hype Williams directed the music video?! Stargate produced this, so I'm afforded the rare opportunity to dismiss Sweden and Norway within a few dozen words of each other.

37.) Glamorous by Fergie featuring Ludacris (2007) -- After J-Lo's Jenny From the Block and Gwen Stefani's Luxurious earlier in the decade, you'd think American audiences would've tired of hearing how the obscenely loaded and gorgeous were just like all us other uggos. Fergie's d-e-r-i-v-a-t-i-v-e paints by the same numbers with Luda's lazily mailed-in lyrics crammed in for an attempt at urban credibility. The video also attempts, uh..."urban". With dancing Dickies and...damn.

36.) Gettin' Jiggy Wit It by Will Smith (1998) -- It's no secret that Nas -- one of the seminal rappers from the 1990's grimy "return to lyricism" movement -- helped with the writing on Smith's 1997 Big Willie Style release. He was long rumored to have co-written this vapid, vacuous single, as well. Only recently -- presumably as the royalty checks have at last run dry -- has Nas gone on record to distance himself from this mess of excess and shiny-suit residue.

35.) Candy Shop by 50 Cent featuring Olivia (2005) -- Witness protection ain't got nothing on women in rap who show up for a verse or a hook here and there and are never heard from again. Olivia left the G-Unit label in 2007 and would eventually join silenced sisters such as Ms. Toi, Truth/Truth Hurts, Tweet, Jewell and Amil. This is hardly representative of the level of respect and admiration rap music usually has for women.

34.) Right Round by Flo Rida featuring Kesha (2009) -- SEVEN songwriters on a three-minute single about blow jobs that leans heavily on a familiar sample from the disposable-pop heyday of the 1980s? From the guy whose totally original stage name is his home state with a superfluous space? THIS is how middle-aged Americans begin bitching about everything.

33.) Work by Rihanna featuring Drake (2016) -- RiRi appears twice on this list and her two entries couldn't be more opposite from each other. This formulaic bore was intended to bring the Barbadian beauty "back" from the so-so response to 2012's rushed and unpolished Unapologetic album. If the halfhearted, pandering nod to her dancehall roots couldn't win over critics, it's hard to see how Drake's (admittedly, often charismatic) dreck -- "If you had a twin, I would still choose you!" -- could either. Do they not teach basic biology in the province of Ontario, Aubrey? Your lyric is NOT a compliment, man!

32.) Black Velvet by Alannah Myles (1990) -- I liked this song better before I learned that songwriter Christopher Ward penned it after being inspired by...a busload of Elvis Presley fans and impersonators who were heading to Graceland. I once made a playful crack at Elvis' expense in my old weekly music column and endured several days of hate e-mail. Despite their pompadoured hero's protests to the contrary, they were actually quite cruel.

31.) Born This Way by Lady Gaga (2011) -- Just when you think Lady Gaga had ONLY stolen the chords from Madonna's 1989 smash Express Yourself, she hits you with some vocal cadence from Madonna's Vogue as well! There's an inspiring message buried deep -- deep -- within the brazen, unapologetic jacking of beats. Look close. Closer. Closer still. Yes...past the questionable use of "chola" and the unquestionably dated "orient" descriptors. Millennials, man.

30.) Tragedy by The Bee Gees (1979) -- This was the penultimate number one single for the Bee Gees, as the writing was on the wall -- and disco ball -- for the musical genre that ruled radio for the last half of the 1970s. Roughly three months after hitting the top of the charts, Major League Baseball's Chicago White Sox hosted Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. The line-ups that night included a "Champ", a "Junior" a "Chet" and not one, but TWO "Rustys". (This reminds me...when I was a kid, every other boy was named "Toby" or "Wesley". Where did they all go? And, how does this bode for "Dakota" and "Jordan" today?)

29.) God's Plan by Drake (2018) -- Drake's had three songs reach #1 this year and God's Plan kept hold of the throne for 11 consecutive weeks -- the longest run of 2018. The video, however, reaches all the way out to 2058 as it's mysteriously hosted by former NFL cornerback/strip club aficionado Adam "Pacman" Jones from 40 years in the future. No, seriously. Are there ANY powers that Drake doesn't have?!

28.) Rich Girl by Hall & Oates (1977) -- We've got a ways to go on our list; but I'mma bet this is the only song that references Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz, the Symbionese Liberation Army and cult-favorite 1980s TV drama Hunter on its Wikipedia page. The GREAT guitar and drum break right after the first verse inexplicably isn't mentioned, though. Do better, internet.

27.) December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) by The Four Seasons (1976) -- The roots of this song (kinda-sorta) reach back to 1933 and its 1993 re-release/remix matched the original's 27-week reign on the Billboard Hot 100. That's 60 years we've spent celebrating...*checks lyrics* stands and..."as I recall, it ended much too soon...". Oh. Oh, god, no.

