Michael Chime

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 12.15.44 AM

I am a loser.

I say this because, at age 47, what have I done? A couple of books, some completed marathons, two kids, a dog who urinates on the carpet.

Again, what have I done?

I usually don’t feel this way. Hell, I rarely feel this way. But as you’re about to see, today’s Quaz Q&A features Michael Chime, a soon-to-be Yale University senior who has joined with three classmates to create an app, “Prepared,” that is designed to reduce the response time during school shootings. And, to be clear, this isn’t merely an idea, or aspirational nonsense. Nope. Not only does the app exist, it’s earning rave reviews, and has landed the foursome both a $40,000 investment from Yale and the prestigious $25,000 Miller Prize, awarded to the best student-led venture with a tech service.

Chime also happens to play defensive line for the Yale football team. And he is a beginner speaker of the South African click language—Zulu. And he can recite the alphabet, backward, in roughly two seconds. And he dated Rihanna.

(OK, he didn’t date Rihanna).

The point is, the young man has a future that’s showing itself right now. You can follow him on Twitter here, and learn more about Prepared here.

Michael Chime, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Michael—you and three of your Yale classmates have created an app, “Prepared,” that is designed with the idea of reducing response time during school shootings. So—what, specifically, is the idea? And how will it work?

MICHAEL CHIME: Our app is predicated on the belief that clear and efficient communication is vital for navigating through an emergency situation. Schools across the country are experiencing tremendous communication problems both internally and externally. Take, for example, the Parkland shooting—one of the deadliest school shootings in America. In the Parkland shooting, there were 17 casualties, and many more people were crippled for the rest of their life. And, still to this day, there is a community in grief that will never be the same. Parkland suffered gravely from a lack of effective internal communication. It took the school over three minutes to initiate a “code red” or lockdown alert on their campus, and the shooting only lasted around five minutes. So, for the majority of the shooting, students, faculty, and administrators were scrambling for more information, all of which was to the advantage of the shooter.

Nickolas Cruz was seen and recognized by students and staff entering the building with a rifle-bag before any bullets were fired, but because they had no easy way to communicate this information, they were unable to get the school secured. In addition to this, when Cruz opened fire he set off the fire alarms, which flushed students and teachers out into the hallway and towards the shooter because they had not yet received a “code red.” At the same time, due to a lack of effective communication, the school resource officer (SRO) reported that the gunshots “could be firecrackers,” and has since maintained that he “didn’t know where the gunfire was coming from.” The internal communication flaws that are plaguing schools are directly putting our children and teachers in harm’s way. What’s more, external communication inefficiencies can be seen in the statistics on response times by authorities to school shootings. The average response time of first responders to active shooter events is 18 minutes, while the average school shooting only lasts for 12.5 minutes. So, instead of first responders being there during the shooting when they were needed most, they were only there for the aftermath.

It is for these reasons that we engineered Prepared. Prepared is a one-touch mobile alert system that would be placed in the hands of every trusted faculty member within schools. First, this would greatly improve the internal means of communication by allowing a user to almost instantaneously alert everyone on campus of the events, so the school administrators can take the correct actions within seconds. In addition to this, an alert would be simultaneously sent to first responders with additional critical information. They are able to respond faster and can react with vital information at their disposal. Lastly, our system is customized to fit the specific needs of schools districts, so we can ensure that every school receives the best possible system. Currently, our system is focused on schools, but we genuinely believe that communication can be improved at corporate offices, malls, concerts, places of worship, etc. through our system.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 12.16.16 AM

J.P.: So your app helps make people aware of school shootings. It doesn’t actually do anything to prevent school shootings (not that it could). And I wonder—do you feel like this is simply what it’ll be in America forever and ever. People shooting up schools? Like, is there an actual way to eliminate school shootings in your mind?

M.C.: There’s not a night that goes by where gun violence doesn’t keep me up. My personal mission is to find an all-encompassing solution, and I will ensure that Prepared reflects that mission in every action it takes. So, to answer your question directly: I do reserve hope in the belief that there is an all-encompassing solution, and Prepared’s chief objective is to pursue that solution tirelessly.

Now, that said, we genuinely believe that Prepared can provide some hope for the future right now. It seems the notoriety these killers are receiving for gaudy death totals is a large motivating factor in their corrupted minds. We believe that reliably reducing the fatalities in these shootings, obviously in addition to immediately saving lives, will decrease notoriety-incentivized attacks. After studying what went wrong at various school shootings, it is clear to me that being able to secure schools through effective communication is the first line of defense. But don’t just take that from me. We have received encouraging feedback from countless school administrators. John Dodig, the recently retired principal of Staples High School in Westport, CT, told us early on that our app needs to be in every school across the country, and that it will revolutionize the way schools communicate. Our app will save lives, and that is the first and most important step.

J.P.: How does one invent an app? Soup to nuts?

M.C.: From a technical standpoint, I am extremely lucky to be working alongside some of the top computer engineers at Yale University (Dylan Gleicher ‘21 and Neal Soni ‘22). On that end, the process of creating an app involves programming and designing using software which is specifically geared for the target device, such as using XCode to develop for Apple devices and Android Studio for Android devices.

However, for a product like this, iteration and innovation are at the forefront of our attention on the app’s user interface and features. That being said, I’ll try and take you through some of the high level tasks we deal with on a daily basis. For an app like ours, obviously there’s a very high level of reliability and security we must maintain, and there’s a lot of networking involved. The app has to maintain a reliable connection with our server at a moments notice, which must in turn be able to receive and respond appropriately to any messages. A ton of testing goes into this process every day to ensure that it is as robust as possible. Since the initial conception of our app, we have gathered feedback from countless school administrators, in addition to reaching out and speaking to various nonprofit organizations and people who have experienced some of these tragedies—including students from Sandy Hook and Parkland. We took all of this feedback to heart, and integrated a lot of what they told us into the app. This caused us to keep refining our user interface (UI) and keep expanding and fine-tuning our features to fit exactly what these schools really needed. Recently, we demoed our app to representatives from a large state, and they loved the intuitive features and design.

J.P.: Yale has invested $40,000 in your app, including the Miller Prize for $25,000. So how will that money be used? What are the major costs doing this sort of thing?

M.C.: First, I would like to give a shout-out to the Yale Law School’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Clinic—and specifically Professor Sven Riethmueller, who heads the program. Sven heads our legal team along with Yale Law students to provide sound legal counsel. Their services have been invaluable in facilitating our early growth and success.

In addition to providing funds which allow us to invest in additional research and development, the $40,000 essentially will accelerate our mission by giving us the ability to pursue more schools sooner. Reaching places in need faster is pivotal because we have been unfortunately reminded in the last few weeks that a shooting can happen at any moment. Prior to winning the money, we had secured verbal commitments from multiple schools on implementation for the following school year. However, with not much more than bootstrap funding at that time, we weren’t sure we would be able to have the infrastructure to support any more than that for this coming year. Now, with that funding available, we are confident we can flesh out the technical infrastructure and support structure to allow for a lot more schools. Since winning the prize, we have been in conversations with influential districts that could lead to our app being implemented in thousands of schools across the country. We are even in talks to get the app into every school in an entire state!

Lastly, a huge cost for us right now is ensuring that we have the right insurance. We are searching currently to partner with non-profit organizations to help us with these costs so, again, we can reach as many places that need our system as soon as possible.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 12.15.59 AM

J.P.: How much blame do you assign the NRA? And how do you feel about arming teachers? Or having all schools equipped with metal detectors?

M.C.: We understand how frustrating and devastating it is seeing these teachers unable to fight back during a shooting, but it is our position at Prepared is that arming teachers is not the proper recourse for school shootings. I think rather those who have been trained to react need to utilized better. School resource officers, adding more trained security guards, and getting police on the scene faster are all better alternatives. Those groups need to be made more effective at dealing with school shootings. In this regard, we think that a stronger communication loop would be massively beneficial. Moreover, it would take a significant amount of money to get every teacher in a school properly trained and equipped with a firearm, and many schools are already severely underfunded. Secondly, equipping schools with metal detectors should also be thought about carefully. It’s worth noting that a lot of the scholarship in this area talks about the psychological impact of making children go through security every morning, especially students who come from heavily policed communities. We want schools to primarily remain centers of learning, albeit safe ones.

Ultimately, Jeff, there’s no way to tackle our present school shooting epidemic without having a serious conversation about guns and gun access in the policy realm. This has proven a tricky and often heated conversation to have in our nation’s recent political discourse resulting in little or no change in the status quo. Interest groups like the NRA, for better or worse, are part of this collective complexity. But I think what we can all agree on is that while we’re having these difficult but necessary policy discussions in legislative halls across the country, students and educators deserve to be kept safe from ongoing attacks. Prepared is committed to keeping schools safer and we support any group committed to this as well. That said, I would personally be open to having a dialogue with anyone as committed to meaningful change. As someone who is deeply passionate about the school shooting epidemic and keeping students safe, I think working to find common ground is the best way to actualize meaningful reform.

J.P.: You’re a backup defensive lineman on the Yale football team, and you were All-State and All-District at Saint Ignatius in Cleveland. And I wonder—football? How are we supposed to feel about it, with all the head trauma, all we know about concussions? How do you feel about it?

M.C.: I think this is an awesome question that deserves a lot of thought. Concussions are a growing issue, and the depth of their impact on athletes is still being discovered and researched. I think concussions and head trauma most definitely present a genuine threat to the long term viability of football. That’s part of why I think football’s decline is imminent. Just reflecting on my own experience reveals some of this decline occurring today. When I was playing youth football, there were enough kids playing to field an eight-team youth league in just my town—Mentor, Ohio. Now, that same youth league has vanished and Mentor has had trouble putting 22 kids together; concussions are a huge part of that decline.

Parents worry about the long-term health of their children, and I can’t say that as a parent one day I won’t agree with them. Concussions are scary. The studies on players riddled by them and their stories are hard to hear. However in the midst of all this legitimate criticism of football’s impact I can’t help but love it. Your question asks how one is supposed to feel, and my best response to that is to explain my experience with the game on the field and off the field to help with forming an opinion. In my final game of my senior year, I remember looking around—I was playing on the field that I had grown up watching with my dad. We were in the state championship in 2016 and that game every year is held at Ohio Stadium—the home of the Buckeyes. On our first series we stopped our opponent on three plays and forced a punt. That punt was snapped from around the 20 yard line, so the punter was standing on his own 10. I rushed the A gap, made a move on the upback, got my hands in the air, and blocked the first punt of the game. Then the ball bounced right in front of me where I was able to track it down and score the first touchdown of the 2016 Division One (Best Division in Ohio) State Championship. I remember looking up and seeing a sea of people going crazy as I ran off the field in the stadium I had glorified my whole life.

That play. That game. Providing an experience that I will remember my entire life, an experience that only football could bring for me. In addition to this, football accounts for some of the strongest bonds I have formed with any people throughout my life. There is something to continually being faced with adversity with other people that brings you closer than you ever thought possible. Football, for me, has provided experiences and opportunities that have had a hugely positive impact on my life.

With his family in high school.

With his family in high school.

J.P.: How did you get to this point? What I mean is—you’re a kid in Cleveland, you go to Yale, you develop this app. What’s the path? Why the interest? When did apps first catch your eye? Why?

M.C.: One of the core values that governs my life—stemming from David Goggins’ book, ​“Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds”​—is constantly surrounding myself with uncommon people and then striving, everyday, to be uncommon among that group. This is a value I have exercised throughout my high school career as I worked hard to be the best in both my athletic and academic pursuits. Now, I think it’s important to mention that I have always thought about problems differently.

For example, when I was in grade school, I played football, basketball, and baseball. Those were my sports. I found that in basketball I was big and I could score, but my ball handling was something I struggled with. So, instead of just accepting this weakness, I searched for ways to solve that problem. I started taking stretchy book covers that I had for my school textbooks and taught myself to sew so I could have them fit as a cover for a basketball. I found that by reducing the friction on the ball with the cover, I was able to make a slippery training tool that made the ball extremely hard to handle. When I would take the cover off, I would have much better grip while dribbling because I had become accustomed to training with the cover on. My interest in apps came up in a similar fashion. I see apps and really technology in general as a way that anyone can strive to confront the world’s largest problems. Currently, I see apps as a significant tool that nearly every person has at their disposal as a means to vastly improve the communication problems faced in emergency situations. The problem is the education system is slow to innovate, and in some cases, schools still use the PA-like systems as their primary form of communication, which has been in place since the 1950’s. So, my interest in apps stems mostly from my inherent desire to make a lasting impact on global problems, and apps came as a response to that desire.

J.P.: On May 1 you Tweeted, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to North Carolina, the victims, and their families.” I wanna ask a serious question—do people truly believe “thoughts and prayers” can do anything? I’m being literal and real—is there reason to believe, by thinking about the people impacted by a shooting, I can help them? Because we say it ALL the time.

M.C.: That’s a great question Jeff. I do believe that thoughts and prayers can make a difference. The more awareness a major issue has, the more people there are out there thinking about a solution. And that is, I believe, one of the great powers of humanity—to be able to pool together thought and our collective resources to work towards the solution to an important problem. I think of examples like the Ice Bucket Challenge—that generated unparalleled attention and an unprecedented $120 million to use towards ALS research and care. I believe awareness can and does have real impacts. So when I say my thoughts and prayers are with North Carolina—obviously I feel absolutely terrible for the affected families and cannot begin to imagine what they’re going through. But I am also dedicating everything I have to try and find a solution to this terrible epidemic—to try and prevent North Carolina from happening again.

It’s a different case, though, for people who express thoughts and prayers ​in lieu of​ confronting the issue of school shootings. For someone like me, who’s dedicating himself to fixing this epidemic, thoughts and prayers are a ​supplement to​ my efforts, not a ​replacement​ for them. So your question is important because thoughts and prayers are only helpful if they actually lead to actionable change, not if they’re lip service we say to move on from these atrocities more quickly.

On his visit to Yale.

On his visit to Yale.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your athletic career? Lowest?

M.C.: My greatest moment has to be the same experience I detailed in my response to concussions. Playing at Ohio Stadium, scoring the first touchdown, and going on to end the game with 3 1/2 sacks was my greatest moment as an athlete despite having lost that game. My lowest point as an athlete was tearing my ACL at just 12-years old. This made me intimately aware of how dangerous a game—in addition to being so rewarding—football can be.

J.P.: What do you wanna do, post-graduation? What’s your life plan?

M.C.: Again, awesome question that even I don’t fully know the answer to. I will say this, I have talked about my personal mission for Prepared—to find an all-encompassing solution in response to gun violence. That mission, I think, offers a window to a larger theme that will guide my eventual life plan going forward. I will continue to pursue sustainable solutions to global social problems by always directing myself on a path that allows me to positively affect the most people. With that being said, I truly believe Prepared will be the all-encompassing solution that combats one of the largest issues this country faces. And as the leader fronting Prepared, I am ecstatic about our start and potential to offer a lasting solution, while at the same time I am motivated by the fact that we have a lot of work to do. So, I see myself being at Prepared until our mission is achieved, and after that, I see myself following a life plan dedicated to the pursuit of solutions to the world’s largest problems.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 12.29.58 AM


• Yale v. Clemson, football. Final score on Yale’s best day and Clemson’s worst?: Now, Jeff, this is a tough position you have put me in. I got the Bulldogs completing the upset of the century, 24-17.

• Five reasons one should visit Cleveland on his/her next vacation?: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Swenson’s Burgers; Its beautiful Lake Erie beachfront; The cheapest NBA basketball ticket in the country right now in the Cleveland Cavaliers; and to watch America’s Team headed by the NFL’s next MVP— The Cleveland Browns and Baker Mayfield.

• One question you would ask Eric Clapton were he here right now?: I thought Tears in Heaven was a beautiful and deeply impactful song, and served as a really touching tribute to his son. I would ask if there’s any way he could similarly write and perform a song for the all the people who have been affected by school shooting epidemic.

• Five greatest college sports uniforms are?: Ohio State—It’s my hometown team and my favorite part has to be the buckeyes on the helmet. Yale—Must say I’m a little biased, but there’s so much tradition in the jerseys we put on that it has to go in my top 5. Oregon—I appreciate Oregon always coming out with crazy alerternates. Tennessee—I have always loved the orange color they wear. TCU—Another team with some awesome alternates, but also a horned frog as a mascot is an automatic win.

• What are your three hidden talents?: I can perfectly annunciate Osorachukwu Ifesinachukwu, I am a beginner speaker of the South African click language—Zulu, and I can say the alphabet backwards in just over two seconds.

• Three memories from your first-ever date: Three memories I have from my first date are it was in fifth grade. I remember vividly thinking that getting the date was all I needed to focus, and I didn’t do much planning in what I was gonna talk about during it. So naturally the talking slowed I learned a lot from the socially awkward encounter that involved a lot of sitting in silence.

• Is the Ivy League education $500,000 more valuable than the Ohio State education?: I think wherever you are, you have to make the best of what you’re given. I felt Yale was the right fit for myself personally due to a number of reasons, and there’s no price I can put on the experiences and people I’ve met here.

• Five smells your hate: Portable bathrooms, mushrooms, cigarette smoke, fresh mulch, and worst of all, the football locker room after a hot summer camp practice.

• The world needs to know—what’s it like being teammates with Osorachukwu Ifesinachukwu?: Being teammates with Osorachukwu Ifesinachukwu is awesome. Even though I can pronounce his name perfectly most of the team just calls him Oso. But at the same time, I wouldn’t forget the dynamic brother duo of D. Major Roman and J. Hunter Roman.

Anne Stockwell

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 11.55.19 AM

Too often in this celebrity-obsessed culture we turn toward the rich and famous to be inspired. We read stories about Halle Berry’s beauty, Katherine Heigl’s new baby, Harrison Ford’s happiness, Donald Trump’s … eh, never mind.

The point is, we look far off into the Hollywood Hills for inspiration, when oftentimes it’s right here; right in front of us.

I have known Anne Stockwell for about 15 years. We met when she was the editor of The Advocate, and I was assigned a story about gay athlete acceptance in pro sports locker rooms. Over the next 1 1/2 decades we stayed in touch via social media and occasional e-mails, and I marveled at a strong, compassionate woman who was diagnosed with cancer on three different occasions—yet seemed to never really waver.

I promise, you will be inspired, too.

Anne is the founder and head of Well Again, a nonprofit operation that coaches people in the aftermath of being cancer free. “Cancer,” she writes on the website, “is profound. It’s not just medical. It’s not something you get over with chemo and radiation. Cancer also happens at the level of your soul. It gives you an opportunity to start new.”


One can visit the Well Again website here and follow Anne on Twitter here and Instagram here. She is an amazing and inspiring person, and I’m honored to host her as the 306th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m gonna start with this: You’re an openly gay woman. We have a 45thpresident who has a vice president who has been hostile toward gay rights. Trump, however, doesn’t really seem interested one way or the other. So how, in specific relation to gay rights, are you feeling right now about America?

