Summer Camp and Petty Crime in Prospect Park

During the summer, my local park turns into one massive summer camp. The baseball camp bleeds into the lacrosse camp bleeds into the Harry Potter camp bleeds into Percy Jackson Camp bleeds into the toddlers who pick at the grass and do singalongs bleeds into the Orthodox Jewish toddlers who pick and grass and do Orthodox Jewish singalongs.

Usually, I do my best to ignore them all as I take my daily walk, but one day last August I felt compelled to stop and watch an event that was unfolding on the main lawn.

There was a massive dragon in the middle of the field. It was made out of paper, cardboard, and black cloth. It looked like a stripped down version of what you would see at a Chinese parade.

I didn’t envy the five camp counselors who were manning the dragon, with their torsos covered entirely in black felt. It was 95 degrees and humid. Standing around the dragon, tossing homemade cardboard swords in the air and catching them, were five more counselors.

Thirty yards across from the dragon stood about fifty children, ages seven through twelve, each brandishing cardboard swords of their own. Four counselors on this team led the group in call and response chanting. It appeared that they were about to go to war.

“Romans!”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Who are we?”

“We are legion!”

“What is pain?”

“Fresh bread!”

“What is fatigue?”

“Army clothes!”

The kids were frothing at the mouth. They screamed their responses at the top of their lungs, pounded their chests, and stabbed their swords into the air for emphasis.

As someone who only ever went to basketball camp growing up, I had no clue what was happening. Weren’t summer camps about playing capture the flag or something? I took a seat to watch the action, riveted. The “good guys” (all the campers) were supposed to represent Roman soldiers, but I couldn’t tell who the “bad guys” were. They were definitely not referred to as Carthaginians, so it wasn’t like they were faithfully recreating a famous historical battle. I guess I could have deduced that from the dragon.

Even though there were 50 child soldiers ready for battle, bloodlust in their eyes, mouths drawn back in snarls, only ten kids were sent forward to fight.

If I was a parent, I would be kinda pissed. If you’re going to dress my kid like a warrior, make her recite chant after chant about winning honor on the great field of battle and using the tip of her spear for justice, you better let her at least fight someone. With all that buildup and no discharge, I’d be worried she’d use the excess energy kicking the living shit out of her siblings when she gets home.

As the battle progressed, a few of the younger kids in the back of the pack could not contain themselves. They charged forward to try to join the fracas.

The counselors were on it. They grabbed the kids and ordered them back, staying in character the whole time.

“Hold the line, soldiers! Hold the line! We need you back here!”

Those kids wanted to use those swords so bad their heads were ready to explode. I would not like to have been a squirrel walking by.

After a couple minutes of sword fighting, half of the “evil” counselors were dead. The other half had been converted to the good side. I’m not sure how. Maybe the Romans sent a priest.

When the captured counselors got back behind the good guys line, the same kids who tried to charge sprung into action. They surrounded a captured soldier and held him at sword point.

“Traitor!”

“Murderer!”

“He did a homicide!”

The kids seemed actually mad. Things had gone full Stanford Prison Experiment. A more senior counselor had to walk over and ease the tension.

Fighting on the battlefield continued until the original ten kid fighters, plus one counselor, had advanced to battling the dragon.

After the last of the “bad guy” counselors were slain, the lead counselor called off the kids who were fighting by his side. He then approached the dragon and, with a mighty downward slash, felled it. The counselor raised his sword and everyone cheered.

I couldn’t believe it! From what I could tell, this was the climax of the entire camp. Why on earth would they not let the kids be the heroes? Was it all part of some lesson? That life was about waiting your turn, following orders, holding the line, and letting more senior people have all the fun? At least at my basketball camps the counselors didn’t all of a sudden insert themselves into the games and start dunking on the kids.

Once the dragon had collapsed on its side, the counselor turned back to the campers.

“Warriors, come forward and have your vengeance!”

