Back when I was a freshman at the University of Delaware, I lived down the hallway in Russell A from a kid named Paul Sedacca. We quickly struck up a friendship.
Paul was a quirky Long Island kid. Huge into KISS. Smooth talker. A fantastic high school runner who joined me for a season of indoor track and field with the Blue Hens. One never knew where life would take you with Paul. Or, put differently, we once wound up in a Milford, Del. trailer park, trying to figure out how to get home. Long story.
Anyhow, in the 2 1/2 decades that have passed since graduation, Paul and I have gone our separate ways. From afar, however, I’ve observed his life with nonstop fascination. When Paul isn’t teaching fourth grade at Joseph M. McVey Elementary School, he’s playing guitar at this club, that bar, this festival. And he’s really, really exceptional—a classical and Flamenco superstar.
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Paul, you’re this fantastic guitarist with this crazy journey—from jam band to punk to Bluegrass to, now, Flamenco and classical. And when I knew you back in college, I’m pretty sure you played nothing. So … how did this happen?
PAUL SEDACCA: Actually, I started playing music in third grade (recorder) and fourth grade (violin). That’s also when I began reading music. I was motivated when I won the green certificate in recorder class and all the ‘smart’ kids earned the lower purple one.
Through high school I played guitar, mainly heavy metal, but very poorly. During college, every time I thought of playing guitar, in my mind it was, “You should be studying instead.” I did play during the summer though.
At some point around 1996 I joined my first band: Three 2nd Memory. We did some rock originals and Phish covers. I really loved the comradery of being in a band and the feeling of playing live music. When the band broke up, I knew that I wanted to continue. And they key decision was to become versatile. I decided that I would learn at least one song in every musical genre. Knowing how to read music better and learning music theory was the key component to this goal. Once I started learning how chords and scales were built, I was able to begin my quest. So when my friend John Corrigan and I wanted to start a jam/jazz band, I was ready. That band morphed into a few others. Additionally, learning music theory allowed me to begin writing original songs. As of now, I have probably written about 80 or so. Many of them are not very good. Some, I am really proud of, and some have had quite a life. I have a whole educational music CD that I wrote and recorded with my students singing as well.
I started playing Flamenco Guitar when my wife showed me her Spanish Guitar and played the first few notes of Malaguena. Once I saw her play, I knew that it was a direction I wanted to pursue. This also started me playing more classical Guitar and improve my reading of music.
The knowledge of music theory allowed me to learn banjo, bass, harmonica, and mandolin; all of which are on my new album, “Painted Guitars.” It is my eighth solo record.
With Bego, Paul’s wife and collaborator.
J.P.: When we were at Delaware, you and I were pretty big KISS fans. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to the conclusion that KISS’ music is, well … um, sorta trash. Is that too harsh? Do you still like/appreciate/enjoy them? Or was that just youth being youth?
P.S.: I’m really glad you asked this question. I read one of your blog posts a few months ago about Kiss and disagreed with most of it. Here’s why: Kiss has a huge catalog of original songs that they wrote and they perform. The song writing is excellent, especially Ace Frehley’s guitar riffs. The first six studio albums in particular are fantastic. To write and record quality original material is very difficult, especially when you know that you will be judged by millions of people. They have written songs that people love and they have been able to play those songs for millions of people live. It is not easy to play guitar, bass, and drums and sing in front of thousands of people, especially when speakers and monitors always sound differently at each venue. However, what is often overlooked about Kiss is the fact that Alive Cooper was doing the whole make-up thing and stage show BEFORE them. He deserves far more credit. He continues to perform live and record new albums of original material. Alice Cooper is the end all be all of hard rock music, the same level Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger are for rock n roll.
Kiss started in the early 70s in New York City. They needed to stand out. There were many other bands including early carnations of Twisted Sister to compete with. Kiss was brilliant at taking the Alice Cooper influence to the next level. People in the 70’s and 80’s never saw anything like that. So yes, I still appreciate and enjoy them. You may not like the type of person Gene Simmons has become, but you must respect his determination, creativity and success in the music business. The bottom line is Kiss wrote and performed amazing original songs themselves. No ghost writers and no Milli Vanilli.
J.P.: You’re the banjo player in Chapel Street Junction, a Delaware-based bluegrass band. And I’m fascinated—how does one become the banjo player in a Delaware-based bluegrass band? What was the path?
P.S.: In the late 90s I saw a performance of Doc Watson and Dave Grisman at the Wilmington Opera House. It was my first exposure to Bluegrass. I loved the speed and accuracy of the picking. It was like country music on steroids. I said to John Corrigan, “If you get a mandolin, I’ll get a banjo.” We both agreed, then got our friend Scott Perlot to bring his acoustic guitar and singing talents. The band Delaware Rag was born. We played a few open mics at the now defunct East End Café, and before we knew it we were getting real paying gigs. (Meanwhile I knew only one ‘banjo roll’ and was learning the instrument from a book and in front of audiences). Up to that point, I don’t think I ever made any money playing rock, jam, or jazz. We found a bass player (upright), and another guitarist. The band really took off, sometimes we were playing 10 or more shows a month. We recorded several albums and even did a short southern tour one summer. The Delaware Rag was so busy that it began affecting my day job of teaching. So, Scott and I formed Chapel Street Junction. We would only play a few shows a month and stay employed at our daytime jobs. That was 13 years ago and still going. Chapel Street Junction has also been very successful. We play one or two shows a month and have also been playing a lot of Irish Music. In March we are very busy and have been playing the Logan House, Stewart’s Brew Pub, and some other places every year. Once again being Versatile has helped us. We play Bluegrass, Country, Irish, and Classic Rock bluegrass style. Sorry, no Kiss covers yet, but we do some Twisted Sister. This summer we have several big shows including the Concert Series at White Clay Creek. Last time we played there, there were about 1,000 people watching.
J.P.:I’ve watched a ton of clips of you playing, and what I keep thinking, sincerely, is, “God, Paul just looks really … happy.” What are you feeling when you play? Does your mind wander? Are you hyper focused?
P.S.: The reason why I am happy in general is that I am proud of my accomplishments in life. Also, the fact that I don’t depend on playing music as my only source of income allows me to enjoy it much more. I still find every live performance different and unique. And, getting paid to play Classical Guitar and Banjo is actually amazing and funny to me. When I am playing, I do need to go into some sort of hyper focus. But, if I focus too much I will make a mistake. For example, if I am playing banjo or classical guitar, each finger of the right and left hand has to hit a specific string with the proper force in order to produce a smooth even tone. If I focus too much on each individual finger, I will crash, especially when playing high speed banjo. The focus has to become auto pilot. Same is true when playing Bach off of sheet music in front of an audience. The mechanics need to be worked out at practice. Much like a quarterback. The QB during a game is not thinking about each step he takes, the angle of his arm, the pressure of each finger when he throws etc. He practices all of that, so it is automatic during the game. Or, when you are typing one of your best- selling books, I’m sure that you are not thinking about which finger should be hitting each key.
My mind sometimes wanders, and that is usually followed by a mistake. It is difficult at times to focus on playing when you have job related stress such as standardized tests, or maybe your car is in the shop, and your kitchen sink is stopped up. Concentration is also tested by outside factors (see next answer).
