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, clich├ęs 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 Dictionary.com, 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.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

2015 NFL Pickery -- Super Bowl XLIX

Happy Super Bowl Sunday! My improbable playoff pickin' run continued two weeks ago, as I'm an unconscious 8-2 against the spread (and 9-1 straight-up). Joe, meanwhile, remains one HELL of a writer. You can find his work on Tumblr and -- in 140-character form -- on Twitter. Like me, he went 2-0 in last week's games, but in the standings, we're still sending our love down the well (ALL THE WAY DOWN) to him.

Joe: I'm just going to say it: I loved the h*ck out of Deflate-gate. It was wonderful. Two weeks of Boston sports fans being put through the wringer, having to figure out ways to be defensive about the scandal without appearing to take it too seriously. Because those were the twin secret weapons of Deflategate: hilarity and stupidity. Nobody actually thought that deflating the balls (which they probably did) was the actual reason the Patriots beat the Colts two Sundays ago. It would've been way less fun if there were actual victims here. Instead, we had a victimless crime that made the perpetrators look small and petty and foolish and squirrelly. All terrible things! All now applicable to the New England Patriots and, by extension, their fans! Sure 70% of the op-eds were self-serious drivel, and the other 30% were self-righteous bashing of the ones who were taking it seriously. But I didn't tell you to watch SportsCenter every night. That's on you. I just got to sit back and snipe on Twitter and imagine Bill Belichick giving a secret order to execute Action Plan Charlie, which is the code word in the Patriots' organization for delating footballs. The whole thing would have been worth it even if Bill Simmons hadn't written a 180,000-word column on why the Pats are now in FU mode and Cobra Kai and Ewing Theory and click this link to a Jimmy Kimmel segment. But OF COURSE he also did that, and it was great. It's gonna be such a bummer if the Patriots win. Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

Aaron:​ As we all learned from Clint Eastwood's latest fever dream for flyover country, this…is…AMERICA. You're free to root for either team, bet on either team or just watch the game for the camaraderie, commercials and Katy Perry. You're also free to hate either team. Keep in mind, though, that if you hate the Seahawks you're wrong, wrong, WRONG. You hate Richard Sherman for his lack of nationally televised postgame decorum? Please, tell me more. Marshawn Lynch makes BILLIONS, you say. Possibly TRILLIONS. He should be GRATEFUL the press wants to talk to him. Someone should tell him to quit giving non-answers! Yes…yes…go on. The Seahawks fans are NOTHING but a bunch of bandwagoners who only arrived after their team won a world championship. Oh, go find your own pictures of the 2004 Red Sox and 2002 Patriots. YOU GET THE IDEA. Anyways…this spread makes no sense. None. The Seahawks opened as slight favorites, within 24 hours it was a "pick 'em", the Patriots emerged as slight favorites and now it's sliding back towards a "pick 'em". The Seahawks defensive front just might obliterate Tom Brady, 58, once and for all. There's no real answer on the Pats' side for Lynch's systematic manslaughter of run defenses, either. The Seahawks are doing you a FAVOR, America. You're welcome. Seahawks 24, Patriots 20