The kids ran over and started beating the living shit out of the already dead dragon. They loved it. They wailed on that thing until their cardboard swords started to bend and break.

It was weird watching them all attack the dead dragon carcass. I had flashes of how Nietze felt when he went crazy after watching a horse get flogged on the streets of Turin.

The kids liked beating that already dead dragon a little too much. Jordan Peterson has been making a lot of waves lately by saying that we all have a “monster within us,” and what I was watching had me thinking he’s right. We’re definitely one bad power outage away from the world turning into Lord of the Flies.

There were so many Roman soldiers trying to get their licks in on the dragon that the smaller kids, those same ones who tried to hard to get in on the action earlier, were still on the outside looking in. They circled the mass of kids, looking for an opening to get their licks in on the dragon, but never found one. They pounded the grass in frustration.

After a few minutes, the whole thing was called off. There was a final chant about honor and pride or something, and camp was over.

The campers dispersed, and I followed behind some of them as they walked to an ice cream vendor in the middle of the park. One of the kids I was near started muttering to himself, “kill their family, burn their homes, kill their family, burn their homes,” as he swung at shrubs with his sword. I’m telling you, they unlocked something in these kids minds that was better left untouched. I gave them a wide berth as I passed.

I was brought out of my thoughts when the ice cream vendor I was approaching started shouting at someone who had just left the stand.

“Hey! What you doing! Hey!”

A teenager, about 15, and smoking a cigarette, was walking away with a smirk on his face and a Snapple in his hand.

The vendor, a small man in his early 40’s, looked at me.

“He stole that Snapple!”

I was unsure what to say, so I defaulted to playing dumb.

“Him?” I pointed at the only person holding a Snapple in a 50-yard radius.

“Yes!”

“Wow, sorry.”

“He stole it!”

The guy was looking at me like I should go perform a citizen’s arrest. It felt like an extreme version of the way people seem to love stopping me on the street to ask for directions. I don’t know why I get singled out, but I almost never know how to get anywhere, so I just leave people disappointed.

I knew the same thing would happen here, but I still stroked my chin like I was developing a plan.

The kid was 30 feet away now, casually strolling, defiant. I was annoyed by his youthful brazenness, but not enough to actually confront him and risk getting knifed. Or worse, embarrassed.

“That kid stole my Snapple!” The vendor repeated.

“I know! You just told me that.”

“Stop him!”

I just stood there, despite the vendor’s increasingly aggressive exhortations. After a few seconds, he shook his head and stormed away. It was starting to feel like he was more upset at me than the Snapple thief.

The vendor then flagged down a gardener who was passing by in his truck. He pointed at the thief, who was a good 20 yards away at this point.

Vendor: “Stop him! He stole a Snapple!”

Gardener: “I can’t do anything. I’m a gardener. Call 911.”

I wish I’d quickly and confidently used a line like that.

“I can’t do anything! I’m a non-confrontational tech worker on my lunch break and I’ve never been in a fight. Plus he’s smoking a cigarette and I really hate secondhand smoke!”

As the gardener drove off, the vendor turned back toward me with a look like, “can you believe this gardener? He has all sorts of sharp objects with which to apprehend a criminal! What a coward.”

He took a breath and then ordered me to call 911. I don’t know what pheromone I was giving off that caused this guy to think I was his enforcer, but I didn’t fight it. I just told him the truth, which was that I didn’t have my phone on me.

I guess he didn’t have one either, because at that point he gave up and went back to his stand.

I like to imagine that the Snapple thief got what he deserved. He was heading towards a group of campers. I imagined he might accidentally anger some of the overstimulated, under-satisfied, bloodthirsty, nine-year-olds, and that they could finally get a true taste of vengeance.

 

How Ancient Wisdom Can Help Us Deal With Haters

Like most everyone, I once waged a battle against a force as relentless, punishing and timeless as waves crashing on the beach: kids being dicks to each other.