J.P.:So you recently played a solo gig at the Olive Tree Café in Newark, Del. And I’ve always wondered—what’s it like playing music at a restaurant? Everyone’s eating, talking. Silverware clangs, phones ring. Is it hard to focus? Do you at all mind when people don’t focus or pay respect to the artistry before them?
P.S.: Oh, Pearlman, you really hit one of my sensitive spots. As you know, it takes years to be able to play the Classical Guitar well enough to perform in front of people. Some songs I have practiced for countless hours until I was comfortable playing them live. Sometimes I close my eyes and improvise off of a piece and really take the music to some amazing places, only to open my eyes and to see that most people didn’t even notice. It took me a long time to accept the fact that many people don’t respect the time and effort that is needed to provide the background music while they are eating tapas and paella. However, what I have learned is that many people really do appreciate my playing. Sometimes it is evident in my tip cup at the end of the night. Sometimes, it is just a few people coming up and letting me know.
Regarding silverware clangs, loud talking, cellphones etc., the worst offender is the blender especially when I play with my wife at the Mexican Restaurants. The pouring of ice into the ice bin is another loud auditory distraction. To deal with this, I sometimes practice with the TV on and the volume turned up. Also, being a teacher, I keep a guitar in my classroom and will sometime practice Classical pieces during indoor recess. And, if you can concentrate when 30 fourth graders are playing in one classroom, you can focus through anything.
J.P.:So you and your wife Bego and the Hall and Oates of Delaware flamenco—she sings, you play guitar. What’s it like teaming up with a spouse, musically? What are the complications, if any? If, say, you just had an argument about taking out the trash, does it impact the show?
P.S.: First we need to write some hit songs and sell a few million albums to be compared with Hall and Oates. Collaborating musically has been a great part of our relationship. It started when I learned she played Spanish Guitar. We used to play the same Classical pieces together while on Skype. Later she started singing a song or two with me during my concerts. Previously Begona sung in a chorus in Spain and also performed in some Zarzuelas (Spanish light opera). Everyone loved when she sang. She added a great authentic Spanish sound. So, gradually we added more songs. Now, we have some shows where we co-headline. I usually start with some Flamenco pieces, then we do some songs together, and she also sings along with backing tracks. Some shows are more geared around her vocals. Most of our Mexican Restaurant gigs are like that. In addition to the Mexican and Spanish Restaurant circuit, together we have also played Wilmington Brew Works, Hotel DuPont, University Of Delaware events, and The Deerfield Country Club. It has been very successful. Some complications are the typical difficulties when learning a song together, that is figuring out a key, tempo and rhythm pattern that works for both of us. I have been thrown into the Spanish and Flamenco genre and really learned from her a whole new approach to the guitar. Sometimes we disagree about whether or not we need to use a monitor at a certain venue. There were a few times when we had a disagreement before a show. And, honestly it would be tough while setting up the speakers and running the mics and cables. But, after the first minute of the first song, everything seems to feel so much better, and by the end we tend to forget what the disagreement was even about. Music is a magical healer in that way.
Paul, right, with Chapel Street Junction.
J.P.:Can anyone play guitar and be solid-to-good at it? Or are there certain things people are born with? Talents? Skills?
P.S.: Much like professional sports, the physical characteristics of the human are important. For example you need to be tall to play basketball. If playing guitar, having longer fingers does help. But Leslie West of Mountain proved that short stubby fingers can play guitar well too. Most people think that you are ‘born’ with musical ability. I don’t completely agree with that. I feel that the most important aspect is to practice and not give up when you don’t get better right away. It takes so many hours to improve just a little bit with an instrument. Too many kids these days give up on an instrument because they expect to get better without putting in too much time. Video games take practice but the learning curve is far steeper than an instrument. Because the children are used to the relatively short time it takes to improve in a video game, they can’t persevere through months and years of getting better at an instrument. Also, in my opinion the music that your parents played when you were growing up is really important. I remember riding in my mother’s car and her playing 8-tracks of Billy Joel, Elton John, and The Beatles. This auditory input was key to me loving music as I grew up. Those songs made me feel good and the melodies were just so appealing to my ear.
J.P.: I just watched a video from you at Stewarts Brew, singing, clapping. People dancing. How did you develop the comfort and self-assurance to stand before people and sing? Were there things you needed to overcome?
P.S.: I became comfortable when I felt that I was capable at my instrument. If you are always expecting to be the best at an instrument you will be disappointed. Just be good enough to play something that sounds like music and get in front of a crowd at an open mic. When you are not depending on it for income, you can just throw it out there and enjoy the rush of playing music in front of an audience. It really is the best feeling. I also have so much confidence in my band Chapel Street Junction and I know we are putting out a good product and helping people enjoy themselves and helping the bar owners make money. I try to get people clapping, singing, and dancing. Crowd interaction is part of a performance. I grew up watching David Lee Roth (Van Halen), Vince Neil (Motley Crue), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), and Paul Stanley (Kiss) work the crowd. Interacting with the audience is really important. I sometimes do some ‘Name that tune’ songs during my Classical/Flamenco shows. I will give some background information on composers etc. I also try to be funny and usually mention that real job is as a fourth grade teacher.
Singing has taken me many years to get better at and years to overcome the difficulty that it takes to hit the right notes and carry a tune. Learning the banjo is the most difficult thing that I have done in my life. It is sooooooo challenging and frustrating with the right hand finger picks, high speed, and hitting the right strings with the proper force.
J.P.:You seem like a happy guy. You truly do. I’m a happy guy—with major doses of dread. Climate change, Trump, greed, etc. Mainly climate change and Trump. How do you soldier through? How do you find and maintain happiness?
P.S.: Well I feel the key to happiness is to be proud of your accomplishments and the type of person you are. I finally found a beautiful and loving wife. We really enjoy performing and experiencing life together. I have been a teacher for 23 years, won several awards and have had five articles written about my teaching. My students and I helped make the Grey Fox Delaware’s Official Wildlife Animal. (That’s a whole separate story too.) I also have been in all of the lower 48 states, and 13 European countries. I even have been to Iceland. Musically, I have made tens of thousands of dollars and played probably around 500 shows. I try to be a good son and an excellent husband. I let other cars merge in front of my car on the road, I’m polite and respectful to employees at any business, and I do everything I can to help the Earth and environment.
I do get major doses of dread when it comes to Trump’s attitude toward climate change and the environment. That is my number one concern. Withdrawing from the Paris Accord, reducing the size of national parks, and loosening the regulations on clean air and water are unforgivable, unacceptable, short- sighted and stupid. I also hate when over- development cuts down trees and old growth forests. Finally, a president should not call opponents insulting names, and use profane language.
J.P.:Greatest moment as a musician? Lowest?
P.S.: Greatest moment as a musician …On banjo, playing with Chapel Street Junction at White Clay Creek for about 1000 people, or some of the many shows where the crowd is rowdy and dancing. On Classical/Flamenco Guitar my greatest moment was playing the Macarena with my wife singing for International Night at the elementary school. We had a whole bunch of kids and teachers dancing. It was really funny. Also having about 100 kids in the school chorus singing the school song that I wrote 16 years ago is a great feeling.
