It’s one of her lovely traits. Whenever one runs into the Southern California-based author, she seems to be smiling. At book signings. At events for her husband, Rep. Harley Rouda. At the grocery store. At the donut shop. Good times and bad, Kaira just oozes a certain optimism that makes a person think, “Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be OK.”
Which is funny, because her books are, ahem, seriously warped. Kaira’s latest release, “The Favorite Daughter,” is a psychological thriller that delves into … well, let this Kirkus review explain …
JEFF PEARLMAN.:So Kaira, I attended your book event yesterday—small shop, about 15 of us, cookies. And I wonder, as a fellow author: How do you feel about these types of events? They scare the shit out of me, but you seemed relaxed, happy. Am I doing this wrong?
KAIRA ROUDA: I started doing book events when my nonfiction book, “Real You Incorporated: 8 Essentials for Women Entrepreneurs” came out back in 2009. So, it’s been 10 years of this. Back then, I was stunned. I figured I’d written all I had to say in the book, so that would be enough. I learned quickly that books sell when the author is actively pushing them. There is no place to be passive: but the fact is, most of us writers are shy at heart. I hired a speech coach back then, and I’ve tried to take those lessons with me ever since. It’s easier now, but still takes something out of me for sure. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a fabulous indie bookstore with 15 book lovers or a big swanky event at a private home—when I get to talk about my book, about writing, about doing what I love to do, it’s a great evening. We should be scared as shit—and feel blessed. My take at least!
J.P.: When you were discussing your new book, “The Favorite Daughter,” you spoke of the characters almost as if they’re real people. And I’m curious—do they sort of become real to you? Not in the cliché fiction way. Do you, at times, think of them as actual people? Does it become that deep?
K.R.: You know, they do become almost real, at least during the initial writing stage. They are very much alive, in my head. Does that sound strange? I’ll be at a party, or on a hike, and Jane would start speaking to me, anxious for me to get back to her story. OK, yes, that does sound odd. But it’s true. By the time you’re holding my finished book in your hands, in this case “The Favorite Daughter,” I’m likely living with some new characters in a draft. That said the best part of talking about the characters in my current novel—Jane, David, Betsy and the rest—is that I always discover a new perspective on them. It’s like readers see my characters from another angle, and that’s great fun.
J.P.: I’m in the middle of writing a book as we speak, and I’m fucking tortured. Beaten, battered, exhausted, filled with doubt. I’ve never written fiction, so I’m curious if that happens to you, too. And, if so, how do you work through?
K.R.: Congratulations! I think we all face that phase … especially in the middle of the book. You just keep going. Oh, and here’s another thing: If it’s not happening for you on that day, just stop. I’m not in the camp of forcing yourself to write when it’s not happening. I think our muses deserve loving kindness, not abuse. So be kind to yourself. There is so much that’s great about writing a novel, jumping into a world you’ve created. It will all be worth it when you type The End. Promise.
K.R.: I’ve been blessed to meet a really great, bipartisan group of spouses, men and women, who support each other as we support our congressional members. The thing is, the news doesn’t cover the bills that pass with bipartisan support, the wonderful work that is done every day. It’s not newsworthy in this environment we’ve created. But it is so much better than you think. Promise. And I cannot believe how hard these people work. I’ve been a business owner, an entrepreneur, raised four kids. This pace, the DC pace, is grueling. On a positive note: my new friends in DC hosted a book launch party for “The Favorite Daughter,” and we sold out of books! The Washington Post covered it. Very surreal. But also, points to the positive culture you can find in DC!
J.P.: Along those lines—has being a political spouse changed you? The way people approach you? What I mean is, yesterday Harley was at your event for eight seconds before a woman asked his presidential preference. Are people asking you those questions now? And does it annoy you? Are you OK with it?
K.R.: I do get a lot of questions that begin with: “What does Harley think of _______?” I tell people to ask Harley. I don’t want to speak for him, much like he doesn’t want to answer questions about my spooky domestic suspense novels. Politics is his world, prose is mine. We do try to be there for each other, as much as possible. It’s been a busy few weeks with both my book tour and his crazy schedule. But we’re trying to make it work. As for the questions, do they annoy me? No, not at all. It comes with the territory. I take it as a sign that people care. We all need to care more right now.
J.P.:You described yourself as a reformed romance novelist who “couldn’t write sex scenes.” I’m fascinated by that. Was it hard to make them authentic? Was it just embarrassing? Did you picture your kids reading it? Why so hard?
K.R.: I started out my fiction writing career in women’s fiction, and that’s still where I am today. My first novels, “Here,” “Home,” “Hope,” “In The Mirror,” “All the Difference” and “The Goodbye Year” all deal with what’s happening beneath the surface of seemingly perfect lives. Suburban setting, some dark topics uncovered.
I did have a two-year stint writing romance because one of my women’s fiction author friends and fellow Southern Californian, Jane Porter, launched her own publishing house and asked me to write for her. I had a blast learning romance formulas (I’d never written to a formula before and didn’t even know tropes were a thing) but what I didn’t enjoy was the sex part. Romance has tons of different “heat” levels, too, so it’s not as if you must have sex. I loved getting to know everyone in that fiction arena, and loved working with Jane and her new publishing company, but as you may notice, I like writing a bit darker, a bit creepy. And that’s not romance. That’s domestic suspense. I’m feeling right at home in the crime writing community.
J.P.:What’s your book-writing process? “The Favorite Daughter,” for example. Idea comes in your head—then what? How much research is involved? When are you writing? Where?
K.R.: I’m what’s called a pantser. An idea pops into my head, usually a character and a title, and I start writing. If there is research involved it comes as I need it. Like, for example, in “The Favorite Daughter,” Jane’s obsession with tragic death took some searching. My browser history can be a bit terrifying.
Parading alongside Harley on Balboa Island
J.P.:You said suburbia is your preferred setting. Why? A lot of people view suburbia as America’s central spot for boredom. What do you see others don’t?
K.R.: There’s so much happening in the suburbs, and it’s just beneath the surface. I am a product of the suburbs and I love setting my stories here.
J.P.:Greatest book promotional moment of your writing career? Worst?
K.R.: Walking into the Javits Center in New York for BEA and seeing a three-story tall banner of my book, “Best Day Ever.” It was a dream come true. Worst: almost 20 years ago now when my agent had found the perfect home for my novel, “In the Mirror.” The acquiring editor, a very famous woman in the publishing space, died suddenly in the back seat of a cab, with my unsigned contract in her briefcase. It was a far worse day for her of course, but the manuscript became tainted and we never sold it.
J.P.: This is sorta wide-ranging, but lately I’ve been more gloomy and dispirited than ever. Trump. Climate change. Books not selling (as an industry) as much. On and on. And you seem genuinely … I dunno — chipper and optimistic. What am I doing wrong?
K.R.: You gotta look for the positive in life, my friend. They far outweigh the negative. We’re blessed to be here!
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KAIRA ROUDA:
• Rank in order—favorite to least (Leah Chase, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Los Lobos, Newport Beach, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, meditation, Anthony Joseph, Ma$e, Ed Ott): Meditation
• How did you meet your husband?: At an event I was covering as a cub reporter in Columbus, Ohio. His law firm was the sponsor.
• One question you would ask Cameron Diaz were she here right now?: Would you like to play Jane Harris in a TV series?
• Three words you overuse in writing?: I don’t know. I try really hard not to use really. But there it is. Twice. Really annoying.
• Five reasons one should make his/her next vacation destination Southern California: Sunshine, perfect temperature, natural beauty, the ocean, and Laguna Beach
• Tell us a joke: Nope. I’m terrible at them. Although, I do have a somewhat terrifying dark humor it turns out.
• What’s the worst smell in the world?: Fresh cut grass. I’m so allergic.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I was in an armed robbery once. Time slowed to a crawl. It was crazy. As for a plane crash, a couple times, but I was with my kids so I focused on faking it.
• I don’t love the Miami Marlins new uniforms. Your thoughts?: I have no clue. I’m not really a big sports person, although I do like college football.
• The spelling of your first and last names is pretty much begging people for manglings of pronunciation and spelling. What are the most common? Worst?: Cairo. Keeera KeeAIRah. I’ve heard just about everything. As for Rouda: Rowda, Rhoda, you name it. When I add in my maiden name, Sturdivant, game over. Kaira—like air in the middle. Rouda—like Gouda. That’s all I’ve got for you!
Five years ago, when we moved from New York to California, there were things I knew I’d miss. Bagels, for example. Pizza with a bit of grease dripping from the tip. Aggressive jaywalking. People flashing the middle finger for mild reasons.
I’d miss the smells of Central Park. I’d miss the kindness of neighbors. I’d miss booing Jets fans, the dog up the street, basketball games at the nearby creaky gym. I’d miss my dad, my mom, my friends.
What I didn’t see coming was the missing of Sweeny Murti.
I know—that sounds weird. But throughout much of my time in the Big Apple, Murti, WFAN’s New York Yankees beat reporter, served as one of the soothing soundtrack elements of my days. Now, I’m actually not a huge sports radio guy. In doses, fine. But the blah-blah-blah-blah-Machado-blah-blah-blah-Flacco-blah-blah-blah-he-blah-sucks-blah-he-blah-should-blah-be-traded-blah Skip-and-Stephen A.-esque bombast that passes for nuanced dialogue fails to interest me much. Murti, though, has always been about substance, information, intellect, detail. I actually first knew of his work when I was covering the Majors for Sports Illustrated, and he stood out as others blended together.
Another thing that fascinated me: His background. Sweeny was raised by first-generation Indian immigrants, which (I thought) made him stand out in a field that tends to lean, well, white. So I asked him about that—as well as his love of baseball, his approach to game coverage, his biggest screw-up and whether Bronson Sardinha changed his life.
JEFF PEARLMAN.:So you started as WFAN’s Yankees beat reporter in 2001, when guys like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were in their primes. You were 30, young and up-and-coming and all that. The Yankees were rolling. On and on. Dream job, awesome, amazing. But here’s what fascinates me—how have you maintained your enthusiasm, zest for the job and, really, for the sport? I faded long ago, just beaten down by baseball, the schedule. You’re still rolling along at a high level. How?
SWEENY MURTI: Well the first reason is probably the easiest answer—no one has offered me a better job yet. I’m not independently wealthy, so if I want to keep paying bills and such this is my job. And it is a pretty great one. There are times we all get bogged down in certain aspects of it, but I still get to go to a baseball game every day, and not just any baseball game. I watch the Yankees, and talk to and about the Yankees. I didn’t grow up a Yankees fan, but I grew up a baseball fan, loved the history, and even put poster of Mickey Mantle on my wall when I was a kid.
There are a lot of games in the season, but once in a while you get to be at the game that everyone is talking about or wants to be at, either by anticipating the matchup or by what happens as the game rolls on. I can’t beat that yet. If you can, I’m listening.
But then, we are vastly different. You write, write a lot, and are very good at it. You write about different things too. I talk about baseball. I don’t think it’s heavy lifting, it’s just what I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do. Part of me doesn’t want to stop doing it just for the sake of it. If I do something else, it better be because I just don’t want to watch and talk about the Yankees anymore. I haven’t come to that point yet.
The schedule is a grind and became more of one when I got married in 2010 and started a family. But my wife and kids (ages 7 and 5) are amazing. They are able to move along without me for days or weeks during the season, and I absolutely miss them when I’m sitting in a 12-6 game that lasts almost 4 hours because no one can throw strikes. Or when I’m sitting through a rain delay that turns into a rainout instead of having dinner with my family and putting my kids to bed. Or when they are having fun at July 4th cookouts or going swimming and I can’t take the day off because its a big Yankees-Red Sox series.
When fans get down on media complaining about the length of games, this is an important detail to think about. It’s not that we hate being at the games, but we have come to do our jobs and now we want to go home to live our lives.
But we get some benefits out of the schedule too—I get to take my kids to school, make dinner and do things with them pretty much without question from October to February. Most 9 to 5 dads can’t pull that off. And I have a cool job that they can begin to invest in and have fun with. They’ve been to spring training, they’ve been to Yankee Stadium, they’ve been to fancy hotels in Boston and Baltimore. And how many dads bring home bobbleheads from work?
Maybe I would have pulled myself out of this job if it hadn’t become part of our lives. But my wife is a Yankees fan, became one before I ever met her and our kids are growing up Yankees fans and it’s fun to share with them. They get to see me on TV sometimes or hear me on the radio and it brings them into that world a little bit at a time. If I worked at a bank I’d probably be home for dinner every night and coach little league, but they wouldn’t have the other experiences either.
And I certainly appreciate that WFAN has kept me in this job for so long. This is my 27th year at the station and my 19th season in this role. I’ve been covering the Yankees for WFAN longer than I’ve done anything else in my life. I am a radio guy and I began working at the biggest radio station in the country when I was 22 years old. Was I supposed to go higher than this? Where on earth would that be? We are still one of the biggest and most recognizable set of call letters in the country. I’ve long been appreciative of being a small cog in a very successful machine. If WFAN was the Yankees of the 1990’s, then I know who the Jeters and Riveras are at my station and I’m proud to be their Luis Sojo. Looie isn’t going to the Hall of Fame, but who doesn’t love Looie?
J.P.:What are you doing during games? It’s May or June. Yankees-Royals. Sorta dull 4-1. Seventh inning. What are you up to?
S.M.: The thing about covering games, as you know but others may not, is that unless you are actually broadcasting the game then the work part happens before the game and after the game. During the game we are spectators.
For me that means setting up my scorecard and keeping score. I still have scorebooks dating back to 2001, although there is little use for them since we can look up anything on line now. But keeping the book for the season is good daily reference for me.
I also keep a yellow notepad to take notes as well as keep track of the scores from around the league. I host the radio postgame show on the Yankees broadcasts and that includes a scoreboard segment. I like to keep my own scores and notes rather than be handed something put together by a producer. I keep my iPad setup, my phone plugged in, and settle in.
I watch the game and I catch up on some reading, some work-related and some not. This is the time I can read for research purposes, whether its for something I’m writing or for a podcast. Also there are so many people writing such great work whether it’s about the Yankees or other things in baseball or sports that interests me. It’s hard to get to it all during the day. The start of the game is usually the first chance to sit down and have some time to dive into it.
Emails and texts, again some work-related and some not. Twitter, a big thing during the game. It’s a never-ending conversation, some good and some bad. Many things informative though, about the game I’m watching and other games going on, major league games and Yankees minor league games. Constantly looking for the notes and nuggets that I will use later on.
I do like to watch the game, and I get to do that while focusing in on certain things that interest me. I like to watch the fielders at times, other things as well. And the replays on the press box TV are always good to get another look at something I just saw or something I missed.
A lot of times I do the highlight show right from my scorecard, but there are also times I like to write a script to make it sound smoother so around the 7th inning as you say is probably around the time I start cobbling that together.
That’s also about the time I get a final cup of coffee. Enough to make sure I’m awake and ready to rock when the game ends, and enough to keep me awake on the drive home after, but not so much that I’m still wide awake at 3am.
In the Derek Jeter spring training scrum, circa 2003
J.P.:You started at WFAN when the Internet was arriving and fighting to establish itself. Now it’s obviously everything, everywhere, omnipotent and ubiquitous. How has that impacted your job? Radio in general?
S.M.: It’s funny when I was a producer at WFAN from 1993-97 we didn’t have even primitive internet access in our newsroom. We burned up some long distance phone bills though calling all over the country and sometimes the world to track down information.
Even in 2001 when I started the Yankees coverage I was feeding all my audio over analog phone lines in real time as opposed to emailing files like I do now. That’s a huge time saver right there. I didn’t even bring a computer with me on the road that first year. I was content visiting the hotel business centers a couple times a week and catching up on emails, almost nothing of any urgent nature. Now its impossible to think of even putting my phone down for a few minutes without fear of missing something.
When I first started WFAN was still the only real place to get the news out instantly. The newspaper coverage, while ramping up internet access, was still not competing on that level of immediacy for the most part.
The real game-changers were the iPhone and Twitter. They made something as simple as the day’s lineup a newsworthy and interactive thing. It leveled the field for breaking news. And it also led to the thing that cripples me and I think many other reporters—you can never be truly up to date or caught up.
A run through various outlets in the morning used to keep you pretty well informed. Now it’s a constant flow which keeps you scrolling along all hours of the day. Around the trade deadline it’s flat out exhausting. And its a reminder of how many other really good reporters are out there competing for scoops alongside you.
The crippling part of it I mentioned is the fear that I am left behind on a story that maybe my listeners and followers are looking to me for some added info or context, no matter who actually breaks the story. And maybe I’ve got nothing for an hour or more because I was driving or out with my family or whatever.
The worst example of this for me is a day in July 2014. I was putting my son who was less than a year old down for a nap before I left for the ballpark. I spent about 15 or 20 minutes with him and when I came out of his room and picked up my phone I had several missed calls and texts. The Yankees had just traded for Chase Headley while I was reading Night-Night Little Pookie, and I was now quite literally the last to know about a news story involving the Yankees.
In the moment it kind of sucks. I missed a story, and all the stories involving Yankees moves are important because that’s what I cover. It still bothers me as you can tell, but I know that in the post-Twitter world of instant information that this is the price I must pay to have a life. Nobody died, nobody got fired—most importantly me, of course. And I’m not even sure my bosses noticed to be honest.
In the end it’s up to me to realize that doing a dad thing at that moment is far more important than being the first to report a story like that. And by that I mean a story that seems ultra important because its the story that just happened and because it just happened and we are all on Twitter its now a huge story and it’s trending. But there’s another story coming in an hour or two or that night or the next day, and it’s fine. I find out what I can find out when I can, and then I go on the radio and do my job. And if I’m a little behind on the Twitter discourse, we’ll all live.
J.P.:So here’s something that fascinates me: Your dad Vedula came to America from India in 1961. Baseball can be a v-e-r-y conservative world, sport. Lotta sheltered people. Lotta ignorance. And I wonder if your ethnicity has ever come into play? Around 9.11—dumb comments? Clubhouse morons?
My first season covering the Yankees was 2001, and things obviously changed after 9/11. I had become friendly with David Justice, who was a lot of fun to talk to before games—about many subjects, not just baseball. Just fooling around one day in June or July as some political topic entered the discussion, DJ put his arm around me and said to my other reporter friends, “You know who this is, right? This is Bin Laden.” I remember he pronounced it “bin-Lay-den,” a reminder now that Osama wasn’t a household name just yet.
The Yankees first game after 9/11 was in Chicago and I remember going up to DJ after the game—it was a quiet clubhouse I remember—and leaning over and saying something like, “Hey maybe we should cool it on the Bin Laden thing, ya know?”
Justice looked up at me and said, “Hey bro, the day you’re gonna bring in your bomb, just tell your boy and I won’t come into work that day!”
I laughed. We laughed. I was friendly enough with DJ that I didn’t think it was a big deal. We laughed like friends do at things that are sometimes way too inappropriate. It was literally locker room humor. And I’ve told the story to friends over the years, so I can’t go back and pretend I was offended, then or now.
I also laughed with my friends at the “random” security checks that followed me throughout that postseason when I had to take eight cross country flights as the Yankees played Oakland and Seattle in the playoffs and Arizona in the World Series. I have dark hair, dark skin, and am carrying a bag full of electronic equipment. Not a great combination.
I took most of it very easily, and still do. It’s not that big a deal in clubhouses really. I don’t speak with an accent, so no one really ever gets into where I’m from unless they really want to get to know me. And in baseball clubhouses that’s not too often. However, it does help my ability to be recognized or remembered in a sea of media faces that are still mostly white males.
I will tell you a more humorous tale, though. One day when I was doing a hit on MLB Network I got a text from a friend who was watching it in the Phillies clubhouse. He told me Jonathan Papelbon—who I knew from all his years with Boston—looked up at the TV and said, “Dude, go easy on the bronzer!” Apparently all those years Pap thought I was just some dude from Jersey Shore.
