Mahopacians (people with connections to my hometown of Mahopac, N.Y.)

Ritesh Rajan

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So this is sorta random, but the other day I was reading my high school yearbook on the toilet. It’s something that happens, oh, four or five times a year. I’ll be standing in our den, itching for a potty break and needing something light-yet-engrossing to peruse. Inevitably, I’ll reach toward a shelf and grab the ol’ 1990 Wampum, what with its faded photos and long-ago glories and hopes and dreams and prom pics and …


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If one looks closely, he/she can see the word JEW written alongside the photos. The classmate who did so was trying to be funny. I still remember him writing the word over and over, knowing it was wrong but not wanting to make waves. In a way, it’s sorta perfectly representative of Mahopac, N.Y., my glorious-yet-painfully sheltered hometown. I don’t think the JEW writer meant to be anti-Semitic, just as I don’t think the kids who referred to my best friend as “one of the good n—-rs” considered themselves to be racist.

Wait. I digress.

Today’s Quaz Q&A stars a man who knows whereof I speak. Like me, Ritesh Rajan is a product of Mahopac. Like me, Ritesh Rajan didn’t (demographically) fit into the Mahopac typecast. Like me, Ritesh Rajan loves our hometown and takes issue with our hometown. Like me, Ritesh Rajan now lives in Southern California, where he has carved out an impressive career as an actor in such TV shows as “Stitchers” and “Criminal Minds” and films like “The Jungle Book” and “Campus Code.” He’s a fascinating guy with an inspired outlook, and one can follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Ritesh Rajan, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Ritesh, we’re both products of the mean streets of Mahopac who now live in California. And I’m very fascinated by your relationship/feelings for our hometown. Because, to be honest, mine are mixed. Great place to grow up, safe, good friends. But also hard-core Trump country, not diverse, definite strands of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. So … what says you?

RITESH RAJAN: I have to say, you and I have similar feelings about this. I loved where I grew up. I always enjoyed school, my friends, and what the town had to offer: a safe, beautiful and, at the time, charming place to live—not to mention an overabundance of delis and local pizza shops. I never once experienced direct racism towards myself growing up in Mahopac, but there was definitely an attitude shift post-9/11. The close proximity to New York City, along with community members losing loved ones, there was a slow looming tonal shift in the town. I believe my parents status protected me from a lot of it. They are both doctors, we have been there since 1992, and my dad still has a practice in town. We were also probably one of first Indian families to go through the Mahopac school system. Having an older brother and younger sister who went to the same school (they graduated in 1996 and 2008, respectively) and all of us being involved in school activities, the community knew us and this  helped combat the general ignorance that was floating around.

I would say it has gotten much worse in the past 4-to-5 years. I think people are in denial if they say it has nothing to do with Trump and the political climate. His actions and way of carrying out his politics has, without a doubt, emboldened people to voice their previously socially unacceptable views. I also feel diversity was lacking in the town which maybe adds to the issue, but who knows. It’s funny to me that our town name finds its roots in the local Native American culture yet there are zero threads to connect us back to that. In fact, I always wondered why the high school mascot was an “Indian.” I am an Indian. My parents were born and raised in India. My brother was born in India. Why can’t a conversation occur that changes the mascot to a local tribe name or just even a word that represents the town roots? Even our yearbook is called Wampum. Our school newspaper is The Chieftain. The short answer is I don’t think anyone cares or has even given any thought to it. I think it’s these many small things being ignored that add to the bigger picture. It’s hard to say why people feel and act the way they do without knowing each other’s stories, struggles, and environments. I do know that most of people in my hometown disagree with my social and political views—gotta love Facebook! I will say this, I still love going home. I find it grounding and, considering my career choice, that’s important.

From the Asian Bachelorette Calendar.

From the Asian Bachelorette Calendar.

J.P.: Gotta jump to an important one right here, right now. According to your IMDB page, you appear in the 2019 Asian Bachelorette Calendar. Ritesh … what?

R.R.: Are you jealous? Haven’t you always dreamed of being in a calendar? This project started off with a just a simple question: why aren’t there any Asian men on ABC’s “The Bachelorette”? WongFu, a popular YouTube channel, decided to take this issue head-on and create a spoof. The premise: one Caucasian Bachelorette and only contestants of Asian descent. I had the honor of representing Browntown, aka the Indians, by playing a dentist from Edison, NJ. Edison is basically the little India of the Northeast, if you are not aware. You should check the video out on YouTube when you get a chance. The video was so popular that the creators actually got a call from ABC to talk about diversity. WongFu thought doing a spoof pin-up style holiday calendar to promote diversity in entertainment would be a great idea. I have to say, it’s pretty hilarious. Do you want one? I’ll hook you up! We can post them all around Mahopac!

J.P.: So you’ve been in everything. Seriously everything. Films, TV shows, animated, soaps, etc. And I’m fascinated—how did this happen for you? When do you know you wanted to act? When did you know you could act? Was there an ah-ha moment?

R.R.: Well I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be in entertainment. I was always obsessed with martial arts and movies. I religiously watched Power Rangers; all I wanted to do was be a Power Ranger. I had the Green Ranger at my sixth birthday party. My mom put my sister and I into Taekwondo when I was 5, which basically made me feel I could be an action star. I am still trying to be an action star and practice martial arts today in hopes my dreams will come true. My first memory of acting was when my second grade class (shout out to Mr. Crasson, who was one of my favorite teachers) put on a production of a “Magic School Bus” episode. It was basically to teach us about the solar system, where I was given the roll of some nerd (getting typecast even back then) explaining the what the red dot on Jupiter was. I loved practicing lines and being on stage. I didn’t understand it at the time, but there was something about theater that just connected with me; I think it had to do with having the whole room’s attention.  As far as knowing when I was good at acting, that is hard to point out. I just got better everyday, at least I think so—haha! I read and saw as many books, plays, and movies as I could. I tired to involve myself in as many local productions just so I could exercise those muscles. I went to NYU Tisch for undergrad and that’s when everything solidified.

My ah-ha moment happened in two parts. The first one was in the Magic School Bus play I mentioned before. The second was during the audition process for a fifth grade musical. Every year, my elementary school (Fulmar Road, I am a Mahopac OG) did a spirit day. This was a big deal for all the kids and an event that every student looked forward too, especially because they catered McDonald’s for lunch … how could you not love that!? On this day, the entire fifth grade class put on an original musical where the whole grade tried out. Being a small, skinny, nerdy Indian kid, I was never the strongest nor the fastest. I never felt physically awkward, but it was so hard for me to be the best at something athletic, which everyone strived to be. I knew singing and staying on pitch came much more easily to me than other kids, but it didn’t seem “cool” at the time, so I let it sit in the back of my mind. When it came time to audition for this musical, I thought I would do well, but I remember being nervous. A fellow student, named Martin, had a mom who was in the Broadway production of CATS, so I felt he had the upper hand and would get the part. He could also carry a tune. I don’t remember the audition process very much, but I ended up getting the lead of the show. If you were wondering what the role was … I played an anamorphic version of a tuba. This was the first time my parents actually saw me perform and they have encouraged me ever since … probably because I didn’t suck. It was a more solidifying ah-ha moment and, if it didn’t happen, there is a good chance I would be a doctor today. Thanks Mr. Moriarty, hope you are watching from above.

J.P.: According to IMDB your first credited roll is “Mustafa” in Law & Order. So … how did that gig happen? What do you remember of the experience?

R.R.: Well, I was a senior at NYU and the school always had a strict policy of attendance. I had to miss class for the Law & Order audition. I personally didn’t care about it, but I got  a C+, which stopped me from graduating with honors. My parents were irritated … still very Indian. Obviously, I made the right choice, though. It was standard procedure: my agents in New York sent me out on the appointment, I read for the casting director, and was told to wait 30 minutes for the director of the episode. That ended up being two hours, but after reading for him, he was impressed. I got a call the next day saying I booked the role—I was ecstatic! I celebrated the next day by skipping classes and going to Halal Guys (at that time it was only on 53rd and 6th and I probably ate too much hot sauce, which I still do). The actual day of filming was pretty smooth. I only had two scenes but I remember hanging on set as long as I could to learn and absorb everything. We shot in a real pizza shop so instead of eating the catered meal, I ate pizza with the cast and crew on location. I was really proud of the fact that my first role was a character named Mustafa and I didn’t have an accent. Plus, doing the original Law & Order is a bucket list item for any New York actor. The show was cancelled that season I believe … oops!

J.P.: How hard is it to get into character? What I mean is—can you act and feel who you’re supposed to be? Can you actually turn into Ben or Tesh or Arum or whoever your character is? Or, is there always 5% thinking, “What should I have for dinner tonight?”

R.R.: This is a process that is very specific to each actor. I know people who write tons of notes or try to go method living as their character. I know people who do nothing. I personally enjoy the rehearsal process. It lays down the foundation of the character, because creating their specific thoughts and ideas is essential. The goal for me is to figure out which version portrays the most truth. It’s not about being right or wrong, or making the first choice. It is about creating a foundation you can live and be truthful in. If you live in that foundation you won’t be thinking about “when are we breaking for lunch?” When I am in the space, it’s actually difficult to think about anything else other than what my character is going through. Not as Ritesh, but as who I am playing. Ritesh gets upset, but how does Linus get upset? I know when Ritesh is speaking and Linus is speaking, because they are foundational different in my mind and body. I think all actors carry a certain color of themselves in the characters they play, but it’s a matter of management. Sometimes you get a character who is closer to you and it requires less work, but I would liken it to an athlete thinking about his weekend vs. the play at hand. Do you want to be JR Smith or LeBron? Obviously there are days when you are less focused, but I always think about how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing. I don’t take those moments for granted. Plus I want to do my best work, it will only allow me more opportunities to present my artistic talents.

Thanksgiving 2018 with the family.

Thanksgiving 2018 with the family.

J.P.: On Nov. 5 you posted on Instagram a message you received that read: “Ritesh motherfucking son of a bitch Rajan how dare you to eVen touch white girls in movies and tv series you perv asshole Asian bastard go fuck your mother sisterfucker rather pathetic how dare you asshole you sisterfucker dickhead go touch your sister instead brown piece of shit.” And, interestingly, earlier this morning someone on Twitter wrote how I don’t own guns so my house and family is unprotected. And I wonder—how seriously should we take these things? How seriously do you take these things? And how are we supposed to respond?

R.R.: I never take these things seriously or personally. Haters are always going to hate. Unless the situation escalated to point where I, or anyone I know, was in actual danger, I just find it best to use it as motivation. Clearly, this specific person follows my work, otherwise he wouldn’t know who I am. Sorry I’m a brown guy on TV kissing white girls. Most of my trolls are racially fueled and people don’t realize it’s still a frequent occurrence. Both friends and fans were shocked that I would receive messages like this, but it happens all the time. Responding is always tricky, because you don’t want to fuel the fire but, sometimes you want to stand up for yourself and others. In this case, I felt like it was a great opportunity to take negative words and use them to create a more positive and informed attitude about racism in this country. If we can make people more aware of the struggles other people go through, then I think we can be more understanding as a society and hopefully improve our relationship with others.

J.P.: You voiced Ken in the TV series, “Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures.” I’m super fascinated—how did you land the gig? What are the challenges of doing voice work? Is it fulfilling? Annoying? A mere paycheck? A terrific challenge?

R.R.: I worked with Mattel before on another Barbie show called “Barbie Dreamtopia.” I played a close friend of Barbie, named Derrick. He doubled as forest prince; he looked like me and was the only male in Barbie’s crew. I had a running joke with everyone that Barbie was tired of Ken and was into Indian guys now. The director referred me as a good fit for Ken to the producers of “Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures.” I sent in a tape reading a sample scene and that was about it. I remember just being grateful they would even read me. Malibu Ken, blond hair, blues eyes, six pack—very different than Mahopac Tesh. When I got the call that they wanted me, I was shocked. It’s pretty amazing to be part of a franchise as legendary as Barbie.

I really hope when people Google me (if they even do that haha) they see that credit and say, “NO WAY! KEN IS AN INDIAN GUY?” Hopefully, it will inspire some Indian young kid somewhere. VO work is really amazing and I fucking love it. As long as you take it seriously, you can show up in your pajamas. The microphones can pick up everything, so  if your voice is not 100 percent you can tell. I have to be aware what I do a few days before I record, because people will know if I’ve had too many beers beforehand. For Ken, I use my natural voice about one to two steps higher and my energy is much more boyish and punched up. I absolutely love it, I hope I will be Ken for as long as I can!

Side note, I watch a lot of anime. Everyone makes fun of me for it, including parents, friends, or anyone I come in contact with that doesn’t watch anime. I think listening to hours of Japanese voice actors, who are incredible, has paid off.

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J.P.: You played Linus Ahluwalia on the TV show, “Stitchers.” What is it like being a recurring part of a production? I’ve had people describe it as akin to summer camp—this sorta communcal experience where you form strong attachments. I know others who just wanted their show to end. How was it for you? And what is it like when a show ends? The emotions?

R.R.: I liken my whole experience on Stitchers to one of those traveling carnivals. There are so many moving parts. I mean that in the best way. Everyone comes together to create something they have no idea what the end result will be. Time, blood, sweat, tears, and, of course, money is all put into something you hope people will like. We all have our skills and when the show stops making money, we have to disband and pack it up. My personal experience was amazing. I met some of my closest friends and mentors on that show. I was lucky enough to have three seasons, which seems to be rare nowadays. There wasn’t a single day I wasn’t smiling or laughing at work. Being my first gig as a regular on TV, Stitchers will always have a special place in my heart. I loved being on it show even if I was starting to outgrow it (which I believe I was). I could spend all day with my castmates. I think we were very lucky in that sense, because I have heard horror stories about cast compatibility. I still talk to them daily. When we got cancelled it was a terrible, confusing feeling. I was ready to move on, but I was devastated.

I love what I do. We knew it was coming, but we still had hope maybe the network would give us one more season to finish it out. I received the phone call from my showrunner who thanked me for the last three years and I did the same. When I got off the phone I sat there and cried. It is a terrifying feeling. What people don’t understand is that the entertainment world can be feast or famine and I felt like I was going to have to go back to my former day job (Zumba instructor and Uber driver—yes this is it’s own question, ha!). It’s tough being fired and not having a consistent paycheck. It’s hard being a struggling actor, but I think it’s harder to fall from a higher place. You have tasted a form of success and all you can think about is getting back on top. You really know what you are made of when you are tested in a position of defeat. You have to bounce back and stay focused. That is all I said to myself for the next week. Work will come as long as I stay dedicated and focused. I was once told by a teacher that my job will be auditioning. Working will be a vacation. Pretty damn true.

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J.P.: You trained at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Do you feel like all actors need this sort of training? Are there some people who are simply naturals, and others who require the work? And what did it do for you?

R.R.: I believe so, maybe in varying degrees, though. The truth is, there are people who are just better at certain things. Acting is no different, but it’s hard to articulate that because it can’t be quantified by some score or number. Great actors may never get commercial success and commercial actors may be terrible. It’s a crazy business. I personally benefited greatly from my training. It laid the foundation to my growing skill. Acting is hard and the reason why everyone thinks they can do it is because the good ones make it look easy. You would be shocked how to see many people can make walking across a room look awkward and terrible. I think training can keep you more consistent. It’s closer to sports than you realize. You can dial into your character faster and you can stay in character longer, which allows you explore more interesting choices, thus making you a better, or rather, believable actor. With practice and repetition, you can recreate results faster and more accurate than without a regimen. Of course the art form is much more fluid because it’s based purely on human interaction and characters needs, but training gives you the tool kit to make the audience say, “Wow what a great performance,” or, “That person was really living in the moment.” They don’t know why it was great, they just believe it was great because it seemed real to them. They have no way to measure or articulate it beyond its surface. My time in school was very important because, even though I learned quite a bit on set, it’s rare that productions will have the time to explore characters the way you do in school. There are just a hundred other things going on and the director may or may not have the time to prioritize that. It’s your training that gives you the tools to go home and lay the foundation to your work..

J.P.: When you’re working on a project, how do you know whether the finished product will be good or not? When do you know?

R.R.: Honestly, you don’t. It’s fucking terrifying. You just have to be honest with yourself. I know when I half-ass something, the result will reflect that. If you are working from your heart and soul, you won’t be unhappy with your result. You can’t control other people’s expectations or tastes, but you can control the quality of your own work.  Sometimes when I thought something was amazing people think it’s average and vice versa. Hone in on creating work that resonates with you and chances are it will resonate with others. More importantly if something does fail, understand why people didn’t like it. You have to be learning constantly and adapting. So much of this industry is out of your hand the only thing you can do is keep working hard and striving for self improvement. Luck favors the persistent.

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): Emma Ishta, LL Cool J, Disneyland, espresso, Vincent Collins, Rajon Rondo, snowball fights, “As Good as it Gets,” Buzz Feed, Robinson Cano, the number 57, Abercrombie: Emma (we have been through it all, how could I not list her 1!), LL Cool J, espresso, snowball fights, Disneyland, “As Good as it Gets,” Buzz Feed, the number 57, Robinson Cano, Vincent Collins, Abercrombie, Rajon Rando (The Celtics suck … Huge Knicks fan. He also spit in Chris Paul’s face)

• Three memories from the Mahopac High senior prom: 1. Saying to myself that my prom date looked beautiful; 2 Drinking alcohol we sneaked onto a bus by emptying Costco sized contact solution bottles, washing them soap and hot water, and refilling them with vodka; 3. One of my best friends squeezing my hand, and almost breaking it, as he got his nipple pierced. It got infected the next day.

• On Mahopac’s Wikipedia page, both of us are listed as NOTABLE PEOPLE along with former Mariners pitcher Dave Fleming, the actor Jay Acovone, Sour Shoes from the Howard Stern show, Henry Winkler, Major League pitcher C.J. Riefenhauser, a motorsports journalist named Doug Auld and Ryan McClay, a lacrosse player. Who you have as No. 1?: Henry Winkler. He is the only person to have influence on me and, more importantly, both my parents would know who he is. When your immigrant parents know you are, you are doing something right.

• What’s the dumbest line you’ve ever had to utter on a show?: I said a lot of nerdy things on Stitchers, but I never felt uncomfortable saying them. On the next season of Barbie I have to make whale noises … I had no idea what the hell I was doing. What does a whale even sound like? I don’t think Ellen knew, either, while doing Finding Nemo.

• I’m sitting in a café. It smells moldy. But … they have free coffee refills. What should I do?: Find the source of the smell … take a picture of it. Text it to your friends who would find it annoying…oh and drink two cups of coffee. No more, no less.

• Five reasons one should make Mahopac his/her next vacation destination?: 1. It’s home to you and I. 2. It’s actually really pretty during the summer and fall. 3. Have you been to Kobu? 4. Meet a bunch of people who say they are from the Bronx and are super Italian but have no idea where their family is actually from. 5. Go see my parents—you will get some incredible Indian food you will never get in an Indian restaurant.

• Who’s someone famous you’ve met who made you nervous?: Will Smith and Micheal J Fox.

• What are the most overrated food products in America?: SPAM, pretzel sticks, Diet Coke.

• The next president of the United States will be …: A woman of color. If you don’t believe, it won’t happen.

• Two memories from playing “Softball Player” on an episode of the TV show “Baby Daddy”: 1. I spent a lot of time watching Taj Mowry growing up on Full House and Smart Guy. It was validating and fun to be able to share the screen with him…even if it was only for a scene or two. 2. Just being so welcomed by Jean, Taj, and Chelsea. I was a newbie and they were very kind and funny. I remember running into Chelsea at a Disney event right after Stitchers had aired and she remembered by name and gave me a big hug congratulating me on the show. It was all very sweet.

Craig Vanderoef

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Back in the fall of 1989, when I was a captain on the Mahopac High cross country team, I was very much convinced we had a future star in our midst.

Though only a freshman, the kid was preposterously fast. He had a sprinter’s speed and a distance runner’s endurance. He regularly blew past me in workouts, and during meets I only saw the underbellies of his shoes.

His name was Tim Giambalvo, and the kid kicked ass.

We also had another freshman. He, too, was good. Not great, but good. Fast, strong. Sometimes he beat me, sometimes I beat him. We’d run together quite often, and he’d dreamingly fantasize about one day joining a major Division I program. To be honest, I didn’t see it happening. Craig Vaderoef struck me as merely solid.

The year is 2018. I am Facebook friends with both Tim and Craig. The two have enjoyed fruitful and spirited lives. I’ve enjoyed watching their growths and, on occasion, communicating. One, however, stopped running shortly after I graduated.

The other became an absolute stud.

Craig Vanderoef’s career has been a joy to watch, mainly because it’s built on devotion, doggedness, working, then working even more. He spent a year running at Indiana, then transferred to Virginia, where he posted blistering times way beyond my comprehension. He’s run a 2:30 marathon (which he calls “very disappointing”), a 68:50 half, a 24:55 8KM cross country race.

Best of all, he has followed his passion, and now lives in Germany and serves as adidas’ senior director product running apparel and custumization. Yes, he loves running. Bur he loves his day-to-day existence even more.

Which makes him a tremendous Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Craig, I wanna start with a random one. My son is a sixth grader at a middle school here in Southern California. And they have this running program, where they train kids to run the Orange County Marathon. The children range in age from 11 to 14. So when I was growing up, I did a ton of 10Ks, eight milers, even a few halfs at that age—but never, ever, ever a marathon. I think it’s batshit crazy, but no one here seems to agree. Your thoughts?

CRAIG VANDEROEF: Batshit Fuckin’ Crazy! There is just no need I can think of to have kids of that age do it. Are they physically capable of the feat, sure, if trained right can it be done in a healthy manner; probably. But why?!?!?!?

I think the joy of youth is in the joy not the struggle and the marathon is a struggle, on the very best of days. I am sure they tell you that it builds character or a sense of accomplishment, but so does a 10k or 10 miles and it does not put five hours of pounding on the body. Heck, if you listen to our parents’ generation getting beat up builds character and how many parents today would sign their 11-year old up for a punch in the face? (I realize more than would readily admit it here online).

My point being we can build healthy kids with healthy habits without going to the extremes of sport. Let them have fun and learn that running is a tool that builds confidence, fitness and gives one time to think and enjoy the world.

I think all of that can happen at 5-10km, but I would ask what Emmett has learned from the process. Maybe his experience would change both of our minds. I know the Lakeview Elementary ‘after-school runnin’ program created by Mrs. Mulaney impacted my life in a pretty big way and I never ran a marathon until late in my career.

So to summarize … batshit crazy!

J.P.: You love running. Like, you looooooooove running. I really like running, and always have. But yours is a passion. Why? How?

C.V.: Running has given me most everything I care about in my life. My career, my best friends who are like family. I even met my wife on the starting line of the LA Marathon.

Running has given me my health even through the scariest of times being fit gave me something extra that helped me in the healing.

I started running young to belong … Lakeview Elementary Cchool and the race around Lake Mahopac in second grade. Everybody went so I went. The lake race was a 10k around our town’s prominent body of water. That year I finished 305th to my older brother’s 303rd (Truth be told I caught him during the race and waited up for him a bunch. He was in 7th grade). The next year I broke my arm and needed surgery. That meant 16 weeks in a cast and no little league, so my mom focused me on “the Lake Run” because that was what I could do and that was how I could compete. I finished 73rd as a third grader and that was it. My mom decided I was a runner. (My youngest sister was actually born that day after my mom walked the 5k down to the lake to watch me run by for two seconds then walked home. I owe my mom a lot).

So around all of the other sports that I played and loved I had running. Running became my time and my space, and when you are one of five kids your own time and space are rare and wonderful things. I loved being out in the rain, but my mom couldn’t have five kids out playing in the rain (or sick afterward) so I was never allowed to be out in it—that was unless I was going for a run. So when it rained I ran.

I like winning and I won a lot while running and liked that the harder you worked the better you did (up to a point, now I realize I could have rested a bit more). You really get to know a lot about someone on a 20-mile run and you build friendships that no one else gets. You find limits and truth and you get to feel yourself almost eating up the ground.

I am not able to train super hard anymore and I miss it. I miss waking up to run 12 miles on the trails before work, I miss the friends who I have shared miles with and won’t again, but mostly I am thankful for each step I run now and for the gifts running has given me and the chance to make those moments happen for others via my work.

