Jeff Pearlman

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California 1, Norma 0

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So we’ve now been Californians for a week, and it’s been pretty great. Great house, great weather, great beaches, great road trips, great Mexican food. Even my daughter—who struggled with the idea of the move—has adjusted nicely.

Then … yesterday evening.

It was all going so well. We were invited to the across-the-street neighbors’ house for dinner. They’re lovely people—a couple with a young child. We chatted and ate and laughed. Midway through, I went outside with the kids. The couple has a dog. A big one. Alaskan Malamute. Absolutely adorable. Fluffy. Friendly. He’s on a leash that’s tied to the house, and he pretty much just hangs. When people approach, he rolls over to be pet on the belly. Great friggin’ dog.

We played and played and played. I felt bad that our dog, a little cockapoo named Norma, was locked inside. So I brought her out. A day earlier, with my wife, she met Alaskan Malamute for the first time, but wanted little to do with her. Her ears drooped. She hung back. Just not a love connection. I, however, wasn’t there for the encounter. Hence, I brought Norma toward Alaskan Malamute. And, when Norma paused, I pulled her closer. Gently, gently, gently, gently …

GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!

Alaskan Malamute lunged at Norma, wrapper her teeth around my dog and started slinging her back and forth through the air, like a rag doll. I was shocked, and immediately began yanking the leash toward me. Norma was crying, Alaskan Malamute wasn’t letting go, the leash snapped off Norma’s neck and I knew—just knew—she was dead.

My dog was dead.

One of the Alaskan Malamute’s owners (a truly nice man who felt awful about the whole exchange) rushed over, and forced open his dog’s mouth. Norma escaped and somehow limped across the street toward out house. The wife says she was in some state of doggie shock—no sounds, not even a cry. I ran after her, and when I caught up Norma was calm as could be. Just a limp. Upon closer inspection, however, she had a big bloody hole on her right side. It looked bad.

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As I Googled the nearest open animal hospital, my thoughts did the crazy dance. I was sick for my new neighbors, who surely had no idea this could happen. I was furious at myself for bringing Norma so close. Mostly, I was terrified for my beloved dog. Absolutely terrified.

And that’s the weirdest thing of all. Before Norma, I was the guy who laughed at pet owners who treated their animals as humans. I remember, back when I was a camp counselor, one of my co-workers called in sick because her dog died. I was furious, because it meant I had to work waterfront in her steed. I loathed waterfront. Why the hell would someone skip work for a dead dog? What a lame excuse …

Now, I was speeding to the hospital, 2 1/2 miles away. Norma sat in the front passenger seat, atop a beach towel, and I was begging her to stay alive, literally apologizing to my cockapoo, who (it seems) speaks little-to-no English. “I’m so sorry, Norma … I’m so fucking sorry … you’re the best dog … I love you … you’re the best best best dog …”

I arrived at the hospital and, of course, there was a two-hour wait. A little dog named Gizmo had eye goop. A big golden retriever named Gretzy was limping. I saw a woman in her mid-50s rush through the front door, tears streaming down her cheeks, cradling a small dog that wasn’t moving. I waited and waited and waited, fearful Norma was dying of internal bleeding, crushed by all the surrounding sadness.

When a doctor finally saw Norma, she gave me good news and bad news.

The good news: Norma wouldn’t die.

The bad news:

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 11.54.50 PMThat’s no misprint. If everything went right, and Norma’s injuries met bare minimum projections, I’d be paying $2616.61. Back when we bought her from (I know … I know) a pet shop six years ago, she cost about $500—discounted because she was a couple of months old. To fix her up, I’d be surrendering six times that amount.

But here’s the thing: I love my fucking dog. I love, love, love, love her, in the way I love very few things besides my closest relatives and friends. Norma has been my writing sidekick for years. She sleeps at the end of our bed every night, a reassuring sight that everything’s solid in the world. She never bites, never nips, never chases other animals, never causes much trouble. Back in New Rochelle, she became the unofficial neighborhood pooch. I can count four little kids who learned, via Norma, not to fear dogs. She’s sweetness personified.