Requesting an autograph from Don Larsen
J.P.:So I found a clip from the Aug. 19, 2004 Montclair Times where you’re referred to as a “celebrity” who will be playing in a Yogi Berra Museum-sponsored softball game. And I’m being serious when I ask this: Are you one? You’ve been doing this a long time now, you certainly have name recognition. Are you famous? Do you want to be?
S.M.: That game got rained out and we never got to play it. Larry Berra—Yogi’s oldest son—was the one who arranged it. He was really looking forward to kicking my ass with his national championship men’s softball team.
I am recognizable I guess. I’m on the radio and on TV, and when people recognize me it’s pretty cool. I mean, the reason we do what we do is we want people to see our work, hear work, read our work. The fact that they recognize me means that they’ve seen or heard some of it.
I do have to remember though that my “fame” has a pretty narrow scope to it. And here’s a story that always reminds me just that.
I chatted up Fischer and Meyer during BP, exchanged business cards, and about two or three weeks later Meyer called me and asked if I could get to Toronto that week to be in a scene in the movie. Unfortunately the Yankees had advanced to the ALCS against the Red Sox and I was going to be covering the series, so I couldn’t make it.
Which scene you ask? The one where Jimmy Fallon and his buddies are dividing up the season tickets and Jimmy makes them all dance to show themselves worthy of the Yankees tickets. There is an Indian fella in the back. He’s the one who brought the cold cuts.
So if my head ever begins to swell and I think of pulling a “Do you know who I am?” kind of thing, this is the reminder of where I fall in the media/celebrity landscape: Peter Gammons is in the movie and plays Peter Gammons. Steve Levy is in the movie and plays Steve Levy. If I was in the movie I would have played the Indian guy who brought the cold cuts.
J.P.:I know you were a huge baseball kid—tons of cards, loyal Phillies fan. Where does that come from? Why baseball? What about the game did it for you/does it for you?
S.M.: My dad was attracted to baseball right away when he arrived here in the fall of 1961. One of his economics professors at Penn started talking about the Yankees-Reds World Series and he really had no idea what it was about, but thought he needed to figure it out soon. And from there he went to Phillies games at Connie Mack Stadium, listened to games on the radio. My mom emigrated here a year later and she picked up the game too. They both remember seeing Jim Bunning appear in a suit and tie on The Ed Sullivan Show just hours after throwing a perfect game against the Mets at Shea Stadium on Father’s Day in 1964. They recall the misery of the Phillies losing the huge lead in September of that year as well.
They had moved to the Harrisburg area by the time I was born in 1970 and Phillies baseball was part of our daily lives—on the radio, on TV, and once a year a special trip two-hour to the Vet for a game. And the Phillies actually became a powerhouse by the time I was of a baseball crazy age in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
After I started announcing high school football and basketball in eighth and ninth grades my career path became clear to me—I wanted to be the next Harry Kalas. It didn’t really work out to that degree, but sports radio became a genre in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I was beginning my career. I wasn’t focused on any one sport until the Yankees beat opened up for us at WFAN after the 2000 season (Suzyn Waldman was moving to a talk show, then eventually to the YES Network). I told my boss Mark Chernoff I was interested, and after seven years at the station they all knew baseball was my favorite and I got the job. And almost two decades later here we are.
I long ago—in 2001 actually—lost any Phillies fandom. My job was to know Yankees baseball so that’s where my energy went. And it’s not like I could even watch Phillies games anymore. This wasn’t like trying to watch one NFL team on Sunday Ticket. And once you stop being able to watch the games it’s not long before you aren’t as emotionally invested. I still dig the uniforms though. It’s pretty cool seeing all those red pinstripes up close in spring training or interleague. But the players I rooted for are long gone. I get a bigger kick out of seeing or talking about Phillies from the 70s and 80s than I do any of the recent teams. And wouldn’t you know, the manager of the Yankees has some fond memories of those days too since his dad was the catcher on those teams I grew up watching.
But the game is the thing. I love watching the game. It’s just always been there with me. I loved reading about the history when I was a kid, collecting cards like you talked about. It was certainly a way to feel “normal” when I was growing up as the only Indian kid in my neighborhood and my school.
It’s still something to talk about with my dad, who follows along with the Yankees just as much as he does the Phillies these days. In truth, he has read the New York Times nearly every day since 1961 so he was reading about the Yankees long before I started following them around.
One big thing I realized when I started covering the game is how little I really knew about it. All I really knew was the history, the stats, and all the superficial stuff. I really didn’t get to know the game until I got to see on a daily basis what it was like for the guys to succeed at the highest level. I guess that’s what made walking into that 2001 Yankees clubhouse so valuable—championship players and Hall of Fame players, plus as a job requirement you talk to the manager twice a day every day and that was Joe Torre. The lessons came at me fast and furious and it was pretty cool.
There’s still so much about watching and following the game that connects me to my childhood and my earliest dreams of a career. I don’t know how many jobs have that attached to them.
Sweeny, front, with older brother Vedula.
J.P.:So your WFAN ties date back to 1991, when—while studying at Penn State-you landed a summer internship at the station. What do you remember about the experience? Were there specific people who made an impact? What did you learn?
S.M.: I remember so much about the experience it’s hard to know where to begin. I was hired for the internship by Eric Spitz and Len Weiner, the executive producers who ran the newsroom operation at our bunker in Astoria. Eric has remained a close friend and consigliere to this day.
I worked closely with producers who sought out news and information in the pre-internet age and made getting news on the air exciting. Bob Gelb, Brian Walsh, Bill Rodman, Eddie Scozzare, Lisa Johnson. Also Todd Fritz, who now produces Dan Patrick, and a soon to ditch producing for play-by-play guy named Ian Eagle.
Update anchors John Minko, John Cloughessy the late great Stan Martin, Steve Levy, Andy Pollin, John Stashower. I watched how the pros put together and delivered their sportscasts, which seemed so much more important then because that was how the news was delivered—people heard us give the news and scores first and then read about it the next day.
I worked an overnight shift with Steve Somers and a midday shift with Ed Coleman and Dave Sims, running them copy or looking up stats in media guides. I took in tape feeds from Suzyn Waldman at Yankees games, the same stuff I would be doing myself ten years later.
To be honest, I went after that internship with little knowledge of the radio station. I was from Pennsylvania, not New York, and all I knew was what I had read in the Broadcasting Magazine yearbook—that they carried Mets games and had an all-sports format. Good enough for me.
Even after I interviewed and got my internship I knew very little about the place. I had never heard of Imus or Mike & The Mad Dog. Imus yelled at me my second day because I was standing in the wrong place. And one of my first days there I saw Mike & Dog walk out of the studio during a break and realized that Mike was Mike Francesa who I used to watch during college basketball games on CBS. Until that moment, not a clue.
Chris treated me great from the beginning, even invited me to a taping of his old SportsChannel TV show called “Mad Dog Live” and introduced me to Branford Marsalis.
I remember being a little bored in the beginning. I had a lot of experience with newsroom type activities during high school and college. But as soon as they took the training wheels off and let me start digging into some stuff it was all that I could have hoped for.
I worked on shows and was helping to track down athletes and coaches and other professionals from all over the world—I remember working for hours to find the right phone numbers for Bud Collins at Wimbledon and Marv Levy somewhere in Europe too. Gary Carter was with either the Giants or Dodgers I think and was super nice. No cell phones or email. You would call people, who knew people, who knew where someone was staying.
The more I got to know the workings of the station the more I liked the idea of being in that environment. I was from a small town in Pennsylvania and I knew something about radio but not to that scale. When a producer’s job opened up there in early 1993 I temporarily shut down my on-air aspirations so I could just come back and work in that atmosphere.
The studio back then was in the Kaufman-Astoria studios, where The Cosby Show taped and several movies were filmed. The second you walked in the place smelled like tobacco from pipe that Walter Mason, one of the engineers, used to smoke back in the wire room. It was kind of a dump by many standards, but I always looked at it as our dump.
There was a pop-a-shot machine next to the soda and vending machines up in the little break room—because of course that’s what you would have to have at a sports radio station. I remember going up there and shooting a few rounds with Ian Eagle, who was only a year or two older than me but so much more advanced and aware. We would chat about school, about how the work was going. And then Steve Somers came in to sit down with a cup of coffee, some cigarettes, and his yellow legal pads to “write my ad libs.”
I remember accidentally hanging up on Ernie Harwell as he waited on hold for a segment with Howie Rose on the Mets pregame show. He called back, thank God. And I may have been the one who flushed an obviously clogged toilet (someone else did that part, I swear) and caused a leak in the newsroom one Saturday.
So what do I remember from my internship? Very little.
What did I learn? That I could work there. And that I wanted to work there.
J.P.:Suzyn Waldman is something of a New York media legend. Or, if legend is too strong for some—staple. You took over for her after the 2000 season. What was that like? Did it come with pressures? Did you turn to her a lot? Was there a temptation to sorta mimic what she had done?
S.M.: Legend isn’t far off, you know. Suzyn’s pioneering efforts will get her the Ford Frick Award in Cooperstown one day.
It was a lot of pressure as far as I was concerned. The good news for me was that she still worked at our station so I could still use her as a resource. I talked to her quite a bit I remember leading up to spring training and then the first week or two of camp. A little less so after I got the lay of the land. I think more of that was just me wanting to find my own way and not constantly leaning on her, although I knew I could reach out to her when things got a little hairy. I remember when July trade rumors were happening, talking to her a lot around that time.
I remember making a conscious effort to not be overly aggressive in getting to know the star players. I told them all that I was taking over for Suzyn, sort of as an ice breaker. But I had the long game in mind. I knew I wasn’t going to become Derek Jeter’s or Paul O’Neill’s best buddy overnight. I just needed to show up every day and do my job and let my work and work habits establish my reputation. I’m sure you can appreciate better than most how important a reputation can be when working a clubhouse.
I do remember having an icy relationship with one member of that team, but after a month or two I stopped worrying about it because I thought to myself that I would be there longer than he would. Maybe not the best attitude, but I was right.
The real trick for me was establishing my credibility on the radio. Yankee fans stopped what they were doing and listened to a Suzyn Waldman report on our station. I needed to become a reliable voice on our station before that was going to happen with me, and Mike & The Mad Dog had a lot to do with that. They put me on the air and even when I probably wasn’t telling them a lot they didn’t know early on, they still knew it was important for me to get established in the role so they kept putting me on. I got better at what I was doing because I had to really be prepared when I went on with them, know when to verbally battle back to support my opinions and information.
The other shows on the station put me on because that’s what they were supposed to do. Mike and Chris put me on because they believed I had something to offer on their show, and the more I was on the better I was. I would get a lot of reaction from listeners anytime we started yelling each other and I held my own in the argument. I chose my battles, because as much as it made some good radio, it’s just not ideal to get into shouting matches all the time.
Mike is a Yankees fan and he used to get on me in a playful way about the winning. The Yankees had won three-straight World Series and four out of five as Suzyn left the beat. After a while it became a running joke on the air about how I wasn’t doing my part. After about five or six years I even had a few listeners wonder why I still had a job since the Yankees hadn’t won a World Series in my time on the beat. I actually think they were serious too!
After the Yankees finally won in 2009 (still the only time they’ve won it all during my time on the beat) I broke out the line, “I like to think I’m the Bill Cowher to Suzyn’s Chuck Noll.”
And I’m proud to note that during the 32 years WFAN has been on the air we have employed only two Yankees reporters—Suzyn and me. I can only hope that whoever ends up being number three will one day think he/she has big shoes to fill.
J.P.: I recently read a poll where the average MLB fan in the United States is 53. That’s not a good sign for the sport. How do you feel about it? Are there things the Majors can do to appeal to younger people? Is it a lost cause?
S.M.: I would never say it’s a lost cause. Without looking it up myself, I’d be curious to see the context of that number. How does it compare to ten years ago, twenty years ago, to other sports now vs. ten years ago, twenty years ago.
Now that my kids are participating at the beginner levels, I find myself wondering what’s appealing to them. Mostly it’s the interaction with their friends and being outside and all that. Just watching practices though I can see how hard it is to entertain the really young kids. There’s a lot of standing around and a lot of time between balls that actually get to be fielded. Come to think of it, that’s a lot of the problem with watching major league baseball too, isn’t it?
I don’t know what the solution is to putting more balls in play and improving the amount of action. I had one coach suggest to me that they deaden the ball as opposed to juicing it—the balls that get hit will be harder to leave the park. But then I wonder if the added weight or mass or whatever physical changes made to the ball would lead to even more injuries. No clue what the trickle down of that is.
I’ve always thought enforcing the rule book strike zone of letters to knees was a way to get more action. It would increase the number of strikes thrown and thus get batters to swing more often. At least I think that’s my intended consequence. Maybe there is some Homer Simpson evil turkey sandwich curse I’m overlooking.
The game is still built around stars. Watching those stars do their thing is what sells the game, but it’s not always that easy. During a 4-game Yankees-Angels series last month Mike Trout was 2 for 12 with a bunch of walks. He made a really nice play in the 7th inning of the third game, which on the east coast was long after midnight and that was about the only highlight reel kind of play in that series. The NBA equivalent of that would be like buying a ticket to see Steph Curry and watch him score 4 points on a a couple layups.
I think playoff and World Series games that end earlier would be a great thing. Even I have a hard time staying up for some of these games now when I have to be up at 6 or 7am like normal people to get the kids ready for school.
The “Let The Kids Play” thing and watching them show style and emotion is fine, but it becomes a problem when the other pitcher can’t handle it and fires a 100 mile per hour retort. Styling leads to fighting which leads to suspensions. There has to be a better way.
Another thing is how much we—meaning adults—complain about the game. Baseball is different than the way it was, that doesn’t mean it’s better or worse. It just means it’s different. The other sports are different too, but they seem to be okay with it. Maybe if that average 53 year old fan didn’t keep wishing for Sunday doubleheaders and no pitch counts again we could appreciate some of the great play and players we see every day. It’s ridiculous not to think that Max Scherzer or Mookie Betts aren’t every bit as good as players from back when.
There isn’t any perfect solution here.
I think I read somewhere once that every fan basically wants baseball to be like it was when they were 10 years old, no matter what age you are now. So if you’re 30 that means you want the Derek Jeter Yankees in their prime. If you’re 60 you love the ’69 Mets. And everything you watch is measured against that ideal. So maybe we should poll a bunch of 10 year olds to find out what they really like about baseball and work off that?
J.P.:What’s the biggest blunder you’ve made in your career? And how did you approach the aftermath?
S.M.: Well that newsroom flood in 1991 I only just confessed to a few questions ago is probably a hint about I handle such things.
It’s hard to come up with just one. I feel like every time someone breaks a Yankees story it’s another time I screwed up. I can rationalize it a lot and sooner or later realize that I still have something to say or contribute about whatever story happened, a trade or an injury or what have you.
My first spring training in 2001 I didn’t realize the all-out Steinbrenner watch was on those first days of spring for his state of the union. I think I was standing on a back field or filing soon to be irrelevant reports from the press box when every other reporter was huddled around George outside the press dining room or something like that. Rookie mistake, live and learn.
One that still bugs me is how I didn’t react the day Joe Torre was fired. He had flown to Tampa for a meeting with The Boss a day or two after the 2007 season ended. While we were waiting to hear what was coming out of that meeting, a report surfaced—probably around 2:15pm—that the Yankees and Torre had agreed to a new contract. The Yankees called a conference call at 3:00pm, and we all assumed it was to discuss the new contract.
I called someone in Tampa just after the time of that first report, 2:30-ish lets say. I was told that Torre had already left the building there and was on his way to the airport. Something didn’t sound right to me. Why was he getting on a plane if there was a conference call coming up? Shouldn’t he be on that call to discuss his new contract?
On our station Mike Francesa was on the air and producers had handed him the report that said Torre was coming back. We went on the air and cited that report. Meanwhile, I was getting radio silence from my sources, other than that one person who told me Torre was no longer at the Tampa offices.
What I should have done is call the station and tell them to back off that report that said Torre was back because something was fishy to me. But another credible outlet had a report and I didn’t have enough to shoot it down. I just had hunch that something didn’t add up right.
Well the conference call at 3 o’clock featured only Yankees President Randy Levine and he announced that they extended an offer to Torre that was turned down. There were incentives built into it, which didn’t sit well with Torre and he rejected the offer. That then became the news of the day on our station and I wished that I had done something more—leaned harder on another source, something, anything—to get to the heart of what I just knew was true, that what we were saying on the air didn’t make sense.
There have been a lot of those where I don’t get the story and wonder who I should have called or what I should have done differently. But after a while I recognize the ability to add context and more details to whatever the story of the day is. And after having established some credibility, my voice on the air or on Twitter about such matters still carries some weight and lets me do my job.
I don’t beat myself up about such things as much anymore.
I know there have been other instances where I think, man I screwed that up. In general, I’m always thinking that others are better at this than I am, and I just have to keep working to do what I do. I want to produce good material and try to tell some stories in ways that I haven’t been able to before. There’s only so much of the daily injury updates that I can take, you know.
When I do feel like I screwed something up, I often think about my friend Bill Richardson, who passed away last year. He was the News Director at WHP Radio in Harrisburg when I was working there part time after graduating from Penn State in 1992.
So many times in the newsroom I would hear Bill say, “It’s only radio. If you screw up, just come back and do it again tomorrow.”
I take my job seriously, but I think about Bill’s words every so often. And just like baseball players who don’t have a lot of time to dwell on mistakes because there’s another game the next day, I know I have another game to cover the next day.
At times when I screw up or feel like I’m just not as good at this as I should be, I remind myself that I probably wouldn’t be allowed to stay in this job as long as I have if I sucked that bad.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SWEENY MURTI:
• Your name kicks ass. Why “Sweeny”?: My given name is Srinivas, ideally pronounced SREE-nee-vos. When I was around 4 I met a young boy in my neighborhood named Jason Hill and he decided he couldn’t pronounce that. It kept coming out “Sweeny-vos.” Makes sense, because even for adults the “Sr” at the beginning of a word is difficult to pronounce.
So, Jason—who I haven’t seen since I was probably 6—said, “I’ll just call you Sweeny. It’ll be your nickname.” I didn’t raise any objections—I was an agreeable 4-year old.
By the time Jason had moved away, all the kids in my neighborhood were calling me Sweeny. It didn’t really catch on with teachers until high school. That’s when I started using it as my on-air name when I called games at Middletown PA’s student radio station, WMSS.
So then it just stuck. I spell it with only two e’s, not three. Although who am I to quibble if somebody spells it “wrong.” It’s only a made-up name for me.
Incidentally, when Derek Jeter found out this whole story and what my real name was, he began calling me Srinivas. He said it with a laugh, but he was always respectful and never mocking. And he pronounced it perfectly, and that story delighted my mom to no end. It might be my favorite thing about covering the last 14 years of his career.
• Five friendliest athletes you’ve ever dealt with?: I’m not sure about a top five here. I’d like to exclude players I’ve covered as Yankees because there are a lot of I’ve gotten to know well. And just because I was friendly with them doesn’t mean others who covered them thought they were universally friendly.
I do find that there is something surprising about elite players in the sport being super friendly simply because of the overwhelming demands on their time once they become superstars.
For that reason, I think Don Mattingly stands out to me. I never covered him as a player, just as a coach. But for years he’s been one of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve dealt with. And after each time I speak with him I have to remind myself that he was once one of the five best players in the entire sport. He is next-door neighbor friendly every time I see him, and I am amazed at how well he carries his fame.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Gerald Williams, Whole Foods, chocolate-covered raisins, Chuck Norris, Aloo gobi, Lem Joyner, Elizabeth Warren, Jonathan Lipnicki, the music of Cher, napkins: The human head weighs eight pounds.
