Andrew’s answers are sorta short, but his words (and rides) carry some serious heft.
Andrew Cotton, take a ride on the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Andrew, since I’m a land-loving 42-year-old wuss, I’ll start with a basic one, and beg you to be as descriptive as possible. What does it feel like, in the moment, to be riding a huge-ass wave?
ANDREW COTTON: It’s an eclectic mix of pleasure, fear, excitement, calm and focus.
J.P.:My son plays baseball, and one of the early tricks is getting him over the fear of being hit by a ball. It’s sorta hard—young kids tend to flinch, duck, shuffle backward. All in the name of avoidance. Andrew, how does one learn not to be afraid of wiping out, slamming his head into a rock, drowning? How did you?
A.C.: Breathing techniques and training gives me a lot of confidence. I simulate the demands of potential stressful situations in all my training with Bay Fitness. I always make sure I feel ready and I always try to relax and stay calm when I fall or get caught out by a big set.
J.P.:What does it feel like to be drowning? I’m sure you’ve had moments. Is it panic? Chaos? What?
A.C.: Panicking is the worst thing you can do. I’ve trained to hold my breath for up to five minutes. I’ve trained to remain calm even when exhausted. I don’t panic. I have full confidence in my safety team. If I did panic that’s when I could get into trouble.
J.P.:Womb to now, how did this happen for you? I mean, you’re from Plymouth, you grew up on the North Devon Coast. But how did this happen?
A.C.: I felt so comfortable in the womb I knew I was destined for the water. I moved to Barnstaple when I was eight and immediately spent as much time as I could in the ocean. When I started traveling I realized I was comfortable in big waves. Then I just got really fortunate to get the opportunities I got and I’ll always be grateful to be able to do what I love and not fix broken toilets.
J.P.: Do you fear death? Like, does it worry you at all? Because it seems, in your profession, one either must have a horrible fear of death or zero? So, which? And why?
A.C.: Yes. No one wants to die. I often get asked this type of question as I have a family, etc. However, I don’t think anybody realizes the lengths we go to to make sure we are as safe as we can be. The Patagonia inflatable vest, and my custom Tiki Impact vest are amazing, as is my team—Garret, Hugo, and our trainer, Blakey. And his team at Bay Fitness, who do breathing, yoga, therapy, training psychology.
J.P.:This might be a dumb question, but how have devices like GoPros impacted your world? For the better? For the worst? Because, while it’d seem to be all wonderful, I find the increased need to document absolutely everything in the world sort of annoying.
A.C.: It’s great. I love using them but my wife gets so annoyed when I still have it strapped to my head when we’re being romantic. I by no means feel the need to walk around with a GoPro strapped to my head 24/7. When I free surf I just surf. I don’t usually need documentation.
J.P.:How do you survive, financially? I mean, I know you have sponsors. But how lucrative is surfing sponsorship? How hard is is it to attain backing?
A.C.: It’s never been easy. It’s a belief and a passion which have led me to where I am. If I were just doing it for money I’d be a plumber. I’ve been so lucky with the Crowdfunder and the Red Bull sponsorship. Now my profile is growing and growing and I love putting Britain on the world surfing stage.
J.P.:You live your life around oceans. You chart waves, search for conditions. Have you seen climate change having noticeable impacts on the ocean? Has it affected your world/life?
A.C.: I think storms have definitely got bigger over the last couple of years, especially in the Atlantic. Coastal erosion is a worry but you just have to do your bit and help whenever you can. Croyde put Christmas trees in the dunes this year to try and prevent us losing the dunes.
A.C.: In Nazare Portugal I was driving the ski. I towed Garrett into the current world record for the biggest wave ever surfed.
J.P.: Can anyone surf? Can anyone—with work—be good at it? What does it take? Physically? Emotionally? Spiritually?
A.C.: I like the old favorite saying: “The best surfer is the one who’s having the most fun.” I don’t like seeing miserable or angry people in the sea. Why don’t they go and watch some reality TV?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ANDREW COTTON:
• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay you $100 million to move to Las Vegas and spend the next 365-straight days as her surf coach. The conditions: You have to sleep under her table, only wear T-shirts that read EMMANUEL LEWIS FARTS TOO MUCH and can only eat oatmeal and papaya. You in?: Yes.
• Rank in order, favorite to least—Bethany Hamilton, Dikembe Mutombo, Liam Neeson, Diana Ross, French fried potatoes, the third toe on your left foot, Bell Biv Devoe, Kay Jewelers, Nicki Chapman, California: I don’t really know a lot of those people but Bethany Hamilton is very inspirational. I don’t eat French fried potatoes I’m an athlete. I must be honest, I’ve really been neglecting and taking the third toe on my left foot for granted. I’m going to give it some attention while we finish this interview. I think I’m flexible enough to put in in my mouth. PS: California is alright.