Lowest: the first time I ever tried playing with a band. It was 1989, my guitar was out of tune, and I broke a string. I was not able to participate at all.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PAUL SEDACCA:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Vinnie Vincent, Mike Going, Moo Shoo Shrimp, John Lukawski, Stone Balloon, Dan Walsh’s 1989 quarterback play, chocolate-covered raisins, sandals, Bobcat Goldthwait, Sam Cassell: 1. John Lukawski, 2. Johnny Lawrence (Cobra Kai), 3. Stone Balloon (Ramones) 4. Vinnie Vincent. 5. Mike Going 6. Moo Shoo Shrimp 7. chocolate covered raisins, 8. Dan Walsh’s quarterback playing, 9. Bobcat Goldthwait, 10. Sam Cassell, 11. Sandals, but never Mandals.
• How did you meet your wife?: I spotted her when I was walking through Plaza Mayor in Madrid. I got out my map and asked for directions.
• Five reasons one should make Newark, Del. His/her next vacation destination: 1. Great restaurants and variety of places to eat. 2. Nearby walking and hiking trails. 3. Walking UD campus. 4. No sales tax 5. Awesome live music scene.
• Three most noteworthy people to come out of East Williston, N.Y.: 1. Jack Kirby 2. Christopher Masterson 3. Carol Leifer
• I’m not feeling Scotter Gennett as a longterm answer for the Reds. What says you?: I would say to get Mookie Wilson as a hitting coach and Jesse Orosco as pitching coach.
• Five all-time greatest KISS songs: This is the toughest question of the entire Quaz. I have been thinking of this everyday since you sent me the questions. The album that each song is on is in parenthesis.
• Hard Luck Woman (Rock n Roll Over) Forget Beth, this is Peter Criss’s best song.
• Deuce (Kiss) awesome guitar riff and a great song that I used to play live in a punk rock band.
• Parasite (Hotter than Hell) Such an great guitar lick by Ace, a nice dark sound that really rocks.
• I Stole your Love (Love Gun) Another unstoppable guitar riff by Ace.
• Rock n Roll All Night (Alive I) This song and video got me into Kiss and is a classic rock anthem that should be respected.
• What are the three most important human emotions?: 1. Empathy 2. Ambition 3. Acceptance (not sure if these count as emotions, but it is a Quaz after all)
• Celine Dion calls. She wants to perform a duet with you, and it’ll be the lead single on her next album. She’ll also pay you $5 million. However, you have to spend the next six months living in his Las Vegas basement alongside a pile of festering dog shit while listening to Donald Trump’s inaugural address on an endless loop. You in?: No, I do not need money that much. Six months is too long to be away from my family, friends, job, and music performances.
• Greatest moment as a runner at the University of Delaware?: Running on Creek Road with my new good friend Jeff Pearlman and discussing life. Also, running a 9:19 in the 3000m at a UD track meet in 1991. (good enough for 10th place).
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!
So, because I love using this space to introduce readers to people they need to know of, I welcome Kate to the Quaz. One can follow her on Twitter here and on Instagram here. Just remember, when she’s selling out Madison Square Garden, where you first heard her name …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So you’re the daughter of a soap opera star. I’ve never typed that sentence before. What’s it like being the daughter of a soap opera star? What I mean is— how has that, specifically, manifested itself?
KATE GRAHN: I have literally been on the set of General Hospital since I was in the womb, where they had to hide me behind a potted plant or a giant briefcase! I grew up there and it is documented on the growth chart on the wall in the make up room. General Hospital helped raise me, or at least pay for me, and it turns out I cost a lot, lol. I’ve got nothing but gratitude for my home away from home, and having Disney/ABC own General Hospital didn’t hurt either. Mickey and Minnie have been like second parents to me. So yeah, having a soap star mom definitely has its benefits & some amazing memories too. I remember ding dong ditching Maurice Benard’s dressing room and the time that Jason Thompson took me and my friends to see the Justin Bieber documentary because we were obviously Beliebers (Jason included). The only bad memories I have are the times when I accidentally caught a glimpse of a love scene my mom was shooting on set (cue vomit).
J.P:So back in February you released your debut single, “Someday Baby.” And I’m wondering, in 2019, what that means. Back in the day, you’d drop an album, a single would come off the album, etc…etc. But what is it nowadays? And what do you hope comes from it?
K.G.: I released “Someday Baby” because I had spent about two and a half years of college only focusing on school work and my grades, and while that is still very important to me, I wanted to let people know why I was here. It felt great to release a song. The good news is I now have the ability to share my music and not have to wait for a label to decide its fate. The bad news is streaming has made it so musicians can’t make any money off their music. At least not much unless you’re already a known commodity. This is quite a dilemma now for indie artists. The hope is to get your music out there and gain a substantial following. It is all a numbers game…that seems to be the way to get noticed these day.
The reason that I dropped these two singles now is because they will be in the upcoming Pretty Little Liars spinoff (shameless self promo). I thought that it was a good idea to have them available to the public so that if people heard the song on the show and liked it, they could check it out.
J.P:So you attend the USC Thornton School of Music. And, as random as this is, I’m wondering how you felt/feel about the recent scandal involving USC, with certain students having their parents buy entrance. And what has been the reaction among peers?
K.G.: When I heard about the scandal, I was pissed for obvious reasons. They took spots away from kids who worked their asses off to be students at the university. It was a stupid thing for these parents to do. To unpack this even further, this notion that there are only a few prestigious schools worth attending is toxic. I’ve seen how parents and kids buy into the absurdity of this and lose all objectivity. I think these parents fell into that trap. I’m lucky that my mom never cared what college I attended. She just wanted me to be happy and told me all along that I would find the perfect school for me, and I did. The fact that it was USC, which is considered a prestigious school is irrelevant. The pop program was the best fit for me and that is all that matters.
J.P:Along this lines, why are you there? What I mean is, it seems like the path to musical success often travels through dive bars, shit clubs, etc—just playing all around the country, hoping people dig it. Am I old-fashioned in that regard? What can USC give you?
K.G.: That’s a really good question. It just depends on the person and the path that works for them. There are many famous artists out there who did not go to college and I think that is great for them! Hell, my mom didn’t go to a typical university. Instead she went to the Neighborhood Playhouse in NYC and look how great that worked out for her. I also know students and friends who went to USC for a couple of years and then realized that the curriculum wasn’t right for them and they decided to leave the program and pursue music on their own. For me, I believe I just needed time to hone my craft and learn from amazing professors. By going to college for music, I have added so much to my musical vocabulary and skills. Studying theory, arranging, and performance for instance, has given me the tools to become the musician I am today. I still have so much to learn and I am excited for the future. I wasn’t musically and mentally ready to try and be an artist in the real world when I was 18.
Kate (right) taking it to the streets in May.
J.P:Considering you’re a 21-year-old singer/songwriter who aspires to have a career in the field, your social media game is, well, a bit thin. It seems like your mom has steered you onto Twitter. You’ve only posted 149 times on Instagram. So…why? And how important do you view social media in regards to building a career?