• The world needs to know–What was it like interviewing Bronson Sardinha?: You know I actually remember something about him. I think he hit a walk-off home run in a spring training game and Joe Torre told us about how he knew who he was because he ran into him over the winter in Hawaii, where Joe would spend a month every offseason and Sardinha was from.
When I worked with Ian Eagle at WFAN he had this freakish recall about every intern that ever walked in the door—probably from all those pop-a-shot games in the break room. Jeez did he actually do any work there? Ian knew at least one factoid—and sometimes only one incredibly random tidbit—about every intern over an 8-10 year period from the late 80’s to 90’s. I feel like I could be that guy for you about players who walked through the Yankees clubhouse in the last two decades.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Not actually die. But I don’t love turbulence when I’m on a smallish plane. Sometimes I start humming American Pie to myself (I’ve always been a big Buddy Holly fan).
I do remember a particularly bumpy ride when my friend Erik Boland, who covers the Yankees for Newsday and is a pretty sick person by many standards, turned around from the seat in front of me and asked if I’d seen the latest episode of Air Disasters or whatever that show was called. I didn’t take that very well.
And when I went to Cleveland for the 1995 World Series as Mike & The Mad Dog’s producer I remember this weird feeling as we were boarding—thinking that if we went down the headlines would all be about Mike and Chris, and no one would care about anyone else on that flight. I thought if I was lucky I would get a sidebar column on the dedicated young producer who had his whole future in front of him.
• Who wins in a 12-round mud wrestling match between you and Phil Hughes? What’s the outcome?: Well Phil probably has a good 60 or 70 pounds on me. I’m not that big. Also, I’m not entering a pit of mud with Phil, or probably anyone for that matter. So I guess he wins by default.
• Five best Major League cities to visit?: Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C.
• More likely—Baltimore Orioles 2019 World Series champions or Nickelback 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees?: Sadly, I think only one of these two will be officially eliminated from contention this summer.
• What would your walk-up-to-the-plate song be?: I used to love when Paul O’Neill used “Spirit in the Sky.” Such a great intro. I often waffle on what my walk-up song would be. Maybe a groovy opening riff like Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Or maybe something totally 80’s like “In A Big Country.” But I often come back to my belief that “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley is the best song of this century, so let’s go with that. Don’t @ me.
• What are the three words you overuse in radio?: Hmm. Good question.
Menachem Ickovitz is not your average sports writer.
Yes, a good number of us are Jewish.
Yes, a good number of us love covering the games.
Yes, a good number of us can break down the Odell trade.
But in my 2 1/2 decades in the business of writing about collegiate and professional athletics, Menachem is—hands down—the absolute greatest Orthodox Jew among us. And, ahem, the only Orthodox Jew among us. Which is something I truly love, because while the matches we chronicle are played by a diverse cross section of Americana, too often the press boxes are homogeneous odes to cookie cutter white men.
So, yeah, Menachem is different. He was educated in a Yeshiva; well-versed in Maimonides; as skilled reading the Torah as he is the Browns’ depth chart. He now writes sports for Big Play, with an emphasis on Cleveland Cleveland Cleveland Cleveland.
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Menachem, you’re a 35-year-old Orthodox Jewish man. You’ve devoted much of your life to your religious beliefs. Like, MUCH of your life. So here’s my question: Is it possible you’re wrong? Like, is it possible that maybe, just maybe, Jesus Christ is actually God’s son and the messiah? Or that, maybe, just maybe, there is no God, and this is all an accident? With all the religions, beliefs out there, why are you so dogmatic about yours? What if you’re simply incorrect?
MENACHEM ICKOVITZ: Coming in high and tight with the first question—love it! This is a difficult question but I will do my best to answer. Obviously, I believe that I am right. As you mentioned in the question, I have spent a lot of time and energy in my life following my beliefs and I am confident that they are correct. I say the ‘13 Principles of Faith’ from Maimonides on a daily basis and it brings me comfort knowing that the world is not random just because I don’t truly understand everything (or anything) that occurs. To me, that is what faith is all about.
That being said, let’s say, for hypothetical purposes, I am not right, I would have absolutely no regrets. I try to do good things because it makes me feel like a positive member of society. Being courteous, giving charity and helping others in need do not have to have religious undertones to them.
I think there are many people who look at religious people (from any religion) and do not like what they see. In terms of Judaism, I will say that one of the issues that I see is that people are not as good as they portray themselves and it is partially because of what schools focus on. There are different types of books to study in Judaism. The focus of many Jewish schools these days is the Talmud. The Talmud is difficult to fully comprehend and they spend hours upon hours on trying to understand every single word, I think this is commendable. However, when I was in school we also learned Mussar (ethics/character and behavioral improvement), which I think doesn’t get taught enough and because people are spending so much time on the Talmud and not enough time on Mussar, people have become more observant but less religious.
With former Browns linebacker Pepper Johnson
J.P.:We have good friends who are Orthodox Jews, and I’m pretty sure if one of their kids put religion behind, started eating bacon and married a woman named Christina Martinez-Cruz, their heads would explode and they’d rip a small black ribbon. What about you? Your kid decides, “Yeah, this just isn’t for me.” What do you do? What should one do?
M.I.: I probably would do what you described, sack-clothe and ashes and the whole bit. The knee-jerk reactions (which I would probably have) are what cause a lot of Jews who put religion behind them, to keep it behind them. Sometimes people need to try the alternatives and while it looks like they are leaving, it may just be a short sojourn. I had a friend who left because he were feeling pressure from his family and community and he just needed some time away to figure out who he was and what he really wanted in life and now he is back in the fold. Had his family and friends totally shunned him he may have never come back. In this case he did not get married to a non-Jewish woman. Had he, I’m not as confident that his family would have been as understanding as they were.
While I probably wouldn’t be able to do this, what should be done is the people involved should sit down and talk about what is best for the child. Parents who do not convey the message that no matter what their child does, the parents will love them are doing a big disservice. I hope that this is a test I never have to take as I am not sure that I would pass.
J.P.: You wrote for Cleveland Sports Talk, and now for Big Play—not a common pursuit of many Orthodox Jews. How did this happen? The sports writing? The affiliation with that particular outlet?
M.I.: I grew up as a Cleveland sports fan as my father grew up in Cleveland and he passed his fandom down to me. I grew up on stories of Leroy Kelly and Buddy Bell (my father’s favorite players). We would watch any games we could together whether it was an Indians playoff game or the Browns-Cowboys game from 1994 when S Eric Turner stopped TE Jay Novacek on the one yard line to preserve the win (didn’t have to Google that one, it is etched in my memory). Sports was one thing that no matter what was happening would bring my father and I together. Sadly he passed away almost 10 years ago yet I still feel very close to him when I watch games nowadays.
I always enjoyed writing and usually when I would write it would be sports related. In high school when I was in 12th grade English the teacher gave us an assignment to write about “Magic” and while most wrote about Harry Houdini or David Blaine, I wrote about the magical powers that John Elway had over the Browns. Most of my classmates were surprised I didn’t write about Magic Johnson or the Orlando Magic but I felt that would be too obvious. Throughout my school life every writing activity somehow turned into a sports paper. I used the same book about Larry Bird for four or five biography book reports. Also, to get extra credit in a History class that I was struggling in, the teacher allowed me to write about “Baseball in Latin America” to raise my grade.
Then, a little over a year ago I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw that Cleveland Sports Talk was looking for some new writers. I applied and wrote an article about being a Cleveland sports fan in New York and they liked it enough to bring me on board. In a drop over a year I made some amazing friends and wrote more than 160 articles. Recently Cleveland Sports Talk merged with Big Play. So now I’m writing for them.
It definitely is not something that many Orthodox Jews are doing. My family and friends are ecstatic for me because they know how much I love sports. The rabbi in my synagogue likes when I email him what I write even though he is not a big sports fan. I think it is important for all people to do things that make them happy and writing sports is something that makes me very happy.
I will say there is a downside to being “out there” and Jewish. This is something that I have had to deal with a little bit and I know from following you on Twitter that you have had to deal with it as well. It’s the the uneducated anti-Semitic stuff that people will sometimes write. It does upset me very much but I’m learning to deal with it.
With his mother.
J.P.:I’ve always felt, of all the sports, we Jews feel most connected with baseball. Agree? Disagree? And why? Is it a Koufax and Shawn Green thing?
M.I.: I have never really given it much thought until now, but yes that does seem right. The success of players like Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green definitely is a part of it. The amount of Bar/Bat Mitzvahs I have been to that includes a speech mentioning Koufax not pitching on Yom Kippur—well, it’s too numerous to count. Koufax not pitching is almost like a badge of honor for all of us. Throughout every generation of baseball there have been Jewish players for fans to identify with. Whether it was Hank Greenberg, Ryan Braun or Ron Blomberg, young Jewish fans can point to a player and say, “He’s one of us.” I do not feel like basketball or football have that many Jewish players on that level.
Recently, Israeli player Omri Casspi has gotten a lot of attention from Jewish fans. In many of the arenas where he has played there has been a contingency of Jews waving Israeli flags. It is a pretty cool sight to see. Also, at one point in his career he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers. At that time the team shop sold a Casspi jersey with his name in Hebrew. It was the best jersey I ever bought.
Also, something to consider about baseball’s popularity among Jews, is when Jews were coming to America in the early 1900s and moving into places like the Lower East Side in New York, they played stickball in the street because you didn’t need a basket or a big field to play basketball or football. I wonder if that would be a contributing factor as well.
J.P.: You wrote a piece headlined, THE REAL WINNERS OF THE 2019 NFL DRAFT. And here’s my eternal question—how the hell do we know, when no one has played a down? Maybe Kyler Murray is the next Blake Bortles and Nasir Adderley the next Ronnie Lott. So why do we all jump to pick winners and losers?
M.I.: Yeah, we have no idea! I actually spent the first paragraph of that article talking about how “Draft Grades” and “Winners and Losers” articles are mostly just to have something to talk about. I even used last year’s draft as an example. Last year the Browns drafted QB Baker Mayfield and CB Denzel Ward with picks No. 1 and 4. If you look at grades from then, they are somewhat low and they add comments like “Is Mayfield mature enough to play in the NFL?” or “How could they pass on DE Bradley Chubb?” Ask any Browns fan and these points are not a problem.
In my article I pointed out that the winners of the draft in terms of the Browns are defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and Special Teams coordinator Mike Priefer, as they were given many players. Only one pick, tackle Drew Forbes, was an offensive player. The idea in the article is that if the players who got drafted can step into their roles and play like the front office believes they can, both Wilks and Priefer will look really good, especially since last year the Browns defense and special teams struggled at points throughout the season.
I generally do not like the instant reaction-type stuff that you get from many and it is one of the very few things that I do not like about Twitter. I think it takes time to really understand things as they are meant to be, this goes for sports, politics, religion and life.
(left to right) Shlomo Berkowitz, Menachem, Yehuda Minchenberg and Avromi Moldaver.
J.P.: I know you’re 35, I know you’re from Rockland County, N.Y. But what was your path through life thus far? Were you raised Orthodox? Were you raised a sports fan? How did this happen?
M.I.: I was raised Orthodox. I grew up in an area that was mostly Jewish but I had plenty of neighbors and friends who were not Jewish. They did not understand why I was wearing a suit on Saturdays and not playing basketball or football in the park with them. I went to a co-ed Modern Orthodox elementary school where I feel I got an excellent religious and general studies education. I had rabbis and teachers who made the process of learning fun and productive and some of them I am still close with to this day.
The high school I went to was a boys only school where the religious studies were emphasized a little more, but we still had some excellent general studies teachers. We took regents, which were annoying but were taken seriously. After high school I went to learn in a Yeshiva in Israel for a year. It was an amazing experience that I am glad I was able to have. Then I came back to America and went to a Yeshiva for part of the day and went to college for part of the day. At that point I got a part-time job as a tutor in an Ultra Orthodox elementary school and eventually I became a full-fledged teacher there. I’ve had many students who I have gotten to see great results with over the years and that is something I am very proud of!
As I mentioned earlier, I was raised a Cleveland sports fan. I also played sports, not well, but I played. I played in Little League as a kid and I was on my elementary school’s basketball team when I was in 8th grade where I lead the league in fouls. While most of the kids went for numbers like 23, 33 or 50 to “be like” Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing or David Robinson I wore number 43 because of Cavs center Brad Daugherty.
These days I throw the football around during recess with my students. The other day I actually played volleyball for the first time in a while with them. I am the only teacher who actually enjoys playing by recess more than the kids do.
M.I.: I am for vaccinating, which I think any thinking individual should be.
I do want to point out that it is not only people from New York Orthodox communities who do not vaccinate. I am sure you know this, but I’m not as confident with everyone reading this knowing that fact. There are communities in the Pacific Northwest near Portland, in the Midwest near Detroit and smaller affected areas in California, Texas and Illinois that are also having issues with measles, not to mention the places outside of the United States where there are outbreaks.
With my limited knowledge on the subject, I have seen that there are three reasons why parents don’t vaccinate their children. The first is for medical reasons like the child having a weak immune system. The second is philosophical reasons and the third is for religious reasons. Almost every state in America allows people to not vaccinate based on religious reasons.
I have no idea what in Judaism would make people think that they shouldn’t get vaccinated because of religious reasons. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a Mitzvah to “protect one’s life” and while I am not a rabbi, I would say anyone who does not vaccinate their children is going against this Mitzvah.
I will end this part by saying, the school I teach in, which is an Ultra-Orthodox elementary school, has worked very hard to make sure all the students and teachers are safe.
With Josh the Lazer Tag guy.
J.P.:Maimonides encouraged Jews to procreate at large rates, writing: “Although a person has fulfilled the Mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying, he is bound by a Rabbinic commandment not to refrain from being fruitful and multiplying as long as he is physically potent. For anyone who adds a soul to the Jewish people is considered as if he built an entire world.” And while I get this—we live in a world with decreased resources, increased problems, RE: survival. I feel like maybe, just maybe, Orthodox Jews need to reconsider this idea of repopulating the world with tons of kids. Am I wrong?
M.I.: That is an interesting point. I do not usually think about it as I am an only child, so to me a family with two or three kids seems like a lot. Jews make up about 0.2 percent of the world’s population so maybe the other 99.8 percent should be curtailing themselves. It seems like there are so many Orthodox Jews around because there is a strong sense of community among the Orthodox Jews. Certain prayers can only be said if you have 10 men present so it is going to be rare to find one Orthodox Jew living in a rural area.
I do think there is a bigger lesson with what you quoted from Maimonides. There are two ways a Jew can have their presence felt. There’s the physical way, which a case can be made that there should be some concern for the world’s resources.
There is also the spiritual way. Now I am adding a lot to what Maimonides said and quite frankly I am in no position to actually do that, but here it goes: Perhaps one way to achieve what Maimonides is explaining is by doing good things and helping Jews who are not on the right path come back to Judaism, you build an entire world. In the Torah there is a verse that says, “These are the children of Moses and Aharon…” and then the Torah proceeds to mention only Aharon’s sons. The commentaries explain that because Moses taught them Torah, he was like their father. There are many Jewish outreach organizations that do just this. Whether it be a place like Oorah, Chabads throughout the world or Hillels on college campuses, the people who run these groups are helping build worlds as they teach people Torah and help them perform Mitzvot.
J.P.: You’re a Cleveland sports guy from New York. The Odell trade—happy? Sad? And how do you explain what the Giants were thinking?
M.I.: Thrilled! I have had New York sports fans in my synagogue cry about losing him as well as some who have laughed at me and said, “Good luck, you’ll need it!” I cannot wait to watch Baker Mayfield throw touchdown passes to Odell Beckham, Jr. It is going to be fabulous!
In terms of what the Giants were thinking, it seems like Giants GM Dave Gettelman has historically moved on from top-of-the roster players he felt were getting too big for their britches. Before doing it with Odell, he did it with wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive back Josh Norman in Carolina as well. I do think they got a solid haul back in the two picks and safety Jabrill Peppers. Peppers had a less-than-stellar rookie season but was playing what then Browns defensive coordinaroe Gregg Williams referred to as the “angel” position, lined up very far away from the line of scrimmage. Last season he went to a more natural spot closer to the line of scrimmage and played much better.
Peppers has the potential to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player and I would not be surprised if when we look back at this trade in two or three years it will look a lot more even than it does now.
J.P.:Donald Trump has an … eh … odd relation with the Jews. Tweeted out image of Hillary atop a pile of money with a Jewish star—WTF? Moves embassy—popular. Says both sides in white supremacist march are to blame—bad. Israeli settlements are great—popular. What do you see/hear among your peers? And what do you think?
M.I.: As a general rule I don’t usually talk politics with my friends (anymore). I think what I think, they think what they think and nobody is going to change anyone’s mind. Additionally, somehow talking about politics usually ends with raised voices and names being called, which is totally silly in my opinion.
I do think you do a good job outlining what should be thought of how the president has been. Some things good and some things bad. Tweeting out pictures that are anti-Semitic/racist whether it be from the president, a news outlet or low-level scum of the earth is never called for. I happened to have not seen the tweet you are referring to but only because I have muted many politicians on Twitter including Trump.
There are some members of my synagogue who are very outspoken when it comes to politics (both for and against the president) and I just roll my eyes at them. They have this herd mentality where they repeat the talking points from whatever cable news show they watched to sound smart. I don’t have patience for that.
In my school, when we read current events articles about politics I do my best to stay in the middle and not give any personal opinions as I feel that is definitely not the place for them. I enjoy when the kids get involved in the conversation and say what they think about whatever the topic is, sometimes I get some really interesting answers from them.
• As Jews are we required to like Matisyahu?: Required, no. Suggested, yes.
• Three things we need to know about your mother?: 1. She has been a teacher in a Yeshiva in New Jersey for over 30 years; 2. She loves the TV show This is Us; 3. She helps others whenever she can. As an example, when someone she knows (not just really close friends) is sick or sitting shiva she will make meals for them to make things even slightly easier.
• What’s the most underrated Jewish delicacy? Overrated?: Underrated: Matzoh Ball Soup, with the caveat that it has plenty of chicken in it. Overrated: Chopped Liver. I like it, but I need to be in the mood for it.
• Could the AAF have worked? If so, how?: I was hoping it would. I enjoyed the XFL back in the day and was really looking forward to the AAF. It seems like if it had the money it could have worked. Maybe a telethon could have helped or get the lady from Back to the Future to collect to “Save the AAF.”
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No.
• Celine Dion calls—she will donate $100 million to the charity of your choice. In exchange, you need to spend the next 365 days eating ham sandwiches with a side of whole milk and some bacon bits while living in the back room of a strip club. You in?: As enticing as that sum would be, I’m going to have to say no.
• What happens after we die?: I do not know and I hope not to find out for a long time.
• The weirdest question a student has ever asked you?: I don’t get a lot of weird questions but kids do sometimes say really funny things to me. On the last day of school last year a boy walked up to me as he was leaving and said, “Thank you for teaching me how to throw a football.” I smiled, thanked him and thought, “At least I taught him something useful.”
I know this firsthand, because every few months he reaches out to ask if I’ll appear on his podcast, The Sports-Casters. If I ignore him, he reaches out again. And again. And again. And again. He’s the Terminator robot of sports podcasts hosts, which is to say sooner or later, he will track you down and you will do his show.
And be better for it.
See, what Steve lacks in name recognition and corporate backing, he makes up for in passion. The guy simply loves sports and (more impressive, from my vantage point) loves sports journalism. Yes, his Drew Brees knowledge is strong. But ask him about Jeff Passan and Jon Wertheim; Jane Leavy and Richard Deitsch. He’s all about covering, and breaking down coverage, and understanding the difference between good coverage and great coverage and phenomenal coverage. He wants to know how authors think; how beat writers cover. He’ll actually read every page of a book, then read again.
