In 2020, my dog died. My kids’ Grandma Sandy died. There were fires. There was COVID. There’s the awfulness of Trump and his mind slaves. There were deaths—Kobe, Black Panther, RBG, my friend’s father via coronavirus. On and on and on and on and on …
Well, now it’s ending. And while COVID is as awful as ever, and while Trump is continuing to attempt to overthrow democracy, and while my kids are isolated and the wife and I are isolated and I haven’t boarded a plane since March or sat inside a restaurant since February … there is finally some hope. A new year matters. That’s why we celebrate it and capitalize it. It’s both a new year and a new beginning. A fresh start. A chance to wipe the slate clean and say, “OK, here’s what I’m gonna do …”
So here’s what I’m gonna do in 2021.
I’m gonna be the best father I can.
I’m gonna be the best husband I can.
I’m gonna be the best friend I can.
I’m gonna spend more time at the beach and less time wasting moments at a screen. I’m gonna try my best to help those in need. I’m gonna embrace my daughter’s final few months as a high schooler, and continue to teach my son how to stutter right before driving left to the hoop.
I’m gonna remember that 2020s happen, and you need to embrace and appreciate the non-2020s.
On this day every year, I am required to tell my favorite New Year’s Eve story of all time.
So I will.
In the winter of 1996 I was a 24-year-old writer, home in New York for the holidays. My friend Dan worked for a major corporation in the city, and he told me one of his co-workers was having the New Year’s Eve party to end New Year’s Eve parties. “It’s gonna be incredible,” Dan said. “Guy is loaded.” So we decided to go—Dan, me, our longtime friend Paul, Mike Lewis, and Kyle, Dan’s roommate. Dan actually had to secure passes from the host, whose apartment was a stone’s throw from the Times Square ball drop.
On the night of Dec. 31, we all met at Dan’s apartment, then walked to Times Square. We handed a couple of police officers our passes, and they let us through a barricade. The apartment building where the guy lived was gigantic, as well as beautiful. A lobby with plush carpets, expensive paintings, piped-in classical music, etc. We took the elevator to the penthouse, and were greeted warmly by the host. “You guys are the first ones here,” he said. “But make yourselves at home.”
We did. The bar was loaded, the food was spectacular. We ate and chatted, drank and chatted. The goals were pretty clear—have fun, get drunk, hopefully meet some women, hook up, so on and so on.
Then, gradually, guests began to arrive.
Two more men.
Paul looked at me, real funny-like. “Jeff,” he said, “this is a gay New Year’s party.”
Indeed, it was.
I’ll never forget it. My friends were well-dressed, which was the norm at the party. I was wearing a University of Tennessee football jersey, which was not the norm (One cannot have a more prominent NOT GAY! neon sign than a Tennessee football jersey). Some guy kissed Paul on the cheek, and at one point Mike looked around and said, “You know what—”I’m gonna mingle!”
It wasn’t awkward, but fun. Joyful. Memorable. As the clock counted down to midnight, I stood on the guy’s balcony, bottle of bubbly in hand, surrounded by, oh, 150 gay men. When 1996 arrived, everyone started yelling and cheering, then making out. One big simultaneous make-out.
I am not happy Dr. Drew has COVID, and I’m being sincere when I say that.
First, no one deserves to get sick. I mean, maybe Hitler did. And Mussolini. And the tear-it-all-down Donald Trump. But generally speaking, I don’t wish ill upon folks. Dr. Drew surely has people who love him and rely on him, and the coronavirus is a cruel, uncertain path to walk. Especially for someone in his 60s.
That said, Dr. Drew devoted a good amount of energy to dismissing COVID as a big nothing. He compared it to an outbreak of the flu. Which might sound silly and naive, especially considering Dr. Drew has no real expertise or (it seems) experience with infectious diseases. I mean, why would anyone take Dr. Drew’s word for it, when legitimate practitioners were screaming—loudly—”THIS SHIT IS A PROBLEM!”
Alas, people listen to Dr. Drew because he’s a celebrity. And he looks smart. And he speaks with an air of confidence. So when he said, “Don’t worry about COVID,” his followers didn’t worry about COVID. And I’m sure many set aside masks, set aside social distancing, set aside intelligent methods of protection. Because the famous doctor said so.
But here’s the thing: Dr. Drew is a disgrace. He’s the guy who makes lots of money off of embarrassing celebrities. Hell, he was the big brain behind the now-defunct TV show, “Celebrity Rehab,” which featured down-and-out addicts like Dwight Gooden and Travolta’s sidekick from Grease trying to overcome their drug and alcohol issues … in front of millions of viewers. Dr. Drew served as the chief counselor, working harder than hard to humiliate the previously humiliated; to milk every last buck out of the rotting carcasses of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO? famous people latching into that remaining morsel of celebrity. We watched a few episodes, and it was both mesmerizing and nauseating. Dr. Drew knew darn well that part of the addiction was the addiction to fame. So what’s the worst way to treat such “patients”? Enter the cameras!