Anyhow, she spent the night at the hospital, and when I picked her up this evening … well, it was an ugly site. She’s oozing fluids from her body, she’s stitched up, shaved, wearing a cone of shame around her head. She still has the ol’ Norma pep, but seems really tired and not especially hungry. The hospital decked her out in an aqua jump suit, which looks straight out of a 1970s disco movie.

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As I exited the building for the final time, I met a couple with tears in their eyes. Their cat of 20 years had just been put to sleep—a pain that, for the first time, I could understand and empathize with. I told them about our incident, and the woman said, “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Norma,” I said.

She turned to her husband, then back to me. “We’re gonna pray for Norma tonight,” she said. “We’re gonna pray for Norma.”

Ice Buckets

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Received this e-mail from a reader the other day. She said I could run it, as long as she remained anonymous. Fair deal, great points …

I just read your post about the “ice bucket challenge”, and would like to offer some of my own thoughts. I had considered just making a public comment to reply, but, there are some things I wouldn’t want going out for the whole internet to see (yet). Hence, you get the fun of getting this in an email.

I have been a part of the Relay For Life of Second Life for six years now. It was something I became involved with after losing my partner to liver cancer in 2008. Along with that, I’ve been part of a small group of people trying to get the National Kidney Foundation actively and officially involved in Second Life over the last four months, after losing a very dear friend to kidney failure in early May. Needless to say, volunteer work and supporting causes has been a major part of my life these last six years.

Like you, I have issues with this whole “ice bucket” thing for ALS. Now, you would think someone like me would be the first to say “Do it! Support the cause! It’s bringing in money!”

But, I can’t. And you touched on some of it quite well.

Part of my problem with the ice bucket challenge is just that. “Challenging”. When you think about it, it’s calling out and/or shaming people into supporting a cause THEIR way. This is something I know all too well – both personally, and generally.

On the general level: A big part of the fundraising for our Relay in SL has been through “bid me balds”, basically asking (or even challenging) people to remove their hair for X number of days, depending how much gets raised during the week. It’s been going on since 2007, and is billed as “doing it to show solidarity with those battling cancer, who didn’t have a choice to lose their hair”. In theory, maybe. Maybe it was that way. But, over the years, it has morphed into some sort of initiation ritual. It has turned into brow-beating people into going bald, as if that’s the only “right” way to Relay. And, instead of it being a true statement about cancer and chemo, it’s often turned into a joke – complete with comments about Turtle Wax and the like. Basically, what may have been about “solidarity” has now become about people saying “Look at me, I’m bald!” or “I got you bald!” A hairless 3D avatar has now become a bigger statement than the cause itself. Besides that, what of those who think it’s a lousy way to show solidarity? I know people battling cancer who have lost their hair in real life thanks to chemo, and DON’T want to do so in Second Life as well. I know people battling cancer who have begged everyone they know “Please, for me, DON’T go bald. I hate that I’ve lost my hair, and seeing people do so for me only makes me feel worse.” I’ve often told some of these people “I show solidarity with cancer patients. I show solidarity by fighting for them. I show solidarity by being there for my friends when they need me. I showed solidarity by refusing to leave my partner’s side until the day this damned disease took her from this world. And, that is far more meaningful than just removing the hair off my avatar.”

On the personal level: I have been “called out” to go bald several times over the years, much like our new 2014 trend of challenging people with ice buckets. I’ve refused, knowing that my late partner would’ve greatly hated it, and not felt it was “showing solidarity” with her. On top of that, I’m (in)famous for my outrageous fashion sense in Second Life, and have been both called out publicly, and harassed privately, to “be bid into normal clothes” for Relay, for years now. It’s been something I’ve refused, because I’m not only personally uncomfortable with it, but, because, I don’t feel that putting people on the spot and humiliating them is the way to raise funds or support a cause. There’s a difference between light-hearted teasing and humiliation. There is also a difference between offering up something yourself if people meet a goal, and being pushed into doing something that someone else wants in the name of “the cause”. I feel the latter not only starts to feel like some of frat house initiation, but also completely takes away from the message and purpose.