26.) Believe by Cher (1999) -- The original auto-tune! Hopefully, Cher's getting some residuals from this! Meanwhile, the sheer number of failed relationship-related songs that reached #1 on or around my birthday probably explains at least a little about my fractured psyche, yes? You're too near me not to hear me, Cher.

25.) Jump by Van Halen (1984) -- Let's declare 1984 as the single most "'80s music" year of the decade, OK? Other number ones included: Karma Cameleon, Footloose, Let's Hear it For the Boy, Ghostbusters, What's Love Got to Do With It and Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Coincidentally, nearly 20 countries boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles where Lionel Richie sang a NINE-minute version of All Night Long at the closing ceremonies. But, sure..."coincidence".

24.) Shape of You by Ed Sheerhan (2017) -- West Yorkshire's favorite milquetoast vocalist checks in with his usual four minutes of inoffensive whimsy. I do find it funny that he'd take a first date to an all-you-can-eat restaurant (Fill up your bag and I'll fill up a plate...), but it appears to have turned out better than one of MY first dates back in the summer of 1993:

23.) Can't Nobody Hold Me Down by Puff Daddy (featuring Ma$e) (1997) -- Songs produced or performed by Sean "Puffy" Combs spent 25 total weeks at #1 in 1997. This one samples heavily from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's iconic single The Message and includes one of my favorite ("...spend time in H-A-W-A-AH-AH...") and dirt-worst ("Young, black and famous with money hangin' out the anus.") bars of the year. 25. Total. Weeks.

22.) Coming out of the Dark by Gloria Estefan (1991) -- This was Estefan's first single after her near-fatal tour bus accident in March 1990. The video features Married...With Children alumnus David Garrison -- who left the successful sitcom before it ruined his career, like those of Ed O'Neill...wait, no...Katey Sagal?...wait, no...Christina Applegate?...wait, no...David Faustino? Yes...that'll do. In fact, let's see what ol' Bud's up to.

21.) Love in This Club by Usher featuring Young Jeezy (2008) -- I'm not sure which bit of unintentional hilarity tickles me more. Usher with the opening audience assurance to "...keep it hood" or Young Jeezy telling the ladies to " me in the bathroom" -- after offering up fornication "on the couch, on the table, on the bar or on the floor". Nightclubs are practically a Petri dish of disease, Jeezy. The floor? The bathroom? I hope all these women told the Snowman "no, man". I might've been drinking as I wrote that last line. Regrets? None.

20.) Say My Name by Destiny's Child (2000) -- The drama around this song is probably better than the actual song, as Beyonce turned heel on former bandmates LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson. The video featured 11th hour additions Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin, but kept the original members' vocals. Obviously, the group's manager -- and Beyonce's father, Mathew Knowles -- was wielding the proverbial sledgehammer, though. The whole ordeal was chronicled in a 2014 made-for-TV movie.

19.) Ain't It Funny by Jennifer Lopez featuring Ja Rule (2002) -- Other than Eminem, there might not have been a more ubiquitous rapper in the early 2000s than Ja Rule. And, other than, say, Nate Dogg, no other hip hop act benefitted more from the word "featuring..." on artist's credits. Jay-Z, Ashanti and J-Lo all shared the mic with Ja on some of his/their biggest hits. Sadly, Ja Rule was murdered at his peak in 2003. His body was never recovered.

18.) Because You Loved Me by Celine Dion (1996) -- Then-Girlfriend Bootleg and I attended, like, 100 weddings before we got engaged (I know, I know...) and this song was probably the father/daughter dance at 98 of 'em. I can't have it higher because it's become SUCH a cliché. What's that you ask? What did my mom and I dance to at MY wedding? That's none of your goddam business...but, it wasn't cliché! Let's move on!

17.) Night Fever by The Bee Gees (1978) -- From the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time; for the first five weeks this song was #1, the Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive was #2. The apex of the disco movement, the Saturday Night Fever phenomenon was absolute alchemy for all involved. Hell, remember John Travolta's highly-publicized 1990s comeback in a role NO ONE expected? Alchemy, kid.

16.) Lean on Me by Club Nouveau (1987) -- One of only nine songs to hit #1 as performed by two different artists, this version -- and the original by Bill Withers -- were featured in the great 1989 Morgan Freeman film of  the same name. Of course, the musical number from THAT flick tops anything modern cinema has ever recorded. Fight me.

15.) Another Brick in the Wall, Part II by Pink Floyd (1980) -- I feel like I'm gonna catch hell for ranking this one so low. The bass-line and drums are wonderful. The anthemic chorus is legendary. The message? It just never connected with me. I was seven when it hit #1...and, I always liked school. In fact, if you were listening to this in class, I'd tell on you. "Nerd", you say? Well, I'm telling teacher you said THAT, too.

