Tag Archives: Childhood memories

Grandma’s Hands…

… Used to hand me piece of candy
Grandma’s hands
Picked me up each time I fell
Grandma’s hands
Boy, they really came in handy

-Bill Withers

It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday recently. Our family made a trip down to Los Angeles to surprise her. She was definitely caught off-guard by the unexpected presence of her bobble-headed great grandson… in a good way.

Despite the fact that I tend to downplay my own birthday, I do like how the tradition of birthdays forces me to stop and celebrate the life of people close to me. I enjoy having the opportunity to do things with the people I love; things that make them happy; things that make them smile.

Usually at some point in the celebration, the guest of honor will do something or say something that reminds me of something they did or said in the past–usually a funny story–and I find myself smiling inwardly; wading blissfully in the nostalgia.

In the weeks leading up to my grandmother’s birthday, I found myself reflecting early. Cherry picking stories about her turned out to be more difficult that I expected. For some reason, I had trouble peeling away individual stories, as they have mostly seemed to congeal into a single collage of memories.

I spent the better part of a day feeling guilty about not being able to recall stories about my grandmother. I found myself picking bits and pieces out of my mind; but not just a few, tons of them! They were like an infinite number of  little rice-sized pieces of spaghetti–taking up a lot of space all together, but not the fully intact strand that I could wrap methodically around my fork; not the fully fleshed-out story I was looking for.

The segments of memories of Grandma or memories I associate with Grandma came in flashes:

Grandma calling the dogs back when they came to welcome my brother and me as children, with their somewhat scary jumping and slobbering.

Grandma feeding the golden retrievers cooked vegetables.

Grandma taking me to the museum.

Branch’s strawberry candy in a bowl on the coffee table.

The smell of chlorine-treated water drying on hot concrete by the swimming pool.

Grandma talking about how wonderful Trader Joe’s was when the first one opened up.

Grandma toasting my brother and I egg bagels and serving them up with peanut butter.

Grandma being a very careful driver.

Water wings!

Rye bread.

Picture collages.

Throw pillows.

Lavender scented hand soap in the bathroom.

Vibrant orange and purple birds of paradise.

Matzo ball soup in shallow bowls.

A jar filled with chocolate almond squares in the refrigerator.

Grandma just smelling sweeter than anyone else in the world…

… the list kept going.

After I took a step back and began looking at the memories, not as individual specks, but as a collection, I noticed a reoccurring theme. I tie all of these memories to feelings of nostalgia and comfort.

I have, absolutely no memories involving fear, guilt, anger, or trauma tied to my grandmother. While Grandma was never a push-over, I cannot recall ever thinking she was mean, even in my most immature and self-centered days.

For me, I now realize, Grandma was, and still is, the living embodiment of comfort and kindness. She always did her best to foster a sense of home away from home when we went to visit her.

This ethic of care actually ties to one of the stories of Grandma I eventually unearthed:

Throughout my childhood, probably since the age of four, I wondered why my dad bothered making chunky tomato sauce with spaghetti. I hated big chunks of tomatoes, and I yearned for something with less texture to pair with my pasta.

Eventually, I learned that ketchup, which regularly acted as a dip for the food I deemed the pinnacle of eatable excellence–french fries, was actually a product of tomatoes; the same tomatoes that made up the chunky sauce on my pasta.

I remember regularly asking my mom and dad if I could have pasta with ketchup, since it seemed like a logical enough substitution to me. They would both reply, with scrunched faces, “No,” giving little justification for their resistance; only going to far as to say that the idea was “disgusting.”

"Culinary genius, no?"

Little did I know, Grandma would provide me with an opportunity to experience this ketchup-laced concoction in due time…

When I was about eleven years old, my brother and I came down to Los Angeles during our annual summer visit with the relatives. For some reason, we stayed for one night in a house my grandparents were occupying for the days in between moving out of their old house in the San Fernando Valley, and moving into their new house in Santa Monica.

I do not know why it was only one night, nor do I remember why only my brother and I stayed with my grandparent that night, but I do remember the house being filled with boxes stacked so high that navigating through it all made me feel like I was in a labyrinth.

We got in fairly late, and it was already dark outside. My grandmother knew we had not eaten dinner, so she went to the kitchen to prepare us a meal. About half an hour later, my brother and I sat down at the kitchen table and my grandmother brought out a heaping pile of my culinary theory put into practice–spaghetti mixed with ketchup.

