What A Fool (Make) Believes

January 31, 2015

Inception (2010) movie wallpaper (scene of falling  too deep in a dream to come out of it), January 31, 2015. (http://www.alphatucana.co.uk/).

Inception (2010) movie wallpaper (scene of falling too deep in a dream to come out of it), January 31, 2015. (http://www.alphatucana.co.uk/).

I am a firm believer in the idea that just about everything in our lives happens for a reason, even if the reason involves multiple layers of chance adding up to a certainty. Meaning even the unexplainable, given enough time, study and webs of connections, can add up to a certain amount of truth, even if we as humans cannot except that limited truth.

Orange Crush can crushed, June 8, 2012. (Susan Murtaugh via Flickr.com).

Orange Crush can crushed, June 8, 2012. (Susan Murtaugh via Flickr.com).

The beginning of ’87 put me in the middle of that scenario regarding my masculinity and my relationships with everyone in my life. I knew that at seventeen that I’d already been an adult of sorts, with everything that was going on with my family at 616. But while I might have been an overburdened high school senior with adult responsibilities and adult-level decisions to make, psychologically and emotionally, I was still a twelve-year-old. One damaged by bearing witness to my stepfather beating up my Mom on Memorial Day ’82, the abuse I’d suffered at his hands afterward, and my ostracism my first years in Humanities in seventh and eighth grade. I was “a dog that been beat too much” by my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, and I’d started wondering if I had stayed one year too long before heading off to college, because my last year of K-12 wasn’t going so well either.

I was also in the middle of my second classmate crush in five years. I was more than three years removed from my most intense feelings for Crush #1 (outed at Wendy in Boy @ The Window), only to feel stomach flutters for the young woman who’d been my Crush #2 (Phyllis) for about thirteen months. Except I was too scared to tell anyone, including myself, of how I felt about her.

Nor did I really understand why I felt the way I did when I was around her. With Wendy, I could point to personality, intellect, quirkiness, among other attributes, and the fact that prior to seventh grade, I’d never met anyone like her. Phyllis, though, I’d known for more than five years, and while she was attractive and smart, it wasn’t as if she was so unique.

Doobie Brothers, Minute By Minute (1979) album (with "What A Fool Believes" on Track 2), January 31, 2015. (http://amazon.com).

Doobie Brothers, Minute By Minute (1979) album (with “What A Fool Believes” on Track 2), January 31, 2015. (http://amazon.com).

Still, even in the back of my more mature and emotionally cold part of my mind, I knew what it really was. Phyllis had made this beaten and abused dog feel better about himself in the worst of times, between seventh and tenth grade, back in his Hebrew-Israelite days. Even if that emotional altruism was more about saving me from hell in this life and the next, and less about liking me, her actions tugged my deeply bruised heart strings. Not Phyllis’ fault by any stretch. Just a reality. I was a “sentimental fool…tryin’ hard to recreate what had yet to be created,” like the fictional man in Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” (1979).

By my senior year, I thought about Phyllis from afar, just like I’d done with Wendy nearly five years earlier. With my imagination, I could almost imagine anything. Including all of the indicators of romance, from dating and joking to kissing, to getting together during holiday and summer breaks during college. Everything, except anything sexual. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how. It was because in the conscious side of my mind in which my emotional age remained at twelve, I couldn’t see any young woman my age as having a carnal side, of being anything other than a near-perfect being. Phyllis may as well have been a nymph or angel, and not a real person.

Somehow I knew I was setting myself up for a year of hurt. I knew that I had to grow up, to “be a man,” to find a way to actually say that I liked Phyllis, if only for myself to hear. And I did tell it, to myself, to her, to people I came for a time to trust. I even sent a letter to Phyllis after the fact, only to be hurt even more, just like the dumb ass Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins described in “What A Fool Believes.” “As he rises to her apology, anybody else would surely know…,” as the song goes. Only in my case, to crash and burn like the Hindenburg in New Jersey did in 1938.

Patrick Ewing blocking a Scottie Pippen shot, United Center, Chicago, March 14, 1996. (http://chicago.cbslocal.com).

Patrick Ewing blocking a Scottie Pippen shot, United Center, Chicago, March 14, 1996. (http://chicago.cbslocal.com).

By the end of ’88, though, I realized the truth. That my crush on Crush #2 wasn’t a real crush at all. It was my crutch, my coping strategy to deal with the fact that I really hadn’t felt anything about anyone in my life since those heady Wendy days. Those were my final days of childhood, those days before I’d learn for the second time in my first twelve and a half years how little control I had over my life, how little love and affection there was to find. As the song of that phase of my life went, I “never came near what [I] wanted to say, only to realize it never really was.” I never made Crush #1 “think twice,” and made Crush #2 reject me like Patrick Ewing in his prime smacking a basketball into the fifth row of Madison Square Garden.