That’s what makes time spent on his show so worthwhile. The authenticity is real. No bullshit. No false praise. Too much Pearl Jam, but … hey. No one’s perfect.
There’s also the backstory. Steve isn’t just a guy who digs sports media. No, he’s a guy who digs sports media and has suffered through some absolutely awful health problems. The show clearly keeps him going; provides something to look forward to.
Steve Bennett, stop asking. You’re finally the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Steve, I’d say you’ve wanted to do one of these Quaz Q&As more than anyone in the series history. Why? It’s just some mediocre interview series on a mediocre website.
STEVEN BENNETT: First, thanks so much for having me. I am fired up. I have always wanted to do this for a few reasons. First, my podcast is set up to promote the guests and put their work over. I am always promoting others. It’s nice once in a while to get a little promotion for the work that I do. Second, I have so much respect for you. I’ve always read the Quaz and wondered what Jeff Pearlman would want to ask me. You do over 300 interviews per book and are always looking for a hook with each interview. What would the hook be with me? There is a danger to that being that I might not have a hook. I could be a total dud. Shit, I hope I’m not a dud.
S.B.: Near the end of 2010 it was clear that my career was over because of my health and I was going to have to go on SSDI. I was going to be home full time for at least a little while. I needed something to keep busy. I started working as a busboy when I was 14 and had been moving nonstop every since. Suddenly, everything stopped. So I needed something.
Over Christmas that year I read a book called Death to the BCS by Jeff Passan, Dan Wetzel and Josh Peter. I finished with a ton of questions and thought this could be a podcast. I’ll read books and ask the author (or authors) questions. I looked up the publisher online and sent them a pitch for an interview. Jeff Passan agreed to appear on a podcast that didn’t exist yet. I didn’t really expect to hear back but since I did I had to put my money where my mouth was. I created the show, interviewed Jeff, and posted the first episode in about a week. The first show debuted the day after the BCS championship game between Auburn and Oregon. It was sort of ironic that the podcast was born out of my reading of Death to the BCS and it debuted the day after a BCS Championship game. Cam Newton had a great week but I’m not sure he was as excited as I was. It was a dream come true to publish that first episode even if my mother was the only person who heard it.
J.P.: I’m gonna say something, and I hope it doesn’t hurt your feelings: So, while I have done your show a ton of times, and I enjoy the experience—I don’t 100% get it. It’s very long, it’s very winding. You jump from Pearl Jam to Mike Piazza to bad eggs. It’s fun and quirky, but unfocused and sorta zig zaggy. Is that by design? Like, what are you attempting to be?
S.B.: The Sports-Casters is never the same twice. It can be long and random like you describe but it can also be very focused. It’s always by design. I never just turn the mic on and talk. I always have a plan. If I call you to be on during the promotion of a book we are going to have a much more focused interview than if I book you to be on just to shoot the shit. When you are promoting, I’ve read the book and I have questions. I want to get the book over and sell copies. If 200 people listen, I want 185 to buy the book (I’m assuming the other 15 already have it). It’s important to me to help the authors get their projects over and sell copies. I work hard to ask good questions and sell the book.
The other times are different. I want to create a situation where Jeff and Steve meet up for chicken wings and a beer and the microphones are on but neither of them know it. We are just hanging out and chatting about whatever might come up. People love this. I get so many emails from listeners saying that they love the randomness and the laid back approach. Jeff Pearlman is the favorite guest of many of my listeners and it isn’t because of the book promotion. It’s that other thing. The hangs. Jeff Passan and I usually take this approach when he is on. He told me the show has a Wayne’s World quality to it. I’ll take that. This is supposed to be fun. You mentioned the podcast being long. I hate short podcasts. What is the rush? The format offers no time constraints. I like to take advantage of that. The interviews can be long but its never for the sake of it. If you listen to local sports radio and they have Joe Buck on they might do 8-20 minutes and they get out to go to commercial. If I have Joe Buck on (I have several times now) we talk for 30-60 minutes and I have the chance to get details from Joe that WSR 620 didn’t have time for. Also, I do one show a week. It usually has 2 guests, an intro, a book club segment, and the ultra personal one last thing where I open up to the audience about something from my personal life. This usually takes 90-120 minutes depending on how long the interviews are. That it for the week. Maybe 2 weeks. They do 5 episodes a week of Around the Horn. That’s 150 minutes of the Around the Horn. So is it really that long? The listener has complete control. I have heard from one of my listeners who says he listens to the intro and the first interview and then the next day listens to the rest. It breaks up real easy. I never worry about the length. I’m in no rush.
Steve (center) with with Anthony Day and Greg Day Jr.
J.P.:So you suffer from major bowel issues. You DMed me recently: “March 23rd hits and I go to the ER thinking I’m having a flare. Turns out it’s a blockage and on April 3 I had my 3 bowel reconstruction since 2004.” So when did this all begin? How bad is it? How does it/has it impacted your life?
S.B.: In December, 2003 I was going in my last year of college at SUNY Fredonia. I woke up, went to class and got a bit to eat at the student center. It was Monday at 1 o’clock and I was done for the week. I remember walking into my apartment and telling my roommate I was going to play Madden and nap all week but I had a stomach ache so I was going to start with a nap. I woke up an hour later and I knew something was seriously wrong.
I went to the ER and they decided I needed to get my appendix out. The surgeon was gone for the day so the ER doctor ordered me a ton of pain meds and said the surgeon would take it out in the morning. I woke up to the surgeon screaming about emergency appendectomies and demanding to know why he wasn’t called. By the time they got me in the OR and got the thing out it had ruptured and I had a mess. Two huge infections had me hospitalized right until I begged to go home for Christmas. I went home with a bag that was meant to drain the infection. Once they studied the remains of the appendix they found gangrene and Crohn’s Disease. In February of 2004 I had my first bowel reconstruction surgery. In 2006 they removed my diseased gall bladder. In 2009 I had Nissen fundoplication surgery because I was aspirating toxins into my system and got three pneumonias in a short period of time. In 2011 my Crohn’s really started to flare. By 2013 I had my second bowel reconstruction. They took out 17CM of my colon. I was in the hospital from January 28 until March 14. I was home for four days and woke up in a puddle of discharge. I had a massive infection. I was back in the hospital. I never really recovered from that surgery. Like you said, I just had my third reconstruction. The surgeon thought I needed about 2-3 hours of surgery and it was closer to 9. I got an ileostomy to help it heal and have to have it for two months. That means I’ll be back under the knife in June to have the ileostomy reversal.
I know that’s a mouth full but I’ve always sort of taken it in stride. I’ve kept my sense of humor. I’ve spent a lot of time in the hospital but every single time I’ve walked out of the front door at the end of it. There are kids with cancer, my own grandmother died of Alzheimer’s, and everyone I turn on the news there is a story of someone who passed on in a way I hadn’t even thought of. My point is, who am I to complain?
The impact on my life is obviously the physical part but also the impact on my family. That has been the hardest this time around. I have an almost 3 year old daughter now and she doesn’t understand why daddy wasn’t home. She got some separation anxiety. I really struggled with this. I felt so bad. I cried at nights in the hospital not because of the pain in my abdomen but because my daughter was sad. The good news is that kids are resilient. Paula is glad dad is home and we are calling her Paula the Mini-Nurse because she loves to take care of Dad. We turned it into a positive.
J.P.:I won’t name names, but I recently had a journalist say to me, “Who the fuck is Steve Bennett, and how does he get such great guests?” You’re here—let’s hear the answer …
S.B.: That is funny. The short answer is that I asked them. Obviously it’s not that simple and it takes a ton of hustle and persistence and patience. When I started in 2011 I was asking people to come on my podcast and they didn’t know what a podcast is. I remember when I first booked Peter King he asked me flat out, “What is a podcast?” He had no idea. Now he has his own podcast that probably out downloads mine by 300 percent but he’s Peter King.
In the beginning it was just ask everyone. Then ask them again and again. I was a bit of a pest back then. Now, I’ve built up a reputation. I never took a cheap shot or tried to railroad anyone for my own gain. I’m always prepared. It’s always about the guest and what they are promoting. My podcast was named one of the best by Sports Illustrated in 2014 and The Athletic in 2018. Richard Deitsch and I went viral in 2013 with our best moment in pictures thread. So I have a reputation that I can draw off of now. I have a great relationship with ESPN PR and that helps me book their people. Sports Illustrated long ago gave me the green light to book any of their writers and I have promoted books for almost every publishing house in the United States.
That doesn’t make it easy. The hardest part is that I almost never get a respectful decline. It’s always yes or radio silence. It blows me away to this day that people would just flat out ignore my polite request but it’s a good reminder of who I am. I am the guy that your unnamed journalist has never fucking heard of. I have to keep hustling.
Little Steve with his grandmothers and, far right, mother.
J.P.: You were REALLY early on the podcast thing. Really early. So what caused you to start? What did/do you like about the medium? And has the explosion of podcasting made it harder? Easier?
S.B.: I was early to the podcast game strictly out of circumstance. I was grounded to my house because of my health and I could do a podcast without leaving the house. I’ve always been a huge fan of sports radio and being the next Jim Rome or Chris Russo was always a dream of mine. So I took my shot and created The Sports-Casters.
The thing I like the most about the medium is the freedom of it all. There is no time restraints. I can get a guest on the line and we can just go until we are done. I don’t have to worry about a commercial break or the end of the show.
The explosion had made it harder because the battle for guests is more competitive and the battle for listeners is even harder. The explosion has helped in that people have learned how and where to get podcasts and listening to them has become more of a habit for people. That’s been huge. I don’t have to explain what a podcast is anymore. You do get that eye roll when you say you have a podcast. It’s that of course you do look. Who doesn’t have a podcast???
J.P.:What makes a great guest v. a shitty guest?
S.B.: The best guests are the ones that come on the show and treat it like being on Howard Stern’s couch. They aren’t on a small independent podcast wasting the next hour of their life talking to some jabroni from Buffalo. They are engaged and fun and they see the value of doing the show. Like I said before if you are promoting a book and I can sell 20 of them that’s pretty good. Who wouldn’t want to sell 20 books after a 30 minute interview?
The worst guests are the ones who make it clear pretty quickly that they don’t want to be bothered. I’m often not sure why they agreed to do it. They eat, they do the dishes, they pump gas. I have about 30% of their attention and they just want to get it over with. These guests clearly feel like they are too good for The Sports-Casters. Maybe they are.
J.P.:You were recently on Richard Deitsch’s podcast, which was big for you. You were psyched, as far as exposure for the show. But here’s my question: Why does it matter? Being serious—you have a fun pod, you enjoy doing it. Why does it matter how many people listen? Isn’t the joy in the doing?
S.B.: The Sports-Casters is a labor of love and will always be about having fun first. If I’m not having fun doing it, I won’t be doing it for much longer. If I’m being honest, I think I do really good work. I believe the content is good. I want more people to hear it. I’ve been doing this show since 2011 and I’ve almost never promoted it. I’ve asked very few favors. I decided at some point that if I’m going to keep doing this why not work to get it in front of more people?
The other thing about that Deitsch podcast is that the format of the episode was my idea. I pitched it to Richard and he thought it was a great idea and he booked it. I was really excited that he liked my idea and that it became a podcast that people downloaded and listened to. That was almost as cool as being a guest on the show.
J.P.: Obviously we hear a ton about #Fakenews these days. You’re hard and heavy into sports media coverage. So, in this realm/genre, how are we doing? Do you think the Internet (Twitter, etc) has improved things? Made the product worse? Both? Neither?
S.B: I think the Sports Media is a fantastic space filled with tons of talented writers and front facing talent on television. There is so much great content to consume that I could never get to all of it. I read 25-40 books a year. I spent 2-3 hours a day reading articles in magazines, newspapers and websites like The Athletic or The Ringer. I don’t like the fake debate shows on television. I skip that. There is plenty of great content that I don’t see a reason to waste time with anything I don’t care for.
The internet has improved things for the simple reason that it has made so much more content accessible. I can read the newspaper they are selling at the corner store near your house in So. Cal. The internet has also created a need for more content and that has provided more opportunities for content providers. In the last month I’ve probably read articles from 50 different writers who all come from different backgrounds. That’s pretty cool.
J.P.:I tell my journalism students there’s no excuse for not having a podcast. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s the future, and the future is now. Tell me why I’m wrong. Or right.
S.B: You are totally right. What’s the downside? Even if not a single person listens you still win from the experiences gained by doing the podcast. I have learned how to interview, produce and edit audio, produce content, and operate a microphone all because I have a podcast.
Most of your students probably only need to buy a microphone and they will have everything they need to do a podcast. They might not even need that. Go for it. You might be the next superstar of the genre or you might be the next Steve Bennett. It’s a win/win either way.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STEVE BENNETT:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Seth Davis, Chuck Muncie, Twisted Sister, Nolan Cromwell, Buffalo Sabres, Chris Cornell, the Avengers movies, four feet of snow, palm trees, runny eggs: Chris Cornell, Buffalo Sabres, Twisted Sister, 4 feet of snow, Chuck Muncie, runny eggs, Nolan Cromwell, the Avengers movies, palm trees, Seth Davis.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Luckily, I have not. I’ve probably only flown 20 times or so and unfortunately I don’t even have one good story. Bust.
• If someone said to your face, “You’re a fucking whore and I hope you die,” would you most likely laugh, walk away or punch the guy?: I would walk away. I’m not very tough, Jeff. I’ve been weakened by years of bowel surgeries. I need to pick my battles and I probably won’t pick a battle with a crazy random dude calling me a whore.
• What happens when we die?: Light out. That’s it.
• How’d you meet your wife?: The Sabres were playing in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars. Game 1 of the series was in Dallas so the Sabres had a viewing party at the arena in Buffalo. It was a couple of bucks to get in and the money went to charity. In between the first and second period my buddy and I took a walk and were looking for a better spot than the one we had in the first period. We spited an empty row that just so happened to have three girls who looked like great hockey fans sitting behind it. My wife was one of those girls. We went out for coffee to celebrate the Sabres win that night. I can’t believe that was almost 20 years ago.
• Three least-favorite Pearl Jam songs?: Gremmie out of Control, Stupid Mop, Sweet Lew
• One question you would ask Noam Bramson were he here right now?: Why isn’t Dyngus Day a bigger thing in the United States?
• Trump v Biden—who are you voting for?: I probably wouldn’t vote for either of them. Like in 2016, I would probably write in another Republican. Trump isn’t my taste and he isn’t winning in New York anyway. Biden isn’t bad as far as Democrats go but the party in general is drifting far too left for me. I would likely punt again.
• Celine Dion calls—she’ll pay you $100 mill to spend the next year away from your family, living in her Las Vegas mansion. But you can only wear diapers and you spend your days mowing her lawn while listening to her music on a boom box resting atop your shoulder, which is coated in marshmallow and her phlegm. You in?: I love my family too much. I couldn’t leave my wife and daughter for a year for any amount of money. I just left them for almost a month when I was in the hospital and it hurt more than the surgery. Also, I despise cutting the grass. We hire someone.
• Five all-time favorite writers: Roald Dahl, Jane Leavy, SL Price, Jeff Pearlman, Jim Kelley
Back before we relocated to Southern California, the wife, kids and I lived a house on a street that could easily be named Media Lane.
Across the way was an MSNBC producer. Down about eight lots was a local weatherman. A CNBC reporter named Sharon Epperson was nearby, as was her husband, Christopher John Farley, at the time an editor at the Wall Street Journal.
We all had our quirks and nooks and crannies, but Chris … well, he was a different bird. First, he always wore black. Always. Second, his musical knowledge was off the charts—and always delivered in all-black attire. Third, you’d spot him jogging through the neighborhood at random times of day—always in black. Fourth, truly, he was an extremely bright, extremely warm man. Would ask about the kids before anything else. Curiosity out the wazoo. Pinpoint memory. Although we didn’t know one another, Chris and I actually spent years in the same building—he at Time, I at Sports Illustrated. I was familiar with his byline, particularly because he shared a name with a late SNL comedian.
I digress. Chris’ career has been spectacular. He is the former music critic and senior editor for Time, a former senior editor for the Wall Street Journal, the author of four novels—“Game World,” “My Favorite War,” “Kingston by Starlight,” and “Around Harvard Square.” He has penned a large number of nonfiction books, including “Introducing Halle Berry” and the national bestseller “Aaliyah: More than a Woman.”
JEFF PEARLMAN:Chris, I’m going to lead with a sorta lame one, but a question I have long wanted to ask you. Namely, you share a name with an uber-famous late comedian who, two decades post-death, still maintains a larger-than-life persona. How has that impacted your life, your personal branding? And does that explain the “John” in bylines?
CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY: Funny story about Chris Farley, or as I call him “You-Know-Who” and “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” When I was living in the village in the 1990s, someone mistakenly sent me his copy of the script for the big-screen movie of “Coneheads.” I nearly contacted him to warn him not to do the movie because the script was terrible. Another time, I was supposed to meet Chris Rock on the set of “Saturday Night Live” and the guard wouldn’t let me up after I gave my name. He thought it was some sort of sick joke. Which it kinda was, but I’m not certain who it was on.
J.P.:You’re the author of a new book, “Around Harvard Square”—the fictional account of a Harvard freshman who arrives on campus and engages in all sorts of craziness. Obviously you’re a Harvard graduate, but where did the idea come from? And why?
C.F.: I started writing “Around Harvard Square” when I was an undergraduate at Harvard more than thirty years ago. Then I put it aside because I needed more distance from what I was writing about. I would rewrite the manuscript from time to time but a few years ago I realized the moment had arrived and I had developed a vision to pull off the story I wanted to tell. The book is about class, race and admissions on campus and it anticipated the whole college cheating scandal–there’s even a plotline where a rich family fakes pictures to get their kid into Harvard. As for why I spent 30 years working on the same book, I think the Wu-Tang Clan said it best: Dolla dolla bill y’all! You know every literary author is secretly in it for the money. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
J.P.:Are there traps one faces when he/she writes fictionally about a real place from life—even if it’s a real place from three decades ago? Were there things you had to avoid? Reconsider? Approaches you perhaps chose not to take?
C.F.: I think the real traps come when people try to write memoirs based on memories from thirty years ago. I think many memoirs are really novels by people who are either lying to their readers or themselves or both. I just don’t believe that most people can remember sweeping details, and pages of conversations that took place decades ago when they were teenagers. The good thing about writing a novel is I can just make stuff up.
J.P.: So I opened up your book, and on the first page there’s a sentence that ends with “balloon animals fucking.” And I said to Catherine (the wife), “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Chris curse.” And as I read more of the book I was truly amazed/impressed how little the dialogue of Tosh Livingston sounds like the real-life dialogue of Chris Farley. How in the world did you do that?
C.F.: The real “Harvard Square” is me. I don’t curse (except when I’m reading my work), I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I have no moral issues with any of those things necessarily, I just like to keep my focus. I think really good fiction writing is already a kind of madness–you go out of your head to enter the mind of another person. That kind of transformation is why I do it. Everyone talks about how we’re increasingly living in our own private bubbles but people don’t talk enough about how we can break out of our self-imposed solitary confinement. Part of the problem is that, from a young age, we teach kids to stay in their lanes with the literature they read. Fewer than 6 percent of kids books are written by black writers. So black kids are often denied a chance to read about their own experiences and white kids and kids of other races are denied the opportunity of transcending their backgrounds through reading. It may just be a small step, but reading across cultural lines is one way of getting people to understand each other more. YA literature is on the front lines of getting people to burst their personal bubbles. That’s why it was so important for me to write “Around Harvard Square,” which is that rare YA book featuring a multicultural cast of characters that’s also written by a black writer.
With Jeannine Levine (right),Rick Borovoy (center) and Dan Donahue at a recent reading.