ANNE STOCKWELL: It’s sort of like “Good Morning Heartache/ Sit down.” I know this stuff like an old movie. It’s devastating just like always, but it no longer surprises me.

I don’t think Trump is a homophobe, no. But he’s not an ally either, and that means he’s an enemy. His indifference gives Pence—a notorious homophobe—free range to do what he wants, knowing that, like Trump, most Americans just don’t want to think about us. Because people want us invisible, LGBT people remain among the easiest tribes to throw under the bus.

In all the media handwringing about why Trump ought to be more wary of Putin, have you read a word calling out Putin for his persecution of Russia’s LGBT people? Defending our own gay people and warning that America is not going to abandon us no matter what?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

I spent 15 years in the gay press, knowing that many hearts will never change. People fear us and that’s why they don’t want to know us better.

So is my task hopeless? Not at all. I’ve seen with my own eyes that occasionally a heart does change, and it’s always because some bit of new information got in through the cracks. Honest information is the best antidote to fear.

This same experience has helped me to understand why people don’t want to think about life beyond cancer.People fear us cancer vets. They don’t want to walk our path. We are taboo. It seems to be my destiny—forgive that lofty word—to bring the news that life in the taboo zone can be awesome.

Anne with Kris Larson.

Anne with Kris Larson.

J.P.: You’ve had cancer three times. Not once, not twice—three times. What is it to learn you have cancer, having survived it twice? Like, how did you find out? How was the news given to you? How did you digest it?

A.S.: Extremes of emotion in each case. The thing in common: the intensity. That roller coaster sensation when the pit of your gut drops away and you hear yourself screaming.

Episode One: The craziest thing. They said they thought it was cancer, and in that instant my life passed before my eyes. No other way to describe it. A rush of images, sequential AND simultaneous, flooded me with joy. Many pictures I’d forgotten. I saw that I loved my life. I was so much richer than I’d ever imagined, in friendship and connection and adventure. If this was the end, okay. But in this same apparently endless instant, I knew I wanted more. I thought, I’ll do my best and take what comes.

Then came episode two, and that was it for the heroics. Aside from the mortal-fear stuff, I felt like a big fat failure.  Who was I kidding with the vitamins and crap?  I’ve never been so angry in my life.  Throughout that cycle of treatment, I raged on.  I was fighting to secure a new job in a company that was in deep trouble. I kept at it.  Every day I saw the image of a sailing ship in a gale, and myself an Ahab figure yelling, more canvas, more canvas, we won’t be beaten.

Episode three hit after the job ended.  (My metaphorical ship had gone down after all.)  This came way too soon after my previous recurrence. I went for a routine blood test and my numbers had shot up by like 100 points. They ordered a PET scan, which came back showing a number of new hot spots.

They’re not big enough to be tumors yet, my doctor said.

How many hot spots, I asked.

I couldn’t really count them, he said. We’ll test again in three months.

I thought, now I’m going to die. I started to read about death and what might or might not come afterward.

At that same time I met two guys, pretty much as unlike each other as you could imagine, and I think they pulled me through. One guy was a big jock, a football fanatic, who happened to be committed to metaphysics and prayer. He barked at me:  “You’re fine, I got this, you’re in my prayers twice a day.”  It was so ridiculously comforting, I started calling him up to hear him say it.  The other guy, gay gay gay and Asian, was a tai chi master. His day job was doing feng shui for high-end clients all over the West Coast. He would arrive every few weeks and ask me to fetch him at Union Station—he didn’t have a driver’s license. While I ferried him around, he would tell me about how effective tai chi could be against cancer. He started showing me moves. Once he arrived from the Buddhist temple in San Francisco with a special prayer to ward off cancer. I learned it phonetically and still say it every night.

So—silliness, right? But after three months of these two guys all up in my business, I had my repeat PET scan. Where, before, my intestines had been dotted with nasty little cancer spots, now there were just two. Small, finite, eminently treatable.

So in I went for surgery, chemo, and radiation, on those two spots.

I finished treatment in 2010 and the cancer hasn’t been back since. What changed my condition? I’m not saying it was these guys and their spiritual stuff. But afterward our paths diverged and our relationships essentially ended. It did seem that they had shown up on cue.

The treatment itself was bearable, but at some point I noticed I was more comfortable in cancertown than in the outside world. I stopped imagining myself free of IT.

J.P.: You are the founder and head of “Well Again,” which coaches people in the aftermath of being cancer free. I’m fascinated, but I also don’t fully know what it means. I’d think, if you’re cancer free, you’d be happy and giddy and ready to roll? No?

A.S.: Well Again has evolved from my experience of what we lack as cancer vets reentering the world. Yes, of course, you’re happy, even giddy, when treatment ends. But you also know something you can never unknow: some invisible thing crept in and tried to kill you and might just do it again. Cancer generally doesn’t hurt. It just creeps.

The emotional blow of cancer tends to fall when we’re through treatment. My oncologist told me that this is when marriages break up.

All hell breaks loose in your inner world. Your own body tried to kill you. That is about as existential a threat as you can imagine.

Back in your civilian life, everybody looks at you funny, and no wonder; you’ve changed.  Maybe you can’t keep numbers in your head the way you did. Or you hate the ice cream flavor you used to love. Who knows? Whatever it is, you’ll be navigating it alone. Friends and family won’t know how to help. Understandably, they’re like, when can we forget all this? Aren’t you past it now? There’s great pressure on you to get back to normal, and that’s the one thing you can’t do.

Suddenly all the bullshit you used to put up with is unbearable.

After treatment, our job is to resume our lives as individuals and pull ourselves out of the common medical experiences we shared. This is a lot more challenging than it seems. Once they’ve healed our bodies, our doctors turn away to heal others. We are left with invisible wounds that we don’t like to talk about in a clinic. The most profound wounds of cancer, I think, are spiritual.

You can try all you want to sweep this stuff under the rug and pretend that there’s no soul sickness to cancer. And by that I certainly DON’T mean you caused your cancer, or WANTED it, or any of that malarkey people like to spread around in Southern California.

I mean, the way cancer attacks, it hits your soul. You can’t ignore it, tell yourself it’s silly to be scared. It’s not silly to be scared. No, the challenge of life beyond cancer is to learn to live with uncertainty.

For me, it’s just as valid to see  cancer as a message from your soul. It’s an invitation to ask yourself more honestly–who am I now? What do I want? What feels right when I do it?

If you like, you can see cancer as a do-over. It’s not the only disaster that can turn into a learning experience, but it’s especially powerful because it happens to so many of us.

J.P.: You write, “I know how it feels to start over after cancer.” Anne, what is it to start over after cancer? What was it for you?

Every sensation is heightened. You become aware of yourself in the world in an entirely different way. A friend who’s Stage IV told me, Life begins at cancer. Strange but true.  I would also say cancer wakes you up to the toxicity of our American culture of work. The bond of trust between employer and employee is dead, with the result that stress is constant. We don’t take our vacations; we’re afraid to. The constant need to prove ourselves, the looking over our shoulders. Etc., etc. Everybody’s stressed sometimes, but constant stress is linked to inflammation, and protracted inflammation makes things easier for cancer.

One of the most unpleasant things about starting over after cancer is that every fool you meet is suddenly an oncologist.  People with no knowledge of you or medicine or, presumably, courtesy will regale you with how you’d better give up caffeine etc. (or take up caffeine etc.) and how they themselves are on the right side of this important dietary issue and therefore they will never have cancer.  Or, more understandably, they survived cancer and now you must do what they did.

This is unkind because at this point in your recovery you are weakened and vulnerable and scared to death anyway.  To be whipsawed by contradictory doctrines makes it all just a little worse.

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 11.01.32 AM

J.P.: You used to be the editor in chief of The Advocate (which is how we met), but I’m unfamiliar with your journalistic path. How did it happen? How did it start? And why did you leave the magazine?

A.S.: I got into journalism as a proofreader. My first gig was with an extremely short-lived publication called “Barbara Cartland’s World if Romance.” From there, I became a proofreader at Esquire.  I actually sold a couple of pieces of writing during this time.  I’m especially proud of a mischievous Esquire parody we junior-junior-juniors came up with.  The senior staff did us the honor of laughing at the piece and publishing it in the magazine.

I moved back to my home state of Louisiana for a few years and became an advertising copywriter in a local market.  It was so much fun, I can’t tell you.  That’s where I wrote my first TV ads and got interested in film.  I won a directing scholarship to NYU Graduate Film School, but I wasn’t one of those filmmakers who were like, I must do this or die.  It terms of work, I still gravitated toward magazines.

Eventually, after film school, I wound up in Los Angeles, where I couldn’t make inroads into the film business but was hired as a copy editor at The Advocate. I stayed there 15 years.  I was promoted up the arts and entertainment side of the masthead until eventually I became editor in chief. I left in 2008, when the company was bought and the new owners wanted a new EIC.

J.P.: Along those lines—is print over?

A.S.: Yes.

J.P.: What’s your mental relationship with death? Terrified? Comfortable? And how has it been impacted by your cancer experiences?

A.S.: This whole time has been about getting to the point where I can look at death. I am not a brave person. That’s the second idea behind Well Again. I realized that I didn’t care at all how many facts I knew about my cancer. I mean, yes, but in a chilly way. A battery of facts was never going to lend me courage when I had to go for a followup. What did help were memories of doing things I loved. Cancer couldn’t take those away.

J.P.: You attended NYU Film School and studied under, among others, Martin Scorsese. So … what was that like? Scorsese as a teacher? What do you remember about him?

Scorsese is very short, maybe five feet one. You notice that one time only. Once he’s talking, he’s six feet five. I loved him. He was much kinder than our professors. He thought of art in a Catholic way, sort of like self-mortification for a glorious cause. That was very romantic to me at the time. Much later, cancer shook my belief in suffering.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 12.03.18 PM

J.P.: At some point in your life I assume you came out of the closet. What was that experience for you? How hard was it? How was it received?

A.S.: It was pretty hard actually. It was received variously, often with sympathy—which was better than hostility but which I hated anyway. At the core of almost every reaction was either “you’re immature” or “you’re ill.” Things are better for young people now, thank god, but we still have a long way to go. At least most people know homosexuality is not contagious. Well, Ben Carson doesn’t know.

J.P.: You’re the author of The Guerrilla Guide to Mastering Student Loan Debt. Wife and I talk about this all the time. Does the inevitable hell that is un-erasable debt reason enough for some to simply skip out on college? Can the argument be made that, in certain circumstances, it’s just not worth it?

A.S.: The student loan system is insupportable. It rests on the idea that your education benefits you alone, and you alone should bear the cost. Very convenient for the employers who will profit from your education and the government that will run on your taxes. But not true.

I think we are now at the point where a college education has ceased to be worth it for everyone. I like the European system better. If you’re an excellent student, you’re financially supported in going further. If not, your training moves toward practical skills.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 12.04.32 PM


• One question you would ask Talia Shire were she here right now?: Not Talia Coppola?

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I didn’t think I was about to die, but I was sitting where I could see there was a problem with an engine. We had to turn back. I started to cry, but I didn’t whimper out loud. I’m sure I would have.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Don Lemon, William Shatner, Rambo, Alexandra Daddario, “This is Us,” Atlanta Hawks, KRS-One, your right elbow, toe cheese, hot chocolate on a cold day, Golden Gate Bridge: Golden Gate, “This is Us,” KRS-One, Hawks, Daddario, William Shatner, right elbow, hot chocolate, toe cheese, Don Lemon.

• Five all-time favorite brown-haired singers: Pavarotti, Tom Waits, Frank Sinatra, Mick Jagger, Renee Fleming.

• Will there be an openly gay United States president in the next 50 years?: Yes.

• Would you rather snort 10 gallons of red Gatorade through your right nostril or attend 100-straight hours of Donald Trump rallies?: Bring the Gatorade.

• Three memories from your first-ever date: I wore a ridiculous getup. I drank a Black Russian. I wasn’t supposed to want to go home, but I did, and the guy was mad but he drove me. As I was getting out of the car in front of my house, he called out after me how much money he’d spent on dinner.

• Five reasons one should make Southern California his/her home: In-N-Out Burger, The Del Coronado Hotel, Catalina Island, Point Mugu, Palm Springs.

• Strangest celebrity you ever interviews (and why): Anne Heche. For so many reasons.

• My nose has a chronic drip come September-thru-February. Knowing that, would I still get a decent hug if we meet for coffee?: Try me.

Dr. Celine Gounder

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 12.04.25 AM

Back in the day, when I was a journalism youngin, I served as the seventh or eighth man on Sports Illustrated‘s basketball team.

We played down on the courts at Chelsea Piers in New York City, and the games were a genuine ball. We were fast, we were deep, we were combative. We weren’t the Golden State Warriors, but for a collection of scribes, we did quite well.

Anyhow, while the team was strong, we only had a cheering section of one. Her name was Celine Gounder, and she was the girlfriend/future bride of Grant Wahl, our excellent soccer writer/solid small forward. Were I on the bench, I’d often look over at Celine at marvel at the merging of commitment and boredom. It looked like there was nowhere else she less wanted to be, yet as the other girlfriends (mine included) stayed home, she stood out as a loyalist.

I bring this up because some two decades later, Celine’s steadfastness remains on display as she travels the world in her work as an HIV/infectious disease specialist and internist. In 2015 she spent two months volunteering as an Ebola aid worker in Guinea. Between 1998 and 2012, she studied TB and HIV in South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi, Ethiopia and Brazil. In other words, she’s doing good and doing good and doing good where good is often in short supply.

In today’s magical 302nd Quaz, Celine talks everything from enduring the grossest of sights and smells to enduring the grossest of American presidents to enduring infectious diseases up close. You can help fund her documentary, “Dying to Talk,” here, follow her on Twitter here and visit her website here.

Dr. Celine Gounder, you’ve come a long way from basketball boredom.

You’re the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Celine, I’m going to start with an unorthodox one. So you’re a practicing HIV/infectious diseases specialist and internist, among other things. Which means, I have no doubt, you’ve seen stuff that would make most of us pass out. And I’ve always wondered this—are doctors born with the ability to not be grossed out by blood, by guts, by nails in skulls and half-decayed flesh? Or do you develop a hardness over time? How has it gone for you?

CELINE GOUNDER: I think there are different ways in which doctors, nurses and other health care workers become jaded over time, some necessary and some dangerous to ourselves and our patients. Blood, flesh-eating bacteria or putrid sores don’t gross me out. Smells sometimes still get to me, but in my line of work, I’m often wearing a mask, gown and gloves. But I really don’t like vectors of disease, especially bats and rats. When my husband and I visited the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia, I had to run for cover, gagging at the bats overhead.

Being desensitized to blood, guts and gore isn’t dangerous, but losing our empathy is. The rigors of medical training push people to their mental, physical and psychological limits. Just over the course of four years of medical school, students’ ability to empathize with their patients takes a big hit. At least half of physicians in the U.S. report burnout—exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness—and burned out doctors provide worse care.

In the U.S., health is not a human right, it’s a privilege. At the same time, altruism is a core value of the medical (or education or social work) professions. But our health system treats patients like widgets and health care providers like plumbers or electricians on a moneymaking assembly line. Moreover, the way we value health care providers is not proportional to the quality (or even the quantity) of our service, but to the way society values our patients, and I can tell you, they aren’t all valued equally. Our professional values are at odds with the system, and that’s intensely demoralizing.

There’s no question I’ve experienced these same feelings of burnout. My way of coping is to fight the good fight when I’m on the job caring for patients, but to provide direct clinical care only part-time. I need time in between to reflect, recharge and bear witness—but that comes at a very real cost too.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 12.03.29 AM

J.P.: In 2015 you spent two months volunteering as an Ebola aid worker in Guinea. Most people (myself included, I’m embarrassed to say) would want nothing to do with Ebola. The name alone evokes panic, fear, dread, all of our bases mortal impulses. So what made you go? What did you learn? And what is your documentary “Dying to Talk” about?

C.G.: I grew up and became a doctor in the age of HIV, another disease that also conjured panic, fear and dread. But infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, leprosy and Ebola have also inspired tremendous human kindness, love, sacrifice, courage, perseverance and beauty. Like Ebola, it’s a disease that kills the most vulnerable, the poor, the stigmatized and the marginalized. I became an infectious disease specialist because it was a way for me to fight social inequity using the tools of medicine and public health. So when Ebola exploded in West Africa, I couldn’t imagine sitting on the sidelines.

In some ways, epidemics are all the same, and yet they are as unique as the cultures of the people affected. They make us more fearful of the sick—the “other”—lepers who are to blame for their illness. In Guinea, people near the coast blamed the spread of Ebola on “primitive” forest peoples for eating “bush meat.” Americans spoke fearfully and hatefully of “dirty” Africans. In the 1980s, government officials cracked homophobic jokes about HIV.

Politics inevitably frames the way we view epidemics and respond. In Guinea, the Ebola epidemic arrived on the eve of the country’s second democratic presidential election, and in the U.S., during our midterm elections. Guinea is a country where politics and government service are seen as routes to self-advancement, not public service. Early messages about the Ebola epidemic in Guinea could easily be confused with propaganda. Politicians arrived wearing the yellow scarves and logos of the ruling party. Faced with a ruling party that appeared to use Ebola as an excuse for political campaigning, the opposition party spread rumors about the origins of Ebola, sowing confusion and distrust. Guineans flaunted presidential declarations of public health emergency and instructions on how to prevent disease transmission. Meanwhile, back in the U. S., politicians like President-elect Donald Trump called for travel bans, and Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, mandatory three-week quarantines for travelers returning from West Africa.

In the shadow of infectious diseases emerge parallel epidemics of mistrust, rumors and conspiracy theories, especially when people feel voiceless and powerless. Many Guineans spoke of “Ebola business”— their way of expressing frustration at the lack of transparency around Ebola control activities, especially management of the massive infusion of funds into the country. Government officials were accused of manufacturing Ebola to keep their hold on power or to line their own pockets. Expats were seen as Ebola mercenaries who weren’t of and with the people and who could leave at any moment. Meanwhile communities failed to see those funds trickle down to their level and have a tangible impact on the ground. Excluded from decision-making and perceived profiteering, the public was cynical about the true motives behind the Ebola response. Similarly during the early years of the HIV epidemic, gay men questioned the true motives behind bathhouse closures. Others spread rumors that the CIA invented HIV to kill homosexuals and Africans. With the arrival of the Zika epidemic, we’ve heard conspiracy theories that vaccines, pesticides or genetically modified mosquitoes spread the virus, and that the Gates Foundation or Monsanto invented Zika.