14.) I Love Rock & Roll by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (1982) -- I was nine-years-old when I lost my first bet. On the playground of Tarawa Terrace II elementary school near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, I was convinced that the woman who sang this song and the cute brunette on TV's Three's Company were one and the same. It turns out they were not. I WAS SO SURE.

13.) We Are Young by Fun featuring Janelle Monáe (2012) -- The serendipitous success of this single is so 21st century, son. It was originally released in September 2011 without much fanfare. Later in the year, it was covered by the FOX television series Glee and soon...kaboom. From there, Chevrolet used the song in a commercial that first aired during yet another New England Patriots bed-sh tting Super Bowl loss. Along the way, it broke digital sales/impressions records that were previously held by Eminem and Destiny's Child. If that last sentence doesn't scream "21st century", I don't know what does.

12.) Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars (2015) -- My favorite music truism is how an infectious beat can lift even the most ridiculous lyrics. Dr. Dre and Kanye West -- two of the greatest producers of our generation -- were understandably given a pass on "I get plenty of ass/So, call me an astronaut" (Keep Their Heads Ringin') and "The way Kathie Lee needed Regis/That's the way I need Jesus" (Jesus Walks), respectively. So, it's to Ronson's credit that his funk-on-amphetamines approach elevates lines like "Gotta kiss myself, so pretty." and "Smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy".

11.) Happy by Pharrell Williams (2014) -- Anyone else remember the 24-hour video for this song? It remains a joyous ode to,, but it's omnipresence had y'all forgetting that Pharrell and the Neptunes been in the game for almost 30 years and are probably responsible for getting more folks onto the dance floor at your wedding, high school reunion, office Christmas party or as any other kind of cover for your casual alcoholism.

10.) Rude Boy by Rihanna (2010) -- With the kind of sexual empowerment and assertiveness that could only come from an album called Rated R, it's a terrific spin on the misogyny that's made men millions. It was released less than a year after inexplicably still-standing sh tbag Chris Brown was arrested for assaulting her. She's since dated erstwhile Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp and Canadian diva Drake, proving once again that light-skinned men such as myself are ALWAYS in your league, ladies. *rowr*

9.) Informer by Snow (1993) -- You had to be there. That's the only way I can explain how the best bad song ever -- with apologies to Ini Kamoze -- spent SEVEN weeks at #1 in 1993. I remember incredulous urban radio DJs in LA playing it over and over while overtly protesting its popularity on air. I'll always have a soft spot for this nonsensical sh*t, though, as it was the song that took me into my 20s. It also directly led to the last good In Living Color skit ever.

8.) Yeah! by Usher featuring Ludacris and Lil' Jon (2004) -- My son Jalen was born in 2004. As most of you know, he was a preemie -- born nine weeks early during Mrs. Bootleg's 31st week of pregnancy. As most of you ALSO know, I only mention this in my writing to use the lives of my wife and son to take the most circuitous path to a larger, uninteresting point. Mrs. Bootleg's 31 weeks with Jalen were just three less than the number of weeks Usher's songs spent at #1 in 2004. See?

7.) Save the Best for Last by Vanessa Williams (1992) -- Over the course of a couple of months in early 1992, my first girlfriend dumped me, reconciled with me and then dumped me again. At that time, the top of the Billboard charts were riddled with singles like All 4 Love, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me and To Be With You. Too bad she missed out on taking me back/breaking up with me that summer when Boyz II Men's End of the Road was RIGHT THERE to ruin me.

6.) Take a Bow by Madonna (1995) -- The usual collection of pearl-clutchers had birthed a backlash towards ol' Madge for the in-plain-sight sexuality she celebrated in the early 1990s. Kudos, repressed prudes! You indirectly forced her into the studio of uber-producer Babyface and the end result is on the short list of Madonna's best songs. Were y'all ever able to scrub your own moral decay and intellectual dishonesty from your fainting couches? Oh, I'm kidding, you feckless hypocrites. I'm kidding.

5.) In Da Club by 50 Cent (2003) -- How big was the first single from 50's debut studio album? It spent nine weeks at #1. Subsequently, it inadvertently served as a springboard for the early release of Get Rich or Die Tryin' due to rampant bootlegging (woo!) and internet leaks. The Dr. Dre-beat bumped so hard, it was essentially lifted and used again on then-labelmate The Game's wonderful Westside Story track two years later. How big was it?! Me and my rhythmless running buddy Dale were bar-hopping in San Francisco in the summer of 2003. This song even got HIM to the dance floor. Here's a reasonable reenactment.