I was excited. The sharp scent of the ketchup’s vinegar still lingered in the air. This, was my moment! This was my opportunity to prove my long-standing culinary hypothesis, which had been thwarted for years by my parents, who clearly lacked the common sense and vision to combine these two ingredients in an effort to facilitate this flavor and textural dynamo.

Eager to confirm that which I already knew to be true–ketchup and pasta would be awesome together–I clumsily spun a large clump of noodles around my fork and slurped it into my mouth. My resulting state: confusion of the senses. How could something that looked like pasta and tomato sauce produce a flavor so distant from this savory dinnertime staple? Slightly tart and almost sugary sweet, even as an eleven-year-old with a palate that was easily satisfied by Skittles and Doritos, I knew the combination of ketchup and pasta had gone completely awry.

My brother and I quietly consumed the rest of the food on our plate, brushed our teeth and went to bed. That night I went to bed… confused.

Now, it would be easy to preserve the story in my mind as a culinary  disaster perpetuated by my grandmother. However, context, and a few details I neglected to mention actually help make Grandma even more endearing to me.

First of all, it was pretty late, maybe eight thirty or nine in the evening when we got in. It was time to go to sleep. She could have sent us to bed without dinner, but she didn’t. Grandma could have quickly taken us to McDonald’s, which was right down the street, but she didn’t. Grandma provided us with a home-cooked meal.

Secondly, how on Earth did she pull that meal together? We were practically staying in a storage space! She pulled that meal out of thin air! Did I mention there was meat in the dish? Now I don’t remember if it was chicken or turkey cold-cuts, but I do remember there was meat in it, and I think she might have sprinkled in a little dried basil too.

My mom later told me that Grandma felt really bad about feeding us that meal. I feel bad that she felt bad. Grandma did the best that she could in the situation she was in with the time that she had.

So I will always remember the night of spaghetti and ketchup, not as the failed meal, and not for the crazy laberynth of boxes. Rather I will always associate the night of spaghetti and ketchup with Grandma’s successful efforts to create a feeling of home within a moment of chaos.


Teach Your Children Well…

… Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

-Crosby Stills Nash and Young

Last week my mom was honored with an award for being teacher of the year in her school district! Alas, distance and baby care made witnessing this event unfeasible, which was sad, because my mom said that the people who preside over this event wear hats that look  like upside down ice cream cartons. So not only did I miss my mom’s big day, but I missed seeing people in ridiculous hats.

While I was not physically present at the banquet, I’d like to think that I was there in spirit. On the day leading up to the event, and during the evening of, I thought about my mom and what a truly great teacher she is.

While in middle school, I tagged along with my mom to work when my vaccation days didn’t quite line up with my mom’s. Mostly, I think I just played with legos in the corner. However, I do remember the kids seemed to get their work done when it was asked of them, and they seemed to be happy and entertained in between assignments.

Not a stellar review? Well, seeing my mom teach on two random days isn’t really a fair way to evaluate her teaching. Moreover, the smiles and engagement were just subtle indicators of that which I already knew–my mom loved teaching, she approached teaching creatively in order to best figure out how to help students learn, and students reflected her passion and effort in their own love of learning.

How did I know my mom loved teaching? How did I know she approached teaching with out-of-the-box thinking? It could be that I developed this knowledge over time as I would be part of my mother’s captive dinner time audience. Every night my mom would talk about what she was doing in class–what one particular student said, the upcoming project she was looking forward to–as she literally could not keep her excitement to herself.

"Cheese, Gromit! Cheeeeeeese!"

One night she would talk about one of the boys dressing up as Coco Chanel for the class report and assignment during Women’s History Month. Another night she might talk about the puppets they were making for a show as they learned about storytelling. Some nights she would talk about how she got the entire class to imitate Wallace’s reaction to cheese from the claymation series Wallace and Gromit. Other nights she would talk about how epicly inept she was at math, yet she was finding ways to teach them nonetheless. On occasion, my mom would talk about story time–I believe she called it “Stupid Story Time”–which she would use as a reward when the entire class behaved well. Stupid Story Time consisted and continues to consist of less than five minutes of my mother improvising a story with almost no point whatsoever. There was no end to her sharing.

Still, my mother’s utilization of oral tradition during dinner time to chronicle her adventures in the classroom does not fully inform my knowledge of her excellence as a teacher. I know she is a great teacher because, along with my dad and brother, she has always been one of my best teachers.