In early 2015, I spent two months volunteering as an Ebola aid worker in Guinea, but in my free time, I interviewed survivors, anthropologists, religious leaders, doctors, nurses, local journalists, youth and women leaders and average citizens living in the community to understand how the crisis was affecting them. I’m currently making the documentary “Dying to Talk” about the West African Ebola epidemic because I think it’s more important now than ever that we learn the lessons of Ebola and other outbreaks. We’ll see more diseases like HIV, Ebola, MERS and Zika emerge (or reemerge) and spread faster than ever before. There’s no turning the clock back on globalization. It’s in our enlightened self-interest to listen, understand and care about the rest of humanity in order to protect ourselves.

It’s been both fun and frustrating to make a film. I’m learning by trial and error as I go. Other than financing, my major challenge is to figure out how best to shape the narrative. Many in the film industry have advised me to include myself in the film to serve as an empathic bridge of sorts, and they tell me I need to include some celebrities (anyone know Angelina Jolie or Jon Stewart?). I’m really proud that all my reporting on the ground was with Africans, almost all Guineans, in contrast to much of the Western-centric media coverage of the Ebola epidemic—what former New York Times journalist Howard French called “Africa without Africans.” I’m hesitant to include myself (I’m in the trailer), because I’m not the story and because I know there will be those who think it’s self-serving. But I’m willing to be in it if that’s what it takes to get the message out there.

J.P.: Random question—but you’re a curious, well-educated, accomplished American. We recently had a president elected basically because he’s “going to make America great again!” How do you not bang your head against a wall and think, “Jesus Christ, we are such a stupid species”?

C.G.: Like so many others, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought … there are three books I’ve found especially helpful in thinking this through: “Wired for Culture” by Mark Pagel, “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures” by Colin Woodard and “Strangers in Their Own Land” by Arlie Russell. I’ve also added those cited here to my reading list.

I think humans are first and foremost emotional, social animals. We’re not all that rational. We function in groups, and groups are governed by culture. Our loyalty to our culture is strong because it’s an important survival skill. When we say that people are voting against their own interests, we’re framing their voting behavior at the individual level, not in terms of the cultures to which they belong.

Secondly, I think we all—across the political spectrum—have a lot of soul searching to do. The way we work and live is undergoing a massive revolution a lot more quickly than we realize; this is going to be even more disruptive than the shift from agrarian to industrial economies. It’s not just coal miners and factory workers who are going to lose their jobs (for a little background reading, see herehereherehere and here). It’s also accountantsfinancial analystscomputer programmerslawyers and doctors like me. Many Americans—especially the earliest casualties of this economic disruption—voted for Trump because they were voting for a change. They understand intuitively that neither political party has plans to address what’s to come. While I vehemently disagree with that vote, I think we’ve got to start coming up with solutions to help the vast majority of us who’ll eventually lose our jobs to automation.

J.P.: Does death scare you? I’m not talking about the deaths of others—I mean your death. You’ve seen it up close. Does the potential eternal nothingness keep you up at nights? And how does being a doctor impact your view?

C.G.: No, I’m not afraid of my own death. To me, death is the end of fear. What is important to me is doing the most with my life, and what scares me is failing to do that. I also fear a painful, protracted death, which has, unfortunately, become the norm. So I’m doing what I can now to avoid disability and disease later. I eat healthy. I work out with a personal trainer. I’m big on squats, deadlifts and core strength. Your ability to sit down cross-legged and then get up again without using your arms is an easy test of your flexibility, strength and risk of dying. I can’t tell you how many of my patients can’t sit up in bed without a boost from me or their hospital bed. Many Americans suffer from chronic neck and back pain due at least in part to poor posture and core strength. Cardiovascular exercise is important too. Our gym just closed, so my husband and I are now looking for a new place for HIIT classes in the city. Any recommendations?

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 12.03.42 AM

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

C.G.: The lowest point in my career is what some might have called the greatest.

After I finished my medical and public health training (twelve years on top offour years of college), I stayed on at Johns Hopkins for a couple more years. I was well positioned to stay at Johns Hopkins as an academic researcher, but was becoming increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned. I also didn’t like that in academia we were forced to work in silos, structured around a more senior mentor and his (or occasionally her) NIH grants. In my experience, the NIH grant system promotes “safe” research, not innovation. I wanted to be in a place where I could be creative, have fun working with others and feel like I was helping people. Academia didn’t feel like the right fit.

I looked for jobs in public health both in the USA and abroad. Meanwhile, I was starting to burn out on travel overseas—I was flying to sub-Saharan Africa every six to eight weeks for a couple weeks at a stretch—and spending a lot of time away from my husband Grant, who also travels a lot for his job. We both thought we’d ultimately like to move back to NYC one day. He’d lived there after college and I lived there part-time with him in the late 1990s until we moved to Seattle together. So I focused my efforts on finding a job in NYC, and specifically at the NYC Department of Health.

I eventually landed a job as Assistant Commissioner, leading the NYC Department of Health’s Bureau of Tuberculosis Control—the current CDC Director Tom Frieden’s job in the early 1990s. But the place had changed a lot in the twenty years since. In the early 1990s, NYC was experiencing a spike in TB cases among the homeless and HIV-infected patients and funding was plentiful (thanks to Reagan Administration era cuts in public health infrastructure). It took about a billion dollars to control that TB outbreak.

I arrived in the job post-recession, post-sequestration. While I understood we’d be facing budget cuts, I didn’t realize what little control I’d have over who would be cut. I spent my first three months on the job meeting with as many of my staff of 250 as possible. I spent time with them in the clinics and the communities we served. And I put together a layoff plan in collaboration with HR and the Office of Labor Relations, only to realize that I was really powerless to target those cuts. Here’s an example to illustrate how I was trying to target the layoffs: I polled the staff to find out what languages they spoke. TB cases in the USA, especially in NYC, are largely among the foreign-born, in contrast to the early 1990s, when many of the cases were still among U.S.-born persons. It’s important to have field workers who make home visits who can speak to the TB patients. But there’s also a divide among the staff: older employees are largely African American or white while younger employees are largely foreign-born or white. And this is where the union-driven system of favoring seniority over skills and job performance becomes a real problem.

I felt physically ill going to the office. After much soul searching—and my boss’s generous and kind support—I decided to resign. From that experience, I learned that being the boss or having a big title don’t necessarily translate into impact. I found the job stifling. I couldn’t apply my scientific expertise or be creative. I believe that good leaders are good mentors to others and should measure their productivity through the accomplishments of their mentees. I didn’t feel like I could reward good work in a meaningful way. I could only scold bad performers. I also realized that this early in my career I wasn’t quite ready to give up the feeling of more tangible accomplishment. I didn’t like spending most of my day at a desk in the office or in meetings. I had become used to the more flexible life of an academic. You might have to work a lot, but you at least had the freedom to dictate when, where and how you did it.

My greatest accomplishment? I’m working on it … stay tuned.

Celine, husband Grant Wahl, two furry things and a baby.

Celine, husband Grant Wahl, two furry things and a baby.

J.P.: A few years ago I wrote a book about the 1980s Lakers—and, obviously, a big character was Magic Johnson. As you surely remember, when he contracted HIV there was this national irrational fear. Will he bleed on another player? What about sharing water? Surely he’ll die as a 90-pound skeleton. On and on. Now, however, people seem to shrug off HIV. Ho-hum. I wonder, in your eyes, if our general modern take on the disease is fitting with where we are, treatment-wise? Or have we grown too lax?

C.G.: If I were forced to choose between having HIV or diabetes, I’d choose HIV. We now have many effective, well-tolerated one-pill, once-a-day treatment options for HIV. If you have HIV, start treatment early after infection and take your medications everyday as prescribed, you can live a nearly normal healthy life. But I still wouldn’t wish HIV on anyone. While we don’t see many HIV-infected people dying from exotic infections (e.g. bird tuberculosis) anymore, we do know that if you have HIV, you’re at higher risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, kidney and liver disease and dementia. Moreover, HIV is an expensive disease to treat and is still very stigmatized.

J.P.: Big, annoying question that fascinates me—how do these things unfold for you? What I mean is—OK, you’re Dr. Gounder, and you decide you want to study TB in Ethiopia. How does it happen? From decision to being on the ground? Do you come up with the idea, then pursue? Do you see some fellowship or such and think, “I’m going for this?” And when you arrive, is it, “Hey, she’s here!” Or “OK, figure it out on your own …”?

C.G.: First and foremost, where I work has been dictated by the need. It wouldn’t make much sense to go to Norway to set up malaria programs.

Much of this work is also about relationships and funding streams. Relationships are usually in the form of research collaborations or contracts for a specific scope of work. You’ve got funding for research and for programs, and there’s some overlap. There’s funding from the in-country governments, which rarely funds expats; government agencies (e.g. the U. S. Agency for International Development, the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U. S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the U. S. National Institutes of Health, and their foreign analogues like the UK’s Department for International Development); multilateral organizations (e.g. the World Health OrganizationUNICEF); foundations (e.g. the Gates Foundation); and religious charities. Non-governmental organizations (e.g. Partners in HealthInternational Rescue CommitteeSave the Children) are typically funded by some combination of all these types of funding.

My relationships were largely shaped by my academic connections. A colleague from Johns Hopkins was leading TSEHAI’s efforts to scale up HIV-related care in Ethiopia. Tuberculosis is the most common cause of death among people with HIV in the world. I reached out to my colleague in Ethiopia to see if I could help her incorporate TB-related activities in their work. I worked with other colleagues in South Africa, Lesotho and Malawi to do the same. These projects were supported by a combination of funding from the Gates Foundation, NIH and USAID.

Volunteering for the Ebola epidemic was a bit different. I started applying to volunteer as an Ebola aid worker in the summer of 2014, first with Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF), and later with the World Health Organization, Partners in Health, Save the Children, AmeriCares, the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee and the International Medical Corps. MSF initially told me that they were only accepting volunteers who’d worked with them previously or who had experience with viral hemorrhagic fevers (an exceedingly small group of people at that time). I asked if I could get the appropriate training whether they’d take me. They said sure. I then reached out to several biosafety level 4 labs throughout the USA and asked if they would be willing to train me as they do their staff. A couple said yes, if I could fly myself out there. One of those labs then got back to me to say that the CDC had also reached out to them to organize a training course of their own. I then signed up for the CDC course. I went back to MSF to ask about volunteering. By this time the epidemic was completely out of control, but they simply didn’t have the beds or capacity to take on more volunteers. As Dr. Armand Sprecher with MSF told me, “there’s no point in hiring more pilots and flight attendants if you don’t have planes to fly.” So I looked elsewhere.

The application process with each of these groups was chaotic. They were inundated with applications from interested people, but didn’t have the ability to sift through them. People volunteered for all sorts of reasons. Many didn’t have the right skill set, so it was important to vet the applicants. I eventually heard back from Partners in Health. I passed the two interviews and vetting process and was offered a placement in Sierra Leone. Then over the holidays in December 2014, I received a call informing me that they were withdrawing the offer due to my media ties. I went back to applying and eventually landed another placement with International Medical Corps, this time in Guinea.

J.P.: You’re married to Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated’s excellent (and always on the road) soccer writer. You, too, are always on the road. How do you guys make it work? What’s the longest you’ve gone without seeing one another?

C.G.: Good question. We try our best, but there’s no perfect solution.

We talk every day. We’re very much involved in the lives of each other’s families. When we’re in the same place, we enjoy each other’s company and shared interests. We also understand our limits. We realize there’s only so much we can take on, individually and as a couple. I don’t believe you can have it all, do everything well and be happy, at least not in our society. Grant and I don’t have kids because we don’t have the time or energy a child deserves and the time and energy it takes to maintain and nurture our marriage. I’d rather a husband and no kids than kids and no husband. Our two toy poodles, Coco and Zizou, are about as much as we can handle, and those two little furballs are our bundles of love and joy. As I write this, they’re snuggled up between me and Grant’s mom.

But these are very personal decisions. My mom was an amazing stay-at-home mom. My sister had a baby a year and a half ago and took almost a year off work afterwards to be with her daughter before going back to work part-time. My mom and my sister each made the right decisions for themselves and their families, as Grant and I have for ours.

That said, I also don’t travel as much as I used to. I left Johns Hopkins in 2012 in part because I’d burned out on all the traveling I was doing for work. Grant and I tried to align our trips as much as we could, but it still took a toll on us and our marriage.

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 11.00.39 AM


• Rank in order (favorite to least): Tim Howard, the Bureau of Tuberculosis Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, George Patton, handbags, Taco Bell, Adele, John Travolta, ESPN: The Magazine, Al Gore, Ben and Jerry’s: Al GoreBureau of Tuberculosis Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental HygieneGeorge Patton, handbags, Adele, John TravoltaTim HowardESPN: The Magazine (I love the Body Issue), Ben and Jerry’sTaco Bell.

• Someone sneezes at the table next to you without covering up. Your reaction is?: To give them a look of disgust. Especially since I know what a sneeze really looks like. But don’t cover your mouth and nose with your hands when you cough or sneeze. Use a tissue or the crook of your elbow.

• One question you would ask Desmond Tutu were he here right now?: How can the United States undertake its own truth and reconciliation process to help our country heal from its history of violence against blacks and Native Americans?

• What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: I find smells to be far more off-putting than anything I’ve ever seen. Smells trigger an especially primal part of the brain.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never. But I was asked to check on two sick passengers when flying back from Guinea after two months of volunteering during the Ebola epidemic. It crossed my mind that either passenger could have had Ebola.

• I have to think your last name is butchered quite a bit. What are the common misspellings?: Grounder

• Five favorite places to eat in New York City?: If I had to eat one cuisine for the rest of my life, it would be a toss up between sushi and French food. But since my mom is an excellent French cook and I’m a half-decent one, I tend to prefer going out for sushi. Our two current go-to spots are: Sushi Seki in Chelsea and Sugarfish in the Flatiron District. (We also love Kura, but it’s tiny, so you can’t just walk in; but the jewel box size and hushed whispers over soft jazz and exquisite fish make for a divine experience. We also love Sushi Nakazawa, but not only do you need a reservation well in advance, it’s also a big splurge.)

We enjoy going to BXL Zoute in Chelsea, Morandi in the West Village and LPQ in Central Park with our dogs when the weather is nice. Zizou likes eating bits of salad off my plate.

• Three memories from your first date?: With my husband Grant? 1. A black Argentine leather jacket; 2. Orangina; 3. Black and white cookies

• In exactly 22 words, make a medical argument for eating your own toenails …:

Hair and nails

Are made of keratin

Kid malnourished?

Got marasmus or kwashiorkor?

Eating nails might reduce hair loss

But won’t save lives

• As you surely know, at the end of “A Walk to Remember,” Jamie walks down the aisle for her wedding to Landon. She has leukemia, is days away from dying, but looks great and does everything without help. Is that even possible?: I haven’t seen it. I suppose she could have died suddenly if she had a leukemia-related complication like a blood clot.

Regina Jackson

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.42.33 AM

Sometimes it feels as if we focus our attentions upon the wrong people.

We talk about Donald Trump and Tom Brady and Lady Gaga. We talk about Kim Kardashian and the Real Housewives and whoever’s getting a rose on The Bachelor. We talk about famous people and infamous people and infamously famous people. But when, if you think about it, do we talk about the truly good people?

Regina Jackson, today’s magical 295th Quaz Q&A, is truly good. As president of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, she devotes her life to empowering the young people of Oakland to seek out service-oriented careers. Which is a task that, truly, can’t be simplified into a couple of words. Regina is all about character building, confidence building, understanding (and teaching) what it takes to rise above. Her accomplishments are infinite, her energy boundless, her devotion to decency inspiring.

She’s no Trump or Gaga.

She’s 100 million times better.

Regina Jackson, you are today’s Quaz.

JEFF PEARLMAN: You are the president of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, which—to be brief—empowers thousands of youth to seek and succeed in service-oriented careers. But that’s a pretty limited description. So I ask, Regina, what are you trying to do?

REGINA JACKSON: We are trying to increase the odds of success for our youth by teaching them to dream, exposing them to a vision of something bigger than they have imagined, training them and putting them in positions to succeed (character-based leadership; work-based learning) and identifying a network of other students with whom they can achieve together with. We increase the odds through social and emotional support, giving them a strong platform of compassion and courtesy. EOYDC’s echo system is a like a bubble which protects them as they hone skills and work to achieve their own brand of success which includes a strong support for character, education, arts, wellness and career development.

J.P.: I recently watched a pretty riveting interview with Marshawn Lynch, where he discussed—with mixed emotions—the development of Oakland. At one point, while he was speaking, a yuppie-looking guy rode past on a Hoverboard, and you could hear Lynch sigh audibly. I totally get it—because too often “gentrification” is a synonym for “build overpriced housing and force everyone who can’t afford it out.” So how do you feel about Oakland’s growth, development? Thrilled, or cringing? Or both?

R.J.: The pain of our prosperity is choking the life out of our most vulnerable population. Families who have been her forever are having to leave their homes because the value of property is simply too high. There is no priority for helping the little guy, so much of the attraction of Oakland is lost on our success/ transition. The beauty of Oakland is its art galleries, small businesses and hometown feel. Unfortunately, these unique spots are packing up one by one because they cannot afford to stay and there are no supports for them to stay. We are losing what is so special about Oakland.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.42.50 AM

J.P.: Can you tell me about Killer Corridor? The name? The place? And how does one combat a location with such a moniker?

R.J.: The Killer Corridor is an area where the highest rate of homicide is centered. It is located in deep East Oakland and EOYDC is smack dab in the middle of this area. We combat primarily with prevention-based programs. Much of the killing is kind of Hatfield and McCoy. Someone from one camp kills another and then there is payback and so on. We must teach children that they have something to live for. That way they are not so willing to just “smoke” someone.

J.P.: What’s the greatest success story from your career in public service?

R.J.: The success stories keep coming, but I guess the greatest thus far is Lanikque. She was the eldest of her siblings. When she graduated from high school she was the first in her entire family—ahead of Mom, etc. She had little exposure during high school; never having slept away from home, gone to the mountains, college campuses. We trained, exposed, encouraged her. She applied for 107 scholarships and received 37. She wanted to be a pediatrician. She attended UC-Berkeley and completed on time.

We encouraged her to study abroad. During that study she decided to get a PhD in social welfare instead. She wanted to change the system that supports children and families—especially those with mental illness. She was accepted to all the schools she applied to. She left the University of Wisconsin after two years to join the Obama Administration in the Office of Children and Families. She was named to the President Political Appointee Leadership Program. She has now returned to her PhD program and will finish in two years. She is 27-years old.

J.P.: What’s the greatest tragedy from your career in public service?

R.J.: There are many. But I think the greatest tragedy is the failure of our public education system to truly educate. Based upon our students’ academic achievement or lack thereof (we try to teach technology and then realize that our kids don’t know the alphabet), we totally shifted programming to lift education as a support program after school. We partner with schools and families to teach character, leadership and encourage literacy, math, technology, etc, We provide support, homework assistance, literacy in our after-school leadership program. We are piloting a new literacy and social and emotional learning program for our middle school students because of their inability to  get through high school without strong skills (there is also a spike in middle school dropout and suicide rates). We have intensive support for our pathway-to-college students, which includes college tours, scholarship and college mentoring support. We have a 100 percent college admission rate with an 86 percent graduation rate within four years. We have had GED or high school equivalency programing from the beginning—the dropout rate has been consistently high in the neighborhoods we serve. Approximately 50 percent of our GED graduates go on to junior college and the other half go straight to the workforce.