With his father Gary

With his father Gary

J.P.: So you’re the business unit director for global running apparel at Adidas. And I ask, with all due respect—does it really matter whether I’m wearing Adidas or Nike, Reebok or Asics? Like, at the end of the day aren’t good kicks good kicks?

C.V.: I would ask you “If I want to learn about Roger Clemens does it matter who wrote the book? I mean Hansen Alexander, Joseph Janczak or Pearlman? I mean at the end of the day aren’t good writers good writers?

I am not sure if those other two guys are actually great writers or even good, but one must assume they were good enough to get the book deals. I know you’re a great writer, I know because I know your commitment to craft and to research, to share a story well told, but what of the others?.

The difference in the books will be style, research, access, etc. The same nuance exists within the athletic footwear and apparel world. The big brands are all good enough to be big brands, but the style, innovation, and perspective they bring shapes products that will make you run better, feel better, maybe even look better.

So I think brand matters because I think the stylistic choices a brand makes coupled with their philosophy and commitment to innovation shapes the experience you have in the product they have crafted.

At adidas we believe sport has the power to change lives and we are obsessed with making athletes better as we have been since Adi Dassler crafted his first pair of shoes. Our products blend performance and style in a way no one else can and this combination of performance and style has always created icons of sport and style. The Stan Smith, Shell toes, the UltraBoost were all born from a performance insight, but they transcended sport and the beauty of their form secured their place as iconic parts of the style of sport and street alike. So if you want to have world record performance coupled with style where else could you go?

J.P.: We ran together at Mahopac High, and you were very good for a freshman. Not dazzling, but definitely better than solid. And then, years later, I look up and you’re running for Virginia, posting these sick times. How did that improvement happen?

C.V.: The trials of miles and miles of trials … I worked hard and ran a lot. I think a few key factors helped me to change my level as an athlete and they are not going to be surprising. Coaching, teammates and commitment to being better were they keys.

My parents moved us across New York going into my junior year of high school and when I landed at Sweet Home High School (real name) in Amherst, New York (just outside of Buffalo) I went from being school record holder for class and for-sure captain to a team that I was going to have to earn my top five spot. My track personal bests were way behind the other guys at Sweet Home. Guys like Jim Garnham and Joe Baran were rising juniors with a bunch of trips to the state meet already and the level of excellence was set by Coach Pat Wyatt. So, I went from running alone a lot and crushing everyone to running in a pack, to getting my ass handed to me in speed sessions and grinding it back on the longer stuff. Coach Wyatt got me into the weight room and worked hard to make me the runner I could be and I believed in him 100 percent. He made sure we knew the relay was more important than what we did alone and that the name on the front of the shirt meant more than the one on the back.

Our graduating class sent four athletes to Division I track and field programs that year. I started at Indiana University, where I was able to train with America’s best distance runners in Bob Kennedyand Todd Williams. They were gods and I got to see what it really took to get better and I busted my ass to make it happen. In reality that year I busted up my knee … apparently running 130 miles a week plus lifting a ton can have your patella so tight it pulls away from the tendon and it subluxes. The varsity letter from that freshman year means an awful lot to me still, knowing you worked hard enough to break yourself is a good lesson.

That injury and that year devastated me, but it also built the foundation of the fire that burned through my university career and beyond. I moved to Boulder that summer to train with the best American collegians I could find and got crazy fit, while realizing IU was not the place for me.

I called coach Sam Bell and let him know I would not be coming back, but I was the third member of my freshman class to make that call and he decided not to sign a release for me to run somewhere else the next year. I was a man/boy without a place …

So a friend of mine  said, “You are studying English. You should go to UVA. I have a friend who goes there. You should call him” (Jason would later become the head coach at UVA). Anyway, I called, I grabbed my stuff and moved to Charlottesville. I took a year off from school, working two shitty jobs making sandwiches for entitled rich kids by day and night.

I was running 120 miles a week getting my ass kicked by US national team member Rob Cook and just set my eye on the prize of getting back to school and back to an easier life. So I ran, worked, and read for a year. That was about it, I spent a year realizing what it was to want; to not have everything I wanted at the moment I wanted it and I tried to turn that into a desire to perform.

When I did get back into school I still had to work and I was never great at listening to coaches or taking it easy and I had some good races, some bad races, and in general a lot of missed opportunities. As I look back now I needed to better understand and live a more balanced work and recovery lifestyle.

Short version of this: I RAN A LOT!!

Craig (top, fourth from left) and Jeff (far right) were two components of the legendary 1989-90 Mahopac High cross country team.

Craig (top, fourth from left) and Jeff (far right) were two components of the legendary 1989-90 Mahopac High cross country team.

J.P.: As I age I find running increasingly hard. Bad lower back, creaky knees. Does there come a point when, just maybe, we need to stop and choose a different sport?

C.V.: I would say just imagine how bad your back and knees would be if you were not running! Running in general is a benefit to the body and being fit from the cardiovascular point of view adds so much to overall health and if you stop running you’ll lose those benefits and the problems may not go away. Over the years of repetition it is likely that your auxiliary muscle groups have become weaker and that can make the running motion put more stress on those key areas.

Likely what you need to do is reduce your intensity on your runs and start taking more time to build core strength. Build strength in your core and auxiliary muscles and you will run better and with fewer problems.

Over time I have had to say goodbye to competitive running and as a result I stopped doing the hours of extras each week as a results my form has suffered and so nagging injuries have shown up. This did not happen in our youth because we played other sports which kept our core strong and our stabilizers were built up through time on the basketball court or soccer field. My suggestions to you would be to get to softer surfaces … you can do your runs in Wood Canyon Park, great soft trails near your pad. The other way forward is a return to sport in order to make your running better.

I recently returned to playing lacrosse, which I said goodbye to at 15 so that I could specialize in running. I am playing in the for Nuremberg Wizards in the German second division with kids who weren’t born when I gave it all up. It has been a blast and it is helping my running to feel better again. I am using the muscles that lateral sports bring to life and so they are stronger and more able to do their job when I run. I would also throw out a huge THANK YOU to Mahopac coaches Counes, Corace, and Georgalas as the skills they hammered into me at 13-14 year old seem to have stuck pretty well.

J.P.: What’s your day-to-day job like? Soup to nuts?

C.V.: Set the vision and direction for all adidas global running apparel and customized running shoes. My job boiled down to a phrase is “Better Runs.” It is my job to work with and understand runners and create products that help them to have better runs. That might be a faster run, a dryer run, a less horrible run, what it is is a better run today so that they might be inspired to run tomorrow.

We work with runners around the world from Mary Keitany and Wilson Kipsang to the crazy guy running across the Brooklyn bridge at midnight to better understand what they need to feel and be better. After we understand that need, we work together with our designers and developers to create the product and with our communications partners to bring the product and story to life around the world. Our apparel was on the backs of athletes for the last four marathon world records, countless Olympic gold medals, and someone’s first ever 5k. I know it is just T-shirts and shorts, but I do my best to remind my team that they are creating someone’s favorite, the one piece they dig through the laundry to find, the piece that cannot run without. We are not curing cancer every day … but sometimes we are helping others to do so.

Soup to nuts though, the big part of my day that I take very seriously is as a coach and leader for the teammates and colleagues with whom I interact. It is my job to make the world a better place through sport but also through the teammates I can coach and influence on their journey to betterment. I have grown to see that work as my most important role.

With Almaz Ayana, the Ethiopian and Olympic champion

With Almaz Ayana, the Ethiopian and Olympic champion

J.P.: I talk about this with my son quite often, but I’ve never asked someone involved in running. So I’ll ask you: Twice during her career, the great Grete Waitz diarrheaed herself while leading marathons. I actually remember it happening in New York, thinking, “Fucking ewwwww.” But how do you view it? Admirable? Weird? Did you ever do the same?

C.V.: Grete Waitz was tough as effing nails! Nine times she went out and beat that NYC Marathon field. Nine times!! She was a destroyer of souls in the marathon and the kindest person off the track.

I was lucky enough to work with Grete and help the charity she co-founded Aktiv Against Cancer. Adidas apparel inspired by her still gives back today. I consider her husband Jack a good friend and am really proud to keep her legacy alive …

That said, poop is gross, no one wants to poop themselves, but it does happen. I have had to hit a porta potty on a run, but I was never leading the New York City Marathon, so stopping was the better option for me. The marathon is hard, and when you are running fast and you gotta go, you gotta go … as for me I would say always wear black shorts, and always have huge amounts of respect for Grete.

J.P.: Why does Kenya have such a dominant distance running system? What do they do/have that Americans lack?

C.V.: Kenya elites dominate for a few reasons. Of course at the highest level each athlete has picked his/her parents really, really well! Talent is a gift that is from your parents and what they give you and the Rift Valley is a place where some amazing athletes are born at altitude and many have a great aerobic capacity, lean build, powerful drive. But it is not luck of the draw, so do not even for a second be fooled. Those guys train their asses off! They put in a ton of miles and work incredibly hard. I have been lucky enough to meet and work with some of the greatest marathoners to ever lace up a pair of shoes and they became great the same way any runner before them did. The secret, as  John L. Parker Jr. put it … “What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.”

Americans don’t lack anything and that could be the problem. It is hard to find that deep level of hurt if you have grown up without ever wanting for anything. We grow up without a lot of worry in the true sense of the word and so it takes a really special personality to dig that deep and hurt that much day after day. A lot of guys do it, as do a lot of girls. Desi Linden has a level of grit and toughness few others ever have and she showed it in her winning of the Boston Marathon. All of us in the industry said it the night before, “If the weather stays this bad Desi wins, no doubt.”

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J.P.: You live in Nuremberg, so you have an at-a-distance view of America under Donald Trump. What does it look like from afar? What do people ask you when they learn you’re an American? Because I sorta envy you right now.

C.V.: What does it look like from afar? Pretty much the same shitshow it looks like close up, but just nine hours behind. I think it is a scary thing that is happening and watching the events triggered in Gaza, or Iran by an unqualified mean spirited racist worries me for sure, but I believe in the American people enough to believe the call to action for the midterms will show us a light at the end of the tunnel soon. Or at least I hope that.

Don’t envy me too much. I live in a country where they do not sell peanut butter M&Ms. Freedom and choice are a blessing you should be thankful for every day. They do, however, have healthcare for all, paid parental leave, and make sure everyone eats.

People shake their head at our president and the state of our government and they ask us how it was possible that it happened. A question that is often followed by, “How is Trump president? Everyone I have ever talked to over here didn’t vote for him!” And that’s the problem—the folks with passports with a wider global view voted one way, but those with a more closed view of their world that is centered around a local sphere of influence were lied to and scared into voting for a fraud and a sell-out.

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

C.V.: Let’s start lowest. Because I grew up very Catholic that one comes easier. January 12, 2001 the day my best friend Travis Landreth died while on a run. I lost a huge part of myself that day and I still have not found it. I am pretty sure that I never will. I was able to share his love of running and legacy via the Gel-Landreth that our teams created after his passing and I enjoyed seeing that shoe on runs around the world.

Greatest Moment: Those keep happening. I have an amazing wife who loves me and supports me regardless of the fact that she is way cooler and way more beautiful a person than I am. I got one more day with her today and I think that is pretty amazing. I have been blessed with parents who teach me still how to grow and learn each day, my chosen family is a group you would be blessed to know let alone call friends and I can them family. I suppose I am hoping my greatest moment is still ahead.

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): Alberto Salazar, YouTube, mugs with uplifting messages, Tim Giambalvo, “Over the Top,” Ty Dolla $ign, Rusty Staub, the smell of newspaper, the Elbe River, rum and Coke, Zeus: Staub … he is no Lenny Dykstra, but he was Mets’ royalty when I was a kid. Over The Top … Stallone, the turning around of the hat to create go time… amazing (Over the top was also the name of my favorite run at the University of Virginia, I ran it every Monday for four years and miss it to this day). YouTube is fun, but I love the smell of a newspaper, not as much as used book store. I am neutral on Tim G, TY$, the Elbe, Zeus and rum and Coke. But on the negative side those mugs and the people who carry them (unless ironically) and then there is Albert Saladbar.

• Five all-time favorite distance runners: Emil ZatopekBilly MillsPaul TergatKenny Moore (Runner/Writer, he brought all of my favorites to life on the page… Read “Best Efforts” a collection of his stories for SI, amazing especially “Concentrate on the Chrysanthemums”—life changing and an amazing view of Frank Shorter who I wanted on the list but ran out of spots, Brian Diemer

• Three memories of Mahopac running coach Tom GilchristGEEZ!!! 1.The pants, he always wore those bad shiny polyester BIKE brand coach’s pants and in an assortment of colors; 2. His coffee cup and slow drawl way of communicating … I can still hear his voice but not so much his words. Which I think is a little sad; 3. He was always there, I don’t know that he had a passion for cross country or track, but he never missed a day, he showed up, he listened to us and he would be there for you and that is great lesson too. He much rather would have been on the basketball court, but he was there. Summer before sophomore year he taught summer school P.E. at Lakeview and each weekday I got there and ran the full fields loop with the hills as he watched students that failed gym glass play softball or some such, and then gave me firm handshake for the effort and then was off. I worked super hard and at the end of that summer I was one vote short of being named captain for the year, but instead the team voted in another kid who didn’t run very much or very fast, and I was pissed!! Coach Gilchrist said “You’d have made a great captain, but Henry needed it more.” It took me a long time to absorb that lesson, but I still appreciate Tom trying to share it.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I have had some pretty awful and long plane rides, but nothing almost death related. I had a deep vein thrombosis a few years back and I was told I might not wake up from the surgery. I called my dad to say “Thank you” and goodbye. I talked with my closest friends to do the same, but before I went under I asked the doctor for “one more day” … begged really for one more day with my wife, Raine. When you are about to not wake up ever again you are looking for the person you want to most wake up with.

• One question you would ask James Earl Jones were he here right now: Does the sexy voice or the Darth Vader voice get you more chicks?

• What do your running shoes smell like?: Roses … I am sample size and work for a running company, my shoes are never too gross. If your shoes are ratty and stinky they are likely in need of replacement for technical reasons.

• How much interest do you think you can muster up in Germany for a USFL book?: Hmmm … I would assume here in Bavaria you could sell a solid 37 copies to expats and folks who need to prop up their TV stands. Not a big American football fanbase here (ask the World League guys …) I smell a book idea? The world league of America Football and the rise of fandom in a United Germany?

• Best advice you ever received?: Professionally—“Always treat your products like they are art and people will pay for art, treat it like trash and no one will buy it.” Stan Mavis, who was then the SVP of Apparel at Brooks Sports. We never let anyone throw around adidas running apparel or put it on the floor. The products we make are artful expressions of equipment that make athletes better and each T-shirt or short represents months of hard work and dedication, it deserves reverence. Stan made sure I never forgot that and it drives me today.

In life, I go to Rudyard Kipling and the poem “IF.” It is a poem about how to live one’s life and move through it and I always hear it in my dad’s voice or the voice of my maternal grandfather. Life is not fair, not easy, but Kipling shares a path through all of it. When things are tough you can “Kipling it” I tell my teammates. I love that it is a poem that was a part of book, he didn’t even write it to have it stand alone because life is the some of its parts not it’s solitary efforts I suppose. “if you can dream and not make dreams your master or think but not make thoughts your aim”

• What are the keys to growing a kick-ass beard?: There are two keys …

Key one to a great beard: Shape the beard early. If you want it to end up long and pointed you need that vision day one. Shape to the vision, Jeff. Shape to the vision!

Key Number two for a kick ass beard: SPOUSAL BUY-IN! If your wife or partner is not a fan of the beard, the beard is doomed or your relationship is. In fact, if you wanna get your girl to break up with you but are afraid to ask… GROW A BEARD without her buy in.

If you have spousal buy in, magic stuff happens (or at least it does for me). Scented beard shampoos show up in the shower, beard combs and shaping oils show up on the counter. And once you have them life gets easier for the wife and a healthy, handsome beard is sure to follow. (genetics also play a part, but as of now that one cannot be adjusted)

• You against Odell Beckham, Jr., right now, in a half mile. Who wins? By how much?: OBJ. You gotta figure that in high school he ran 22.31 for 200 m and so he could have run 1:50 or so at 800 m if he had wanted. He would likely just sit on me for 700 meters and fly by me in the last 100 meters and win by 83 meters. I’m old and slow … he’s young and fast. My only chance would be that his Nikes would malfunction causing him a horrible injury. I’m no Giants fan, but still I wouldn’t want the guy hurt just to win … but if it did happen I would gloat.

Lou Hanner


Way back in 1989-90, I sat in front of Lou Hanner in science class.

We were both seniors at Mahopac High School, and Lou would … not … shut … up. He had opinions on the Jets, the Giants, the girl I liked, the T-shirt I wore, the T-shirt he wore. He was a wonderfully funny and sharp kid; never mean, but often a fire starter. He used to ask me (on what I recall to be a weekly basis) whether I was ready to ask out Lisa Frieman—loudly, with Lisa sitting two seats away. I later learned that Lou also urged the boys’ basketball coach to keep me on the team, an act of uncommon adolescent kindness that still touches me.

Anyhow, Lou was a phenomenal athlete, and he went on to play college soccer, then devote his life to teaching and coaching at Elwood-John H. Glenn High School on Long Island, N.Y. He was recently named the New York State Large School Soccer Coach of the Year, and I felt inspired to bring him here, to the Quaz. Yes, like all Q&A subjects, I was curious of his path. But, truly, I wanted to know how a modern coach deals with the crap-a-palooza that is today’s obsessive, parent-driven need to have Junior become the next Mike Trout, the next LeBron, the next Eli Manning.

So here’s Lou Hanner—a man I am thrilled to host as the 289th Quaz …


JEFF PEARLMAN: Lou, I’m gonna start with something you probably hear quite a bit—the nonstop refrain of “Kids today just don’t [fill in the blank] …” And it always ends with something like “respect authority” or “work hard” or “appreciate what they have.” You’ve been coaching and teaching for two decades. Are kids today different than when we were growing up? Or is that just something every past generation is required to whine about?

LOU HANNER: The kids are not different. What is very different is the culture we live in. When we were kids if we got in trouble in school you were less concerned about the school administration, you feared going home to your parents. Today, the parents run to the rescue of their kids as if it is not their fault, but that of the teacher or the coach. Parents hover over every aspect of the kid’s education and athletic programs. They want complete control over their grades and assignments. We have apps on our phone to get immediate feedback. We have moved away from accountability. If I had a bad game, or wasn’t performing to ability in school, I was going to hear it from my family much worse than I would from my coaches.

J.P.: You’ve been the boys soccer coach at Elwood-John H. Glenn High for 19 years. You were recently named the New York State Large School Soccer Coach of the Year. I’m gonna throw a weird one at you. Namely, how do you spend so much time around kids that age and not lose your mind? What I mean is, the drama over girlfriends, over zits, over driver’s licenses, over puberty nonsense. I teach college and I sometimes seek a lobotomy You?  

L.H.: Actually, that is what motivates me. This is a profession that is always changing and evolving. Every single day is a challenge and an adventure. I have had many great mentors in my life and career. One was Joe McAvoy—the longtime teacher and coach at White Plains High School. He always said, “Teaching is coaching, coaching is teaching.” I never forgot that. I get to do it every day for a living. I feel blessed because of it, and I enjoy going to work every day. Many educators don’t. They should step down and move on.

J.P.: I feel like something has changed in our national approach to kids and sports—namely, we intrude far too much. Back when you and I were growing up in Mahopac, it was a ton of games in the yard, games in the street, games on some nearby field. And now, everything seems very structured, organized, programed. A. Do you agree? B. How does this impact the athletes you receive on the high school level?

L.H.: I totally agree. Most kids today only participate in structured teams, clubs, and leagues. We coached ourselves in the neighborhood. Or our dads coached us in little league, CYO and club soccer. Now we pay a lot of money for trainers and “professional” coaches with a license to provide these services. I do as well for my own kids. It is the sports culture we live in now. However, I am proud of the fact that my kids also love playing games in the yard and neighborhood like we did as well.

That said, because so many kids are playing organized athletics today at such a young age, it has certainly raised the level of talent and ability of the high school athlete. When I began coaching here at John Glenn in 1998, a handful of kids played on a club soccer team. This year most of our starting lineup plays at a high level all year round. The three-sport athlete is a thing of the past. And honestly, because of the youth sports structure, specialization has almost become mandatory if one wishes to play most sports at the next level. This concerns me, but I am witnessing it firsthand with my own kids. The time and monetary commitment for youth sports programs has most parents handcuffed.

Hanner, No. 23, teamed up with center Larry Glover (No. 5) as Mahopac High seniors.

Hanner, No. 23, teamed up with star center Larry Glover (No. 5) as Mahopac High seniors in 1990.

J.P.: You were an excellent high school athlete; an excellent college athlete. How does that impact the way you coach kids who aren’t particularly talented? I mean, you were always skilled. Is it hard to relate with and work with those who aren’t?

L.H.: Not at all. That is what coaching is all about. I really enjoy working with the low-level skilled players. But youth sports have advanced so far since we were kids. Those who do not play club sports outside of school have a very difficult time making most varsity teams. What frustrates me most is when an athlete doesn’t work hard on the field or in the classroom.

J.P.: We just got through a very bitter, heated presidential election. I wonder how much of a topic this was among your students? Your players? And do you feel comfortable discussing politics with kids? Is that an OK role for a teacher and coach?

L.H.: The election was very interesting to observe. Never before did we see the students get very involved or engaged with a presidential election like this one. You would hear kids making comments to each other in class and even inside the locker room. I did not observe any hostility like we did on TV or social media. I think it was great to see high school students involved and concerned about our government. Discussing politics can be very touchy for a teacher and coach. Keeping the conversation healthy and not biased is imperative.

J.P.: Why did you become a teacher and coach? Like, what was your path? When did you realize it was what you wanted to do?

L.H.: If you told me in our senior year of high school in 1990 that I would one day be a teacher and coach, I would not have believed you. I was going to Oneonta State, playing soccer and studying business. In my sophomore year I realized business wasn’t what I was passionate about. I was passionate about working with kids. Our college team would put on clinics for kids and youth coaches in the community and I worked soccer camps in the summer. My mom said to me one day, “You can’t sit behind a desk. You should be a PE teacher.” The rest is history.

I transferred to Cortland State as a senior and finished my undergraduate degree while playing soccer my senior year there. I was blessed to play for two great programs and my experiences could not have been better. I was fortunate to be hired right out of Cortland as the head boys’ soccer coach and high school PE teacher at White Plains High School in 1995.

With wife, Kerry.

With wife, Kerry.

J.P.: I love asking this of people I grew up with—so … who were you? What I mean is, I remember you as a pretty cocky, affable, confident kid. Your nickname was Lip, you talked a lot of fun trash. But who were you, inside? Were you confident or insecure? What were you thinking about? What were your worries?

L.H.: The Lip thing was something my uncles used to call me because I was named after a great uncle and that is what they called him. Nobody in school really used it. When we grew up all we did was compete. On the fields, yards, driveways, streets, parks, woods, garages, basements. Wherever. All we wanted to do was play, play anything, anywhere.

During those times, we would all like to talk a lot of back yard banter. Challenging one another and talking trash was what we did. Looking back, that played a big part of my development and fostered my competitive nature. One that I still have today. I compete against the students and athletes in class and at practice all the time. Therefore, I would consider myself more confident than insecure. I was only thinking about playing sports.

Looking back I wish I had put more effort into school. I mean, I did OK, but it wasn’t until I went to college that I put the right amount of time into it.

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

L.H.: Greatest—The relationships and bonds built with all of the kids who have played for you. Seeing them grow up into men, get married, being successful, and starting families of their own. Having many want to come back and coach on my staff has also been very special to me. Others have become teachers and coaches as well. When they come back to our annual alumni game it is always one of my favorite days of the year.

Lowest—In January 2014 we lost a player in his senior year. He was killed in a tragic sledding accident. Attending the wake and funeral with your program and coaches is horrible. Words cannot describe the hurt and sorrow you feel for the family, your players and the entire school community.

Receiving Coach of the Year honors.

Receiving Coach of the Year honors.

J.P.: There are many clichés about the American gym teacher. You’ve heard them—mindless task, roll out a bunch of balls, blow a whistle, make kids run two laps. But does teaching phys ed rule, or is it awful? Fun or challenging? How do you deal with the kid who has no interest whatsoever?

