Monday, August 30, 2010

My First and Last* 2010 Fantasy Football Post

Is it tacky to beg for an invite to join someone's fantasy football (money) league on Twitter? If not, I'm available. If so, just kidding! -- from my Twitter feed, August 9

I love each and every one of Mrs. Bootleg's girlfriends.

And, while my wife gives me an inordinate amount of leeway with regards to sharing blog fodder from our personal lives, she's decreed her friends to be off-limits.

So, I'm sorry, Mrs. L, but I'm not allowed to thank you for marrying a man who invited me to join his money league a few weeks ago. I can't even use your real name! But, I want my readers to know that you supported our tequila-and-Coors Light-infused fantasy football draft last Saturday night. Unlike, my wife.

I mean, really, Mrs. Bootleg? You support this unpaid lightly-read blog endeavor, but cynically roll your eyes at the guaranteed money of an eight-team fantasy league?

Sure, the roster rules are rigid (2 QBs, 4 RBs, 4 WRs, 2 TEs, 2 Ks, 2 DEF) and it costs additional dollars on top of the entry fee to pilfer players from the waiver wire and I picked seventh out of eight teams…oh, let's just get to the players.

QB – Peyton Manning: My first pick and a mortal lock for 30 TDs/4,000+ yards.

QB – Tony Romo: He fell to the "back-up QB" rounds and I scooped him up right after someone took Joe Flacco. Before Romo!

RB – Shonn Greene: I passed over a lot of higher-rated RBs to take Greene with my second pick. Been regretting it for about 72 hours.

RB – Rashard Mendenhall: He was all that was left of the second-tier RBs. I figure he'll be the Steelers' offense until Roethlisberger returns.

RB – Reggie Bush: He's gotta be involved with some of the 10,000 touchdowns everyone's predicting the Saints to score this year.

RB – C.J. Spiller: "One preseason highlight" ranks high on my fantasy draft criteria.

WR – Miles Austin: One of the few well-regarded fantasy WRs that I had faith in. Clearly setting myself up for heartbreak here.

WR – Steve Smith: The Carolina version. Meh.

WR – Anquan Boldin: A quick look at his career stats has me thinking he's not going to be nearly as revitalized with a new team as I thought he might be.

WR – Hines Ward: Every year I've had Ward in fantasy, he's produced for me. You're welcome, Pittsburgh.

TE – Vernon Davis: A breakthrough season last year, he's now got the chance to play on a team that everyone expects to win. 50 TDs is not unrealistic.

TE – Zach Miller: I gotta have one Raider…and someone in the league actually took Sebastian Janikowski.

Once again, I promise this is the LAST time I'll mention fantasy football in this space.

* -- I promise nothing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How I Learned to Love Little League

NY Jon -- a longtime follower of this lightly-read blog -- writes:

How come you didn't do any weekly write-ups of Jalen's t-ball adventures this spring? The annual unauthorized "scouting report" on all of Jalen's teammates is one of my favorite things that you write. I don't want to live in a world where you refuse to make fun of five-year-old kids.

Back in January, my son Jalen attended Little League tryouts. Since late 2008, he'd been playing T-ball with an independently-run local outfit that was not affiliated with the Little League brand. After tryouts, I wrote an
even-handed assessment of Jalen's good-field, no-hit, National League-worthy performance. At the end of that post, I wrote:

Jalen wasn't ready for Rookies [the next "league" after T-ball] and the thought of him learning on the fly -- and possibly turning on baseball before his teenage friends eventually force him into football and basketball -- didn't appeal to me. When I called the League to let them know we wanted to keep J in T-ball for the spring season, I was told he might not be able to be "released" from Rookies. Released! They eventually relented, but...yeah.

I just hope this experience doesn't turn ME on baseball.

For the purposes of this post, I've invented the "retroactive love scale". It measures the amount of affection I had for a series of events during my son's first season of Little League. "1" is the
chorus of this song; "5" is indifference and "10" is the unattainable "purest love of all". (Me and Mrs. Bootleg peaked at an "8" back in 2001, for those of you wondering.)

February 15: Jalen finds out that he'll be playing for the Orioles after spending
the previous season on the T-ball equivalent of his favorite Major League team, the Athletics.* Upon hearing the news, he groans and asks, "Can I be a free agent?" We're off to a rip-roaring start. Retroactive Love Scale: 3

* -- Jalen love for the A's was completely organic and without any outside influence from me.

February 18: At the first practice, we find out that the coach of the team didn't even want the job. He begrudgingly volunteered when no one else stepped forward. The coach told us this -- in a dramatic exhibition of martyrdom -- at the end of practice as means of shaming the few mothers who were there when none of them jumped at the open invitation to be "team mom". And, I'll give you three guesses as to which diminutive black woman/blog target accepted the position. RLS: 2

February 25: Mrs. Bootleg was put on this earth to organize. In just a week's time, she'd coordinated the kids' jerseys (including surname personalization -- a nice touch that few other teams had), oversaw the team's banner (an extra expense that the coach couldn't be bothered with, so my wife got all of the players' parents to pitch in) and created an absurdly thorough "snack schedule" that used somewhere between 89 to 93% of Excel's capabilities. RLS: 6

March 6: Opening Day! I'd been to every practice and had grown increasingly frustrated with the coaches' lack of...coaching. The kids were given a perfunctory introduction to a small handful of fundamentals, but then the head coach would turn his attention to his ever-present Blackberry. While he worked out his thumbs, the kids spent a few minutes reinforcing repetitive bad habits to themselves before losing all interest and acting And, the excruciating results were all on display in the first game of the season.** RLS: 1

** -- Oh, don't look at me like that. I know these kids were just five and six-years-old, but when one of your players closes his eyes and swings the bat downward like a sledgehammer, the culpability is assumed by the coaches, yo.