K.G.: Anytime I hear the word “branding” or “social-media presence,” it makes me cringe a bit, mostly because I love to play and write so many different kinds of songs that it’s hard to have a “brand.” I think my brand is just me. Kate. About the social media presence…I wish that the music scene didn’t rely so heavily on social media and how many followers you have, or if you are verified. I feel like you have to already be famous in order to be “discovered” which is obviously not always the case, but it certainly is a lot of the time. I definitely use Instagram (especially Instagram stories) more than I use Twitter (my mom uses it to quell her rage at Trump & chumps more than promote herself.) I try to integrate posts about my life while simultaneously posting about my music. I try to do this without overdoing it or being inauthentic. I realize that social media is part of the deal if I want to be an artist and I may just need some coaching! Oh and anyone who is reading this article please follow me @kate_grahn on twitter and instagram. See I’m learning.
J.P:What was the first song you remember falling in love with? And why? What did it for you?
K.G.: Well, my mom played musicals in the car ever since I was born. “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan was a car seat favorite. Apparently I was so moved when Mary Martin sang the part ‘Think lovely thoughts and up you go’ that I’d throw my arms up in air with so much exhilaration, I’d practically throw myself out of the seat. But “Defying Gravity” (Like most young girls I was Wicked addicted) was the first one I belted out at a party when I was 5 to dozens of adults, and I was hooked.
Grace Potter became my biggest influence later on. I learned the most watching her perform. I sang her song “Paris” with my band “Traction.” We were quite the sensation at 13.
J.P:Your mom is super political on social media. Do you want to follow that path? Does it make you nervous? Can a person in your shoes—on the rise, young—be outspoken and also not worry about alienating potential listeners?
K.G.: Great question. My mom truly appreciates ALL of her fans, but she also believes she has a soapbox for a reason, which is to give voice to those who don’t have her platform, help spread news that she feels needs spreading, or just air her views, which are not pleasurable to all General Hospital viewers. She’s lost 1000’s of followers (mostly in red states) that find her offensive and she understands that. When I first got into politics and was registering to vote for the first time, I had to take a minute to educate myself on important issues. I do share my mom’s political views and I am as pissed as she is about the condition of our country and the health of the planet. Although I do use social media to advocate and speak out about my political views, my outlet will be my music. My outrage will be in my songs. My message will be in my lyrics. But my silence is not an option.
J.P:Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?
K.G.: Off the top of my head, the greatest so far was singing my original song “Greyhound” (in production) with my brilliant Thornton School badass band backing me up, and feeling fully connected to the music and the moment. I honestly don’t have a worst memory. Singing just makes me happy.
J.P:I’m 47, and I’m pessimistic about the future of this country. Climate change, Trump, etc, etc. You’re young and coming up. How do you feel?
K.G.: I feel alarmed. This administration is a f’in dumpster fire and it is my generation that’s going to suffer the consequences of this mess if we don’t get our shit together and vote this country back into sanity. Not voting is not an option. I marched in every Women’s March and I see a lot of fight in the people who protest, in the students of the Young Democrats Club at USC, in students majoring in climate change, and specifically the Parkland Students fighting against the NRA. What they are doing matters and we must pay attention to them and follow their lead. It’s understandable and easy for us to be pessimistic, but that is not an option now either. We fight or die. Yep, I think it’s that critical, but I also have hope that my generation will be there this time around. It truly is on us. We literally have the ability to change the world.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KATE GRAHN:
• I asked your mom this, so I’ll ask you, too—I feel like your last name is begging for an M to replace the N. How often have you faced that misspelling in your life?: It’s not necessarily the misspelling that happens a lot as it is the mispronunciation. “AHN” is like “lawn” not “Pan!!!”
• Three things we need to know about your first pet: She was afraid of her own shadow, she slept under my moms bed and we referred to it as her “condo”, and she was my best friend for 15 and a half years.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Los Angeles Times, doing grocery shopping, Chad Pennington, Affordable Care Act, “Good Will Hunting,” the Electric Slide, Bruno Mars, Wyoming: Affordable Care Act, Bruno Mars, Electric Slide, LA Times, Doing Grocery Shopping, (I’ve never seen “Good Will Hunting” I know, I am terrible), Chad Pennington (I don’t know who he is either, again many apologies), Wyoming
• Three memories from your first day on campus at USC.: Being terrified but also excited, feeling embarrassed for missing my mom already, loving my professors and the rest of the students
I say this because, at age 47, what have I done? A couple of books, some completed marathons, two kids, a dog who urinates on the carpet.
Again, what have I done?
I usually don’t feel this way. Hell, I rarely feel this way. But as you’re about to see, today’s Quaz Q&A features Michael Chime, a soon-to-be Yale University senior who has joined with three classmates to create an app, “Prepared,” that is designed to reduce the response time during school shootings. And, to be clear, this isn’t merely an idea, or aspirational nonsense. Nope. Not only does the app exist, it’s earning rave reviews, and has landed the foursome both a $40,000 investment from Yale and the prestigious $25,000 Miller Prize, awarded to the best student-led venture with a tech service.
Chime also happens to play defensive line for the Yale football team. And he is a beginner speaker of the South African click language—Zulu. And he can recite the alphabet, backward, in roughly two seconds. And he dated Rihanna.
MICHAEL CHIME: Our app is predicated on the belief that clear and efficient communication is vital for navigating through an emergency situation. Schools across the country are experiencing tremendous communication problems both internally and externally. Take, for example, the Parkland shooting—one of the deadliest school shootings in America. In the Parkland shooting, there were 17 casualties, and many more people were crippled for the rest of their life. And, still to this day, there is a community in grief that will never be the same. Parkland suffered gravely from a lack of effective internal communication. It took the school over three minutes to initiate a “code red” or lockdown alert on their campus, and the shooting only lasted around five minutes. So, for the majority of the shooting, students, faculty, and administrators were scrambling for more information, all of which was to the advantage of the shooter.
Nickolas Cruz was seen and recognized by students and staff entering the building with a rifle-bag before any bullets were fired, but because they had no easy way to communicate this information, they were unable to get the school secured. In addition to this, when Cruz opened fire he set off the fire alarms, which flushed students and teachers out into the hallway and towards the shooter because they had not yet received a “code red.” At the same time, due to a lack of effective communication, the school resource officer (SRO) reported that the gunshots “could be firecrackers,” and has since maintained that he “didn’t know where the gunfire was coming from.” The internal communication flaws that are plaguing schools are directly putting our children and teachers in harm’s way. What’s more, external communication inefficiencies can be seen in the statistics on response times by authorities to school shootings. The average response time of first responders to active shooter events is 18 minutes, while the average school shooting only lasts for 12.5 minutes. So, instead of first responders being there during the shooting when they were needed most, they were only there for the aftermath.
It is for these reasons that we engineered Prepared. Prepared is a one-touch mobile alert system that would be placed in the hands of every trusted faculty member within schools. First, this would greatly improve the internal means of communication by allowing a user to almost instantaneously alert everyone on campus of the events, so the school administrators can take the correct actions within seconds. In addition to this, an alert would be simultaneously sent to first responders with additional critical information. They are able to respond faster and can react with vital information at their disposal. Lastly, our system is customized to fit the specific needs of schools districts, so we can ensure that every school receives the best possible system. Currently, our system is focused on schools, but we genuinely believe that communication can be improved at corporate offices, malls, concerts, places of worship, etc. through our system.