L.H.: We live in the Game Boy Generation. When we were kids we spent every second of free time outside playing sports, riding bikes or motorcycles. Today’s kids are much less active than we were. They live on their devices. We need health and PE now more than ever. We don’t respect it whatsoever in our culture. We talk a big game but we don’t support it. Only six states in the entire country mandate PE. Most only mandate health for one semester in middle school and high school. Maybe if we were to respect it like every other subject our country would be in a much better place …

Most of the kids at John Glenn High School enjoy and respect PE. I think it is because of the culture we have created. We ask the kids to work hard within a fun learning environment. Education needs to be fun. That’s something that we have moved away from with all these standards and common core requirements. I remember genuinely enjoying going to school and class every day at Mahopac High School. Teaching health and PE is one the greatest jobs in America. I feel blessed to go to work every day and have the opportunity to influence the lives of our youth.

J.P.: I’m gonna throw a weird one at you. When we were at Mahopac High, there was a smoking section. And I remember we’d have an annual SAY NO TO SMOKING day, or something like that. And I wonder, 26 years later, is smoking even the slightest of slightest of concern with high school kids? Like, do you think most even ponder it? Hell, packs cost $10, CVS stopped selling, etc. In short, is it a dead issue?

L.H.: Dead issue. The kids today do not smoke cigarettes. They smoke pot. When I began teaching we would catch kids smoking in the locker rooms and around campus all the time. I can’t remember the last time I saw one of our students smoking. I survey my health classes every semester and they confirm this. Marijuana is the drug of choice with the kids today. The legalization has created the perception that it is not bad for you; that it’s actually healthy.



• In exactly 12 words, describe the emotions after being named the first, and last, Chieftain Mahopac High Athlete of the Year: Was honored, humbled, proud. Never felt comfortable wearing the jacket in public.


• Rank in order (favorite to least): Larry Glover, potato latkes, Odessa Turner, Kris Kross, Brooklyn Nets, my uncle Marty, Chinese takeout, “Boardwalk Empire,” Caldor, cranberry muffins: Larry Glover, Caldor, potato latkes, cranberry muffins, Chinese takeout, Kriss Kross, Odessa Turner, Brooklyn Nets, Uncle Marty, Boardwalk Empire

• One question you would ask Tom Paciorek were he here right now?: What was the guiding force in your 18-year career?

• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: Lake Mahopac, Mahopac Golf Club, Rodak’s, Mahopac Inn, Mom’s cooking

• Who are the five professional coaches you most admire?: Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden, Sir Alex Ferguson, Bob Knight, Herman Boone.

• Three memories from the senior prom: Friends, van, and Piano Man.

• How did you propose to your wife, Kerry?: On a balcony overlooking Virginia Beach.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember?: Slightly. We were about to land at Newark International airport in New Jersey. The pilot pulls us directly straight up from the runway as we are about to touch ground. We begin to circle Manhattan for what seemed forever. Nobody came on the loudspeaker to give any information. The passengers began to anxiously worry. Finally, the pilot comes on and apologizes for the aborted landing because a plane was stranded on the runway that we would have hit it had we continued.

• What happens in the third Balboa-Clubber Lang fight?: Split Decision

• Self-indulgent, what do you remember about me from high school?: Great kid, sports nut, fun to hang with, quitting varsity basketball after I convinced coach DeMarzo to keep you on the team!

ToniAnn Guadagnoli

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Back when my daughter Casey was 2 or 3, I saw on Facebook that a former high school classmate named ToniAnn Guadagnoli had recently released a children’s book titled, “Chitter Chatter.”

So, being a fellow survivor of Mahopac’s mean streets, I plunked down my dough and ordered a copy. When it arrived, I expected little. Another day, another person writing something for kids. But then—BAM! “Chitter Chatter” became a staple of the Pearlman household reading. Casey knew all the characters, all the words. To this day, it’s one of the most perused things within our walls.

But here’s the funny thing: ToniAnn is sorta ambivalent to “Chitter Chatter.” She’s OK with the book, but has bigger aspirations. Which is why she’s here today, as the 254th Quaz Q&A. In short, ToniAnn is the struggling, aspiring writer: 2016. She’s talented, she’s smart, she’s endearing, she’s prolific. But while she’s had books and plays purchased, she still seeks the big deal; the huge breakthrough; the moment that will send her on her way.

I, for one, am quite certain it will happen.

For me, the Quaz has always been about people like ToniAnn Guadagnoli—high hopes, giant aspirations, unique life stories that serve us well when they’re told. When she’s not writing, she works as a paraprofessional in the Santa Rose County School District in Pace, Florida. You can read her lovely blog here.

ToniAnn Guadagnoli, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, ToniAnn, so I feel like, in a way, I’ve been spoiled as a writer, because I worked at Sports Illustrated, and that opened a door for books that, truly, I probably didn’t even deserve. And I know how great of a writer you are, and I feel your frustrations when it comes to landing book deals. So I wanna ask, what is it like trying to land a book deal in 2015/2016. What lengths have you gone through? How frustrating is it? What do you blame it all on—if you do?

TONIANN GUADAGNOLI: No matter what year it is, landing a book is torture. You have to have an agent to have a manuscript read, but you can’t get an agent unless you’re a published author. How do you become a published author if you can’t get a manuscript read … and so it goes? I started out as an editorial assistant for an educational publisher. I spent a good part of each day sending out rejection letters to people who submitted their manuscripts to our company. I never thought about how those people would feel when they got their letter in the mail; that is, until I was on the receiving end of those letters. For a while I was blaming karma for all the negative responses. I figured I wouldn’t receive a “yes” until I received back as many rejection letters as I had sent out. It would be a long and painful process.

For the book that I finished writing last year, “Joy Cometh: Getting through Divorce with God’s Help,” I went to a Christian writing conference to pitch it to two publishers. I met with editors from HarperCollins and Waterbrook. Both of them felt that because I didn’t have an established platform that I would have a hard time getting the book published. (This is the type of situation where you lucked out! You were able to establish a name for yourself and then the book deals followed.) One of the editors suggested that I should obtain letters of endorsement from megachurch pastors, Christian counselors, and/or possibly have a foreword written by a name that would be recognized. Unfortunately, a couple of months into my quest for endorsement letters, the editor e-mailed me and said that she decided to pass on the book because a similar book in their inventory wasn’t selling well. I never even had the chance to send her the letters that I collected.

A lot of the difficulty in getting a contract has to do with timing as well. In 2002, I wrote a screenplay about animated cars that come to life when humans aren’t around. One of the cars gets stolen and the other vehicles work together to save the stolen car. I called it “Brittany’s Bug.” (I came up with the idea while driving to Disney. I thought to myself, “They have animated movies about everything coming to life—bugs, animals, toys—but no cars. Hmmph!” ) In 2003, I submitted “Brittany’s Bug” to 56 film production companies and 26 agents. I received one positive response in January of 2004. The company liked the concept and thought it would make a great movie; however, they heard that another production company was working on a similar idea and they couldn’t compete. Two years later, Disney/Pixar came out with Cars. What a bummer.

In 2009, I submitted a screenplay about my ex-husband’s 9/11 experience. I was told that there was “9/11 fatigue” and people did not want to see or hear another 9/11 story. If I had submitted it prior to the fifth anniversary of 9/11, maybe the results would’ve been different.

The most important thing in all of this is that I never give up. I just keep writing and submitting. Also, I know you’re just going to love this one, but I found that as soon as I started giving credit to God for my writing abilities, things started happening for me—like they did with my plays.

I submitted my first stage play, “Groove-a-rella,” to four publishing companies in 2013. One of the companies (Pioneer Publishing) wrote back and said, “We like your story, but we have too many similar plays.” They suggested I send it to two other play publishers. I did what they recommended and that was it! I received my first official publishing contract from Heuer Publishing. Before long I became a card-carrying member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

I may not have that coveted book deal just yet, but I’ll get it one day. At least I know that I’m on the other side of the karma hump—I’m finally starting to get those “yeses.”

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J.P.: You wrote “Chitter Chatter,” which goes down as one of the three or four essential books from my daughter’s young childhood. So … what was the process, soup to nuts? Where did the idea come from? How did you work it out into a story? How long did it take? And what did it feel like, seeing it finally as a finished product?

T.G.: I was a pregnant third grade teacher in 2000. Two days before the last day of school, my doctor told me to stop working. I was ordered to be on complete bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy (four months!) or else I might not carry my baby to full term. I was allowed to get up to go to the bathroom and I could take a shower each day and that was it.

Other than the TV remote, my next best friend was an anti-gravity pen. That pen, along with a black marbled composition notebook, allowed me to write several stories while positioned on the couch (even while I was lying on my back). Two years later, I bought a Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market Guide. I submitted “Chitter Chatter” to 23 different publishing companies who were willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. I received rejection letters from 20 of them. Most of them sent the standard, “Sorry, this doesn’t fit in with our publishing plan” letter. In February of 2003, I saw a call out for submissions for a Children’s Story Writing Competition that was being sponsored by the American Dream Group (a Pennsylvania-based company that is no longer in business). They offered a $250 cash prize and a contract to illustrate and publish the winning story. I found out in April 2003, that “Chitter Chatter” won.

A woman in Bellingham, Washington, who I’ve only communicated with via emails, was tasked with creating the illustrations and then ADG paid to have the book self-published through Trafford Publishing. Seeing the finished project was very exciting, but as I have told you in the past, I’m not crazy about the book itself. I don’t love the scratchboard style—I envisioned softer illustrations. I also don’t like the way the book feels in my hands. I know that sounds stupid, but I’m just being honest. The experience taught me that there is so much that goes into the marketing aspect of making a successful book. Since I loathe self-promotion, I don’t think that I will ever go the self-publishing route. I must also admit that I don’t consider myself to be a children’s book author. Since this book was not done by a traditional publisher, it was never available in big-named bookstores. So, getting one of my children’s stories published by a traditional publisher is still on my bucket list.

J.P.: You and I both attended Mahopac High School together, and while we were friendly, we ran in very different circles. I love asking people I don’t know this—and I REALLY love asking you this: who were you in high school? What I mean is, I saw you as this confident, popular cheerleader, hanging with the cool kids, life a breeze. But, truly, who were you?

T.G.: I moved to Mahopac from Mt. Vernon, N.Y. just a couple of weeks before our freshman year began. Since my home was still being built, my family of four (along with the dog) lived in our Winnebago on the property next to the shell of what became our home—four months later. It was so embarrassing. My parents moved me away from all of my friends in a city where I could walk everywhere to a piece of property next to a horse farm! (No offense to the Flanagans—I still love my old Mahopac neighbors.)

On our first day of high school, I sat on a piece of gum during homeroom. Later that day, I tripped up the steps trying to get to one of my classes on the second floor and my armful of books went flying all over the place. Then the dreaded lunch period arrived—I got my tray and found a spot to sit down. I ate by myself day after day, for a long time. A few weeks into the year, I tried out for the dance company. Despite my previous 10 years of dancing experience, I didn’t make the cut. My mother still talks about how devastating that was (more for her than for me) and she wanted so badly to intervene. Thankfully she didn’t say anything. Those first few months were really difficult. I was a miserable teenager and I blamed my parents and the move to Mahopac for every bit of my unhappiness.

Things started to get a little better when I joined the track team. (I bet you didn’t know I did that! I couldn’t run to save my life, but I loved the field events! There’s something very empowering about throwing a javelin across a field!) Ultimately the real game changer occurred on a late bus ride home after track practice one night. I met Christine Catalfamo, Joe Mazzei and Lori McGowan’s laugh. Her laugh could turn anyone’s misery to bliss! The girls talked about cheerleading and suggested I try out for the team. Becoming a cheerleader definitely altered everything for me. From that point on, I enjoyed every moment of high school. I made the kind of friends that I could rely on for anything—seven of whom I still communicate with via group text just about every single day.

Yeah, life wasn’t always a breeze. And because of my period of “friendlessness” I made an effort to be as friendly as possible to everybody—no matter who they were. To be honest, I still try to do that, even to this day.

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ToniAnn, second from left, during the Bad Medicine days at Mahopac High.

J.P.: A book you were trying to write concerns being a divorced Catholic parent—and it seems like it’s REALLY hard getting a religious publisher, because of the church’s views on divorce. Does this piss you off, or do you understand? I guess, what I mean is, a church can pretend something doesn’t exist—but it does. In huge numbers. But is my thinking kinda off there? Am I missing something?

T.G.: First, just to clarify, the book is a Bible study for anyone going through divorce (not necessarily Catholics or parents). It is not specific to any one denomination. I feel that Christian denominations do more to divide people of the faith than they do to unite, but that discussion could take up my whole response, so I’ll just leave it at that.

My earlier response explained two of the reasons why publishers have not picked up this book yet: 1) I have no platform and I’m not a known Christian author. 2) A similar book about divorce wasn’t selling well for one of the companies. Like with any publisher, I guess it all boils down to the dollars and cents. They aren’t willing to invest in someone if they aren’t going to get their money’s worth—especially not in today’s market where selling a book is tough stuff.

However, to get to your comment regarding the church’s pretending that divorce is not happening—I agree to a point. Are there churches out there that still shun those who get divorced? Yes, absolutely. Are there churches that refuse to acknowledge that Christians are divorcing at a similar rate as non-Christians? Yup, for sure. However, there are loads of churches that have acknowledged their divorced members and have divorce recovery meetings and offer single parenting resources. With that being said, I wholeheartedly encourage divorced people who feel like they’re getting the shaft from their pastors or church members to consider changing churches, or denominations for that matter. God loves divorced people just like He loves married people and single people. I think we should attend churches that accept us for who we are, no matter what—since that’s what Jesus would’ve done!

J.P.: You and I have had myriad online chats over faith. You’re a very devoutly religious person—and I don’t get it. I mean no disrespect, but there’s so much crap in the world, from 9/11 to Paris, ISIS, cancer, etc. With all the bad, why do you believe in God? And how do you maintain that faith when crap happens?

I’ve already answered this question on my blog, so I’m just going to link to it here in case anyone wants my full response.

Otherwise, in a nutshell, either God exists or God doesn’t exist. I believe He does. Nothing that happens or doesn’t happen has any effect on my belief in Him. It’s faith—I don’t think of it as something I have to maintain. For me, it just is. To use the “crap” that happens in the world to prove that God does not exist is as silly as me using the “crap” that doesn’t happen in the world to prove that He does exist. For example, some say that there can’t be a God because He wouldn’t let 9/11 happen. To that I could say, well there must be a God because nothing bad happened at the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square. Do you get what I’m trying to say? My faith is not tied to the events that happen or don’t happen in the world. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” It’s a choice to believe or not to believe—I choose to believe.

J.P.: You wrote a cookbook, Recipes Remembrances: A Chef in Every Family’s Kitchen. Might be a dumb question, but why? And what was the process like?

T.G.: Ten years ago, my church wanted to make a cookbook using its members’ favorite recipes. They thought it would be a nice keepsake and possibly a great fundraiser. I volunteered to take on the project for them. I collected and input all the recipes into a program that was provided by the cookbook publisher (Morris Press). As I was about to place their order, I noticed that they offered a special discounted rate if two cookbooks were ordered at the same time. I come from an Italian family where happiness begins in the kitchen. I quickly reached out to my family members to collect our favorite recipes. I enlisted my grandparents, who are the leading chefs in my family’s kitchen, to cook while I did my best to keep track and measure each of the pinches and handfuls in their most delicious dishes. My original intent was to order 50 copies for my friends and family members. But, at the time, I belonged to the Gulf Coast Author’s Group. Through the group, I was able to sell “Chitter Chatter” at local venues alongside other local authors. So, I figured I’d order a “few” extra copies of the cookbook in case anyone wanted to buy them at the local events. Surprisingly, I ended up selling 500 copies. I made sure to save one for each of my sons. Hopefully the cooking gene has made its way into them.

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J.P.: You’re a single mother with two boys. I’m wondering how you handle social media and technology, when it comes to your kids? Because it’s a burden our parents didn’t have. Is screen time an issue? Do you worry about online bullying, etc?

T.G.: I am the type of parent who is huge on consequences. I don’t make a threat and not follow through with it. So, if the rule is that you must be off of your phone by 9 pm and I find it hidden under your covers at 10:30 pm, then I take it away for at least a week. My boys know what I expect of them and they know the consequences of not following the rules. I am so consistent that they know better than to even try to convince me to change my mind about the consequences when a rule is broken. Without a cell phone, my younger son, Gian (11), doesn’t have as much access as my older son, Nick (15). When Nick first got his phone two years ago, we made an agreement regarding passwords. He would keep his passwords in a sealed envelope in his room. I would check his phone in front of him periodically to make sure that the password was kept updated. As time went on, he knew that he could trust me not to invade his privacy by ripping into the password and I knew that I could trust him to not do what he shouldn’t do on his phone. My younger son, on the other hand, might present more of a challenge in this area. Lol! I’ll let you know how it goes.

As for the online bullying, my boys know that they can tell me anything; but I am not naïve. I know there are things you just don’t tell your mom. The best that I can do is to keep the lines of communication open and honest with them. Strange as it sounds, I think it helps that I wasn’t exactly an angel as a teenager (sorry Mom!). My sons realize that there isn’t too much that shocks me and also, they know their safety is more important to me than anything else.

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

T.G.: Outside of the birth of my sons and witnessing each of their amazing accomplishments, the greatest moment for me was when I became a published playwright. Shortly afterward, I looked up the title online and there was a picture of a man presumably studying lines for his role in a performance of my play. It is so strange to think that there are people who are memorizing the words that I wrote! (By the way, this realization led me to earnestly memorize lines of Scripture. If they could learn my words, I should be able to learn God’s Words.)

Coupled with that is the fact that my two plays have been performed in schools and theaters in 26 states and in three other countries: Canada, Australia, and Indonesia. (I didn’t even know they spoke English in Jakarta!) Too cool! Maybe one day this greatest moment will be replaced by the moment when I am sitting in a movie theater and I see, “Screenplay by ToniAnn Guadagnoli.”

The lowest moments in my life were when I first split from my husband and my family lives six hours away and I had to think about whom I could put down as my emergency contact on a doctor’s form—I had no one. Furthermore, I was devastated at the realization that my kids would be labeled as being from a “broken home.”

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J.P.: Your ex-husband Dom was a US Marshal who went to the World Trade Center shortly after the first plane hit to help rescue survivors. I’ve long felt that while we paid lots of attention to the families of victims (and rightly so), we sorta overlook the impact 9.11 had on responders. This is kind of a huge question, but how would you saw it impacted Dom?

T.G.: Wow, this really is a huge question. To be honest, 9/11 altered the course of our lives in so many ways. Dom was affected physically, mentally and emotionally. He was at the base of the building helping people out when the first Tower fell. He ran down a subway stairwell to seek shelter. He emerged from the stairwell slightly injured from falling as he ran. He went to the other Tower to help people out again. When the second Tower came down, he ran back to his office. He was brought to the hospital along with two other marshals who were injured as well. Dom had a sprained hip; he needed stitches in his palm; and the eye doctor counted over 100 corneal lacerations. The doctors at the hospital said that they weren’t even going to bother doing chest x-rays on the ,arshals because they knew their lungs would be completely clouded by the debris that they inhaled. Dom was “lucky” because his physical injuries were minor compared to many of the other first responders. However, as a result of his corneal lacerations, he had repeated corneal ulcerations for several years afterwards. Debris was accidentally left in his palm under the stitches. Just last year he had surgery to remove the annoying lump from his hand. Last month he had surgery on his sinuses—who knows whether or not it was 9/11 that caused his constant battles with sinus infections?

Unlike his physical injuries, the mental and emotional anguish left by 9/11 won’t ever heal. It was really hard for Dom to return to work in the weeks that followed Sept. 11. He had a difficult time with the smells, the sounds and all the reminders that surrounded him. Though at first he didn’t admit to it, he was suffering from PTSD. There is a feeling among survivors that if you weren’t there, you don’t get it. And I couldn’t agree with them more—I couldn’t possibly claim to understand what they went through and how it made them feel. I knew that when things were bothering Dom, the guys who were there with him were the only ones who could help to make him feel a little better. He wouldn’t go to a therapist because he felt he didn’t need one, but also because he didn’t think anyone who wasn’t there could possibly help him.

A few months after the New Year, Dom requested a transfer to Florida. We moved to Pensacola in July of 2002. It was great for Dom to be away from the city, but unfortunately, the change in scenery didn’t eliminate the lasting effects of 9/11. A few months after we moved here, we attended a Blue Angels (Navy Flight Exhibition) show. Dom went to get us something to drink from a nearby food stand. Just as he turned toward me with drinks in his hands, one of the Blue Angels F/A-18s seemed to come out of nowhere and it screeched right above our heads. I watched Dom’s face turn white. He dropped the drinks and ran to the nearby hangar. I chased after him with our son in the stroller. I found him sitting in a curled up position under the overhang of the building. Dom finally agreed to get help for his PTSD.

He began seeing a local therapist who used a method called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). The therapy was life changing for him. It helped him to gain control over his innate responses to the different 9/11-reminding stimuli. He had to reprogram his gut reactions to hearing fire engines and jets. He was able to smell smoke and not think of the Towers. One of the reasons why the impact was slightly different for Dom than for many of the other first responders is because he was photographed by an Associated Press photographer while carrying a woman (Donna Spera) from the Towers. The impact of just the photo alone was tremendous. The photo led to phone and television interviews every single year since 2001. No matter whether we were living in New York or in Florida, he was asked to talk about his experience over and over and over again. I’m sure in some ways talking about it is therapeutic, but after a certain point, he just wanted to be left alone. However, he does not want people to forget what happened and therefore, he continues to talk about it whenever he’s asked to do so.

Unfortunately, no matter how much time passes, 9/11 will never be far from his mind. It seems like he can’t help but look at the clock right at 9:11. And a night never goes by that the news doesn’t talk of terrorism or a call to 9-1-1. Even TV shows and movies might show the Towers in the background or have scenes that bring reminders. I watched “San Andreas” not too long ago and advised him not to watch it. Watching scenes of crumbling buildings is not easy for the survivors. I guess the most important thing for the rest of us to do is to remember and keep remembering. We mustn’t let a 9/11 go by without honoring them. The rescuers were willing to sacrifice their lives for strangers. The least we can do is remember them for it and support the legislation that will take care of the lasting health effects from that horrific day.

Oh, and one more thing I should add—sometimes people assume Dom received money from all the 9/11 funds raised for victims and rescuers, but the truth is, he never received a dime.

Pearlman and Guadagnoli: The Hall and Oates of pens.

Pearlman and Guadagnoli: The Hall and Oates of Mahopac-produced pen wielders.

J.P.: Where do you write? When do you write? What’s it like for you? Hard? Easy? Smooth? Difficult? Do you love it? Hate it? Both? Neither?

T.G.: I absolutely love to write. I put a desk in my bedroom—that is my happy place. I have so much material in my head waiting to get out. My enemy is time. I never have enough time to write. I have a full-time job at a primary school. After work, I have to do all the things that a homeowner/single mom of two boys must do. I feel like I’m being a neglectful mother if I write while my kids are home; so I usually wait until they are with their dad. Unfortunately that only leaves me with a little bit of writing time every other weekend. Jeff, you have my dream job. Maybe one day I will grow up and get to be a full-time author just like you …

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• Three memories from the senior prom: Sadly I have no significant recollections from this night! How pathetic! I know I went with my high school boyfriend, Chris McCartney (who went to Lakeland). I wore a white dress and we went to the Jersey Shore with friends for a fun weekend afterwards.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Dwight Gooden, Dave & Busters, Long Island University, American Airlines, Holly Robinson Peete, gerbils, Dennis Haysbert, “Bull Durham,” Rodak’s Deli: No. 1 is definitely Dave & Busters (I sent them an e-mail a few months ago explaining why they should consider opening a place in Pensacola. I even forwarded some real estate links with locations that were available for lease. I never heard back from them, but I am holding onto hope!); gerbils (assuming they have a gerbil ball); 2. Rodak’s Deli in Mahopac (Believe it or not, I was only there once!); 3. Holly Robinson Peete (for her 21 Jump Street role); 4. Doc Gooden (only for his no-hitter while in pinstripes—not a fan of his off-the-field antics); 5. Long Island University; 6. “Bull Durham”; 7. Dennis Haysbert; 8. American Airlines.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes! Coincidentally, I was with several of our high school classmates. It was on a flight to the Bahamas for spring break of our senior year. The landing gear wasn’t going down. The pilot was concerned (and so were we!). He circled the airport several times. He tried and tried to get it to work. We could hear the mechanical parts grinding below us. After what seemed like an eternity, the wheels lowered into place and we landed safely. Shortly after our trip, that airline (I think it was called Braniff Airways), went out of business. Yikes!

