My daughter is about to turn 11. When I was about to turn 11, all I wanted was to play basketball for the Detroit Pistons. Like the kid in the milk commercial, I could clearly see my future self in the mirror and he played professional basketball for the Detroit Pistons.
Why not? I had just started playing and was improving on an NBA-bound trajectory. I was as fast as John Wirthlin and he had 14 older brothers and sisters. I was as strong as Mark Wood and his dad played basketball in college. I could go toe-to-toe with Mike Borromeo and he was a leading scorer in his Filipino youth basketball league.
I had no delusions of grandeur. I didn’t expect to be an all star or necessarily even be on the starting line-up at first. But there would come a day when the Pistons would need my scrappy defense off the bench and through-the-legs dribbling, especially with the championship team getting older and increasingly prone to injury. There was one open space in my plastic sleeve of near-mint condition Hoops basketball cards. I would fit just fine after Fennis Dembo, as long as I was ahead of Scott Hastings.
If necessary, I was also willing to play for the Phoenix Suns.
The next logical step was Rick Mahorn Basketball Camp. I would bring my A game for the whole week and presumably garner the attention of Rick Mahorn or maybe even special guest Charles Barkley.
And that’s exactly what I did. I hustled hard for every rebound and loose ball. I replenished with plenty of Capri Sun, confidently wielding the straw to puncture the pouch from the bottom. I was undeterred when it turned out the special guest was Charles Oakley.
I was ready for Rick Mahorn by the last day of camp. My mom had declined to pay the extra $10 for a picture with Rick Mahorn, but I wasn’t any less excited to meet Rick Mahorn and for Rick Mahorn to give me the advice I needed to take my game to the next level. And that’s exactly what Rick Mahorn did:
Son, it’s time for a haircut.
My son is about to have his bar mitzvah. When I was about to have my bar mitzvah, all I wanted was straight hair. I had taken Rick Mahorn’s advice and reined in Jennifer Beals Flashdance proto-mullet. Now all my friends had Jonathan Taylor Thomas hair. They could part it down the middle in a Butt Cut or tuck neatly under a Stussy Hat.
I wanted a Butt Cut. I wanted a Stussy hat to tuck my Butt Cutt into. But if I tried, my hair would have just stuck out the sides, the way Jennifer Beals' stuck out the sides of her welding helment. My mom said my hair made me stand out. That if I wanted to blend in, I could wear one of our WDET baseball caps.
I did not want to stand out or blend in or promote public radio. I wanted straight hair. Once I had straight hair, I would look cool brushing it out from my eyes when hackying a hacky sack or landing an ollie. Once I had straight hair, I would have the right look and the confidence to attempt an ollie on Ted Dickinson’s skateboard.
I also wanted to listen to the music the kids with straight hair were listening to. I lived in fear I would agree that Better than Erza, Toad and the Wet Sprocket or Silverchair was a good band only to learn that they were not a good band or not even a band. But I had used my last Harmony House gift certificate to buy You Eediot!, an album of songs from the cartoon Ren and Stimpy, and An Evening with Frank Loesser. in which Frank Loesser accompanies himself on the piano, singing some of Frank Loesser's biggest Broadway hits.
My fears were realized thanks to the DJ at David Cohen's bar mitzvah...
DCBMDJ: What's the popular Offspring song right now?
Me: You mean "The Offspring"?
Me: The same one as at Mike Cohen's bar mitzvah?
DCBMDJ: Come Out and Play?
Me: That's the one!
Based on Mike Cohen's reaction to David Cohen's DJ, the correct answer was Self Esteem. Self esteem indeed.
Luckily, my mom would often forget to pick me up from basketball. I had failed to make the "travel" team but had made peace with my role as captain (self-appointed) of the "non-travel" team. I would make two calls from the school pay phone, neither of which required paying. The first was a collect call to my mom from mombasketballisovercomepickmeup.
The second was to 1-800-687-4266. Through 1-800-MUSIC-NOW, I could use the phone keypad to meticulously enter the names of bands people had mentioned and hear clips of their songs. It turned out that "Garbage," "No Doubt" and "Sound Garden" were real bands. "Shart" was not.
Smashing Pumpkins was not only a real band, but they had a song that perfectly captured the plight of my so-called life — having too much curly hair and not enough flannel shirts — at the height of My So-Called Life:
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.
Tomorrow I turn 40. I understand the world around me better than I did when I was 11 or 13 — just enough to be dangerous for my 21st-century mid-COVID post-retail lactose-tolerant Spotify-savvy fantasy-sportsball TikTok-tempo peak-MCU children.
Friction with friends?
Trouble staying on task?
Issues with insomnia?
I can empathize with all-age alliterative ailments and altercations. Sometimes, helping Judah and Phoebe navigate their surroundings helps me reframe my own experiences. Other times, it’s just baggage that has shifted while in the overhead compartment for a decade or three.
Managing their misadventures brings me back to the most random moments from upwards of 40 years ago. The memories are like doodles in the margins of a textbook, the content of which I have long since forgotten. In many cases, they are the actual doodles from the margins of my textbooks, the contents of which I have long since forgotten.
Or the spoon bread at Colonial Williamsburg ... or that girl who caught me picking my nose during the talent show at camp even though I wasn’t and agreed not to tell anyone even though there wasn’t anything to tell ... or Scott Hasting's NBA-record 65 consecutive games without a steal ... or lyrics to Ren’s Pecs, the bittersweet ballad Stimpy sings after his buttocks are removed to make pectoral implants for Ren.
Advice not so much. Advice — at least in the form of "Here is some advice I am going to give you" — has never been able to compete for cranial capacity with the heirloom desserts our forefathers ate in candlelit taverns … or the camp "talent" show ... or twins Fenis and Fenise Dembo … or ...
I know you've got your pecs now and gone on to bigger things
But before you go and flex now, there's a cat at home who sings...
That each and every day and night he misses his best friend
And I only need to see you once to make this feeling end
Forty years on, I’ll take those snapshots, stanzas, soundbites, stats, tapas, tendrils, tardies and tickles — both carrying them with me from childhood and trying to make some positive impressions on my children — over giving or receiving advice, on my birthday or any day. With one exception:
Photo by David Pitts
Haircut by Carolyn Perlin
Advice by Rick Mahorn