J.P.:So your app helps make people aware of school shootings. It doesn’t actually do anything to prevent school shootings (not that it could). And I wonder—do you feel like this is simply what it’ll be in America forever and ever. People shooting up schools? Like, is there an actual way to eliminate school shootings in your mind?
M.C.: There’s not a night that goes by where gun violence doesn’t keep me up. My personal mission is to find an all-encompassing solution, and I will ensure that Prepared reflects that mission in every action it takes. So, to answer your question directly: I do reserve hope in the belief that there is an all-encompassing solution, and Prepared’s chief objective is to pursue that solution tirelessly.
Now, that said, we genuinely believe that Prepared can provide some hope for the future right now. It seems the notoriety these killers are receiving for gaudy death totals is a large motivating factor in their corrupted minds. We believe that reliably reducing the fatalities in these shootings, obviously in addition to immediately saving lives, will decrease notoriety-incentivized attacks. After studying what went wrong at various school shootings, it is clear to me that being able to secure schools through effective communication is the first line of defense. But don’t just take that from me. We have received encouraging feedback from countless school administrators. John Dodig, the recently retired principal of Staples High School in Westport, CT, told us early on that our app needs to be in every school across the country, and that it will revolutionize the way schools communicate. Our app will save lives, and that is the first and most important step.
J.P.:How does one invent an app? Soup to nuts?
M.C.: From a technical standpoint, I am extremely lucky to be working alongside some of the top computer engineers at Yale University (Dylan Gleicher ‘21 and Neal Soni ‘22). On that end, the process of creating an app involves programming and designing using software which is specifically geared for the target device, such as using XCode to develop for Apple devices and Android Studio for Android devices.
However, for a product like this, iteration and innovation are at the forefront of our attention on the app’s user interface and features. That being said, I’ll try and take you through some of the high level tasks we deal with on a daily basis. For an app like ours, obviously there’s a very high level of reliability and security we must maintain, and there’s a lot of networking involved. The app has to maintain a reliable connection with our server at a moments notice, which must in turn be able to receive and respond appropriately to any messages. A ton of testing goes into this process every day to ensure that it is as robust as possible. Since the initial conception of our app, we have gathered feedback from countless school administrators, in addition to reaching out and speaking to various nonprofit organizations and people who have experienced some of these tragedies—including students from Sandy Hook and Parkland. We took all of this feedback to heart, and integrated a lot of what they told us into the app. This caused us to keep refining our user interface (UI) and keep expanding and fine-tuning our features to fit exactly what these schools really needed. Recently, we demoed our app to representatives from a large state, and they loved the intuitive features and design.
J.P.:Yale has invested $40,000 in your app, including the Miller Prize for $25,000. So how will that money be used? What are the major costs doing this sort of thing?
M.C.: First, I would like to give a shout-out to the Yale Law School’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Clinic—and specifically Professor Sven Riethmueller, who heads the program. Sven heads our legal team along with Yale Law students to provide sound legal counsel. Their services have been invaluable in facilitating our early growth and success.
In addition to providing funds which allow us to invest in additional research and development, the $40,000 essentially will accelerate our mission by giving us the ability to pursue more schools sooner. Reaching places in need faster is pivotal because we have been unfortunately reminded in the last few weeks that a shooting can happen at any moment. Prior to winning the money, we had secured verbal commitments from multiple schools on implementation for the following school year. However, with not much more than bootstrap funding at that time, we weren’t sure we would be able to have the infrastructure to support any more than that for this coming year. Now, with that funding available, we are confident we can flesh out the technical infrastructure and support structure to allow for a lot more schools. Since winning the prize, we have been in conversations with influential districts that could lead to our app being implemented in thousands of schools across the country. We are even in talks to get the app into every school in an entire state!
Lastly, a huge cost for us right now is ensuring that we have the right insurance. We are searching currently to partner with non-profit organizations to help us with these costs so, again, we can reach as many places that need our system as soon as possible.
J.P.:How much blame do you assign the NRA? And how do you feel about arming teachers? Or having all schools equipped with metal detectors?
M.C.: We understand how frustrating and devastating it is seeing these teachers unable to fight back during a shooting, but it is our position at Prepared is that arming teachers is not the proper recourse for school shootings. I think rather those who have been trained to react need to utilized better. School resource officers, adding more trained security guards, and getting police on the scene faster are all better alternatives. Those groups need to be made more effective at dealing with school shootings. In this regard, we think that a stronger communication loop would be massively beneficial. Moreover, it would take a significant amount of money to get every teacher in a school properly trained and equipped with a firearm, and many schools are already severely underfunded. Secondly, equipping schools with metal detectors should also be thought about carefully. It’s worth noting that a lot of the scholarship in this area talks about the psychological impact of making children go through security every morning, especially students who come from heavily policed communities. We want schools to primarily remain centers of learning, albeit safe ones.
Ultimately, Jeff, there’s no way to tackle our present school shooting epidemic without having a serious conversation about guns and gun access in the policy realm. This has proven a tricky and often heated conversation to have in our nation’s recent political discourse resulting in little or no change in the status quo. Interest groups like the NRA, for better or worse, are part of this collective complexity. But I think what we can all agree on is that while we’re having these difficult but necessary policy discussions in legislative halls across the country, students and educators deserve to be kept safe from ongoing attacks. Prepared is committed to keeping schools safer and we support any group committed to this as well. That said, I would personally be open to having a dialogue with anyone as committed to meaningful change. As someone who is deeply passionate about the school shooting epidemic and keeping students safe, I think working to find common ground is the best way to actualize meaningful reform.
J.P.:You’re a backup defensive lineman on the Yale football team, and you were All-State and All-District at Saint Ignatius in Cleveland. And I wonder—football? How are we supposed to feel about it, with all the head trauma, all we know about concussions? How do you feel about it?
M.C.: I think this is an awesome question that deserves a lot of thought. Concussions are a growing issue, and the depth of their impact on athletes is still being discovered and researched. I think concussions and head trauma most definitely present a genuine threat to the long term viability of football. That’s part of why I think football’s decline is imminent. Just reflecting on my own experience reveals some of this decline occurring today. When I was playing youth football, there were enough kids playing to field an eight-team youth league in just my town—Mentor, Ohio. Now, that same youth league has vanished and Mentor has had trouble putting 22 kids together; concussions are a huge part of that decline.
Parents worry about the long-term health of their children, and I can’t say that as a parent one day I won’t agree with them. Concussions are scary. The studies on players riddled by them and their stories are hard to hear. However in the midst of all this legitimate criticism of football’s impact I can’t help but love it. Your question asks how one is supposed to feel, and my best response to that is to explain my experience with the game on the field and off the field to help with forming an opinion. In my final game of my senior year, I remember looking around—I was playing on the field that I had grown up watching with my dad. We were in the state championship in 2016 and that game every year is held at Ohio Stadium—the home of the Buckeyes. On our first series we stopped our opponent on three plays and forced a punt. That punt was snapped from around the 20 yard line, so the punter was standing on his own 10. I rushed the A gap, made a move on the upback, got my hands in the air, and blocked the first punt of the game. Then the ball bounced right in front of me where I was able to track it down and score the first touchdown of the 2016 Division One (Best Division in Ohio) State Championship. I remember looking up and seeing a sea of people going crazy as I ran off the field in the stadium I had glorified my whole life.