Here’s a quick recap of my life up until age 16, with a focus on what would become the major annoyance of my youth: my high voice making me feel inadequate on the basketball court. 

3rd through 6th grade — The good ol’ days. I was tiny and had a high voice, but every other young boy was in the same boat. We could all answer an incoming phone call and be mistaken for our sister or mother. This happened to me all the time. I hated it. If only cell phones had taken over a bit earlier.

7th grade — Even amongst mostly pre-pubescent people, I was smaller and more squeaky-voiced than most. I compensated by being scrappy on the court, which rubbed some people the wrong way. That included opposing coaches.

Once, when taking a crucial shot, a 40-year-old coach leaned over and whispered in my ear that I was a “little bitch.” I was 12. And you wonder why the AAU circuit gets a bad rap.

8th through 9th grade — The kids I played against were pretty much done with puberty. I still looked like someone you’d try to help if you saw me alone in the mall. 

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-12-27-59-pm
This is me at age FIFTEEN

This was the period where it felt like every time I called a play on the court, someone on the other team would echo back my words, mockingly, in a comically high voice. It was like playing against a team full of 80’s movie bullies. 

Throughout my playing career, I used to get so focused on the game that I often couldn’t hear the crowd noise. I think that’s why I found it amazing that there were people who had the wherewithal to openly mock me during a game. Kids are ruthless.

The annoying thing is, it totally worked. I hated when people made fun of my voice. I silently cursed my endocrine system. I jealously stared at other guy’s protruding Adam’s Apples during class. I ate like an NFL Lineman, hoping to jumpstart my growth and development. I did everything besides wander around by a radiation plant in hopes of scrambling some sense into my DNA.

Nothing worked. I was stuck.

I was too naive to realize there was no problem to be dealt with.

I never came across the studies showing that delayed puberty can lead to an increase in final height. I never thought of responding to the jeers with “do you idiots realize Mike Tyson has a high voice and he’d send your septum into your brain with one punch for looking at him wrong? Are you really equating vocal pitch with masculinity?” That would have probably led to more mocking for my use of big words. Again, kids suck.

What my interest in history has taught me is that everyone, no matter how awesome, is persecuted in some way. DaVinci was hated on for being gay. Socrates was murdered for suggesting that maybe a bunch of toga wearing gods didn’t have all the answers. Copernicus was excommunicated for pointing out that the sun does not revolve around the earth.

What all those people had in common was a strength of conviction. DaVinci rolled with a posse of gay dudes in open defiance of the customs at the time. Socrates accepted his death sentence with dignity, refusing to back down from his stance. (The judges that put him to death were later put to death themselves for having made a dumb mistake. Ancient Greece was on some real eye for an eye ish.) Copernicus, having been excommunicated and excoriated by the entire community, remained defiant. While in exile, he is known to have said (my updated translation) “those fucking dummies are gonna feel pretty stupid when I’m proven right.”

Now, being made fun of by a bunch of people for having a high voice doesn’t seem so bad. The giants of history had it a lot worse. I just want to reiterate the ancient wisdom that it’s always better to keep your head down, tune out the nonsense, and continue to work toward your goals. 

Eventually, my voice did deepen. Even if it hadn’t, my relentless focus on being a good player would have put me in the upper echelon of athletes for my age.  Would it really have been that bad if I sounded like a Powerpuff girl but still dropped 30 points per game? My anger only served as a distraction. 

I was infuriated by mean, un-clever people over something that was outside of my control. I hope to never repeat that mistake.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has an elegant way of putting it:

Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

The quote is not 100% applicable, because I wasn’t so much misunderstood as simply picked on, but the basic point remains. There will be haters, and you only hurt yourself by giving them credence.

Self Promotion (Or Lack Thereof)

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with my agent. He said that he was talking to some teams in Italy. I got very excited. (I recently gained Italian citizenship.) Then he said that they wanted to see some film. Maybe a highlight tape. I was instantly crestfallen.