• How many days of the year are you home with your family?: Still most of them. Some people may be at home 365 days a year but are they present? Are they giving as much love as I do? Ha—my wife might not agree
• Sometimes when no one’s looking I pick my nose and stare at it for a while. Does this make me more unusual or normal?: Don’t worry. I do a lot worse.
• I’m frustrated by Carrie Underwood’s refusal to go more classic country. Your thoughts?: I am a lesbian trapped inside a man’s body and my father hugged me more than my mother as a boy.
• One question you would ask Duke Kahanamoku were he here right now?: If he had to would he rather administer oral gratification to a man or receive a sausage in the bottom.
• Would it be significantly easier to teach a world-class athlete like Usain Bolt to surf than, say, David Pearlman, my 45-year-old brother?: Depends but usually world-class athletes are good at everything. I’m happy to try with both then let you know. Is David up for a big one?
• The Miami Marlins are bringing back Ichiro. Dude’s 42 with a slow bat. Think he can help?: Age is just a number. Look at surfing. Slater, Parko, Fanning, Dorian, Garret McNamara are still in their peaks. Let’s give Ichiro a chance. Don’t write him off just because he’s bald and fat. Is he?
But, truly, how much do you know about it? I’m not talking to you, 16-year-old boy who thinks he gets everything because he read a Playboy and Googled doctored naked Selena Gomez photos. Nope, I’m talking to you—adult who has had sex, then more sex. It’s sometimes great, sometimes good, sometimes forgettable. Sometimes you’re really into it, other times you’re thinking about your fantasy football team, or Mario Lopez, or Melissa Gilbert, or all of the above.
A few months ago I was working in my favorite Los Angeles coffee shop, 212 Pier, when I stumbled upon a brochure for something called the Chandra Bindu Tantra Institute in Santa Monica. It was intriguing stuff—not the standard baloney we put out there about intercourse (doctored, unblemished bodies on magazine covers; Eight keys to an unbelievable orgasm, etc), but genuine spirituality mixed with love making. It talked about sexual bliss and sexual fulfillment via “an ancient path of self discovery.”
Put different, it was sexy as hell.
Anyhow, I reached out to Dawn Cartwright, founder of the Chandra Bindu Tantra Institute and a “innovator in bio-energetic Tantra fusion,” and asked if she’d be down with a Quaz. Here we are. One can visit the website here, and follow Dawn on Twitter here.
Dawn Cartwright, prepare for the greatest orgasm of all. You’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Dawn, I’m gonna start basic here. I just read a web profile of you that included this: “She discovered the path of Tantra by accident shortly after a period of life-changing mystical experiences in lovemaking more than twenty years ago.” I’m gonna step back and ask, simply, what does that mean?
DAWN CARTWRIGHT: Like many people, I was sexually adventurous in my 20s and 30s. Sex was hot and primal. One morning, just before I turned 30, my lover and I started to make love and everything seemed more vibrant. The nerve endings all over my body were alive and sensing. I felt sound. I saw sensation. It’s not easy to describe, other than to say the world came alive in me and I lit up inside it. At a certain moment, I looked up into my lover’s eyes and sensed something extraordinary inside me looking through my eyes into his. There was a feeling of connection that was timeless. At the same time, I saw in his eyes a love I knew existed far beyond the exchange we were having. There was something going that was inexplainable. I’d discovered Tantra, by accident.
J.P.: So I just spent some time trying to figure Tantra out, and well, I’m kind of lost. Some places make it sound very sexual, some non-sexual. There’s a famous Sex in the City episode where an old guy at a Tantra seminar cums all over one of the characters—and that’s always been my Tantra vision. So, Dawn, what’s Tantra?
D.C.: The Tantras are a wide range of texts, quite possibility arising from ancient oral traditions, which describe the deeper significance of love. These texts are a set of highly scientific principles that teach the path to this deeper experience, principles that are conveyed through a beautiful array of practices.
From the Tantric perspective, sex is the union between who we are and who we can be, the ultimate expression of who we are. When we are awake and alive in our sexuality, we no longer feel separate or isolated, we know, as a felt sense, we are a part of life and that our sexual pleasure is the same pleasure that births galaxies and stars.