That play. That game. Providing an experience that I will remember my entire life, an experience that only football could bring for me. In addition to this, football accounts for some of the strongest bonds I have formed with any people throughout my life. There is something to continually being faced with adversity with other people that brings you closer than you ever thought possible. Football, for me, has provided experiences and opportunities that have had a hugely positive impact on my life.
With his family in high school.
J.P.:How did you get to this point? What I mean is—you’re a kid in Cleveland, you go to Yale, you develop this app. What’s the path? Why the interest? When did apps first catch your eye? Why?
M.C.: One of the core values that governs my life—stemming from David Goggins’ book, “Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds”—is constantly surrounding myself with uncommon people and then striving, everyday, to be uncommon among that group. This is a value I have exercised throughout my high school career as I worked hard to be the best in both my athletic and academic pursuits. Now, I think it’s important to mention that I have always thought about problems differently.
For example, when I was in grade school, I played football, basketball, and baseball. Those were my sports. I found that in basketball I was big and I could score, but my ball handling was something I struggled with. So, instead of just accepting this weakness, I searched for ways to solve that problem. I started taking stretchy book covers that I had for my school textbooks and taught myself to sew so I could have them fit as a cover for a basketball. I found that by reducing the friction on the ball with the cover, I was able to make a slippery training tool that made the ball extremely hard to handle. When I would take the cover off, I would have much better grip while dribbling because I had become accustomed to training with the cover on. My interest in apps came up in a similar fashion. I see apps and really technology in general as a way that anyone can strive to confront the world’s largest problems. Currently, I see apps as a significant tool that nearly every person has at their disposal as a means to vastly improve the communication problems faced in emergency situations. The problem is the education system is slow to innovate, and in some cases, schools still use the PA-like systems as their primary form of communication, which has been in place since the 1950’s. So, my interest in apps stems mostly from my inherent desire to make a lasting impact on global problems, and apps came as a response to that desire.
J.P.: On May 1 you Tweeted, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to North Carolina, the victims, and their families.” I wanna ask a serious question—do people truly believe “thoughts and prayers” can do anything? I’m being literal and real—is there reason to believe, by thinking about the people impacted by a shooting, I can help them? Because we say it ALL the time.
M.C.: That’s a great question Jeff. I do believe that thoughts and prayers can make a difference. The more awareness a major issue has, the more people there are out there thinking about a solution. And that is, I believe, one of the great powers of humanity—to be able to pool together thought and our collective resources to work towards the solution to an important problem. I think of examples like the Ice Bucket Challenge—that generated unparalleled attention and an unprecedented $120 million to use towards ALS research and care. I believe awareness can and does have real impacts. So when I say my thoughts and prayers are with North Carolina—obviously I feel absolutely terrible for the affected families and cannot begin to imagine what they’re going through. But I am also dedicating everything I have to try and find a solution to this terrible epidemic—to try and prevent North Carolina from happening again.
It’s a different case, though, for people who express thoughts and prayers in lieu of confronting the issue of school shootings. For someone like me, who’s dedicating himself to fixing this epidemic, thoughts and prayers are a supplement to my efforts, not a replacement for them. So your question is important because thoughts and prayers are only helpful if they actually lead to actionable change, not if they’re lip service we say to move on from these atrocities more quickly.
On his visit to Yale.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your athletic career? Lowest?
M.C.: My greatest moment has to be the same experience I detailed in my response to concussions. Playing at Ohio Stadium, scoring the first touchdown, and going on to end the game with 3 1/2 sacks was my greatest moment as an athlete despite having lost that game. My lowest point as an athlete was tearing my ACL at just 12-years old. This made me intimately aware of how dangerous a game—in addition to being so rewarding—football can be.
J.P.:What do you wanna do, post-graduation? What’s your life plan?
M.C.: Again, awesome question that even I don’t fully know the answer to. I will say this, I have talked about my personal mission for Prepared—to find an all-encompassing solution in response to gun violence. That mission, I think, offers a window to a larger theme that will guide my eventual life plan going forward. I will continue to pursue sustainable solutions to global social problems by always directing myself on a path that allows me to positively affect the most people. With that being said, I truly believe Prepared will be the all-encompassing solution that combats one of the largest issues this country faces. And as the leader fronting Prepared, I am ecstatic about our start and potential to offer a lasting solution, while at the same time I am motivated by the fact that we have a lot of work to do. So, I see myself being at Prepared until our mission is achieved, and after that, I see myself following a life plan dedicated to the pursuit of solutions to the world’s largest problems.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL CHIME:
• Yale v. Clemson, football. Final score on Yale’s best day and Clemson’s worst?: Now, Jeff, this is a tough position you have put me in. I got the Bulldogs completing the upset of the century, 24-17.
• Five reasons one should visit Cleveland on his/her next vacation?: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Swenson’s Burgers; Its beautiful Lake Erie beachfront; The cheapest NBA basketball ticket in the country right now in the Cleveland Cavaliers; and to watch America’s Team headed by the NFL’s next MVP— The Cleveland Browns and Baker Mayfield.
• One question you would ask Eric Clapton were he here right now?: I thought Tears in Heaven was a beautiful and deeply impactful song, and served as a really touching tribute to his son. I would ask if there’s any way he could similarly write and perform a song for the all the people who have been affected by school shooting epidemic.
• Five greatest college sports uniforms are?: Ohio State—It’s my hometown team and my favorite part has to be the buckeyes on the helmet. Yale—Must say I’m a little biased, but there’s so much tradition in the jerseys we put on that it has to go in my top 5. Oregon—I appreciate Oregon always coming out with crazy alerternates. Tennessee—I have always loved the orange color they wear. TCU—Another team with some awesome alternates, but also a horned frog as a mascot is an automatic win.
• What are your three hidden talents?: I can perfectly annunciate Osorachukwu Ifesinachukwu, I am a beginner speaker of the South African click language—Zulu, and I can say the alphabet backwards in just over two seconds.
• Three memories from your first-ever date: Three memories I have from my first date are it was in fifth grade. I remember vividly thinking that getting the date was all I needed to focus, and I didn’t do much planning in what I was gonna talk about during it. So naturally the talking slowed I learned a lot from the socially awkward encounter that involved a lot of sitting in silence.
• Is the Ivy League education $500,000 more valuable than the Ohio State education?: I think wherever you are, you have to make the best of what you’re given. I felt Yale was the right fit for myself personally due to a number of reasons, and there’s no price I can put on the experiences and people I’ve met here.
• Five smells your hate: Portable bathrooms, mushrooms, cigarette smoke, fresh mulch, and worst of all, the football locker room after a hot summer camp practice.
• The world needs to know—what’s it like being teammates with Osorachukwu Ifesinachukwu?: Being teammates with Osorachukwu Ifesinachukwu is awesome. Even though I can pronounce his name perfectly most of the team just calls him Oso. But at the same time, I wouldn’t forget the dynamic brother duo of D. Major Roman and J. Hunter Roman.
