Mashaw McGuinnis

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Mashaw McGuinnis is everything I want the Quaz to be about.

First, how I found her: My family was attending a fair. There was a crafts table filled with old magazines to use as cutouts. One of the magazines was Good Housekeeping. I was bored and started reading. There was a first-person story written by a woman who won on a bunch of game shows. That woman was Mashaw.

Second, why she’s here: Because Mashaw McGuinnis is named Mashaw McGuinnis. Because Mashaw McGuinnis teamed up with Betty White on The New $25,000 Pyramid. Because Mashaw McGuinnis nearly died of Lyme Disease. Because Mashaw McGuinnis has this insanely riveting family background that includes guns and shooting and such.

Third: Um … that’s about it.

You can visit Mashaw’s website here, and follow her on Twitter here. Trust me, she’s awesome.

Mashaw McGuinnis, you’ve won again … as the 220th Quaz.

JEFF PEARLMAN: True story—I’m at the Orange County Fairgrounds and my daughter is doing some craft that involves old magazines and paste. I’m sorta bored, and I look down at an old copy of Good Housekeeping and see your piece on the time you appeared on The New $25,000 Pyramid with Betty White. I read it, loved it. And, after you replied to my e-mail, I thought, “God, life is so random.” So, with that spirit, I’m gonna ask one I’ve never thrown at a Quazer: What’s the most random experience of your life?

MASHAW MCGUINNIS: Many years ago, I rescued a mama dog from life on a chain and her seven puppies. After a weeks of awkward/tense interactions with her tweaker owners and lots of stressing out about where I could find a home for them, I connected with a woman who connected me to a local rescue group specifically for abused animals.

During the grueling process, I wrote a story about the experience from the sad dog’s perspective and added photos to show how desperate they were before the rescue. Their situation was horrific. I was able to eventually get them into a shelter, thanks to the impact of those photos and story. The place was already crowded but they made room in a barn stall because they were so moved by the pictures.

The story and pics also helped me and raise money through friends’ donations (to pay a portion towards their spaying/neutering/feeding, etc.). After they went into the shelter I went back to my normal life and thinking, “My work here is done.” And I lost contact.

Seven years later, I was searching for a used card table on Craigslist and called a number.  When the woman on the other end of the line heard my name she started crying. “You said your name was MASHAW?! I can’t believe it! You must be the one who rescued my Sadie!”

She told me when she adopted Sadie (the mama dog) the rescue shelter had given her a copy of the story and photos. (They may have given those to the other adopters—I don’t know.)

When I went over to get the card table there was this beautiful, round-bellied dog who had been skin and bones all those years before and living on a chain. She bounced in and out through the open back door with a second dog, their tails were wagging and thumping and they had an enormous dog bed in the middle of the living room floor, surrounded by dog toys. A completely opposite environment of what the mama dog had lived in when I found her.

Sadie’s “mom” unfolded a wrinkled sheet of paper and showed it to me. It was that same story, and I could tell it had been folded and refolded hundreds of times over the years. She said, “I always prayed that I would find the kind person who gave Sadie a second chance at life.” She was crying and I was crying. Makes me tear up even now all these years later as I remember it. I mean, Jeff what are the odds?! I’m working on getting that story published somewhere.

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J.P.: You’ve suffered through Lyme Disease—so much so that you call it a “monster.” This fascinates me, because—naivety as my guide—I’ve never thought much about it. So how did you get Lyme Disease? What’s the experience like? And why, “monster”?

M.M.: My husband and I lived near a marsh and our cats were coming and going and brought in ticks with them. Neither one of us found the tick on us, or found evidence of a bite. No bull’s-eye rash, nothing. I had mysterious, horrible symptoms for two years that no doctor could explain.

I got so sick I could hardly walk but I had no idea what was wrong with me. I saw specialist after specialist and no one could tell me what was wrong. I had X-rays, ultrasound, blood tests, nerve conduction tests, etc. It went on for two years until I found a doctor who knew what it was. By then it had progressed and I was on disability. (The Lyme bacteria is called a “spirochete” and is a distant cousin to syphilis. Imagine what that disease could do if you had it and it went undiagnosed for two years!) Many Lyme sufferers are misdiagnosed as having Parkinsons, M.S. and even A.L.S.

I was so weak I couldn’t stand up in the shower long enough to wash my hair. I was in constant pain and didn’t care if I lived any more. I had to go on antibiotics for three years (yes, that’s right, it’s not a typo) plus an IV antibiotic for about four months and now I am finishing up with really strong herbal tinctures. I was a strong, vibrant massage therapist and I can never return to that occupation. After a few years I started writing to try and reinvent myself so I wouldn’t have to stay on disability. There aren’t many occupations you can do from your bed but I thought I could try writing. That led to my Betty White story.