I have been watching this whole ice bucket trend go on, with that in mind. That not only does it feel like brow-beating and trying to haze people into “supporting” the cause (which I obviously have a strong reaction to anymore), but it feels like an empty, meaningless gesture. In fact, the gesture now means more than the cause, when you come right down to it. Maybe it has brought in $15,000,000 more than the foundation(s) fighting ALS would normally see by this time of year, but, has it made a real and lasting impact? I hear a lot of call-outs. I see a lot of ice bucket videos. But, how much are we really HEARING about ALS? Is this really reaching out to people? Is this really educating and impacting people?

My guess: No. It is likely to become an empty trend and rite of passage, much like a bald avatar or an X cap. The X cap eventually became a meaningless fashion statement. Taking one’s virtual hair off doesn’t have the impact that being a supportive friend does for someone battling cancer. And, yes, I imagine the day is coming (maybe even soon) where people will start laughing off ice buckets, then forget about them – and what it was about (or allegedly about) – altogether. Those who think “charity” should be about calling people out will find a new rite of passage and a new cause of the moment. Those thinking they’re cool and cute on YouTube will find a new trendy thing for their videos. And ALS will fade back into the background. Sad, but true.

I am glad the ALS Association has seen a boost in donations, don’t get me wrong. But, to make a lasting impact, you need to reach out to people. You need to show them how ALS affects people – like Lou Gehrig, and Stephen Hawking, and Steve Gleason. This is not to say that charity efforts shouldn’t be fun, but, without showing why it matters on a personal level, it will not make a long-term impact. “Here’s what ALS does, and how it affects people” will send a far more meaningful message than “I’m going to dump a bucket of water on you.”

On top of that, people should support a cause (or causes) because they matter. Not because they’re “challenged” to, or because it “looks cool on YouTube”. Yes, ALS is a terrible disease. Yes, the ALS Association needs support. But, I wish people would get involved because they cared. Go out and make a real difference. Volunteer a few hours. Reach out and educate.

It just saddens me to see that anymore, it seems some people can’t support a cause without challenging – either thinking challenging someone is all they can bring to the table, or that being challenged is the only way to get a person to do something.

To put it briefly: Yes. This Relay veteran, who is also working on starting up their own fundraising efforts for another charity, sees this as all wrong too. And, no, I would not blame you in the least if you continued to refuse to take part in this challenge. You cited some very real reasons why you don’t feel comfortable with doing so, and, I fully understand and agree.

A somewhat embarrassing admission

Sometimes when I’m up working late, and the house is quiet, and my mind starts to wander, I go to YouTube and watch the above video.

Then I’ll watch another Whitney Houston video.

And another.

And another. And another. And another. And another.

Why?

Because music can take you places, and back in 1985, when I was 13 and just starting to realize girls existed, the one I wanted to marry was Whitney Houston.

It’s weird now, considering she morphed into this horrifying, vile crack-addicted creature. But during her prime, Whitney was talented, gorgeous, inspiring. She was graceful in the way of a swan, and I don’t know many men who didn’t find her at least somewhat alluring.

So … yeah. I’ll listen. It makes me have those emotions again.

Those very good emotions.

Lisa Joseph and a life’s value

Lisa Joseph. RIP

Lisa Joseph. RIP

I have little value to this world.

It’s undeniably true. I write books. About sports. At best, they entertain and inform and (hopefully) add some texture to a subject. At worst, they gather dust on a 99-cent rack. Either way, that’s about it. Authors receive some notoriety, but I’m not entirely sure why.

Again, I have little value.

But here’s the thing. Despite my minimal contributions, I’ve lived a spectacular life. My parents raised me in a lovely suburban home, smothered me with support, paid for my college education so I’d leave with no debt. I was able to pursue my dream of writing for a living, and have been able to work for a great magazine and put out a bunch of books. I live in a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood with my beautiful wife and kids. Why have I received such gifts? Honestly—luck. Pure friggin’ luck.