4.) Lady Marmalade by LaBelle (1975) -- Patti LaBelle is a goddam national treasure, we all agree. Similarly, we all agree that her 1992-93 sitcom didn't get a fair shake from NBC, yes? YES. Anyways...this song is SOAKED in sensuality and -- near as I can tell -- is the first use of "freak" as a euphemism for "sex", beating Adina Howard to the punch by, like, 20 years. Ms. Howard and I are the same age, which might be the most definitive "old" identifier in any of these 4000 words.

3.) Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson (1988) -- This song peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts...more than 20 years after its initial release following the death of Michael Jackson. In the same week, it became the most downloaded song on iTunes. An alternate version was used in Jackson's 1988 film Moonwalker. Some of you might remember the poorly-received video game that was inspired by the movie. No? Well, the last paragraph of "arcade gameplay" under its Wikipedia entry might be the greatest thing ever written on the internet.

2.) The Living Years by Mike & The Mechanics (1989) -- My father passed away in March 2018 and this song...holy sh t, this song. It's almost perfect in its representation of heartbreak and regret. I wish my old man and I could've been closer -- he was a hardscrabble jarhead who grew up in Jim Crow Georgia and I'm a soft-ass suburbian who never fully understood or appreciated my pops' pain. My favorite memory of him is from Thanksgiving 1995. My parents had bought their first house -- after I'd moved out, then moved away to San Diego. And, on a typically too-warm late November morning, my dad and I shared a beer -- for the first time -- in the backyard. Just me and him. I remember him asking if I was doing OK. Yes, sir. But, I wish you were still here to make sure.

1.) Billie Jean by Michael Jackson (1983) -- The most recognizable first 30 seconds in the history of pop music. I parents went out and bought the Thriller album the day it was released -- and, I mean the vinyl ALBUM. And, they played it on THIS. I'd argue Michael Jackson was the last of the "larger-than-life" entertainment icons, as today, fame is handed out like Heath Bars on Halloween. This is probably not his greatest song, but it might be his most perfect.

*-- Logo courtesy of Mike Mitchell. Facts check out.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Aaron’s iFAQ #7: The Heretofore Untold Origin of J-Bird

Our 13-year-old son Jalen starts 8th grade this week as one of the proverbial big men on the middle school campus. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, but, Mrs. Bootleg and I couldn’t be more proud of him. Jalen is an honor student and involved in ASB. He’s participated in leadership conferences and has the confidence to speak in front of his peers for oral projects. He’s a wonderful young man…who will always be our little boy.

If you’ve previously visited these lightly-read blog parts, you MIGHT have heard that little boy’s story before. Most of it can be found here. TL;DR? Really?! Fine…for the lazy goddam millennials among you: Jalen was born nine weeks premature, he spent five weeks in the neo-natal intensive care unit and most of his first year strapped to a bulky – ostensibly portable – heart monitor.

Jalen’s early physiological challenges extended to both his motor and speech functions. He didn’t start crawling until nine months. He didn’t start walking until 16 months. And, by the time his second birthday came around, his vocabulary remained exceedingly limited. These developmental delays led us to enroll Jalen in occupational and speech therapy.

(Believe it or not, there was a time when Mrs. Bootleg and I wished Jalen would talk MORE.)

Sometime in the middle of all this, I took Jalen to the zoo on my off-Friday. It had rained overnight and the early morning parking lot was filled with flocks of seagulls looking for worms, snails and whatever else might be served at the invertebrate breakfast buffet. As I unloaded most of the contents of my car into the ostentatious covered wagon that doubled as my son’s stroller, Jalen pointed out towards the Hitchcockian scene and said, “bird!”

This was Jalen’s first word in the non-mama/dada division, so I responded with the appropriate level of parental restraint. First, I frantically called Mrs. Bootleg at work to see if Jalen would repeat his monosyllabic utterance. When that failed, I expeditiously wheeled him to the flamingo exhibit – foolishly hoping he’d make the aviary association between a traditional bird and an ostrich/giraffe/pastel mash-up. When THAT failed, I simply dedicated the rest of my waking hours – every damn Morris day – to getting my boy to say it again.

If you’re a parent, you’re probably familiar with the path we travelled. Whenever we were out and about, I’d see a bird and melodramatically gesture towards it. Hoping to apprehend the attention of a toddler, I’d exclaim, “Bird! Bird! Jalen, bird!” My wife and I had been using “J” as an affectionate appellation since the day he was born, so it wasn’t long before my bleating became “J, bird! J, bird!”

And, it stuck.

Years later, I found this picture of Atlanta Braves infielder Jerry Royster! The original J-Bird! Black baseball tradition! Jalen carries on this not-at-all exaggerated African-American legacy with equal parts pride and indifference!