Story time was a staple in our home before it became a regular element in her classroom. My mom would read us stories, changing her voice, and infusing emotion and excitement into the dialogue. My brother and I had nearly every Roald Dahl book read to us. I think we asked her to read The Phantom Tollbooth to us about eight times over. Had the Harry Potter series come out during our childhood, I don’t think there would have been any way that my brother and I would have not become writers, as I am sure my mother’s readings would have become mesmerizing events.

It was my mom, not my elementary school teachers, that truly taught me how to write. She always told me, “Make it easy. Write the way you talk.” And in order to assist me in in writing “the way I talk,” she would explain how a comma was “a short pause,” and a period was “a breath.” So while I may not be the most creative, competent, or grammatically excellent writer, I definitely have her to thank for being able to string words together in any sort of semi-coherent form.

It was my mother that was my primary teacher of empathy. Whenever my brother or I wronged another person (and usually it was the two of us wronging each other), it was my mother who asked us to reflect upon how we might feel if the wrong had been done unto us.

She might have actually been too good at teaching us empathy. My brother, during his toddler years, actually took to repeating my mother’s rhetorical questioning when he found himself being scolded. With his fists pinned to his waist, he would ask, “How would you like it if I yelled at you for not putting away your toys? How would you like it? Would you feel good?” I, on the other hand, now often internalize the hurt of others so deeply that I am paralyzed with guilt for causing others even the slightest bit of discomfort. Yet, I probably wouldn’t change a thing. As one of my mentors once said, “Your weaknesses are often your greatest strengths gone awry.”

Yes. It was my mom who taught me my multiplication tables in the car, as we would drive from place to place. It was my mom who taught me mnemonic devices in order to attach dates to important events in history, and to remember the correct spelling of fundamental words (“You wouldn’t want to fri the end of your friend–friend.”). It was my mom who taught me my sense of humor (for better or for worse).

So congratulations, mom. The award you have just received is long overdue. A committee of people wearing ice cream cartons as hats has finally validated that which hundreds of children and parents already knew: you are a truly extraordinary teacher.

Just remember, before the ice cream carton hat people, two decades worth of students, and their accompanying parents had any clue that you might be the most excellent teacher of all time, your children were already well aware of your greatness.

Domo Arigato…

… Mr. Roboto”

Ask and you shall receive. A few friends asked me to find pictures of my infamous childhood Halloween costumes, so when I next saw my dad, I asked if he had any documentation of our awesomeness (him for the creations, me for actually wearing the costumes). It turns out he does!

In case you do not get the reference, please check this previous post. It helps these pictures make a bit more sense.


With that said… Behold! The most awesomely dysfunctional Halloween costumes of all time:

Behold! The ten-minute costume: My brother as a the dapper ghost (subtle floral print not visible)

I forgot about this one. Wow! Not to get picky, but wasn't Superman's "S" red with a yellow outline? I'm pretty sure he didn't have powder blue underwear... and black tights? Another great example of working with what you got.

Question: "What are you going to be for Halloween?" Answer: "Oh, you know, a demonic robot bodybuilder."

"Call me."

First, let's state the semi-obvious: my brother is an escaped convict. Second, it should be noted that I am rocking the old school Jordans. Next, we must ask ourselves, why is my head on backwards? But the real question we must ask here is, why am I dressed up like a clansman from outer-space?

Yup, those were my costumes.

It’s the Eye of The Tiger…

… it’s the cream of the fight
Risin’ up the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
He’s watchin’ us all in the eye of the tiger…


Basketball Treck, Part III:

[In a note that is completely unrelated to this post, what does “the cream of the fight” mean anyway? I never stopped to really listen to the lyrics to this fantastic song, and now that I am reading its lyrics, I can’t help but think, much of this song doesn’t make sense! If there is a “last known survivor,” how can there be any “prey” left to stalk? Anyway… back to the post…]

In seventh grade, I worked up the nerve to try out for the middle school basketball team. This would mark the first time trying out for anything; the Asian league participation required no official evaluation of talent. I was nervous.

I had no idea what to expect. But, if tryouts were held like a job interview, and each applicant had to submit a resume that included one’s experience and honest assesment of their skills, mine would have read as follows:

Height: 4’10”

Weight: 115 lbs

Summary of Relevant Experience:

  • Watched countless games of pick-up three on three basketball at, the city-famous, Live Oak Park between the year I was potty trained and the year I learned how to cook Top Ramen noodles all by myself
  • Tied for third leading scorer over the course of three years on the worst Asian league basketball team to ever grace the Bay Area nine to eleven year-old division
  • Played sporadically during lunch-time for the past year and a half.