I learned a few hours ago that Lisa Joseph, my friend, has died. I met Lisa about a decade ago, when she worked as a babysitter for a family up the street. She was a native of Arima, Trinidad’s fourth largest city, and came to this nation to find work to help support her family. Back in the day, Lisa and I would take night runs throughout New Rochelle—usually three or four mile jaunts up and around the neighborhood. We would talk and talk and talk—about her son, about her time as a goaltender with the Trinidad national soccer team, about the kids she watched (and loved). Lisa was a positive spirit, and I can’t recall ever hearing her rip someone or look fatigued or complain about her lot in life.

Even when, about six years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer.

It spread quickly. Really quickly. All over her body. Lisa stopped working, moved to a one-bedroom apartment in a shit New York City neighborhood, ran out of money, grew weak, grew weaker. It was awful to watch, and when the wife and I spoke to Lisa via phone, we were always taken aback by her positivity. Her son was growing so big. She was feeling better. God was watching her.

Maybe, oh, a year ago, Lisa begrudgingly returned to Trinidad, to be with her loved ones. She didn’t want to make the move—but then good things started to happen. We had this Facebook exchange …

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… and this one …

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 9.52.36 PMIt was good news! Great news! A wonderful, giving person on the rebound. Her faith was being rewarded, and she was engulfed by love.

Now … she’s gone.

It’s not fair. The struggles. The heartache. The constant fight for money. Why was Lisa’s life one uphill run after another, while I’ve been allowed to sprint? Who decided this is the right way?

Sigh.

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Bill May

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 1.41.04 AMI’ve long been a fan of Bill May—one of the best athletes many readers have likely never heard of.

Back in the late 1990s, when I was an up-and-comer at Sports Illustrated, Bill made for great copy. He was a young athlete who competed in synchronized swimming—a sport normally reserved for women. And he was extraordinary. Bill was named the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999. However, he also battled and battled and battled for respect and admittance into events. Sometimes he won these fights (he was allowed to participate in the Goodwill Games). Often (like his efforts to compete in the 2004 Summer Olympics) he lost. However, throughout his career, he carried himself with remarkable dignity and grace.

Plus, he was an absolutely amazing jock.

These days, Bill lives in Las Vegas, where he performs in Cirque du Soleil‘s spectacular water-based show, O.

Bill May, to hell with Olympic glory. You’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: You’re the best male synchronized swimmer I ever covered. You’re the only male synchronized swimmer I ever covered. I’m wondering, a decade removed from the hubbub and fuss and craziness over your involvement in the sport, can you understand the arguments and concerns of those against your participation in an otherwise all-female sport? Or are you more dumbfounded?

BILL MAY: I think being removed from competition and having even a broader spectrum of life in general makes me question even more the limitations of men in synchronized swimming. Synchronized swimming often gets a bad reputation for being all beauty and no athleticism. Some people still have the vision of Esther Williams’ movies in their head. (However, if  you watch the Esther Williams movies, she is always accompanied by a male partner). I think limiting any sport’s growth, limits awareness and numbers, and without growth the sport will die. Men add a certain partnership and masculinity to the sport that cannot be achieved with two women. “If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.”

J.P.: How did this happen? How does a guy become a synchronized swimmer? What was your path from womb to pool?

B.M.: I never chose to make an uproar in synchronized swimming. I, like every kid who starts out doing a sport, was drawn to this particular sport for the pure love of it. It just happened, on accident, that it was a female dominated sport. The first day Michael Phelps began swimming, he didn’t do so with the knowledge or even the coherence  that he would one day be the most recognized athlete of all time … he loved to swim and that’s what made him who he is.