With Major League Baseball’s profitable/puerile “Players’ Weekend” jerseys on deck for the weekend, I’m reminded of a time when nicknames meant something MORE than money. I’m also reminded of two nicknames for Jalen that thankfully didn’t stick.

J started playing catcher for the first time as a 9-year-old. I was manager of his team and an incredibly kind and patient dad named Jason was an assistant coach. Late in one game, J threw out consecutive attempted base stealers at third to get us out of the inning. Coach Jason had taken J under his wing and gave him a lot of lessons on the position, so he was understandably excited. Perhaps, too excited?

Jason: “Wow! Those were two GREAT throws, Jalen!”

J: “Thanks, coach.”

Jason: “You should change your last name to ‘Cannon’!”

J: “Jalen…Cannon? JALEN CANNON! Dad! Coach said I should change my…”

Me: “I heard him, J.”

J: “Jalen Cannon! Jalen “The Cannon” Cameron! Say it like you’re announcing it, dad!”

Me: “No.”

A few years later, I was picking up Jalen from school. He had a pretty bad migraine and was trying to sleep it off in the nurse’s room. As I signed J out, one of his teachers approached me in the office.

Her: “I’m sorry to hear about his migraines. We just think the world of JB.”

Me: “Who?”

Her: “Oh…aren’t you JB’s father?”

Me: “You mean Jalen? Jalen Cameron?”


Me: “Why in the world does your teacher call you, ‘JB’?”

J: “It’s short for ‘J-Bird’.”

Me: “That’s [possible expletive] ridiculous.”

J: *mumbles something about ‘swag’*

Me: “What?”

J: “Dad, my head really hurts.”

Me: “We’ll talk about this later.”

We love you, J-Bird.

A post shared by Aaron Cameron (@that_bootleg_guy) on

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The 7-Up Eulogy

Yesterday, I cried.

As middle-age moves into both my emaciated muscles and meandering metabolism, I have made a sincerely insincere effort to be negligibly more mobile. With my ubiquitous FitBit affixed firmly to my six-inch wrist; I left New Stately Bootleg Manor around 8:00PM in an attempt to walk off the second-rate takeout burrito that had overstayed its welcome in the attic of my abdomen.

Our new neighborhood is a collection of cul-de-sacs sewn together with two or three actual streets built atop an assortment of natural inclines and their geological antonyms. With a light rain falling, the intermittently-placed streetlights were more useless than usual, so I headed south and then west with the seasonal residential compass – garishly-lit holiday yard decorations – as my substitute North Star.

Over the past few years, the holidays have become a case-study in Hebbian Plasticity for my psyche. As I unsteadily shuffled across the saturated sidewalks, random thoughts pinballed around my brain. Inevitably, memories of my late grandfather found their way in. He passed away earlier this year after a short (or long) illness at the age of 90.

Funnily enough, the first thing I usually think of before the flood of more meaningful memories from my grandfather is that he died on May 11. This lightly-read blog has gotten a bit of mileage from "the events of 5/11" and the mocking of my own mortality. So, of course, he passes away with dignity and grace while I faced my more immediate health scare with flailing limbs and flop sweat. Figures.

"Dignity" and "grace" are admittedly hackneyed callouts that could appear on anyone's epitaph – earned or otherwise. And, to be fair, clichés don't do John Cameron justice.

Like you and me, my grandfather was flawed. My earliest -- earliest -- memories of him were taking walks around his Long Beach neighborhood with my brother. Just the three of us. Periodically, my grandfather would reach into an ostensibly random shrub, pull out a flask and take a quick swig. Decades later, I smile at the imagery – equal parts shameless and stealthy. But, those romanticized sips were symptoms of a more insidious issue and in the spring of 1986 – when I was 13 – my grandfather's alcoholism (nearly) killed him.

The parenthetical actually serves a purpose. My grandfather was supposed to die. My mother picked up my brother and I from school several weeks after my grandfather – her father – collapsed and was found non-responsive. She told us through tears and an absence of sugarcoating that the doctors said he was going to die. There was nothing more they could do…so, my grandfather beat the reaper? I guess? I don't have much faith in the metaphysical, but I wasn't about to look a gift miracle in the mouth.

My grandfather made the most of his resurrection. He kicked the bottle – and the flask – cold turkey. His daily libation strolls evolved into actual exercise as my grandfather accumulated miles and miles of walking to his biometric resume. At the time, I didn't appreciate this unscripted second act as much as I do today. Save for a cane he now needed to steady his gait, my grandfather was BACK and better than EVER! (See? Hackneyed.)

In 1995, I was a starving college student who'd just moved in to a studio apartment about three blocks from my grandparents. I made $8.00/hour serving ice cream and frozen yogurt to the beautiful people on the beach. After rent, utilities, textbooks and a steady payout for car maintenance, I had just enough "walking-around money" left over to subsist off of whatever broken waffle cones I could embezzle out through the back door.