I suppose that this happens to all boys and girls, men and women and transgender at some point or another in their lives. At twelve, it felt glorious, while at seventeen, it was painful and embarrassing. I’m just glad that I made it through that year, 1987 — though hardly happy to go and grow through the process — and came out on the other side of it ready to grow, risk and protect my heart again.

Open Letter: My Knicks Have Sucked For Four Decades

June 27, 2014


We (NY Knicks) Suck (logo off t-shirt), May 26, 2014. (http://nyill.wordpress.com).

I wish that I could be much more positive than this. But to think that the New York Knicks, once one of the NBA’s great franchises, haven’t won a title in forty-one years! They used to be a great franchise because of their two NBA championships (1969-70, 1972-73), or at least, because they regularly competed with the LA Lakers, the Boston Celtics, and the Milwaukee Bucks for a title. The only reason people who follow NBA basketball still see my Knicks as a great franchise is because they’re in New York, or more specifically, Manhattan (since the Nets are in Brooklyn now). But the simple fact is, my Knicks have sucked for forty-one of the forty-four years and six months I’ve been alive.

You can talk about Micheal Ray Richardson, Bernard King, Marc Jackson, and the great Patrick Ewing. You can bring up our ’94 run to the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets, or our miracle run to the finals in ’99 against the San Antonio Spurs. You can even consider the coaching chops of Hubie Brown (overrated), Rick Pitino (overrated), Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Jeff Van Gundy (unbelievably overrated) and so many has-beens and never-weres over the past four decades. Diehard fan as I’ve been and am, my Knicks, my childhood franchise, has sucked more than the oldest running oil well in Texas. Period.

Even the New York Rangers have won a Stanley Cup since the last time the Knicks have won a title. Matter of fact, the Philadelphia ’76ers, Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Bullets (now Wizards), Seattle Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder), Portland Trailblazers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat have all won at least one title since the Knicks with Red Holzman as coach and Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, et al. as players won their second. The Watergate scandal was still in its infancy, and the last American troops had withdrawn from Vietnam just months before we’d beaten the Lakers (again) in the ’73 NBA Finals.

Indiana Pacers great (and NBA Hall of Famer) Reggie Miller giving Knicks, Spike Lee the choke sign, Game 5, Eastern Conference Finals, Madison Square Garden, New York, screenshot, June 1, 1994. (NBC Sports).

Indiana Pacers great (and NBA Hall of Famer) Reggie Miller giving Knicks, Spike Lee the choke sign, Game 5, Eastern Conference Finals, Madison Square Garden, New York, screenshot, June 1, 1994. (NBC Sports).

Our best teams were essentially a bunch of bruisers, a team of low-percentage shooters ringed around Patrick Ewing in the ’90s. The Knicks were so anemic offensively that we had to foul and beat up the other team in order to hold them under ninety points if we were going to win consistently. Still, after have a 3-2 lead in the ’94 Finals, we choked at the end of Game Six in Houston, and barely had a chance in Game Seven (thank you, John Starks!). The following year, we made the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller an even bigger star in Game One of the second round (eight points in 8.9 seconds – ridiculous)! Two years later, we brawled our way out of the playoffs in the middle of the first round against the Heat. A good team for its time — yes. A championship-caliber team — absolutely not. We overachieved, riding the rickety knees of Ewing and Starks’ streak shooting.

From the moment Ewing fully ruptured his right Achilles tendon in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals in June ’99, we have been in full-on suck mode. A few playoff appearances, a win or two in fifteen years? When we’ve drafted talented players, we didn’t keep them or they end up cutting their careers short with big-time injuries. When we’ve gotten great talent as free agents, our coaches and front office have driven them away, as was most recently the case with Carmelo Anthony. Most of the past forty-one years, though, we’ve drafted like a gambling addict on a binge in Las Vegas. And we’ve picked up free agents the way an ignorant and inebriated gold prospector hunts for fool’s gold.