J.P.:Fiction strikes me as an extremely difficult genre to promote. As I said to you on the phone, sports and political books come with built-in endorsement tools. Fiction, generally, does not. So how does one go about promoting a work of fiction?
C.F.: When I was working on my first novel “My Favorite War,” I wrote John Updike for help and he actually wrote me back a two-page hand-typed letter offering me advice. I later lost the letter in a flood, but I can still paraphrase one line in which he told me not to worry if my book didn’t turn out well because “Some very smart people write very bad books.” I still don’t quite know what he meant by that, but one of my takeaways is that I try not to be a prisoner of the marketplace or the literary establishment. There are very few black book critics, and, partially as a result, relatively few black books get covered or reviewed. And certainly my novel, which is about a super-smart Jamaican-American Harvard freshman fighting the powers-that-be, isn’t something that’s going to find legions of champions in the world of homogenized literary criticism. So I just give every book I write everything I’ve got and I don’t worry about what Babylon thinks. “Around Harvard Square” has gotten great support from top authors like Marlon James, Walter Isaacson, Andy Borowitz, Victor LaValle and Gish Jen. It was cool that the Jamaica Gleaner gave it a splashy, positive rave. But it’s not just about the big names. The good thing is, these days, everyone can be a critic. I would ask anyone who likes this interview, or likes my books, to spread the word on social media. The power to change the book world is in your hands.
J.P.:So you’ve had this really long, impressive career at big-name print media outfits—Time, then the Wall Street Journal. And recently you made a huge transition to Audible, where you’re an executive editor. Why?
C.F.: I love books, and I love tech, so working for a tech company that puts out books is the perfect situation for me. Audible has long been known for producing recorded versions of print books, but my job is helping us find, fund, develop and release original works that only exist in audio. Print books are sometimes seen–wrongly, I think–as relics of the past. The great thing about audio books is that they fit seamlessly with the architecture of modern life–you can drive your car, microwave your dinner, run on the treadmill or whatever all while still listening to your favorite audio book. We’ve found a way to make 21st century life richer and smarter and more literate.
J.P.:Should we at all be worried about podcasts serving as the final death knell to long-form print journalism? Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but it feels like with fewer and fewer people reading, the deep-dive podcast series is nudging print out of the way. Yes? No?
C.F.: Podcasts and journalism aren’t mutually exclusive, and they shouldn’t be positioned as competitors. I think it’s a good thing that people are finding a way to absorb journalistic output in a deep way, and to get the informational tools they need to take on the many systemic problems that are out there.
J.P.:So you’re the author of Aaliyah: More Than a Woman. And as one who really struggled when it came to writing about the death of an icon (Walter Payton), I was wondering what it was like for you to, specifically, chronicle the death of an icon. Was it emotional? Depressing? How deep did you dive? How much—if at all—did it impact you?
C.F.: I’ve interviewed a lot of stars who are now dead–Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, just to name a few. I remember attending Nirvana Unplugged, walking up to Kurt Cobain after the show, and then deciding I’d just wait to talk to him when I set a formal sit down–but then he died first. I had confirmed an interview with Biggie Smalls but the day we had planned for the talk ended up being the day of his funeral. With Aaliyah, I had spent a lot of time with her–I had met her mother, and she had met my wife. So writing her biography was more than just another assignment–it was personal. Music superstars who respected her work were in shock about her passing too–I remember when I called Beyonce to talk about Aaliyah for my book, she called me back almost instantly. It was as if she wanted to unburden herself about Aaliyah’s passing as well.
J.P.: In 1998 you wrote a lengthy piece for Time about Lauryn Hill headlined, “Songs in the Key of Lauryn Hill.” At the time I absolutely loved Lauryn Hill. A. I wanted to date her. B. I wanted to listen to her album all day. C. I thought she was the next Stevie Wonder/Otis Redding. And, well, I was wrong. What happened?
C.F.: Twenty years after the release of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” people are still talking about the album, and people are still copying the album. Amy Winehouse and Adele both told me that album was hugely influential on their work. Cardi B, Drake and Kanye West all turned Lauryn Hill samples into hit songs. She wasn’t the next Stevie or Otis but she was the first Lauryn Hill and that was plenty. I still hold out hope she’ll record another studio album, but even if she never does, that one album was more than enough. It changed hip-hop and soul and pop music and it changed the way pop culture saw black women. One great album is better than a career of mediocrity. She had her moment of greatness and twenty years later we’re still in that moment.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
C.F.: When the Lifetime movie adaptation of my biography of Aaliyah came out and the top trending topics on Twitter that weekend were all about how much people disliked the movie. The film was actually the second most-watched cable film of the year, but the audience numbers were so high because critics and fans hate-watched it. The people who worked on it did their best, and Alexandra Shipp (who played Aaliyah in the movie and Storm in the X-Men franchise) was excellent, but I wished I would have been allowed to write the script myself. But I wouldn’t even call that a low point–just having a book turned into a movie is a privilege and a pretty cool adventure. So basically my entire career has been an extended high!
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): The Temptations, Hydra Flask bottles, Noam Bramson, Visa cards, Frank McCourt, Domino’s Pizza, “Us,” Chris Paul, Yale: I think ranking and top-ten lists and the like are a patriarchal machismo thing and I’m not going to play your little game. That said, Noam Bramson is a great guy and Frank McCourt gave me a generous quote for my novel “Kingston by Starlight” and was a terrific storyteller and ally.
• You attended Harvard. Would it be worth the extra $500,000 to pay my kid’s way in as opposed to her winding up at, oh, Delaware?: Cheating to get into a school cheats the kid and the school and all the other kids at the school. Delaware’s a great college and a great state. Did you know Bob Marley lived in Wilmington, Delaware and worked in an auto plant before he made it big in music? True story–it’s in my book “Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley.”
• One question you would ask Buddy Bell were he here right now?: I don’t like baseball. Years ago, I was in the Yankees clubhouse when they won the World Series and I couldn’t tell you what series they won or what year it was or why I was even there. The whole experience was wasted on me.
• Seven all-time favorite movies: My top movies are always changing, but for now let’s say Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service”; Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”; Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust”; Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve”; “Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and Euzhan Palcy’s “Sugar Cane Alley.” Honorable Mention: Perry Henzell’s “The Harder They Come,” which has the best movie soundtrack of all time, The Wachowskis’s “The Matrix,” and Zora Neale Hurston’s cultural heritage short films from the 1920s and 1930s.
• In exactly 16 words, make a case for the Hollywood Walk of Fame worthiness of Reginald VelJohnson: Nah.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: We’re all about to die in a planet crash unless we stop global warming.
• How did you meet your wife: We both went to Harvard together. She lived in North House and I lived in South House. I used to eat at her dorm all the time. The funny thing is we never met at college, even though she knew my younger brother, who was also at Harvard at the time. We met a few years later. So Harvard either kept us apart or allowed us to meet at just the right time. Poetically, we met at Time magazine.
• Is there any way our grandchildren get past the awfulness of climate change? Or are they, and their peers, simply screwed?: As Joe Hill once said in a telegram, “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
• Five words you use too often in writing?: Said, but, and, is, asked.
• What are your emotions as a book signing event approaches?: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. BTW, I’ll be reading from “Around Harvard Square” at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA on April 30 at 7pm. But I’m still in denial.
He’s not asking for it. He’s certainly not expecting it. But he deserves it.
Until recently, Tom was the official team reporter of the AAF’s Orlando Apollos. It was the most professional fun he’s ever had—new league, new players, exciting venture with a limitless future. From his perspective, it was the cherished opportunity to start at the ground floor with an endeavor that had a bright future. No, the Alliance wasn’t the NFL. But it was a cool concept (spring football) with money and TV behind it.
Truly, just (poof) like (poof) that. One day Tom and hundreds of other men and women are working in professional football, and the next day it’s all over, and Dicks Sporting Goods is unloading its remaining AAF merch at 50 percent off.
So how is Tom doing? Is he angry? Sad? Grateful? Hopeful? You can follow him on Twitter to find out. Or, you can kick back and read the 402nd Quaz Q&A …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Tom, it’s now been a few days since the sudden death of the Alliance. Have you worked this out in your head? Do you have a sound understanding why it lasted so briefly?
TOM ALEXANDER: I think I am still processing and grieving nearly two weeks later, to be honest. I used all of my mental bandwidth on that job for more than three full months, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I was expecting to at least have four more weeks of it — and maybe a championship ring when all was said and done — so having it suddenly end has been difficult to deal with. I still wake up every morning thinking about three big storylines or pieces of information about the Apollos I want/need to Tweet that day, and I find myself still checking my phone to see if I’ve received the latest injury report or need to Tweet a link to a recently-published article. I suspect it will be that way for some time.
I, like many others who lost their jobs in the blink of an eye earlier this month, likely won’t know for a while what exactly led to the end of The Alliance of American Football. I think, probably, there are only one to three people on the entire planet that know the whole story at this point (until the lawsuits enter the discovery phase): Tom Dundon (definitely), Charlie Ebersol (very likely) and Bill Polian (probably). What I understand, so far, about why it ended, has nothing to do with ticket sales, fan enthusiasm or the quality of the on-field product.
It’s been widely reported that we, as league employees, were led to understand the league had a four- to five-year plan, and was funded for at least three years. We were told that attendance was expected to be low in the first year, and the people in charge were fine with that as long as there was growth into the second year. Football, we were told, was the priority. The football part of the equation worked. The quality of play was good and improved league-wide as the season went on. There’s no arguing that now, especially as dozens of former Alliance players sign with NFL teams, and will likely continue to do so during the run up to training camp. The league also had a huge group of passionate, talented people on the payroll who believed in the concept and wanted it to succeed, all the way up to the highest levels of the league, so I don’t think a lack of hard work or expertise was the issue, nor was it a desire to compete directly with the NFL, which has befallen other startup football leagues in the past.
The answer, as it is to so many questions in our world, is probably money. I don’t know the specifics about the financial situation of the league, and I can tell you I’m not aware of any employee who ever missed a paycheck, right up until the end. What I do know is that spending was frozen to a certain extent throughout the league after Mr. Dundon became involved, and most expenditures were scrutinized. In the middle of March, team reporters and social media managers were told they would no longer be traveling to road games, something I assume was a cost-cutting measure (saved as many as eight hotel rooms and seats on the team charter flights per week, give or take).
Around that time, I started to learn about vendors the league had not paid for several months, dating back to before the Dundon investment, and, at least for the Apollos, that meant we would no longer have our games broadcast on the radio. At that point, I started to think I wouldn’t have a job beyond the end of the season. A couple weeks after that, Mr. Dundon gave the USA Today interview where he said he was considering folding the league. That was the first we, as employees, actually heard about a possible end. We were out of jobs a week later.
For whatever reason, be it overspending, the league not having the kind of financial backing we were told it had, or something else, the league needed money. Mr. Dundon’s investment provided that, but he had a different idea about how to make the league profitable than the initial vision employees were given (Early on, we were told the plan didn’t hinge on having players assigned from the NFL to our league, and clearly, we didn’t, for the football to be successful). When Mr. Dundon’s plan didn’t come to fruition in the timeline he publicly stated, things came to an end.
T.A.: Simply put, it was the best job I’ve ever had. The league brass at The Alliance spoke all the time about it being a league of opportunity, for players and coaches to be part of professional football and maybe get back to the NFL, or get there for the first time. It was also a league of opportunity for me, and many others like me. I studied broadcast journalism in college because I wanted to be the next Bob Costas. When it came time to graduate, I wasn’t in a financial position to do what most sportscasters do and go to a small market and make $18,000 per year, so a graduate assistant who thought I was a good writer suggested I get a job with a TV station in a slightly bigger market as a writer and producer, so I could make a living wage and build up my talent reel in my spare time. I did that, and ended up spending more than a decade as a TV news producer (not sports) in Orlando, trying to find a side door into the on-air world of news and sports. Life got in the way (responsibilities, managers who didn’t believe in me, etc.) and it never happened. I figured that ship had sailed. I was doing freelance copywriting in news and marketing and doing my own sports podcast as a hobby when I applied for the Apollos job, never expecting to get a phone call.
Mike Waddell, the Apollos’ team president, and Dinn Mann, the Alliance’s head of content and marketing, interviewed me and gave me the shot no one else would, and to do it under veteran mentors and editors like Steve Miller and Howard Balzer, who gave me writing advice and feedback I will keep with me forever. In training camp, Waddell also allowed me to book myself on sports radio shows and podcasts, and tapped me to host the halftime report during radio broadcasts of our games. I was about 10 years older than my counterparts at nearly every other AAF team, but I finally got to do the thing 16-year-old Tom always thought he was meant to do, and it opened doors to me that I thought were closed forever.
In addition, covering a legendary coach like Steve Spurrier is a reporter and football fan’s dream come true, and I say this as someone who grew up rooting for Florida State, his arch-rival. As great a coach as he is, he’s an even nicer person, and getting to know him was an honor and privilege. The Apollos’ coaching staff was a great mix of experienced coaches who had a long history with Coach Spurrier and young, hungry ones, some of whom were getting their first shot coaching professional football. Each and every one of them was generous with his time, answered my questions graciously and willingly shared his knowledge and expertise. Our players were the same way. They were a fun group of good guys to be around, opened up to me in interviews and accepted me as part of the team from the moment I arrived in camp. I am rooting for each and every one of them to succeed in football and in life, and they will always have a fan in me.
We had the best team on the field, but we also had the best team off it, too. Our front office was loaded with smart, passionate people who wanted to win at everything. That started with Waddell, our leader, but extended into every facet of our organization. I feel blessed to have known and worked with all of them. It’s especially true of our content and communications team. We forged a strong bond that began when we were away from our loved ones for a month in training camp, and part of the pain of losing this job is not being able to work that closely with them — now close friends of mine — every day. I’ll also miss my peers on the content teams throughout the rest of the league, especially my fellow team reporters. They made me want to become a better writer every single day, and I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of them in the sports world.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be there at the start of something, especially something that I think is going to leave a lasting mark on football (despite its own short life). I would do it again in a heartbeat, even knowing how it would end.
J.P.:How did you find out you were out of a job? Who told you? How did it impact you? The news—specifically?
T.A.: We found out through media reports and Twitter. The Apollos were getting ready for a home game that week, and our organization had a staff meeting every day in the week leading up to a home game. After reading what we had been reading about the league for the days leading up to the end, Mike Waddell, our team president, moved the morning staff meeting on Tuesday, April 2, to 1 p.m., the same time as the beginning of practice, and asked me to come into the office for the meeting before going to the practice field, which was a couple miles away at Camping World Stadium.
I got there a few minutes before the meeting was supposed to start, and it had already started, because everyone was scrolling through their Twitter feeds, reading reports about how The Alliance would suspend operations later that day. Over the next hour, we learned that the football operations staff, including players and coaches, were told on a conference call right around the time practice was scheduled to start. We, as the front office staff, were given no such courtesy. Instead, our team leadership was told multiple times throughout the day that there would be a conference call about everything at 1:30 p.m., then 2:30 p.m., then 5 p.m. It never came. We spent the entire afternoon in the office, lamenting the end, reminiscing about the season, thinking about what our next steps would be and waiting for this conference call to tell us we were all out of jobs.
Waddell let us all go home after 5 p.m. came and went with no call. We finally got an email at 5:30 p.m. Eastern, saying operations were being suspended and our last official day of work was the next day, April 3. The news left me cold. I had kind of been expecting it, given the news reports over the preceding days, but I was still thinking we’d be told the end of the season would be the real end, not get snapped out of existence like Spider-Man and company at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. If I’d have known my Monday “Final Word” column was really going to be my final word, I’d have written it differently. It was one of the saddest days of my professional life.
Interviewing AAF Head of Football Development Hines Ward at training camp.
J.P.:What did the league do right? What did the league do wrong?
T.A.: It certainly did the football things right. I don’t think anyone missed having kickoffs, and I wouldn’t be surprised, given the current cultural attention on player safety, if they eventually leave tackle football altogether, maybe even in the next five years. The shorter play clock and onside conversion are also things I think we could see in the NFL in the near future. You’ll NEVER see the NFL take fewer commercial breaks, in my opinion, but one never knows.
I think the league could have done a better job raising awareness before the start of the season. That’s a tall order, given the short timeline from the announcement to the start of play and the noise from the NFL and college football during that period of time. However, in the Alliance cities that didn’t have NFL teams, they probably could have done more to raise awareness. I don’t, however, think that a string of sellouts in all eight cities from the get-go would have led to things turning out differently.
Ideally, the league would have taken a full year just to woo more investors, raise awareness, test the technology involved, like the app and its gaming/tracking features and generally get its ducks in a row. The XFL deciding to re-launch in 2020 threw a wrench in that, I think, which led to The Alliance launching in 2019 to plant its flag in the spring football sphere.
J.P.:Random question—I’m sitting in an airport, and three guys near me are talking NFL. And they’re butchering names, information, details. Am I allowed to step in? Or is it best to shut up?
T.A.: I think it depends. If they’re wondering out loud, like “What’s that guy’s name that used to play for so-and-so?” you can step in. If they’re the type of people who simply butcher facts as if they know what they’re talking about, save yourself the headache. I find that people who fall into the latter category are don’t take kindly to being corrected.
J.P.:So I’m staring at the Apollos website, which now features nothing more than a message from the league. They’re grateful, they’re appreciative—blah, blah. I didn’t work for the league, and I feel like punching someone in the face. Do you? Is there festering anger?
T.A.: Absolutely. I wanted to finish the season. I wanted my damned championship ring. I wanted to see the Head Ball Coach hoist a trophy and go out the way he wanted to go out, instead of the way things ended for him at South Carolina. I wanted to see our players, coaches and staff, who all worked their asses off, see this thing through. I also wanted to see what the offseason held for myself and the other reporters. Would there be job offers from other places? Would the league want us to follow the stories of some of our players who went to NFL training camps? I really, really wanted to see what either Austin Appleby or Kevin Anderson would have done as the Apollos’ quarterback in year two (I figured pretty early on that Garrett Gilbert would be back in the NFL in some capacity). In addition, the websites for the league and all the teams were taken down without warning any of the content creators. Anyone who wanted to try to save their work from the site, who didn’t do it before things ended, lost it all. I was lucky enough to get mine before it was taken down, but many others were not as lucky. The anger isn’t intense, and it ebbs and flows. It will subside, in time, but right now, the wound is pretty fresh.
If scientists ever devise a way to travel to alternate universes, there are four places I want to go: the universe where the Nicolas Cage-starring, Tim Burton-directed Superman Lives movie came out, the one where Back to the Future starred Eric Stoltz, the one where Don Mattingly didn’t have back problems and the one where The Alliance of American Football survives into year two and beyond. Maybe those are all the same, weird universe. I don’t know.
Alexander, safety Josh Evans, Apollos Social Media Manager Kaylee Chicoski, Apollos Director of Storytelling Eli Walker.
J.P.:You were the team reporter for the Apollos. What did that entail? What were your tasks? And, on game days, what were you doing? Literally?
T.A.: In short, I was an embedded reporter with the team. I went to training camp in San Antonio for the entire month of January. I attended every practice, reported on the daily happenings in camp and wrote feature stories for the Apollos’ website every day. I also gave interviews on radio shows and podcasts about the league, the team, what people could expect and how it was shaping up to get fans amped for the season, broke news about the team on social media all the time and recorded three on-camera reports for social media each week.
Once the season started, it was much the same. I wrote one or two articles every day, seven days a week. They were the kinds of things beat reporters at outside media outlets do: features on players, coaches or different units on the team, analysis, game previews, recaps, news and notes and a weekly column. I did the social media videos twice a week, recorded interviews with players and coaches for use on our weekly coaches’ radio show and game broadcasts, Tweeted constantly about the team, continued to give radio and podcast interviews and hosted the halftime report during live game broadcasts.