Now, Dr. Drew has COVID, and I’m sure he’ll find a way to make some bucks off of it.
Back when I was a kid walking the mean halls of Lakeview Elementary School, I absolutely loved gym.
It was my favorite class, times 100,000. I loved flag football and dodge ball and pickup hoops. I loved climbing the ropes and sprinting toward cones and long treks up and down the rolling back fields.
There was, however, one day of gym I abhored with every bit of my soul
The day Slim Sterling came to Mahopac.
It happened once per year. We’d shuffle into the gymnasium, change into our “sports clothes” and be told—in a chipper voice—”it’s square dancing day!”
He was a guy in a cowboy hat and, I believe, bolo tie. I knew nothing of the man’s origins, background, beliefs, personal life—only that the next hour would absolutely suck. I was, remember, a boy with no remote interest in the opposite sex. I didn’t want to twirl with Kim Cutter. I didn’t want to do-si-do with Anyssa Santo. I didn’t want to allemande left with Corinne Lee or roll away to a half sashay with Caroline Massey. No—all I wanted to do was get the fuck out of there with my dignity and sanity intact.
Alas, it was not to be.
We’d spin and twirl and stumble awkwardly. I’d grab a girl by the hand, sweaty palm to sweaty palm, wishing I were in the nurse’s office or—at that moment—the nearby morgue. To be clear, in case there is some doubt: I HATED square dancing.
A few moments ago, I was directed to Slim Sterling’s obituary. He died 19 years ago, and along with teaching square dancing to bumbling pre-pubes was also the former head of a long-ago country group, “The Saddle Serenaders.” He held a BA and masters in education from NYU; was a dad, a grandfather, a husband. His nickname, “Slim,” was brought to life when he was a 14-year-old 6-footer who weighed but 140 pounds.
Mostly, Slim Sterling clearly lived for sharing his profound love of square dancing. To quote the obit: “Since 1952, Slim has been square and folk dance specialist for the Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation. He was featured caller at national square dance conventions throughout the country. In addition, his professional appearances, both as caller and entertainer, have taken him from Maine to Florida. Slim has made television appearances in the New York area and has guested on both educational and entertainment shows, while his radio credits encompass more than a dozen stations in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Slim is a member of the Westchester Recreation and Parks Society, Caller-Lab, the International Association of Square Dance Callers and Leaders, and Callers Council of New Jersey. He is licensed by ASCAP and BMI. “
Sitting here, 48 and long removed from my prime non-square dancing prime, I find myself mourning a man whose existence caused me to shudder.
I find myself wishing I’d given Slim Sterling and square dancing a bit more of a chance.
So if you know me, or have followed me for a long time, you know I’m an annual practitioner of the fake holiday card.
Which is to say: Every December we (I’m usually accompanied by at least one of my two kids) create a phony Christmas card, print it up and send it out to (largely unsuspecting) people.
It started about a decade ago, when I thought it’d be funny to redirect seasonal cards to unintended recipients. That went over beautifully—as this old post explains. And this post explains, too. But the wife (a better person than I’ll ever be) thought it was wrong to take someone’s card and fuck with other folks. Hence, the new-and-improved tradition of crafting an original card with random people, then writing bullshit nonsensical messages.
This year, my son Emmett and I searched the World Wide Web until we found a picture of a family in COVID masks. We went around the room and picked names—the parents needed to be sorta dull (Jonathan and Shelly), the kids a bit more precious (Kylee and Lucas).
The back is where the magic happens …
It needs to be inane, but not so inane that it screams, “Fake!”
It needs to be in-depth, but not overly in-depth.
It needs to feel like someone you’d know, but can’t place.
Also, I’m a “fan” of putting random words in quotes, because my mom has been doing that for years. It’s always good to have a term nobody would understand (“The Barneys”), even though it seems as if they’d understand. I’m a fan of sayings that old grandparents might have uttered long ago, such as, “Christmas is holy … because it celebrates the whole.”
Mostly, I love love love love love love love love love love love love that every year at least a couple of recipients (we send out 50) open the card and—if even for 10 seconds—think, “Who the fuck is this?”
So earlier today I received a note from a reader, requesting I explain the pain of losing our dog Norma earlier this year.
Here you go …
I am a charmed person.
My parents are both alive and healthy.