"Drainage! I drink your milkshake...I drank it up..." scene/ screenshot from There Will Be Blood (2007), with Daniel Day Lewis and Pano Dano. (http://klipd.com/)

“Drainage! I drink your milkshake…I drank it up…” scene/ screenshot from There Will Be Blood (2007), with Daniel Day-Lewis and Pano Dano. (http://klipd.com/)

Reggie Miller was absolutely right in June ’94 when he gave my Knicks and Spike Lee the choke sign. But he should’ve directed the choke sign at ownership, at the front office, and at a presumptive, arrogant fan base. Whether Gulf+Western or James Dolan, or Dave Checketts, Ernie Grunfeld, Isiah Thomas or Donnie Walsh, all have assumed and still assume that because we’re the New York Knickerbockers, that players would want to play for the franchise. We’re New York, we’re a great city, and so the Knicks should always be great. So wrong, so wrong we’ve been!

I will now and always be a Knicks fan. But that doesn’t mean that I have to watch bad basketball year after year after year. And bad drafts, and free agent pickups like J.R. Smith. For the foreseeable future, I’ll watch basketball played by teams who know how to score, pass and/or defend. Teams with front offices smart enough to draft at least two quality players and surround them with a solid supporting cast. Wake me up the day the Knicks can manage to do what the best franchises in the NBA consistently do.

Was I Really In Love In 7th Grade?

March 3, 2012

Tomorrow will mark thirty years since I began an emotional journey the likes of which I’ve only approximated maybe three other times since. In the three decades since, I’ve learned that I was actually in love for the first time. Not just a crush, or puppy love, or some preteen infatuation. Love, actually and truly. But as a person of deep thought, a boy surrounded by sexism and misogyny, and a lonely and semi-ostracized twelve-year-old, I didn’t have the thoughts, much less the words, to describe what I felt between March 4 and May 30 of ’82 (see my “On Women and Wired Weirdness” post from March ’11).

To think that this all pretty much started because I picked a fight with Crush #1 at the end of class on the first Thursday in March in 7S. Almost all of my extracurricular incidents that year began or ended in our homeroom with our homeroom/English teacher Mrs. Sesay. The incident began because Crush #1 asked a question about a subject that Mrs. Sesay had spent the entire week going over, a concept that Sesay would test us on that Friday. I laughed out loud — thinking that I was only snickering — after Crush #1 asked that question.

Thinking nothing of it, I began to pack up after the 2:15 pm bell rang. Crush #1 came up to me and pushed me from behind.

“You’re an ugly, arrogant asshole!” she said with the distaste of a ballerina being asked for money by a junkie.

I called her “stupid” and then said something else stupid. “You’re an idiot!,” Crush #1 yelled as she threw two punches into my chest and a third at my jaw.

The fight lasted about fifteen or twenty seconds, but after landing a punch on her left boob and nipple, I stopped fighting, already descending into the land of the idiot romantic, as in The Doobie Brothers “What A Fool Believes” (1979). All while Crush #1 kept hitting me, then being pulled away from me by a couple of her friends. One of them, the recently deceased Brandie Weston, called me a “pervert” as they exited the classroom.

I know that I wasn’t the first boy in history to start a fight with a girl who I’d come to like or love, but I do think that boys who do that have a lot of weird in them. Mind you, I hadn’t quite hit puberty yet, so my testosterone levels weren’t high enough yet to be the cause of my brain malfunction. No, my very sexism and her fierce sense of tomboyish feminism was why I liked her in the first place, and I drank deep from that well for the next three months.

I’ve had thirty years to reflect on this incident and the three months of school-day dreaming that followed. There are only a handful of childhood memories I’ve thought about more. For years, though, I’d packed my emotions away. Through high school and Crush #1’s first dating experiences, through my own high school and 616 trials and tribulations, through college and graduate school and my years of dating and then marriage to my wife of twelve years.

Then, as I began work on Boy @ The Window six years ago, I opened up that dusty box of memories and emotions, to find them almost as strange at thirty-six as they had been at twelve. But unlike in ’82, I shared it with a bunch of friends, and especially my wife. After telling the story of me and Crush #1, my wife said, she was my “first love. It doesn’t matter if she didn’t reciprocate.” Or, for that matter, if she didn’t know. It was the first time it dawned on me that I really had fallen in love before I’d learned how to love. Wow.

It explained why after so many years, through all of my ups and downs, and despite the love I do feel, have and show to family and friends in my life, that Crush #1 would show up in my dreams. It helped me understand why I found few girls, young women and women attractive prior to going to college, and even then, they didn’t compare. It also let me know that a feeling like that can’t die, doesn’t die. If anything, it allows room for more love, and more understanding for how to love in the process.

The video above is about the best way I can express what I felt in ’82, without the complete sappiness of an incurable romantic, or worse yet, a tragic one. Like Professor Snape (as played by Alan Rickman) in the Happy Potter movies, or worse still, Ralph Fiennes’ character in The English Patient (1996). Combining music and two of my three favorite sports (the other one’s golf, but Tiger’s inappropriate for this theme), it’s a mere approximation for how I felt back then.