J.P.: Clearly what you teach has to do greatly with sex, love making, etc. And in seems, in this country, sex, love making are still taboo topics; talked about, but in weird, awkward, off-putting terms. What do you think about America’s relationship with sexual discovery?
D.C.:Lisa Wade, Ph.D describes the cultural shift that happened just near the end of the Puritan era when the acceptable “purpose” of sex changed dramatically. In her article, “Before Love: Puritan Beliefs about Sex and Marriage,” Wade writes; “Over the course of the 1800s, Victorians slowly abandoned the Puritan idea that sex was only for reproduction, embracing instead the now familiar idea that sex could be an expression of love and a source of pleasure, an idea that still resonates strongly today.”
I’ll take it another step further, I believe we’ve replaced the Puritanical idea of procreation with the Victorian idea of romance. Instead of having sex only for procreation, now we have sex only when our romantic expectations have been fulfilled. We’ve confused love with romance. What we fail to see is sex, the primal surge of the human spirit, is the grist for love. Without sex; love, passion, constancy and surrender cannot exist.
D.C.: I started off in rural East Tennessee. The community there was very small. Highlights were the 15-course deep fried, gravy laden, biscuit sopping, suppers my maternal grandmother cooked up every Sunday afternoon and the stacks of National Geographics in my paternal grandfather’s basement. I grew up soaked in sensual and intellectual pleasures. I feel this predisposed me for a life of Tantra.
Starting around puberty, I was fascinated with sex. Oh, wait, just remembered, since third grade when we started terrorizing boys during recess, I was fascinated with sex. I grew up during the sexual revolution and even though I have no idea how the revolution made it all the way to the foothills of the Appalachia’s, I felt it. And I was a part of it. Life magazine and the music of the time influenced me a great deal, my parents are very culturally awake.
I loved to read. I read constantly. The sex scenes in romantic novels drove me wild. I’d read those scenes over and over again until I collapsed in an erotic frenzy. When I started dating at 16, those scenes came to life in a 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. I felt like I was consumed by the glory of God. Right then, my reading material switched from romantic novels to sex manuals like “The Joy of Sex.”
In my late 20s, early 30s, I had my first experience of Tantric sex. It was everything I’d experienced in my sex life so far, and more. I’d never heard of Tantra, yet I knew that this experience, whatever it was, was the reason I was alive. I committed myself to exploring and, not long after, saw an ad in the LA Weekly titled: “The Art of Sexual Magic”. If the ad had said “The Art of Tantra”, I would have passed right over it. I was IN. That’s when I met my first teacher and started my formal learning.
J.P.: You write quite vividly about sex, including this gem (“For, as he entered me, he entered my whole being. From the moment he touched me there was nothing in me that was not filled by him. It was as if the light around us was now streaming within us from his body into mine.”). How do you feel so comfortable being so open about your own sexual experiences? I mean, most people shudder at the thought of sharing such intimate details?
D.C.: I study and teach because I want to meet other people who have or long to have, the same experiences I’ve had and have. Sex is important to me. The transcendental potential of sex fascinates me. I’ve found the best way to connect with other people who have similar interests is to openly share and explore those interests. I feel honest, appropriate disclosure is one of the best ways to find commonality—it got you to interview me. Your interview style inspires me, brings out less explored parts of me—Tantra in journalism.
J.P.: I’m petrified of death. The inevitability of nothingness. I’m guessing it doesn’t bother you. True? False? And why?
D.C.: I remember being down with a horrific flu a few years ago. While I was lying there doubled over in agony the only thing I wanted was to survive the illness. While I do not experience an overriding fear of death, and hope I’ll meet mine gracefully, I have an enormous respect for death and the will to live.
I am alive every minute until I’m not, how intimate with life can I be? This perspective makes me more comfortable with death and it also makes my life, as it is right now, feel complete. Less and less I feel I am missing anything. I sense death will be a bit like pushing myself back from the table after a huge feast. I’ll pat my belly, wipe my chin, and say, “That was good!”
J.P.: So a couple comes to you. They’re dissatisfied with a stale sex life, blah, blah, blah. How do you work with them? What’s the approach? Is it a year of sessions? Months? Please explain?
D.C.: We start with an introductory session where I teach the couple specific Tantra practices to reawaken intimacy and connection. These practices take the couple back to the feelings of attraction and love they felt when they first met. Once they feel these feelings again, they immediately notice themselves and their relationship come back online. They discover their sexual relationship can be, once again, a source of great joy and physical and emotional connection.
In the following sessions, we turn on the the sexual pleasure circuits in the body using Tantra techniques. Couples learn how to increase their own capacity for sexual openness, sensitivity and pleasure, then learn ways of sharing this with one another.