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.
The 403rd Quaz Q&A wasn’t supposed to be a financial dominatrix from Kentucky.
The 404th Quaz Q&A wasn’t supposed to be a financial dominatrix from Kentucky.
The 405th Quaz Q&A wasn’t supposed to be a financial dominatrix from Kentucky.
Truth be told, I had this latest interview scheduled for a month from now, after the two authors and the baseball player and the mechanic returned their 10 questions to the jeffpearlman.com stable. But here’s one thing I’ve learned about the Quaz, and it’s almost always true. Some genres of professions take their time. Some genres of professions really take their time. But people who work in the sex business—men and women, gay and straight, old and young—are always game.
Why? I believe in part because the nation still tends to view sex work as this to-be-marginalized thing, and you’ll rarely see a fetish photographer or erotic hypnosis practitioner appearing on, say, CNN.com or inside the pages of People. But it’s more than that. Folks like Goddess Kitty (not her real name) have a uniquely open way of being. They’re people who are proud of what they do and who they are, and aspire for others (whether they’re interested in partaking or not) to at least understand the profession.
Hence, today’s Quaz features a woman who works as a financial domme, meaning she gets paid to … well, um … read below and find out. You can follow Kitty on Twitter here, but be warned—she’ll brag about Kentucky pizza and poets you’ve never heard of.
Goddess Kitty, you are The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:You’re married. You work in the sex business. Fascinated what the husband thinks of this? Did you gradually explain it to him? Did he know from the start? Is it at all awkward?
GODDESS KITTY: I’m weird, I guess, but I’ve always been incredibly open about My love for sex and sex work with My husband. It’s not something that has ever been awkward, because it’s been there from the beginning. Had he been a bit more prudish, it never would’ve worked out. You see, I think sex is one of the most important parts of a relationship. Attraction, desire. And I knew, prior to ever even meeting My husband, that I wasn’t going to settle for a relationship in which I wasn’t sexually fulfilled, which, for me, includes this particular portion of My life. When you know exactly what you want out of a relationship going in, and can express that clearly, it’s much more likely to last. I understand that sexual conversations with our partners, of any level, can be difficult to have, but the amount of trouble we save ourselves is worth it.
J.P.:Why do you think online sex businesses work? What I mean is, nobody is having sex, literally, with you. There’s no touching, skin to skin, anything like that. So … what’s the appeal?
G.K.: If sex were purely physical, perhaps they wouldn’t work. But what sexual relationship have you been in that is ever only purely physical? Chances are, next to none. Why? Because we, as humans, can’t help but judge a person’s personality, let it alter our views. There is so much more that goes into physical attraction and release than just penis in vagina sex. We want mystery. We want a tease. We want to be entertained. Online sex workers can give you all of that. Online sex workers can play to all of your kinks, because their ability to morph into different personas is incredible. Not to mention, there is a layer of safety there. Not just physical, although that’s certainly a risk, especially in kink play, but also safety from exposure. If a very powerful business man, famous personality, etc. wanted to indulge his kinks, it’s much easier to create a fake persona online and explore incognito. No diseases to worry about. You know they’re not an undercover cop trying to bust you for prostitution. Overall, if you’re paying someone for sexual favors, seems like the best way to do so, or to at least start the interaction.
J.P.:How did this happen for you? Like, what was the impetus to enter the business? What’s your background in this area?
G.K.: I’ve been engaging in BDSM play since My first high school relationship. I’ve been exploring this side of Myself for a very long time, cultivating and growing the Dominate side of Me in both My personal and professional life. And I have loved every single step of the journey. I think if you engage in any kind of kink play, you learn fairly quickly that while it’s immensely fun, there is a lot of homework involved. Research. You have to learn about the kinks you want to participate in, because without knowledge, someone could end up very physically or mentally hurt. In the process of My researching new kinks, I found the FinDomme rabbit hole, and I’ve been tumbling since. It made sense, when I stumbled on it, because money was by far My biggest turn on, and beyond that, the Dominance came naturally to me. Like they say, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Once I found FinDom, I stopped dominating it for free.
J.P.:Kinda random, but we have a president who is supported by the evangelical right who paid off a porn star he had sex with 10 days before the birth of his child. And I can’t really tell where America is right now. Like, are we more sexually repressed than ever? Less? What does Trump and his behavior say about ourselves, and our allowances?
G.K.: I don’t think it’s a question of sexual repression or not. I think that what we’re seeing is a shift in the way we view sex. That’s not necessarily a step backward or forward, merely a change. And it certainly won’t be the last change we see. I think it’s amazing that as a human race, we are able to grow, from one generation to the next, and we are able to morph into different things than we were before. I think every generation has it’s boundaries that get pushed, and this is no different. I think there will always be people who are behind, but it’s not best to dwell on that because they aren’t going to be around forever. Everything in this world is so temporary. So, I just push as much sex positivity as I can, and I hope to encourage others to do the same, in whatever way is healthy and best for them.
J.P.:A woman or man comes to you for services. They pay you. They’re married or dating. Is that infidelity? Why or why not?
G.K.: This is a very complicated question, and a lot of it depends so much on the situation. First, the privacy and security of my clients is of upmost importance to Me, so any that are married or otherwise entangled romantically will never have to worry about discretion. Second, I would say, more than anything, this depends on the submissive. As a Domme, I make sure that my subs always, always put their real world responsibilities first. Wife, kids, life. I understand that comes before anything else, but let’s be honest, who doesn’t have secrets? Some are deeper than others, some would hurt worse if found out, but everyone, everyone has secrets. They have things they hide from their partners, their friends, coworkers, families. And, we all spend money on things that bring us pleasure, be that food, alcohol, drugs, or a Domme. What I do believe is that exploring all sides of ourselves in a safe space where we know we are able to without any fear of judgement is so beautiful. It can really allow us to grow, and it can also teach us things we can bring into our personal, vanilla lives and grow and learn from. I believe that when we keep parts of us locked away and hidden it’s bad for our mental health, and I also believe that some people can be absolutely compatible in every way except sexually, and that it’s okay to admit to yourself that you’re not always fulfilled, and seek fulfillment discretely elsewhere, as long as you keep fulfilling your duties to your household first.
J.P.:Soup to nuts, how does one build an online sex business? Like, where did you start? What are the keys? What does one need to know?
G.K.: You make an account. Simple as that. Some bright, well-lit pictures. I did a lot of looking around at Domme’s pages on Twitter I respected when I set up My account. Find a style that works for you, and stick to it. There will be subs for you, that will love who YOU are, not what you think you should be. Learn about kinks. Really learn about them, because some of them are safety issues if you don’t. Be patient, because this isn’t a get rich quick scheme, nor will it make you millions overnight. Be expecting to put a lot of effort into making content. You’ll want to paywall the hottest content, so that people don’t get everything for free. And most importantly, be yourself. If you aren’t naturally dominant, if people don’t naturally love you, this probably isn’t the business for you. You can certainly try, and you very well might learn, but you will not be enjoying yourself like you should be, and you will most likely end up leaving.
J.P.:You Tweet a lot about smoking pot—which you do daily. And I say this with all respect, but why? Do you worry about the health ramifications? The apathy? Etc?