Summary of Relevant Skills/Talent:

  • In a gym without spectators, and nobody in way, with feet and elbow lined up perfectly, on a day when stomach does not hurt from, (then) undiagnosed, lactose intolerance-related reaction to multiple slices of pizza, without P.E.-induced fatigue from earlier in the day, and a little luck, might make 50% of shots within ten feet of the basket.
  • Can run as fast as one’s seventy-five year-old arthritic grandmother can walk (without her walker)
  • Can jump over a six-pack of Sprite without tripping (most of the time)
  • Competence dribbling with right hand–through legs, around the back, spin move, etc. (on occasion with head up and looking at surroundings)
  • Near-complete incompetence dribbling with left hand
  • Can pretend to play defense (Legitimate defense is actually a mirage, and cannot be counted upon).

Lucky for me, try-outs did not require a resume submission.

Now while I do not think my talent and size gave me too much of an edge, it turned out I actually had a few things going for me. First, my Asian league basketball experience actually gave me a small advantage. I had already bumbled through three years of elementary basketball drills. I knew the correct footwork to the defensive slide zigzags, how to pass and “screen away,” make a chest pass, complete a bounce pass, shoot a lay-up off of the correct foot, come to a complete jump-stop, etc. Demonstration of these skills was part of tryouts! Secondly, I was good a following directions; I could run plays correctly, which was more than that which could be said for seventy percent of the kids at try-outs. I was relatively “fundamentally sound,” which is often times code for unathletic as well.

Well, being untalented, yet relatively “fundamentally sound,” didn’t earn me placed on the A-team that year, however, it must have saved me from getting cut. I made the C-team, which had a height restriction (I think you had to be 5’8 or below). The seventh grade C-team was short on height (obviously due to the height restrictions), but we were a team of players that followed directions really well.

Where as the seventh grade A and B teams were stacked with far more talent, they would often times have problems running the plays. Many of the players liked to freelance and try to create shots on their own like they did at lunch time. Sometimes this worked, but often times, it did not. Our team had few, if any, delusions of greatness. We would run the plays until we got a decent shot, or until we lost the ball due to being a collection of semi-inept ball handlers. I guess you would call us a group of “coachable” players with underwealming talent.

Despite our considerable lack of talent, we actually won more games than we lost. This would be the first team I was ever a part of with a winning record. Our team beat every team with equal or lesser talent because we out executed them. And we lost to nearly every team that had a greater abundance of talent, since our execution could not overcome teams that were considerable stronger and faster than us.

Did this mean our team had a fighting spirit and maturity that exceeded our years? Alas, the answer to that question would be, no. We showed no signs of cowardice throughout the season, and we were fairly poised all the way up to the league tourneyment. Then we fell behind a bit in the second round game.

Our coach, Ray, called a time out with us down by five points in the third quarter, and layed into us.

“What are you all doing! You are-not… EXECUTING!” He yelled. “You’re better than this! Look, they are packing in their two-one-two zone. Run ‘Cobra,” or ‘X.’ It’s simple. run these plays and you should have Bruce open in the corner, or Darma in the post.”

Then, in attempt to accentuate his point and inspire us, he asked us all, what he thought was, a rhetorical question, “Do you want to WIN, or do you just want to goof around and have FUN?”

To his surprise, we all yelled in unison, “HAVE FUN!”

Ray paused for a moment in shock, sighed, pulled out his whipe board, and then said, “Okay,” drawing up a set with five circles to represent the players in the game, “Dharma (our center, who wasn’t the best ball handler), you’re going to the throw a back door alley-oop on this play to… who’s our smallest player? Jamie. You’re going to throw the alley-oop to Jamie…”

From that point forward, the game completely deteriorated to some of the ugliest basketball I have ever been a part of. Our somewhat beautiful team-oriented basketball morphed into the antithesis of our team–a conglomerate of individuals out to get theirs. We lost by who knows how much, and we were knocked out of the tourneyment.

Yup… we “demonstrated of a complete lack of discipline and competativeness during the most meaningful game of the season.” What a great addition to my basketball resume.


Soy Un Perdedor…

… I’m a looser baby, so why don’t you kill me?