March 16: Mrs. Bootleg and I have one of those in-public martial arguments at one of Jalen's games. No one raises their voices -- the tone is practically conversational -- but afterwards we give each other the silent treatment out of spite. Quickly recapping: Jalen was playing first base...and he was doing it wrong! Since the coaches didn't seem concerned with teaching the basics to any of the players, I graciously took the initiative and "coached" my son from the stands in an obnoxiously authoritative, yet nurturing voice. No need to assign blame after the fact, so let's just move on. RLS: -100

March 30: Jalen had a game scheduled on my birthday. By now, one of the other coaches on the team had unofficially assumed "head coach" duties and he was phenomenal with the kids. He'd already won over my son, but late in the game, the coach put Jalen behind the plate to play catcher for an inning. It seemed like it took 20 minutes to fit Jalen with the
tools of ignorance, but just as the mask was placed over his face, Jalen turned to his coach and exclaimed, "This is the greatest day of my life!" RLS: 8

April 17: As Jalen dug in at home plate before his first at-bat, he lifted his bat and pointed it towards left field. My six-year-old son was calling his shot. The other parents in attendance collectively laughed and clapped with a few even snapping pictures. Mrs. Bootleg and I, however, sat somewhere between "pride" and "mortified". OK, slightly more pride. RLS: 5.5

May 1: It was late in the game and Jalen was standing on second base. The batter lined a solid shot to centerfield. Jalen rounded third base. Have you ever heard someone recount a near-tragedy and mention that the events unfolded in slow-motion? I can still see the mischievous glint in my son's eye as he headed towards home with the opposing team's catcher standing over home plate, awaiting the throw. I remember blurting out to no one in particular, "Oh, sh*t. He's gonna run him..." But, before I could utter "over", Jalen had laid OUT the poor catcher. Here's an eerily accurate
recreation of the collision. No one was hurt, even though it sounded like a two-car crash. OK...two MINI Coopers -- or possibly a just a pair of Priuses -- but, still. RLS: 7

May 8: The Orioles were missing a coach, so I was asked to pitch to the kids in the penultimate game. Over three innings, I hit five batters while Jalen -- in consecutive at-bats -- absolutely
Charlie Brown'd me with a pair of balls hit back through the box. Hearing other parents tell their children not to be scared of me as the game wore on...pretty much made my month. RLS: 9

May 15: My mom and my grandfather made it down for Jalen's last Little League game of the season. It was the first time my grandfather -- who introduced ME to the game -- had seen his great-grandson play. That...was a good day. RLS: 10

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

TBG Beats: Kanye West feat. Dwele -- "Power"

It's taken almost 10 years, but I'm ready to admit I've come around on Kanye West.

Wait, that's not true. I've always liked the guy. I think.

In my
much-maligned review of Jay-Z's first Blueprint album, I described West's beat on the "Takeover" diss track as "fire" and I used the word "infectious" in writing about the Kanye-crafted crossover hit "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)".

West released his debut album (The College Dropout) in 2004. I wrote an underwhelming review that my then-editor never posted. In hindsight, he probably saved me from a Blueprint-like backlash from my readers. I'll be the first to admit that, at the time, I wasn't ready to embrace Kanye's elevated subject matter and nuanced production.

This was evident (in my old weekly "Bootleg Music News" column) by the embarrassing amount of mocking mileage I derived from a single lyric in West's "Jesus Walks" single:

"The way Kathie Lee needed Regis; that's the way y'all need Jesus."

Even on his best tracks, Kanye West is barely a competent lyricist. But, poking fun at his awkward wordplay misses the point. He's an entertainer and a presence and an image who happens to rap. Remember the clinically-insane caricature that Tupac became in 1996 or an opportunistic, shiny-suited Puff Daddy stepping over Biggie Smalls' bullet-riddled corpse in 1997? They're all cut from the same cloth.

It finally clicked with me on West's 2005 release Late Registration. The catchy, cartoonish enthusiasm of "Gold Digger", the convincing humility on "Touch the Sky", the social commentary on "Roses" and the purposeful ferocity on "Diamonds from Sierra Leone". Hell, I was so excited about his 2007 Graduation album that I watched 90 minutes of BET and
wrote a running diary.

OK, OK...George Bush/black people, Rolling Stone cover/blasphemy, Taylor Swift, etc. Cool?

West has released the first single from his next studio album (Dark Twisted Fantasy due out later this year). On "Power", he balances between overt bravado and an "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" cockiness. Yup...I'm giving him credit for being a pr*ck and simply reveling in it. The production is lush and is complemented by the creative samples and neo-soul act Dwele's presence.

And, while I dug the "Kelly Rowland" line, West killed me with:

"You short-minded n****s’ thoughts is Napoleon
My furs is Mongolian; my ice brought the goalies in..."

Mongolian furs? that's
where the meat comes from.

We already knew
who skinned it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

AiAA: Budweiser -- "Getting Attention"

When I was a kid, the best commercials were the beer ads that aired during the infrequent nationally-televised sporting event on ABC, CBS or NBC. Back in the 1980s, baseball games were seen on Saturdays, basketball ran on Sundays and pro football was still strengthening its Sunday/Monday stranglehold.

Miller Lite's seminal "Less Filling, Tastes Great" campaign was a veritable advertising clinic. It reached the 35-54 demographic through the use of recently-retired professional athletes in its print and TV spots. The commercials were sophomorically over-the-top in hopes of establishing product loyalty and potential purchases from young men who may be up to a decade away from legally buying beer. And, most importantly, the catchphrase never overshadowed the product.

My favorite two things about this spot: (1) The involvement of avowed alcoholic baseball manager Billy Martin and (2) Football broadcaster John Madden's self-parodying performance that became the template for John Madden's self-parodying broadcasts two decades later.

Bud Light's "Gimme a Light" ads weren't clever, but were kind of catchy. Dig the brutha's especially ethnic intonation of "Buuuud" and the shrieking harpy who ruins this ad with her laugh.

A dog named "Spuds McKenzie" was a brief pop culture icon thanks to several 1980s beer ads. But, since we already addressed Bud Light, let's give "Alex" from Stroh's some love. Remember, morons: "...with 30 packs, you get MORE beer!"

In 2010, commercials for the major American beer companies try too hard to be cute. Budweiser's "It's What We Do" campaign juxtaposes their domestic suds with "real-life" scenarios. This one tackles the "crowded bar conundrum".

Budweiser should've used its 30 seconds to focus on the opening line ("...where boldness is rewarded and the meek go thirsty.") Instead, we get an array of intentionally ridiculous "signals" that aren't amusing in any way.

Are you trying to get the bartender's attention at an SRO watering hole? Stand by the cash register -- which is almost always just around the corner from the "bar" part of the bar. Get your drink(s) and THEN move over to the elongated section where the beautiful people are still pig-piling for their long-awaited refills.