Not long after moving in, my grandfather called and invited me over for dinner. Every Monday night thereafter, my grandparents would cook an obnoxious amount of food – one night there were six Cornish game hens stuffed with macaroni and cheese…another time, in a stockpot as tall as the still-diminutive Mrs. Bootleg; there was enough corned beef and cabbage to feed 80 Irelands.

And every Monday night; my grandparents would fix two tiny plates for themselves, one king-sized feast for me and then send me home with all the leftovers. (On Tuesday morning, while I was in class, my grandfather would leave me a voice mail with meticulous reheating instructions, since I didn't have a microwave.)

My grandparents continued to feed me even after I moved to San Diego and transferred to SDSU. When I'd come back to Long Beach for visits, my grandfather always insisted on walking me to my car – all the way to my car—when it was time for me to leave. He'd then give me a big hug, followed by a firm handshake and his hilariously awkward palming of money into my hand. My grandparents were seniors on a fixed income and he didn't want my grandmother to know just how much he was subsidizing the contents of my stomach. (At least, that was the explanation I received from, yup, my grandmother.)

Speaking of my grandmother – and I've written about Hurricane Hazel before – she passed away in December 2001, not long after celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and less than a year before I jumped the broom with Mrs. Bootleg. It hurt my heart to see my grandfather standing by himself at our wedding, but I remember being buoyed that evening by both my wife's resplendency and my grandfather's resiliency. His strength was the foundation for his unrehearsed third act. A widower without his rock, my grandfather would now give his love right back to those who loved him.

And, THAT'S why I cried yesterday. I cried because of the life – hell, the lives -- he lived. I cried because we got 30 more years with him than his body should've given us.

The first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him were harder than I thought. But, I can still laugh at the memory of last Thanksgiving. As dinner was about to be served, I stepped up to carve the bird. My grandfather wasn't having it. "You're not ready", he said. "I've carved plenty of meats", I protested meekly. "You're not ready", he repeated. "Go in the living room and watch TV with Jalen." Banished to the kid's section…by the man of the house.

I'm really not sure how long my grandfather was ill, but I remember that he looked demonstrably weaker that day. And, through an odd twist of fate mixed with indelicate timing, I was the only relative in the room when the doctor came in and told my grandfather about the extent of the cancer that was invading his prostate and metastasizing in his bones. That shit don't sneak up on you. But, my grandfather never talked about his pain. He wouldn't want us to worry. He went out the way he wanted.

And, that's SOME comfort, I suppose.

But, my GOD, I miss him.

Several times throughout the year, I'd drive up to visit him and we'd sit for hours catching up on life and talking current events or sports or politics. My grandfather was spectacularly pragmatic, but what I wouldn't give to hear his thoughts on the America that so gleefully elected a man who refused to rent his properties to African-Americans and who yearns to see five innocent men of color jailed for a crime they didn't commit when they weren't much older than his 12-year-old great-grandson, Jalen.

But, like I said, my grandfather never talked about his pain. He proudly served his country, but endured some unspeakable indignities at the hands of his fellow servicemen. His so-called countrymen. The "greatest generation", indeed.

He married a white woman and raised two interracial girls in an America that wasn't quite ready for any of it. Of course, on my penultimate hospital visit with him, he became a one-man Black History Month monologue and talked openly about the time he marched for voting rights in 1949 Mississippi and was shot at for his troubles. Marching for voting rights? Woo, lord, we need him now more than ever.

When I was six-years-old, my grandfather picked my brother and I up from school. I remember it was a very hot day and he brought us cans of 7-Up for the ride home. I finished mine in a millisecond, so my grandfather stopped at the liquor store (heh) and bought me another one. From that day on, up until the last time I visited him in his apartment, he'd always greet me the same way: "Hey, chief! How's it going? There's 7-Up in the refrigerator." I'd long since outgrown the cloying sweetness of soft drinks, but I always accepted his carbonated offering and s-l-o-w-l-y sipped that ice cold can of liquid diabetes.

On the day that my grandfather died, Jalen and I shared a 7-Up in the parking lot of a 7-11 when we returned home to San Diego. I'm planning to have another one tonight around midnight.

Yesterday, I cried.

Tomorrow, I'll smile.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Travel Ball Compendium of Mad Libs

My sincere thanks to this woman right here for inspiring the first TBG post in six months! I'm not even sure if any of you remember "Mad Libs". They were ostensibly meant to make random words funny in an age before blogs and Facebook status updates from your mom. Well, I am NOTHING if not here for obscure references that only eight of you will understand.

Travel ball is __________ (adjective). 

Truly, travel ball is ALL of the adjectives. Simultaneously.