J.P.: A mutual friend wrote this about you: “She could totally be working at the White House. Instead she works on a strip called ‘Killer Corridor’ saving kids.” So, Regina, why do this? The money can’t be great. There’s minimal fame, ego boost, etc. So … why?

R.J.: I appreciate the compliment. I guess its because I come from a service-oriented family. Dad created the first race relations program for the United States Armed Forces. Mom was a social worker and worked in prisons before going to law school. She recently retired as a deputy city attorney.

My passion is to help youth succeed. I found my purpose early in my career. I had previously worked in areas where what you did did not show impact. Now I see impact every day. I see how what i do impacts families in a positive way. There is no greater feeling than pursuing your passion. No amount of money can replace that ” feel good.” I am affirmed through giving, by my kids and families.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.43.00 AM

J.P.: One often hears politicians say, in some form, “Everyone in America has a fair shot”—then defend the end of Affirmative Action, of social programs, etc. You once said, ““I’ve had kids who were pulled out of their homes [by child protective services] and put in temporary shelters. They are being raised by grandmothers and aunties, by alcoholics and guardians with significant challenges, economic and otherwise. These are children who, by and large, haven’t done anything wrong.” So how do we balance these two views? Does America give everyone a shot? Is that total nonsense?

R.J.: Unfortunately, America does not give everyone a fair shot. It is easier now (seeing the way that President Obama’s power was compromised) to see that most systems are not designed to support the least of these/have nots. There are different rules for different people and rarely does anyone look out for the little guy. I work hard for the underdog because the odds are stacked against them, but when given a real chance for success they often achieve in extraordinary ways. They understand the importance of emotional intelligence and compassion—because they have needed it so much in their lives. When i think about our Hiset students (high school equivalency; the program is called Education Empowerment), they struggle to return to a system that failed them. They have so many challenges and they knock them down one by one. When they finally participate in our cap and gown ceremony, they are so proud of themselves for having accomplished often without family support. They begin to be fearless about other challenges and it is the most empowering thing to watch. A fighter spirit!

J.P.: I’m going to throw a very random one your way. Yesterday I attended the funeral of my wife’s aunt, and now I can’t stop picturing her in a coffin beneath the earth. And I am terrified—absolutely terrified—of death; of eternal nothingness; of not existing. How do you feel about it? About the inevitability?

R.J.: I have buried more children than I care to count. After a while I stopped going to funerals—they depleted me so that I felt I had to reserve and preserve energy for those who were among the living. I know that there is a circle of life. I don’t think about death because I am too busy living my best life. I prefer to be in the now. I have a cup-half-full type of perspective—always hopeful. I am Catholic so we believe in the afterlife. But I still believe that I should live my legacy

J.P.: How are you able to keep going after the death of a child?

R.J.: It stops you in your tracks. You must take time to mourn, but because our kids see far too much death and lose too many friends, I force myself to be in a positive space. I push them past depression and grief with positive thoughts of their friends and the strength of their memories. I tell them that now they must succeed for the both of them. Through counseling, journaling and creating positive circles of support you hope to encourage people to want to live.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.43.28 AM


• Five reasons one should make Oakland his/her next vacation destination?: 1. Fantastic sunsets; 2. Great food; 3. Kind people; 4. Outstanding places of interest; 5. Powerful History

• Celine Dion calls. She wants to donate money to the cause. She’ll give $10 million, but you have to change your name to Morris Chestnut and get a tattoo of Gary Coleman across your forehead. You in?: Absolutely not.

• Five greatest singers of your lifetime?: Phyllis Hyman, Minnie Riperton, Michael Jackson, Regina Belle, Stevie Wonder.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ohio State University, Mario Lemieux, Kim Fields, Fiddler on the Roof, San Diego Zoo, Meg Ryan, church on Sunday, Fox News, Kyrie Irving, Little Shop of Horrors: San Diego Zoo, church on Sunday, Fiddler on the Roof, Ohio State University, Kim Fields, Meg Ryan, Mario Lemieux, Kyrie Irving, Little Shop of Horrors, Fox News.

• What’s your hidden talent?: I sing.

• One question you would ask Phil Donahue were he here right now?: Was never much of a talk show fan. Maybe, Why did you do “The men are cheaters” shows?

• In exactly 19 words, make a case for the music of Sheryl Crow: Her legacy is an ongoing storytelling version of lovely country music with depth, insight, compassion, warmth, love and soul.

• This is a song I absolutely love. Wondering what you think: I am not a big fan of rap. I think that Tupac was prophetic and poetic. I do like the Elton John mix. The song is definitely creative.

• Why didn’t you take a more of a public stance back when the Yankees acquired Ike Davis to play first base?: Huh?

• Who was your favorite Eight is Enough kid? Why?: Willie Aames. He was my age at the time. Don’t remember much of the storylines.

Jon Moscow

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 8.29.52 PM

Today’s Q&A is why—263 and five years in—I still love doing the Quaz.

Jon Moscow is not famous. He is not a household name. There have been precious few stories written of his plight; no mentions in history books; in chronicles of higher education; in Bob Dylan songs. Put different, upon first glance he is merely a guy.

And yet, that’s a false impression. Along with being the father of David Moscow, an actor and Quaz No 224, Jon Moscow is a man who has devoted much of his life to fighting sociological injustices. Back in the 1960s and ’70s he was heavily involved with the Black Panther Party, opening a health clinic in Portland to provide services for overlooked African-Americans. He has been arrested multiple times, including during a 1999 protest after Amadou Diallo was shot by the New York City Police Department. He burned his draft card in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention, compares Donald Trump’s rise to that of Hitler and Mussolini and believes climate change is worth screaming about.

In short, he’s a guy who gives a shit—and does something about it.

Jon Moscow, fight on. You’re Quaz No. 263 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Jon, in the late 1960s/early 1970s you were heavily involved with the Black Panther Party in Portland, ultimately opening up the Fred Hampton Memorial People’s Health Clinic to provide medical services to the region’s underserved African-American population. You also protested the Vietnam War, were arrested, etc … etc. I’ve never asked this of someone with such experiences, but I wonder: When you look around today, and you see the earth melting, you see millions of people staring down at glowing screens, seemingly concerned more about Kim Kardashian’s bare ass than, say, Trump-Clinton, do you ever feel like the efforts of you and yours were for naught?

JON MOSCOW: No. I think of the amazing things we—a multifarious, multi-faceted we—accomplished (and are continuing to accomplish). I love time-travel stories—Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear—but when I think of going back to the 1950s or early 60s I get claustrophobic. Racial segregation of everything from bathrooms to marriage; lynchings; male/female help wanted columns; homophobia so pervasive that the word didn’t exist; wife beating and pinching women’s butts topics for TV jokes. Child abuse invisible; vegetarians weird, and healthy food practically unavailable. Cigarette smoke everywhere. No environmental movement. The list goes on.

Everyone knows these things, but think of (or remember) living with them as the givens of daily life. I tried to watch Mad Men but couldn’t make it through the first episode. Of course, it’s only the time-traveler who sees it this way; when it’s happening, it’s just the way things are.

And that’s without mentioning the Vietnam War.

We changed or helped change all these things. We didn’t end the Vietnam War; the Vietnamese did. But we helped. And we changed ourselves at the same time, as day-to-day time travelers.

So there’s no way that any of it has been for naught. The idea of naught doesn’t even make any sense.

As far as comparing then and now, things are dialectical. When you solve one problem, the solution (or partial resolution) always generates other problems that then have to be confronted. I don’t think it’s working toward some definite end and, in the bargain, things rarely work out the way you think they will. We are always in “the best of times and the worst of times.” You just have to “keep on keepin’ on” to improve things and to stave off the worst. And I was so struck by Rabbi Michael Lerner’s eulogy at Muhammed Ali’s funeral, where he said, “the way to honor Muhammed Ali is to be Muhammed Ali.” You do what you need to do for your sense of integrity even when there is a price.

And lots of people are always going to be more concerned with the celebrity of the month, or, more importantly, with making the rent and feeding the kids so they don’t have time or energy to do other things.

Harrier days ...

Harrier days …

J.P.: Through the years the very words, “Black Panthers” have come to mean, among certain white (and Fox News-loving) circles, violence, disobedience, wrongheadedness, viciousness, racism, etc. But you were not only in Portland when the local chapter began—you were a (white) part of it. What has history misunderstood about the Black Panthers? What do people misunderstand?

J.M.: I wasn’t actually a member of the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party. I was in Health-RAP (Health Research and Action Project), a white group that was an ally of the Panthers. Health-RAP worked to make health care more accessible. At the time, the only public medical clinic in Portland was at the county hospital, up Sam Jackson Hill, which was hard to get to, and people had to be there at 8 am and sometimes wait all day to be seen. We successfully kept Buckman Clinic, Portland’s only public dental clinic, open. We also tried to get the non-profit hospitals such as Emanuel and Good Samaritan to serve the communities around them and to stop expanding and expanding at their expense. We were influenced a lot by Health-PAC, a really cool policy center with a national focus.

We collaborated with the Panthers to help start the Fred Hampton People’s Free Health Clinic and the Malcolm X People’s Free Dental Clinic. We named the health clinic for Fred Hampton the month after he was murdered in his sleep by the Chicago police. I was the treasurer of the clinics. The clinics were in the black community, Albina, but we welcomed everyone. The county social service offices even referred people, black and white, to us because there weren’t other places to refer them. It definitely was a trip to think of the welfare office referring people to a clinic with Emory’s Panther posters on the walls. When some of the volunteer doctors asked why we had the posters up, we pointed out that Good Samaritan had crosses on its walls and nobody asked why they had them.

Like Panther chapters elsewhere, the Panthers in Portland also started a free breakfast program for children. The government started school breakfast programs because it was embarrassing to have the Panthers being the only people providing them. In Portland, kids continued to come to the Panther breakfast program even after the schools had them because the food was better and the atmosphere was loving.

There’ve been a lot of lies and distortions about the Panthers because they were black revolutionaries. There are lies about anybody who tries to make change, especially anyone who challenges racism because of how deep it is in American history and society. To treat the Panthers with the respect they deserve is to have to look at the system they were fighting and to take responsibility for it. And that is scary. It’s scary as a country and it’s scary in Portland.

Portland’s history—and Oregon’s history—as far as black people is concerned, is ugly. Oregon banned black people when it was founded. It had a Klan governor in the 1920s. Oregon Public Broadcasting did a documentary (Lift Ev’ry Voice) that shows a lot of the history, including talking about the Panthers, and Ron Herndon, and other black activists and movements in Portland. There’s a really good book that just came out. It’s The Portland Black Panthers: Empowering Albina and Remaking a City, by Lucas N. N. Burke and Judson L. Jeffries. It puts the Panthers in the context of Portland’s history and gives them the credit they deserve. If you want to know what the Panthers stood for, read their 10-point platform. The Panther concept of “revolutionary intercommunalism” was a very exciting way of approaching how people can build their own communities, but work collaboratively with other communities—it is the antithesis of racism or of “narrow nationalism,” which the Panthers opposed.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 5.16.14 PM

J.P.: You were a kid from Long Island, living your young life. You could have surely ended up like your peers. Who, I imagine, largely stayed in the bubble, attended college, got jobs at banks, law firms, schools, etc. But when you were 13 you read a story in Newsday about a group of people arrested while demonstrating against school segregation, then joined the Congress of Racial Equality. What was it about you that stirred the empathy? The emotion? The desire to help those of different races at a time when many stayed within their ethnic lane?

J.M.: It just seemed like the thing to do. First of all, it was 1962 and a lot of other teenagers were going through the same thing. Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’” came out in 1964, but they were changin’ in 1962 as well. In retrospect, I can think of a number of things. An important one, in both positive and negative ways, was my parents. My parents had been socialists in the ‘30s and went to rallies to support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. My father was a founder of the Newspaper Guild in New York City and was active trying to get the U.S. to fight the Nazis. He argued his way into the army in World War II at age 38 because he wanted to fight, even though he could easily have been exempted. My parents told me that the only way Jews would ever be safe was if everyone was and the only Jewish holiday we really celebrated was Passover, as a holiday of liberation. We had Paul Robeson records, including “Songs of Free Men,” with an album jacket of a dagger slashing a Nazi snake. I read Emma Goldman’s Living My Life when I was about 11 or 12 because it was on a lower shelf of my parents’ library and I was fascinated by the idea that it was a first edition.

On the other hand, my father, whom I admired in many ways, had no idea of how to deal with children, which he apologized to me for many years later. He expected obedience from my sister and me and didn’t know what to do when he didn’t get it. Today, I would be considered a physically abused child. At the time, there was no such concept. When I tried calling the police once when I was about 9 or 10, they told me, “Son, whatever your father does is right.” When my sister’s older boyfriend took us to our family doctor’s office in the middle of the night so he could look to see if my finger was broken, the doctor never asked any questions. I decided early that family is the root of all evils and that I would never get married, much less have kids. Of course, I’ve now been very happily married to Pat for 42 years and have two sons—David and Lev—who I’m very close to, but it took a long time and a lot of changes to get there. The experience with the police made me cynical about the police and official versions of reality. I think all these things helped contribute to me becoming a radical and an activist.

J.P.: How do you explain the rise of Donald Trump? How does it make you feel?

J.M.: A lot of people wonder how Hitler and Mussolini and lots of other demagogues get into power. Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in the 1930’s to show that it could. Trump’s rise shows how it could happen now. Trump’s rise is scary. Also scary is that the Republican establishment’s disagreements with him were that he wasn’t right-wing enough. They were torn between crawling into his camp and keeping their particular set of super-right wing tax cuts for the wealthy, gut-social security, put-women’s- and-gay-and- trans people’s-bodies back-under-their-control, die-quickly-if-you-get-sick policies intact.

Now it looks like you’re getting a convergence. They’ve mostly crawled in, while keeping their policies intact. So you’ve got North Carolina doubling down on the imaginary dangers of trans folks in bathrooms. Even after Orlando, you have Rick Scott refusing to say “LGBT.” And the Republican leaders who are ambivalent about Trump at this point are mostly simply trying to decide if he’s become too toxic—too out front in what they’ve been doing through their racist dog-whistles all these years– for them to keep their seats.

What’s also scary and often overlooked is that while Trump is getting a lot of the attention, a lot of the things he’s advocating are already in place with very little attention. For example, just in the last month the New York Police Department restated in Federal court in the Handschu Guidelines Fair Hearing their intention to keep doing broad, suspicion-less surveillance of Muslim communities if they want to. And in a Freedom of Information Law case in New York State, an appeals court ruled that the NYPD could refuse to either confirm or deny whether they had records on someone having been under surveillance—rejecting the idea that, at least, they should have to make a case to a judge in the judge’s chambers.

With Pat Sterner.

With Pat Sterner.

J.P.: You turned 18 in 1966, you burned your draft card in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention, then sent the ashes to the draft board. So … what happened next? And why were you so bothered by Vietnam?

J.M.: I was lucky. Nothing more happened with my draft board, Selective Service Board #6, the most reactionary board in the country, when I sent the ashes. I had applied for conscientious objector status on grounds that I was a pacifist but that I wouldn’t go even if I weren’t because the war was immoral, but they rejected that. I refused to apply for a student deferment, so I was 1-A. Because I failed my physical, I didn’t have to refuse induction, and stayed out of jail.

How could anyone not be “bothered” or more accurately, horrified, by what the U.S. government was doing in Vietnam? As Martin Luther King said in his Riverside Church speech in 1967, our government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” They can name a holiday for him and put him on the back of $10 bills, but they have to hope that few people today read that speech. Unfortunately, it’s as applicable today as it was then.

J.P.: You were arrested. I’ve never been arrested. What happened? What was it like? Even though I’m guessing you expected it to happen, were you terrified? Satisfied? And what do you remember of your time in jail?

J.M.: I’ve been arrested a number of times, sometimes planned and sometimes unplanned. Unlike friends who were in Parchman jail in Mississippi during the Freedom Rides or in federal prison for draft resistance, my longest stay has been overnight. The one with the best outcome was when I was arrested during the Fry Roofing strike in the summer of 1969 in Portland. The leftist political community and the beginnings of the environmental movement joined in supporting the workers at a factory that combined bad labor practices with terrible pollution. We had a big demonstration that caught the police off guard—surprisingly, because we’d put flyers all over the city. So people stopped scabs from going in and tore down the company fence. Wally Priestley, a distinctly atypical state legislator, drove his car onto the assembly line and shut it down. The next day there weren’t many of us and there were lots of cops. The company had gotten an injunction against blocking the entrance and a police lieutenant delivered it to the union trailer. But we weren’t part of the union, so I shouted, “I haven’t even seen your fucking injunction.” They arrested me for disorderly conduct—this was 6:30 am in the industrial area of Portland, so I’m sure everyone was shocked at hearing the f-word. The arresting cop punched me in the stomach in the cop car to let me know what he would do if “you were my kid.”

Anyway, I had to find witnesses and someone said, “The Sterner girls were there.” So, I met Pat and her sister, Arla. Pat had seen the arrest and said she’d testify but she needed a subpoena to get off work. It turns out she thought I was cute.

The cop never showed up in court, but I still have the subpoena over my desk. It makes a good story when people ask how Pat and I met.

Another time I got arrested on a picket line going to help a friend who was legally blind who had gotten in a fight with someone who was harassing the picket line. Of course, I discovered later that my friend had actually started that fight …

The most recent time was when Amadou Diallo was shot by the NYPD in 1999. That one was a planned arrest with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, blocking the entrance to One Police Plaza. We organized something like 125 Jews, including 15 rabbis, to get arrested, on one day in a series of planned arrests by different groups. It made the front page of the Times because it signaled to Mayor Giuliani that he had lost that battle.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 5.16.01 PM

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

J.M.: Don’t know yet. Ask me in 30 years if I’m still around. Actually, I don’t think so much about the “greatest” moment as just feeling OK that Pat and I have been able to live our lives the way we’ve wanted to. We were really determined that we wouldn’t stop being activists and taking necessary risks when we had kids and had to worry about schools, and rent or mortgages. And we’ve been able to integrate our politics into our lives on an ongoing basis. I am really happy that my kids turned out to be mensches. I’ve gotten to work with both of them on work-related projects. David and I have worked for almost five years now on “Brown,” a feature screenplay about John Brown, which has been optioned, and with luck may become “a major motion picture coming to a theater near you.”

Lowest moments are those middle-of-the-night times when I think of all the really stupid and silly things I’ve done. Mostly, I’m able to just say, “There’s nothing I can do about them now” and let them go, but sometimes …

J.P.: This might sound like as odd question, but how did you feel about your son going into acting? I mean, here you are, a guy who lived his life fighting, protesting, struggling for change. And your child enters a visual medium with, some could argue, the fleeting impact of temporary enjoyment.