Afterwards, be sure to take as much pride in outsmarting a beer commercial as I do.

TBG Eats: Doritos "Stadium Nacho" and "Fiery Buffalo"

Current Weight: 169.4 lbs.

I am fiercely loyal to a specific salty snack food -- for awhile.

Ten years ago, I demolished box after box of Cheez-It crackers. I preferred the original flavor, but I occasionally branched out to the Jalapeño Tabasco-laced "Hot and Spicy" ones or experimented with Cheez-It combinations that sounded more delicious than they
actually tasted.

Five years ago, Salt and Vinegar Lay's Potato Chips populated a good portion of our pantry. Not long before I got married, Fiancée Bootleg and I attended a wedding up in Long Beach. We sat with a couple who offered up the best "secret to a strong marriage" advice I'd heard before or since. "Make sure you have some separate interests", they said. "It'll help you to better appreciate the time you have together."

My loose interpretation: "Find junk food that your wife doesn't like." And, because of Mrs. Bootleg's Salt and Vinegar aversion, I had all these tangy Lay's all to myself.

Today, I'm in the middle of an extended Doritos run.

And, thanks to the combination of convenience store accessibility and opportunistic urban marketing, I recently stumbled upon a fully stocked end-cap of 99-cent single-serving* bags of Doritos at a liquor store not far from my barber shop.

* -- You know the size I'm talking about. I think they used to be called "Big Grab" and could easily be dissected in one of Morgan Spurlock's sanctimonious documentaries.

I picked up two bags: the "Stadium Nacho" flavor and the "Fiery Buffalo -- 2nd Degree Burn".

The Stadium Nacho Doritos are "inspired" by the release of the Madden '11 video game, but promise the oft-mocked taste of nachos one would order on the concourse of a real football game. This curious dichotomy is confusing enough on its own, but didn't the Doritos brand achieve its ubiquity with its own nacho cheese flavoring? Imagine if McDonald's added oven-baked steak fries to its menu. Who'd experiment with something new, when its eminently-established equivalent was still available? OK, well...besides me?

Actually, I liked the Stadium Nacho chips. They had a slightly creamier mouthfeel reminiscent of the "Last Call" Jalapeño Popper Doritos flavor. The corn taste in the chips was more pronounced than in the original nacho flavor, as well. There was a mild spice kick at the end of each bite that served as an effective finish. These won't replace the original, of course, but make for a fine limited-time novelty.

The Fiery Buffalo Doritos, on the other hand, appear to have been inspired by
hellfire and brimstone. Frito-Lay has been insanely successful with their "Flamin' Hot" line of Cheetos and Funyuns. They even upped the ante with habañero-flavored Doritos. But, the Fiery Buffalo Doritos are almost freak-show spicy. Frito-Lay wisely went with more painful "2nd Degree Burn" sub-branding than the unnecessarily hyperbolic "3rd Degree Burn". These have no redeeming snack value. Each bag should come with a stereotypically omniscient Native American.

Grade (Stadium Nacho): 3 (out of 5)

Grade (Fiery Buffalo): -5

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Jalen Smash~!

While he didn't break the pinata, my son can take solace in knowing that he was far and away the most intense child at this birthday party. In a few years, I'm going to be afraid to p*ss him off.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Where EVERY Month is Black History Month!

Since most of you are already familiar with my six-year-old son Jalen, let's just jump right in. As always, these are abbreviated recent transcripts of my actual conversations with him:

Jalen: "Did Jackie Robinson play in the [pronounced] 'NIGH-gro Leagues', Dad?"

Me: "It's pronounced 'NEE-gro', J. And, yes, he played in the Negro Leagues."


Jalen: "I don't like [a certain little boy from school]."

Me: "Why not?"

Jalen: "Because, he's from [a certain foreign country] and people from [a certain foreign country] smell bad."


Me: It's gonna be hot today, J. Be careful and drink lots of water if you're playing outside.

Jalen: Me and mommy don't have to be careful outside when it's hot because we're dark-skinned. YOU have to be careful because you're light-skinned, right?


Jalen: "Will you play baseball with me even when you're old?"

Me: "I'll play baseball with you as long as my body allows it."

Jalen: "Even when you're 60?"

Me: "If I can still go...sure."

Jalen: "Maybe you'll be like Grandma and have a young face and an old body."

Me: "..."

Jalen: "Was Grandma a slave?"

Me: [Head explodes.]

Monday, August 16, 2010

TBG Eats: The NEW Hawaiian Grilled Chicken Salad from Carl's Jr.

Current Weight: 171.4 lbs.

This past weekend was a bit of both the familiar and the unfamiliar.

On Saturday, my family spent a few hours at a grown-up get-together...where kids were invited. Adult food was served, contemporary music oozed from the sound system and a cooler full of
small-batch novelty brews was on ice and available. My six-year-old son Jalen amused himself with the other children, but it might've been the first party he ever attended where I had to (half-heartedly) scold him for running in the house or talking too loudly. Regardless, a great time was had by all.

On Sunday, it was over to the palatial "H" estate for exhibits A, B and C in how to throw a kids' party. Pizza and
peanut-butter banana dogs sat alongside the grown-up grub. The most "contemporary" song was composed 117 years ago. And, I opted for tea-totaling sobriety so that I could better police the children when, inevitably, their parents' attention turned to (chronologically) the Padres/Giants game on TV, the end of some random golf tournament on TV (with a convoluted "controversial" ending) or anything not involving their children.

Here is a small sampling of my underreported heroism over the course of those four hours: I prevented one little boy on a bike from running over a little girl. I reprimanded another little boy (pictured, very top-right of this page) for doing an unintentional
approximation of this on a smaller child within the confines of a steel cage latex "jumpie". Sadly, however, there was one casualty on my watch. Sorry, giant "Dora the Explorer" piñata.

This was the climax of a four-day stretch that went: post-work happy hour (Thursday), post-work happy hour (Friday), party and party. Predictably, Mrs. Bootleg's pretended to "forget" about my alcoholic shenanigans on Thursday. She inquired about our dinner plans late that afternoon and was still rehearsing her standard "starvation" skit with Jalen when I walked in the front door one hour later than usual. Her response to my (admittedly last-minute) decision to go drinking on Friday night: "You're going out AGAIN?" *

* -- Two years ago, my wife took TWO long weekends – in the same month – out of town with her girlfriend(s). In hindsight, I am 1000% certain she wishes she would've spaced those two trips over two months. Whenever she tries to guilt me about a happy hour, I play the "YOU abandoned US for two weekends in one month" card.