My older brother is alive and healthy.
My wife and my kids are healthy.
All of my grandparents lived well into their 80s.
Again, I am a charmed person.
Because of that charmed existence, however, I think I was unprepared for the death of Norma, our 12-year-old cockapoo who died earlier this year of cancer.
Now, to be honest, I used to be one of those people who sorta scoffed at pet loss. As a boy we only had guinea pigs—nice animals, but not exactly the most cuddly or embraceable. So when I’d see someone torn up by the death of a dog or cat, I never fully got it. “Seriously?” I’d think. “It’s just a pet.”
Norma was my first dog—and I friggin’ loved her. I loved her sighs, her likes (plopping down on a blanket, strawberries, carrots) and her dislikes (other dogs). The daughter and I decided early on that Norma was an arch-conservative pro-life zealot, and we assigned her membership in the Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney Fan Clubs. Which was fun.
Norma was always by my side. And, as a work-from-home writer, that mattered. I’d be sitting here at my laptop, turn, and there’d be ol’ Norma, resting on the bed, head down, eyes closed. She dug a good belly rub, a good paw rub. She was companionship. Kinship. Company for a long walk on a sunny California day.
This past summer, we came home one day and Norma was acting peculiar. Limping. Hiding under furniture. I called a friend who walks dogs, and she said maybe she’s just off. But … it didn’t feel right. I took her to the vet, and they did some tests, and we were told Norma’s body was filled with cancer. I was actually driving with my daughter Casey when the news was delivered, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. It wasn’t merely the hardest cry in front of one of my children—it was probably the hardest cry of my life.
Later that day, my wife visited Norma for a final time (I stayed with the kids). She FaceTimed me from the vet, put Norma on. She was no longer herself—expressionless, peppiless. Nothing there.
Minutes later, she was put to sleep.
How did it feel? Like someone carved up my insides. Like someone punched me in the stomach 100 times. I felt as if I had somehow let Norma down. I felt as if I was losing a child. She was there all the time … and now, poof. Gone. Forever. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I know millions of people lose millions of pets every year, but I couldn’t imagine anyone else feeling as I felt.
But then (and I hope this doesn’t sound callous) the days passed and the hurt faded. We started making small jokes about Norma being in dog heaven or dog hell. Norma sniffing another dead dog’s ass. Again, maybe it sounds cruel. But it was a process.
I spoke at length with a good friend, Bev Oden, who told me—from experience—”The joy of having a pet outweighs the pain of losing a pet.” I’ve thought about that. And thought about that. And thought about that.
A few weeks ago, we got a new dog. Her name is Poppy.
She’s not Norma. She’s young and peppy and likes to gnaw on fists. She’s a better eater and a worse listener.
Initially, I felt a tad traitorous. Norma’s dead, and we’ve replaced her. But, with time, that guilt walked off.
It’s like Bev said—the joy of having a pet outweighs the pain of losing a pet.
What would you be saying were this Barack Obama and the Democrats?
What would you be saying had Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in the 2012 election by 306 to 232 electoral college votes and more than 7 million popular votes?
What would you be saying if, in the aftermath of the election, Barack Obama claimed there was an enormous conspiracy against him—and that Mitt Romney had not, in fact, won?
What would you be saying if Barack Obama started filing lawsuit after lawsuit in an effort to have the election overturned—only to have one lawsuit after another rejected and dismissed by myriad judges (many appointed by Barack Obama)?
What would you be saying if Barack Obama started quoting longtime conspiracy theorists? If Barack Obama started spewing long-debunked nonsense about broken voting machines?
Would would you be saying if the Supreme Court found Barack Obama’s take so preposterous that it wouldn’t even hear his case?
What would you be saying if some of Barack Obama’s closest liberal allies—senators he supported—insisted the election wasn’t fixed, and that Obama was spewing bullshit?
What would you be saying—after all of that—if Barack Obama starting urging Democratic congressional representatives to fight to have the electoral college voters ignored? If Barack Obama kept working and working and working to make certain Mitt Romney would never take office?
What would you be saying if—as this was all transpiring—Barack Obama refused to allow Mitt Romney to see certain pieces of classified information that all past incoming presidents had been shown?
What would you be saying if you knew this wasn’t the first time Barack Obama had behaved in such a manner? What if you knew it was, in fact, the third time Barack Obama accused an election of being rigged against him?
Would you be OK with that? Would you be accepting? Would you think, “Hey, that’s wonderful?”
Or would you accuse him of being anti-American? Of being treasonous? Of undermining democracy in what could only be viewed as an attempted coup?
What would you be saying?