Basketball Trek, Part II:

Making the shift from having a budding interest in basketball to actually being competent enough with the orange sphere to enjoy playing basketball took a long time. In fact, it is an ongoing process that has extended over a period of time far greater the consecutive years during which I would go to the park and spin around in place for no particular reason other than to make myself dizzy, try to swim through sand like Scrooge McDuck swam through money, pose like superman with both fists forward while pushing myself into the air on the swing with my stomach planted on the seat, and trying to separate grains of sand by color.

I was about seven years old when I expressed interest in actually playing basketball. My dad started me on a regiment of correctly executed  chest-passes–ball starts at one’s chest, one aims for the chest of the person targeted, and the follow-through should end with one’s thumbs pointed down and fingers extended towards the target. Next came bounce passes–same form, but one must aim for a spot two-thirds to three-quarters between one’s self and the target (welcome to fractions!).

Of course, I wanted to focus on that which I deemed most rewarding in the game of basketball, putting the ball into the hoop, so my dad showed me some seemingly unnatural footwork and ball tossing he called a “lay-up.” My dad told me that I was only allowed to take one and a half steps during this choreographed movement towards the basket that was to be coordinated with shooting. How does one take half a step? You either take a step, or you don’t!

My training was sporadic, as I would get easily frustrated by my inability to do any of these things correctly. Many of our practice sessions would degrade into a trick-shooting extravaganza–throwing the ball from half court, shooting backwards, bouncing the ball off the ground towards the basket, shooting while spinning in the air, tossing the ball over the backboard. I figured, If I can’t put the ball in the hoop, I might as well not put the ball in the hoop with style. I don’t think my dad appreciated my lack of focus.

When I was about nine or ten I became a bit more focused, as my dad signed me up to play basketball in the Japanese American church league (avoidance of complete embarrassment in public was a good motivation for practice). Never mind that we didn’t go to church, and we have no intention of doing so; I was going to play basketball for the local Free Methodist team!

As I was one of the new kids to the “church,” and there were too many players in our age bracket to make up one team, I was  put on the other team–the local Free Methodist D-2 team. The D-1 team was clearly composed of all of the cool kids who wore baggy shorts, used styling product in their hair, and for the most part, actually had some athleticism and skill.

The D-2 team stacked up like this: at point guard, we had the hard-working and ernest kid who seemed to get injured at least once a game. At shooting guard, we had me, the pudgy boy who had never even played an organized basketball game in his life, with a set shot that was about as consistent as a roulette wheel. Starting at small forward we had a guy shaped like a jelly bean (he looked like a middle-aged man as a ten-year-old!), who’s glasses fell off at least twice a game, and had a penchant for shooting on the wrong basket (but at least he could shoot). At power forward, we had a kid who had the attention span of a goldfish, and also shot on the wrong basket on occasion;  he mainly just floated around the court and then spazzed out and flung the ball towards the basket when he got it. And, the man in the middle was Grimace’s shorter, less purple, Asian brother from another mother. Coming off the bench was a master of the orignial Nintendo videogame system, but that was of little help on game day as he measured up to all of the D-2 criteria we all met: short, unathletic, and relatively unskilled. Eventually we added the slow-footed gentle giant who was afraid of contact and often had a plumbers crack exposed when he bent over to pick up the ball. We also added a kid who was really tiny, protected the ball as well as tissue paper can protect one from the rain, and always just seemed to smile as if to say , “Hey, I’m just happy to be here!”

I was inextricably tied to this team, and we were awful. We lost to one team during our first year 63-2 (though, in our defense, I swear some of the guys on that squad had mustaches). We were so bad that year, in fact, that we didn’t play in the tournament for which every team in the league automatically qualifies. I later found out that my dad, who had the misfortune of coaching this splendid squad, thought it would be more humane not to have us compete.

That year, I learned how to be a good loser. I learned not to pout. Throwing things in anger after the game was definitely a no-no. I would line up shake the hands of the other players and the coaches after the game, and make my way towards the hallway where the designated parent would be handing out snacks. My mother likes to remind me that, despite losing every game over the course of two years, I would always get really excited about the snacks after the game: Red Vines, rice crispy treats, AND Rootbeer!

I think losing wish such regularity reinforced my nature. This is not to say that I am a loser. It is just that I am not all that competitive; I just like to play. The experience of playing a game of basketball was important, the result–not so much. I think I have my mom to thank for not taking myself too seriously. The two of us have always been able to laugh at ourselves.