There’s plenty of other music I could’ve used (see my “The Ultimate Crush” post from March ’08 and “Desert Rose” post from April ’09), other themes like figure skating or ballet that would better show what I saw and felt in Crush #1, and what I see and sometimes feel in my dreams on occasion now. I guess that I really was in love. But there’s at least one thing I can do now. I can be there for Noah when it happens to him for the first time.

Virtual Linsanity

February 25, 2012

Jeremy Lin (Knicks) beating Matt Barnes (Lakers) in the paint for a layup, Madison Square Garden, February 10, 2012. (AP).

As a New York Knicks fan since my mother’s third trimester with me (the fall of ’69, the season the Knicks won their first of two NBA titles) here hasn’t been much to be excited about since Patrick Ewing popped his Achilles’ tendon in between Games 2 and 3 of the ’99 Eastern Conference Finals.

Enter Jeremy Lin, the sensation that’s sweeping the NBA Nation. When he scored 28 points in his first game as a starter nearly three weeks ago, my only thoughts were, “Finally, we have a real point guard who can get the ball to Stoudamire and Carmelo.” Beyond that, I thought of one of my high school students from the JSA-Princeton University Summer Program in which I taught in ’09, because they have the same first and last name. My former student, though, is still in college, and not at Harvard, either.

Patrick Ewing raising the roof after a dunk in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, June 5, 1994. (AP).

Leave it to ESPN, the New York media and the motley crew of naysayers, though, to raise Lin to celebrity status faster than the USS Enterprise-D could reach maximum warp. The fact that Lin plays for the Knicks, a franchise in a decade-long search for respectability, and decades-long search for its lost glory, is reason enough for me to see their perspectives on the point guard as more than slightly skewed. I mean, New York’s the reason why sports fan still think the sun shines out of every Yankees’ behind, even Don Mattingly’s.

Not that Lin’s good and often very good play didn’t warrant attention. But if you could dig deeper into all the attention, it was as if the sports and entertainment worlds were shocked — actually shocked — that Lin could start and play with all the precision and poise of an above-average NBA player. What would bring this kind of outpouring of skepticism wrapped in somewhat exaggerated hype? The fact that Lin went to Harvard? The fact that he’s just under six-foot-three? What, pray tell, has been the key to this burst of attention?

Could it be, could it possibly be, about race? Really? After two decades of international competitions between Chinese and American basketball players? Really. By the time some of the shock jocks and uncouth commentators began to spread their versions of Lin-adjectives, Lin-verbs and Lin-phrases, it was obvious that the shock went something like this: “Oh my God! An Asian guy from Harvard can play professional basketball? Bring on the MSG!”

It all crystallized in one stupid, and yes, racist tweet on the part of a “journalist” I used to respect, Jason Whitlock. “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” Whitlock tweeted while Lin scored 38 points against the Lakers on February 10. At the very least, this is a sign of some deep-seated insecurity being pushed upon Lin as a proxy for two stereotypes rolled into one. At worst, Whitlock was merely expressing what many White and Black folks feel about some Asian American guy excelling in an allegedly “Black” sport. Either way, it’s almost as disgusting as ESPN’s “Chink In The Armor” headlines from

Jay Kay in Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" (1997) music video screen shot, January 6, 2006. (via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture's low resolution and relevance to blog post.

the Knicks’ February 17 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.

I don’t understand the exaggerated hype and the subsequent race-baiting, playa hatin’ comments in mass and social media around Lin since the middle of Black History Month. I played tons of pickup games at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon when I was in graduate school, and a good portion of the folks I played with were Asian or Asian American. Like the Whites, Blacks and Latinos I played with, some of them could really play basketball, and some couldn’t dribble three steps without bouncing the ball off their foot. Some could shoot from seventeen feet blindfolded, and others had the accuracy of a Scud missile.

Lin, as good as he is now, can and should get better. How good is anyone’s guess, but we shouldn’t be comparing him to Steve Nash or Magic Johnson quite yet. Nor should we write him off when he faces a team like the Miami Heat and turns the ball over five times in a three-minute span. We shouldn’t celebrate a media that apparently has bipolar disorder when it comes to anyone whose body of work cuts against stereotypes.

Lin’s success shouldn’t threaten anyone’s Blackness, sense of manhood or intelligence or the world view of American sports journalists. At least no more than my having a PhD or being a writer on race, education reform and diversity should threaten higher education or anyone’s Whiteness. But, then again…


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