J.P.: So in 1983 you appeared with Betty White on The New $25,000 Pyramid. Which is, truly, awesome and insane. What do you remember? Why’d you do the show? Was it terrifying? Electrifying? Both? Neither?

M.M.: There are a lot more details than what was covered in my story. I needed the money so I could escape from my mother. That is why I did it. It was terrifying and amazing and surreal. Like it all happened in slow motion. I remember it like it was yesterday. All of those details I wrote about in my piece were from memory. The part about the “secret” of the top clue often being a verb was totally true. I discovered that and it turned out to be what helped me in the end. The longer version of the story (which has a much better story arc and a more evocative ending) was published by Shebooks in an anthology titled, Every Mother has a Story. Vol. II.

J.P.: Um, according to your bio you won “five game shows” in the 1980s. I’m riveted. Please explain, and spare no detail, how one lands on five game shows? And what are your most profound memories?

M.M.: I am writing a book-length memoir about that eight-year period of my life right now. I researched all the shows to find out which ones gave away what I wanted (cash) and which ones matched my skills. I have never been good at rote learning (I barely squeaked by in high school subjects except for English) so I chose word games and communication games. That research served me well. I won on The Pyramid, as well as Scrabble, (three-day champ), a show called Fantasy on NBC, and two cable shows: Sweethearts and Straight to the Heart. I reached my limit because the networks have laws about how many you can go on in a decade so after I was forced to “retire” I went to work for Goodson/Toddman, one of the most famous game show companies in the world. Not surprisingly, i wound up working in (of course) the contestant department.

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J.P.: You never went to college. So, um, how did this happen for you? What’s your life path to becoming a writer?

M.M.: Ironically, I went to college in my 40s and was working on a B.A. in English and that was when I was struck down with Lyme Disease. I had to drop out about halfway through. I was too weak to walk across the parking lot, let alone sit in class for 90 minutes at a time and do work. The rest of the answer is in the second paragraph under “what was your highest/lowest point” question below.

J.P.: Are game shows bullshit? I guess what I mean is, is it sorta like a really big display of Christmas lights, where behind the glow is just a bunch of bulbs? Is there a magic to them? Or merely from afar?

M.M.: They are for real and the production companies as well as the networks take them very seriously. All of the shows have researchers and writers and the networks have strict guidelines about keeping the contestants in the studio in a secluded space so no one can claim their competitors somehow had access to answers later on and demand a repeat.

That being said, there are not many game shows still on today. Television styles, like everything else, ebbs and flows. After my heyday in the 80s the trend went to daytime talk shows, then it was reality shows and now it seems to be “Dancing with the Stars” and singing competition type shows. I predict game shows will return at some point and be just as popular as before. And when they do I may just try out for one.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?

M.M.: The lowest point: Hands down it is getting Lyme Disease. No comparison in my life even comes close.

Highest? I can’t say it is any one thing but the day I got the e-mail from Good Housekeeping (I mean they are a big, major magazine with millions of subscribers) saying they wanted to buy my story, well, I felt like I had taken speed. I couldn’t sleep for days. Imagine being as sick as I described above, then being told your productive years are completely over and you’re only 45. Imagine you have no college degree and no chance of completing the one that was in progress. Imagine you were expected to live on disability for the rest of your life.

Then you try a completely new thing you never tried (writing) and after a few years you suddenly sell a personal story to a major Hearst publication! To go from the depths of disease and face permanent disability to an achievement like that was like being touched by the divine.

I don’t know much about your background, Jeff. I know you’re a sports writer and you have several books. You’ve been published in some really big magazines. But I’m guessing you went to college. You got a degree. Maybe you came from a family where that’s what people did. I came from a tough, blue-collar family and many of my family members have been in and out of jail and on and off welfare. Most didn’t even graduate high school.

You worked at your occupation for a long time and achieved those things over time, right? And you had not been told by doctors you could possibly be in bed for the rest of your life. Just imagine coming from where I came from and getting deathly ill, giving up hope and then getting an e-mail from Good Housekeeping saying you have achieved professional writer status, you’re being published in a national magazine. It was an enormously pivotal (as well as validating) point for me. That event opened the door of hope and made me believe I could still achieve something worthwhile. Like I was still a human being. And I have something to offer others.

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J.P.: What’s your writing process? You have a piece due on [fill in the blank] in [fill in the blank] weeks. Soup to nuts, what’s the process?

M.M.: Depends on how my health is and if I have energy. I am freelance so it’s not like I have a weekly deadline. I am still learning. I go to as many writing workshops as I can afford and I buy as many books on writing as I can. I submit to magazines. I spend most of my time working on the first two chapters of the book about my eight years of game shows while completing my book proposal. The game show stories will be juxtaposed with my family’s incarcerations and scandals during those years similarly to the way my rocky relationship with my mother was juxtaposed with my Pyramid experience. And in case you know of an interested literary agent, here’s my elevator pitch:

 “Winner’s Circle: Competing to win a Normal Family” is about a plucky 19-year-old who is short on life experience and poise, but long on grit, with a mouthful of braces to somehow pay for and a scrappy family of delinquents to escape from.