On game days, I would wake up, Tweet my three keys to victory for the Apollos, write a “Tale of the Tape” article, breaking down what the team needed to do on offense and defense on the ground, through the air and in the trenches to win that week, and which players on the other team fans should watch for.
Once the game started, I would live Tweet the key plays from the press box and sketch out my game recap story. I would host the halftime report on radio, which usually involved a short recap of the first half, a live or taped interview and a quick preview of the second half. I’d go back to Tweeting for the second half, write questions for Eli Walker, our team videographer, to ask of some key players in the locker room after the game, and attend the post-game press conference myself to interview both head coaches and both starting quarterbacks. I’d spend a few hours after the game writing a game recap article plus a sidebar article, file those and call it a night.
Our home games were all at 8 p.m. Eastern, so on those nights I wouldn’t leave the press box until around 1 a.m. On the road, we always went right to the airport after the game, so I would knock out my game recap on the bus ride to the airport, file it, then write my sidebar on the plane. We didn’t have wi-fi on team charters, so I’d have to wait to file the sidebar until we landed in Florida.
J.P.:You graduated from Central Florida in 2003, and since then you’ve bounced around TV and radio. I always talk with print reporters about the difficulties of the profession. How about TV and radio? How hard is it to “make it” in 2019? What are places looking for now that, perhaps, were ignored skills/abilities in 2003?
T.A.: Some of the difficulties are similar to print media, like shrinking newsrooms, shrinking salaries and having to compete with newer forms of media for eyeballs and ad dollars. Like in many industries, journalists in TV and radio are being asked to take on more responsibilities, with fewer resources, and for less pay, than they have before. In TV, especially, we’re seeing more “one-man bands” — reporters who shoot and edit their own video for stories — in larger markets than in the past. Generally, reporters in smaller markets who are just starting out are expected to shoot and edit their own stuff, but when you rise into bigger cities and markets, they have the resources to hire more videographers and editors, so reporters no longer have to do that. Now, because stations are trying to do things more cheaply, many larger markets are employing the “one-man band” strategy.
I don’t know that it’s any harder to “make it” in broadcasting in 2019 than it has been before, but there’s more crap to put up with now than ever before. In TV especially, it’s not enough for a reporter to hit the street after the 9 a.m. meeting, turn one package for the 5 o’clock news, do a shortened version for the 11 o’clock and call it a day. Now, that same reporter (and videographer, if the reporter is lucky enough to have one with them) have to do one story for the noon newscast, either a longer version of that or a completely different story for 5 o’clock, a shortened version for 11 o’clock, a shortened alternate version for the next morning, and write yet another version of that for the station’s website. Oh, by the way, Tweet updates to your story throughout the day (usually there’s a Tweet quota), and so-and-so called out sick for the morning show tomorrow. Because stations are now operating with the bare minimum of personnel, reporters have to get it done three hours earlier than usual so they can go home at 3 p.m., sleep and be back by 1 a.m. to cover that morning shift for the sick person, who really isn’t sick, but is just mentally and physically burned out from having to stick to the routine I’ve laid out herein each and every day for the past six weeks, without a day off, because the station hasn’t replaced the reporter who got burned out and quit two months ago, because they can’t find someone cheap enough who’s willing to commit to that sort of grind.
I was a producer, not a reporter, in TV news, so the grind is slightly different, but can still take over most of your life, especially if you’re producing and writing multiple newscasts in a given day and covering shifts because the station is shorthanded. If you’re willing to put up with all that, you can make it, but I see talented, passionate people getting chewed up and spit out by that grind every day and leaving the media business because they want “unreasonable” things like a family, a social life, a weekend, eight hours of sleep every night and a living wage.
It’s more important now than ever for people wanting to get into the media to be proficient in writing for and developing an audience on social media. Unfortunately, a lot of places take your social media following into account when they consider whether to hire or retain you. It’s not acceptable to be “web illiterate” in the media anymore.
With wife, Melissa, outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando before seeing “Hamilton.”
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
T.A.: The greatest moment of my career is probably producing election night coverage in 2012. Not because of any particular outcome, but it was my first time being in the lead chair to produce hours of wall-to-wall coverage like that, and our team kicked ass that night. It felt like everyone in the building and in the field was in some kind of zone for several hours in a row, and the high of being in the middle of all that is crazy.
The lowest moment of my career probably came a few months after I left TV news. I didn’t want to go back to the news grind, almost all my experience was in that field and I had no idea what I wanted to do. The high of having my free time and personal life back had worn off, and I was left wondering what it was I was meant to do in life. I don’t know if I’ve yet figured out the answer to that last part yet, but I at least know what is important to me now, and it has nothing to do with work.
J.P.: What’s the difference between a great on-air interview and a mediocre-to-shitty one? How much of it is on you, v. the subject himself/herself?
T.A.: A great interview sounds, to the audience, like they’re a fly on the wall to two old friends having one of those long, deep conversations one has with an old friend into the wee hours of the morning. It’s about getting to the truths of the human experience. It’s more about the why and the how than the who, what, when and where. That’s a 50-50 partnership between the subject and the interviewer. The interviewer has to ask questions to get to those truths and make the subject feel comfortable enough to be that vulnerable. The subject has to be willing to connect with the interviewer and the audience on that level and really examine their experiences. Howard Stern is great at those kinds of interviews.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TOM ALEXANDER:
• If there’s one AAFL player who will go on to star in the NFL, it’s …: Wide receiver Charles Johnson. He looked like a man among boys playing in The Alliance. Carson Wentz needs to look CJ’s way often.
• One question you would ask Blair Underwood were he here right now: What was the weirdest case you ever handled on L.A. Law?
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Bruce Willis, Sports Illustrated, Heidi Klum, D’Ernest Johnson, granola with blueberries, “Us,” sentences that begin with the word ‘But’, ham and eggs, Dick Enberg: Heidi Klum, D’Ernest Johnson, Bruce Willis, Sports Illustrated, granola with blueberries, “Us,” Dick Enberg, ham and eggs, sentences that begin with the word ‘But’
• Three memories from your first date: We went to see “Good Will Hunting.” It was with Vicky Hill, with whom I am still friends. Neither of us was 17 and the movie was rated R, so our moms had to sign our tickets to get the movie theater to let us see the movie without adults
• What’s one thing I need to know about your wife?: She’s the most genuine person anyone could ever meet. There is not a fake bone in her body.
• Five all-time greatest sports uniforms?: 1. New York Yankees – You can’t beat the pinstripes. They’re iconic; 2. San Diego Chargers’ powder blues; 3. ThisTampa Bay Lightning jersey; 4. The Orlando Apollos’ blue alternate combination; 5. The Chicago Bulls’ late-90’s black alternate jerseys.
• What happens after we die?: I think we re-join one large, collective consciousness and immediately know all and see all. It’s some hybrid of all being one, but also retaining our individuality. That, or it’s just like the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life.
• Four reasons (not Disney) one should make Orlando his/her next vacation destination: 1. Our up-and-coming restaurant scene. We have multiple James Beard Award-nominated chefs in Central Florida, and almost every type of cuisine one could want. It’s a hidden gem for foodies; 2. We have multiple distinct neighborhoods in the area, each with its own character and “Main Street”-type area, including shops, restaurants and events; 3. Gatorland. There’s no other theme park or attraction like it in the world, as far as I know; 4. Sports. The Camping World Kickoff and three bowl games in college football, the Magic, the Solar Bears, Orlando City and Orlando Pride soccer, the USTA national campus, UCF, the Pro Bowl and golf courses as far as the eye can see.
• On a scale of 1 to 100, how concerned are you about climate change?: It’s an existential threat to the human race, but I’m not obsessed with it.
• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Danny Treanor?: Danny is an absolute joy. Working with him taught me tons about being on TV and relating to an audience. Plus, he knows a lot about good food and good suits. Last and certainly not least, he’s one of those people with “one in the chamber” all the time: a joke (many not printable here) ready to tell at a moment’s notice. He’s a legend.
I say that haven’t read his stuff, and now posting the 401st Quaz. I mean, hell, he has a son named Ulysses—which isn’t exactly John or Jim. He writes these bonkers/cool/funky graphic novels and humor books, including an autobiography of Mark Twain that isn’t an autobiography of Mark Twain. Well, not really. Sorta. Kinda. Nah, not really.
His latest work, All the Answers, is a serious graphic memoir as Michael attempts to discover to truth about his father’s childhood, when he appeared on the TV show Quiz Kids.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, so Michael, your website bio sorta sucks, in that it tells me the different places your work has appeared, but little about you. So big, blunt, raw opening question: Who are you? Where are you prom? And how did this happen for you?
MICHAEL KUPPERMAN: I’m a big white man from Connecticut. I am half Jewish, half Scandinavian. I live in Brooklyn, N.Y. with my wife Muire and son Ulysses, who just turned 10. I decided I wanted to draw at some point in my life. Big mistake.
J.P.:You have a Patreon page, on which you wrote, “I have been making comics for nearly 30 years. Besides my 5 books, I have also had comics in the New Yorker, Fortune, The New York Times, Adult Swim, Vice, DC and Marvel publications, etc. etc. I’m now at the stage in my career where I feel I need a different model for my work.” What, exactly, does that mean? The “need a different model for my work” part?
M.K.: It means that really, the best work, the stuff people respond to, was done for myself. Most of the stuff I did for those places was stepped on heavily one way or another, edited badly, or I didn’t get what I needed from the arrangement; at times it was a downright abusive relationship. I’m Gen X, and we’re the ones who put in a lot of time taking and eating shit and at the end, all we got was a kick out the door. But really, this is about me wanting to create the best work possible.
J.P.:Earlier this year you released, “All the Answers,” which is a graphic novel about your father, Joel Kupperman, and his fame as a math prodigy who appeared on “Whiz Kids.” I’ve only been able to read small pieces, but it seems … absolutely gut-wrenching. For you, more than the reader. So … why? Why do this? Why put yourself through it?
M.K.: Well, no pain, no gain. In a lot of ways it was just what I needed to do. Not just for doing this book but I’ve become the center of the family, and without what I did that story would just be lost. And it explained so much of who we are, who I am, why things happened. The invisible limitations that have dominated me since birth, that I wasn’t even really aware of? It was intense but I think it had to happen.
J.P.: I just had a discussion the other day with an editorial cartoonist, and he said his profession lends itself to people losing their minds, going insane, suffering in loneliness, isolation, etc. And I was wondering if you see that, too? Or is that an exaggerated take on an ultimately lovely profession?
M.K.: No, that’s accurate. It’s poorly paid, you’re treated badly, and art isn’t respected today as part of the editorial machine, period. Also now you’re completely isolated; I usually don’t even meet the people I’m working for. It wasn’t always like that. It’s gotten worse.
J.P.:When did you know you wanted to do this? Art? Cartooning? Storytelling? Was there a moment? Was there a moment when you realized, “Shit, I’m REALLY good at this”?
M.K.: Still waiting for that moment. Just joking … sort of. I started doing comics because some friends were putting out a comic zine and asked if I wanted to contribute. I started to get better at doing a comic and it became clear that this might be something I could do. I could communicate humor- at least to some people- through comics.
J.P.:OK, in 2011 you published “Mark Twain’s Autobiography: 1910-2010”—a tale in which Twain is still alive due to a spell cast by a wizard. Um … eh … what? Like, how does such an idea enter your brain?
M.K.: I thought it might be funny. Twain had been a character I used for years—partly a side effect from growing up in Connecticut, where he shows up in terrible ads played by dinner-theater actors. The real Twain autobiography was being released so I thought, why not. My publisher had basically the same reaction you did.
J.P.:Do you care what critics say? A book comes out—do you read Amazon and Goodreads reviews? Does negativity eat you up? Or do you simply not care?
M.K.: I am enormously sensitive—I don’t just have trouble reading negative reviews, I have trouble reading positive ones. I need attention, but my first impulse is to run away from it. I can see now, after All the Answers, that this is at least partly due to the way I was raised. I have a modesty that goes way beyond reasonable levels, to a miserable kind of self-negation. It’s bad. I don’t need outside input to be eaten up with negativity.
J.P.:What’s your day like? You’re working on a book. Soup to nuts, what are you doing? Step by step?
M.K.: There’s no reliable routine, there’s no normal, because I have no security or stability in my career, and usually no money. And I have a family. My life is chaos on which I struggle to find my way.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
M.K.: When Thrizzle Vol 1 came out, that was pretty good. Didn’t last long. Hard to pick a lowest moment, there have been so many; right now will do. I have Schrodinger’s career- from one angle it’s alive, from another it’s dead. Just a fucking struggle to keep going quite often.
J.P.:You’ve done comic books. I’m gonna ask a somewhat related, somewhat unrelated question: Why are there so many fucking superhero movies? Can we just end this thing? Because they keep coming and coming and coming …
M.K.: We’re living in a society dictated by businessmen and populated with children. It’s depressing how far down things have slid.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL KUPPERMAN:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Judy Garland, John Denver, Herschel Walker, Dave Coverly, Motorbooty, bacon bits, Christmas Eve, dog vomit, elk heads hanging in a VFW hall: Switch the elk heads and Denver, otherwise that list is perfect.
• You named your son Ulysses. That’s amazing. How did you and the wife decide upon it?:
I wanted him to have a strong name for his journey through life. It’s distinctive and unusual but everyone knows it. My name sucks and I wanted my son to have a good one. He also has my wife’s last name; I felt it was time to retire Kupperman. Such an awkward, lousy Ellis-island made-up garbage last name. I oftne think my career would’ve been much better without it.
• Five reasons one should live in Brooklyn: It’s America but it’s not America. There are people from every corner of the world here. It’s never boring. You can walk everywhere. You’re surrounded by history and close to the ocean.
• Five reasons one shouldn’t live in Brooklyn: It smells bad. There’s garbage everywhere. For some reason there are four-way red lights at intersections all the time. It’s full of liberals. There are portals to hell everywhere.
• One question you would ask Kirby Short were he here right now?: Who are you? A sports guy?
• Five all-time favorite cartoon characters: Popeye, Betty Boop, Tintin, the 1974 Disney Robin Hood, Dick Tracy.
• How’d you meet your wife?: We were fixed up by a mutual acquaintance, who was very good at it. I think she’s fixed up five couples.
• I used to pick my nose and eat it. Then, when I was around 13, I stopped. Can an argument be made that was a poor decision?: Yes. It may be that you’re supposed to eat your boogers, that your nose is like a laboratory reacting to the environment and the boogers are a specialized medicine it produces. Seriously, I have heard this idea spoken aloud by very smart people..
• Five famous people you’ve never met: Gandhi, Churchill, Hitler, Linda Lovelace, Gary Coleman. The last two I could’ve but declined. Couldn’t think of what to say.
• Is Donald Trump at all funny?: It gives me no pleasure at all to admit that he sometimes is. He has the instincts of a comedian and that’s why people love him. It sucks.
Generally speaking, the interviews that make up the Quaz Q&A series are prepared weeks in advance.
I reach out to a bunch of people, fire off questions, get a bunch back—then have the pleasure of deciding which to run when.
This week, however, something weird happened. Yesterday afternoon I spoke to a sports journalism class taught at Northwestern by Melissa Isaacson, the former Chicago Tribune and ESPN writer whose work has always been exceptional and exceptionally regarded. Everything about the lecture experience was joyful—even via Skype, it was clear Melissa knows how to keep a class moving; how to engage her students.
Anyhow, late last night I thought, “Hmm … Melissa Isaacson would be a terrific Quaz.” So I asked, she agreed—then I woke up this morning to her answers, plus this fun little note …
I could spend all day reading about her life covering Michael Jordan, her life teaching a new era of aspiring scribes, her life after leaving the Tribune. It’s simply terrific stuff.
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Melissa, we’re both veteran scribes who came up when print was rolling along, and we both teach college journalism. So I ask—what are we supposed to tell these kids? I mean, I love my career, I’ve loved my gigs. But am I as convinced in 2019 as I was in 1999 that this is a viable profession? Well, no. So what are we supposed to say? Teach?
MELISSA ISAACSON: You and I sort of discussed how we hate when old sportswriters come into our classrooms and grumble to our students that they should run for the hills, rather than go into our profession. That happened about twice early in my adjunct career and now I don’t let those old cranks (all my closest friends) come anywhere near my students. These kids pay a crap-ton of money—most on their own at their age—to come to Northwestern and be enriched in various ways. For the ones who make the emotional investment as well, I am there to tell them that I love what I do and I always have, that it has given me a life of amazing experiences and that I adore storytelling and I believe in my heart there will always be a place for good storytellers—that whether people are reading on their watches or in embedded brain chips, I believe that. I told them that days after I was laid off for the second time in my life and I tell them that now. Only now I tell them the work reporters are doing from places like the N.Y. Times and Washington Post and CNN and the New Yorker is nothing short of heroic and that while sportswriters may not be saving the republic, we’re good people doing really important and really good work too. And they’re finding jobs, many at the jobs we vacated, one actually at the job I vacated.
OK, clearly I have to pace myself.
With her husband, the hard-to-spell Rick Mawrence
J.P.:So you covered Michael Jordan and the Bulls during much of the glory days. What was it like, as a member of the media, having to deal with His Airness every day? Was he relatively accessible? Was he distant? Agreeable? Did he treat women scribes as he did men?
M.I.: Anyone who covered Michael on the beat—and there weren’t many of us in those days (three to be exact who traveled regularly—Tribune, Sun-Times, Daily Herald) will tell you that he was fantastic to deal with and here’s why. He was accessible. Not every single day but most. And when he was under fire. He rarely ducked us. And we all witnessed the mobs at his locker after games and the shy ones in the back from another country or Indiana or somewhere, mustering up the courage to ask him something or to “Say hi to Indonesia (OK, maybe it wasn’t Indonesia but close) and he always would. Always. And he would treat the guy from Oskaloosa the same way he did the N.Y. Times. He really did. I’m sure he got pissed at people, he would be condescending at times to guys he liked—liked Lacy Banks from the Sun-Times, who he kidded mercilessly—but in our world, in mine, he was respectful. In his quiet moments, like on the road when we three would actually catch him alone, he would talk about his kids (who he truly loves even though he never changed a diaper or ever picked up one of them from school). He was also incredibly respectful of me (maybe because I was pregnant a chunk of the time I covered him!) never, ever came into the lockerroom undressed or even in the Carolina blue shorts he wore under his game uniform but always in his full wide-shouldered suit (not because of me but just because that’s how he was). And other than patting my stomach when I was pregnant occasionally, and remarking on my choice of heels when I was in my latter months, he never treated me nor any woman journalist I ever witnessed, any differently than the men. I can go on and on. Oh wait, I have.
J.P.:You are the co-author of “Sweet Lou,” Lou Piniella’s biography. And I say this with total respect, but a Piniella biography doesn’t seem like an automatic huge seller. Cool idea—yes. Great topic—yes. Huge sales—not sure. So why write it? What was the experience like? And did it sell?
M.I.: I get it. Weird. One of those local publisher inspirations in July that the Cubs were going all the way and fans would have to be rewarded by a book on the manager. And so, just as I was ready to go to Beijing for the Olympics, I oh-so-wisely agreed to do it—and, oh yes, have it finished some time in late September. At some point as I was ready to break down after reporting for like 300 hours in four weeks, a wise friend told me to just start writing and so I did. And a remarkable piece of literature was produced. And the Cubs didn’t win the World Series, as you may recall. And it sold like 3-4,000 books, I believe. Ugh. But it wasn’t as awful as it could have been. I LOVED meeting Lou’s friends. It was like being on an episode of the Soprano’s only without the killing, and I believe at some point when I went to interview them in Tampa, I started calling them all “Uncle.”