PS: And what would you be saying if, as Barack Obama was doing the above, a major American city was hit with an act of terror—and Obama said nothing about it? I’m asking for a friend.
In case you missed the news, earlier this morning the Washington Redskins Football Team released Dwayne Haskins, it’s second-year quarterback and the No. 15 overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Haskins has been a mess from Day 1. He never grasped the offense as a rookie, he didn’t seem to work particularly hard, he played like dog shit, he ignored team rules and, just recently, he was photographed partying without a mask. I’m not saying the Football Team had to release him, but Coach Ron Rivera was certainly justified.
But here’s a thought …
Back when I was Dwayne Haskins’ age, I was a newbie reporter at The Tennessean in Nashville—and I was fucking unbearable. I arrived believing I was God’s gift to writing, then proceeded to make one stupid mistake after another. Misspellings. Misidentifications. Butchered details. Once, I quoted my dad for a story, but used a phony name so nobody would know. Another time, I was assigned two veteran reporters to serve as my mentor … and turned the opportunity down.
I pissed off co-workers with my arrogance. I pissed off advertisers with my copy. The local alt-weekly, The Nashville Scene, labeled me the Tennessean’s “enfant terrible,” adding, “If there’s one cow-pie in the field, The Tennessean’s Jeff Pearlman will manage to step in it.”
In perhaps my greatest moment of stupidity, one night I was working late and a colleague/friend named Sheila had left her computer on. I went on Sheila’s monitor and typed FUCK OFF! (or something along those lines) as a DM, and had her send it to herself. The next morning I arrived at work to find everyone in a panic. Turns out Sheila was worried someone was stalking her—especially after she had received a threatening message. Security was called, etc.
I was nearly fired.
I should have been fired.
I wasn’t fired.
Why? My boss, a lovely woman named Catherine Mayhew, still believed in me. She said I couldn’t continue down this path; that I was sabotaging myself and my future; that I needed to reassess and reevaluate and think about the person I wanted to be.
I was then banished from the features department, and placed on the late-night police beat. It changed my life.
So the wife, son and I have been binge watching “Cobra Kai” on Netflix, and the show is an absolute delight and one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in 2020.
For those who might be unaware, it’s basically a 3 1/2-decades-later resumption of the first “Karate Kid” film, with Ralph Macchio back as an adult Daniel LaRusso and William Zabka reprising his role as Johnny Lawrence, the enemy rival. The series is brilliantly written, brilliantly constructed and brilliantly acted. There are 1,001 subtle (and not-so-subtle) nods to the movie, and I can honestly say the wife hasn’t laughed as hard as she did watching this scene unfold for the first time …
Anyhow, of all the things “Cobra Kai” brings to the table, the biggest—in my opinion—is a singular revelation that should have been made clear long ago:
The guy is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. His portrayal of the adult, broken-down Lawrence is nuance personified. The viewer is never sure whether he should hate Lawrence or love Lawrence; empathize with Lawrence or wish pain to Lawrence. It’s all in Zabka’s delivery—a look, a glare, a stare, a shrug. I’m being sincere: He’s that good, and if the Emmy Gods have any sense, this guy will be a shoo-in.
More to the point—at some point in Zabka’s career, Hollywood decided he could only play dickheads. So you have “Johnny Lawrence” in the “Karate Kid.” You have “Ruben” in “Shootfighter: Fight to the Death.” You have “Chas” in “Back to School.” Never did a producer or director look at Zabka’s skills and think, “Man, this guy is talented. Let’s make him a dying AIDS patient or a superhero sidekick or a good guy detective or a crossing guard.”
Nope—Zabka was typecast, and because of that it’s taken decades for the world to see what the 55-year old possesses in droves.
Over the past few years, Ryan Leaf has become one of my absolute favorite Twitter follows.
Do I know Ryan? Save for a couple of DMs, no. But pre-Twitter, I pretty much only recognized him as the former college football star who, after being drafted No. 2 overall by the San Diego Chargers in 1998, turned into one of the great all-time busts.
Leaf, according to both narrative and behavior, was arrogant, obnoxious and super-duper douchey. He thought being an NFL quarterback made him The Man, and put in neither the work nor time to live up to his potential. When his career came crashing down, and the inevitable addictions and arrests followed, most of humanity seemed to shrug and think, “Fuck that guy. He deserved it.”
Only, well, the Ryan Leaf before us is funny, engaging, self-deprecating and honest. He’s owned his mistakes and misdeeds, and hides from nothing.
Without an ounce of exaggeration, if you asked me, “Who would be a more interesting and enlightening hangout—Manning or Leaf?” … I’m going with Leaf.
Which leads me to this Tweet, which just crossed my eyesight seconds ago …