• One question you would ask Gene Hackman were he here right now: Gene, I quote lines from “The Birdcage,” specifically those spoken by Agador Spartacus quite frequently, and I wasn’t even in the movie! What movie lines, if any, do you find yourself quoting on a regular basis?

• Why didn’t you vote for me when I ran for student council?: Firstly, how do you know that I didn’t vote for you? Secondly, IF I didn’t, it was only because you wrote that darn article for the school newspaper that argued against acknowledging cheerleading as a sport.

• The next president of the United States will be …: Nobody I am particularly excited about.

• Five reasons one should make Pensacola his/her next vacation destination: 1) The beaches are beautiful. The sand is white, soft, and it squeaks when you walk on it. You can choose from the more populated spots to enjoy all the water sporting activities, boating, fishing, boardwalk bars and restaurants, or you can seek out the more secluded areas for quiet reading and sunbathing. The shoreline is vast and it is kept clean. (It was voted No. 1 in the 2015 USA Today’s Best Florida Beaches.)

2) Pensacola is the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” We are home to the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, and the most amazing National Naval Aviation Museum. We can catch the Blues practicing on many weekday mornings throughout the Spring and Summer (and the museum is free!).

3) Come so that you can discover what we already know—we were here first! Pensacola is rich in history—and it is home to the first European settlement in the United States (1559). (This is a touchy subject when discussed with our friends in St. Augustine, so we’ll just leave it at that. We know the truth and that’s all that matters.)

4) Gallery Night is a blast! On one Friday night of every month, the main street of downtown Pensacola is closed off to cars. There are street performers, outdoor bars, and food trucks. People can roam, shop, eat, drink, and dance. It’s a monthly street party and it is always a lot of fun.

5) I couldn’t pick just one more thing, so No. 5 has two reasons: Parades and Baseball.

Parades in this area of the country (New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola), are like nowhere else! You walk away from these parades (no matter the occasion—Mardi Gras, Christmas, Five Flags, etc.) weighted down with so much stuff that you need bags to haul away your booty. During these parades we have received (or caught) things like beads, moonpies, cans of soda, ice cream sandwiches, candy, T-shirts, Frisbees, footballs, bouncy light up balls, bracelets, coins, rings, cinnamon buns, stuffed animals, umbrellas, koozies, cups, and even a pair of ladies underwear (thankfully still in the package)! Our parades are considered “family friendly,” so there’s no need to flash any body parts to enjoy the full experience.

Pensacola is home to the very awesome Blue Wahoos baseball team. The Wahoos are the Double-A minor league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The Blue Wahoos stadium is a fantastic place to see a game. The team is partly owned by one of our Pensacola natives, two-time Masters Champion, Bubba Watson. Thus the concessions sell some of Bubba’s co-branded merchandise. Once you’ve got Pensacolians rooting for you, you’ve got fans for life! These people are hard-core sports fans and they just love a good hometown hero.

• What didn’t you know 20 years ago that would have been helpful?: Twenty years ago, I didn’t have a relationship with God like I do now. Seriously though, I wholeheartedly feel that if I had only turned to God and relied on Him then, like I do now, my life may have turned out very differently.

• Five all-time favorite writers? I don’t like to read. There, I said it. Okay?! I majored in English and worked as an editor. Reading always felt like a job to me. I’m also a bit embarrassed because I have the reading tastes of an impressionable teenager. I’ve enjoyed books written by J.K. Rowling, Jane Austen, John Green, J.R. Ward, and James Dashner. I do, however, read the Bible every day. Do I get any points for that?

• Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met—and what do you recall from the interaction?: Top “most famous” encounters (not including those with our famous classmates: NYT bestseller, Jeff Pearlman; Emmy winner, Gina Girolamo; and the Italian Stallion, Frank Zaccheo 😉

• 1. Phyllis Ayers-Allen Rashad (aka Mrs. Claire Huxtable, of the Cosby Show)—In the 80s, I saw Mrs. Ayers-Allen at the local supermarket in the city where we both lived, Mt. Vernon, NY. Two friends and I went up to her and asked her for her autograph. She glared at us for a second and then said, “Fine. But just one.” I guess writing her name three times—once for each of us—was too much to ask.

• 2. Mark Messier—(former NY Rangers hockey star) In 2001, I was outside St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Italy with my family. I spotted Mr. Messier—he was standing there by himself. I went up to him and told him that I was a long-time fan. I asked if I could have my cousin take a picture of us and he said no. He didn’t want his picture taken. Meanie!

• 3. Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas “Paul”)—I introduced myself when I saw him at the San Francisco airport while on a business trip. He was super cool. He posed for pictures with me and my co-workers.

• 4. Joe Gannascoli (The Sopranos “Vito”)—I met him at Vincent’s Clam Bar in Long Island. He is a regular there. He was selling his book and signing autographs. He was a really nice guy.

Sorvino and Gannascoli—it must’ve been the Italian connection.

Chris Dessi

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I’m a full circle kind of guy.

A little less than two years ago, the 100th Quaz featured Adrian Dessi, the father of two boys I grew up with and a man who was in the midst of a tragic-yet-inspiring battle with ALS.

Today, with Quaz No. 199, I offer up Chris Dessi—Adrian’s son.

But were this merely about sentiment and nostalgia, well, I would have picked a different person. Truth is, Chris Dessi is an absolutely fascinating guy. He is (as I am) a survivor of the gang-infested streets of Mahopac N.Y. He is (as I am) a Bon Jovi and Dave Righetti admirer. He is, as I am, eh, righthanded.

Chris also happens to be one of America’s leading social media experts. He’s a guy who saves individuals and companies by showing them the Internet light; who views technology five steps ahead and is always looking for the next stroke, the next emergence. As the founder and CEO of Silverback Social, Chris is a leading thinker on what’s coming and going. He’s a regular TV presence, an author and an absolutely brilliant dancer. Oh, and he knows if your website sucks.

One can follow him on Twitter here and read his amazing blog here.

Chris Dessi, son of 100 … welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN.: No matter how well you answer these questions, I doubt you’ll be able to match what probably goes down as the most memorable Quaz—the one featuring your father. That was 100 Quazes ago. What has his fight with ALS been like for you? What are the things you’ve learned? About family, about your dad, about self?

CHRIS DESSI: Well, I think your readers should know that you wrote this question while Dad was still alive. Dad passed away on Feb. 3, while I was in the midst of answering these questions.

My whole family was with him when he passed away.  My mother, brother, my wife, my sister in law, my cousins, aunts, and uncles, we were all touching him, kissing him, holding him. I was kneeling at his bedside, with my head resting on his chest when his heart stopped.  This was a profound moment that I’m still digesting.  It was beautiful, and an honor, and horrible all at the same time.

What has his fight with ALS been like for me? I’d have to use the word torture. I wish I could think of a more eloquent word, but it has been pure torture. My father was my mentor. He was my confidant and friend. To watch this strapping 6-foot man wither away slowly over the course of six years was, in fact, torture. For me it was, anyway.

What have I learned about my family? That we can handle anything, and that we all really love each other. My brother Mark moved mountains for Dad. He worked with the ALS Association and the Yankee organization to get Dad on the field at Yankee Stadium … where he threw out the first pitch the day Derek Jeter collected his 3,000th hit. That’s a day we’ll all cherish, and the most loving gesture from son to father I’ve ever seen.

Mom was an unwavering pillar of strength and loyalty. She survived this ordeal by relying on her faith and her pure love for my father. When I’d ask her how she was doing, she’d immediately deflect the conversation to Dad. “Can you imagine what he’s going through, Christopher?” No. I couldn’t.

In the final weeks of my father’s life many members of our immediate family lived at my parents’ house. We knew he was dying. We were all there. People stopped their lives for him. They flew in from Florida, from Texas. They dropped everything and we just huddled up. We spent time with him. We loved him. We joked with him. We all had our time with him. I learned what “in sickness and in health” means. My mom embodied the true ideal. Never leaving his side. It was like being at this bizarre extended holiday with your relatives. We all sat around telling stories and laughing and crying. He died at home, surrounded by those who loved him the most. It was important for us to give him that. To show him how much we all loved him, and how much he meant to us. If anyone reading this has read the Quaz you did with my father they may recall that he didn’t have the best childhood. He was always a bit confused by the love we expressed toward him. I think it was hard for him to understand just how much we all adored this man. Those final weeks—he knew. He finally knew how much we loved him. He felt it.

I know that everyone has his or her very own “bag of rocks,” but to see what my mother has endured for the past six years with dad, with such grace, such unwavering dignity. Well, that may be one of the greatest lessons I can take from all of this.

What did I learn about my dad? Adrian Dessi was unrelenting in the face of adversity. And he was really, really, really tough. Doctors predicted ALS would kill him in three years—he lasted six. He lived with this disease with grace. He did not complain. He did not seek sympathy. He fought with elegance and humility. He was a warrior

What did I learn about myself? I have a lot of work to do to live up to my father’s legacy. But I’m grateful that this disease allowed me the opportunity to show my father how much I loved him. Completing the marathon in his name … the disease makes you feel helpless. The whole family is in a reactive mode at all times. So running the marathon felt exhilarating. To raise money for the ALS Association and to show my father in such a literal, tangible way how much I love him.  It was one of the best days of my life. I felt like I was doing something to extend his life.

The disease also allowed me a sort of freedom to shower my father with all the love I could muster every single time I saw him. To thank him for all he’d done for me, to write e-mails to him that I know I would never have written if he were well.

So in an odd, tortuous and horrible way, ALS was a beautiful gift. But at the same time, his passing broke my heart, and I’m crying while I’m writing this.

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J.P.: OK, Chris, weird follow-up. Your father had ALS. Terrorists are building up seemingly unstoppable networks throughout Europe. Climate change. On and on and on. And yet, when I read your stuff and speak with you, you seem so damn … positive. Why?

C.D.: The reason I choose to be positive is because I understand that everything I put out there will be there in perpetuity. And I think about my legacy. Often.

I know that my grandchildren will read my posts. So I think to myself, “How will this piece affect them?” How will they view me if they read a rant coming from a grown man? Will that inform them how to be a functioning adult in society? Or will they cringe? I also believe that you get what you give. If you’re negative, it comes back. It is too easy to complain, and take people down. I believe that type of behavior is the toxic waste of our society. I refuse to join. So I choose to spread joy, and love and understanding. It’s hard to be thoughtful and caring.  It is easy to be a jerk [Jeff’s note: So guilty!]

J.P.: So you run a social media agency with the goal of—in your words—driving “high quality engagement, viral awareness and revenue generating moments.” My question for you is, with easy access to Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, etc, why do folks need to hire someone to handle social media? Isn’t it all relatively self-explanatory at this point?

C.D.: I guess the best analogy I can think of is writing. Everyone can do it, but only certain people can do it well. But I get your question.

If you ask 100 pre-teens, “Are you a social media expert?” I bet 99 would say yes. They’d be 100-percent correct.  So why do clients pay my agency to do things that a 13-year old can do? Because brands have no clue how to market a product or service via social media, and neither does that 13-year old.

Today, every large company in America has to keep its finger on the pulse of all that is cool, compelling and viral. Companies can’t just post content on social media and hope that their post goes viral. Brands need to meet people where they are, and they’re on social media. That’s where Silverback Social steps in. We wrap management around the beast of social media. We provide strategy, creative development, copywriting, design and reporting.

Everything we do for our client focuses on growth.  We’re adding value and strategy. We are driving our new economy. Think about it—do you think 18-25-year-olds watch commercials? Of course they don’t. They either DVR their favorite show, or binge watch it via Apple TV. Or they watch it on their iPad or iPhone. We’re marketing to them on their iPhones, via Snapchat. Speaking to them in the ecosystem where they live. It’s less intrusive than old-school marketing, and it works.

We’re not just talking about posting on Facebook, or sending a Tweet. We define brand strategy, audience, marketing channels, and objectives and define resources. Each of these steps needs big ideas, with executable steps on the client side and agency site. Like how can a brand’s identity translate into social and still align with marketing objectives? What is our connection plan?  Meaning, which social platforms do our clients spend time on? How will we map that activity to our media buying?

One of our sexier services includes growth hacking social for brands. What I mean is that we make introductions between Internet celebrities and major brands. We manage the relationship between the brand and creator. We commission creators to make unique creative content. Creators make Vines, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, Instagram photos, Tweets, blog posts, etc. This targeted creative drives interaction and awareness for the brand. It’s marketing at its most granular level. We’re building software to support our services, too. That part of our business is sort of the modern-day version of what product placement in films used to be. I’d argue that social media celebrities are the new “Hollywood.” They’re making money because money goes where the eyeballs go, and the eyeballs are on social media creators.

It’s a dynamic industry with so many nuances. Every day at work is fascinating. I’m learning all the time.

J.P.: This is sorta random, but you know more about the power of media and messaging than anyone I know. So, Chris, how do you explain the Kardashians lasting this long? Being serious. Didn’t 15 minutes expire four years ago? How is this possible?

C.D.: I believe that they have seeped into our culture due to the PR acumen of their mother. She’s the mastermind.

She’s playing to our most basic Id instincts to gain fame and publicity by using her family. I don’t agree with it. But she’s a marketing and PR genius. Kind of hurts saying it because I don’t think she uses that skill for good. But that’s just my opinion, right?

If you took Philosophy: 101 in college you’ve heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  In short, man believes what’s in front of his nose is reality. Kim Kardashian is everywhere, so we’re told to care about what she does and why she does it. She’s beautiful for sure. But what else is there? Not much. Zero talent. Following the Kardasians is just mindless eating to numb the pain of your own life. They’re the McDonald’s of our culture. Not to get too deep, but the people I know who have real things going on in their own lives don’t know that a Kardasian exists. So let’s all focus on what we can control—our own lives, and maybe they’ll go away.  But I doubt it. Billions and billions served, right?

J.P.: In 2014 you curated what you call, “our most viral post”—one seen by 17 million people. So, I’m all ears. How does one curate a post seen by 17 million people? Like, soup to nuts, what was the process? When did you know something big was going on?

C.D.: In 1997 I graduated from Loyola (Maryland) University. Tim Russert delivered the commencement address. He told the story of the state trooper who caught Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. The trooper had stopped McVeigh for a minor moving violation. I forget the details, but I believe it was something like a broken taillight. The point was that if this trooper had not done his job, Timothy McVeigh would have gone free. Mr. Russert was sharing the importance of every day due diligence. Urging us to take pride in the job that you’re assigned no matter how menial. Do it well, and do it with enthusiasm, and success will come. Come tenfold, even. That lesson stuck with me, and has become a core value at our agency.

Our clients pay us to be diligent on their behalf.  While conducting his due diligence our employee noticed something. A mother posted a photo of her daughter to a Facebook page we manage. It was for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It is a compelling photo. We contacted the family that posted the image and story of Makayla, who was celebrating her last day of chemotherapy. We added a logo to the image, and scheduled to post it the next day. We had a process in place for occasions like this. We did so because we had a strategy in place, and know that this type of interaction would help to grow our clients’ social media community.

About 17 million people saw the image of that triumphant little girl in their Facebook newsfeed.  The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society does great things, and this was one of the results of that great work.

Many brands pay us to help them to be more human. I know that sounds odd.  In social media, brands are competing for attention alongside baby pictures and wedding announcements. We help them through this process.  We train them, and guide them. Full disclosure—the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is no longer a client of ours.  So I’m not pumping them up to get a raise. They do great things.  It is a source of great pride for us that 17 million people are now aware of the good work of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  I’ll put that in the win column for Silverback Social.

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J.P.: So I know you’re a survivor of the mean streets, I know your family. But what’s your life path? Like, how did you end up doing this for a career? What were the potholes? The victories? How did this occur?

C.D.: In hindsight I can see that I defined my career path by one simple decision—to study abroad. That decision set everything into motion. I was a psychology major, and when I came home from a year studying in Belgium I wanted to study business. It’s because while in Belgium, I start taking these industrial and organizational psychology classes. So instead of talking about Freud, we’re discussing why casinos don’t have windows. Which was appealing, but there’s a defining twist.

We’re in these classes and the kids are from all over—Germany, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Brazil. Which was not unusual. The unusual thing was that the University of Chicago had a program there, too, but for their MBA students. So these students in my class are getting MBA credit for the same course that I’m getting undergrad psych credit! And I was doing great. Getting A’s. I was leading groups, and enjoying it.  And it dawns on me that I’m pretty damn good at this business thing, and marketing is fascinating as hell. Business courses back home intimidated me. In Belgium I loved them.  I got a nice shot of confidence that I did not have back home.

So I come home from Belgium, and of course the first thing I want to do is change my major to business.  Mom and Dad don’t have enough money for me to stick around at Loyola for another year. So Dad tells me to finish my degree in psych, see how I like it, and we’ll take it from there. I got a job at a psych rehab center. I hated it, and I was desperate for direction. I told Dad I gave psychology a shot, and that I’m not happy, and psychology just isn’t for me. He sits me in the living room for a few hours. Grills me.

“Chris, what did you like about Belgium?”

“What did you hate about the psych courses?”

He’s taking notes and flipping through pages and he’s having a blast doing this, and I’m getting excited, too. I’m realizing that for the first time in my life I’m getting my arms around finding something that I’m into and I’m good at. So I mention to my dad that I’m into this Internet thing. It was fascinating to me. Remember, this is 1997 so the Internet is still an infant. Dad was a marketing executive at Avon. He was pioneering the first Avon e-commerce site. Later he would win all sorts of awards for the work he was doing. The guy was just ahead of his time. Doing all sorts of cool e-commerce stuff. So here is this guy who loves me, wants me to be happy and I just told him I want to do what he does. I want to be just like him. He lights up. Just on fire with passion. And the thing is, so was I! We’re both giddy. So we start to put our heads together.  How are we going to do this? Dad mentions that he knows a friend who sits on an advisory board at New York University, and they’re launching a new program. It was for a master’s degree in direct marketing. Dad asks if I’m interested, and recommends I do it.

He says, “Christopher, the Internet is direct marketing on steroids.” I’m excited, but a little nervous. NYU is no joke. I’m concerned about the academic workload—can I handle it? Will I embarrass my father?

I still needed the business training, and he thinks it will help me mature a bit. Dad pulls some strings, and he gets me into the program. I studied like a madman. I knew Dad had put his name on the line for me. I did well at NYU. The content was fascinating. Marketing riveted me.  I’d found my niche. I graduated in May of 1999 with a masters degree in direct marketing. Proud moment.

On Feb. 14, 2000 I started my career in digital media at a company called Mediaplex. Those early days of the Internet were insane. My first week at Mediaplex was a blur, but it went something like this:

• Monday: I come into the office and they tell us we’re all going on a business trip this week. There were about 15 of us in the New York office.

• Tuesday: We work in New York.

• Wednesday: The whole office flies to San Francisco.

• Thursday: We meet the San Francisco team and hold training for one day, and then the IPO party is that night at the San Francisco MoMA. The party was insane. I took a vodka shot out of an ice sculpture shaped like the Mediaplex logo. I watched Cirque du Soleil performers navigate around our founders in the MOMA. These guys were billionaires (on paper). That sticks with you when you’re 24, just out of graduate school and ready to make your mark on the world.

• Friday and Saturday: We rent trucks and drive to Tahoe to spend the weekend skiing at the “Mediaplex” house. I get altitude sickness and puke all day. Super.

• Sunday: Fly home.

That week made an impression on me. I went from an office in New York to sipping champagne while standing next to Janis Joplin’s Porsche in the MoMa. But, well, there were also potholes …

• Pothole No. 1: Mediaplex stock was trading at 88 on the day I started. And then it all imploded. One year later they terminated half the New York office, and the stock was trading for less than a dollar. So that was it. First job out of grad school, and one year later I experience getting let go for the first time.

It’s now 2001 and I get a job as a sales person at an ad agency. But then the tragedy of Sept. 11 takes place. Days later, I find out that the captain of my rugby team, Sean Lugano, was in one of the towers and died. That experience shifted me, just as it shifted many people. But I believe, on a primitive level it changed the way I view the world. I was sort of cruising through at that point in my life/career. I needed to leave New York. So I volunteered to work at the agency’s London office. While in London, I sold a ton, and traveled a bit more. But I wanted to get back into digital. So I return to New York, leave the agency and dive back into digital. Between 2004 and 2007 is where I find my stride, and start making some money. Learning how digital marketing works. Getting to conferences, networking and enjoying it. I was director of sales at an ad network, but I wanted to be a vice president. I started to put my resume out there. I meet with headhunters and they’re sending me on interviews to be a director of sales—just at different companies. This pisses me off. I’m like, “No, you don’t get it. I want to be a vice president of sales.” I figured that the only people who knew how good I was were my clients and my boss. They weren’t going to help me get a vice president gig. So I had to somehow get the word out that I was good. I had the skill set to be a vice president.  And then it dawns on me—I need to start a blog.

The early days of my blog were rudimentary, but effective. I would take trade articles, copy and paste parts of them in my blog and then write my opinion about the story. This is when something significant happened. When I would enter a room for an interview the interviewee wouldn’t ask me about my resume. He/she started to ask me about my last blog post. Defining moment.

The leverage the blog gave me helped me to negotiate a vice presidency gig at a German-based company called Zanox. They liked that I had spent time abroad, and they were thinking about buying up U.S.-based companies because they want to expand. They have a huge budget to staff up. I was flying high. Top of the world, nice salary, nice signing bonus—I took my signing bonus and bought a house in Chappaqua, New York.  And then the economy imploded.

• Potholes No. 2 and No. 3: They came fast and furious. Here comes the whiplash part of my career.

The economy is bad, and Zanox is slowing down U.S. operations. I get laid off, but remember I have been through this before. I know that I have to stay calm. I think—no big deal, I’ll pick up another gig. Just two weeks later, I get offered another job at a company called Miva. I’m thrilled.  A pay cut, but that’s OK. I have severance money and a new income. Put that in the win column. Five months later Miva gets acquired.  I get laid off … again. At this point, my head is spinning. I need to take stock. I have a wife, a mortgage, a new baby girl and some money in the bank. This is the “pure hustle” part of my career …

I had seen Gary Vaynerchuk speak at the Web 2.0 conference in 2008 in New York while I was a Zanox. He got me excited about social media. Gary impressed me with his passion. At the time I couldn’t make the leap into social. Now I’m thinking that things are different. I’m unemployed and hungry. This excites me. I feel that fire in my belly I had in the living room in Mahopac with my dad back when I first got into business.

I sit my wife down and tell her that this is it. Social media is the next thing, and I need to be a part of it. I use my own cash to head out to San Francisco for the West Coast Web 2.0 conference. I reach out to trade publications and offer to write pieces while I’m out there for free, just to get my name out as a social media pundit. It works. I get published in Adotas. I start to Tweet to the people who were doing exciting things. I notice this young woman who is getting some attention for launching  So I buy (while I’m still in San Fran at this conference). Fortune Magazine featured the site in an article covering creative ways of gaining employment.

I get back to New York, and all I want is to work for this one company called Buddy Media.  I get the job, and I loved it there. I sold social media software to some big companies—NHL, Saks Fifth Avenue, Michael Kors. The first week I’m there I introduce Michael Lazerow (CEO of Buddy Media) to Gary Vaynerchuk. Gary incubated Vayner Media in the Buddy Media offices. I was in heaven. Gary is my social media hero, and he’s in the Buddy Media offices. I get to learn from this guy every day now! At this point in my career, I’m bouncing around like a 20-year old. I’m so in love with social media, the company I work for and the people, too.

• Pothole No. 4: Then something happened. They hire a GM from Google, and things get odd.  We don’t click, and a few weeks later they fire me. I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. I still have nightmares about it. The next day I promised myself that I’d never work for anyone ever again.  Ever. Two years later Salesforce bought Buddy Media for close to $1 billion. I made money on the deal (nowhere near what I would have made if I hadn’t gotten fired), but I guess no harm, no foul.

Biggest victories?

1. Launching Silverback

2. Creating the Westchester Digital Summit (Last week Forbes named the summit one of the “Conferences That Will Keep You Ahead Of Marketing Trends This Year.” It’s only the third year of the event.)