I was a gymnast and thought I would, one day, go to the Olympics for that. I would do anything to go. However …

One day my sister wanted to try this strange sport of synchronized swimming. I knew nothing about it, but I thought I would give it a try. It was a recreational program at a community poo . From the time I was 9-weeks old I was in the pool, so I already knew I loved the water. Also, there were other guys doing it, so instead of sitting and watching, I thought I would give it a try. I thought It would be just for the summer and I would go back to gymnastics and soon the Olympics. At the end of the summer a local coach asked if any of us would like to join her competitive team. I agreed, even though I was the worst of the bunch, but still wasn’t too serious. I was only 10 and I didn’t realize there were not guys all over doing it, but I enjoyed it and could still do that and gymnastics at the same time. It was a win win situation.  Over time I just became more and more serious about the sport and eventually had to choose between synchronized swimming and gymnastics, and I chose to swim.

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J.P.: Why would it have been fair to let a man swim against women in the Olympics? Aren’t there physical advantages you’d have?

B.M.: I think it is fair, at the present time, because there is not another category for men to compete separately in the Olympics, or other major international competitions. Synchronized swimming consists of a lot of physical strength and endurance, but also combines other aspects that one could argue would be an advantage to women—such as flexibility or floatability. I believe that people’s energy would be better spent not worrying about their own prejudice and misconceptions, but rather be proactive in creating an atmosphere for the growth of the sport.

J.P.: What is the joy of synchronized swimming? What I mean is—what’s the appeal? The jolt? The buzz? What did it do for you?

B.M.: Synchronized swimming is about pushing every single muscle in your body to its limits. It combines so many aspects of multiple sports that it’s a constant challenge. You have to have the grace and flexibility of a dancer, the agility of a gymnast, the aerobic capacity of a runner, and the efficiency of a swimmer. These must all be combined to perfection with out air and in an unstable, ever changing medium of water.

I also love the creation and performance aspects. You are constantly creating athletic performances to transform yourself into whatever you can imagine, to share your visions with your spectators. I have been a spider, a deconstructed human body, a storm, an exploration in the psychiatric mind, an angel and demon, and the list goes on. It’s a constant exploration of your own imagination and actually lets you show off the countless hours of hard work you have been doing.

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J.P.: You’ve worked with Cirque du Soleil since Jan. 1, 2005. This fascinates me—how’d you hear of the gig? Land the gig? And does it fill the void left when you stopped competitive swimming?

B.M.: I was actually contacted by Cirque. I work for Cirque Du Soleil’s O, which is a water show in Las Vegas. The show was created with two of the few male synchronized swimmers at the time, so when a spot opened I was fortunate enough to fit the requirements. That was actually an advantage of being a male in synchronized swimming. Due to the fact that there weren’t many male synchronized swimmers, it was gave me an amazing opportunity to be the only male in one of the most renowned shows in the world.

However, oddly enough, I only do two synchronized swimming routines in the show. The rest of the show, I spend my time moving about the stage as what could be described as a moving shoulder contortionist character called the “Waiter.” Each Cirque Du Soleil show has a core of characters that appear throughout the show and oddly bind the show together. One of them is me.

J.P.: You perform 476 shows per year—which seems the equivalent of Hall and Oates playing Maneater 476 times per year. How does it not ultimately bore the shit out of you? Doesn’t it get dull and painfully repetitive?

B.M.: At first glance, 476 shows a year seems overwhelming, but considering all the variables changes the entire outlook. Each night there is just as much of a show back stage as there is on stage. Everyone is talking about their daily life, which in the circus, is very entertaining. Also each and every show has a different audience with creates a different show or energy. We are like snowflakes … from a distance the show may look the same, but in reality, each and every show is beautiful and unique from the one before.

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J.P.: You’re approaching age 35. I’m wondering how, as a swimmer, this impacts you. Where do you feel age the most, physically? Emotionally? Does aging bother you at all? The inevitability of gray and wrinkles and card games at the senior living facility?

B.M.: I think the older I get the more experienced I get. I’m training just as hard as I ever have.  Presently, along with training for the shows, I am training for a 10K swim race, so some days I will swim more than 10k in one workout. The last 10k race I did, I became the USMS National Champion. So there is no slowing down for me.