Even at the peak of my business travelling, weekends away to see the A's and general marital/parental neglect – all of which were most pronounced during the first two years after Jalen's birth – I never went away for two weekends in one month.

So, in a peace offering to Mrs. Bootleg, I'm swearing off booze for the rest of this week. I'm also temporarily eschewing fast food and my personal sack o' candy at work. Truth is that the above "current weight" is from late last week. For all I know, I could be inching uncomfortably towards
12.5 stone.

Thankfully, I've been procrastinating on a new fast food review from last week.

Carl's Jr. introduced their
Teriyaki Burger a few years ago and it's become a surprisingly successful menu item. I believe it's even ascended from "limited time" to "full time" status. It works because of the relatively unusual union of enormous pineapple slices and red meat. But, it was only a matter of time before Carl's Jr. appeased traditionalists by replacing the ground beef with chicken.

The Teriyaki Chicken Sandwich debuted at CJ's earlier this year and the natural evolution from there is the Hawaiian Grilled Chicken Salad:

Grilled chicken, grilled pineapple rings, cucumber and red onions on a bed of spring salad mix. Served with crispy wonton strips and Sesame Asian dressing.

I still don't understand why Carl's Jr. can't accommodate to-go orders and keep the piping-hot chicken off the cold salad fixings.** The resultant steam from the meat (under the covered salad container) makes the lettuce 25% more flaccid. Add another 10 minutes to my commute and the contents would become baby food.

** -- Here are a few other "food unions" that I'm NOT a fan of: oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies, chocolate-covered strawberries and peanuts in my Kung Pao.

This salad has a potentially exciting mix of flavors, but in the end, it's undone by its inherent fast food-iness.

The chicken and pineapple rings have that unmistakably warmed-over mouthfeel fresh from the microwave oven. The sesame dressing livened things up a bit, but by my last bite, had only served to muddle the other tastes and textures. A few more red onion slices would've helped, as would a slightly more bitter mix of greens.

I know, I know…it's a fast food salad. But, would you rather the industry focus on just burgers and fries or getting everything right?

Well, then. You've won this round, "everyone else".

Grade: 2 (out of 5) Calories: 260 Fat: 8g (w/o dressing)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

My Not-So-Truncated K - 12 Tales

Last week, after two years of preschool and a year of kindergarten all at the same school, my son Jalen took his talents to a new school for first grade. OK...he doesn't officially start first grade until August 23, but we have him enrolled in the "summer camp" program in hopes of easing the transition.

And, if the first week is any indication, Jalen should be comfortably assimilated by next summer.

Y'see, Jalen is a creature of extreme habit and intensely resistant to change.

His pizza? Only pepperoni.

His chocolate chip cookies? Absolutely no walnuts.*

The one acceptable outcome (in his mind) for any board game he plays? Win.

Number of times we've watched that Disney/Pixar Cars movie? One f*****g kajillion.

* -- A chocolate chip cookie without walnuts is an inedible abomination. And, that goes double for oatmeal cookies, brownies and banana bread. I'm genuinely stunned that so many people share my son's walnut aversion.

On the way to pick Jalen up from school last Friday, I thought a post that highlighted my own adventures in education would be a fun read to share with my son, someday. Back in June, I printed out the
open letter to Jalen I wrote after he graduated from kindergarten. That night, as he crawled into bed, I read it to him with the kind of excitement and urgency in my voice I usually reserve for his DC Super Friends books. After I finished, he looked at me blankly and asked, "Did that count as one of my stories?"

Mrs. Bootleg has gotten three months of mileage out of that one.

So, let's see if Jalen will get anything out of this. From kindergarten through 12th grade, here's the education of Aaron:

Kindergarten: First day...I cried. Like crazy. I was convinced that no one was going to pick me up after school, so I was inconsolable. Thirty years later, the only two things I remember about kindergarten are my teacher's name (Mrs. Lopp) and for six hours on a sunny September in the late 1970s, I sounded
like this.

First Grade: My first bully! Like most un-athletic fat kids who couldn't fight, I became a magnet for other kids who wanted to fight. I casually mentioned this predicament to my grandmother (who watched my brother and me after school) and she came with me to school the next day. After I pointed out the tormentor, my grandmother literally chased him down and threw him against a wall. I am not making any of this up. With both hands, she grabbed the collar of his Garanimals and told him to play nicely (in so many words). Here's a three-and-a-half minute
video that closely approximates the events. Kudos on the casting of me.

Second Grade: In the previous year, my elementary school tried to move me into a third grade English class and second grade math class. This went over about as well as you'd expect for someone who was already picked on by the older kids. For a first grader, this was the equivalent of transferring one of the Oz inmates into the prison's general population. Instead, the decision was made to bus me from Edison Elementary on the west side of Long Beach (the part of town that even Snoop Dogg
wouldn't rep) to Gant Elementary in a much more affluent section of the city. Most lasting memory: I once traded lunches with a kid named Jason. Much to my disgusted surprise, Jason's mom put green olives and pimentos in her egg salad. I never traded lunches with anyone ever again.

Third Grade: Just prior to the end of second grade, my Marine Corps father was transferred to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. My third new school in 12 months left one lasting impression: my first kiss! I awkwardly kissed Sarah Gonzalez somewhere in the vicinity of her head.** For years, I didn't want to count it, since my lips hit mostly hair, but after the long drought between first and second smooches, I
retconned this first kiss back into my storyline.

** -- To this day, I remain the worst casual kisser on earth. All of my good faith efforts to aim for the cheek consistently miss by a mile. A good friend of mine was moving out of state and after our goodbye lunch, my well-intended peck grazed her temple. This was one of my better efforts. M'man Vig is the best at this. Despite standing a foot shorter than me, he hits his kiss target every time. Hell, he kisses Mrs. Bootleg better than I do.

Fourth Grade: With a focused preparation that belied the very definition of the winning word, I took first place in my school's spelling bee by nailing all twelve letters of "carelessness". The following year, in a conspiracy I'm convinced went to the very top of Tarawa Terrace Middle School, I stumbled on "carburetor". "Carburetor"...for a fifth grader. More on this in a minute.