…close-knit: My son Jalen started playing travel ball in 2012 at the age of eight. One of the managers in his Little League division put together a team to play in a two-game charity exhibition. The squad lifted its name from a Cleveland Indians minor league affiliate – the Mahoning Valley Scrappers – as Jalen made baseball history by being the first African-American to be ascribed with scrappiness. You see, for generations, this trait was reserved for Lilliputian players of an exclusive…demographic.

With their inherent proximity in age, geography and affection for farts; the boys bonded quickly, holding their own against teams that had been together longer. They played so well, in fact, that the Scrappers entered a tournament in Lakeside later that summer. For those of you who don't know, Lakeside is roughly 30 minutes southeast from Stately Bootleg Manor. In August, the average high temperature is a million goddam degrees. The entire area is nestled between the surface of the sun and the city of Santee – which, in some circles, is better known by its nickname. During the tournament, Mrs. Bootleg and I noticed the conspicuously high ratio of confederate flags to front yards. Fun!

Oh, speaking of my wife. Before the start of this tournament – just after sunrise on a Saturday morning – Mrs. Bootleg had spent the previous evening on a celebratory pub crawl throughout Pacific Beach. At an adorable 4'8", she had passed the limits for her liver (usually a half-glass of wine) early in the evening. She showed up on Saturday in abject agony, in desperate need of the inexplicable alcohol-absorption properties from a really greasy breakfast. Using her feminine wiles and seductively batting her eyelash – from the one eye she could open – my wife convinced the snack bar attendant to start the grill FOUR hours early and prepare ONE double cheeseburger for her…at 8:00 AM.

…cutthroat: I don't harbor any illusions about my son's skill level. He's a decent enough hitter for his age and can help out a team on the mound, behind the plate and at the infield corners. He does have a higher baseball IQ than most kids and, without fail, often wears the filthiest uniform after games. There are better players, there are worse players and I'm fine with wherever J sits on this spectrum. So, it was kind of surprising when the travel ball coach from a team that had just defeated my son's approached me in the parking lot after a game. "Your son did a helluva job behind the plate today", he offered. "We're not supposed to actively recruit players away from other teams, but if your son's interested in moving up, here's my card."

More recently, it would appear that someone passed along my e-mail address to another travel ball program. A few weeks ago, I received an unsolicited missive that read, in part: "We've been watching Jalen for a long time and would love to make him part of our family." In or out of context, that might be the single creepiest sentence I've ever read.

…infuriating: In the summer of 2014, J was swinging the bat as well as he ever has. He was leading off on the second day of a tournament down in Chula Vista when he was hit on the left hand by a fastball that drifted too far inside. The umpire, unfortunately, completely missed the call. He ruled the pitch a ball and ordered Jalen – who’d trotted down to first base – back to home plate. He would ultimately ground out. In the bottom of the first inning, J went in to catch. As he stood right next to the umpire, just after warm-ups and within earshot of everyone, I couldn’t contain myself:

“J! J! Where’d that ball HIT you?”

“Which hand, J? Which hand? The right or the left?”

“Oh, it HIT you in the left hand? It HIT you in the left?”

“OK. Let coach know if it starts hurting. And, let that umpire know, too.”

I'm pretty sure it took two – possibly THREE – moms to restrain me.

…inspiring (and not parental negligence AT ALL): Since the posts have been awfully sparse on this lightly-read blog, I'm going to liberally lift from a piece I wrote more than a year ago. If this is your first TBG experience, it's new to you!

J had spent the months since the end of the 2013 Little League season playing on a travel ball squad.  His game had made real improvements -- both at the plate and on the mound -- but, the most noticeable change was a newfound toughness that he lacked in the past.  To be clear, Mrs. Bootleg and I would never dream of pushing our only child beyond his physical or emotional limits.  But, at some point, J needed to start pushing himself.  Mommy and daddy can't do that for him.

Near as I can tell, the turning point occurred in October.  J's travel ball team was playing in a tournament down in the South Bay.  As usual, the start of southern California's autumn meant dry desert winds whistling in from the east and temperatures in the high 80s.  J pitched the second game of the day after an early-morning two-hour tilt.

Since he was six-years-old, Jalen has been susceptible to migraine headaches.  He's been seeing a specialist for the past several months and while we've seen improvement, warm weather and physical exertion -- together -- are two of J's biggest triggers.  His symptoms are easy to spot: glassy eyes, sluggishness, and slightly slurred speech.  After pitching the top of the first inning, I could see the first two from the bleachers.  I spoke to J briefly between innings and his barely coherent mumbling confirmed the third.