J.P.:What was it like, when you were a younger reporter, having to deal with male professional athletes unaccustomed to having “a skirt” (their term) in the locker room/clubhouse? And was there a point when you started to see perceptions and reactions change?
M.I.: As a professional, I was indoctrinated to the ways of the women’s sportswriter world when I witnessed the great Joan Ryan being harassed in the Birmingham Stallion lockerroom in Orlando. I was hovering near the door at the time, since we were told we weren’t to come in, but Joan wasn’t putting up with that bullshit on deadline at a USFL game, and went in. One guy rubbed her leg with a tape cutter. The rest simply yelled disgusting things and cursed at her to get the fuck out. And when I looked around desperately “for help,” hoping perhaps one older guy with a Stallions’ polo might step in, I noticed no, he was laughing too, joining in on the fun. Later, Joan and I wrote about him. He was the team owner, Jerry Sklar. But yes, it got better, mostly because I laughed off as much as we could, tried to blend in, which is what almost all of us did. As I got a little older, I tried educating them, even nicely lecturing the young ones I felt I had a chance to convert to humans. But the assholes will always be assholes. They stopped audibly harassing us sometime in the early 90s, in my experience. And I did my job with the belief that if I worked hard and was fair and was there every day and they got to know me, I would be respected, or at least accepted. And that’s pretty much how it went down. The Bulls were great to me. And the bad stories sort of faded away. But get me a little drunk and I’ll have more.
J.P.: In 2008 you won the Chicago Headline Club’s Peter Lisagor Award for top feature story of 2008 for your Tribune Magazine story on your folks’ fight with Alzheimer’s. And, soon enough, you’ll have a book that details the subject. And I ask, why would one want to re-live such awfulness via writing? I mean, is it therapeutic? Does it help you come to grips with things? Or is it awful, but you feel compelled?
M.I.: For the Magazine story, I worried, truly worried until the moment it was published, that I had done something bad, somehow violated my parent’s dignity or spilled family secrets without their permission, and the writing was done through tears. But to this day, I still hear from people who read it, clipped it, were touched by it in some way. And I know my parents would have been OK with it and proud of me as they always were. I want to kill myself every time I join “The Notebook” mid-stream (why do I do that?), but yes, it was therapeutic. Writing always has been for me. And after people told me the story made them feel a little less alone in dealing with the disease themselves, I know it was a good thing. My book is about my 1979 state championship basketball team and how basketball, in so many way, saved us. For me, high school marked some of the last lucid years of my parents’ lives. One of my brothers told me after they died that me and that team gave them a “second wind.” And it makes me happy every time I write about them now.
Melissa, front and center, during her hoops glory days.
J.P.:I know many people (myself included) who gripe about millennials and their bullshit. You’re a lecturer at Northwestern. You deal with millennials daily. How do you see the generation? Ate there points to the stereotypes?
M.I.: OK, so I say this by prefacing it that I love my students. LOVE. Almost all of them. But yes, they have some issues, which makes me only sound old when I talk about it because it’s basically the same shit old people said about us when we were that age They don’t appreciate the importance of hard work. They’re entitled. They write for crap (not my students, of course, but a lot of them write like they text). They have a hard time actually speaking to people as in interviewing. But they can’t help that. I grew up loving to talk to my girlfriends (and with any luck, the occasional boy) on the phone. I still do. They obviously did not. My son, who is a junior at Northwestern, had to be locked in a room and forced to make his own haircut appointment at 17. But they’re also so, so smart, and opinionated in good and bad ways, and have big ideas and big plans and are terrified and insecure and want to do good work. In other words, just like us.
J.P.:I know you’ve written for Florida Today, USA Today, the Orlando Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune. But how did this happen for you? Why sports writing? When did the bug bite?
M.I.: I was 13 when Nixon resigned and I remember where I was when I watched it (my friend Bari’s house) and though I can’t tell you I read the Washington Post, I knew who Woodward and Bernstein were and thought—probably because my parents did—that they were heroes. My parents had three papers at any given times in our house. We got the Sun-Times for much of my childhood all week, the Tribune on weekends (until I started writing for them) and my father read the Chicago Daily News every night. I circulated a class newspaper when I was in fourth grade—I was editor-in-chief, sports editor and the advice columnist. I loved Royko. And David Israel and John Schulian and Ray Sons and Roger Simon and Bob Greene. I remember how my mother savored the Sunday papers, only she made my father get them on Saturday night, and how I had to wait patiently for everyone else to read each section before I could. I loved newspapers. I loved to write. And thanks to two older brothers, I loved sports. There is no point at which I remember that happening. It just was. And so there was absolutely no hesitation in what I would do for my life. I thought I would die at my desk, working for the Tribune. Sigh.
J.P.:What’s your money story from journalism? Meaning, the one story you tell at parties about your absolute craziest/weirdest experience?
M.I.: I have a lot. They are on a rotation basis. But it usually comes back to the years when I was pregnant, covering the Bulls and the time, in a pregame lockerroom in Cleveland (which is to say it was tiny in the old Richfield Coliseum), when Ron Harper and I got into a conversation about childbirth. Harper had several kids and was well-versed. B.J. Armstrong was listening in and thoroughly disgusted by the very notion, and announced he would be nowhere near the birthing process should his future wife ever have a baby. This prompted Harper to tell him it was really OK and to convince him, had him lie on the trainers table, his feet in imaginary stirrups, a towel over his knees and a basketball serving as the baby. As Harper and I acted as Lamaze coaches, coaching B.J. and very seriously urging the process along, roughly 35 minutes before the Bulls were to play the Cavs, Phil Jackson walked in, I assume to, you know, get ready for the game and address his team. I looked up and I will never forget the expression of part-wonderment, part incredulity on Phil’s face as he looked at this scene, shook his head, turned around and walked back out.
M.I.: Did it while I was pregnant (seeing a theme here) and it was fabulous because it was the first time I wrote “fuck” in print and I did it a lot. It was my first experience in pure writing freedom and I loved it and got to know the team in so many ways I never had before. I went to a movie (“A River Runs Through It”) with Bill Carwright, and if you’ve never gone to a movie with a 7-foot-1 man, try it sometime. I had off-the-record talks about AIDS with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. And I interviewed Steve Kerr in his hotel room, which prompted a lecture from Cartwright.
“Don’t do that,” he said as he saw me leaving Steve’s room.
“What do you mean?” I said dumbly.
“Don’t ever go into a players’ hotel room.” he said.
“But it’s Steve Kerr, for crying out loud,” I protested.
“Doesn’t matter,” Cartwright said. “The other guys will see that and you know what they will think.”
So I never did that again.
J.P.:You wrote of your last day at the Trib: “Being ‘Melissa Isaacson from the Chicago Tribune,’ gave me the confidence I did not always possess on my own, a veneer of credibility I had not yet earned.” So how did you adjust once you left the paper? How hard was it?
M.I.: Thanks for reading that. Hardest moment of my professional life. Cried in front of my kids. Cried for days. This was the place that brought me home to Chicago. The place that gave me chills every time I walked through the lobby. The place where, after I got the job offer, my friend Mark ran over from his job across the street and twirled me on Michigan Ave. and I felt like Mary Tyler Moore. I finished the column I was writing on Denis Savard the day I was laid off. And I didn’t stop writing. That day was my first blog. And I kept going. And someone read it from ESPN, thank God, and they took me in and rescued me. But I never got over it. I still haven’t.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MELISSA ISAACSON:
• I just visited your website, and you haven’t blogged since 2011. Why?: A big mistake. I started after leaving the Tribune and it was some of the best, most enjoyable writing I have ever done—not important in any way, just pure, unadulterated joy—and I actually, from nothing, got an organic following of a few thousand people, some of whom still ask me when I’m going to start again. I got busy with ESPN and just stopped. My book is going to be the impetus for me to start again. Clearly, I like to write. I have things to say. But I need to be better at social media and I need to blog.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Bienen School of Music, B.J. Armstrong, “Elf,” potassium citrate, rocking chairs, Handel’s Messiah, Matt Suhey, line dancing, Covington Catholic High School, Russell Martin: Bienen, Matt Suhey (butt-dialed him the other day—hadn’t talked to him in maybe 10-15 years—and he called back and we had a great conversation. Love Matt Suhey. But my kid is in the Bienen School of Music), Chromium picolinate (don’t know about potassium citrate but mine sounds like it. I love vitamins and take many), rocking chairs, “Elf,” Handel, line dancing, B.J., Martin, Covington (no f-ing way they weren’t jags).
• The world needs to know—what was it like covering Stacey King?: Wonderful. Michael was mean to him, so was Phil. I felt sorry for him. I loved Stacey and still do.
• Your husband’s name is Rick Mawrence. What are the myriad ways that last name is butchered?: For a second, I thought it was literary-sounding and was going to change my name. But my first editor at the Tribune, when I told him I was engaged, said, and I quote, “You’re not going to do that hyphenated byline shit, are you? No one wants to see that. Just keep your name. That’s how people know you.” I’m pretty sure I hadn’t asked him for his opinion. Then he asked me when I was going to get pregnant and that I probably would have to stop covering the Bulls when I did. True story.
• Five nicest athletes you’ve ever covered?: Roger Federer, Pam Shriver, Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, Jim Miller.
• Three biggest dicks?: LaTroy Hawkins. Ted Washington. Dick Butkus (made me cry on a phone interview when I worked for the Orlando Sentinel and called to do a story on the Butkus Award for best college linebacker being named for him. I believe liquor was involved).
• What are your four most overused writing words?: Mine or others? “Clearly. Generally.” I like qualifiers. “Likely.” I think I do that too much. But I think you may mean what are just overused in general. Anything that approaches a cliche, I loathe and makes me yell out loud when I grade. Sorry, I know I’m not answering this question well.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Michael Wilbon? What’s the outcome?: I do strength training at my Y. Last 25, 30 years. If a fight broke out, I can handle myself. And I can kick anyone ass who’s over the age of 60. Possibly.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I’m not a great flier. Flyer? So a bad taxi will have me thinking “This is it.” I try not to think about it and I don’t think I ever came close.
• Is humanity fucked, RE: climate change, or will we figure something out?: Oh God, as my mother used to say whenever my father would talk to her about burial plots as people used to do, “I’ll be dead. What do I care?” I do care, obviously. For my kids and their kids. But I’m an optimist. I refuse to believe we won’t fix things, just as I believe Trump will get his.
About 20 years ago, I was standing in the Sports Illustrated hallway when a reporter from Time Magazine showed up and asked—I believe—to use a copy machine.
The moment lasted all of, oh, three minutes, and when it ended I certainly couldn’t have expected Desa Philadelphia to be one of my good friends in 2018, let alone back in 1998. But here we are, two ex-Time Inc.-employed Californians whose families have grown close and who dine on a fairly regular basis.
Which is not, to be clear, why Desa is the 384th Quaz Q&A.
Nope. I asked Desa here because she’s smart and fascinating and the liver of a most unique life. She’s been a reporter at multiple outlets, a writer at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, a Hollywood insider (well, sort of) and attendee at myriad parties. She shares her last name with a city, her husband played in the NFL, she’s been inside Elisabeth Shue’s house and admires Sylvester Stallone’s dedication to cutting hair.
Put simply: She’s one of the most fascinating people I know.
Desa Philadelphia, you’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Desa, I’m gonna start with a random one. I just found a small article from Florida Today in 2001 headlined CNN TARGETS YOUNGER AUDIENCE. And it’s about CNN starting a Saturday night talk show featuring young journalists—including Jake Tapper, Roger George and you. Two questions: 1. Whatever happened to it? 2. Why do you think media outlets struggle so much when it comes to the famous/infamous, “Draw a younger audience” challenge?
DESA PHILADELPHIA: Unfortunately 9/11 happened to it. Understandably, after the attacks there were important stories to cover. So everyone who was involved with the show went back to our news outlets to do that very sad work. We never reconvened.
As for the second question, mainstream news shows are not created by younger people. There are always older people who think they know everything who have the final say. So the end product is never really something that younger people want. Let’s use that show, for example. It was called Take Five, and the concept was five younger journalists discussing the week’s news. Think a show like The McLaughlin Group, but much younger. I think I was the youngest journalist they cast. And one of the things I remember, which is illustrative of the point, is that I had to go out to buy “jewel-toned” clothing, because I was told that’s what looked good on TV. Now at the time I was a New York City party girl who looked the part. I wore a lot of black, a lot of high-heeled boots, a lot of jeans or short skirts. My wardrobe could have been themed “day into night” because I almost never went straight home from work. But I remember I bought pinks shirt to be on that show (pink!!). Also, the news we covered was Washington-centric so for example we talked a lot about Gary Condit’s political career after the murder of his intern Chandra Levy, who he was sleeping with. I don’t think young people were as worried about whether Gary Condit’s political career could survive.
I also remember one segment where we talked about Chris Ofili’s elephant dung paintings. I think that segment was considered hip, but really we were talking about art that was in the most prestigious museums, that sold for millions of dollars; also not exactly what the kids were talking about. And I wonder how that show would have looked if we were allowed to just wear what we normally wear. My point is that news shows for younger people aren’t really designed to appeal to younger people. It’s old people speculating about what young people want. Which is ironic because so much of television news is speculation. Also the show aired on Saturday night. What young people are watching CNN on Saturday night? Even the guy I was dating at the time never bothered to stay home to watch. I used to rush to the airport after we were done to catch the shuttle back to New York, then go straight to whatever bar he was at.
With husband Aaron.
J.P.:I just found another piece—this one from 2007. And it’s a profile you wrote on Elisabeth Shue, the actress who was making a comeback in a movie no one wound up seeing. And you start the piece with Shue in her living room, wearing jeans and a tank top. I’m always fascinated by “celebrities being just normal” sorta stories, because it seems like they’re really only being normal to appear being normal. So what do you recall from the Shue experience?
D.P.: That she seemed really normal! First off, she and her husband Davis Guggenheim lived on a really busy, very walkable street in L.A. with no heavy security gates or anything. It was a beautiful home, but it was accessible. I walk by it sometimes and wonder if they still live there; but I doubt it. Also she talked a lot about her family because the movie, which was called Gracie and which Davis directed, was based on her experience of losing her older brother Will who died in a very tragic, very gory accident at their vacation home when they were all gathered there together. I’m pretty sure I didn’t include the details in the piece, but we talked about it at length. I also remember resisting the urge to ask about her brother Andrew. Not because he was a Hollywood hunk. I’ve never watched Melrose Place so I don’t know much about his acting. But when I was in college I was impressed with his non-profit Do Something; I thought it was so cool that a young Hollywood actor had started that. I also remember she had just gotten back from playing tennis and I asked if she was good because I am obsessed with tennis and would love to be good at it but am not. I’m working on it. I just bought one of those tennis trainers that are advertised on Facebook. At first she kind of demurred but then she admitted she kicked ass at tennis, and I loved that. It’s true too; she’s like a semi-pro player. OK, I’m realizing I should qualify the normal comment a little—she seemed really storybook-white-people normal to me. She was like the grown up version of a character in a Babysitters Club YA novel come true. I even thought it was cool that she spelled her name with an S instead of a Z. I also recall that we ate something that I really enjoyed but I can’t remember what, specifically.
Speaking of celebs and normalcy. I get asked a lot which celebrity I’ve covered seemed the most normal and I like the reaction I get when I say Sylvester Stallone. Not because his existence is normal in any way. I went to his house and it was in a crazy gated community of mega mansions owned by Saudis princes and A-List Actors. And there were a few insanely questionable pieces of furnishings; some velvet stuff that his mom had picked out. But HE seemed normal as hell. My favorite thing is how much he loves Rocky, the character. He showed me his Rocky paintings; and this was before he had exhibited them. His daughter also had this very precise Louise Brooks bob that he had cut, and he said he cut her hair to keep up his skills because he used to be a hairdresser before Rocky made him rich and famous. I teased him about needing to keep up his hairdresser skills and he was a good sport about it.
J.P.:You are a communication and development writer at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. So what does that entail? And how does your journalism background come into play with this genre of writing?
D.P.: I’m a jack-of-all-trades writer. I write everything the School of Cinematic Arts needs, from proposals to the admissions brochure to speeches to the bronze plaques on the walls celebrating the donors who have endowed faculty Chairs at the School. It’s marketing, development and communication. I also edit the annual magazine and I oversee student writers who do stories for our website, so those duties are directly related to my journalism training. I consider myself a professional writer but also still a journalist. I don’t think you ever really stop being a journalist if you were a good one.
My journalism training means I’m very precise with details; I fact check everything. And not some willy-nilly I-found-it-online fact check. But like a New Yorker fact check. I once had an informational interview at the New Yorker. The head of the fact-checking department asked me if I had heard about Stephen Glass, The New Republic writer who had fabricated stories. I told him yes and he very firmly said: “that would never happen here!” I was kinda like “alright,” I didn’t really know what to say to that. I didn’t get a call back at The New Yorker. Looking back I realize I didn’t wear the right clothes. The guy who interviewed me, Matt Tyrnauer, grew up in Hollywood and has since directed a documentary about Valentino, the fanciest person on the planet. Tyrnauer himself looked like he stepped out of a magazine. I knew as soon as I saw him that I didn’t have the right clothes. It’s like that “What People Wore to Interview with Anna Wintour” column; you need the right clothes for the Condé Nast building. But I was fresh off the boat and broke as hell. I didn’t know.
J.P.:You wrote a book (“111 Shops in Los Angeles That You Must Not Miss”) that’s been a Pearlman bathroom staple for two years or so. I ask two questions: 1. How did this project even come to you? 2. How does one decide which 111 shops to not miss? And what’s No. 112?
D.P.: So there is a travel book series of 111 Places that you Shouldn’t or Must Not Miss, that had successfully been done in Europe and they decided they wanted to bring the series to the United States and also do a few versions with shops. My friend Katrina Fried was hired as the U.S. editor and she asked me to do the version about Los Angeles Shops.
To answer question #2: If you’re a journalist you begin by gathering stories about Los Angeles history and culture. Then you choose shops that are quintessential in their L.A.ness because they allow you to tell authentic stories about L.A. history and culture. So that’s how I approached the book. I wanted it to be informative and entertaining for people who were coming to L.A. as well as people who live in L.A. And I also wanted it to be enjoyed by someone who would never set foot in L.A. So I did a lot of research and reporting. For example, the stories about Flour and Flowers. My profile of the “urban flour mill” Grist & Toll in Pasadena is about the role that mills played in the development of cities, including L.A. And my story about the wholesale flower marts in Downtown Los Angeles talks about the Japanese-Americans who started them and the flower farms they once owned that made up much of Santa Monica back in the day. Doing the book was also a great way to explore stores I wouldn’t normally shop in. One thing that made the book very difficult is the publisher wanted the shops to be one-of-a-kind. So no chains, all had to be “unique finds.” Also they wanted me to take the photos for the book. I’m not a photographer but since I work in visual media I can tell the difference between shitty photos and skilled ones, and my photos were shitty. So I ended up paying for a photographer myself and she did an amazing job. To decide on 111 shops I visited at least 130 shops. My daughter, who was only about 4 when I started working on it, grew very wary of going “shopping” with me. She’d ask “Are we going to YOUR shops or MY shops”? After a while she outright refused to get in the car to go to see shops. To answer your other question, there are so many 112s. Everyone in my life is tired of hearing “I almost put this shop in my book.”
J.P.:So you moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2003 when Time wanted you to cover the movie business. And I wonder—what is it to cover the movie business? What does it entail? Is it more fun or nightmare? And did you know what you were doing?
D.P.: The definition of “covering the movie business” depends on the goals of the outlet you’re working for. So Time, being such a mass- appeal publication, really needed celebrity driven stuff. So I spent a lot of time lunching with celebrities or the people who promote celebrities. So let’s just say I had a lot of insincere conversations. Some really great ones too, but there was A LOT of bullshitting. A lot of my job was finding really inspiring stories about movie-making in all that. They exist, but they’re not the ones you get pitched the most.