I work with couples and singles in cycles of seven sessions. We meet once each week for an hour or more. Practices are learned and experienced, fully clothed. The clients go home at the end of the session, do their homework, then come back the following week and share notes.
I find most couples experience a profound shift in their sexual relationship within three months; that’s about two cycles of seven sessions. Many couples work with me ongoing, for a year or more. There is no limit to the sexual depths and transcendence the Tantra practice has to offer, I’ve been studying and practicing for more than 23 years and I’m still expanding.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
D.C.: The greatest moment of my career happened a few years ago at my father’s 70th birthday celebration. He proudly introduced me to his golf buddies like this, “This is my daughter, Dawn, she helps people with their sex lives.”
The lowest moment of my career is each time I leave anywhere I am to go somewhere else. When I leave Santa Monica for India. When I leave India for Santa Monica. When I leave Ireland. I fall secretly apart every single time.
J.P.: I love my wife. I have never—and would never—cheat on my wife. But, from solely an animalistic standpoint, I wonder whether two people are supposed to only have sex with one another for their entire adult lives. It actually seems to go against nature. Do I sound crazy suggesting such?
D.C.: What’s crazy is we’ve made this question about the number of lovers we’ll have or not have over the course of a lifetime, never stopping to wonder if we’ve ever unpacked the vastness of who we are—with anyone.
J.P.: Maybe this is too basic, but what are the keys to great sex? A great sex life?
D.C.: The keys to great sex are simple; you are consumed with it, nothing exists outside of it, it fills you with a cosmic sense of wonder. A great sex life is one where sex exists in and beyond the bedroom. It’s being warm, accepting, caring, erotic, sensuous and endlessly awake in everything you do.
• One question you would ask Joan Kroc were she here right now?: What was your life like, Joan, between 1957, when you met Ray, and 1969 when you married him?
• In exactly 18 words, give me your thoughts on the Kardashians: The Kardashians are the Jekell to our Hyde, living out the repressed sexual fantasies of the western culture.
• Who are the five coolest people you’ve ever met?: My dad, my mom, my therapist, my guru, Robert Bosnak.
•Am I wrong in thinking vaginas are sorta odd looking?: The unfamiliar is often seen as odd.
• Shania Twain calls. She’ll pay you $20 million to move to Las Vegas and be her private tantric love making coach for a year. The conditions: You have to only eat salami and mixed greens for the year, and your name must be officially changed to Nancy Reagan. You in?: I’d counter with: One year, me as your private Tantra coach. At the end of the year, in addition to expanded ecstasies and pleasures during sex, you’ll orgasm each time you hit a clear true singing note. Cost $40 million and I’ll move to Vegas for the year. No other conditions.
• Who’s the sexiest man you’ve ever seen?: My sitar player.
• Best joke you know: An executive had to get rid of one member of his staff. He couldn’t decide between Mary and Jack: both had equal seniority and qualifications. Unable to choose, he finally decided that whoever used the water fountain first would be let go.
The next morning, Mary came with a hangover. She went to the water fountain so she could take some aspirin.
The executive approached her: “Mary, this is difficult, but I have to lay you or Jack off.”
Mary replied, “Then you’ll have to jack off. I have a hell of a headache.”
Believe it or not, there’s generally a line one has to wait on to enter The Quaz.
It’s sorta like a hot Manhattan club, with a bouncer and a rope. You arrive, you bring a warm coat and some patience, you chill until your time comes. Or, put different, I always try and have a backlog of Q&As, so I know—weeks ahead of time—that I’ll be ready come every Tuesday morning.
Today, Zack Levine cuts the line.
He sent in his answers two days ago, and I had someone else scheduled. But the trying-to-break-through North Carolina-based standup comedian put such effort and time and oomph into his answers that, well, I had to let him past Leon, the heavily tattooed 400-pound door guardian, and into the Quaz VIP room.
To understate, Zack is a fascinating dude—a sufferer of social anxiety; an empty-wallet guy performing for the love of the laugh; a Jewish atheist who grew up in poverty; funny as hell. One can visit his website here and follow him on Twitter here.
Zack Levine, being the 232nd Quaz ain’t no joke …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Zack, you website bio starts like this: “A few years ago, after not leaving his bedroom for a week, Zack Levine asked himself what was the most extreme thing he could do to get over his social anxiety? The next Thursday, he showed up to an open mic and hasn’t looked back.” So I know of social anxiety, but I don’t know social anxiety. Can you explain, in as much detail as possible, what that feels like. I mean, you’re in your room, afraid to leave. Why? How? What’s running through your mind? And how are you nowadays?