3.  Self-publishing my book, Your World is Exploding. It hit No. 1 on Amazon’s “Hot New Releases.”

4. Getting paid to speak about what I’m passionate about.

5. Appearing on national television.

When I stopped relying on other people for my happiness and success, things started to click. I guess that’s the biggest lesson here. No more speechless moments for this guy.

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J.P.: What’s the most-common social media fuckup committed by companies? By individuals?

C.D.: It’s the same f-up that people and companies do in person. Not being respectful to people. Insulting people’s intelligence. Not thinking before you speak (Tweet, post etc). Not speaking in their native tongues—i.e., posting PR announcements on Facebook and thinking you’re “doing social.”

J.P.: One thing that irks me about the modern state of us is the nonstop ode to self. I’m being serious: Selfies, Tweets, Instagram shots. It seems like social media has made us infinitely more self-indulgent and, as a byproduct, annoying. Agree? Disagree? And what to do?

C.D.: I see how the trend can irk you. I can. But that’s just because it’s a new cultural phenomenon of human expression. At first it feels egregious and narcissistic, but I choose to see the positive. It’s about self-expression, and creativity. I know it can be off-putting to some, and I agree that some of it is vomit inducing. But when my daughters create beautiful photos and cool video vignettes with APPS like Phhhoto or Instagram, I think it’s a good thing.

Also, try to remember what your parents were saying the first time they heard you blast the Beastie Boys.  I’m sure they cringed when they saw Madonna slinking acrpss the stage to “Like a Virgin.” Now try to remember what your parents told you about their parents’ reactions to Elvis, or the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and it’s just the way it is.  We should all try being less irked, and dive into the joy and creativity of it all.

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J.P.: You and I have talked a bit about the Ice Bucket Challenge, which I had some trouble with. It just felt, oftentimes, like a trend for celebrities to take advantage of. But it also generated a ton of money. So, well, what’s your take?

C.D.: I think anything that raises money and awareness about this horrible disease is great.  I can care less of someone who has never heard of ALS does it because their manager told them it would help their career. The ALS Association needs money, and support.  This accomplished that—so I love it. Dad loved it too.

J.P.: What makes a crap website vs a good website vs a great website? And are websites as important now as they were 10 years ago?

C.D.: I was speaking at a luncheon in Greenwich when a woman in the audience asked a question. Well, it was less of a question and more like a statement.  She said, “Why don’t people just call me?”

I gave a confused look, and she continued. “Someone just like you (meaning me) told me I need a website. But then people started to e-mail me, and I don’t like that. I want them to call me!” Now she was agitated. She continued, “So I made the font of the phone number larger, and asked people to call me.” She explained that potential customers still send her e-mails.  She finally blurted out, “Why don’t they just call me!” The crowd was a little stunned. So I told her, “Who cares what you want?” You could hear a pin drop. The room was silent. I went on to explain that If she had potential clients who want to e-mail her, than she should e-mail with them and be thankful she has clients.

The point I was making is that we live in a decentralized customer-driven and customercontrolled environment. Those who lament and battle this fact will whither and die. Fact. If customers only want you to be on Facebook—then only be on Facebook. If they need you to communicate to them via Snapchat, then figure it out. This isn’t 1987, and it will never be 1987 again. People have choices, and voices. They will go elsewhere to conduct their business.  Here’s the kicker—when they leave, they will do it quietly. They don’t care. They’ll just find someone else who will respond to their e-mail. And that woman will still worry that her phone isn’t ringing.

Websites are still a piece of the puzzle, and an important piece, for sure. But brands need to have a social media ecosystem supporting their site. Listening, learning and helping the brand stay relevant. Real time communication is just the reality of our world. You can’t survive with just a website anymore. You can’t.

As for a crap website? Hard to navigate and last updated 10 years ago. A good website? Easy to navigate, clear call to action, ever evolving and help the user share the great information you provide on said site.  Mobile ready, too. By 2016 45 percent of the world’s population will have a smartphone.

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): Archie Manning, Jon Bon Jovi, Brewster, Snickers, Dave Righetti, Amy Poehler, basketball shorts, Ice Cube, Freight House Café, Frank Miele, octopuses, James Bond movies: Jon Bon Jovi—obviously; Dave Righetti—My brother and I made a sign for him during a Yankee game in the 80s that read, “We like Spaghetti, but we love Righetti”; Amy Poehler—huge talent. HUGE. Powerful, intelligent, AND funny.  I’m a fan; Ice Cube—anyone who can transition from gangster rapper to mainstream movie star is aces in my book; Archie Manning—great football player, better father; Brewster—my wife has taught there for years. Great place, great people.  Plus they have the Red Rooster (mini-golf + soft ice cream = heaven); Freight House Café—It’s in Mahopac, and I know the owner, Donna. Great place, great person. I’m in; Snickers—favorite candy bar of all time; Frank Miele—He terrified me when he was my baseball coach. His heart was always in the right place. He dedicated his life to us kids. Good guy; Basketball shorts—Like the short 1980’s shorts, right? I hit puberty early and hated wearing them because my legs where hairy in 5th grade; James Bond movies—never did it for me. I always thought Vito Corleone looked cooler in a Tux; Octopuses—unless they’re on my plate, I’m not a fan;

Celine Dion calls. She wants to pay you $100 million for 2015 to enhance her digital image. However, you have to spend the entire year living in Las Vegas, you have to clean her feet three times per day and you can only utter three words the entire year: Horse, astronaut and latke. You in?: Chris Dessi rule to live by: Never stay in Vegas longer than three days. Sorry Celine. Your heart will go on without me.

• In exactly 27 words, tell me the story of a Bar Mitzvah you’ve attended: I thought the cocktail hour was the party.  I said, “Wow, this is really nice.” Then they opened the partition to the main ballroom and dance floor.

• I’m working on a book that I’ve been told won’t sell. Do you think, through the power of social media alone, that forecast can change?: To hell with the pundits. If you think it’s good than self publish, sell it for $2 a copy (ebook only), and watch it explode. Take that proof of concept to the publisher to get a book deal. And get the damn thing published.  Social media is the great equalizer

• Three things you can tell us about the day you guys met Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium? And what did he smell like?: 1. Reggie Jackson took a knee next to my Dad and was chatting with him when Derek came over. Reggie moved out of the way for Derek; 2. While we were on the field, I asked one of the Yankee employees if the magic of being on the field was ever lost on her. She explained that it wasn’t. That it’s hallowed ground. I found out later she was George Steinbrenner’s granddaughter; 3. When Jeter shook Dad’s hand he addressed him as “Sir” and said it was an honor to meet him. From his wheelchair my father poked Jeter in the side. He told him how he had been at Fenway Park to witness Carl Yastrzemski’s 3,000th career hit in 1979.  He said to him, “If you hit your 3,000th today that would make you the second big leaguer I’ve seen hitting their 3,000th in person.” There was an awkward pause. And my brother blurts out, ‘No pressure,’ and we all laughed.

What did he smell like? Success.

• Four companies you would never work with, money be damned: 1. Any tobacco company; 2. The Boston Red Sox organization; 3. GoDaddy. They’re the devil; 4. Vapor Cigarette companies. I just feel like it can’t be safe.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. I was heading back to London while I was living there. Returning after attending my Brother’s wedding and serving as his best man. I was homesick and not happy to be heading back to London alone. I was feeling restless, but I had just gotten myself to sleep by lying down three across in an empty plane. The plane dropped out of the sky and woke me.  I sit up and think we’re just plummeting out of the sky. There’s nobody around me. I’m looking around, getting no answers, until they finally make an announcement. Someone had a heart attack on board, and we had an emergency landing in Newfoundland. Not a good feeling, but I have always felt like I’m OK with dying. I’m not one to leave things unsaid.  Those, whom I love, know it.

• I have a pretty exciting plan for the future: We bottle farts, mix with water and sell them as energy drinks. I need a promoter. You in?: I’m not a promoter. Call Don King.

• How did this woman end up working for you?: She was doing us a favor. Can’t answer this one. You were great, but I don’t want to mock.

• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: I love Mahopac, but I’m not sure if it’s a vacation destination anymore. We ended up in Mahopac because my Dad and his family would come up during the summer from Brooklyn. I can close my eyes, and recall these vivid, perfect, wonderful, warm memories of Mahopac.  Riding bikes with my friends, playing baseball on the fields at Lakeview Elementary School.  Spending summers at Camp Sycamore. I don’t have one bad memory from that town.  I find myself driving through Mahopac to center myself.  I’ll drive past the home I grew up in on Kia Ora Blvd.

I’m still close with the friends I made there. I have a core group of guys that I met in elementary school, and now our children are friends. I left Mahopac when I was 18, but I’ll always have Mahopac in my heart. There is something about the community, the people that I feel creates some of the worlds greatest people. People who honor the things that make this country great, you know?  There are lots of hard workers who value family and community.  When Dad passed his wake was at Joseph Smith’s Funeral Home in Mahopac.  It was standing room only. People we hadn’t seen in 25 years where there. These are good people.  The best.

Oh yeah, you said five reasons. Sorry, sorry. I love that town and can talk about it forever.

1. The people are the best; 2. The lake is gorgeous; 3. The food is great. Get the chicken parm at Gino’s or a sub at Bucci’s; 4. Lots of pretty Italian girls (I married one); 5. Friday night football games under the lights. Magic.

Amy Fabry

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In many parts of the country, people find the 2014 stay-at-home mother to be a perplexing thing.

Why would you stay at home? Don’t you want to work? Aren’t you bored? Do you just play tennis all day? Is Days of Our Lives still on? Blah, blah, blah, blah …

Enter: Amy Fabry—proud stay-at-home mother of three kids.

I’ve known Amy forever. We’re both survivors of the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y.; both attended the same high school; both remain in New York. Her husband, Michael, owns two excellent restaurants—The Rye Grill and Bar in Rye and The Lexington Square Cafe in Mount Kisco. Here, she stands up for her life’s work and explains why picking up the kids beats crunching numbers or making stock trades.

Amy Fabry, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Amy, you’re a self-anointed, proud stay-at-home mom. Which makes me wonder—what sort of stigma is attached to being in your shoes? Do you still get comments like, “So you don’t work …” and, “Don’t you ever want to do something?”

AMY FABRY: To be honest, I’m sure there are people who think that way but I’ve never had anyone say it to my face. I feel extremely fortunate that I have the choice to stay home. I love being home and being a “housewife.” I have three children—ages 10, 8 and 5. When they were younger it was much harder but it’s so much easier now that they are older. The youngest will start full-day kindergarten in the fall and I will have the entire day to myself which I’ve never had. I think working mothers and fathers have it so much harder than stay-at-home parents (I’m probably going to catch some slack for saying that) but I say to myself on a regular basis, “I don’t’ know how they do it.” The stress of getting everything done (homework, cooking, cleaning, activities, play dates, etc) and working? I raise my glass to them because I would be a basket case.

J.P.: Blunt question: Why not get an away-from home job?

A.F.: I have no desire to work away from home but that is probably because I never had a career. I graduated college with an English degree and, at the time, I was waitressing and making more money than other jobs could offer me. Once I got married I got a job as an executive assistant at a real estate company in New York City. The money was OK but, again, it was by no means a career for me. I knew that once I had children I would stay home. If I had a career that I loved to go back to—maybe? But I am honestly extremely happy and satisfied and fulfilled being home. And I appreciate it—I really try to not complain.  My husband and I joke that our lives would be different if I worked (not necessarily better, but that renovation we’ve wanted for years would come much faster!). But for now—having me home with the kids works for our family. My 8-year old has asked me why can’t he go to the local Boys and Girls Club after school with his friends and I explained that there isn’t a need for it because I’m home. He asked me to go to work 🙂

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J.P.: I remember when my daughter was born and my mother in law and I got in a heated debate over whether a dad can be as close to his child as the mom … whether he can serve a similar role and meet the same needs. What do you think?

A.F.: I think that is 100 percent up to the dad. I do think a father can be as close to a child as a mother—maybe even closer in some cases. I think it depends on the parent. I joke all of the time that I think my kids would step over my bleeding body to get to their father. I know that they love me and when push comes to shove and someone is hurt or upset—they usually come to me. But I think that’s only because I’m the one who is always around. But I also think that my husband is fully capable of meeting the needs of all three. Maybe not all of the time but I can’t do that either. Sometimes only Mommy will do and sometimes it’s only Daddy.

J.P.: What’s your bad day like?

A.F.: Again, I really try not to complain—I will say that the evening hours of 4 until 7 are ridiculous and stressful but that’s the case in every household with children. Carpooling kids to activities and making dinner and helping with homework that I don’t understand while dealing with cranky, tired kids isn’t fun. If you ask my kids what makes me angrier than anything? All 3 will tell you “fighting, crying and whining.” So any day that has an abundance of those three things is a bad day.

J.P.: What’s your great day like?

A.F.: Sunday is my favorite day of the week because my husband is home (he works in the restaurant business and has a crazy schedule). He takes the kids in the morning—I get to the gym by myself. We usually have friends or family over for dinner—it’s usually just a chill, do-nothing day—and I love those. No carpooling or homework.

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Amy, center, during her days as a Mahopac High School cheerleader.

J.P.: I know you grew up in Mahopac, N.Y., know you attended Iona. But what was your path from graduation to here? When did you decide this course? Did you ever come close to becoming a career woman?

A.F.: There were actually a few stops before I graduated Iona. I started at SUNY Cobleskill and from there went to SUNY Oneonta for a semester. When I was asked to “take a semester off” from Oneonta (I basically failed out—my grades were horrible) I moved in with my aunt and uncle in New Rochelle and started at Iona.  I began waitressing to make money and fell into the trap that so many do—the money I was making was great and I worked when I wanted to work and took off when I wanted to take off. I loved the freedom of the lifestyle. When I got married and got tired of it I went into the city and worked there for a few years until I had my first child. I said before—I did take a few graduate classes after Emma was born with the intention of possibly teaching once I was done having kids. But then I had No. 2 and No. 3 and here I am. I have no desire to go back to school for anything.

J.P.: I’m fascinated my the nanny-mom-child triangle. I’ve spoken with many nannies about it, and particularly about the awkwardness that comes when the nanny understands the kids better than the mother. Do you see this a lot? And do you see complications in the relationship.

A.F.: I don’t know anyone personally who has a nanny so I don’t really have an opinion either way. Living in Westchester, though, I see lots of kids with nannies. I can say this—If I did work full time and had the need for a nanny, I would think that I would want someone who loved my children and understood them and cared for them just as I would. I was at a 50th birthday party recently for an old friend of mine who was a nanny for a family when she came over here from England. She started working for them when the children were babies and stayed with them until she had her own children. They’re all grown now and they were at her party—it was very sweet to see how close they still were. It was a very special relationship.

J.P.: Your husband Michael is a restaurateur. I’ve heard 1,001 times that the restaurant business in thankless, hard, awful, endless, etc. True? Not true? And how does his career impact your schedule and role as a mom?

A.F.: He genuinely loves the business—I cannot imagine him doing anything else. Mike and I met at a restaurant when we were in our 20s. He was the manager and I was waitressing. I don’t think our relationship would work if I didn’t understand the business. He owns two places now so he’s busy, but he can make the schedule any way he wants to, so when I need him home during the day or ask him to take a night off for something specific—he can do it. He opened up his second place a few weeks after our third child was born—that was hard. He worked nonstop for a few months straight but we did it. We knew that if we made it through those few months that we could survive anything.

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J.P.: I feel like, when we were growing up, our parents trusted the school system. They weren’t always complaining about teachers, second guessing assignments, etc … etc. Has that changed at all? Has it changed in you? And—why?

A.F.: I’ve been really lucky so far in that my kids have had great experiences in school so far. I love our district and they’ve had great teachers. I don’t understand most of the math homework that comes home (for my second and fifth graders) but I trust the system until I have reason not to. I think there is this want to try and protect our kids from everything—especially failure.  I personally think that we should let them make mistakes and screw up and fail, then be there for them to help pick up the pieces. That doesn’t really answer your question, does it?

J.P.: You and I both grew up in Mahopac, N.Y.—which, sadly, has become famous lately for a crazy racial incident involving the basketball team. What’s your take? Do you consider our old hood narrowminded? Is it just a few people? A problem of a larger scale?

A.F.: The whole thing is sad. I was especially heartbroken for Kevin. I think racism is everywhere—in every town. I don’t know what Mahopac is like today but I don’t think it’s fair to judge an entire town on the actions of a few. What those kids did was stupid and narrow-minded. Hopefully, if nothing else it can be the starting point to open up a conversation about racism in the schools. I used it as a conversation starter with my 10-year old about racism and the evils of social media.

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): The Chieftain, Sears, Curtis Granderson, Rye Grill and Bar, “Dance Moms,” Datsun 510, Dave Fleming, Ratt, Rocky III, apple Danish: The Rye Grill and Bar, Dave Fleming, The Chieftain, Apple Danish, Sears, Datsun 510, Rocky III, Ratt, Dance Moms, Curtis Granderson (I think he’s a New York Yankee? I’m an angry Met fan and Yankee hater)

• Celine Dion calls. She offers $50 million for you and the family to move to Las Vegas for a year. You have to work 360 days as her personal dog groomer. You also have to change your name to Corinne Lee and only eat pumpkin-related foods. You in?: Not a chance!

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never, but I am a nervous flyer now that I’m a parent so my worst fear when flying is not seeing my kids again.

• How did you meet your husband?: The Rye Grill and Bar—he was the manager and I was a waitress. We were great friends—I fell first. It took him some time to feel the same way but he finally came around.

• Three memories from the Mahopac Senior Prom, please: Mitch Jacobs was my date.  We took a party bus to the Jersey Shore afterwards. We saw Billy Joel in concert on our way home.

• If someone offered you the car of your choice in exchange for eating five maggots, would you?: No way! I love my car.

• Four must-eat offerings at your husband’s restaurant?: 4 Layer Dip, Crabcake sliders, Farfalle Pasta, Double Chocolate Cake.

• Was 1980s high school cheerleading a sport or an activity? Why?: LOL—it was totally an activity! Now it’s a sport! Once we graduated they really took it to the next level but we had so much fun!

• Five things you always have in your purse?: iPhone, sunglasses, Chapstick, baby wipes, gum.

• One of my children just farted very loudly. Should I laugh or be grossed out?: Always laugh! They’re kids.

Louis Campbell

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This is the 152nd Quaz Q&A. I wish with all my heart it didn’t exist.

I am, like Louis Campbell, a father of two children. I live for my son and daughter, and would willingly die for my son and daughter. I don’t believe I ever knew what it was to be unselfish before their arrivals. Now, however, I think about them continuously, and consider it my primary mission to guide them toward adulthood and, ultimately, whole and fruitful lives. The idea of them becoming ill hurts me. The idea of them dying before I do paralyzes me. It is my biggest nightmare—so much so that I hated writing that last sentence.

Louis Campbell and his wife, Cindy, have (it pains me to say) experienced the nightmare. On Oct. 17, 2012, their beautiful, charismatic son, Ty Louis, died of cancer. He was only 5.

Because Lou and I both grew up in Mahopac, N.Y., I’ve been able to witness (via Facebook and e-mails) the power Ty’s saga has upon people. When he was sick, there were constant pleas to pray for his well-being. When he passed, there was more prayer—as well as a profound determination to keep his memory alive, and make sure something good came out of something awful. That good is the Ty Louis Campbell Foundation, a marvelous nonprofit organization that funds innovative research and clinical trials specifically geared toward the treatment of the deadliest childhood cancers. There’s also the Muddy Puddles Project, also in Ty’s honor, which encourages children (and adults) to find the love of all things messy.

Here, Louis Campbell speaks of what it is to lose a child, and how one can carry on and move forward—despite the crippling pain, despite the despair. His is a story of love and strength, and I’m honored to have him as Quaz No. 152 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: It strikes me when I look at your Facebook posts—people talk about how they deal with loss, and some people get rid of everything quickly. They empty closets, put the photos away. That’s how they deal. It seems for you Facebook is a vent. It’s really raw and painful to read your Facebook posts. Do you put stuff up about Ty as a way for you to deal? Is it a way to keep his memory alive?

LOUIS CAMPBELL: With Facebook, I’m not doing it to make people feel bad. It’s just a way for people to always remember him. That’s what I’m trying to do. One, it’s a nice little time for me to just talk to him. You’ll see I write to him a lot, like, ‘I miss you so much, sweet baby boy.’ It’s an opportunity when I wake up to say something quick to him, and also an opportunity to remind people on Facebook that my son was here, that he was beautiful and maybe once in and a while I’ll post a picture from the hospital, saying ‘Hey, appreciate your kids today, appreciate what you have.’ I’m like everyone else—I worry about different things. It just bothers me when I worry about work or money, because I know how much bigger the world is. And how much more serious it can be. That’s what I’m trying to remind everyone, and to share him with everyone as much as we can.

As you go through this, you want to learn as much as possible, how other people react to the situation. How do other people you know adjust to things? It’s something I’m always intrigued by, and it’s something I’ve talked to people about as we’ve delved into the cancer world. I’m curious to see who refuses to talk about. I know someone who won’t recognize his child as having died. He only recognizes the child as having moved on. He just won’t use that in his literature. So every time I hear someone refer to Ty as being dead, I think of that person. I think, ‘Wow. It’s so … it sounds so bad, because I think of it as people not wanting to hear the reality.’ But what are the traditions people do? Who leaves a seat at the dinner table every night for the child? Or some just leave it during holidays. Or some leave the room completely untouched and never let anyone in that room. And then there’s … so you don’t plan for what you’re going to do and how you’re going to react. You just do what comes natural for you.

And for us, right from the beginning, we wanted this out there. So we said, ‘Hey, you know what—our child is beautiful. And we’re going to exploit him. We want other people to exploit him. Because this is real. This is what happened.’ My wife’s blog has always been very raw, and I always wanted that for her. Why should we hide anything? Why should we tone it down? It should be raw. If you read her blog, it puts you in our shoes and helps you to see what we are dealing with. I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes. The No. 1 thing we get from people is, ‘I’m a better parent because of you guys and Ty’s story.’ One of the biggest things I constantly say is, ‘We’re the majority, not the minority. You would do the same.’ It’s true. When people are put into the situation we’re in, and you have to care for your child to save his or her life … children in our eyes are immortal. You don’t think of your child dying. And when you see your child become mortal and you’re faced with a situation where you know death is there and will most likely happen, and all you’re doing is pretending it’s not … you’re trying to do your best to make it not happen. But you know it’s there. Right up until the day he died I just hoped and prayed he would walk off the couch. But from the day he was diagnosed I was never naïve to the fact that I knew it was a possibility.

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Father and son.

J.P.: When Ty was diagnosed in 2010, did they say, ‘The odds of him overcoming this are not good?’

L.C.: He had a very poor prognosis right off the bat. And the doctors come up with a thing called the road map. And basically the road map is, ‘What are you going to do over the next six months?’ It’s sort of a breakdown of what sort of stages you’re going to go through in treatment. And the basic gist was ‘He has a very aggressive tumor, he will either die in six months or he’ll be lucky enough to get out of here.’ And that’s what we believed. We didn’t know anything, so we were determined to give it everything we had. We’re going to do whatever we can. And we were fortunate—we both got to spend pretty much every night in the hospital with him. My wife and I both spent more than 200 nights in the hospital. We both stayed together almost every night. We were fortunate—I have my own business, she stopped working, we had an au pair at home and the support of family. So we were able to be there and be huge advocates in his care. I think Ty got as far as he did because of that.

There were a lot of road bumps along the way. We weren’t parents just being assholes to doctors and nurses. No, we were parents who educated themselves and made sure that our child was getting the best care. It was, I don’t care what it takes—‘If his scar can be two inches or three inches, I want it two inches. Because you may be looking at him as a kid who’s definitely going to die because he has this aggressive cancer, but I’m looking at him as my son. One who’s going to make it. So I want to know if he can eventually play football with what you’re going to put in his head?’ And I know the doctors were looking at me like I had three heads when I was asking the football question, but we always looked for the future. We wanted to know how this would affect him in the future. Not just how this would affect him today. And is there a better way? Is there a better way we can do this treatment?