Age doesn’t bother me, nor do I think there is an age cap for anything. I may have a few more wrinkles, but those come from sun damage, doing what I love to do … spending my days training in a pool! I train every day in flexibility, core strength, technique and physical conditioning. I believe if you continue a regime, there is no stopping the momentum, no matter your age.

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

B.M.: I have so many incredible moments from my career, but I think one very special moment was my opportunity to compete at the last Goodwill Games that involved synchronized swimming. It was the only international competition on the Olympic level in which I could compete. I did a duet with one of the best synchronized swimmers of all time, Kristina Lum. It was the first time a “Mixed Pair” performed and competed on the world’s stage.

Another moment happened at a competition in Germany. There was a federation from a different country who petitioned against me swimming. The organizing committee simply told them that I was welcomed to compete, and if they didn’t like that, they could leave. It was a powerful moment because I truly felt welcomed as an athlete, rather than a “man in a women’s sport”, and that there is respect for male synchronized swimmers. This gave me hope for the future of the involvement of men in synchronized swimming.

One of the lowest moments of my career was the opportunity to go to the Pan American Games, which are like the Olympics of North, Central and South America. There was a voting whether or not to allow me (men) to compete, because there were no prior limitations, and they voted against it. There were not many men competing at that level at the time, so it was a very personal decision against my career that could have easily been voted in favor of my involvement.

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J.P.: I have to ask—gimme the grossest pool story of your lifetime …

B.M.: One of the grossest stories of all time was a day at training in Southern California. I was at the side of the pool at one moment and I saw something on the bottom. I wasn’t doing anything at the time and thought it was a rock and I would pick it up and throw it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a rock, but a “floater,” a “chocolate log,” a “snickers bar” … yup, a big piece of poop. We all had to clear the pool, and they had to shock the pool to sanitize it with enough chemicals to burn the hair off our head. However, unfortunately we had an exhibition of routines that night so we had to swim because it was also a fundraiser. We also had a road trip planned to Vegas that night after the show. Our eyes were in so much pain and so bloodshot and clouded over, I think we were driving Braile. We couldn’t see anything for two days!

J.P.: Can anyone be great at swimming? Being serious—my daughter, for example, is pretty unathletic, with limited endurance. Does she have a shot in the pool? What about overweight kids? Etc …

B.M.: I am a complete optimist, so I think if anyone works hard enough they can achieve anything. If you’re overweight or underweight, swimming is a good source of exercise to tone and or add muscle in a very healthy form of physical fitness.

I work hours a day on my flexibility. If I were slow, I would work more to increase my speed. If I didn’t move well or fluidly, I would take a dance class to improve. I look at shortcomings as a challenge that people overcome.

There is no guarantee that anyone who begins a sport will be Olympic champion, but until you give your all, you will never know. There are athletes everywhere who begin their career for the love of the sport with no guarantees. The love and hard work is what creates champions, not an Olympic Gold Medal. People become great at something because they choose to be great and work hard at achieving greatness.  So yes, I believe anyone can be amazing, at any sport.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BILL MAY:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Nah … not really. For some reason, the second I sit in my seat, I fall asleep. I would be in Heaven, or the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory before I realized we crashed

• Who wins in a hold-your-breath-underwater battle between you and Michael Phelps? And how long can you last?: I already know I would win. Synchronized swimmers could rock any swimmer. The longest I have held my breath was 3:30, but if it was a win or lose situation, I’m not coming up!

• Explain how Aquaman could possibly beat Superman in a fight?: Well, Superman is pretty incredible, so Aquaman would have to drag him to the bottom of the ocean and strap him down with Kryptonite. Or he could challenge him to a synchronized swimming routine.

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Donna Summer, Mark Spitz, High School Musical II, lava lamps, Darth Vader, Burt Reynolds, Pete Rose, elephants, Denzel Washington, Jim Boeheim, steak: Mark Spitz, Donna Summer, Jim Boeheim, Elephants, Lava Lamps, Darth Vader, Steak, Denzel Washington, Burt Reynolds, High School Musical II, Pete Rose.