J.M.: I’m much more concerned with what kind of person he’s become. And like I said, he’s a mensch. Entertainment and culture are super-important. As Emma Goldman said, “I don’t want your revolution if I can’t dance.” Working with David on “Brown” has been very exciting. I can imagine a tag line: “Before there was Lincoln, there was Brown.”

Also, there are lots of similarities between being an actor and being an activist. Demonstrations and rallies are true-life performances designed to make a point and both educate and sway people’s emotions.

J.P.: I live in California, and I’m at a loss with the drought. I truly am. It’s the worst in state history, yet nobody seems to care. Sprinklers run, pools are filled, etc … etc. I feel helpless; like I’m screaming into the wind. So what’s a guy to do?

J.M.: Whether it’s the drought or Miami Beach going under water or all the other “climate weirding” things that are happening, you just have to keep screaming. It may feel like your voice is getting carried away by the wind, but if “two and two and fifty make a million” people screaming, there’s an impact. We just have to hope that it’s fast enough.

J.P.: You turn 68 this year. I’m wondering how you feel about aging and the inevitability of death. Does it keep you up nights? Not bother you at all? Do you think, once a final breath is taken you’re simply gone forever, food for the worms? And are you comfortable with that?

J.M.: I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I love reading about the ways it’s been imagined. Two of my favorites are Mark Twain’s “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” and I.L. Peretz’s “Bontsha The Silent.” I’ll be fine with being worm food, ashes under a tree, but it will also be nice if there’s something totally different from anything we’ve imagined. I’ve gone through the dying process with my parents and with a number of older friends and I’ve seen that a lot of times there comes a point when they say, “I’m tired. I’m ready to go.” And that’s sort of comforting. I definitely believe in a right to die—to pick the time and manner of your death.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 8.31.51 PM


• Five greatest leaders of your lifetime: “Don’t follow leaders/watch your parking meters.” So here are some non-leaders, and as long as I’m disregarding your instructions, here are more than five. The members of SNCC and CORE in the South collectively; Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; Ella Baker; Dick Gregory; Eleanor Roosevelt; Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Kurt Vonnegut.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mike Pagliarulo, Bobby Seale, “Dances with Wolves,” Oakland, spray tanning, Robert Loggia, Donna Summer, the smell of mashed potato, Bernie Sanders, Food Network, NFL cheerleaders: I hate rank orders, especially since US News and World Report started doing their stupid rankings of schools and everything else. So (in no particular order) I love the smell of mashed potatoes, feel the Bern, and admire Bobby Seale for starting the Panthers and not falling apart like Huey did. I’m glad the NFL cheerleaders are doing a class action for better pay and workplace rights; Robert Loggia was great in “Big” (and other things). I enjoyed “Dances with Wolves,” until Kevin Kostner ruined it for me a few years later by messing with Lakota land to get even richer. I just don’t understand the compulsion to get rich once you have enough to be comfortable and not to have to worry about not having any money. Don’t know much about Mike Pagliarulo, but can (on some days) recite the 1961 Yankee lineup from memory.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Every time I take off and every time there’s turbulence. I just watch to see when the wing is going to break off and wonder what it will feel like if it actually does.

• What’s the impact on your life of sharing a last name with the Russian capital?: When I was a kid in the early ‘50s, other kids knew the Russians were “bad” and they knew the Nazis were “bad” but they sometimes got them confused, so they would come up and say “Heil Hitler” and laugh. Lots of people seem to think Moscow must be short for Moscowitz, which it isn’t. It’s easy for people to spell once you tell them it’s “the same as the city in Russia.” No one ever spells Jon right even when you tell them.

• Three memories from your first-ever date?: I remember the girl well; I thought it was amazing that she used beer on her hair; and I was totally focused on whether we would kiss good night because that is what was supposed to happen.

• Best advice you ever received?: “Facts don’t speak for themselves.” “Never compare your own insides to someone else’s outside.” “We’re never getting divorced so we might as well make up as soon as possible.”

• Five reasons one should make Portland his/her next vacation destination?: The coast, the Gorge, Mt. Hood, Forest Park, The Lathe of Heaven, Trask, “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.”

• You wrote, “The Supervisory Selection Process in New York City: A Parent Activist Perspective.” I’m thinking the movie stars Brad Pitt and Emily Watson. You game?: More like a seven-year HBO series. Maybe like “The Sopranos” in a school setting.

• You have a six-page resume. My college journalism professor always told me to keep the resume to one page. Think you can get that to me in a few hours?: Which resume do you want? I’ve got several, all accurate, all different.

• In exactly 22 words, what are your thoughts on Common Core?: Experts developed Common Core in isolation, rushed its introduction, and tied it into destructive testing. Things never turn out how you expect.

Peter Gleick

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 11.58.48 PM

Although I am 100-percent certain man-impacted climate change is one of the great threats facing humanity, I’m often ineloquent in its defense. That’s the problem with having no scientific background—you can digest what’s said, and form your own opinions. But when you’re asked to stand up and make your case, well … eh, it ain’t easy.

Enter: Peter Gleick.

The founder of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank that provides science-based thought leadership with active outreach to influence efforts in developing sustainable water policies, Dr. Gleick is:

A. The smartest dude to do a Quaz.

B. The perfect person to go deep on the environment.

C. Cool as shit.

I’m particularly happy because Dr. Gleick took the time to answer three questions (all below) submitted by King Wenclas, a huge Donald Trump supporter who seems to believe much (if not all) of the climate talk is hooey (he won’t agree, because deniers rarely agree—but he was pretty much smacked around by ol’ Gleick).

Anyhow, here Peter explains in very detailed-yet-digestible why climate change is real, why listening to Donald Trump is wrong and why he prefers Todd Gurley to Marco Rubio. One can follow Dr. Gleick on Twitter here and read some of his work here and here. Oh, and check out his website here.

Dr. Peter Gleick, yes, the world is melting. But you’re Quaz No. 262!

JEFF PEARLMAN: Peter, I want to start with some seemingly basic, yet somehow not basic at all. Namely, I feel like—at some point in our modern history—it became OK for political leaders to reject science, and then followers would, well, follow. It’s certainly that way with the GOP and climate change. Why do you think this is? Or, put different, why are people so willing to ignore science?

PETER GLEICK: Gee, couldn’t we start with something easy? Like, what’s my favorite color? Wait, I don’t have an easy answer to that one either.

People reject science for different reasons. And while some high-profile scientific findings, like climate change science, are almost exclusively rejected by some Republican leaders and followers, I would note that science denial is not exclusively a problem with the GOP. There are examples where left-leaning politicians and individuals also reject well-understood science. Having said that, the worst science denial certainly has come from the right-wing in recent years. The reasons are varied:

• Sometimes a scientific finding conflicts with a deeply held religious belief. Evolution is an example of this.

• Sometimes it is based solely on ignorance about the extent of knowledge. Not everyone has scientific training, or learns how to evaluate scientific information.

• Sometimes it may conflict with another core belief (“I simply cannot believe that humans can affect something as big as the planet’s climate.”)

• Sometimes there are purely venal economic reasons for rejecting a scientific finding. There is a classic statement attributed to Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Given the massive economic interests that will be affected if we have to stop burning fossil fuels, this is a major driver of climate denial. A lot of money rides on what actions we take to tackle climate change. (Though I’d note that a lot more money rides on our failing to do so.)

• Finally, sometimes people reject science because they fear that if they accept a scientific finding, it will lead to something else they fear worse: stronger government action or higher taxes or a bad outcome over which they have no control.

The science of climate change is incredibly strong. Ninety-seven percent of scientists with any training in climate sciences support the conclusion that human-caused climate change is underway. Every single national academy of sciences on the planet, and every single professional scientific society in the geosciences supports this conclusion as well. The vocal climate denial we see today comes from a tiny number of very well supported and funded interests, and it comes from people who fall into all of the examples above.

J.P.: No one seems willing to flat-out say this, but are we fucked? In other words, is the world doomed to be uninhabitable sooner than later? Or can this possible work itself out?

P.G.: Well, sooner or (really, much later) the sun is going to explode, so, yes, eventually we’re fucked. But that’s not really what you’re asking, is it?  No, I don’t think there is any evidence that the world is doomed to be uninhabitable soon—i.e., for many, many centuries or far longer. It is true, however, that if no action is taken to slow the rate of climate change, things would go off the rails much sooner, for a larger and larger part of our population. The real issue is not the end of the human race; the real issue is misery and poverty for more and more people, dislocation of populations as seas and temperatures rise and force people to move, destruction of natural ecosystems … unfortunately, things can get pretty miserable and dystopian long before the earth is actually uninhabitable.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 11.01.11 PM

J.P.: So there’s a guy on Twitter, his name is King Wenclas, and he’s the author of a pro-Trump book and a guy who insists man-induced climate change is nonsense. We were having some heated back and forths, and I finally said, “There are people who know much more than I do. I’m having an expert as a Quaz, what do you want me to ask him. So, here’s one: “With credible weather & CO2 records going back less than 200 years, an instant in geological time, isn’t it impossible to say recent warming is NOT natural or cyclical?”

P.G.: So, there’s an old joke: a guy walks into a bar and a bunch of old guys are sitting around drinking. Every now and then, one of them says a number and everyone laughs. Then someone else says a number, and everyone laughs. “What’s going on,” asks the newcomer. “Well, we’re old, long-time friends here and we’ve heard each other’s jokes for so long, we just gave them numbers to make it easier.” (There’s a second funny punchline too, but it’s not relevant to my answer.)

There are so many classic, uninformed, or misleading arguments against the science of climate change that have been repeated so often, that climate scientists have given them numbers. Check out this incredibly useful website, Skeptical Science, that has 193 of the common and esoteric climate misunderstandings and distortions, numbered and summarized, with short and long detailed reasons why they are wrong.

In this case, Wenclas’s argument is addressed by numbers 57 and 58.

There are three fundamental reasons his basic claim about weather and CO2 records is wrong and why the scientific community has clearly ruled out natural or cyclical climate changes:

First, there is an entire field of science called paleoclimatology—basically, the science of ancient climates. We have learning a fantastic amount about ancient climates and how and why they have varied, based on ice cores, fossil records, pollen layers in soils, tree rings, and much more. For example, there is an 800,000-year long highly accurate record of atmospheric temperature and CO2 concentrations taken from ancient ice cores from Antarctica (See the figure). A pretty remarkable thing: it shows the ups and downs from natural changes, but it also shows the explosion in CO2 in the atmosphere from human activities in the past century. And this evidence shows that the current changes are outside of natural variability.

Second, we understand the physics and the theory of how gases in the atmosphere behave, and we understand very well the factors that caused past, natural climate changes. That understanding lets us test what more CO2 and other gases will and are doing. And these past natural factors simply cannot explain current changes, while rising human-emitted gases DO explain them.

Finally, we have extensive observation that support the theory. It isn’t just rising temperatures, it’s everything else we see happening too: rising sea level, disappearing Arctic ice, changes in how birds migrate, moving plant populations, earlier springs, and on and on.

For fun, here is an incredibly cool graphic that shows the warming we’ve seen in the past century or so, and the influences of natural cycles, the sun, and other factors, compared to human influences. It shows beautifully that ONLY human factors fully explain what we see.

J.P.: And here’s another: “As life on earth is completely dependent on the sun, isn’t sun the most likely suspect in any global warming?”

P.G.: 2, 89, 111, 144, 182 (apropos my number joke above, here are the numbers assigned to this by Skeptical Science).

Sure, the sun is a very likely suspect; so likely that scientists have spent great effort looking into this question—and it has been debunked over, and over, and over again. Indeed, “Isn’t it the sun?” is such an old argument that it was given No. 2 on the Skeptical Science website, along with a few other related arguments (the numbers I list above). I won’t summarize them here, but seriously, do skeptics think that scientists haven’t thought of the sun and pretty much every single other possible factor, tested those ideas, and ruled them out? That’s what scientists do.

Look it would be great if humans weren’t responsible—we’d be off the hook and wouldn’t have to change what we’re doing. But once we learn something is bad and it’s our fault, we have an obligation not to bury our heads in the sand and ignore it.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 11.01.55 PM

J.P.: And lastly, I’ll give him this one: “Computers can’t predict who’ll win the Super Bowl or a horse race or an MMA fight with a minimum of variables. How can they accurately predict climate, with a thousand times more variables?”

P.G.: This is another classic misunderstanding: the confusion between “climate” and “weather.”

It is absolutely true that no computer model can predict the precise weather more than a few days into the future. But “climate” is the long-term average of weather, and climate models can do an excellent job of forecasting future climatic conditions. This is the difference between saying, “There will be a high of 95 degrees and half an inch of rain on February 5, 2083”—which we cannot do, and never will be able to do, versus saying “In the 2080s, the average temperature is going to be around 5 degrees hotter than it is now, seas are going to be around a meter higher, and the Sierra Nevada mountains will have a lot less snow”—which we absolutely can do. And our climate models are getting better every day.

This is, however, a reasonable question in another way. There is a really important “human” component to climate modeling. Just as the “human factor” makes it impossible to accurately predict precise outcomes of sporting events, the human factor limits the ability of climate models. We are getting the physics and climate science down very well in these models (and better all the time), but what happens to future climate also depends on what humans chose to do about it: how much fossil fuel are we going to burn and how fast; how many greenhouse gases are we going to put into the atmosphere; will the countries of the world act to slow emissions, and how soon? These are human/economic/political factors we cannot predict and they will ultimately determine how fast climate changes and how severe the impacts will be.

J.P.: Peter, what’s your life path? I mean, I know you attended Yale to study engineering; know you went to Berkeley for master’s and doctorate; know you are the president and co-founder of Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security. But … when did you know this was what you wanted? How did you know? And when were you first aware of the true peril of climate change?

P.G.: Well, I guess I meander along life’s way, like most people, but I have a basic passion for the environment and science. I had an enlightening conversation with my father when I was young: one day I naively asked him if he could live his life over, what would he do differently, thinking the answer was that he’d not change a thing: he was a lawyer in New York, a good one, with a strong and comfortable family life. Without hesitating, he said he’d be a park ranger in the national parks in the west. This was a huge surprise to me, but what stuck with me was his unspoken message to do what excited me, rather than what anyone else might expect or want.

That has led me to work on climate and water issues from back when I was in graduate school. When I co-founded the Institute, which tackles these issues, I had no idea how long it would last, or whether others would find the idea of doing research and policy work on these difficult problems worthwhile. But here we are, 28 years later, and there is still plenty of interest and plenty to do. I’ve been aware of the threat of climate change since the early 1980s—even then the science was pretty strong and it’s only gotten stronger since then.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 11.02.32 PM

J.P.: You’ve been pretty outspoken against Donald Trump as the potential president. Why?

P.G.: On a professional level, I judge his positions (to the extent one can even figure out what his positions are) to be completely antithetical to the realities of science, the threats to our environment and planet, and the best interests of the United States.

On a personal level, I find his positions (again, to the extent one can figure them out) on issues like women’s rights, ethnic diversity and immigration, racism, international security, basic economics and basic decency to be despicable.

In short, I find the risks of a Trump presidency to be so grave that I intend to keep speaking out against it.

J.P.: Recently coal has been a pretty hot topic, with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seeming to pander to miners. But it strikes me that, in 2016, we just need coal to go away. My questions: A. How awful is coal for air quality? B. Do you feel like its eradication as an energy source is inevitable? C. What can we tell miners who are going to lose their jobs? Sources of income?

P.G.: Ha, ha, good pun (hot topic). Yes, coal is a really, really bad fuel—the dirtiest. It’s bad when we dig it out, it’s bad when we burn it, and it’s bad when we dispose of the ash and waste. I do think that the era of coal is ending. There are far better, cleaner, and safer alternatives. But we have a lot of existing coal plants, and many parts of the world depend on them. The challenge is to phase them out as fast as possible and to do so in a way that supports workers in the coal industry. That means retraining and redevelopment in coal mining regions.

It is true, and difficult, when an industry fails and the people who work in that industry lose jobs, but this is not sufficient reason to keep a failing industry going. What did we tell people who manufactured steam locomotives, or telegraphs, or VCRs, or tape decks, or any other industry that became obsolete? This is the free market at work, and if Donald Trump or the GOP truly believed in the free market, they would accept that markets and industries change. Oddly, it seems that Trump would have his government interfere with the market that tells us that coal is on its way out, but would refuse to have his government provide assistance to its workers.

But again, here is some good news: the incredibly rapid expansion of renewable energy: solar and wind in particular, has led to a massive number of new jobs. There are now more people in the United States working in the solar industry than in the coal industry, and this trend will continue.

J.P.: In 1999 you wrote a paper, “The Human Right to Water,” that argued all people deserve safe, clean drinking water. That was 17 years ago. How has the situation changed?

P.G.: This is another area where there is good news! First, though it took years, in 2010 the United Nations formally declared a legal human right to safe water and sanitation. This is a fantastic step forward. The other good news is that while far too many people worldwide still do not have access to safe water, we’re moving in the right direction and the UN has set a goal (one of the “Sustainable Development Goals”) of providing everyone with safe water by 2030.

J.P.: Being serious—how do you sleep? What I mean is, I look around the world and I see soooooo much awfulness and indifference. And I just don’t know what to do; how to enjoy a milkshake when Glacier National Park is disintegrating. Are you able to separate work harshness from personal satisfaction?

P.G.: There is plenty of awfulness and indifference. But there are also so many people committed to trying to do the right thing and make a difference, and I get work satisfaction from tackling difficult problems and seeing progress in the right direction. I’m actually an optimist in the sense that I think we’ll eventually solve these problems of climate change, water scarcity, and environmental injustice. We just have to work as hard as possible so these solutions come sooner rather than later. In the end, we do what we can and we make peace with ourselves. Enjoy your milkshake! (But you’d better go visit Glacier National Park while it still has glaciers.)

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 11.03.58 PM


• In exactly 23 words, make an argument for scented candles: Scented candles are an abomination, fouling air, assaulting the senses, and probably causing all sorts of horrid diseases. Oh, you meant “for” them?

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ronald McDonald, Rafael Nadal, Todd Gurley, Poland Springs, “The Breakfast Club,” Marco Rubio, Grateful Dead, corn on the cob, Costco: Grateful Dead, corn on the cob, Rafael Nadal, Todd Gurley, Costco, The Breakfast Club, Ronald McDonald, Poland Springs, Marco Rubio [Rubio might have been ranked higher, except for his endorsement of Donald Trump. I mean, has he no self-respect?]

Donald Trump says there is no drought in California. Why would he say such a thing?: Really, who knows why anything in particular comes out of Trump’s mouth? In this case, it appears he was pandering to some conservative farmers. Oh, and here is the official drought monitor map for California, from the University of Nebraska’s drought center, updated weekly. California’s drought is its worst in 1,200 years, and on top of it, we have nearly 40 million people dependent on the water we have.