J.P.: It seems the sentences one hears when he’s lost a child are, ‘God needed another angel,’ or some sort of rationalization of why it happened. I wonder when you’re in your shoes, do you take comfort in that stuff, or do you feel like saying, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’

L.C.: You know, my wife and I are very laid back about that stuff. You’d have to catch one of us on a really bad day for us to be mean or negative. We’re kind of always defending the people who are saying those things because, you know, we see a lot of angry cancer parents, and you can’t blame them. I’m not saying we’re great people who can take it all in stride—we’re not. We get upset just like everyone else. But people don’t know what to say, so they say something. And I’ll tell you what—I’d rather have somebody say the dumbest thing in the world to me than nothing at all.

J.P.: Does that happen? Because it can obviously be awkward …

L.C.: Absolutely … absolutely. And I try to free them of that awkwardness. They look at me and they start to say something, and I say, ‘I know, thank you. I know.’ And then there’s still that awkward silence. Look, it’s an awkward thing. And a lot of people get away with it on social media as the first time to pass along their sympathies. Especially with us, because so many people followed Ty’s story for so long, and they weren’t going to see us.

And you hear things, too. There are a couple of stories we almost laugh about. There’s an awkwardness, and people say such stupid shit sometimes that it’s just, ‘Uh, here we go again.’ But at the end of the day I always appreciate it. Here’s a perfect example that’s happened to me a million times. This was while Ty was being treated. It would come up that Ty had cancer, and someone would say, ‘Oh, my friggin’ nephew’s sister in law’s daughter had the brain cancer and died in six months! Jesus Christ! Terrible … terrible!’ And I was like, ‘Is that what I really want to hear?’ But they don’t know what to say, so they’re saying what comes to mind. And I think there are a lot of families that don’t take it so casually, and there’s anger.

I’m not going judge anyone. It’s all about how you handle it, and the path you choose. I’m not saying anyone is wrong or right. Do you keep their room as is, or clean it out? I don’t have an answer. It’s whatever works for you. Whatever gets you as a parent through the day … if you wanna go around and tell everyone with healthy kids to fuck off, do it. If that what makes you feel good, do it. Everyone answers to themselves and their own God and the law. You do what works for you and your family.

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Louis Campbell with his wife Cindy and their son, Gavin.

J.P.: In reading the blog, your wife mentions God a lot. When something this horrible happens, how does one maintain faith?

L.C.: I have a perfect answer for that, and I tell everyone. I made my confirmation, I’m not a big churchgoer, my family is not a big church family. I am very faithful, I do pray a lot. I started praying a lot more once Ty was diagnosed. And I keep those rituals as prayers every morning and night.

J.P.: Still?

L.C.: Still. And I certainly questioned it. But if I was to give up on praying once he died, I’d be basically giving up on the thought that I’d ever see him again. I need to believe he did go somewhere special, and he is somewhere where I’ll see him again. And if I stop praying and I hate God, then I’m giving up on the thought of seeing him. And why am I here and what am I doing?

I thought about this, because I was pissed off. And you’re right—people said to us, ‘God needed an angel’ and ‘We wrote something nice on a prayer card’—the truth is, I don’t think God can heal. I don’t think God can stop cancer. I don’t think God created cancer. I think there’s just a lot of shit that’s out of God’s hands, but I do believe that there is something there. I really do. And it’s not just because of Ty. Just like everyone else who questions faith, you look into the sky and there’s no explanation for that. There’s no way you can break that down. You can’t put it in a box because there’s infinite something beyond that box. I do believe in evolution—I’m a science guy. But it had to start somewhere. You had to start with one cell of something. So until someone can explain all that—the infinite world and the one cell—I’ll stick with God.

J.P.: I’ll give you unlimited time—tell me about your son, Ty …

L.C.: He was my firstborn. You have children, so you know how magical that becomes when a child is born. You think you know when you have nieces and nephews. It’s like when you were in college, and you heard about your uncle’s kids having an illness, or I remember a distant family member lost a child to SIDS when I was in college, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s terrible.’ But I had no tie to it. I couldn’t even comprehend what they went through. What did I think? I thought the same stupid shit other people thought—‘Well, fortunately they have other children.’ Because that’s the other thing people say. ‘Well, thank God you have Gavin.’ Yeah, that’s true—he totally replaced Ty. [Sarcasm] It’s harsh.

J.P.: It’s seems very callous …

L.C.: But again, they’re not saying anything malicious. Nobody’s ever said anything to me maliciously. And I have to take that into consideration and be kind to them, because they’re being kind to me. Who am I to attack them? We had a person call our home, OK, Ty was home on Hospice. He was going to die within 20 days. And they called our home and basically asked us if we’d accepted the Holy Spirit. They got my wife on the phone. It was a random person. And my wife said, ‘Yeah, I guess. I’m Catholic. Yes.’ And they said, ‘No, no—have you accepted the Holy Spirit?’ And they let her know that it’s OK, because Ty was less than 7 or whatever age it was, and he would be welcomed into the kingdom but we wouldn’t see him unless we accepted as well. We didn’t curse them out, we didn’t hang up on them. My opinion—that was somebody trying to help in a very terrible way.

J.P.: You are a better person than I am—factually.

L.C.: I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal. My wife and I have certainly thought to say, ‘Go fuck yourself. You don’t know what you’re talking about, you asshole.’ Everyone has suggestions, too. We’ve had people post on the blog—‘How can you talk about Ty on the blog this way? You’re leaving Gavin totally out.’ Once in a blue moon you’ll get these crazy posts. It goes back to, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.’ Some people can’t control that.

J.P.: So what was your son like?

L.C.: Oops … sorry. My son was born. He was great from the beginning. He was just everything. As he developed a personality, he had a super magnetic personality. I think he was the kid that everybody—and this is the prior to him having cancer, and post cancer—he was the one everyone wanted to be near. I know I probably sound like every parent. When he developed cancer, it got more so. People just flocked to him. He had a contagious smile. And I have two children 18 months apart. Both boys. And I can tell you, before Ty was sick, based on personalities Ty’s the quarterback and Gavin’s the running back. And I think that describes the personality. The quarterback being the one everybody drools over and is after and is too cool for school. And the running back—does his thing, doesn’t care what people think, just makes the plays, no glory to it. I know sports metaphors are clumsy. Ty had a great personality. As he got older he liked to horse around a lot. He wanted to do what he wanted to do, like most kids. He always liked being the wise guy—making people laugh. He kept such grace in the hospital. He never—and maybe this is a child thing across the board—but he didn’t complain or react to his disabilities. He woke up one morning and he was paralyzed. And he didn’t cry. He just said, ‘I can’t do this. It doesn’t work.’

When he was diagnosed, he didn’t have any neurological symptoms at all. He wasn’t sleeping at night, but he never slept at night. We didn’t think there was anything majorly wrong, because from the day he was born he didn’t sleep through the night. But it became more and more as if he was in a positional pain. It got to the point where I said, ‘If this was one of my patients I’d take him to get an MRI. So let’s just do it.’ And then one night he was just so bad we agreed we’re not waiting, let’s do it. So we took him in, and once he was diagnosed we were released from the hospital Thursday. Now he hadn’t shown one neurological symptom. By Friday he choked on his food a little bit, by Saturday he couldn’t sip from a Sippy Cup, by Sunday he couldn’t drink with a straw. It was like once it was revealed, it was on.

So going back to him not complaining—when he couldn’t work the Sippy Cup for the first time, he would say, ‘My mouth not work … my mouth not work.’ We knew what it was. By this point he had been diagnosed, and we realized he was having these neurological symptoms. Later on he’d play with toys—but when the paralysis happened and he couldn’t play with his toys, his favorite thing to do was to look at toy books. He’d have me flip the pages and look at the toy books and he’d tell you what he wanted to play with. He kept his personality through the whole thing. He was definitely a fighter. He was stubborn when he didn’t want to get his needles. And when he couldn’t walk he would scoot around the floor of the hospital. He’d scoot on his butt. He was really amazing. Watching him go through what he went through, with the attitude he kept—it was just amazing. I was around a lot of different cancer kids and a lot of different types of cancer. And I will tell you, neuro oncology is the worst department to be in, because it’s so debilitating in so many ways. You’re not just losing the battle with cancer and you’re not just sick with chemo, but there’s always neurological dysfunction. It can be brain damage, it can be an inability to speak, to walk. And that’s very common. These kids can’t swallow—so now you’re on steroids. You’re having every food rage imaginable, but you can’t chew and swallow your food. So you’re not allowed to eat. It makes it so much more difficult.

I don’t know—my wife describes Ty as always being quick with a smile and a wise guy. That’s pretty good. He had a very, very magnetic personality.

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 9.25.53 AM

J.P.: So Ty was 5 when he passed. This might be a dumb question but when you’re that young, do you know you’re dying?

L.C.: I don’t think Ty knew he was dying. Well, I … it’s not a stupid question at all. It’s a great question. I think some people do and some people don’t. I don’t know that he knew. There was a time when he was almost gone, and he sort of came back. I know death. I held my brother’s hand when he died, and I spent the whole time with Ty when he died. And I was with both when they took their last breaths. Both of them were unconscious prior to it. Ty was … we took Ty home from the hospital and we told him, ‘You don’t have to go to the hospital anymore. You’re gonna get better, and you don’t have to get treated anymore. You’re gonna be able to walk and run and play.’ I don’t know if he knew. He knew he was very sick. He definitely knew he was very sick. But I don’t know what he thought of as dying. We didn’t talk about dying with him. We talked about it more as he wasn’t going to have to go to the hospital any longer. That he would go home. We said it’d be better. Almost not a lie. We didn’t want to lie to him. But not telling him he was doing to die. He didn’t know what death was.

J.P.: How did your brother die?

L.C.: My brother was an alcoholic. Basically drank himself to death.

J.P.: This is a very depressing question, but how do you go on? As time passes, do days get a little better, or …

L.C.: I thought I knew this—time does help ease the pain. Everyone tells you that—‘Don’t worry. Time eases the pain.’ And what I can tell you is it’s an unfortunate truth. Time does ease the pain. There are days where—there’s never a day I don’t wake up and think about him. But there are days that are just great days. And there are days that are terrible. Like just recently. Monday was just a terrible day for both my wife and I.

J.P.: What makes a terrible day?

L.C.: You just can’t get out of a funk. You wake up and it becomes more of a reality that day than it did the day before. We always try to keep ourselves busy. Right after Ty passed my wife took on the foundation full time. And everything is about Ty. It’s like he’s with us because we stay so busy doing stuff that directly pertains to him. It’s almost like he’s there. So I guess some days there’s just the lull of him not being there. The other day I posted an old video of him, because I was at my parents’ house and I saw an old picture of him that I hadn’t seen in a long time. And it brought so many memories of him when he wasn’t diagnosed.

Most of what I remember about Ty comes from when he had cancer. It’s hard to go back and remember him not having cancer. You sometimes have to go to pictures. It’s true—no matter what, time will heal things. I know my bad days will be less in five years and less in 10 years. Because not only does time heal, but so much more happens in that time. And it’s all happening without him. One of the things about the foundation is a lot of major events in our lives take place with him.

J.P.: I think about death a lot. And a lot of the things you’ve discussed, I’ve thought about. How much of the heartbreak here is having your son pass and not having been able to do anything, and how much is it that there’ll be no 20 … no 30 … no wedding …

L.C.: Yes, that hurts. We had children back to back because my sister and I were 18 months apart. You know, we saw the closeness and wanted that for our children. It was very important they were close. We were probably going to have more children. We wanted three kids and we knew we wanted our kids back to back. So now we’re getting to a point where Gavin is going to be older than Ty, he’s bigger than Ty, he’s just grown out of Ty’s last clothes. The first day of school is going to come and it’ll be the first time … my wife wrote about it. I know high school graduation is going to be a terrible day—for a moment. For a moment. Then I’ll celebrate with Gavin. I’m not going to ruin his day. We’ve been fortunate to hold it together. I don’t know that I’ll hold it together my whole life. I don’t know that my wife will hold it together her whole life. I know that what we’re doing now works for us, and we help each other. There are no guarantees about what’s to come. There are days where it’s, ‘I can’t fucking believe it. I can’t fucking believe my son is dead.’ As a matter of fact every morning when I’m walking out of the house, and I walk past his picture, right after I kiss his ashes and take the little Ty doll that we sleep with out of my bed, I’m walking out and I see his pictures. And there’s this one picture … it just does it to me. And I can’t fucking believe it. I can’t believe I had a child who died of brain cancer. I can’t believe it. It’s literally unbelievable.

J.P.: I feel like until tragedy hits us, we think it’ll always be someone else.

L.C.: There’s a perception we have of life. A perception of reality. And I felt like when my brother died, everything he went through his whole life, I felt like that was … and it’s partially because my brother died on November 3, and my son was born on October 4 … so Ty was born on the fourth, and my brother died less than a month later. And I felt like my brother’s whole life was so painful, that he was the bad thing. Every family has a terrible tragedy and a terrible thing. Talk to 10 people you meet at a cocktail party, and I guarantee you nine of them has some fucking tragedy—their brother’s a drug addict, they’re uncle’s whatever. You think everyone at the party is perfect, then you start talking to them and you get all the dirt. I thought my brother was that. And then I also felt he was the sacrifice—he suffered his whole life so we can have great lives. I’m a thinker. A lot of people think about things a lot, and others don’t think of anything. I think about these things a lot.

J.P.: Having seen death up close, are you more comfortable with the concept of death? More fearful? Do you not think of it either way?

L.C.: Have you ever been with someone who died?

J.P.: No.

L.C.: It’s a weird thing. I’ve been with two people when they died—holding them when they died. We had a Hospice nurse who might as well have been an angel. Just a weird good vibe with her, and she was a very spiritual woman. She would say that a lot of people describe death as being very beautiful, and she hoped we had that experience. She was also the one who came to pronounce Ty. And it was amazing. It was really, in Ty’s case, different than my brother’s death. We had a pastor come to our house. We moved up here, we never went to church, we never picked a church, but Ty went to Christ Church Nursery up on Quaker Hill.

There’s a Catholic church in town, and being that we’re Catholic, we called the priest at the church to come and give him his last rites. I guess he was busy. I know it sounds crazy, but he was busy. So we called this other pastor, and he came a couple of days and my wife went to walk him out. Ty had been unconscious for a little while, and we knew things weren’t going well. His vitals were still higher than I would have expected, and so she walked the pastor out and I stayed upstairs that whole morning with Ty. We never took him back downstairs or anything. She came back in, and as soon as my wife walked back in, Ty opened his eyes—he had been unconscious—and he opened his eyes wide, and he flickered them a couple of times. And my wife said, ‘What’s going on? Was he doing that? What’s going on?’ And I said, ‘I think this is it.’ And we both just cradled and held him in our arms, and he took his last couple of breaths.

I know people say this, and the metaphor thing, but it was as if he had seen something beautiful; it was almost as if he had a grin on his face. And then … he passed.

It really was beautiful. This is your child. There’s nothing that’s weird or scary. Then we took him and we bathed him. Just us two. And we put him in his suit. We were planning on cremating him. We weren’t going to have a wake. So we put him in his suit and we made a last-minute decision of whom we were going to invite. Which was just our family and our au pair. And we set him up upstairs and we spent the night with him. We had looked into this previously, and we wanted to take him to the crematorium ourselves. And there’s a Hindu tradition where the oldest son starts the burners for the cremation. I found out about that and asked if we could do it, and they let us. But just myself and my wife. But the deal was it had to be for the morning. So we stayed with him for the night, and they came in the morning with the coffin and we set him up in that. And we had a moment—her and I. And we left, and a friend followed us. We went there. He stayed in the car, did our last prayers, took him into the crematorium, and started the process.

Ty Campbell.

Ty Campbell.

J.P.: You hear of certain parents who lose a child and their remaining children sneeze and they take them to the hospital. How has this impacted you as a parent? And how has it impacted Gavin?

L.C.: I think we’re the opposite (laughs), in that we’ll drop Gavin off at a house, ‘Bye … be good …’ Even when Ty was sick, our doctors would somewhat tease us—‘Your comfort level is a little too high. You’re too comfortable with him at home.’ Even Gavin … we’re not like that at all. We’re very lax with the doctors. However, there is fear of everything. I mean, having another child right now—if we were to have another child—I do have a fear that, ‘Well, there’s that much more chance that the child gets cancer, or may have something wrong with him, or may wind up an alcoholic or a drug addict.’ Due to the personal experiences I’ve endured in life. And there’s definitely a fear with Gavin—that fear of what if someone happens? You read of families with two kids with cancer. It’s the unimaginable. What if, God forbid, that happens again? There’s a fear there. But it sits in the back of our heads. We’re not obsessive with it.

J.P.: How does this whole experience impact a marriage?

L.C.: It’s a huge strain. Then and now—huge strain. In the beginning, a lot of families break up because of it or grow closer. I think we’re lucky enough that we grew closer. But it puts a whole lot of stress on the marriage. And it’s not just stress against each other. It’s stress in life. It’s really … I can see why people break up over it. Maybe just not being on the same page of things, blame. But my wife and I experienced the same thing, and I can’t imagine speaking to anyone else the way I speak with her. I couldn’t be closer with my mother and my sister, but they didn’t experience what we did.

I feel like my mother and Cindy’s mother had a harder time with Ty being sick than we did. That might be an exaggeration, but one of the first thoughts in my mind when he was diagnosed. ‘How the fuck am I gonna tell my mother? How the fuck will I tell her?’

J.P.: How did you?

L.C.: I called her and told her Ty was sick. Really sick. And then I proceeded to tell her what it was. I think about that moment. At his eulogy I said the same thing–How do we tell our parents? Because Cindy and I are both the babies of our family. And he was our baby.

J.P.: How did you come to start the foundation? And did you start the charity to help charity, or do you start it to keep someone’s memory alive? And has it been worthwhile?

L.C.: I started it and got it approved as a 501C3 while Ty was still alive. I knew I wanted to give back. There were so many people willing to help us. We’re fortunate people, so why wouldn’t we do something? You get the idea, and you don’t realize what you’re getting yourself into. You have to know where you want to go with it. And our original thought was we wanted to help families. And then we saw, well, that’s kind of what a lot of charities do, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. There are unbelievable foundations. But when we started to take the foundation off, we realized we had a big platform. We had a huge platform. Cindy’s blog was followed all over the world. We had 4 ½ million hits, we had some national news outlets reach out to us, a lot of local. So we thought if we could raise a lot of money at this, we could fund research, and that’s where there’s such a strong need. The government doesn’t fund nearly enough research. Nobody funds it. We’re right on the cusp with a lot of breakthroughs with cancer.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 1.40.32 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH LOUIS CAMPBELL:

• Besides yours, what are the charities you believe in and feel strongly about?: St. Baldrick’s

• Does your wife ever write something on the blog and you think, “No, too personal”?: No. Sometimes we used to say let’s tone that down a bit so readers don’t think we are exaggerating, because it was that intense.

• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his next vacation destination?: 1. To attend the annual TLC “Mess Fest” at Camp Kiwi 2. Participate in the annual TLC TYathlon. 3. See my hometown 3. See Jeff Pealman’s hometown 4. Visit the Frank Lloyd Wright home on the lake. 5. Why not explore? Always explore

• One question you would ask James Dean were he here right now?: Although he appeared to be very cool, I would pick someone else

• Are you of any relation to Luke Campbell of 2 Live Cru?: No.

• Three things that bring you joy?: 1. Family 2. Friends 3. Experiencing life

• How did you propose to your wife?: On one knee at her favorite spot in Central Park, literary walk. Then followed up with dinner at the infamous Oak Room and spent the night at The Plaza.

• Movie line you quote most often?: Not sure, but most frequently use the accent from Anchorman.

• Toughest part of running a charity?: Time. When you are so passionate about something you are never satisfied and always want to do more.

• Phil Simms, Eli Manning, Ken O’Brien or Joe Namath?: Joe Namath. Is there even a question? He changed how football was viewed.

John Degl


A pre-Quaz story …

One day, as an eighth grader at Mahopac Junior High, I was playing Wiffle Ball in gym class. Someone hit a soft pop fly. I drifted back. A kid named John Degl drifted in. We slammed into one another, and the ball fell to the ground. Degl scowled my way. Then, when class ended, I spotted him walking toward me. Closer. Closer. Closer. POP! He punched me in the face—hard. Like, harder than I’d ever been punched. Tears immediately streamed down my cheeks, and my jaw throbbed.

Upon entering my next class, Chris Guadagnoli asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I got hit,” I said, “by John Degl.”

Over the ensuing year, I lived in fear of John Degl. He kicked my books a few times, ripped a poster from my hand. He was a tough kid with an apparent chip on his shoulder; I was a geek runner with acne. I avoided him at all costs. It was, for me, awful.

Fast forward to 2003. I’m writing “The Bad Guys Won” about the 1986 Mets, and the first chapter concerns my boyhood in Mahopac. I think back to those days—watching baseball in Mr. Gargano’s house. The acne. The loneliness. John Degl. So I jot down this passage …

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.50.23 AMShortly after the book comes out, one of John Degl’s pals sends me an e-mail saying, more or less, “Why would you write such a thing? John’s a good guy.” My rapid-fire initial reaction is to laugh—karma, it is a bitch. Then, I’m hit by guilt. Did I really hurt John Degl’s feelings? I certainly harbored no grudge—it was merely a story from back in the day; a fleeting incident from a fleeting period of time. The whole thing inspires me to do some research on John Degl. I find out that, since high school, he went on to wrestle at the University of Iowa, then to coach at multiple places. He’s a husband, a father, a guy from Mahopac—just like me.

For many years, I wanted to reach out. I believe I called him once, without getting a reply. As the years passed, I felt worse and worse and worse. Are we really supposed to hold people to acts from 20 years ago? Was it fair to memorialize a guy on the first page of my book?

Hmm …

Hence, I am thrilled—beyond thrilled—to have John Degl as today’s Quaz. Not only did John punch me in the acne-coated face, but he’s someone I now consider a friend. He runs his own wrestling academy, Iowa Style Wrestling, and his saga is one of overcoming multiple obstacles to reach a dream.

John Degl, it’s an honor to have you as today’s Quaz Q&A …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, John, so I’m gonna start this one off with something very personal, and we’ll go from there. And the reason I feel OK asking this is because I feel I’ve developed very nice friendship via Facebook with you and your wife, and time has passed, and blah, blah, blah. So … when we were in junior high together, you punched me in the face after a gym class—then bullied me for a spell. You were a big dude, I was not. You were tough, I was a wuss. Years later, I actually wrote about this in the first chapter of my Mets book—and several people said to me, “I was afraid of John Degl, too.” John, this is anything but an attack, or an assault. I simply feel the need to ask: Looking back those 26 … 27 years, who were you? Why did you seem so angry? And, now at age 40, does that help you understand what kids with similar dispositions are thinking?

JOHN DEGL: People thought I was angry, but I wasn’t angry per se. What I wanted was to be left alone. I loved to read. I loved to compete. I loved chess. I loved art. (I was an art major at Iowa) What I did not like was school. I hated school. I hated being stuck inside. I was super competitive, and I wanted challenges. So if I seemed angry it was because I was forced to be in a classroom that was not reaching me. I had some great teachers and I was always fine in their classes, but mostly I had good teachers and they didn’t do it for me. School was a bad environment for me. In kindergarten I had a teacher who I despised. She jaded my opinion of education. I was a little kid who was not good at managing my frustrations. That turned into a high school kid who couldn’t wait to get to practice every afternoon.

As a kid I had two sides—sweet and sour. The bad side was very mean and if I felt threatened my fight-or-flight response was not flight. I always went to attack mode. There was no middle ground or attempt to see things from the other’s point of view. I viewed everything as a zero sum game. I either won or lost and I hated losing. That, I can’t explain. My parents are great, generous and kind. My brother was nothing like me. My parents didn’t fight or have any major issues. My grandparents were all alive well into my teens. We had enough and more than many. I never suffered or had any reason to act the way I did. Even to this day I have a very strong idea (my own code, so to speak) of right and wrong and if I feel wronged in any way I have to be careful to not lash out. As a kid I didn’t have that skill. I think what happened when I hit you and the subsequent bullying was just a simple case of you not caring about winning that Wiffle ball game and that made us enemies in my head. It’s not very flattering to admit. But I remember you dropping the fly ball and I said, “What the **** “and you were probably defensive and I considered that an affront so I hit you. Then I was mad at you forever and picked on you when I saw you. If my child acted like I did I would be mortified. My poor parents did a better job than I represented. I was taught better but this almost compulsive need to be right or win made me make many poor choices.