Fifth Grade: I've previously mentioned that we didn't have much money growing up. But, this made the rare extravagant purchases seem extra special. Midway through the school year, my mom bought me a new pair of shoes. This was unheard of in our household, as the back-to-school shoes she bought us in September were expected to take us through to NEXT September. These were all-white (a rarity in the early-to-mid 1980s) with tiny synthetic turf "cleats" on the bottom. I loved these shoes. I wore them one time. They'd somehow gotten wet, so my mom dried the oven. The tops of the shoes burned and split open like a pair of blackened baked potatoes. My mother's response ("Good thing we didn't throw your old shoes away.") wasn't as comforting as she probably thought.

Sixth Grade: Mrs. Arthur was old southern woman who did not like me. She'd single me out when the entire class was acting up and she went out of her way to make me look stupid in front of everyone else. (She also ran the school's spelling bees. I mean, c'mon..."carburetor"? I was in FIFTH grade!) Seriously, though...I never throw the race card around, but, if the hood fits. The day before the end of the school year, Mrs. Arthur called me and the only two other minority kids in her class to come see her at lunch. She rambled through a little spiel that vaguely referenced "other parents' complaints" and "unequal treatment of certain students". It was all too much for any 12-year-old to take in (and without our parents present), but at the end, she apologized...for something. I don't miss the small-town south.

Seventh Grade: We moved back home to Southern California in the middle of my first year in junior high. The honor of my last crush on a teacher went to Ms. Londeree in sixth period health class -- big '80s hair and a body obviously toned by hours of Jazzercise and Jane Fonda workout tapes (on beta). Puberty's destruction of my once-innocent psyche was also hastened by Ms. Lyons, my pre-algebra teacher. She had this odd way of pretzeling her legs while sitting Indian-style criss-cross applesauce in chairs, so her feet didn't touch the ground. She was always in front of a desk, but once, on my way back from the bathroom, I noticed she'd inadvertently hiked-up her skirt while in her chair. I'm still scraping brain matter off the inside of my skull.

Eighth Grade: At the end of seventh grade, I weighed about 180 pounds and carried a 38-inch waist. Thanks to a summer vacation growth spurt and our move back to the big urban sprawl (where I had to ride my bike everywhere) I started the new school year with a 34-inch waist and a bushel of those backhanded "have you lost weight?" inquiries from classmates who'd otherwise ignored me up to this point. For the first time in my life, I performed the Presidential Physical Fitness Test without ANY walking, crawling or cramping!

Ninth Grade: Save for a brief fifth-grade defeat at the hands of long division, I was mostly an A/B student in math. Then, came Ms. Walker's geometry class. Baseball fans surely know the names of players -- Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel, Mackey Sasser and, most recently, Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- who infamously lost the ability to do what once came naturally. (Not a baseball fan? Well, the cinematic equivalent is the last 15 years of Nicolas Cage's career.) This is how geometry affected me. All of my mathematical confidence brought

Tenth Grade: Back in the day, Long Beach high schools began at tenth grade. I've always theorized that the administrators correctly understood ninth graders weren't mature enough to handle on-campus soda and junk food vending machines. For the next three years, my lunch was a pack of six
Hostess Crumb Donettes and a magical orange-pineapple concoction in a can called Cactus Cooler.

Eleventh Grade: During the previous summer, I finally ditched my short
Arnold & Willis ersatz afro in favor of a flat-top. Within my small clique of friends, this decision vaulted me to the front of the line in any "best hair" discussion -- amongst our mothers, I presume. Admittedly, the competition wasn't exactly stiff. There was my sidekick Vig, who wore his hair like the most famous second banana in American history. M'man Smitty's haircut was equally heroic. Thai was still a decade away from reaching this length. And, my buddy JP had JUST recovered from an ill-advised dye job that left his hair Butch Reed blonde.

Twelfth Grade: Graduation! It goes by in a flash, Jalen. Unlike this blog post. And, before you ask: yes, this counts as one of your stories.

Monday, August 9, 2010

TBG Eats: The NEW Cantina Tacos from Taco Bell

Current Weight: 171.4 lbs.

Over the past 10 days, I've been the healthiest inhabitant here at Stately Bootleg Manor.

My two-year reign of
incessant illnesses and crank-calling death's cell phone was finally outdone by my six-year-old son, who wrestled with strep throat and flu-like symptoms for an entire week. Overlapping Jalen's ailment; Mrs. Bootleg was diagnosed with both a staph infection in her throat and conjunctivitis.

She woke up last Friday with her right eye almost swollen shut. As most of you know, this is rarely a good look for
African-American women. Two days later, with the antibiotics contributing minimal relief, Mrs. Bootleg began wearing a medical eye patch. (For those of you who don't follow my Twitter feed; if you're wondering whether or not I went for the lazy Slick Rick similarities -- wonder no more.)

Thankfully, Jalen is practically all the way back. This past Saturday, he was back to his hypercompetitive self (and in tears) when I outscored him over two games of bowling. On Sunday, while we took turns hitting and pitching off each other, he admitted to throwing at me intentionally after failing to sneak his 33 mph crap past my

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bootleg still hasn't found a healthy footing.

Her right eye still looks like a cross between
Jim Ross and Stuart Scott. She picked up a new prescription on Monday -- a steroid-and-antibiotic combo platter -- that she insists has provided tangible (if not entirely noticeable) relief. Hopefully, she's on the road to recovery.

Because, when the family matriarch is ailing, the downside is obvious: no home-cooked meals.

Oh, don't look at me like that. We've covered this subject before. Before Jalen came along, Mrs. Bootleg and I split the kitchen responsibilities 50/50. Over the past 6 1/2 years, she's assumed almost all the cooking duties. On the other hand, I landed cushy gigs like this past Sunday morning's garage-cleaning task that included breaking up an illicit ring of crickets that had set up shop underneath boxes of our unopened wedding gifts.

So, with the wife out of kitchen-commission, I had the opportunity to sample Taco Bell's latest attempt at capturing a modicum of Mexican food credibility.