• Five all-time favorite scientists?: 1. Eratosthenes (a mathematician, poet, musician and inventor of geography. Also, he was the first person to accurately measure the circumference of the round earth, and he basically did it with a stick.); 2 Albert Einstein (for, well, everything in modern physics. Also that hair.); 3. Charles Darwin (because, evolution.); 4. Galileo Galilei (for speaking scientific truth to religious dogmatism.); 5. Leonardo da Vinci (oh, come on. Have you seen everything he did? I figure he invented a time machine in the future, went back to the past, and got stuck.)

• The world needs to know: How crazy are those US National Academy of Science holiday parties?: The first rule of US National Academy of Science holiday parties is you do not talk about US National Academy of Science holiday parties. The second rule …

• One question you would ask 50 Cent were he here right now: This one stumps me. I met Jay-Z once at a UN event working to solve global water problems and I didn’t know what to ask him either.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No, never.

• Three memories from your high school gym class: Watching Paul beat up Brendon, two years after Brendon picked on him, once Paul reached puberty and grew; watching the girl’s gymnastics team, because, well, girls and gymnastics; lettering in varsity soccer even though my greatest contribution was warming the bench.

• Would you rather permanently change your name to Celine Dion-Analcavity or spend a year listening to Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” seven hours every day on audio?: Can I gouge my eyes out with sharp sticks? Is that a third choice?

• Do you think the Padres made a mistake trading Ozzie Smith for Garry Templeton?: Channeling my late father, who was a die-hard Cardinal fans, the answer to that would have to be a yes, ha, ha, suck it up, Padres.

Brian Stranko

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.32.38 PM


Finding a decent photograph of the 204th Quaz selection was pretty impossible.

It’s not that Brian Stranko is an ugly dude, or particularly camera shy. Nope. Unlike many others who appeared in this space, he simply doesn’t seem to care about images and surface impressions. Which, in this case, is a good thing. Because Brian has a significantly more important issue to focus upon.

Though you almost certainly haven’t heard of Brian Stranko, he’s an increasingly strong voice in the fight to save California—drought-stricken state—from itself. Or, really, Californians from themselves. As the director of the water program for the Nature Conservancy, one of California’s most influential environmental organizations, Brian is working tirelessly to help this state survive the worst drought in modern history. He also happens to be a fan of Sherman Douglas and killer whales, but needs not another Spice Girls reunion.

Brian Stranko, Quaz No. 204, save us from ourselves …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Brian, blunt question and I truly fear the answer: Is it possible within the next, oh, 10 years, that California runs out of water, and we’re a dry state and there’s this crazy mass exodus? Because I’m starting to freak out.

BRIAN STRANKO: Believe me, I’ve thought about selling the house now and moving to a wetter state so that I don’t risk the dramatic decline of real estate and subsequent near-refugee feeling my family might undergo, but I’ve come to the conclusion that California won’t run out of water in the next 10 years. Instead, we will make fundamental changes to how we manage our water. Certainly the outlook is dire now—farms are fallowing, communities are running out of water and nature, particularly rivers, streams and wetlands are suffering.

And evidence suggests that two sobering realities will further challenge us to responsibly manage our water: 1) climate change will modify our precipitation and snow-melt patterns for the long run, and 2) the last 200 years (when we built up California) have been some of the wettest in the last 8,000 (meaning “normal” for us is drier than we’ve experienced in generations), suggesting that “normal” is drier anyway. But, with the crisis of the drought, momentum has been building toward widespread foundational changes that bring the promise of the Golden State returning to a level of water use that is within the limits nature provides us—both in wet and dry years.

In 2014, we passed a $7.5 billion water bond that provides investment capital for improving how we manage our water, improve our infrastructure and restore and protect the natural components of our water system. We also passed a package of groundwater reform bills that finally makes California the last state in the nation to embrace statewide groundwater management rules. And we established a governor-led initiative called the California Water Action Plan that charts a course for long-term, sustainable water management. We are nowhere near where we need to be, and this year’s incredibly dry, anemic snowpack backdrop will exacerbate our challenges, but we have building blocks and willingness amongst many stakeholders we have not seen in a long time. Just today, I participated in a roundtable discussion in the capital about our long-term water future. Australia faced a similar challenge recently. They did not run out of water. They kick-started a broad set of efforts to transform how they deal with water. It is both worthwhile and sensible to be hopeful.

J.P.: The wife and I moved to California from New York seven months ago. It was my idea, because I love the west coast and I hate winter and I’ve always cherished Southern Cal. But—because of the drought—was this a really dumb thing to do?

B.S.: Jeff, I thought I knew what snow was, growing up in Pennsylvania. Then I went to Syracuse for college. Sheesh. Eight months of the year walking through tunnels of snow. I get what you mean when you say you hate winter. No doubt I’m here in California for a similar reason (and I love it, by the way).

I don’t think it was really dumb to come to California. We do have a drought, but, as I describe above, I think we will work things out (though we’ll break some eggs in the process). I think living here does come with a responsibility though—one that we all have as Californians since we live in a water-scarce state. This doesn’t mean only showering three minutes instead of seven, it also means, in my mind, understanding the bigger picture issues (groundwater, responsible urban and ag water use, and sustainability of freshwater ecosystems) and being conversant with them. You’ll do fine. Urban centers will do fine, but we will be strapped to balance across urban, ag and environmental needs—and we will need to reconcile what this balance is.

J.P.: So I live in an area where people truly don’t seem to give a crap. They wash their cars, they sprinkle their lawns, they take 10 minutes before little league games to spray down fields. And I feel … lost. What am I supposed to do? What action should I be taking? Can I scream at people?

B.S.: I’m a bit divided on this, I have to say. Residential water use in the state is about 10 percent of the overall human developed water use—not much. Yet most of our population is residential (about 80 percent live in coastal cities). So, on the one hand, residential and urban water use reductions don’t actually contribute a lot to the big picture (agriculture uses about 80 percent of the human-used water annually on average). That said, in some residential communities that do have local shortages, cutting down is essential so that all families (rich and poor) can receive the water they need, and residential users participating in cutting back helps to advance the cause and the momentum toward us all cutting back given that they represent a strong share of the voting population.

So, I’d say don’t freak out on people, but educate them on the issues. They can decide for themselves. But often folks want to contribute to a solution. Enable them. Help them.

J.P.: A lot of people seem to hate guys like you, because they feel like environmental protections are hurting farmers. In particular, you hear a lot about smelt, and protections preventing more water from being used. Is there some legitimacy to this criticism? Why should I give two turds about smelt?

B.S.: If I had a nickel for every “two turds” conversation I’ve had …

OK, I need to underscore one thing—the environment and endangered species did not cause the drought. In fact, on average, our freshwater species today receive only about 50 percent of the water they received in previous centuries/millenia because so much of it is now diverted out of the environment to provide for human uses. It is easy to blame smelt or salmon or waterbirds, but they experience a perpetual drought now that is exacerbated when we have actual drought.

Instead, what works really well is finding ways to provide for people while also providing for nature. This can work because nature doesn’t need just some bulk amount of water all year long. Rather nature is used to annual boom and bust cycles (i.e. nature receives big flows when it rains and when snow melts in the winter/spring and receives low flows when they both end in the summer). Recognizing this allows us to consider how we can provide precise, “dynamic flows” for nature when it needs it while also providing for farms and cities. Oftentimes this recognition of dynamic flow needs for nature simply changes the game in terms of farms versus nature or nature versus cities. We at the Nature Conservancy have plenty of examples of how this can work—for example, between ranchers or vineyards and salmon or between rice farmers and birds.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.32.29 PM

J.P.: Jerry Brown recently came out with a demand of 25-percent mandatory water cuts—without turning toward agriculture. Yet it seems like farmers use far more water than civilians—even greedy ones watering their McMansion lawns. Is farming—almonds and alfalfa—the biggest problem here? Does it truly even matter if my neighbor stops washing his car?

B.S.: Governor Brown’s executive order is a good thing. It puts an exclamation point, particularly among our population centers that we need to get serious. Also, despite some reports to the contrary, the Executive Order does actually require some things of agriculture. It requires some ag areas to develop and report agricultural management water use plans. It also requires some agricultural areas to report their groundwater and surface water use. That said, given that ag is 80 percent of the human used water in the state, we need more conservation and cutting back by ag. The big question is: What ag should cut back and who gets to choose? That is a tough issue. Right now those who cut back are the more junior water rights holders, not necessarily those ag producers who are providing the least value to the state, the country or the world. And some of those who are not cutting back are purely pumping groundwater (for example, for thirsty crops such as alfalfa and almonds as you mention)—an action that can negatively impact other ag producers (when groundwater slurps water from surface supplies) as well as the environment and communities, and they aren’t necessarily the producers who provide the greatest benefit to all of us. So, we need to get deliberate about how we cut back on ag. Only then can we be sure we are providing the highest benefit with the lowest amount of water use.

If your neighbor stops washing his car, does it matter? The actual big picture contribution to water use reduction would be insignificant. That said, the symbolism is important—”We are all in this together!” And, if you are convincing your neighbor, it is a nice teaching moment that can bring him/her into the dialogue that can lead to support for broader changes.

J.P.: Does it make me a jerk that I flush after peeing? Serious question.

B.S.: Certainly not a jerk. Again, your flushing is a rounding error in the whole water scheme of things. That said, the symbolic commitment to conservation when not flushing (after a few pees not like a hundred) is appreciated.

J.P.: I know you’re the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Water Program, I know you’re big into the drought, I know you spent nine years at California Trout. But, well, how’d you get here? Like, what’s been your path—womb to now? And when did you first get bitten by the nature bug?

B.S.: Womb to now? Wow—there’s a lot to that. Anyway, I have to say, I’m very glad that I’m in the career I’m in and in the state I’m in at this time. The solutions we come up with here and now, will provide solutions for the future and for other parts of the world. Not a bad position to be in.

So, I think I got the conservation “bug” from growing up in a rural area (central Pennsylvania) and playing outside in creeks, forests and fields a lot. There wasn’t much else to do (not that I’m complaining). Also, my dad was an avid outdoorsman and took my brother (who is now a fisheries biologist) and I hunting and fly fishing quite often. To this day, I find it hard to resist chasing after lizards, frogs and bugs. I also have a bit of a trout fishing obsession (which my young girls now have as well). I went to college at Syracuse (Go Orange!) for communications and subsequently did wildlife videography and photography for a while until I figured out that I was not having any real impact. Then I went to B-School at Georgetown and was the only weirdo who was doing it purely to apply to environmental conservation. My internships were like at Trout Unlimited and National Geographic, and I worked for free. My investing-bank-oriented friends thought I was nuts (as well as poor).

After grad school I worked at National Geographic for a while and then headed to the Millenium Institute where I worked on sustainability issues mainly for developing countries, in particular Africa—man, I have some stories there. My wife and I (who had been with me since college) wanted to settle down, so we looked for at cities we liked around the country and the job at California Trout came up. To this day, I respect and love my CalTrout friends and colleagues. I also get to work with them quite often. The Nature Conservancy, though, provides a larger canvas, stronger brand, higher level of influence and global reach that doesn’t compare.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.31.54 PM

J.P.: Can you explain the big problem with groundwater? Also, how do we know how much is left?

B.S.: Ah … groundwater, a dang sexy topic. So picture California and its rivers, streams, reservoirs and canals as “just the surface.” Beneath that surface, picture a vast bathtub many times the “depth” of the surface. That’s what California is like. It’s geomorphology consists of vast quantities of water underground that bubble up to the surface providing vital contributions to river and stream flow (and therefore our surface water resources). Now, picture a gazillion straws pock-marking the surface and sucking the water from the bathtub and then water levels in the bathtub going down, down, down until they disconnect from the surface layer. This is what’s happening. Once the disconnect occurs, all sorts of crazy can happen—rivers can go dry, wetlands can vanish and surface water supplies for ag, communities and the environment can disappear. What’s more the ground can actually cave in (and has in some places), forever burying a part of our bathtub. We can do all we want to fix our surface water system, but if we don’t fix the straw-sucking, we have a leak that will compromise everything.

J.P.: Brian, I’ve lost faith in humanity. I really have. We worry about inane and trivial crap like a “War on Christmas” or Ted Cruz’s presidential ambitions, yet few people seem to truly care about the drought. How do you maintain a belief in humanity? Seriously …

B.S.: I worry about who Miranda Lambert’s dream honky-tonk date is. Do you know? Anyway, yes. We get caught up in a bunch of inconsequential silliness. I have to say, I’m as guilty of it as the next guy—I was glued to the World Series last year and must have cheered for an hour after Madison Bumgarner fouled out the last batter in the ninthinning of the seventh game. I also about killed myself when the Seahawks threw an interception at the one yard line at the end of the Super Bowl (I’ve been a Seahawks fan since I was a kid. Yes, I chose them because I like the colors).

So, I guess, I recognize I’m part of the silliness, certainly not perfect. Others aren’t either. But I have enough friends and colleagues in conservation work who are in the same boat I’m in. We care. We try. We suffer. We fail. And occasionally we win. We do it all together.

J.P.: In the back of my head, I keep thinking, “Eh, science will ultimately get us out of this.” Am I being naïve?

B.S.: Science provides, for the most part, the best real answers we can get. Yet it can’t do the job alone. Science can be manipulated, misrepresented and distorted. Diplomacy, collaboration with unlikely partners…and the willingness to do enter in such collaborations, and—yep, I’m gonna say it—politics is needed because our decision-makers make decisions, and those decisions are not always based on science.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.32.11 PM


• Five all-time favorite Syracuse athletes: Jim Boeheim (yes, he actually played for Syracuse); Sherman Douglas, Gerry McNamara, Stephen Thompson (not that famous, but I actually played pickup ball with him in college), Carmelo Anthony (questionable, but he did win the title for them).

• Rank in order (favorite to least): David Wingate, Huffington Post, Killer Whale, Antonio Tarver, Courtney Cox, Volkswagen Beatle, Charli XCX, Home Depot, Joe Buck, Jay Leno: Killer whale, Killer whale, Killer whale.

• Three reasons you have hope for California: Human ingenuity, crisis, my colleagues (in and outside of the Nature Conservancy).

• I once went out with a really hot woman who threw her garbage out the car window. I never went out with her again. Should I have given her a second shot?: Not a chance.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Dude. Ever fly in an old Soviet plane with burn marks on the side and pilots who only spoke Arabic? I got stories.

• Do you kill ants in your house? If so, are you conflicted?: Kill them, yes. But we don’t get many, so I don’t have to be that conflicted.

• Four words that pop into your head when I write the words, “Spice Girls reunion”: Only remember Mel B.

• One question you would ask Wayne Tolleson were he here right now?: Dude, why go to the Yankees? I mean, really …

• The next president will be …: Jon Stewart

• Would you rather eat 200 raw smelt or drink a small cup of your high school gym teacher’s snot?: If the smelt are already dead I’m goin’ with them (you can’t imagine my high school gym teacher).

Kate Price

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 9.42.07 AM

As a young girl, Kate Price was a victim of sex trafficking.

She wasn’t living in Nigeria or Zimbabwe or some dark corner of the Soviet Union. No, Kate was raised here, in the safe, secure, modernized, enlightened United States of America.

And she was drugged, then peddled for sex.

It’s horrifying. Beyond disturbing. But, in Kate Price (and her extraordinarily brave voice), we have a woman willing to stand up and fight back against an evil that’s far more common than most people surely think. These days, Kate is a wife (she’s married to Christopher Price, the excellent sports scribe) , a mother and—most impressive—a research scientist and leading voice in the ongoing battle against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Her blog is amazing, as is her Twitter feed. And, if you’re feeling charitable, I highly suggest supporting her dream and visiting her gofundme page.

This is the 175th Quaz. Most (but not all) of the first 174 were about entertainment in one form or another.

This is a story of bravery and resilience.

Kate Price, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Kate, I’m gonna start this by being honest. Before this interview, I pretty much thought of child sex trafficking as something that happens … elsewhere. Small African nations. Russian outposts. Then I read your riveting, heartbreaking story, and learned otherwise. Am I simply dumb and naïve, or is there a mass misconception of the issue?

KATE PRICE: You’re not dumb at all. Most people do not realize commercial sexual exploitation of children runs rampant throughout America. Unfortunately, the majority of exploited kids are rendered “invisible.” I was considered worthless in my community. We were very poor and I remember feeling that discrimination very early on. I loved going to church, but I didn’t have nice “church clothes” so I wasn’t accepted. I went to school with black eyes and teachers didn’t say a thing. That’s just what “White Trash” families did to each other. I felt disposable.

We imagine ourselves as a country that prioritizes children’s safety. Yet, in reality, we don’t. The top two risk factors for commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) are a history of child sexual abuse and poverty. Many people don’t know this but the United States is first among industrialized nations for child death from abuse and neglect. We are second among industrialized nations for kids living in poverty. We have created the “perfect storm” for sexually exploited children in America.

J.P.: On your website, you write, “In my early childhood and throughout my adolescence, an immediate family member sold me for sex in order to support his drug addiction. He sold me to men at truck stops, at parties, and within my own home.” I don’t even know what to ask, so I’ll go open-ended and ask you to expand and explain your childhood. How was this allowed to happen?

K.P.: Our household was ensnared in intergenerational cycles of violence, poverty, mental illness, and addiction. My exploiter was the son of the “town drunks” where he grew up and he was sexually abused as a child. My mother’s mother died suddenly when my mom was 16. Her father had sexually abused her and his second wife resented and, literally, hated my mother.  My mother had wanted to go to college far away but was told by her father she could learn everything at the factory where she worked that she could learn in college.

Bottom line is my mother and I were trapped. My first memory is of being sexually abused by my exploiter in the back of a relative’s bar. I was pre-verbal, but I just remember feeling “shattered” afterward. The rest of the world was acting like nothing had happened but my world had changed forever. I also  remember years of being taken out to our garage in the middle of the night where I was placed in the mechanic’s well under a car in our garage. I was covered with an oily blanket and men paid to have sex with me. My exploiter drugged me so I didn’t fight back. The exploitation continued in the garage as well as at truck stops and warehouse parties. I was told only “special” little girls got to have sex and go to “adult” parties. So I just thought this was normal, even though I knew in my gut that something was off.

This was allowed to happen because it happened in a private home under the care of the adults in the house. Abuse was—and still is—considered a private “family matter.” Janay Rice used that very term in a public statement to describe the assault by her then-fiance Ray Rice after the surveillance tape footage surfaced of him knocking her out cold in an Atlantic City casino.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.18.07 AM

J.P.: I think people struggle to understand children going through trauma. They look at them blankly, unsure what’s running through the head. So, Kate, when one is being sexually abused … sexually trafficked, what is she thinking? Do you know it’s wrong? Are you aware it’s not supposed to be? Is it about shutting up and surviving?