Contrary to my nature and experience, there was my brother’s nature and experience. Andrew started playing basketball at the same time, and he actually experienced success (in his age division, they would reset the score every quarter so there would be no “winners,” however everyone could tell which team was really winning). Where as I played tentative, and was a bit trigger-shy, Andrew was like a bull in a china shop; barreling over the other small boys and girls and chucking three pointers with complete disregard for consequences. Once he started playing games where they actually kept score, it became clear that he hated losing, and he continues to hate losing. A car ride with me after a losing game was probably much like the car ride there. I might have been a bit upset, maybe a bit animated in trying to analyze the game and what could have been, but nothing too bad (at least that is how I recall it). Andrew, on the other hand, would become the living embodiment of grumpiness, and would not like to be engaged in pleasant car ride banter at all.

Our basketball paths could not have diverged more. My brother went to join his own group of cool talented kids during his time with the Owls. In fact, I think the team went undefeated during a two-year stretch, and won several tournaments as well (Thankfully, my dad coached those teams, which helps even out the purgatory he had to experience coaching my team).

Andrew was later recruited to join an all-star level summer tournament team that was definitely won more than it lost. For my money, his crowning achievement was probably his selection to the All-California Asian League team–a team of the best high school-aged players of Asian descent California had to offer. The squad would travel through Japan playing exhibition games with teams in Japan.

On the other hand, my experience with Asian league basketball was not so glorious. During all of my years of Asian league participation, not once did my team have a winning record. In fact, my team usually ended up in the “friendship bracket” of tournaments. For those of you not familiar with the “friendship bracket,” it is a title usually reserved for the game between two teams who are playing for eleventh place; the loser would take last place.

Yet, I would not trade in my experience loosing all those games for anything. I was on a team of kind, funny, and thoughtful guys. I learned how to lose well. Those losing teams helped shape me. More importantly, I learned how to love the experience of playing basketball without victory as a requisite for enjoyment.

Maybe the universe wants us all to learn how to be good losers. In a karmic twist of irony, my brother is now the coach of the boys basketball team at a small high school in the Bronx. The way he describes it, his team sounds like the Black and Dominican version of my D-2 squad (maybe with a couple talented players mixed in). His first year they won about three out of twenty games. Last year they lost every single game. I think losing has softened my brother. He can laugh at the teams futility (as well as his own).

This year, if his star players become academically or behaviorally intelligible, they might not do much better than last year.

I hope, for his sake, he can get some good snacks after the game.

They’re Playing Basketball…

…We love that basketball.

-Kurtis Blow

Hoops Trek, Part I:

I love playing basketball.

I think my affinity for basketball developed when I was young; preschool to elementary school years-young. My dad would take me to Live Oak Park in Berkeley where he would play pick-up games for hours. I would sit and watch from the side or on the bleachers for minutes at a time. Occasionally one of the guys would lift me up closer to one of the unused baskets so I could more easily toss the ball in the hoop (I was small, so making the occasional shot with both feet on the ground was less of a given, and more of a Haley’s Comet-type occurrence). More often than not, I would just go and pretend to be a wizard or a Optimus Prime on the jungle gym in the sand-covered playground off to the side of the court separated by a chain-link fence.

Yet, despite spending most of my Live Oak hours galloping around in the sand, sitting court-side watching my dad and the other guys play is still one of the memories I most associate with those years. Random moments, interesting characters, familiar sounds, and distinct scents remain deeply engraved on the stone tablet of my consciousness. It may sound strange, but nothing makes me feel more like a little kid than the smell of cigarette butts paired with the unmistakable aroma of sweat and spilled beer evaporating off of hot concrete on a hot summer day.

The cast of characters who came together to make up the weekend Live Oak basketball community could not have been more eclectic, as Live Oak Park seemed to be a point where time, space, and culture seemed to converge around one common element: half-court black-top pick-up basketball.

In retrospect, I might best describe this convergence like hippy-era Berkeley, with all of its activism and
psychedelicness meeting up with current-day Berkeley.It was where people of the more affluent Berkeley hills connected with the working-class people of the Berkeley flat-lands. It was where people of James Brown met up with people of James Taylor.

At Live Oak Park you might find the tie-dye-clad Jewish civil rights lawyer trying to post up the pint-sized Black urban high-school super-star on his way to play college ball in Arkansas, or the extremely sweaty, robust, and hairy Armenian American chef/owner of a well-known hole-in-the-wall pizza joint trying to make an entry pass while being defended by an under-sized, yet feisty Japanese Landscape Architect.