Taco Bell's new Cantina Tacos are modeled after traditional "street tacos" that are sold from kiosks, pushcarts and food trucks throughout Mexico and large swaths of the southwestern United States. Street tacos are deliciously simplistic: two small white corn tortillas filled with meat and topped with onion and cilantro. No cheese, no sour cream, no lettuce, no chopped tomatoes...none of the things usually associated with Taco Bell.

Everyone knows Taco Bell is the epitome of Americanized Mexican food. So, how do they do "authentic"?

The Steak Cantina Taco suffers from the same problem that plagues all of Taco Bell's "steak" products. The meat is overly chewy with an oddly sweet aftertaste. It feels pre-packaged and thoroughly processed as it sits on the tongue. Usually, Taco Bell is covering up this meat with vegetables, sauces and/or dairy products. Here, topped only with onion and cilantro, too much of the meat's "imitation" flavor finds its way through.

The Chicken Cantina Taco is a little bit better (ironically enough, because the chicken has a milder flavor than the steak). The squeeze of lime added an appropriate amount of tanginess, but the chicken strips were dry and by my last bite the blandness was overwhelming.

The Carnitas Cantina Taco is far and away the best of the three offerings. Taco Bell calls the contents "slow-roasted shredded pork". Now, I'm a wee bit skeptical regarding the presence of a slow-cooker sitting alongside the nacho cheese dispenser, but pork taste was strong and almost bacon-y at first bite. The meat was moist, seasoned fine by fast food standards and worked well with the cilantro/onion topping and lime wedge. I love carnitas and while TB's interpretation falls short of "authentic", this is good for what it is.

And, that pretty much sums up the Taco Bell experience.

Grade (Steak Cantina Taco): 1 (out of 5) Calories: 160 Fat: 2.5g

Grade (Chicken Cantina Taco): 1.5 Calories: 170 Fat: 2.5g

Grade (Carnitas Cantina Taco): 3 Calories: 200 Fat: 7g

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bizarre Baseball Food (My Plan of Attack)

M'man "JPinAZ" e-mailed a link to me the other day. It was a post from the Phoenix New Times website titled "Most Unusual Stadium Foods Across America".

My lightly-read blog's been around almost four years. In that time, avant-garde grub and baseball have pretty much become my mission statement. But, before we dive into someone else's list (yes...again) here are my best/worst food and drink experiences from the dozen or so Major League and Minor League ballparks I've visited.

The Top Three

(1) Ben's Chili Bowl -- Nationals Park: While on a business trip to the Washington DC area in April 2008, m'man Josh and I took in a game at the then-newly opened stadium. He recommended the "Half-Smoke" which I later
described as "...a gloriously engorged sausage topped with a small pond of chili, mustard and onions. This baby dropped my life expectancy into the late 50s and shaved at least 20 beats per minute off my heart rate."

(2) Gilroy Garlic Fries -- AT&T Park: San Francisco is already my favorite American city, so the garlic fries sold during Giants games amount to icing on the cake a mountain of freshly-minced garlic, parsley and butter/oil on the steaming-hot supersized basket of crispy fries.

(3) Beer in the Stands -- Kauffman Stadium: In California ballparks, the "beer guy" is verboten. I've heard this is due to food-handling standards, but a quick Google search didn't produce any tangible details. Regardless, if you want a beer in San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles or Los Angeles of Anaheim, you'll have to leave your seat and purchase it on the concourse. In
May 2007, my job sent me to St. Louis for a week. I drove 3 1/2 hours across the state to see my A's play the Royals in Kansas City. I bought my first beer from a "beer guy" and tipped him well with some of my surplus per diem. OK, this one's more about the concept than the fizzy domestic suds, but totally worth it.

The Bottom Three

(1) Hot Dogs -- The Diamond: The Lake Elsinore Storm (San Diego Padres' Single-A minor league affiliate) play their home games roughly 45 minutes north of Stately Bootleg Manor. Since 2008, I've made the drive up I-15 for two or three games each season. Their home field is known as The Diamond and features some pretty decent food, including a respectable Italian sausage sandwich and Philly cheesesteak. But, avoid their hot dogs at all costs: mushy texture at first bite and chock full of cheap fillers. First time a hot dog's been associated with the word "disgusting"?
First time.

(2) Gates Barbecue -- Kauffman Stadium: From my write-up of the aforementioned May 2007 trip: "My BBQ pork sandwich arrives with a side of Cajun chips and an interminable conversation with the lady behind the counter. The sandwich is stone cold and absolutely saturated under two quarts of sauce. Meanwhile, the chips have been seasoned with the same peppers that are used to make those novelty super-hot sauces. Y'know...the kind you buy and use once before realizing that something cleverly called "Satan's Chipotle Acid" shouldn't be ingested."

(3) Rubio's Fish Tacos -- PETCO Park: Mention Rubio's Fish Tacos around these parts and you're going to get an array of ill-informed opinions. Almost every online review of the ballpark (usually written by
out-of-towners) refers to Rubio's as some sort of San Diego staple that you MUST try. On the other end of the spectrum, there are several culinary cynics whose uninteresting palettes can only process cow-filled tortillas. They're both wrong. Fish tacos are phenomenal, but not the ones from Rubio's. Find any anonymous hole-in-the-wall Mexican spot, order one and thank me later.

Now, let's see what the Phoenix New Times considers "unusual". Follow along with
this link. (Note: I covered a few of these items in my two-part "Fat from 50 States" post(s). You can find those foods either in Part I or Part II.)

Walleye on a Stick -- Target Field: Battered. Fried. Tartar sauce. Sold. True story: When Mrs. Bootleg was pregnant with Jalen, she had a fleeting craving for fish sticks. She and her aunt went to the store and came back with a box of 132 frozen fish sticks. After eating one (not one-hundred, not one dozen...just ONE) she claimed her craving had dissipated. The final 131 fish sticks were the last fish sticks I've eaten ever since.

Portobello Fries -- Busch Stadium: The inherent density and flavorful smokiness of Portobello mushrooms is enough to stand on its own. Adding bread crumbs, Romano cheese and lemon-garlic aioli sauce to the list of ingredients would get me to go to a game in
EAST St. Louis.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich -- U.S Cellular Field: If those Webster's Dictionary creators ever invent a word that's the opposite of "unusual" ("funusual"?) it would apply here. PB&J sandwiches are available at a lot of the modern ballparks. Personally, I haven't been a fan since I was five years old. Peanut butter and jelly in between bread is more "donut" than "sandwich". You might as well fry it up, glaze it down and... Oh, my God. Do THAT, someone!