Now I am a coach and I see all kinds of kids and I do understand that what happens in their mind is very real to them. It doesn’t matter if it is illogical to us as adults. The human brain is not fully developed until our early to mid 20s, yet we expect them to be adults at 16. We give them cars, phones and the power to ruin their lives in an instant. The mind of a child or teen is not the same as an adult. Their friends sometimes mean so much that it is impossible to convince them that other things are more important. They worry about money and yet they have their whole lives to work. It is crazy what they think is important but they believe so strongly, it’s a major challenge to approach them in a way that will help them. It took me many years and, admittedly, I still fall back into old habits sometimes when I am arguing with a high school student-athlete I coach. It’s the hardest thing to work in their reality. To talk to them in terms of what they think about as important. I have learned that to help a teen it is critical to not embarrass them in any way; to be super patient and to let them find the answer themselves through very precarious guidance. It’s so easy to lose them to girls, drugs, alcohol, cars, Internet fantasy world, or just to making money because they want gas money. I feel my many imperfections make it easier to deal with them because now that I am “old” they look at me as not a friend but an adult (aka: the enemy), so I work hard at establishing a relationship of trust. I over-share sometimes to let them know that I, too, was very flawed. For sure the mistakes of my youth help me as a coach, but I wouldn’t recommend so many mistakes for anyone looking at coaching as a profession.

Degl, right, alongside his early wrestling hero, Mahopac High's Phil Mazzurco.

Degl, right, alongside his early wrestling hero, Mahopac High’s Phil Mazzurco.

J.P.: You own and operate Iowa Style Wrestling, a wrestling academy in Putnam County, N.Y. John, how do you explain your love for the sport? What is it about wrestling that does it for you?

J.D.: I love wrestling because for the most part it is pure. A bad call can screw you but, unlike baseball or football, you can control your own fate. In this regard it’s even better than boxing, because the scoring is immediate and you can make up for a bad move or bad call with a pin. You are almost always “in” the match.

My first love was baseball. I wanted to be Bucky Dent. In eighth grade I missed tryouts due to having surgery. My appendicitis burst. I missed tryouts and the coach refused me a later tryout. I didn’t like that answer so I asked the head varsity coach to intercede. The head varsity coach intervened and I was put on the team. The coach was so mad about me going over his head he never played me. One day our catcher dropped a ball or had someone steal on him and I said something derogatory, so the coach—knowing I had never caught ( I was always at shortstop)—said, “Can you do better?” I said yes, and he put me into to embarrass me or shut me up. However I was better at catcher than at short. Who knew? So I played the rest of the season and in ninth and tenth grades I was the starting catcher until I gave up baseball to concentrate on wrestling. I realized that in baseball I was at the mercy of a coach’s opinion, while in wrestling I was master of my fate. So painfully—very painfully—I quit baseball.

Even then wrestling was my third-best sport. I also loved football and wanted to play it in college. All my recruiting trips were for football. I was all set to play football at Columbia or Union but didn’t want to decide until after wrestling season just in case. Well, I won states and that changed everything. I wanted to go to Iowa. That’s all I wanted. They told me no and don’t even bother applying because the wrestling team is full. Coach Jim Zalesky, who later became a great friend, flat out told me don’t come to Iowa, because I couldn’t wrestle there. So I listened and found myself at Manhattan College. I followed my high school idol, Phil Mazzurco. No sooner did I get their then I knew it was not for me. I was not meant for the Bronx. I told my family that I was going to Iowa with or without their help. I bought a plane ticket and showed up on the first day of the second semester. I had no classes and nowhere to live. I enrolled and went straight to the wrestling room where I was told no again—only this time by Dan Gable, the head coach. He said I would quit and that there were no spots left, but I could watch. I did this every day for more than a month before he walked up to me and said, “You promise you won’t quit? It’s, like, $300 wasted if you quit. I need to get you a physical and a mouthguard and they are expensive.”

Nowhere else can you walk on to the reigning national champions and make the team. What sport? Try walking on at Duke basketball or at Alabama football.

Wrestling does it for me because no one can stop you if you don’t let them. You can’t hide, you suck because you suck or you are great because you earned it. No excuses.

Degl, standing and third from right, was a star at Mahopac High School

Degl, standing and third from right, was a star at Mahopac High School

J.P.: Back when I arrived at the University of Delaware in 1990, the school was eliminating its wrestling program—as many colleges continue to do. Why do you think schools so eagerly and willingly cut wrestling programs? And do you worry about the sport, ultimately, vanishing from the Division I college scene?

J.D.: Wrestling is easy to cut. It is a minor sport at many institutions. It costs very little in the grand scheme of things but you can get 20-to-40 males off the list of athletes to make the gender equity portion of Title IX more manageable. If you cut basketball its 10 kids, even lacrosse and baseball have small rosters compared to wrestling.

Coach Gable has been a huge advocate for wrestling. He has tried to combat the cutting of programs. Some have fought successfully to get outside funding that Title IX isn’t applied to. I think that is the only way wrestling will survive. It will take wealthy alumni to make endowments that are beyond the scope of Title IX because it’s private money. It’s sad because education is not just about the classroom.

I have a daughter and I am very glad we live in a country that values equity and fairness. However, hurting men’s sports to help women’s sports isn’t the best answer. I hope they find a better way than cutting men’s sports

The sport of wrestling has been hit hard and yes I am very worried because I make my living coaching and helping student-athletes try to wrestle in college.

My facts might be a bit dated, however …

• 669 American colleges/universities have had wrestling and dropped their programs.

• 48 states and Washington D.C. had schools drop wrestling programs.

• Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii have had programs, but dropped them and left their states without a single collegiate wrestling opportunity.

• Alabama, Georgia and Washington have had multiple programs at all levels, but now have no four-year collegiate wrestling program to take part in.

• Using the NCAA’s average roster size of 27, the number of lost individual chances to compete collegiately are 18,063 nationwide.

J.P.: Odd question, perhaps, but can anyone be good at wrestling with dedication and intensity? Or are people born to be wrestlers—and some people not born to be wrestlers?

J.D.: The only way you can be good at wrestling is to never quit. Many people don’t have what it takes to lose for a long time and stick with it. If you have the mentality to not see results but believe they are coming anyway, than you can be a wrestler. Suspension of reality and a belief that you can be great is all that is needed to be very, very good at this sport.

Jordan Burroughs is special. He was born better athletically than most. But in football he would be fast and people would see his talent right away. Yet in high school he never won a state title until his senior year. Delayed gratification is a must in wrestling.

Burroughs is arguably the best athlete on the planet. His athleticism is unreal. He is a freak. But it took him years to see success. There are many four- and five-time state champs who never reach Burroughs’ success after high school.

The best thing about wrestling is that you can win so many different ways. You never see a bunch of short fat kids winning the final four in basketball. You can be anything in wrestling. Some fat heavyweights are great athletes and learn to use their size. Some small heavyweights are great and use their size (smallness) to be more agile and quick and are great at heavyweight. Frank Molinaro was, like, two-feet tall and won a NCAA title. Kyle Dake is long and he won four. Anyone can be a great wrestler—maybe not an NCAA or Olympic champion, but anyone can be very good with dedication and intensity.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.31.39 AMJ.P.: You wrestled for the legendary Dan Gable at the University of Iowa. We always hear how great coaches are—but rarely do we hear why they’re great. John, what—specifically—made Gable great?

J.D.: Dan Gable is great for so many reasons, I could (and you should) write a book about it. However, to summarize I will tell you it was because of passion.

He sister was murdered when he was in high school. He knew who did it and told the police. He could have felt guilt. He could have drifted to drugs and the party scene. He didn’t. He took all the pain and the hurt his family felt and made himself the focus of their world. He outworked everyone. He gave them something to latch on to.

As a coach he took that intensity and made you believe you could do it because he did it and he knew what it took. If Gable said cut a tree down and chop it up, you believed it would help you win a national title. He made you passionate about the sport of wrestling.

He also never quit on anyone. He let kids who would never start be part of the team as long as they came to practice and tried hard. He loved work ethic. He forgave so many people so many things. He didn’t ignore it, but he forgave you if you failed a class or got caught doing something wrong downtown. He always made you feel welcome. He was a taskmaster and hard as granite in ways, but never demeaning. He would ride you if you needed riding and he would mentally break you, but he always put you back together stronger. He never left the pieces out for you to figure out. He supported his athletes.

Gable was smart—he treated everyone as an individual. He figured out what made everyone tick. He was a master psychologist. He knew what we needed and gave it to us. I wasn’t a star … never All-American, but I was treated like I was one. He didn’t ignore me because I wasn’t his best wrestler. He got the most out of you. Whether you won or lost he worked to make you understand that you could win, and he motivated you to always push harder and train smarter.

Other teams looked great at the beginning of a season. Gable’s teams always looked best at the NCAAs. He was a master at peaking. He knew the less-is-more approach worked when others did not.

He is a genius.

deglJ.P.: There are some wrestling forums and chat rooms that tear into you. Overly competitive. Too intense with people. No class. On and on. John, I know nothing of the wrestling world. Where does this stuff come from? Is there a point? Is it jealousy? Both? Neither?

J.D.: Well, some of it is true and some of it is completely false and some is just the perception of someone who dislikes me. We all see things differently. In college we had to look at an old woman/young girl. Same picture. Some people saw a beautiful woman. Others saw an old hag.

I am overly competitive. I don’t know what too intense is, but I am intense. The worst thing I did was tell an 18-year-old he couldn’t hide anymore and to enjoy it (winning sectionals) while it lasted. He lost at states and I still was the jackass who yelled at a kid. If he won I would have been the jackass and wrong. That was bad. I didn’t do a Woody Hayes but I crossed a line. I was way wrong. And that was classless.

The rest is mostly jealousy. I came home from Iowa and tried like heck to be the savior of Section 1 wrestling. We stunk. In 1991 Section 1 had three State champs and took fourth as a section. In 2002 Section 1 was 12 out of 13in States. No Champs and only three all-state wrestlers.

In between and after we were bad. I came back in 2001 after coaching Hofstra and coming back from Iowa for a second time.

No one wanted saving. The coaches did not want to have me help them. They didn’t respect me. They didn’t want to change. I coached one year of high school and Mahopac won the Section 1 team title. I know a Hall of fame Coach who went 33 years before winning one.

I am reading a great book, David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell. He points to how Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne simply decided to create their own pond. They “abandoned” the “Salon”—the establishment did not respect them, but they all worked together. If they had split up no one of them would have stayed the course.

“There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable of liking a painting without Salon approval.”

But they went ahead anyway and changed the world of art forever. I was brash and didn’t care about the old guard. I felt so strongly that wrestling had so much to offer, but the section failed the athletes. The coaches failed the athletes. No one was going on to wrestle in college. So I decided if they didn’t want to work with me I would crush them. So I made no friends and alienated the ones I had. It took many years before someone finally convinced me I was an idiot. I had a clue I was, but this good friend wouldn’t quit until he made sure I knew it 100 percent. My friend, Eddie Mezger made me see that wrestling was not an individual sport and that’s when things changed. I found a way to create that critical mass the artist in Gladwell’s book found. I built a community to fight the old guard. I tried to mend fences with coaches and some took me up on it. I made the club (ISW) more of a family and developed a selfless culture instead of a selfish one. Instead of pitting the athletes against each other to see who was the best I tried to make them see that even their biggest rival was an asset; that the key to winning at the state level was training with the best-available kids, and since then we have done amazing things. There are currently 25 Section 1 wrestlers wrestling on college teams. That is the basis of the jealousy. In the end my club has done what no one thought could be done. But it cost me a lot. Now it’s better. I learned that I could be successful and not be a jerk. Before I thought I had to be ruthless and push so hard. I’m a better coach and get better results without all the madness. I still get tweaked here and there. Also, having a family makes a difference.

I truly thought I had to be a bully to the world to make kids win. I felt huge pressure to win right away. That led to many bad decisions and behavior. At Iowa Gable never acted like that. But we had no culture and no one believed they could compete. Now I have a track record and kids believe. In the beginning I’m not sure we would have gotten there without some of the craziness—some was needed. Now I can let my resume speak for itself and kids get on board or they don’t. I have less to prove and more work to do.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.28.25 AMJ.P.: Greatest moment of your career in wrestling? Lowest?

J.D.: Greatest—coaching kids in my club and seeing them go to college and wrestle. One year we had five state champions in one year and 13 state finalists. That was the best!

Winning a New York State Title was the most rewarding as an athlete but at the time it was not because I didn’t think it was a big deal. I truly just expected to win like any other match. Now I realize how hard it was and how few people do it. I have coached kids who were way better than I was and they did not win States.

The lowest was, for sure, my last college match. I lost to Airron Richardson of Michigan. I was mounting a small comeback when I heard (incorrectly) Gable say, “two seconds” when there were 20. I tried a real quick duck and got put on my back, thinking there was no time, but I gave up backs and was down by a large margin. In the end I lost 16-4. My career was over. Years of sacrifice and nothing to show for it. At the time I felt I was a loser and a huge waste. Gable was the best and I failed him. I failed my team. I failed myself. I didn’t cry. I bawled. I was beyond inconsolable. I hid for over two hours and cried. I’ve never felt pain like that until my friend Tom lost his 5-year-old son. That hurt worse. That cured me of thinking losing a match means shit. I have never recovered from that. I have recovered from losing in college and not keeping my spot at 190 and letting Mike Derasomo catch my weak pop up in the Babe Ruth Mahopac Sports Association World Series to end the game in our loss. But I have never recovered from my friend losing his son.

J.P.: How do you feel about the emergence of MMA and the decline of boxing? And how do both those things impact the sport of wrestling—if at all?

J.D.: I don’t watch MMA, but I think it is a great sport. They have done a very good job of taking some of the brutality out and making it more skill-based, even though it still is very dangerous. The original MMA was really deadly. Now MMA is a great sport.

I think that’s why boxing is declining. Kids are told fighting is bad. You can’t hit or you get arrested. Many people used to fight, with some sense of fair play. If you fought a friend or enemy you didn’t try and kill them—it was just a fight. That was when boxing was an art and kids who liked to fight found boxing. Schools don’t support boxing any more. You can’t fight because of the societal rules being so harsh. Kids have to play nice and no one feeds into boxing. Also, boxing was very corrupt.

MMA is good for wrestling at the amateur level. It is a place where you can land. Before MMA you either quit or did freestyle or Greco to try and make an Olympic team. You had no way to make a living. You risked everything to put your career on hold and you had very little shot at Olympic gold. Even when you did win, you had no money so the risk was huge. Now with MMA if you keep the warrior lifestyle you can always land in the MMA world and try and make at least enough to support yourself. It’s a great way to follow your wrestling dreams with at least a little hope of using the skills to earn a living. It’s like a writer who, before the Internet, was either publish or perish. Now you can have more options to take your passion further into your life and maybe make a career out of it instead of a hobby or a teaching gig.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.28.05 AMJ.P.: I’m torn on youth sports, and I’ll tell you why: When we were kids, it seemed much more about the experiences; about playing different sports different seasons; about teamwork and fun and being outside. Now, all around me I see kids playing one sport two, three or even four seasons; parents gunning for scholarships; pressure, screaming, yelling, shouting, taunting. John, can an argument be made that, perhaps, the youth sports experience isn’t so valuable? Or, perhaps, that something has gone wrong?

J.D.: In my opinion youth sports are way off the mark. I make my living by people paying for coaching. I love youth sports. I think they have as much to teach youngsters as any classroom. Not in lieu of the classroom, but in conjunction with a great academic education, sports are vital. Nowhere else do children learn about real life as effectively. The classroom is monitored 100 percent of the time. The rules are very strict and the teacher is omnipresent. The playground is where real-world skills used to be learned, but now there is less play and more monitoring.

The youth sports programs should focus on the skills and then let the chips fall as they may. Instead, the coaches all want to be Vince Lombardi or Don Shula and the parents all think their child is a star. We give everyone a trophy. Its not real life and then we wonder why as teens they lack life skills and are soft. We make them soft by pampering them physically and mentally.

Specialization is happening too early and even though I think wrestlers should wrestle most of the year (even at an early age), the sport is not like any other. It develops everything, like gymnastics. Baseball all year is no good. Too narrow. Football all year would be bad—kids would be too physically beat up. But gymnastics, yoga, wrestling, karate and things that are really skill sports can be done properly all year and the kids can do other spots as well and not burn out mentally.

Youth sports should be about skill development and fun. Parents have ruined the experience with the “winning” becoming the goal. I can’t tell you how many “championship” youth football teams I hear about. It’s a joke.

I think other countries have some great ideas. I read in “Outliers” that the first year or so in Russia in this “hot-pocket” of tennis that the kids can’t use a racket—because it will hurt their minds. They use their minds to see perfect shots. The results are theoretical based on the skill of their stroke. That’s brilliant.

J.P.: I’ve always wondered this—so I’ll ask: What did it feel like, seeing your name in “The Bad Guys Won”? Were you hurt Flattered? Indifferent? To be honest, I’ve long felt I’ve owed you an apology. I never held any sort of long-term grudge. It was merely an experience to write about. But, in hindsight, I believe I treated you unfairly. I’m sorry.

J.D.: Well, it wasn’t very flattering, so I guess at first I was annoyed. Then I was defensive, because it had very little context. I was a year behind you in school and I didn’t seek you out to harass you. That year you mentioned was when you were in ninth grade and I was in eighth and we were in completely separate buildings. I do remember being a huge dick when I saw you but I don’t remember ever laying in wait or seeking you out to bully you. Admittedly, when I did run in to you I was a huge jerk—which, since I like Karma, I kind of appreciated the fact you stuck it to me in the book. I deserved it. I don’t think you owe me an apology.

As an adult I felt bad because regardless of what I thought about it, you had a very different perspective on the events. Kids I coach have brought it up often to me and I can then share with them how your behavior and choices follow you. So in the end it has been a good thing to have in the open and I can also finally apologize to you for the horrible way I treated you. I’m sorry, too.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 12.23.54 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOHN DEGL:

• Five greatest wrestlers of your lifetime?: Jordan Burroughs, Dan Gable, John Smith, Terry Brands and Tom Brands (can’t pick—they are twins), Cael Sanderson.

• Right now, you vs. Hulk Hogan in a no-holds-barred steel cage match. Who wins, and how?: Hulkamania has no chance! I’d put him in a Camel Clutch and he would tap out faster than a Texas two-step.

• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: 5. Camp out on Canopius Island in Lake Mahopac; 4. Attend the Muddle Puddles “Mess Fest” to support the Ty Louis Campbell Foundation 3. To see Them Bonds play at the Pub or J.P. Cunninghams. 2. See Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Massaro House on Lake Mahopac. 1. Visit childhood home of famous author Jeff Pearlman.

• How did you propose to your wife?:  I met Jen in (then-Mahopac High baseball coach) Frank Miele’s office and he told her to stay away from me. Well, after only a few dates Jen said I could date other women. I was amazed at this forward thinking, but then she mentioned I would have to stop dating her. So I knew I had to marry her. She was very smart. I said, “I love you” for the very first time the day before we went to the comedy club Caroline’s in New York City. Well, I insisted we sit up front. That was dumb. The second comic asked me in front of the whole club if that was my girlfriend. I said yes. Then he says, “Do you love her?” and I hesitated a split second and he killed me. Jen laughed it off but I hurt her feelings because just the day before I said it for real.

Fast-forward a year and the same headliner is at Caroline’s so I planned everything to be the same. I invited the same people and had a ring ready. I had called ahead and had the guarantee that the opening act guy would ask me the same two questions. Well, this did not happen. The whole night went by and no questions to me! I was getting very stressed and Jen was getting very much into her cups. Finally, I had her cousin go and ask WTF, why didn’t this guy do the act. So in a very forced way the MC comes out and all the acts are done but the place is still full and he says, “Is John Degl here? Is that your girlfriend? Do you love her?” It was the worst because he ruined my whole plan but this time I had to say it right so I said yes instantaneously and then said I love her so much I want her to marry me. Jen looks at me and says and I quote” You have to be shitting me …”

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Rampage Jackson, Nelson Mandela, Fozzie Bear, Elmo, Pearl Jam, “A Walk to Remember,” Willie Nelson, Dave Fleming, Dwight Howard, Candyland, Legos, Erik Estrada: Pearl Jam, Nelson Mandela (he would have been No. 1, but I found out he didn’t write or even use “Our Deepest Fear” by Marianne Williamson. he still is a superman, though; Dave Fleming; Willie Nelson, Legos; “A Walk to Remember,” Fozzie Bear; Elmo, Erik Estrada; Candyland, Dwight Howard, Rampage Jackson.

• What the heck is up with wrestlers and cauliflower ear?: It tastes good with butter. No, it’s gross and it hurts, but wearing headgear is a pain in the neck so many kids train without and they get hit and their ears swell and the blood hardens and you get cauliflower ear. If you wear your headgear you don’t get it! All kids and college kids should wear it all the time.

• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $5 million to move to Las Vegas and work 363 days next year teaching wrestling to her poodle, Ed. You also have to clean up the dog’s excrement and bake 200 cookies daily. You in?: I will take it. Cael Sanderson doesn’t make $5 million a year and he is currently the best of the best results wise. I will never make $5 million. I have a daughter and I love her enough to bake cookies and clean poop. I would never debase myself for money because it would teach my children that money is important, more important than self-respect, but I would be silly as hell for $5 million. I’m in if you can broker the deal—I’ll kick back a 10-percent finder fee after taxes.

• Dumbest thing you’ve ever heard a youth sport parent scream from the stands?: Impossible to answer—too many to even begin. However, once I heard a parent tell the kid to throw a half (a move to turn an opponent to his back) while the ref was talking to the kids about what anklets top wear before the match.  I have had kids actually stop mid-match and tell their dad’s to shut up. I think all youth events should be held in hockey rinks and the parents are behind the glass you can’t hear them that way at all.

• How do you explain the continued existence of The Bachelor on TV?: I didn’t know it was still on. My best guess is because too few people listen to baseball on the radio. If we listened to radio baseball and took time to talk with friends instead of texting them, then no one would ever watch a show like that. But somehow we text instead of calling and we e-mail instead of writing and we allow reality TV to exist. I know I like many modern technologies and conveniences but the impact on the culture is bad.

Gina Girolamo

Back in the late-1980s, when Gina Girolamo and I were languishing on the cruel streets of Mahopac, N.Y., there wasn’t much hope of making it out. One either ran with a gang or sold rock on the corner—sometimes both. The horror stories are long and nightmarish, as you’ll see in my forthcoming memoir, Pearlie G—Straight Outta M-Pac.

While I succumbed to the darkness, however, Gina—once upon a time a smart, perky cheerleader who kicked my ass in a student government election—found a way out. She attended college at UCLA, committed herself to a career in television … and has absolutely soared. During her decade at NBC (mostly as VP of Comedy), she helped develop such hit shows as 30 Rock and My Name is Earl. Now, as the senior vice president of television for Alloy Entertainment, Gina has continued to excel. She is the executive producer of The Lying Game, and recently had her fifth (fifth!) series ordered (to quote her excited e-mail to me: “My ABC pilot just got a 13 episode order!!”).

Here, Gina talks about making a career on TV, the highs of Earl and 30 Rock, the lows of working for a devil in a mini-skirt, what it’s like to crack bottles of Cristal with Tracy Morgan, why she likes Celine Dion more than Speedos and how she still cries during those pre-processed American Idol sob stories.

Gina Girolamo, Mahopac homeslice, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Gina, I’m gonna ask you something I’ve been itching to ask someone in your position for a long time: Why do we give a shit about movies and TV? I mean, I get the whole “It’s an escape thing,” blah, blah, blah. But I’m always baffled, because, well, it’s not real. What happens on The Lying Game, for example, is 100 percent fiction. Like, not true. The drama is make believe. As is the drama in all non-reality TV shows and films. So why do you think viewers invest so much time and, most baffling, emotion? When, come day’s end, the star walks off the set, smokes a cigarette and gets a massage.

GINA GIROLAMO: Oh, good question. First, how do you know what happens on The Lying Game is 100 percent fiction? I think the escape thing is bigger than blah blah blah. I remember years ago I was talking to Cathy Iannotta’s parents [JEFF’S NOTE: Cathy attended Mahopac High School with us. Lovely woman]—both brilliant, intellectuals and I was lamenting my career choice, feeling like I wasn’t contributing to society … to my surprise they felt the opposite. They helped me realize how important escape and entertainment really is for people. I mean, who doesn’t love to sit on the couch and forget about your life for 30-to-60 minutes?