It hit me all at once that I was wildly unprepared to fulfill that request. My most recent highlight tape was from college. I sent that anyway, hoping that the all the footage of Jeremy Lin might serve as an intriguing distraction while I scrambled to figure out what I was going to do.

Continue reading “Self Promotion (Or Lack Thereof)”

Gated Communities

A few days ago, I had to drop my sister off at a friend’s house. This friend lived in a gated community within a gated community. That’s right, two gates. Two separate interactions with the guard gate command center to make sure that I wasn’t a threat. I was blown away, mostly because this community was located inside an incredibly safe city to begin with. Continue reading “Gated Communities”

Standardize Basketballs! (The Rock Sucks)

I was at a workout the other day and noticed that a recent high school graduate was shooting with a strange looking ball. It had a completely different color, texture, and weight than the Nike ball I was using. It was darker, rougher, and harder.

It was made by Under Armour. Apparently the school this guy is attending uses those balls exclusively. I couldn’t believe it. Not only was I unaware that Under Armour even made basketballs, I was shocked that they had the audacity to trot out what I consider an obviously sub-par product.  Unless you are 100% defensive minded, I am pretty sure you prefer a ball with some give and cushion to it. A relatively soft, slightly sticky ball is easier to handle and allows you a little more leeway with your shots that hit the rim. By making a tough, unforgiving ball, Under Armour essentially ignored all the traditional qualities that people seek out in a college ball. It had the look and feel of something a Middle School team would use when if were forced to practice outside. Stick to cleats, Under Armour.

Seeing Under Armour’s poorly made, make-James Naismith-Roll-Over-In-His-Grave ball reminded me of the least favorite basketball I have ever used.

This guy:

worst ball ever
Lots of bad memories coming back right now.

Continue reading “Standardize Basketballs! (The Rock Sucks)”

Philly Airport

I had a layover in the Philadelphia airport on my flight back home. My terminal featured no fewer than 8 strategically placed TV’s that played a Philadelphia infomercial every 3 minutes or so. It’s volume was offensively loud. I imagine someone high up in the airports marketing department pitching this: “Sitting down and zoning out out in front of the terminal is going the way of the dodo. My research shows we will get people to waste money at our dumpy little shops if we bombard them with an obnoxious advertisement. The key is that the we play it at decibels that pierce even the best headphone technology. People will never resent us for the shameless self promotion. It’s a no brainer!”

Make a corny, over produced, questionably factual, transparent cry for attention if you must, but don’t replay it every 3 minutes. There needs to be some sort of Geneva Convention type thing to establish protocols for the humanitarian treatment of airport travelers. If that came to be then this commercial would certainly be found in violation of everything that is decent and the creators would be punished appropriately.

Keep in mind that there were TV’s placed all throughout the terminal, so there was no way to escape the audio-visual bludgeoning other than to hide in the bathroom. Here’s my breakdown: Continue reading “Philly Airport”

My Shower Woes

I know what area of my body is bound to be the cleanest at any given time. It is always my chest.  This is because the majority of my bathing the past few years has taken place inside of extremely tiny showers, and I don’t really feel like doing a complicated maneuver to be able to wash my legs. I stretch pretty much all day every day, and I still have a hard time soaping up my whole body in these minuscule Israeli showers.

You would have to be a veteran cirque du soleil performer to be able to comfortably maneuver in the shower that I am provided with. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was all the auditions for Cirque consisted of. They wheel out a classic Israeli shower and tell people they have to clean themselves without knocking over the soap container and breaking the cap, without bumping into the handle and causing the temperature to get thrown completely out of whack, without banging against the glass so hard you are legitimately worried it might crack, and without becoming claustrophobic because the ceiling slants downward and just barely clears the top of the shower door. That ceiling is really eerie. It gives the illusion that you are completely sealed into a tiny, watery prison. Continue reading “My Shower Woes”