Crab Cake Sandwich -- AT&T Park: Mrs. Bootleg took me to a
menagerie burger spot for my birthday a few years ago. While I ate buffalo, kangaroo and caribou, the wife went with the crab cake burger. She loves crab cakes. In fact, moments after she reads this, she's going to call me on my cell phone and ask, "Why you ain't tell me about this crab cake sandwich?" It's...what she does.

Pittsburgh Cheesesteak -- PNC Park: This appears to be one of the famous
Primanti Brothers sandwiches. I'm not sure I trust a place that features sandwich meats such as sardines and bologna, so prominently.

Barbecue Baker -- Minute Maid Park: I've never gotten behind the obnoxiously overstuffed baked potato craze. There's a tipping point in which the potato just gets in the way of everything on top of it. Of course, this does not apply to an order of
carne asada fries.

Sonoran Hot Dog -- PETCO Park: Erroneously listed as an offering at the Diamondbacks' Chase Field, this is actually sold at the Padres' home ballpark. It's only available on the second-level "Toyota Terrace" and only as part of the in-seat delivered-to-your-seat menu. Sound like a pretentious experience?
It was.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Six Sick Days with Jalen

Our son Jalen will be 6 1/2 years old this weekend.

As most of you know, he was born nine weeks premature, but he's otherwise been blessed with reasonably good health throughout his life.

Off the top of my head -- and I'm sure Mrs. Bootleg will be quick to correct me on anything I'm about to omit -- the most serious Jalen-related medical issues we've endured were an
enlarged heart false alarm in November 2005; a child-sized concussion in July 2009 and this past spring's Arizona ear infection.

Otherwise, Jalen catches colds about as often as his kindergarten friends can pass them around the playground. J has an uncanny knack for showing symptoms just before or right in the middle of a weekend. He might miss school on a Friday, but he'll be fully recovered come Monday.

And, then there was last Thursday:

Thursday, July 29: On school days, Jalen usually wakes up around 6:00 AM. Our Monday through Friday family alarm clock is when Mrs. Bootleg drops the fifth of her 15 assorted facial scrubs on the bathroom floor. Instead, J doesn't emerge from the bedroom until almost 7:00 AM and he's complaining about a sore throat. I love my son, but "whiny Jalen" never fails to ruin my mood -- no matter how good my day is going. In fact, here's
the cinematic equivalent. He sounds a little congested, as well, but refuses to blow his nose.

In MY defense, I had two contract negotiations scheduled for the morning and simply could not stay home with Jalen on this day. I might've been a wee bit wound up when I mildly exploded in J's face after his fourth or fifth bit of nose-blowing obstinacy. This situation required calm conciliation, so I reached for my parental tag-team partner and called Mrs. Bootleg at work. She was somehow able to shuffle around her four-hour, part-time work day (and not without letting me know what a burden it would be) to come home and stay with Jalen.

Friday, July 30: It's Jalen's last day at his kindergarten summer camp and the last day he'll see most of his classmates, as he's moving to a new school for first grade in the fall. The kids are also putting on a play in the late morning and J's been talking about his dinosaur supporting role for weeks. He...also looks like death's leftovers when he wakes up. I offer him cold pizza for breakfast and he declines! This is officially "serious". We had to weigh Jalen's happiness (seeing his friends, performing in the play) with our responsibility as parents (not infecting his friends, not allowing sick Jalen to ruin the play). Looking back, I'm glad we sent him to school. Jalen's delirious, half-asleep performance was reminiscent of a little black John Belushi. That afternoon, J's diagnosed with strep throat.

Saturday, July 31: Just after midnight, Jalen has...well, let's call it a "catastrophic" accident in bed. And, I should probably just leave it at that. (At least until he becomes a teenager, when this anecdote will be needed to bring him down a few pegs in front of his cocky, disrespectful friends.) After the sun comes up, Mrs. Bootleg gives me one of her classic sideways looks when I tell her that I'm taking J out for a haircut. Yes, his temperature's been around 101 degrees for three days, but if he doesn't get a haircut, he'll look like 1978
Gary Coleman in no time.

Jalen spends ten cantankerous minutes in the barber's chair, but seems to be breaking free from his lethargy. Mrs. Bootleg meets us for a late breakfast at the Pancake House where Jalen takes down a short stack, a side of sausage links and an ice water. Quite the breakthrough, as this is the first real meal he's had since Wednesday evening. Aaaand, speaking of "breakthroughs": "Daddy, I think I have to go poop really bad." GAH! We've since left the restaurant and stopped by Target to pick up a few things. Jalen's panicked narration as I navigate the aisles from the toy department towards the front of the store was six-year-old gold: "You're taking me the LONG way! We're not going to make it!"

We made it.

Sunday, August 1: J's temperature is nearing 103. He's been on antibiotics for two days, but he's obviously not getting better. Mrs. Bootleg wants to take him back in to Urgent Care. I ask for 15 minutes to shower, brush my teeth and get dressed while the wife finds a facility that's open on Sunday. As I exit the shower, I hear our garage door closing. Mrs. Bootleg apparently dead-lifted 60 lbs. of her sleeping son off the couch and into the back seat of her SUV. Well, excuse me for taking a few extra minutes to moisturize.

Jalen gets a new antibiotic. The thinking is that he somehow contracted both a bacterial infection (strep throat) and a viral bug (flu-like symptoms).

Monday, August 2: Just before midnight on Sunday evening, Jalen had come downstairs and
face-planted on the couch. He thrashed around for an hour or so, sweating buckets and talking in his sleep. I took a cold washcloth to the back of his neck and his forehead, which seemed to provide a degree of relief. He nodded off again, but after a few minutes, he looked up and asked: "Can you fix my body, daddy?"

Yup...time for ol' Aaron to start praying.

I know, I know, Lisa Simpson. You think it's the
last refuge of a scoundrel, but still.

Tuesday, August 3: J's fever finally breaks as he's once again sliding into imaginary bases around our house. Not quite 100%, but no catastrophic accidents to speak of, either.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Lewish Friend, Jew

As my son Jalen transitions from preschool/kindergarten to first grade, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank m'man Lew. He runs Jalen's former school along with his wife and may very well be the REAL most interesting man in the world.