She sets out to pay her bills becoming a serial game show winner, only to discover her method could also erase the stigma of her working class roots. But the journey forces her to come to grips with something she cannot erase: her true feelings about people she loves. It’s “The Glass Castle” meets “Slumdog Millionaire”

Mashaw with her mother.
Mashaw with her mother.

J.P.: According to something you wrote, your mom was a suicidal drug addict who went to jail after shooting three neighbors. Um … what? Please elaborate about your mother, if you don’t mind.

M.M.: Actually my biological mother was the drug addict. I was legally adopted by her mother (my grandmother) and she was the one who shot three neighbors.

It happened in July of 1969 and it was during a drunken brawl in our front yard. The neighbors across the street were having a loud party with a lot of drinking and came over and started beating up my dad. There were about a dozen men surrounding my dad in the front yard and they were beating him with bicycle tire chains. My mom (grandma) called the police (this was decades before 911) and she came out with a handgun they kept in case of emergencies and shot three of them. No one was killed (thank god!)  A lengthy civil suit went on for years and we won, but it broke my parents in court costs and we had to sell the house. They were already into their mid 50s with four kids, so they were never able to buy property again. You’ll have to wait for my book for the full story, haha.

J.P.: You worked as a correctional facility guard and a Disney elf. What are your most profound memories from the gigs?

M.M.: It was a juvenile correctional facility and I remember working graveyard shifts and I’d get so sleepy that  to stay awake I would go get the inmates’ files and read through them. They were all so horrible and tragic. Even more so than my family. They were just kids. Some of their parents had prostituted them, forced them to sell drugs, etc. I had nightmares a lot when I worked there and always said someday I would write a book about the experience.

The Disney elf job was my best paying job up until that time. I was an intermittently employed actor when i landed that gig: $175 per day and I only worked for 10 minutes every two hours, five times a day. We did a live musical Christmas extravaganza on stage before the movie screened. Our portion was only 10 minutes and once the film started we could leave the theater and go home or walk around Hollywood for two hours!

The film that played there when I was an elf was “The Three Muskateers.” The theater was called The El Capitan and it was right on Hollywood Blvd. it has been remodeled and I think it’s called something different now. I loved that job and one reason I was cast instead of the hundreds of other actors who wanted the job was was because I am 5-foot-3 and 3/4-inches tall. If I’d been 1/4 inch taller they would never have cast me.

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• You’re the first Mashaw I know. What’s the story behind your name?: It’s pronounced “mash” like the verb plus “shaw” like rickshaw. It was my family name while growing up. I liked it better than my given first name which was Sue. I legally changed it when I was 25.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Thankfully no, I haven’t flown much in my life so i haven’t had that experience. I’m not crazy about the idea of flying.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ronda Rousey, Hot Wheels, Jack Daniel’s, black Sharpies, Candy Maldonado, People Magazine, Disney Land, Donna Summer, the number 13, Gerald Ford: Black Sharpies, Donna Summer, 13, Hot Wheels, (I don’t know who Candy Maldonado or Ronda Rousey are), Gerald Ford,  the only alcohol I can mildly tolerate is wine, so Jack would be at the bottom. Blechhh!

• The five greatest writers of your lifetime?: Does my lifetime mean they were alive when I was growing up? I was a huge Stephen King fan and still am, but I just  can’t read his books because they give me nightmares. Literally. But he is incredibly talented. Steinbeck is my all time favorite modern lit writer, (though we only shared the planet for five years so I’m not sure he qualifies as my lifetime).

• Best sentence you’ve ever written?: I almost answered, but it is part of a story that has not yet published. It’s a description of the dilapidated fence that surrounded the property where I discovered that undernourished mama dog.

• One question you would ask Manute Bol were he here right now?: I would have to ask, “Who are you?” since I don’t know his/her name. I’m guessing he/she plays sports because you are a sports writer. OK, I just Googled him. He’s tall! I would not ask him something about basketball or his height. Instead I’d ask him what his favorite book is.

• What does Chuck Woolery’s breath smell like?: Ha! You are funny. I cannot recall, since we stood close more than 20 years ago. I do remember though that he drove a Maserati and had a parking spot at NBC with his name on it.

• What’s the easiest giveaway that someone’s an asshole?: If he/she does anything intentionally harmful to an animal or child. No more evidence is needed.

• In exactly 24 words, can you make a case for Madonna being more talented than Albert Einstein?:  I don’t care for Madonna’s style but talent is subjective. She probably has some kind which even Einstein lacks, and Einstein would probably agree.

• I think male bodies are gross. Why do so many women seem to like us?: Simply put: Because they are different than the ones we see in the mirror every day.