• Dry, heat, gambling, middle of nowhere—Las Vegas seems like a brutally awful place to live. Tell me why I’m wrong (or right): Cirque Du Soleil’s “O.”  Duh….

• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $20 million next year to move onto her estate and teach her pet guinea pig to swim. The catch—You sleep in a dog house and eat everything out of a dog dish. You in?: Heck yes!!! I have done way worse for way less!

• Five favorite movies: Titanic, Lion King, Frozen, Breakfast Club, Legend. Oops… and No. 6 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—Gene Wilder’s version.

• Your name is pretty boring. If you could change “Bill May” to anything, what would you take?: My “porn” name: Aaron Torchwood

• What happens when we die?: We go to Heaven/Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory

• One question you would ask James Garfield were he here right now?: Shouldn’t you be in Heaven/ Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory????

A new neighbor

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We’re officially Californians today.

As I strolled through the hood, I met a man who explained to me how—under no conditions—would a decent person allow his dog to urinate on another’s property. He told me it’s awful and disrespectful and wrong. He told me it’s something idiots do, and that you’d have to be completely tone deaf to behave in such a manner.

Meanwhile, his lawn sprinklers ran for a solid 15-minutes straight.

In the midst of the worst drought in state history.

A blockbuster T-shirt trade

A deadline trade between Luftig (left) and Pearlman left analysts shocked.

A deadline trade between Luftig (left) and Pearlman left analysts shocked.

We’re leaving for California tomorrow. Very sad, very exciting. Lots of highs, lots of lows.

A few hours ago, we bid farewell to the Luftigs, our pals up the block. As Larry Luftig and I spoke in his kitchen, I admired (for the 1,000th time) his old-school Tribe Called Quest T-shirt. Out of nowhere, a blockbuster trade was suggested—the Tribe shirt for the Dodgers shirt I was wearing.

Within minutes, we pulled off Ts and swapped, much like—as Larry noted—the conclusion of a soccer friendly.

The question is: Who won the deal?

What Pearlman received: A 15-year-old grayish-black shirt that doesn’t quite fit. It’s too short, and when I raise my arms my belly shows. However—and this is a HUGE however—the garment isn’t merely from any Tribe album. It’s from The Love Movement, the only one of the group’s CDs to be thoroughly panned and forgotten. That makes it special and rare and non-cliched. There are approximately 60,000 people living in Laguna Niguel. I will be the only one—perhaps ever—to own a Love Movement shirt. So what if it doesn’t 100 percent fit? I’ll adjust.

What Luftig received: A newish Dodger shirt, soft fabric, fits pretty well, purchased six or seven months ago for $12 at a Marshall’s in Costa Mesa. The T isn’t especially unique (there were probably 10 others in stock inside the store), but it’s cool and patriotic-looking and—in New York—original.

When I asked Larry for his thoughts, he noted—glumly—that he felt like the Mets trading away Tom Seaver to the Reds in 1977. But, he added, “the motivation is that my T-shirt  collection is too heavily represented by the east coast. I needed some balance in the lineup.”

Meanwhile, the Dodgers shirt—for me—was sorta like Zack Wheeler. I liked it, and it certainly had a place in my rotation. However, it was also expendable. Geography-based shirts lose some luster when they’re based in the region. Translation: A Dodger shirt was cooler in New York than Los Angeles.

So, dear reader, who wins?

There was an empty chair

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We attended a funeral today.

It was for Rita Fieber, my wife’s aunt’s mother. She was 96, and died after a long and fruitful and joyful life.

To a certain degree, I knew Rita in the way a guy who marries into a family might know his wife’s aunt’s mother. She attended many family holiday parties at my house; we shared dinners a couple of times. There were cheek kisses hello and cheek kisses goodbye.

But there was also something more.