While the courts were fairly segregated–the “A” court was predominantly occupied by Black folk and a few of the more talented or more competitive non-Black players, and the other court was filled with… well everyone else (but with a decidedly tie-dye feel)–there was the occasional mixing. And despite the unspoken delineation between courts, there was clearly community amongst the players who came together at Live Oak. It was less of an “other side of the tracks” division, and more like a neighborly distinction between spaces.

The men would always gather by the bleachers off to the side drinking beer, eating peanuts, smoking cigarettes… It seemed that everyone knew everyone else, asked about each other’s lives, joked together, and talked about manly things I didn’t really understand in loud profanity laced opinionated exchanges.

Looking back, I now realized that characters at Live Oak really took care of me. Andy–who had apparently bought his nose and eyebrows at the same store Woody Allen frequented, and wore sport’s goggles and red Chuck Taylor All-Stars–would peak around the corner of the fence as I would be doing something stupid like filling my shoes with sand or pretending to fly around the playground while making jet-plane noises (“ssshhhhhhhhhoaughhhhhhh”). Dean, who never wore a shirt, and happened to be the only other Asian regular besides my dad (I remember hearing multiple guys refer to my dad and Dean as the “little ninjas.” Why do the two Asian guys have to be ninjas?), would play catch with me off to the side on occasion. I also distinctly remember a tall, rail thin, White guy with extremely short shorts, a colorful shirt, sunglasses, and a visor taking me to the Longs Drugs down the street to get beer for the rest of the guys, and a fluorescent red soda for me. He sounded like a more nasally Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now, and  while we were off to the side, he would provide commentary on my dad’s game.

"Bad things, man."

“That’s your dad, man,” he would start. Then he would drift into a stream of consciousness monologue. “That’s Tod, man… awesome. Todiovison, you know…. like his eyes are everywhere… look at him… he’s not even looking. It’s like… its like… he knows… Oh man! Tod, Tod, Todio! The hook! What a play! What-a-play… Beautiful, man…. Todiovision…”

Elongated Dennis Hopper was right, it was beautiful. Basketball was beautiful to watch, and even in a three on three half court game, there were so many details to focus on.

For a while my favorite detail was Andy. He was distinct, and I was infatuated with him. I would go through an entire game just focusing on what Andy did. In my mind, I was convinced that his goggles and antiquated red shoes were indicators of excellence, and he was the key to the game. At about five foot five, and one hundred and two pounds, soaking wet, he had a Bob Cousey set shot that was actually quite automatic when left unattended, but otherwise, he had no discernible skills. That was a disappointing realization.

I would find other things to focus on: the diversity of knee braces, the correlation between wearing pants and quality of play (pants lead to bad performance, or players who wear pants to play, tend to be awful), the connection between swearing and speed (the more a player swore on the court, the slower they became… or were).

Yet, over time, I eventually started to really observe what was going on in the game, and the reality left me in awe. I didn’t always understand why each person would do what they did on the court, but it was fascinating watching how each person would move–shadowing, twisting, mimicking, speeding up, slowing down, jumping, stopping suddenly, feinting, pushing, and each action would lead to a reaction.

Questions would linger in my mind upon observing monumental physical feats. How did he throw that ball behind his back to that other guy running towards the basket? How can he push the ball from that far away and make it fall through the hoop over and over again? How did he jump from over there, and do all that stuff with his arms while the ball was in his hands, and then land over there?

Basketball was beautiful. Basketball was connected to community. Basketball was filled with interesting characters. Basketball was the game my dad played on the weekends. As a somewhat lonely day-dreamer who wanted to do something my dad liked to do, I guess no other sport had a fighting chance of capturing my imagination.


… Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
(Turn and face the strain)
Pretty soon now you’re going to get a little older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time

-David Bowie

Halloween Part 2:

Honestly, I was not giving too much thought to Halloween before my partner and I ventured out in search of maternity clothes on the afternoon of. Walking through the mall, I noticed a few kids dressed up, some toddlers waddling around as monkeys or power rangers, and a few babies in strollers made to wear pumpkin outfits, but my mind merely registered the thought, that little pirate is cute… oh, and its Halloween, before drifting off into random day-dream mode.