K.P.: I had no idea anything was wrong until about sixth grade. And even then I didn’t know it was horrific, I just knew things were different. I started spending more time at friends’ houses and I had my first major crush, so I started to understand what I was going through was not normal. Just like many abused children, the perpetrator made me feel like the abuse and exploitation was our “special” time together and that this was “love.” So when I confronted this person I figured he would just stop because he loved me. Instead he left and moved in with his mistress. Yes, the exploitation and sexual abuse stopped, but I was really confused. I had no words to explain what had happened to me.

I think we put a lot of pressure on kids to contextualize and verbalize this very complex issue of abuse when, truthfully, kids’ reality consists of pretty basic understandings of things like school, fun with friends, and Saturday morning cartoons. I am not saying children are stupid—far from it. Kids are incredibly smart and perceptive. But kids who are abused and exploited have probably never had much (if any) adult support and protection around them. How can we expect them to differentiate between being safe and being violated when they’ve never really known what it’s like to feel completely secure?

J.P.: I imagine it’s hard being interviewed, because oftentimes (and, to a certain degree, in this case) people want to understand the problem via details, stories, images. And, I’m guessing, the last thing you want to share are details, stories, images from the worst period of your existence. How do you balance this? Do people ever go too far in their questioning?

K.P.: People’s intentions are usually genuine, so if anyone ever does go “too far” in questioning, I can definitely take it with a grain of salt. I have actually waited about 15 years to start speaking out so publicly because our cultural understanding of sexual exploitation is still pretty basic. We are in “crisis mode” as we are still trying to fully grasp how this atrocity can even be happening.

I truly appreciate people’s intentions; however, I really need to protect myself. I am very particular about who I speak to on the record. My husband is actually a sportswriter, so he is tremendous in helping me navigate the media. I also just recently started working with a Boston-based journalist who is working on a more in-depth piece about my story. We’ve really become a team over the last two years and I have come to trust her completely. A lot of people have approached me over the years to tell my story and I waited until the right person came along.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.17.32 AM

J.P.: You mention “an immediate family member” who did this to you. You say he/she was a drug addict. You’ve lived this, studied this. What kind of monster sells a child for sex? How does one reach that point? Is it a nature vs. nurture situation, where one is bred by similar experiences to become so horrid? Are some people simply born evil assholes? And have you forgiven? Do you even need or aspire to?

K.P.: I have zero intentions of ever forgiving this person. I think we sometimes search for forgiveness so we can move on with our lives. But I have created a life for myself away from my most of my family in spite of my history. What happened to me and what is still happening to hundreds of thousands of children in this country and around the world is unforgivable.

Monstrous people sell children for sex so they can feel dominant and in control, particularly if they feel insecure and out of control in other parts of their lives. My exploiter often talked about his shame of growing up poor and being abused, as if it were an excuse for the harm he’d caused. Additionally, according to trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, the brain’s reward system can be damaged from child abuse so that pain equals pleasure, causing abuse victims to become victimizers. This was the case with my exploiter. He derived great pleasure from hurting me.

J.P.: You write on your gofundme page that, “I am finally free.” How did you become free? How did you escape the cycle of abuse? Fuck, how are you alive and sane right now?

K.P.: I become free when I no longer got sucked back into those cycles. I literally had to move 300 miles away from my hometown to separate myself. But even then I wasn’t free right away. I would go back to visit or would talk to friends and would find myself right back in the center of the drama. I finally just decided I had had enough and cut all ties—not out of malice, but for my sanity. Leaving exploitation and domestic violence situations usually takes seven attempts until a person leaves for good and I was no different. Even though the situation was harmful, there was still genuine love for the people harming me and it was tough to break away. I never knew anything other than violence, poverty, and addicts, so it took awhile to get used to a healthy and vibrant community.

I am alive and sane right now because I had a vision of what I wanted my life to look like and I just worked like a dog until I got there. During the time I was being exploited I went to a friend’s house and her mother was a professor at the local state college. Their house was filled with books, papers, and NPR. In that moment I knew I wanted to be an academic. I read constantly and I also really loved music early on. Ironically, my very first favorite song was “Stuck in the Middle With You,” by Stealers Wheel. I played the 45 over and over on my Sears Winnie-the-Pooh record player.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.17.08 AM

J.P.: You’re a research scientist, and you’re trying to raise $66,000 for three years of graduate school in order to receive a Ph.D. Degree in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts Boston, “where I can continue my current research on the prevention of commercial sexual exploitation of children.” What, exactly, are you hoping to accomplish?

K.P.: I want to contribute to shifting the conversation that CSEC is not a “choice,” but rather a continuation of violence. My research looks at the 10-to-13 years before a child is exploited to see what are the dynamics and commonalities we are missing. Yes, we know a history of child sexual abuse and poverty are the top two risk factors; however, there is more to the story as to why some children fall through the cracks and others do not. I strongly believe if a child is being commercially sexually exploited then we have not done our jobs as a society keeping that child safe.

I also hope to influence our understanding that CSEC is a byproduct of our current dominance and control-based culture. We need to consider CSEC as a system where “supply and demand” is intertwined. The current popular approach is to tackle individual actions such as curbing demand and preventing children from being exploited. Yes, these directives are important; however, if we do not consider that most traffickers, solicitors, and victims all of histories of child sexual abuse, then we are missing the larger picture and the source of this atrocity.

Lastly, I want to be a part of the growing movement challenging the us to ask, “Why is this person being violent?” instead of rehashing, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” The anti-trafficking movement has learned an amazing amount from the domestic movement and I intend to continue to build on that knowledge. Leaving was not easy for me and I hope I can use my story to shed light on the difficulty of the leaving process.

J.P.: Comedians joke about the Holocaust. They joke about 9.11 and the Space Shuttle explosion and a million other awful things. Can they joke about sex trafficking? Does that cross an uncrossable line, where nothing funny exists? Can they joke about the missing Nigerian girls, for example?

K.P.: My favorite quote of all time is  “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true and that is unacceptable” from Carrie Fisher. No, you cannot just crack some joke about 300 kidnapped girls in Africa, but you certainly need humor in your life, especially if you are dedicated to looking at the darker side of humanity for any length of time. A professor gave me the book “Return to Laughter” by anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen, which is about how a West African tribe survives the trials of hunger, child death and disease through laughter. He was the first person who ever said to me, “You are a survivor.” I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but I am grateful he was able to see the journey I was on to undo the cycles and to heal.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.16.56 AM

J.P.: Sex has a weird place in society. Hoochie pants and low-cut everything; sexting; raunchy videos, pornography as easy as a click. How have your life experiences impacted your perceptions of sex and culture?

K.P.: Great question. The Internet has “pornified” our culture to a point where expressions of sexuality have been reduced to imitating porn. The saddest part is we are teaching girls to mimic sexual abuse survivors. Sixty-to-90 percent of women in the sex industry (porn, stripping, prostitution) have been sexually abused as children. This normalizing of sex as violence reduces a natural and wonderful mutual experience to an act of dominance and control.

My experience is also making me a better mother. I am raising my son to know he is responsible for his choices and his body. He is very handsome, charismatic and a talented athlete who is already getting a lot of attention from girls. This notion that boys and men cannot be held accountable when it comes to their actions around the opposite sex is insulting. My son is a sweet, considerate boy and I am terrified by the notion that the way he is expected to belong and to bond with his friends is to put down women. Thankfully, my son’s friend’s parents are also incredibly strong and are instilling the same values in their sons.

J.P.: Somewhere, right now, there’s an 11-year-old girl being sold for sex. Her dad is a crack addict, her mom is dead, she lives with no hope and no awareness of a way out. What is she supposed to do? What can she do?

K.P.: Kids are incredibly resilient, so I am hopeful she will find a way to hold on. My other hope is that she can tap into her “authentic self” and not blame herself for what is happening—could be a book, sport, song, place of worship, video game, imaginary friend or a pet. I also hope a safe adult speaks up.

I still don’t always feel comfortable speaking up whenever I see an adult physically or verbally abusing a child. That just happened this summer when I was at an amusement park with my son and some friends. A little girl was being berated by her parents on this “The Flying Buccaneer” pirate ship ride my son loves. I wanted so desperately to say something to this family, but the fear for my own family’s safety stopped me. I knew security couldn’t legally do anything unless I saw the parents physically assault the daughter, which I didn’t. Influencing those laws so we can stand up for children is exactly why I do the work that I do. I still think of that girl every day and hope this is okay.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.17.19 AM


• Five greatest moments of your life?: 1. When my husband (then-boyfriend) took my hand and said, “We will get through it,” after I told him about my history in a Starbucks next to Boston Common. We were getting serious and I wanted to give him the option to leave. Right after that we went ice skating on Frog Pond and I met a bunch of his closest friends for the first time. They are now some of my closest friends too.

2. Our son was a mop of curls eating a powdered doughnut the first time we met him. (My heart just started racing as I am recalling this moment.) He was four and in foster care at the time. We went to the social services office to meet him. That was the moment I became a mother.

3. We adopted our cat from a rescue shelter. He hopped right into my lap the moment they brought him into the visiting room. His paperwork said he wasn’t a lap cat. Ever since he’s been disproving that statement as well as the notion that cats aren’t needy.

4. The first time I had a side-splitting laugh with my best friend Mo. It was something really stupid, but we both found it hilarious. We have an unspoken shorthand that all great friends have together. Whenever I am out of sorts my husband sends me off with her for “some Mo time.”

5. The first time I heard the Psychedelic Furs song “India.” They were already my favorite band, but I’d never heard their first record. The song starts very quiet and builds to an abrasive rumbling: sounded exactly how my family life felt.

6. Can I play the sympathy card and get one more? [Jeff’s answer: Yes!] The first time I went to New York City. Our seventh grade went to the National History Museum for a field trip. I realized there was a world “out there” away from my family and rural hometown.

• I’m sitting in a coffee shop, writing these questions, and the guy at the next table won’t shut up on his cell phone. Am I allowed to grab his phone and drop it in my café mocha?: Definitely. Although, I would drop it in his drink. Why waste a perfectly good café mocha?

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Michael Kors, Ethiopian coffee, Will Venable, Michelle Branch, KRS-One, patio furniture, “You’ve Got Mail,” Paul Tagliabue, nail polish, Vancouver, the letter V: Michael Kors (I am a fashion apologist), “You’ve Got Mail” (my hubs says I am the Meg Ryan character), patio furniture (love eating outside), KRS-One, nail polish (I am not a girly girl, but I recently found the perfect shade for pedicures), Will Venable (would have put him higher if he’d played in the Cape Cod Baseball League—we are huge Brewster Whitecaps fans), Michelle Branch (that 1,000 Miles song is catchy), Vancouver (I have a thing for nice neighbors), the letter V, Paul Tagliabue, Ethiopian coffee (I am a green tea kind of gal)

• There’s a drought in California. I say we shouldn’t flush after pee, just poop. Some disagree and think that’s gross. Your thoughts?: My son is 9-years old, so poop is the center of just about every conversation in our house, including this flushing debate. A member of our extended family shares practices you “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” philosophy. I also spent a lot of time with hippies in my 20s so I am all for it.

• Three best books you’ve ever read?: The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky; The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger; Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

• What happens when we die?: Hopefully we have left this world a better place.

• I always ask my son, “How do you know this isn’t a dream?” Is it possible you’re answering these questions, but it’s only in a dream?: Please. I am juggling work, school, fundraising, and being a spouse and mother. My entire life feels like a waking dream right now. Do you remember those first months of becoming a parent when you weren’t even sure the last time you’d showered and if you’d changed clothes at all in the last two weeks? I am back there.

• Should Ray Rice be allowed to play in the NFL again?: Definitely not. I think the larger question, though, is if Roger Goodell should lose his job. All of this hooey out not seeing the tape is a joke. Of course they had access to the tape and, besides, what do you think it looks like when a man punches a woman hard enough to render her unconscious? However this shakes out, the tide is definitely changing for the NFL. Hopefully the league was taking notes during CBS sportscaster James Brown’s amazing speech before the Ravens-Steelers game.

• Twelve round boxing match between you and Gisele Bündchen. What happens?: Well, our husbands spend an inordinate amount of time together (my husband covers the Patriots), so ending up at the same place at the same time is no that far out of the realm of possibility. Although, I am not much of a fighter, so I would just ask her if we could go meet Michael Kors (see previous answer).

• Celine Dion calls. She want to do a movie about your life, but insists she play the title character, and that all the other actors have to be either blind or Emmanuel Lewis impersonators. She’s offering $1 million. You in?: First I would have to negotiate the $1 million plus 20 percent of the box office gross (domestic and international). And she would have to agree to a cameo by Ana Gasteyer doing her SNL Celine character (“I am the best singer in the world”). After that I am definitely in. That cast of characters has nothing on my family, though. Plus I would want to create a whole script for watching the movie like Rocky Horror Picture Show. We would throw toast at the screen whenever someone drinks a PBR pounder.

Lynn Riordan

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 5.05.42 PMAs uncomfortable as this is to admit, I occasionally think about my kids dying. It’s something I hate to ponder; something I squeeze out of my cranium ASAP. But still, sometimes, it creeps in there. How would I respond? Could I go on? Would I have the will to live? Even now, as I type the words, it’s painful. My children are, truly, my everything. Without them, well, what do I have left? Four years ago, on an awful afternoon in May in North Branford, Connecticut, Lynn Riordan experienced every parent’s absolute worst nightmare. Her son, Matt Picciuto, was killed in a car accident not far from his Connecticut home. He was 18, and driving too fast, too recklessly along Totoket Road when he crashed into a tree. This is what his vehicle looked like in the immediate aftermath … Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 5.06.45 PMWanna learn about strength? About decency? Despite the pain and despite the heartbreak, Lynn Riordan wants young drivers to look at the above image. She wants them to stare and stare and stare some more, and imagine themselves driving too fast, losing control, spiraling out of control, ruining everything. She has decided to take her son’s death and discover a positive. That’s why she started Matt’s Mission, a charitable foundation with the purpose of promoting safe driving. That’s why she’s this week’s incredible, stronger-than-steel Quaz. Lynn Riordan, welcome … JEFF PEARLMAN: How do you continue? How do you go on? You seem to have this amazing strength and ability to take a parent’s worst nightmare and, in a sense, do something with it. Lynn, how? LYNN RIORDAN: Prior to Matthew’s death, I use to say to my kids when they left the house, “Please be careful. If anything ever happens to you, I will not survive.” It was just my way of wanting my kids to think so they would come home safe. As soon as I heard about Matthew’s accident, I called my mother and sister. I asked them to come to my house to be with my girls—Elise, then 16, Alexa, then 13, and Mea (MEA—M=Matt, E=Elise, A=Alexa), then 3. When I called the house to tell my mom and sister that Matt had died, I could hear my daughter Elise saying “Don’t leave him there, tell my mom she can’t leave him alone.” The she said, “My mother is not going to survive this. Nanny, you don’t understand, my mom is not going to survive.” I am able to continue and go on because I am a mother. I have three children who need me and a wonderful husband who deserves his wife. I have a lot of life left to live and I want to be happy and have a good life. Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 5.07.04 PMJ.P.: I’d love to know who Matt Picciuto was; what he was like. Was he a sports kid? A shy kid? Did he get in trouble? Was he an angel? Likes? Dislikes? In short, who was Matt? L.R.: Matt was a smart, handsome and loving person. He made himself available to his family and was always willing to help out a friend. At 18 he still enjoyed visiting his grandmother or playing games with his uncle. Family was very important to Matt. He was funny and a go-to guy if his friends were having a bad day. He was not a risk taker due to the fear of getting hurt. Although he wished that was not the case. Therefore, although he wished to be good at skiing, skate boarding or skim boarding, he was not proficient with any activities such as these. He played sports—baseball, soccer and hockey. He was very competitive and was happy like most boys with a ball of some sort in his hand. Matthew eventually quit playing sports as all of his classmates grew and he was no longer one of the better players due to his size. It became a decision he regretted since he had a huge physical growth spurt between his 17th and 18th years. He was 5-foot-11 at the end. Matt did not really get into trouble. He got caught smoking a few times, a habit I completely detest. He tried alcohol a few times and, well, let’s just say that did not work out to well. I am sure he lied a few times if he thought I would be upset with him. Let’s face it, who likes to disappoint their parents? Matt hated when I cried. Therefore it is safe to say Matt was not an angel but he certainly is now. Matt was loyal—a very good character trait. He could light up a room with his smile. He disliked being hungry. Talk about cranky! Matt’s wake was the largest in the history of Porto Funeral Home. That is due to the fact that he was friends with many different friend groups and with classmates of all ages. I can still hear him say “snitches get stitches”—he would never tell on a friend. He did well in school but could have done better—he was very smart, but at times lazy. Matt was my son. I love and miss him very much.