G.K.: Oh, you’ve opened a can of worms here. Marijuana is absolutely My first love, and I could talk about it forever. It is incredible the things it can do for the body. Do I worry about the health risks? No. Honestly, I feel better when I smoke. I exercise more. I breathe better. My heart rate is more normal. I will clarify by saying I do have anxiety, and it helps. After years of therapy and medication (since I was about 5), pot is the only thing that’s calmed Me down without completely altering who I am. Instead, I feel it enhances it. It lets Me feel more while also not becoming overwhelmed by it. It’s a miracle for me, and I don’t say that lightly. Because absolutely nothing else had worked. When I’ve lost My appetite, it helps Me eat. When I can’t sleep, it helps. There are so many different strains and uses, and so many things it can do and help you with. Coming from an area where opioid addiction is huge, marijuana could save these people’s lives if it was easily accessible, legal, and safe. Safe from being laced with anything, safe from having harder things pushed on them again by their dealers. I often take T-breaks. It’s healthy to set it down and walk away and reevaluate your life, but at the end of the day, as long as you are keeping track of how much you are smoking, and you’re making sure you don’t become a sloth, I really think it can enhance just about anyone’s life. It’s just about finding that right strain and the right way of getting high.
J.P.: What do you do for a job away from this? What are your goals?
G.K.: I work for a retail company, early in the AM. It’s boring, but I get paid well there, along with some great benefits. I don’t plan on staying there forever. I have a lot of side hustles too. I knit hats and scarves, I made bath bombs, cross stitch, occasionally dog sit. Any talent I can make money off of, I am capitalizing on. All of My long term aspirations are more creative. I would love to grow My sex business. My brand. Expand. But I also write often, and would eventually like to see Myself published on a larger scale, whatever that might look like, be it a poetry book, a novel, or a sex centered self-help book.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your sexual dominatrix career? Lowest?:
G.K.: The greatest moment? Honestly, there are a couple that stand out in particular, but they have a single thread in common. All of My favorite moments have been epiphanies of sorts for My subs. I absolutely adore a moment when they shift in their thinking, realize I am right, and I always have been, and accept what I am saying to them. This isn’t always sexual; I can be helping a sub through a difficult period in their life. But it’s always about growth, and when I can see that growth in My subs, I am the proudest Domme possible. The lowest? You can spend a lot of time cultivating a relationship with someone in this field. You can become friends. You talk about things that are so deep and scary, it’s impossible not to care about your closest subs if you’re doing this job correctly, and because of that, if one of your subs ghosts without telling you, it can be heartbreaking. I would say that 100% there are Dommes out there who don’t give a fuck, but personally, being left after weeks or months of cultivation and growth between us, with not so much as a goodbye, can be very hard.
J.P.:You’re a huge poetry fan, and an enormous E.E. Cummings booster. Why?
G.K.: Okay, let’s flash back for this one. Back to a little sixth grade Me in honors English. The absolute first day of middle school, and I knew no one. It was a brand new school, and all of the kids who I went to elementary school were bussed off to the old middle school. I had absolutely no friends. I sat down in my plastic chair, and I looked around, and I felt so small and scared, and I was so worried about My future. My teacher had a poem up on the board. “l(a,” by e. e. cummings. She gave us the first ten minutes of class to try and figure it out, to read it, and tell her what it meant, and all of us struggled. We had been conditioned to read things certain ways, to accept that this is what grammar was and this is what a sentence is and this is what a poem should be. And this was definitely outside of our comfort zones. After watching us struggle, she went up, and she explained everything we had just been trying so hard to figure out, and once she did, everything about it made sense, in a whole new way. Not the way of the world or the English language, but in a way that speaks to the essence of the human soul. The poem reads, “loneliness (a leaf falls).” That’s it. And entire page taken up for four words and two parenthesis, and it absolutely touched Me. That little girl who was so lonely took that poem and held it close. I went home, and I read everything I could by cummings. And every last piece was brilliant. None of them followed the rules. They were all so literally his soul on paper, with no regard for what was the “correct” way. He tossed every rule out the window, and he created something most poets can only dream of achieving. His uniqueness made him great. I aspire to that as well.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GODDESS KITTY:
• Why “Goddess Kitty”?: My husband has always called Me Kitty Katz as a joke. It stuck.
• Three things men don’t get about sex?: We want to be seduced every single time. I don’t care how long you’ve been married, if you want to have more sex with your wife, act like you’re dating her again. Women never lose the desire to be desired. 2. If you’re not sure if she got off, you’re doing something wrong. You should always, beyond a shadow of a doubt, be making sure your partner enjoys themselves. It’s not hard to make a woman cum if you give a damn about it. If you’re unsure, communicate that to her. I’m sure she wants to get off just as badly as you want to get her off, and she will help. 3. EAT HER OUT. No explanation needed.
• Three things women don’t get about sex?: In relationships, it’s just as much their job to keep the sex alive if they want it to last. If something is lacking, they tend to let it fester instead of communicating it. If you need more, say so. If you’re bored, say so. If you don’t, it’s on you when the sex fizzles out. 2. You can ask for whatever you want! You want more oral sex? Tell him. You want anal? Tell him. You want to be the boss? Tell him! You want to be tied up? Tell him! It is beyond okay to ask for what you need sexually, even if it’s a one night stand. Speak up for yourselves, ladies. And if you don’t feel comfortable telling someone what you need sexually, you probably shouldn’t be sleeping with them. 3. Don’t judge your fellow women for their sex lives. If they want to bang the whole basketball team, let them. If they want to wait until marriage, cool. If they want to fall somewhere in between like most of us, that’s fine too. But for the love of God, My fellow ladies, stop hating on each other for sexuality.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Matt Bevin, Nipsey Hussle, Nick Van Exel, spiders, ripped blue jeans, the smell of marijuana, your high school history teacher, staplers: The smell of marijuana, My high school history teacher (all three, actually, I was incredibly lucky with that), spiders, ripped blue jeans, Nipsey Hussle, Nick Van Exel, Staplers, Matt Bevin (Can he be so far down that he’s literally on this list or planet anymore?)
• Three memories from your first-ever kiss: It was against these cold red lockers. The hallway smelled like the football team after practice. My girlfriend took Me by surprise and swept Me to the side and kissed Me, and I couldn’t breathe for a minute.
• The next president of the United States will be …: Let’s all write in My name.
• In 12 words, make an argument for Kentucky pizza: Goodfellas, Miguels, Mellow Mushroom. That’s all I need.
• One question you would ask Thurman Munson were he here right now?: What is it like to be undeniably extraordinary at something?
• What happens after we die?: Big question. I like to believe there is something out there, and that we are not completely wasted space that’s gone once we die, but I’m not sure. Sometimes, I do find Myself leaning toward reincarnation, but mostly because I think it’s just such a beautiful thought.
• Weirdest thing to happen at your wedding?: Nothing too weird happened. It was a very small ceremony. Only about ten people there, and we got steaks at Logan’s afterward. I never saw Myself getting married, but when you meet someone like My husband, you don’t ever let them go. The wedding wasn’t important to Me at all. I just wanted to be legally bound to My best friend for life so he could never run from Me.