And it’s funny you ask if I knew what I was doing because at first I did not. I was a hard news reporter so I didn’t know a lot about Hollywood culture. And being the Time movie correspondent was a one-person job in L.A. so I had no one to shadow or learn from. But that’s when your journalism training kicks in and you realize you just have to figure it out. You figure it out because you have to do your job. And because I was working for Time I ended up being schmoozed a lot by people who were often surprised when I walked in the door because they might have been expecting someone who was more Hollywood-polished than I am. I mean Jess Cagle, who is now editor-in-chief of People magazine and hosts a lot of red-carpet shows, did the job before me! He got married in Bridgehampton this year and there were many celebrity guests including Sofia Vergara, Sarah Jessica Parker. And I only know that because I just googled him to make sure I gave you the correct spelling of his name. Needless to say we do not socialize in the same circles. Jess probably knows Matt Tyrnauer.
And if I’m being really honest Hollywood celebrity parties are not as fun as they photograph. I mean I was a party girl in New York; I know how to have a good time. But in L.A. you walk into a party and if you didn’t arrive in the right car with the right people in the right clothes nobody wants to talk to you. These parties are goal-oriented affairs. You’ve only had fun if your career is in better shape when you leave than when you arrived. I did enjoy taking my friends to the parties and watching them enjoy themselves. My friend Seamus, in particular, loved chatting up celebs. And he’s got a great Irish accent and is very relaxed so I could see them trying to figure out if he was someone they needed to accommodate or not. I would of course make sure I was nowhere near. Also I enjoyed going to film festivals. The publicists were always surprised that I actually spent most of my time watching the movies.
Fun story. I went to the Oscars the first week I arrived in Los Angeles and I got invited to the Governors Ball. And because I had just moved from New York, I still smoked socially. So I go out on a balcony to have a cigarette and I start chatting with these women who looked like they were Marilyn Monroe impersonators. I start asking them what they thought of the movies that won etc. They have not seen anything. They knew nothing about the Academy; didn’t even know the party was called the Governor’s Ball. I explain stuff. They tell me they are just there as “dates” for some older dudes. Fast forward a year later I’m told I’m not invited to the Governor’s Ball because I’m not high ranking enough. There are hookers at this party; but I don’t make the cut.
So to answer your final question on this topic. As with everything else Hollywood is more fun once you figure out how everything works. Cause then you spend less time on the bullshit, and you can actually focus on the art. And filmmaking is an incredibly difficult art form to master. People who can successfully think of an idea then do everything needed to bring it to a theater are geniuses who deserve every cent of the millions of dollars they make.
J.P.:You grew up in Georgetown, Guyana—but I know jarringly little about your actual journey to America. So how? Why? When? What was the reasoning? How hard was it?
D.P.: The why I came to the U.S. is that I really really wanted to be a U.S.-trained journalist. I wanted to be a reporter since I was about twelve years old. We got pirated American television stations when I was growing up in Guyana. I was obsessed with Bernard Shaw and Bella Shaw who co-hosted the evening news on CNN. I also loved the “read Time and understand” commercials that ran nonstop on TBS in the eighties. I can still sing the jingle verbatim. I could hardly believe it when I landed a job there.
Also my older sisters were working as nannies in New York, so I was determined to be with them and study journalism at an American university. So that’s why I chose New York. Yes it was hard because no one in my family knew how to do what I was trying to. So figuring it out was hard and I did most of the research myself, as an 18 year old with no information to start with. I spent a year in New York in limbo with my parents trying to scrape together money to pay for college. Early in the process someone “official” told me I didn’t qualify for financial aid. I didn’t realize that with my grades and high school achievements I probably could have gotten a scholarship to a really good private university. So I enrolled at City College of New York, which ended up being a really great experience, and my parents borrowed money to pay my tuition and my sisters fed and clothed and sheltered me.
During that year in limbo I went out of student status and I wrote a letter to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service explaining all the difficulties I was having and asking them to not cancel my student visa. And they extended it. I think international students today would be too afraid of being deported to write the letter I did.
J.P.:You’re on a college campus, meaning you’re around students all the time. And I often hear, “Ugh, kids today” and “Ugh, 20-year-olds today.” And I wonder, from your experience, whether there’s any generational justification for the frustration with this era of youngsters? Like, are they more entitled? More bratty? Or are we just old assholes?
D.P.: We’re just old assholes. Every single day college kids are realizing there is so much about the world they know nothing about. And that, understandably, is intimidating. And they get a little scared and insecure and they try to front. Once you realize what’s at the root of a lot of the behavior you can genuinely engage them. You just have to let them know that they don’t have to be experts on anything around you; that they won’t be judged for not knowing everything. You have to start with empathy.
That said, I have to admit I can’t listen to their conversations with each other for very long. But I understand that it’s not because of any deficiencies on their part. It’s just that I’m old. So when I find myself wanting to launch into lectures about syntax or the virtues of vulnerability, I just move on. I move my body out of earshot. But sometimes it’s fun to blow their minds with fun facts from any time before 5 years ago.
J.P.:Your husband Aaron played college football, then in the CFL and NFL. And I wonder (because I’ve actually never asked this before of someone in your shoes) whether you see the echoes of sports in your man’s existence? What I mean is, from approach to things to limps to impulses to reactions—can you see sport’s imprint?
D.P.: My husband loves being on a team. He really enjoyed playing at Indiana University and he actually graduated so he’s proud he got an education out of it. He coaches high school football now so football and team culture are still a big part of his life.
He’s very disciplined about getting his work done, ticking off any tasks he has set himself, and setting goals. I think that’s because of sports. On the flip side it’s hard for him to switch course or abandon something, even if it’s not working out. A comical example of this is that he will watch a bad movie to the end rather than bail. He just needs to see things through. Play until the last minute.
And yes, sports has definitely taken a toll on his body. He has really bad knees. He’s had several procedures and will eventually need to have them replaced.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?
D.P.: Greatest moment was the first night after my daughter was born when it was just the three of us alone in the hospital room and I didn’t feel like I needed anything more to be happy.
Lowest was realizing just how much being sexually molested as a child has affected my life.
J.P.: You’re a journalist. I’m a journalist. We live in the era of #fakenews. What are we supposed to do to maintain the public’s trust? How do we survive this shit?
D.P.: By doing our best. And I mean that sincerely. We have to strive to do good work, all the time. And we have to call out bad work. I do not watch cable news. I think all the cable news channels do a shitty job. I hate fake punditry, which is what you see on cable news. It does not make viewers smarter or better informed.
I try to remind myself to go read source material as much as possible—the whole speech rather than the clips; the report rather than the teaser “findings.” We also have to understand what we are fighting for even if other people don’t get it. There is no democracy without a free press.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DESA PHILADELPHIA:
• What are the complications of having a city for a name?: Being accused of making it up. My first class, first day of college, we go around the room introducing ourselves. Guy next to me says, in a really sarcastic voice, think Valley Girl stereotype: “So are you trying to be like Judy Chicago?” Also early Facebook kicked me off because they said my name was fake. I only got restored because a friend had a friend who worked there who hooked me up. Another annoyance, people thinking that there’s a “mistake” that needs to be fixed. An airline rep made me step aside and wait until everyone else had boarded so he could explain they had made a mistake on my boarding pass and printed the city of departure—Philadelphia—instead of my last name. I had to point out there were two instance of “Philadelphia” on the pass.
Another thing, I’m still trying to live up to this great writer’s name. I don’t really have the desire to write the great Caribbean-American novel, but I’ll probably have to; just because.
• Rank in order (favorite to least)—Cam Cameron, Santa Claus, the new Miami Marlins logo, Fruit Stripe gum, Budweiser Clydesdales, Guinness Beer, The Last Bookstore, your daughter’s teacher from last year, Hideo Nomo: My daughter’s teacher from last year (she won a national teaching award), Guinness Beer, The Last Bookstore, Cam Cameron (he coached my husband in college), Hideo Nomo (I love baseball), Santa Claus, Fruit Stripe gum (I bite myself when I chew gum), the Budweiser Clydesdales, the new Miami Marlins logo.
• How did you meet your husband?: He went to high school with my Canadian cousins, and is besties with one of my cousins in particular. Everyone in my family knew him before I did, even my parents. He was a frequent visitor to my family’s gatherings. I had to introduce him to no one. I hit on him at a New Year’s Eve party in Toronto, gave him my number and told him to call me the next day. I’ve been bossing him around since.
• Five greatest Asian-American journalists of your lifetime: Connie Chung, Atul Gawande, Ann Curry, Lisa Ling, Lakshmi Singh.
• I don’t think Eminem’s “Relapse” album was particularly good. What says you?: I probably can’t name a single song on that album. I still listen to Midnight Marauders (A Tribe Called Quest) and Daily Operator (Gang Starr).
• Tell me a joke, please: I’m going to do a standup comedy kind a joke rather than a knock-knock category joke. Here goes …
When my daughter was five and the Frozen movie was huge we were at a birthday party with an entertainer dressed up as Elsa. I was chatting with some moms and I see Elsa trying her best to escape my kid. I walk over to hear my daughter ask: “Is that your real hair?” Elsa says yes. My daughter, accusingly: “Well how come I can see brown hair underneath?” I practically drag my kid away. She is mad as hell at this obvious imposter: “Mom, her name isn’t even Elsa you know. It’s Idina Menzel!”
• This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: Great choice. I love Shannon Hoon’s voice. No Rain is probably the only song my husband and I would both have on our favorites list. It’s in my top 10 for sure; probably top 5.
• What’s the worst smell in the world?: I don’t know. But the worst smells I’ve ever experienced were the smoke in the air from the 9/11 attacks; you could smell it for weeks everywhere in Manhattan. And a person being hit and killed by a subway train. I was shocked by the fact that there was an immediate small. And we have a fruit in Guyana called Stinking Toe. It smells really bad; I can’t remember what it tastes like.
• You’ve met my dog Norma. I think if I banged my head, fell to the floor and started bleeding while unconscious, she’d happily lick up the blood. My kids think she’d bark for help. What says you?: Hmmm, I love your dog; she is a sweetheart. I think she’d lick up the blood until you stopped bleeding. Then bark when she got hungry again.
• Four great things about being so short?: 1. I always got to be at the front of the line in elementary school. 2. Never dated a guy who was too short. 3. I don’t hit my head much. 4. Always at the front in photos.
Over the ensuing 400 or so weeks, many of these interviews have been the byproducts of that sort of curiosity. What ever became of Phil Nevin? What ever became of Jenn Sterger? What ever became of the third guitarist from Styx? Or, in other words, I’m a big “What ever became of …” guy.
Maybe the biggest.
Hence, I’m happy to introduce the latest Quaz, Maggie Langrick, who is here because, not all that long ago, the kids and I were watching “Harry and the Hendersons” and I thought, “Hmm, what ever became of the two kids?” One, Joshua Rudoy, sort of vanished into the world’s abyss. The other, however, is Maggie, who spent a solid decade doing the Hollywood thing before becoming a (gasp!) journalist.
These days, Maggie is the CEO and publisher at LifeTree Media, a company that provides premiere editorial and publishing services to non-fiction authors. Her blog is awesome, her acting memories fantastic, her anti-Trump feelings raw and righteous.
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Maggie, I first learned of you about a week ago, when my kids and I watched “Harry and the Hendersons” on Netflix. Mainly because I have this disease where I always wonder what became of actors, singers athletes, etc. And I am fascinated by the film, because it was very quirky, very, very enjoyable. So—how’d you land that gig? And, looking back three decades, how do you feel about it?
MAGGIE LANGRICK:Harry and the Hendersons was such a fun gig. I got the part the usual way, by auditioning for the director and producers. I guess I was pretty good at sarcastically rolling my eyes as a teenager, and that’s exactly what they were looking for. The shoot was long – about three or four months, half of which was spent on location in Seattle, and the other half on the back lot at Universal Studios.
J.P.:So you’re the head of LifeTree Media, a company that “provides premiere editorial and publishing services to non-fiction authors.” And as we sit here in 2018, I wonder how you feel about the future of printed books. Will they exist in two decades? Has there been a revival? Do we all need to just embrace digital? Does it matter?
M.L.: I think we do all need to embrace digital media, as more and more aspects of our lives are conducted in the digital space. However, I also don’t believe that printed books are going away, at least not anytime soon. People have their preferences, and all three major formats—print, ebook and now audiobook—have their fans. Personally, I read both ebooks and print books and find that both have their place. The good news is that people are still buying and reading books. Ultimately, I don’t think the format matters at all. What’s important is the content, not the container.
J.P.:You’re the former life and arts editor of the Vancouver Sun, and I’m a former life and arts writer for The Tennessean. And I really, really miss the intensity of the newsroom, the smell of paper off press, etc. How do you feel about newspapers? And, like books, is there any hope?
M.L.: Journalism is in a very, very tough spot. I believe the economic challenges to the newspaper industry are much more serious than those that book publishers are facing because the bulk of their revenues come from ads, not from consumer sales. Those ad dollars have all but vanished with the rise of digital media, and the money earned from online subscriptions is nowhere near enough to replace what’s been lost. Print newspaper newsrooms, especially smaller metropolitan dailies, are dramatically shrinking their staffs or closing down altogether. It’s very worrying when you consider how important a free and robust press is to democracy. I do, however, feel encouraged by the rise of credible online-only news outlets. As with books, it’s news reporting that matters, not the paper it’s printed on.
J.P.:You identify on your site as a feminist. And, on Nov. 12, 2016, you began a blog post with “I woke up crying the morning after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.” So I have to ask—how are you holding up in the era of Donald Trump? What are your survival techniques?
M.L.: I’m white-knuckling it and praying for a return to decency and democracy in 2020.
J.P.:You wrote a blog post titled, THREE MISTAKES NEW AUTHORS MAKE WHEN WRITING A NONFICTION BOOK. And, under one, you write, “How-to books, memoirs, “big idea” books and narrative non-fiction books all follow particular conventions, and must have certain qualities in order to be successful. Failure to understand or observe these norms is almost certain to lead to an unsatisfying book that feels “off” to readers.” I was wondering if you could elaborate, because I don’t quite get it.
M.L.: This is a great question with a fairly complex answer. I can’t go into detail here about the qualities and norms of every type of book, but as an example, a how-to book must feature clear instructions and solid information in order to be successful. Memoir requires exceptional creative writing talent and storytelling skills, while a big idea book must present a comprehensive and compelling argument from a bona fide expert. Novice writers often miss the mark, for example by using case studies ineffectively, or relying too heavily on their own opinions and conclusions at the expense of facts and evidence.
J.P.:I’m currently reading Justine Bateman’s book, “Fame.” And the premise is, really, “fame is bullshit.” You experienced a good run in Hollywood. Is fame bullshit? How did you feel about the spotlight? Red carpets? Being recognized? Etc?
M.L.: I guess it depends on what you mean by fame. Celebrity is bullshit, for sure. But being well known for doing excellent work in any field is not a bad thing. I think most people with big dreams or ambitions would like to make a mark on the world, and that usually brings with it some recognition. As an actor, I was recognized from time to time and it was almost always a pleasant or neutral experience – just a brief encounter with a fellow human being wanting to share their appreciation for my work. I never got famous enough for stalkers or harrassers to become a problem.
J.P.:Along those lines, why did you stop acting?
M.L.: Acting was tons of fun, but the work was so erratic. I never felt in control of my own career progression. After my daughter was born I studied fine art for a while, then pivoted into editing, which is something I’ve always enjoyed and am naturally good at.
J.P.:You refer to yourself as “an optimistic cheerleader for the human race.” And, Maggie, I’m having a shitload of trouble right now. Climate change, xenophobia, guns. Is there really a reason for optimism?
M.L.: Sigh. I know. It’s not an easy time to be an optimist. Humanity appears to be taking a pretty big step back at the moment. But here’s the thing. Humans have been doing vile and despicable things to each other throughout history, on both a grand and intimate scale. Yet even in the midst of the most horrific events or conditions, individuals will show each other kindness, feel and express love, and perform heroic acts of generosity. Relieving the suffering of another person, even just a little bit, feels good. We all commit acts of cruelty, selfishness and aggression too from time to time, but it feels bad to do it, even when it brings us some sort of advantage. That tells me that love, kindness and generosity must be our natural state. The impulse to intentionally inflict suffering on another person is an unnatural one that stems from suffering that we ourselves have experienced in the past. Underneath our dysfunction we are constantly trying, or at least longing, to return to that harmonious natural state so that we can feel peaceful and happy. There is in each of us an overwhelming desire to heal and repair. That is the basis of my optimism. That’s also why I decided that my company LifeTree Media would publish books that help, heal and inspire.
Maggie (right) and the Hendersons.
J.P.:What’s the most memorable assignment of your journalism career? And what do you remember about it?
M.L.: I was never a reporter, always an editor, so I haven’t had a lot of assignments of the sort I think you’re referring to. However, I was fortunate to be Arts and Life Editor for the Vancouver Sun during the 2010 Olympics. That was an electrifying moment for the city, for our newsroom, and for me personally.
J.P.:So I’ve had a bunch of my books optioned, and it’s always the same shit: This is amazing! This is gonna be a great movie! We know just the guy to star in it! Oh, this is happening! Then, one day inevitably—silence. You’ve experienced Hollywood. Serious question: Why is there so much bullshit?
M.L.: I think you’re referring to the insincere flattery and empty promises that Hollywood is known for. I sure don’t have the inside scoop on why that is or where it comes from, but if I suspect it’s due to a combination of laziness and opportunism. It’s easier to pay someone a hollow compliment than to tell them a difficult truth. And in a fickle town like Hollywood where you never know which dumb idea is about to become the next Big Thing, people tend to string each other along to keep their options open. And now that’s become part of the culture; everybody knows not to pop any champagne until the ink is dry on a deal.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MAGGIE LANGRICK:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): the BLT, Henry Burris, T.J. Scott, Law & Order, Washington Post, Bryce Harper, your left hand, big glasses of root beer, Elena Kagan: My left hand, BLT (assuming you mean the delicious sandwich), Washington Post, Elana Kagan, Root beer, Law & Order, T.J. Scott, Henry Burris and Bryce Harper are tied for last place because I had to Google them to find out who they were.
• The next president of the United States will be …: …very busy restoring faith in our public institutions.
• Five all-time favorite books: Oh, no, all-time faves are too hard! But here are five random books that I liked reading a lot.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber
Good to Great, by Jim Collins
The Wives of Bath, by Susan Swan
The Maggie B, by Irene Haas
• Three memories from playing Dolores Lucas in “Cold Comfort”: 1. Maury Chaykin (who played my father) trying to crack me up during my closeups by feeding me goofy lines from off-camera; 2. Shooting the topless scene. I was super nervous, but only because I felt insecure about my body; 3. A poem that Maury made up, which made it into the birthday scene. It went: “My daughter, my daughter // Part of me, part of your mother // But mostly, part of me.” Man, that is just the best thing ever.
• Three reasons one should move to Vancouver: Mountains, ocean, BC bud.
• Would it have been theoretically possible for the Hendersons to just renovate the basement and have Harry move in?: Not really because the movie was shot in a sound stage at Universal Studios… :/
• What are your five most-overused writing words?: I have no idea. But I do know that I use way, way too many parenthetical clauses.
• I once had a book sitting at No. 13 on the NYT best-seller’s list. Snooki’s book was No. 1. Am I allowed to pull my hair out over this?: No. You are allowed to count yourself very, very lucky to have found a place on that list at all. And then you are allowed to brag about it as much as you want for the rest of your life! I sure would.
• Name seven people you’ve never met: Justin Trudeau, Oprah Winfrey, Tilda Swinton, Jane Goodall, Chris Ofili, my paternal grandmother