J.P.: I know this is painful, but what can you tell us about that day? How did you find out? How did you process it? L.R.: Saturday, May 23, 2009 was a beautiful spring day. That morning Matt did a lot of chores for me. He showered and we had a nice talk about a variety of different things. During our conversation Matt asked how I would feel about him enlisting in the Air force considering his acceptance to Southern Connecticut State. The question gave me a lump in my throat and I began to cry. He asked me why I was crying. I said, “Because I can’t imagine you going away for a long period of time without being able to see you.” Matt said, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’m not going to enlist because I can’t imagine getting hurt and coming home maimed and broken to you.”  Matt drove out of our driveway at 1:15. Regretfully I didn’t say I love you before he drove away. While gardening I heard sirens. It was 2 o’clock. Although Matt had only left the house 45 minutes before, I can’t explain it, but I knew something had happened to him. I called him, there was no answer. I sent him a text—“You okay?” There was no response and I knew. Very shortly after hearing the sirens Detective McNamara came to my house. He had the horrible job of delivering the news of the accident to me and my family. Unfortunately for him, it was not before he witnessed the devastation on Totoket Road himself. My husband started yelling, “Lynn, we have to go! Matt’s been in an accident!” I ran to the front of the house, grabbed Detective McNamara by his shirt and asked him if my son was dead. He said, “Leave your girls at home and get to the hospital as quickly as you can.” Only a few miles from our home Matt was being extricated from his car by the fire department. He was not breathing and he did not have a pulse. A choice was made to revive my son and I will be grateful for that decision for the rest of my life. If Matt were declared dead in his car on Totoket Road, a tarp would have been thrown over him and he would have been left there, possibly waiting for hours for the medical examiner to arrive, only then to be taken to Farmington for an autopsy. I cannot begin to image that scenario. If that had happened I would not have been given what I call the gift of time—the last little bit of time that I had with my son at the hospital. Thanks to the North Branford Police Department, the North Branford Fire Department and Yale New Haven Hospital emergency room staff, I was given that gift. Due to their hard work and dedication, I know without a doubt that everything possible was done to try and save my son and that does bring me peace. Feeling helpless as we drove out of our driveway and down our street en route to the hospital; I knew our lives would be changed forever. I can still see Alexa and Elise, with Mea on her hip, standing at our front door with panic in their eyes. As my husband drove me to the hospital; I remember begging and pleading with God; praying that Matt would be OK. My child was in an accident and hurt. Believe me, it is your parents’ worst nightmare, too. I know it was and continues to be mine every time Elise and Alexa drive out of our driveway. At the hospital the emergency room staff took me to my son. CPR was being performed. There were so many people in the trauma room trying to save Matt. After looking at him I knew he would not survive. I announced to everyone in the room, “I know my son is dying but can you please work on him for a few more minutes?” Just as your parents would do, I ran to Matt’s side. I encouraged him to fight. I told him he could do it, that it was just a car and that everything was going to be all right. However, when I looked at Matthew, there was no life left in his eyes. I could not believe this was happening. Through my tears I remember telling Matt that I was not angry; that I knew it was an accident and that he did not intend for this to happen. I told him he was a great son and that I would love him forever. Everyone became very quiet and at 2:52 the time of my son’s death was called. I held Matt and told him how much I love him. I needed him to know what a wonderful person I thought he was. I cleaned him and gave him one more kiss before saying goodbye. I was forced to leave my son at the hospital knowing he would be all alone and going to the morgue. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but I had to get home to Elise, Alexa and Mea. While trying to make sense of the senseless, I have spent the last four years telling Matt’s story hoping to save lives—although unfortunately it is too late for him. Regardless of where I speak; at driving school, for MADD … I do my best to impact my audience so that they too will understand the consequences of impulsive, dangerous and potentially deadly decisions. In my attempt to understand the events of May 23, I took a ride to Totoket Road. I was very lucky to run into a gentleman who not only heard the crash but who was the first person who attempted to help my son. This man walked me through the accident at my request and only then did I get it. Between stories told to me by Matt’s friends and this man from Totoket Road, I finally understood the shocking details that lead to my son death. When I left Totoket Road, I felt sorry for this man because of what he was forced to witness. There is no way he will ever forget. I went home with a pit in my stomach, an ache in my heart and an overall overwhelming sadness. I could not believe what Matthew had done. I have learned a lot since the death of my son. I learned that Totoket Road is the place to go if you want to catch air. I know that kids actually travel from other towns for this need for speed and the thrill of this experience. Apparently kids have been taking joy rides down Totoket Road for years. I can’t count the times I have heard people say, “Matt was just the unlucky one”.

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 5.06.27 PM

J.P.: The mission statement for your charity, Matt’s Mission, reads: “To raise funds to aide local students in need; to encourage everyone to slow down and to drive safe while raising awareness to the consequences of destructive driving decisions.” Lynn, why do you think—even after so many accidents through the years—young people continue to drive so recklessly? And is there really a way to stop the behavior? L.R.: No–there is no way to stop this behavior. I don’t understand it … lack of brain development? Kids think it is never going to happen to them. I don’t get it. I think if you are afraid to ski because you might get hurt—how are you not afraid to drive fast? J.P.: You have a 19, 17 and 7-year-old daughters. How does a parent change when she loses a child? L.R.: I am more afraid that something is going to happen to one of my children. When I hear sirens and my kids aren’t home, I have to check-in. I do my best not to be protective and for them to live their lives. When Elise and Alexa got their licenses, I was scared to death. Let’s put it this way—I sleep well when everyone is home. I try not to sweat the small stuff (messy rooms) knowing how fragile life can be but I believe I push my kids just as hard as I would have otherwise. I always did and will continue to tell my kids how much I love them. J.P.: What’s your life background? I know you live in Connecticut, I know you work as a radiation therapist at Shoreline Medical Center in Guilford. But how did you get here? What’s your life path? L.R.: On November 10,1963 I was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. At the age of seven, I moved to the United States with my parents, three sisters and brother. Living in Milford, Connecticut, I graduated from Milford High School in 1981. After that I went to school to become a radiologic technologist and then a radiation therapist at South Central Community College. I graduated in 1986. I lived in Orange for many years and moved to North Branford in 2004. Since then I have been working as a radiation therapist in Radiation Oncology at the Shoreline Medical Center in Guilford. Simple things—such as gardening, competing with my neighbors over whose grass is greener and hanging out by my pool—make me happy. My favorite time of year is anytime on vacation with my family and friends. Although I have exercised my entire life, 9Round kickboxing is a passionate favorite. My greatest accomplishment, hands down, is being a mother to Matt, Elise, Alexa and Mea. I am very proud of my children and grateful to be sharing this journey called life with them. I would not be who I am today without the love and support of my wonderful husband Mark, to whom I have been married to for almost nine years. It would not be right if I did not also mention another family member—my dog Penny. She is a Cavapoo and very much adored. There was a time I could say I had it all. There was nothing in my life I needed or wanted to change. I honestly felt my life was absolutely perfect. That all changed on Saturday May 23, 2009, when my son Matthew died in a car accident. After suffering with the devastating loss and having experienced the amazing love and support of an entire community, my family and friends, I was inspired to establish Matt’s Mission Fund, a nonprofit organization which gives back to so many living North Branford. My future plans are to keep doing just what I am doing for many, many years to come. I love working at the Shoreline Medical Center. There is no greater pleasure than watching my kids grow and hanging out with my family and friends. Matt’s Mission Fund has grown bigger than I ever imagined. Yes, my plan is to keep doing just what I am doing for many years since one of my goals is to live to be 100. Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 5.02.59 PMJ.P.: This might be sort of a random question, but when tragedies like Sandy Hook happen, do you view them differently than you might have before May 23, 2009? Do they impact you differently? L.R.: They do not impact me as much as they would have otherwise. I don’t engage as much. If I did I would feel the parents’ pain while having an understanding for what they are going through as only people who have lost a child can. I know they are hurting and I also know they will feel better if that is what they choose. J.P.: How much of starting a charity is strictly about doing righteous deeds, and how much of it is about keeping your son’s memory and legacy alive? L.R.: Before Matt’s death I thought of getting involved with a charitable organization. I like to do for other people. I would say it is more important to keep my son’s memory alive. I have created the best of both worlds—I do for others and if I have anything to do with it, people will not forget my son. J.P.: It’s been four years. What do you think Matt would be doing today? And what do you think his future held? L.R.: Matt would be graduating from college as all of his friends are doing right now. Matt wanted to be a teacher. J.P: What advice would you give to others who lose children? What has helped ease the pain? What steps have you taken, in your own life, to carry on? L.R.: Unfortunately, there is no advice I can give other people. Although five people live in my house, we have all dealt with the pain in our own way. We are all on our own. What works for me doesn’t work for someone else. There is no advice that works and no quick fix to heartache. The love of my family, friends and community has helped me. I realize that my story is bad—but it could always be worse. The boys with my son could have been injured or died. He could have killed people he passed on the road that day. I look at the silver lining and go with it. I roll out of bed every day—that is a start. I then do the best I can. That is all any of us can ever do. Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 5.08.25 PM QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LYNN RIORDAN: • Five reasons for one to make North Branford his/her next vacation destination?: Vacation in North Branford? I would not advise it. Matt’s Mission 5K road race is one of two big events that take place in town. Ha—great place to live, but vacation? No. • Hardest part about running a charitable foundation?: Delegating responsibility I find to be difficult. Worrying about the forecast since our big fundraiser is outside. Otherwise, running a nonprofit is a lot easier than I thought. • Do you think the current driving laws are working as they should?: I think the new laws are saving lives between the ages of 16 and 17. Unfortunately the death rate has gone up for 18-to-20-year olds. Stiffer penalties are in order. The police department needs to do away with the warning. If you get pulled over, you get a ticket. Hitting people in their purse seems to make people pay attention. • Greatest place you’ve ever visited on vacation?: Tough one … I would say going back to PEI Canada. It was both beautiful and emotional. • Strangest thing you’ve ever seen as a radiation therapist?: If you said sad, that would be easy. Strange, hmm—I don’t have an answer. • Best joke you know?: I am the worst joke teller. Again, I am at a loss. Consider yourself lucky. Hahaha • Should the Yankees stick with Lyle Overbay at first?: I don’t follow baseball. I could ask my brother Stephen—he is a huge Yankee fan. • Five things always in your purse?: Wallet, ChapStick, calendar, pen, eye glass case. • You wake up at 6 o’clock every morning. Why?: I have become a morning person. Sometimes I get up earlier … For example, on Mother’s Day I was up and out at 5:45 gardening in the rain. I stayed in the backyard so my neighbors would not think I am nuts.

Paul Ercolino

I try not to excessively editorialize in this particular forum, but—in this case—I’ll make an exception.

The gun nonsense in this nation has to stop. It absolutely, positively has to. There are too many guns, used by too many unqualified and unreasonable people, who obtain them too easily. There are too many angry citizens being paired with devices of anger. It’s a joke. Beyond a joke. People are dying, and our elected officials—thanks in large part to the power of the NRA—nod and do little.

I’m sick of it.

So, for that matter, is Paul Ercolino, the sort of man I aspire to be. Four months ago Paul’s brother, Steven, was shot and killed by a deranged former co-worker outside the Empire State Building. He was 41. At the ensuing wake, one of Steven’s cousins asked a question that now, in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook, so many are also wondering: “Why are the good ones taken?”

Paul Ercolino hasn’t accepted the tragedy meekly. The president of U.S. Monitor, the nation’s leading mail monitor service, he now devotes himself to curtailing gun availability in the United States, and has become an outspoken critic of the proliferation of violence we’re experiencing. He’s actively involved in the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence, and longs for a time when these tragedies cease. You can—and should—follow him on Twitter here.

I am honored—beyond honored—to have Paul Ercolino participate in the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Paul, before I go anywhere with this interview, I’d like to ask about your brother Steven, who was shot and killed four months ago outside the Empire State Building. Who was he? What was he like? What was your relationship like? What do you want people to know about him?

PAUL ERCOLINO: Steven had a big personality and carried himself with a certain swagger. As my sister Maria said in her eulogy “When Steven walked into a room, you knew it.” First, you were captured by his bright smile and blue eyes. He was full of life and had a work ethic and drive like no one else. He was artistic, creative and articulate.  Throughout his career in the fashion industry Steven helped people, changed their lives for the better, advised and mentored them. Steven had an amazing ability to make others laugh and he had a knack for impersonating people and movie characters, which always left people hysterical.

Steven had finally settled down with his soul mate Ivette and he was as happy as I can remember the last time I saw him in August at a family get-together in Warwick, N.Y. He was a wonderful brother and son to my parents, but what I really admired most about him was what a great uncle he was to my children and his other nieces and nephews. He would take my son Vincent into Little Italy for dinner and always have the latest handbag for my daughter Sofia. The little ones called him Uncle Duckie because one time he came to a family get together with his hair dyed blonde. He loved life and he lived it.

Sports were a big part of our family growing up. We were Mets, Knicks and Rangers fans but we split on football. My dad and I are Giants fans, while Steven and my brother Peter are Jets fans. In fact, my last conversation with my brother came after a phone call to WFAN’s Mike Francesa. After I hung up the phone, I got a phone call from him and he said, in typical Steven fashion, “You’re still talking about the stinkin’ Mets.”

It hurts, I really miss him.

Steven Ercolino, a beloved uncle, with his nieces.

J.P.: I’m writing these questions just four days after the Sandy Hook nightmare, and everyone’s talking gun control-gun control-gun control. This has obviously become an issue near and dear to you. What, Paul, needs to be done? What can be done? I’m fearful time will pass, distractions will take place and, as always, we’ll do shit. Please tell me I’m wrong …

P.E.: I think you are wrong this time, Jeff. The tragedy in Newtown has had such a powerful impact on the country as we watched in horror the slaughter of children and their teachers. The American public can’t allow this to pass and do nothing about it. We must demand that our politicians on both sides of the aisle get together and tackle the issue of curbing gun violence. The first and most obvious thing to do is ban assault weapons and high capacity ammo clips. We can close gun show loopholes and mandate background checks on anyone who buys a firearm. Just as importantly, we need find ways to stop access of lethal weapons to the mentally ill.

J.P.: How did you find out  about your brother’s death? How did you and your family handle it? And is there any advice you can offer to the Sandy Hook families? Is there a way to cope with this? Is it even possible?

P.E.: We were moving my son into his dorm as an incoming freshman at Syracuse University. We had just finished breakfast and were walking to the Carrier Dome for a ceremony when my father called me with the news that turned one of the happiest days of my life into the worst nightmare I could ever imagine. We have pulled together as a family after this tragedy and have become a stronger unit. No longer do we go a month at a time without picking up the phone and talking with each other. Our faith in God has been renewed as we feel the energy of Steven around us in everything we do. We will be starting a Steven Ercolino Foundation that will give back to the causes he believed in. The Sandy Hook families are in a much more difficult place than we were. I had 41 years to love my brother, while these poor families had the lights of their lives ripped from them at the ages of 6 and 7. My only advice is too celebrate their short lives and try not to agonize over their horrific deaths. That is what I am in the process of doing and it is very difficult.

The Ercolino Family, together for the final time two weeks before Steven’s death. Writes Paul: “It was the last time we were all together and it just breaks my heart looking at the smile on my mother and father’s face. They were so happy that we were all together. Little did we know this would be the last time.”

J.P.: After the incident, you were outspoken in your criticism of the media’s handling of the incident. Why? What, specifically, bothered you? And how do you feel about the Sandy Hook coverage?

P.E.: I was outraged by the New York Times Online Edition and the New York Post front page posting an overhead graphic photo of my brother that was recognizable to anyone who knew him, lying in a pool of blood. The photo was taken by someone in my brother’s office building and sold to the New York Times for $300. As a brother of the victim and former journalist, it sickened me that someone made the decision to run that photo. As for the Sand Hook coverage, I think the rush to be first with a story has led to so many inaccuracies. They identified Ryan Lanza, the 24-year-old brother of the murderer, as the initial suspect. It was reported that the mother was a teacher in the school, and was killed along with her class. When did get it first instead of get it right become the norm? In our case, reporters would not stop calling my parents’ house, which led me to hold a press conference outside their home. At least in Sandy Hook, I believe the press has respected the victims’ privacy and allowed them to grieve privately.

J.P.: Why do you think people are so passionate about guns? To me, they’re objects. Inanimate objects that kill. Why such strong feelings from gun owners?

P.E.: I am similar to you, I have never owned a gun and I look at them as objects that kill. Some people have a passion for cars, I look at them as an object that gets me from point A to B. I was brought up with sports in my house and I have a passion for sports. I guess in some cultures in America, guns are a way of life, people grow up with them and start using them at an early age. Now, when the government discusses putting limits on their passion, people get very protective of their guns.

Paul speaking with the media shortly after his brother’s passing.

J.P.: This might sound stupid, but I’m wondering—can you walk past the Empire State Building any longer? Do you avoid it? Do you even look at it?

P.E.: It is not a stupid question. The first time I had to drive into the city for business after the murder I was crossing the George Washington Bridge and looked at the skyline as I had done hundreds of times before and started to cry. I realized this symbol of American greatness was now an image of horror for me and my family.  In November, the family got together for what would have been his 42nd birthday.  We went on the roof of his Union City, N.J. condo and released balloons in his honor. Before we released the balloons my 5-year-old nephew, Matthew, said, “Hey, isn’t that the Empire State Building? That was Uncle Steven’s favorite building!” It was as only a 5-year old could. It brought more tears to my eyes but I realized that Steven bought this condo for the view of his favorite building in the city he loved and now I can look at the Empire State Building again.

J.P.: Has anyone from Jeffrey Johnson’s family ever reached out to you? Apologized? Anything? And did/do you want them to? Does it matter?

P.E.: No one from the Johnson family has ever reached out to us, nor would I expect them. It is not something anyone in our family is seeking and there is really nothing they can say at this point.

J.P.: Whenever tragedy happens, clergy speak of “learning” and “healing” from said incidents. Is that nonsense to make us feel better? Or is there learning and healing to be done?

P.E.: No, I don’t think it is nonsense—there is learning and healing that can come from tragedy. What I learned from my brother’s murder is that life is too short to be worrying about all the BS that goes on around you in your daily life. Life is precious and it can be taken away from you in an instant, without warning.

Steven was a Jets loyalist.

J.P.: Paul, I know much about your brother, little about you. Where are you from? What’s your life path? Job? Kids?

P.E.: I was born in Brooklyn and we moved to Nanuet in Rockland County when I was in first grade. I graduated from Clarkstown South High School and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. My wife Elisa and I have been married for 21 years and we have two children—Vincent, 18, and Sofia, 12. I worked for five years after college as news anchor and reporter at radio stations in Rockland and Westchester, N.Y., as well as in Tampa, Florida. After Vincent was born in 1994 in Florida we decided to move back to New York to be closer to family. After being the runner-up for a reporter position at WCBS News Radio, I began working at my in-laws’ direct marketing company. Eighteen years later I am now the President of U.S. Monitor, the nation’s leading mail monitor service. Since my brother’s murder, I have been working with Dan Gross at the Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence and I have become active in ethics in journalism regarding victims’ rights.

J.P.: Do you think we’re a violent people who need to learn to be peaceful? Or are you peaceful people who gravitate toward violence? And is there a solution?

P.E.: We are peaceful people who gravitate toward violence. I think the solution starts with parents, teachers and mental health professionals. If we recognize the warning signs early and make the choice to take the appropriate action, many of these tragedies can be avoided.


• Three most important steps we can take, RE: gun control: Ban assault weapons, close gun show loopholes, background checks on 100-percent of gun sales.

• If you could say one thing to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA CEO, it would be …: Do the right thing and rise to the moment.

• Do you believe video games predispose people to violence?: No, I think people are predisposed to violence and those people when exposed to violent video games may become more predisposed to violence.

• Your brother’s five favorite Jet players: His favorite all-time was Joe Klecko, he also liked Freeman McNeil, Wayne Chrebet, Curtis Martin and Darrelle Revis is no particular order.

• Does God exist?: Yes and in the past four months my faith in God has become an important part of my life.

• Do you believe in the death penalty? Why or why not?: My position has evolved on this issue. I used to be pro-death penalty but I have been convinced that it is not a deterrent and that life in prison without parole is a harsher punishment for murderers.

• Why do you think people who commit violent acts don’t just shoot themselves?: Why take out others, too? I think they want to go out in a blaze of glory and destroy the people who they feel are responsible for their lot in life.

• You studied broadcast journalism at Syracuse. Why aren’t you a broadcast journalist?: I worked as a journalist for five years after graduating from Syracuse and after my son was born in 1994 I decided to work in my in-laws’ business. Journalism is still in my blood, though.

• On your Facebook page you “liked” Walmart. I know no one who likes Walmart. What up?: Last I checked over 26 million people agree with me … who are you hanging out with. 🙂

• Why Syracuse’s football team ever win anything?: Coach Doug Marrone has us on the right track, the move to the ACC should help us. As for competing with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world—that is wishful thinking. Let’s talk Orange basketball …