He's been a stand-up comedian, a bartender, self-employed restaurant muscle and pretty much every stereotypical "finding my way" vocation under the sun. Now, he's getting into the
lightly-read blog business.

A sampling of his work suggests at a different life experience from me:

"One of the guys was known as “Mad Mike”. Mike was a bear of a man with a really long, red, ZZ Top style beard. He was a gentle giant, but boy did he like to party. Often times, cocaine was on the menu."


"The neighbor was standing there. If someone had handed me a gun, I would have been the first eight-year-old to commit suicide."


"Women, on the other hand, were the “gatherers” of our hunter-gatherer society. They see colors better than men because they had to determine the ripeness of wild fruits and vegetables."


"Plus, the bartender has a secret weapon that even the smoothest operator doesn’t have. At the end of the night he gets to take the pick of the leftovers who had their standards too high and didn’t hook-up with any of the bozos available."


"As the artist was drawing the outline for the tattoo, I was looking around his booth. There was a black & white photo of a person with a big hat and sunglasses just like I saw the night before in the Truman Capote special. So I said, “Hey, is that a picture of Truman Capote?”

I assumed bonding over a random, eclectic thing was soon to follow.

He looked over his shoulder at the picture in question and said, “No, that’s my wife.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

10 Thoughts: Oakland A's -- July 2010

July Record: 14-10
Overall Record: 52-51 (2nd Place, 8.5 GB Texas)

The Antithesis of Momentum: On July 30, FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal
tweeted that the A's were drawing "heavy" interest in LH reliever Craig Breslow, but weren't inclined to consummate a deal. Rosenthal's explanation was that the A's were "serious about building momentum going forward". Depending on whom you believe, RH reliever Michael Wuertz was also rumored to be on the move, but remained in Oakland for the same reason.

If you're unfamiliar with my A's, Wuertz, 31, has posted ONE knock-your-socks-off season (2009) since he debuted with the Cubs in 2004. He was so overworked in '09 that he missed almost all of Spring Training and the first month of this season. His 5.01 ERA is helped by 5-6 decent weeks of work, recently. Breslow's been solid since the A's claimed him off waivers last year. But, middle relievers are inherently unpredictable from year-to-year and eminently fungible. Billy Beane KNOWS this. Hell, early last decade, he entrusted the middle innings (for a consistent contender) to names like Jeff Tam, Mike Magnante and Jim Mecir.

Give our boy-genius GM credit for exploiting the media in an admirable -- but, unsuccessful -- attempt to drive up the value of Wuertz and Breslow before the trade deadline.

The Arms Race: The A's posted a season-best 3.07 ERA in July. M'man Ben Sheets lost two of his three decisions, but contributed with a 2.25 ERA for the month. Just wanted to show y'all that I'm done b*tching about Ben Sheets.

Four More Years: C Kurt Suzuki and the A's agreed to a four-year extension on July 23. The deal locks him up through 2013 with an option for 2014. From a cost-certainty perspective, it's a good bit of business. He's on pace for a 20 home run season and his work with Oakland's perpetually prepubescent pitching staff has been reported into the ground. He's still a little overrated by A's believers and beat writers, but he's arguably the current face of the franchise. (Fun Fact: The A's traded away Nick Swisher just seven months after he signed a five-year extension in 2007. Sigh.)

There's No "A" in "Extra Base": The A's have 266 extra base hits on the season -- good enough for 13th in the American League. Uninformed "purists" insist this team can win with the outdated "small ball and stolen base" formula. My retort: (1) The Rangers have hit the fifth most home runs in the AL and are running away with the AL West. (2) The Angels, who are battling the A's for second place, are sixth in HRs and clearly miss their biggest home run hitter (Kendry Morales, who's out for the season). (3) There have been just two AL pennant winners in the past 25 years who've won with a "small ball" philosophy: the 1985 Kansas City Royals and the 2002 Anaheim Angels. TWO!

More Small Ball and Stolen Bases: On the season, the collective slash line for every hitter the A's have plugged into the leadoff spot is .243/.303/.360 with 37 stolen bases. One of these stats is much more important than the other, y'know.

Cinematic Moneyball: Brad Pitt as GM Billy Beane. Jonah Hill as Assistant GM Paul DePodesta. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as manager Art Howe. Production problems, script revisions and a fired director. Shooting at the Oakland Coliseum began July 26. After 15 years, there may just be a worse baseball movie than The Fan in my lifetime. (Admittedly, I've never seen John Goodman's The Babe.)

The Way to San Jose: Follow the bouncing blowhards -- late last month San Jose mayor Chuck Reed announced he would ask the City Council to put a measure for the construction of a new ballpark on the November ballot. Within hours, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement denouncing the decision. A few days later, MLB contacted the city of San Jose and formally requested that the City Council not move forward with the November ballot initiative, citing the long-ongoing study being performed by a committee Selig created to review the A's need for a new ballpark. MLB even offered to help foot the bill for a special election next spring, if needed. By the end of the month, the city had agreed not to proceed with the ballot initiative. What's it all mean? My uniformed, over-simplified guess: Opening Day in San Jose in 2016.

Sweeney's Knees: It was announced that RF Ryan Sweeney would undergo knee surgery and miss the remainder of the season. Many A's fans steadfastly believe the 6'4", 225 lbs. Sweeney has 20+ home run potential. He's only cleared the fence 13 times in about 1400 plate appearances over his first five seasons, though. With top prospect Michael Taylor waiting in the wings; this could be the end of the line for Sweeney in Oakland. Is Kansas City still the retirement home for unproductive erstwhile A's OFs? It's a rich legacy that includes Dave Henderson, Terrence Long and Jose Guillen.

Fair or Foul?: Speaking of the Royals, in the first game of a three-game set in Kansas City, A's OF Coco Crisp led off the game with a shot down the first base line. It was erroneously called foul before the umpires conferred, determined it to be fair and awarded Crisp second base. Second base! Yes, Crisp almost certainly would've ended up with a double if the first base umpire had got the call right, but stuff like this is the epitome of the slippery slope that replay opponents (and, I'm NOT one of them) will use to keep the "human element" in the game. We all know the human element
destroyed the integrity of pro wrestling.

Ben Sheets: In case you missed
last week's post in which I b*tched about Ben Sheets. (OK, now I'm done.)