J.P.: So, we went to high school together, and probably had a few conversations and shared a classroom or two. You were bubbly and perky and a cheerleader, and you kicked my ass in a student government election. But that’s all I know about your path. So, I ask, Gina, what’s your career path. Like, how did you get from gang-infested Mahopac N.Y. to Alloy/a career in television?

G.G.: Well those mean streets of Mahopac and all the “high stakes” cheerleading competitions really prepared me for the cut throat culture that is Hollywood. All kidding aside, I went to Westchester Community College for two years after high school then decided California was for me. I transferred to UCLA and fell in love with Los Angeles. When I was a senior I was working at a swanky gym in Brentwood (lots of celebs, agents and industry types were clients) and one of the clients, an actress, asked me what I wanted to do after school.  At that point I thought maybe I would be a teacher … I was a political science major and loved history. I also knew law school wasn’t for me so I thought maybe grad school. This woman basically changed my life with the most superficial advice I have ever received; she said I should work in the entertainment industry for a few years in my 20s because I was, “cute and had a great personality”—funny, right? She had been John Cassavetes assistant when she was in her twenties and said it was the most fun ever. So I got a job as an assistant at Sony in the TV division. I worked for a woman I like to affectionately refer to as “the devil in a miniskirt” (waaay before “The Devil Wears Prada came out”—that book made me weep). It was hell. Seriously the worst experience—I lasted a year then got out. I went to work for an amazing woman at The WB. She really taught me a lot and is still a mentor and friend. I left The WB after three years, got hired at NBC and worked there for almost 11 years! Two years ago the CEO of Alloy cold-called me, we met and he hired me to run his TV company. I guess you could say I fell into my career, but I quickly recognized I have a deep passion and talent for television and have loved building a long career in it.

J.P.: You spent 10 years at NBC, and much of that time as VP comedy. What, exactly, does that mean? I mean, literally, what did your job entail? Was it fun? Torturous?  

G.G.: Looking back, I can honestly say yes, so fun. Not without heartache or drama but an incredible life-changing experience. I remember one day I was sitting in the main conference room at NBC with the president of the network, my boss and a few colleagues and we were discussing the fall schedule … and I had this moment where I thought, holy shit, I am here, making this huge decision about what new and returning shows are going to be on the air in September. It was surreal. Sometimes my job was tough but never torturous. I have worked very hard but have also played hard as well—one of my favorite memories was a night that started at the SNL cast after-party, then continued over to Bungalow 8 with Tracy Morgan and many bottles of Cristal.

J.P.: You were part of the development team (if that’s the right word) for 30 Rock—an absolutely fantastic program. What can you tell me about the show’s origins, and what went into taking it from idea to reality?

G.G.: Thank you—I love 30 Rock, too. The experience of working on that show remains one of my most educating and rewarding. Tina Fey was coming off of SNL and NBC made a development deal with her. I was the No. 2 in the comedy department at NBC at the time. She pitched the idea she wanted to write—a behind-the-scenes of an SNL-type comedy show starring her and we knew she wanted to cast Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin. We were unsure about a behind-the-scenes show but it’s Tina Fey so you gotta try. So she went off to write the script and have her baby. When we got the script we loved the idea of a Tracy Morgan-type tormenting Tina as a “Mary Tyler Moore”-type … there was some debate again about the behind the scenes but we gave it a try. After making the pilot the network testing was terrible and it looked as though it was not going to get on the air—but how do you say no to that package, Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin and all the talented comedy gems in the supporting roles? So we decided to to make some casting changes and reshoot some scenes. Year one, out of the blue, the show won its first Emmy for outstanding comedy series. The next few years were an incredible blur of awards and amazing stories and guest stars. Working with that group really felt like going to grad school for producing comedy.

J.P.: I have something I tell people all the time—“Fame is bullshit.” Like you, I’ve spent a lot of my career around famous people (in my case, mostly athletes), and I find fame to be a corrupting, warping, messed-up thing that takes nice, normal, respectful people and, oftentimes (certainly not always), injects their egos with massive amounts of steroids. Do you agree or disagree? And why?

G.G.: Well, I think those types exist in all walks of life. Fame is tricky and I have watched it turn people. I try to have a lot of empathy for actors and other talent. Society has put a ridiculous amount of value and pressure on “celebrity.” The stakes financially and emotionally are extraordinarily high and I cannot imagine what that feels like when you try to also live your life. Oftentimes when someone becomes hugely successful, they also become insulated and surrounded by people who are scared and insecure about their place on the list. I think that is what ultimately creates unhealthy environments where egos are allowed to inflate. All that being said, I have also worked with warm, grounded and incredibly nice famous people, too.

J.P.: During your time at NBC you worked on Ed, another excellent show, yet one that didn’t last long enough. I’m wondering what it’s like to have a project that you know, know, know is good and great and high-quality, yet—for some reason—can’t get the traction it needs to survive. Do you need to try and think like a viewer? Like, literally put yourself in their shoes and try to understand?

G.G.: It is the worst, most-helpless feeling ever. I have worked on a few of those … every week it takes a team of about 200 people to produce one episode of TV. Now imagine having to look those people in the eye or get on the phone with them the day those low ratings come in. Depressing! I think we always try to think like a viewer but I also believe that there are different types of viewers. There are the mainstream, CBS-type people who love 2 1/2 Men and all the CSIs. Then there are the coasters (New York, Los Angeles) niche types who prefer cable, and shows like 30 Rock. My personal taste lies more on the niche side of things but I constantly try to study successful mainstream shows and glean as much as I can from their formulas. No one wants to have a classy, critically acclaimed low-rated show—unless, of course, you are HBO. They don’t need ratings as much as they need awards to attract talent and subscribers.

J.P.: What’s the absolute highest moment of your career? The absolute lowest?

G.G.: Well, I am embarrassed to say my zenith keeps moving … first was the season one double Emmy wins for the My Name Is Earl pilot, then 30 Rock’s many Emmy, Golden Globe and other accolades. Then in my first year at Alloy I produced four pilots and all four were ordered to series. Year No. 2 I got to make a pilot for ABC!

The lowest probably was the day of mass firings at NBC a few years ago … in one two-hour period 10 of my colleagues were fired one after the other. Luckily I was spared—but it was the darkest day for me professionally.

J.P.: Why do you think it is that so many former childhood actors wind up drunk/crack addicted/giving out $7 handjobs in a corner of Washington Square Park? Is there something about showbiz and kids that just equals nightmare?

G.G.: Hmm, interesting observation. I think a lot of it has to do with uneducated and misguided parents/guardians. These adults are supposed to help their kids manage the insane amounts of money, their lifestyle, how to be responsible. Instead, oftentimes they buy a big house or a new Jaguar with their kid’s earnings, hang out on the set all day long or go to clubs and parties. Having worked around a lot of young actors it pains me to see what they miss out on by choosing to be on a TV show or movie. I did one series with a 15-year-old girl who was home-schooled and had never been to a school dance. Now I am not saying she is going to become a drug addict because she never went to her prom, but it is an unnatural way to grow up.

J.P.: What sort of impact has the whole reality television boom had on your career and, more broadly, the industry? Do you feel like, 50 years from now, we’ll look back at Jersey Shore and Real Housewives and laugh with disdain? Or is this where TV is headed?

G.G.: Ah, reality TV … once thought of as the killer of scripted shows! I love reality TV.  Honestly, what all these docu-soaps and competition shows has done is challenged the way scripted series design characters and worlds. Reality shows have some of the most interesting characters and situations currently on TV—I think for anyone in this business that is a benefit. Now all that said, I absolutely think we will look back on Jersey Shore (which I cannot watch for obvious reasons) and Housewives and laugh with disdain.

J.P.: I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, and while I love it, it can also beat me down. I don’t mean to dog your adopted hometown, but oftentimes it feels surface and sorta, well, artificial. Like me, you’re a New Yorker. We’re loud and brash and say what’s on our mind. Do you long for that at all?

G.G.: I love L.A. I also kinda love the artifice and superficiality of it—simply stated, it’s a pretty place to live and the weather is mostly great all the time. I had a hard time adjusting when I first moved here—I was a little too loud and brash. I have toned that down a little but the one thing I will never lose is my honesty. Not often a quality valued or desired in my business, but I speak the truth and for better or worse it has always been the right way to play a situation. I will always love New York. I also don’t hesitate to get a little mafioso on someone who crosses me or my people.


• Five greatest sitcoms of all time?: Seinfeld, 30 Rock, I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Will & Grace.

• How do you explain Alf lasting beyond three weeks? And have you ever seen The Puppet?: No idea, never saw the puppet.

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: Ha! Yes! Have I told you this story? I was flying home from New York once many years ago, the West Wing was still on NBC and I was in business class where Rob Lowe and Morgan Fairchild both happen to also be seated. We had crazy turbulence—the kind where the flight attendants freak out and strap themselves in. Anyway, I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh my god, I am going to die on this flight and it will be all about Rob and Morgan.”

 • Rank in order (favorite to least): Emmanuel Lewis, Whitney Houston, Melissa Fiore, Heavy D, tomato soup, American Idol, your cell phone, the smell of vanilla, Rodak’s Deli, Celine Dion, Andy Pettitte, Rush Limbaugh, Speedos: 1. smell of vanilla (oil, preferably Kiehls); 2. Melissa Fiore; 3. Whitney Houston (mostly because of my memories of belting out that first album at Chantale’s house after school); 4. Rodak’s Deli (I am sentimental); 5. Webster!; 6. Heavy D; 7. American Idol (those stories make me cry every time!); 8. cell phone; 9. Celine; 10. Andy; 11. Rush, 12. Speedos (ew).

• How many times a year do you hear the phrase, “I have an amazing idea for a show …” And how often is the idea genuinely amazing?: Too many to count—sadly when pitched that way, NEVER!

• The TV show that should have been huge, but wasn’t: 30 Rock.

• Three nicest actors you’ve ever worked with: Tina Fey, Dave Annable, Terry O’Quinn.

• Would Los Angeles ably support an NFL franchise? Why?: I am going to say no but truthfully I have no idea.

• Would you rather slice off two of your fingers or watch an endlessly looping reel of the Dana Plato True Hollywood Story for three weeks?: Uh, I take Dana.

• I really think a third lunch-line could speed things up in the cafeteria. Can I please have your vote in the next student council election?: I vote YES!

Dave Fleming

As a boy, I grew up near the top of Emerald Lane, a long hill of a street in the tiny town of Mahopac, N.Y. My house was surrounded by, well, very little. Other homes, a couple of trees, a long ditch. The Millers and Garganos resided to our right, the Daleys and Andersons to our left. Birds chirped and dogs barked and life, while blissful, was also sorta dull.

To pass the time, I would often ride my bike up Prince Road where, if I was lucky, Dave Fleming would be shooting hoops on the basket in his driveway. Dave had no idea who I was (he graduated Mahopac High in 1987; I did so in 1990), but we all knew who he was—and that, without question, he’d be going places. Dave wasn’t merely the ace lefthander on our nationally ranked high school baseball team. He was also an insanely gifted basketball player, one whose uniform number (22, I believe) still hangs on the wall in the old gymnasium.

When Dave helped pitch the University of Georgia to the College World Series title in 1990, then—as a Seattle Mariners rookie two years later—won 17 games, I was in absolute heaven. As was my town. In Mahopac, all anyone wanted to discuss was Dave Fleming, Dave Fleming, Dave Fleming, Dave Fleming. He was the kid who made it; the kid who put Mahopac—if only for a brief spell—on the map; the kid who served as a role model to an aspiring sports writer from down the block.

Though Dave’s Major League career ended after 4 1/2 seasons, he remains Mahopac’s most famous export—as well as a person who can always say, “I was traded for Bob Milacki!”

Here, Dave talks Mahopac, Mariners, what it’s like when a league starts figuring you out and his new life as one of the world’s most successful Wiffle ball gurus.

Dave Fleming, survivor of the mean streets, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Dave, so a couple of weeks ago I was doing a book event at the Mahopac Public Library. I was trying to explain what Walter Payton meant to Chicago, and I said he was to the Windy City what Dave Fleming was to Mahopac. I was joking, but most people in the room nodded in agreement. Which leads me to wonder—are you aware of what your college and Major League successes meant to our hometown? I mean, did you ever fully get the impact it had?

DAVE FLEMING: I think it is hard to get the full impact when you are not around because obviously you are out doing what you’re doing and the other people are the ones watching and talking about what is going on. Over the years I have had people approach me and tell me things about where they were when this happened or how they rooted against me when I pitched against the Yankees but rooted for me all other times. I enjoy hearing those stories and I only in the last year heard from my family how they all watched the National Championship game in different rooms. When I asked why they said “Because it was too much pressure” and they didn’t want to see me blow it. I think it was a lot of fun for those people who knew me and some others who were from Mahopac. But it was short lived and, like most things in life, you move on.

J.P.: You pitched 4 ½ years in the Majors, then spent several more years trying to get back. You had some incredible highs, played alongside some of the all-time greats. How difficult was it to finally say, “I’m done—this is over”? And how did you officially reach that point? Was there a moment when you were able to look in the mirror and say, “I will never pitch in the majors again?”

D.F.: It is very difficult to say it is over especially when you have had success doing something. You believe you can get back to that level again so you keep trying and trying until you have some kind of wake-up call that makes you say, “I’m not the same player I once was.” For me it was in Atlantic City on an independent team. I had been trying to come back from surgery and was on my second independent ball stint. I was getting roughed up a little and was spending too much time between pitches and all of a sudden I hear our center fielder yell out, “Lets go! Throw the ball!” I stepped off the rubber and looked out at him in center and thought, “What the heck am I doing here? I can’t get the lowest level of players out and now I am getting ragged on by a guy who has probably never played above A ball.” After the game I told our manager, Wayne Krenchicki, that I was done and that he didn’t need to pay me for that night’s performance.

J.P.: Many, many, many, many, many, many athletes face tremendous difficulties after their careers end. I get it—beyond the physical issues, you were a celebrity, playing in front of 50,000 fans, getting everything for free, traveling in class, seeing the country. Then—pfft. Over. How hard was it for you? And do you enjoy being reminded of playing in the Bigs, or do you view that as a piece of your life best left in the past?

D.F.: Nothing is ever going to give you the same thrill of pitching in front of a huge crowd and performing against the best baseball players in the world. As much as I could wish for it to have lasted even up until today (I’m only 42-years old right now—according to Jamie Moyer I would have seven years left), you have to appreciate just having the opportunity. I know that sounds phony but I did take in some special moments as they happened. Like, for example, being in a 1-1 game against Roger Clemens at Fenway Park. After the seventh inning our rookie catcher (Bert Heffernan) ran off the field with me and said, “This is awesome! We are tied 1-1 with the Rocket!” Everyone else in the stands think you are professionals and this is all no big deal to us but that is not always true. I think that is all you can ask for—to really enjoy the moment as it is happening. Of course, I love talking about my playing career. I understand some people want to know what it was like and they really listen to your stories. I don’t think that was the case right after I retired and I didn’t watch a lot of baseball in the late 90s because I probably was a little bitter at that time watching guys I played with having so much success with the Yankees and living here meant I had to hear about it every day. It is a lot easier to watch the game now.

J.P.: We didn’t know each other as kids, though you lived probably ¼ mile away. That said, I remember your rookie year of 1992, picking up the New York Times and seeing the headline: WHO IS DAVE FLEMING? AND WHEN WILL HE LOSE? You went 17-10 that season, and (along with Ken Griffey, Jr.), stood out as the only real bright spot for an awful Mariner team. What stands out to you from that year? What were the absolute highs? And, nearly 20 years later, does it feel like it ever even happened?

D.F.: The biggest thing that stands out was the first time I pitched in Yankee Stadium. It is a strange feeling to step on the mound of a field that you grew up watching all your favorite players. I really savored that moment walking off the mound in the ninth inning with a lead knowing how many people had attended that game from Mahopac. I was so nervous about disappointing everyone with a short stint (which I did later in my career), but that first game was something was extremely special to me. The other game that really sticks with me was shutting out Minnesota at their place, 1-0, after they had won the World Series the year before. I remembering striking out Kirby Puckett to start the ninth and thinking, “Wow! I am really going to do this!” Of course watching Griffey play every day for 162 games was incredible. I don’t know If he truly gets the credit he deserves. He was absolutely the best baseball player in the game and it was only the injuries that kept him from putting up even better numbers that he ended up with.

J.P.: You had a brilliant first season, a solid second season—then it was sort of downhill. We always talk about, in sports, teams and leagues “figuring” players out. Like, the first time around the league a pitcher sneaks up on teams. Then they watch the tape, have the experiences and adjust. Is that what happened to you? Did teams adjust?

D.F.: Well,1994 was definitely a year of the league catching up to me. People began to notice that I pitched inside more than most lefties who threw 85 mph and they started to lay off that pitch instead of jamming themselves. I felt like I was beginning to make some adjustments myself and then we had the strike. After the strike I never felt the same again. I remember people coming up to me and telling me I looked different with my delivery and I didn’t throw as fluidly as I used to do. I had no pain but I never felt comfortable which was frustrating. I’m not sure when or how it happened but it eventually led to me having surgery after 1995 season. The fact that I pitched for the most of the 1995 season in the big leagues is kind of embarrassing to the league because I had absolutely nothing. I would like to publicly apologize to anyone who took a chance on me that year in their fantasy league because I was in no way Major League material.

J.P.: What was your path? I mean, I know where you’re from, obviously. But how did this happen? What steps along the way led you to a Major League career?

D.F.: I was just a 100-percent jock. I was about sports all day, all night. Either playing them or watching them—that was all I did. I mean, I really understood how to pitch. I did not have great stuff but I knew that If I threw a 55-mph curveball at times that there was no way a player could react to it and I probably would frustrate him as well. I felt at times as I was about to release the ball that I could see where the batter’s hole was going to be in his swing. Having said all of this, I knew nothing about machines or tools. My wife today is still amazed about how little I know about things that need to be done around the house. Literally, putting up a picture might take me an entire month to figure out. I’m comfortable admitting these things now because I feel you have to be able to know your strengths and be able to laugh at your shortcomings.

J.P.: We come from a very small town and, back in the day, it was extremely homogeneous. I was wondering if playing professionally was, initially, an eye opener for you. I mean, we may well be from the whitest place on earth, and suddenly you’re in a world of black, Hispanic, Japanese; guys from farms and from the hood and all places in between. Did that have any sort of impact on you?

D.F.: It was one of the more interesting parts about playing baseball. I played on the USA team in 1989 and we traveled to Cuba and Puerto Rico to play against the national teams of Japan, Taiwan, Italy and others. It was always fun to try to communicate with other players and learn from them. We had a lot of downtime in Puerto Rico and had the opportunity to just hang out with players from all over the world and there were a lot of
funny memories.

J.P.: I once asked whether you keep in touch with teammates, and you mentioned Dan Wilson. That’s a pretty common thing—once careers end, it seems very few athletes maintain relationships. Why do you think that is? I mean, you’re with these guys, in close quarters, for long stretches? Why does it die?

D.F.: I do think relationships carry over for some players but it is hard to do for a couple of reasons. The age gap is one factor. I was 21-years old when I got called up and I did not have a lot in common with guys who were in their 30s and had children. There is also a lot of competition for spots on the roster so some of the relationships are not real. How as a veteran do you root for some rookie to come up and play well when you might be trying to hold on to one or two more years in the show? Or, if you are a struggling pitcher who might be on his way being sent down, do you think you are really rooting for all the other pitchers to pitch lights out. Players don’t admit these things while playing because they would look like a bad teammate but the difference in your lifestyle from being a major leaguer to a Triple A player is so big that it would only be human nature for some players to think this way. Granted with teams that have good leadership and players with guaranteed contracts the focus can be more on coming together as a team. Once the season is over a lot of guys go their separate ways to their homes for the off-season or even when they retire they may not live next to guys they played with. I liked a lot of the guys I played with but I have always been close to my friends from back home.

J.P.: You teach fifth grade in Seymour, Connecticut. My daughter is in third grade, and I’m truly burdened by the way kids come up these days. When you and I were growing up in Mahopac, our neck of the woods was an oasis of kids running, jumping, biking. I mean, it was touch football in the backyard, hoops in the driveway, etc. Now every kid
has a DS, and all kids seem to wanna do is use their DS at all hours. As an educator, do you see the ramifications of this? Or am I just an old fart?

D.F.: I think each generation always looks back to how they did things and likes to think it was the way to go. My friends and I reflect back to how we played Wiffle ball or football outside for hours and you very rarely see that these days and to me it is sad. When I hear kids talking in school I do hear students talking about how many hours they play video games. I am amazed at how some kids can’t remember something about math but they can tell you every little secret there is to win a video game. I do see some kids who claim to play video games are not in the best of shape and get tired more easily than the active kid. I also have noticed how some of these students come into school so exhausted because they stay up so late playing these games in their rooms after parents have gone to bed. Technology is here to stay and like everything else parents have to be aware how long kids are playing these games and put limits on them.

J.P.: According to your Wikipedia page, you coach the Southbury Cool Whips in the American Wiffle Ball League. Uh … what?

D.F.: This is what I really like to talk about. This could go one of two ways. I could tell you how we practice four times a week and that my team could even beat the 2011 Little League World Champs. Or I could be the teacher, Jeff, and warn you not to believe everything you read on the computer (especially Wikipedia). I love the game of Wiffle ball and have a neighbor who puts together a Wiffle ball tournament for his son and his high school friends but that is as close as I am associated to Wiffle ball. I believe that Wikipedia page also mentions a few other pieces of incorrect information … like owning a dog or two.


• Someone’s visiting Mahopac for a week. Give them five things they have to
do: Get a Rodak’s Sub or fried chicken (Christopher’s now); Go to Gino’s—Chicken Francais; take a drive around Lake Mahopac; Check out the new Mahopac Public Library (Admittedly, I’m reaching here—I’ve never actually been inside, but it looks nice); Go watch a CYO basketball game at St. Johns’—I loved that old gym.

• Rank in preferred order—Greg Briley, Erik Estrada, Celine Dion, blueberry muffins, your cell phone, Emmanuel Lewis, Rodak’s Deli, Easter: Rodak’s Deli, Easter, Pee Wee Briley (good teammate), blueberry muffins, cell phone, Emmanuel Lewis (Webster, right?), Erik Estrada, Celine Dion.

• The world wants to know—what was it like playing alongside Juan Agosto?: “Johnny August,” as he was known to some, was a good teammate as well. I was always amazed how he got guys out.

• Five best stadiums you ever played in: 1. Yankee Stadium; 2. Fenway Park; 3. Camden Yards; 4. Mississippi State (great college atmosphere); 5. Old Cleveland Municipal Stadium (For some reason, I loved playing on a football field).

• Would you rather have to eat your own foot or watch 400 straight hours of the 1993 Seattle Mariners highlight video?: Hey, 1993 was not so bad. We got Lou Piniella as our manager and the climate changed and we won more games than the previous year. I’m notot flexible enough to get to my foot so it’s not really a fair choice.

• Ever think you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: After my surgery in 1996, I flew home with my wife the night of the surgery and we had stop in Chicago because of the weather. I think because of the pain medication I vomited for about an hour and probably used every bag in the plane. I don’t know If I though I was going to die because of the turbulence and possibly a crash or because I thought I was going to throw up an organ.

• We give you nine innings right now in a major league game, what’s your line: Give me Omar at short and Griffey in center and I think I give you a solid first inning. After that I would expect a lot of big numbers. Just make it a National League game so I can get a few at bats—2 for 4, 2 RBIs, and a solo shot to right center. I always wanted to be a hitter more than a pitcher.

• Did you ever consider taking steroids or HGH?: I wouldn’t even know where to get them. I don’t like taking anything. As you read earlier I could not even handle pain meds.

• I wrote a book about the ’86 Mets, and Kevin Mitchell once cut off a cat’s head. You were teammates with Kevin. Was he truly crazy? And did you ever see him with any kittens?: Mitchell kind of scared me a little. Again, I was only 22-years old at the time. He left me alone but he did pick on one of our other pitchers. I don’t think we said more than “What’s up?” during the entire year. Kind of goes back to why players don’t keep friendships question. I don’t think “Mitch” would even know who I was.

• Worst movie you’ve ever seen: Cabin Fever—If someone can explain why the boy jumps off the country store porch and screams “Pancakes!” let me know.