I liked Rita. Really liked her. Inevitably, at most family functions, I’d find myself sitting across from her on a couch or couple of chairs, talking books or movies or politics. She wasn’t the cliche senior citizen, hard of hearing, leaning on a cane, either hyping the virtues of Benny Goodman or observing the buzz from an emotional and physical distance. No, Rita (to be blunt) knew her shit. She was involved, curious, happening. She drove until her final year. Walked with a pep in her step. She lived for her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, was involved heavily in her local synagogue (even though she wasn’t particularly religious), traveled as much as she could. Even if you were the most extended of extended family members (as I was), she treated you as if you mattered.

Anyhow, the funeral was heartbreaking, as was the burial (there’s something about the sound of dirt landing atop a coffin that hits a person). But, for me, what stuck was the shiva call, which took place in Rita’s home. It’s something we Jews do—an odd ritual that merges the sadness of loss with the joy of whitefish salad, lox and cinnamon raisin bagels. Everyone gathers to talk about, well, everything. The lost relative. The Jets’ upcoming schedule. Fall plans and first loves and on and on.

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Throughout the afternoon, I roamed from room to room, across Rita’s lushly distinctive green carpet, past myriad photographs of her grandchildren, up the stairs, into her neatly arranged bedroom. It’s a weird thing, walking through the home of a person who recently passed. I’d turn corners and half expect to see Rita there, standing, chatting with Aunt Nancy, maybe sipping from a cup of tea or explaining how to perfectly fold a napkin (Rita was big into manners). Then I’d remind myself, “Wait—she’s gone. She’s not here.”

And it hits you.

For me, the item that really spoke was an electronic chair, which waited patiently at the top of the steps. Until her final year, Rita walked everywhere in the house. When her health faded a bit, however, she came to begrudgingly use the chair from time to time. Up. Down. Down. Up.

Now, with the smell of lox glued to my fingertips and the buzz of wayward conversation coming from below, I gazed long and hard at the chair and thought how sad it is that Rita Fieber—beloved by so many—would never again take a seat.

Rita Fieber, right, with her daughter, Nancy.

Rita Fieber, right, with her daughter, Nancy.

Let’s end the pressure to look perfect … um

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My daughter Casey is 11.

A few years ago she started reading annoying magazines like Bob and Seventeen. They’re all over her room, tattered, torn, ripped, faded, and I’ve come to enjoy our nighttime ritual of lying in bed, skimming through the pages. It’s actually oddly educational, in that—as a 42-year-old geezer—I’d otherwise know little about the exploits of amazing talents like Bella Thorne and Demi Lovato and the five or six guys who make up One Direction.

I digress.

A few days back Casey was reading the new issue of something called Twist—featuring the singer/actress Ariana Grande on the cover. Over the course of the past year, I’ve seen, oh, 500 images of Grande, who seems to take at least 25 percent of the space in most teen magazines. She’s a pretty kid—young, perky, photographic—with a surprisingly big voice.

And, on her cheek, she has a brown beauty mark.

Why do I know this? Two reasons. One, because (as I just noted) I’ve seen tons of her pictures. Two, because the daughter and I once had a debate over whether Grande’s face featured a beauty mark or a dimple. Answer: Beauty mark.

Again, I digress.

With no trace of irony or audacity, the new Twist cover displays Grande alongside the words, “LET’S END THE PRESSURE TO LOOK PERFECT!” Which is, well, quite funny, considering the photo of Grande is heavily, heavily, heavily airbrushed, to the point where she has but a meticulously smooth-and-unblemished beige cheek. Why, when one looks closer, he/she notices that every … single … image has been airbrushed to perfection, to the point that a reader must come to one of two conclusions:

1. Twist doctors all its photographs.

2. Celebrities lack moles and scars.

Is this a huge deal? Probably not. But the message irks me. People are visually imperfect—and those imperfections are (in many ways) what makes us interesting, unique, different, appealing. Ariana Grande isn’t less attractive with a brown beauty mark on her cheek.

She’s just human.

Showtime Book
Love Me, Hate Me Barry Bonds Book
Sweetness Walter Peyton Book
The Bad Guys Won Book
The Rocket that Fell to Earth Book
Boys Will Be Boys Book

Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life