About ten minutes later I found myself stationed awkwardly outside of the Forever 21 dressing room waiting to see if any of these garments of the highest quality might work as maternity wear for my partner. While attempting to focus on the ceiling, stare at mannequins, or inspect the fabric of a floral patterned cardigan–anything to not seem like I was a creepy stalker of tween girls–my attention was drawn to the front of the store where a mob of parents and children were gathered.

It took me a few moments to figure out why so many individuals, so far outside of the Forever 21 demographic, might be clamoring to get anywhere near the establishment. After spotting a Darth Vader, two Princess Jasmines, a turtle, and a little devil lined up by the entryway, the reality dawned on me. They are trick-or-treating!

This reality had me reeling a bit. On one hand, this situation felt so wrong. My Halloween had always consisted of speeding through my dinner so I could put my costume on, get outside, and go to as many houses in my neighborhood as I could so as to accumulate as much candy as was possible in the time I was allowed. I did much of my trick-or-treating after dark, actually knocking on doors. There was always the chance that one household might try to scare us with some gag dummy, or surprise us by coming to the door dressed up as a witch. Yet, we decided which houses to go to, running from house to house, strategizing how we might best use our time, “That guy gave away full-sized Nerds last year! Let’s go there… We don’t need to go to that house, there are too many steps, and I heard they are giving away dried fruit.” The fact that we were outdoors and in the dark added an element of suspense and spookiness to the experience. Most of all, when I was out and about trick-or-treating with my friends, I felt free.

Alas trick-or-treating at the mall is everything that my experience was not–sterile, well-lit, void of surprise, confined, and orderly–and it is hard for me not to feel sorry for the children who are not, and may never experience a Halloween like the ones with which I grew up.

Maybe times are changing. Maybe this dissonance is a sign of me getting old. I sound just like the cliche of the out-of-touch old person: Back in my day, I had to walk twelve miles in the snow to get to school…

Yet, am I that out of touch in believing that it is a bit awkward to have little children line up by the eight-foot tall picture of one of the Victoria’s Secret Angels sprawled out, modeling the company’s latest bra and panty line, on pink satin bed sheets, as they wait for one of employees to hand them a Tootsie Roll? Isn’t it a bit impersonal to have Victor, from Game Stop, joylessly handing out Starbursts to trick-or-treaters rather than their next-door neighbor, Ms. McNabe? Maybe the mall is just being honest in perpetuating that which Halloween has always been for such establishments, an opportunity to inspire more consumerism. Maybe Jordan, the sales associate from Bebe–dressed in fish net stockings and six-inch stilettos as part of her “cat” costume–is the future of trick-or-treat candy distribution.

All that being said, I am trying hard to empathize with the mothers and fathers that brought their children to the mall on this Halloween afternoon.

As a potential future parent, one thing I continue to hear from current parents is that time and energy are constant issues in their lives; they never seems to be enough of either. The mall is convenient, and finite. There are no hills to sap a parent of their energy. One parent can go shopping while the other walks their child around so as to kill two birds with one stone. And, once said child has made his or her rounds, that’s it. A parent only needs to simply point out, “We started at Chicos, and look! We’re back at Chicos. There aren’t any more places we can visit. Sorry, Billy… Okay, time to go home.”

I also understand we are living in a culture of fear (whether it is reasonable or not is debatable, but we live in it nonetheless). With all of the news stories about  car or property-related accidents,kidnapping, and child molestation, I can see how parents might fear for their children’s safety. I would like to think that I will be able to get over such unsubstantiated fear, but I am not currently in their position, so it is hard to say what I might do.

Moreover, I know that my class privilege factored into my idyllic trick-or-treat experiences, so the comparison can be unfair. For some children, the streets they live upon truly aren’t safe to cross, let alone wander around at night as a candy solicitor. Some may live small apartment complexes or in high-rises, so the mall may actually be a more engaging trick-or-treat community. I do not know what it is to be a child or raise a child in such situations, so despite my incredulity, it is hard for me to be completely outraged.

As we headed for the mall exit, we passed a number of kids fully decked out, and I discovered one additional benefit to trick-or-treating in the mall: everyone can witness the costumes in all of their glory. We walked by a girl, who was about ten, with wavy shoulder-length black hair, a black fedora, white v-neck, an unbuttoned white dress shirt, flooding black slacks, white socks, black shoes, and a white bandage wrapped around her right arm from palm to elbow. She was a spot-on mini Michael Jackson from the “Black or White” video, circa 1991. I could not help chuckling to myself.

No doubt, thanks our visit to the mall, I think I might be starting to get back into Halloween again.