We notified his coach, but Jalen insisted he could keep pitching. As I paced nervously from foul pole to foul pole, J pitched five innings -- giving in to gravity as he collapsed on the bench between innings and dragging himself back to the mound with an internal tank that teetered towards empty.  And, after figuratively pitching his guts out for five innings, he did so literally for pretty much the entirety of the sixth while I relayed game updates to him from the visitor’s side of the wall in the bathroom stall.

See? Totally NOT worth a call to Child Protective Services, you guys!

…antagonistic: With all due respect to the kids and coaches, the adults on the "audience" side of the fence sometimes contribute ALL the entertainment. At a tournament last summer, the opposing manager was especially chirpy, loudly complaining to the umpires about any and everything. One of the OTHER parents on my son's team essentially shouted back "sit down and shut up". Of course, the opposing manager thought it was ME who called him out, so he – understandably – threatened to climb the fence and kick my ass in front of two dozen 10-year-olds. Here's a recreation of the scene in the stands with actors hired to play the parts of me and my wife.

During a tournament a few months later, my son's team was losing its grip on a late lead. With the winning run on first base, the batter sent one to the wall. The runner on first rounded third with a full head of steam and absolutely obliterated our catcher. Here's a recreation of the scene on the field with actors hired to play the parts of our valiant catcher and the sniveling little sh*t who instigated EVERYTHING. From there, it was ON and CRACKIN' (as the kids used to say…or, do they still say it?...whatever) Our coaches stormed the field in search of an opposing coach to serve as the proxy for the ass-whipping their prepubescent baserunner so richly deserved. Our team's parents – mostly the moms, as I remember—were wild-eyed and collectively pantomiming the universal posture for "parking lot…unless you a PUNK".

…offensive…?: J’s team once played against an all-Hispanic 10U squad from Los Angeles. The team was called – I am not making this up – the "Frijoleros". The nickname’s definition, as lifted from Urban, is "[R]acist term applied to Mexican (and Mexican-American) residents of the US. Translates roughly as 'one who prepares beans.'" I assume this insignificant travel ball blurb has already been used by Fox News in their rock-solid defense of Donald Trump by the time you've finished this sentence.

…confusing: Try to follow along, IF YOU CAN. Jalen currently plays for the San Diego Longhorns Baseball Club – BLACK. (I know, right?) Not to be confused with the San Diego Longhorns Baseball Club – ORANGE. Ironically, the ORANGE team is considered the classic collection of Arnold Jacksons while the BLACK team is essentially Sam McKinney. Previously, J played for the Scrappers and then the Aztecs. The Aztecs name was aped from the mascot of San Diego State University where my son’s manager played baseball collegiately under Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. And, J's manager? He’s now the Longhorns BLACK skipper after parting ways with the Aztecs last summer. The Longhorns, of course, take their name from the ubiquitous University of Texas team. BUT, word is that the Longhorns (the college) are cracking down on unauthorized use of their name and logo, so the current rumor around town is that J's team will STOP violating the Longhorns' trademarks and START violating the Aztecs' trademarks. Again. And, the Longhorns. Apparently. Again.

…fun: Some of the ballparks that occasionally host tournaments serve an assortment of craft beers on tap! And, here are some great non-beer-related things:

J's had some fantastic coaches over the past few years. Coach Andy was the first to give him an opportunity to play at the competitive travel ball level while Andy's assistant Clark taught us all the different ways an entire case of Natural Light could be smuggled into a dugout. Jalen's received hitting lessons from former minor league all star Tracy Sanders and pitching lessons from 24-year Major League reliever Jesse Orosco.

My son's coach for the past two-plus years has been Brandon Decker. J will never have a better coach, even though – as most of San Diego County knows – I did coach my son's team to back-to-back second place finishes in the Rancho Bernardo Little League Minors Division tournament AND guided the 2014 9/10 All Star team to third place in the entire district. (Well, NOW you know. Jerks.) Decker has patience in spades and teaches the game from the perspective of someone who learned from a Hall of Famer. His players would run through a brick wall for him – with J leading the way.

Travel ball parents are a different breed, baby. One – ONE! – of our moms is tasked with running the administration of a travel ball team. In no particular order, she collects monthly dues, balances the books, makes and distributes the schedule, tracks down lost caps, replaces outgrown jerseys, sends out emails...oh, and her husband brings Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale to the games, so they're BOTH valuable! There's the one-armed man who brings his work with him to every game, but stops everything when his son's on the mound, confounding kids with an assortment of old-man drop balls. And, I can't forget the parents of J's hyper-polite teammate who have opened their home to my son, treated him like family and introduced him to new and unusual things, such as cooked carrots.

The travel ball experience wouldn't be possible without Mrs. Bootleg and Jalen, obviously. And, while my wife graciously drives us home from those ballparks that (over)serve craft beer, it's our son who has brought both of us along on this wonderful ride.