ZACK LEVINE: The biggest issue is that I feel like I’m constantly being judged. One example—and even with therapy, this something with which I still struggle—is this: If I’m meeting a friend anywhere, be it a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, etc., I can’t go in until the other person gets there. In my mind, if I go in alone, the employees and other customers will see me coming in alone and think, “Wow, what a loser, this guy here with no friends. I bet he was supposed to meet someone here and they didn’t even show up.” It’s like they will see me and think I’ve been stood up, but not only that: they will totally understand why that person stood me up. The strange thing is, if my plan is to go into either of those places alone to have a drink or eat, to sit down and write jokes or blog posts, work on my website, etc., then I’m totally fine. In those cases, I think the employees and other customers will look at me and think, “Oh, he’s got a notebook or computer with him. He’s just here to do some work,” and forget I’m there.
Or, if I’m going on a date with a woman, I’ll try and give her an out. If I’m meeting a woman I’ve talked to online, she’s seen my pictures and read stuff, either in the profile or my website, but people can look quite a bit different in person than pictures. That last part compels me to send one last message before we meet that generally says something like this: “Here’s where I’m sitting. If you come in and see me and think like, ‘Nah … not interested in that,’ and just turn around and leave, I’ll totally understand.” I don’t have much confidence in my physical appearance, so if that’s why she wants out, then I totally understand it. But if she was fine with that and sat down and later rejected me because she thought I wasn’t intelligent or that I wasn’t funny, well, that’s fine because I’ll think, “Those two things are obviously not true.”
It also expands to general anxiety. In my full-time job (I’m a lead environmental technician for a chemical production and water treatment company), I rarely talk to my bosses about anything of significance because I think if I were to sit across from them and ask for a raise, or tell them about concerns regarding other employees or safety issues or, really, almost anything, what they’ll see across from them is a coward, someone who’s weak and afraid to talk to them. They’ll laugh off my requests or concerns and know that I won’t stand up for myself.
Even doing standup I feel anxiety. Before I go on stage I feel what people call the “right amount of nervousness”—the nerves that compel you to do well. As soon as I walk off stage, though, I look at the floor and walk to the back of the room without making eye contact with anyone, regardless of whether I did poorly or great. I can tell how well I did when I’m up there, but when I walk off stage I think maybe rather than judging me for how well I did they’re judging me for how I looked, my clothes, my hand gestures or body language, and so on.
One benefit for me is that I am very aware of this being an issue for me. If I can catch it before it takes hold then I think I’m usually able to work up the courage to walk into a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop alone or talk to my bosses.
In large crowds, for reasons unknown to me as I’ve never been a part of something like this, I get very worried that something bad is going to happen that will lead to some sort of riot or stampede. At concerts I sit in the seats and wait until everyone has left before I leave; I’m the last person to get off a plane just so no one will push me to get off any quicker.
I’m also aware that behavior like this, at least for me, feels pretty narcissistic. No one in that coffee shop is looking at me except the person taking my order, and once I get my order, they probably don’t pay attention to me at all anymore. The customers certainly aren’t looking at me. My bosses don’t see a scared little kid, they see a guy who’s 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds with a big beard staring at them with zero emotion. And the crowd in that venue sees someone they either thought was funny or wasn’t funny.
The anxiety I feel, though, is still quite real, and even if I’m able to push away the anxiety for a brief period so that I can walk into that bar or talk to my bosses or talk to a woman, as soon as that particular situation ends, it’s like a sea wall breaking and a torrent crashing into me; the anxiety seems to double or triple: if I can push it aside for 30 minutes to talk to my boss, the hour after the conversation will be me dealing with all of the anxiety that I felt before times two.
I’m also generally against taking pharmaceuticals and other things like that and my therapist, who is not an MD, hasn’t pushed me to seek that solution, so I manage it as well as I can by generally being aware of the condition and trying to immerse myself in the situations that cause the most anxiety. I’ll arrive 20 minutes early; maybe the option of waiting 20 minutes outside a restaurant will seem more stupid than going in and risking people thinking I’m a sad, lonely loser. I’ll e-mail my bosses and tell them I have something urgent to discuss with them so that they bring it up first. I’ll sit in the front of an airplane. It’s tough, and dealing with the flood of anxiety that catches up later is burdensome, but being aware of the issue makes it slightly easier to contend with.
J.P.:It seems like comedy is a profession that calls the troubled, the awkward, the frustrated, the stunted. Why do you think this is? And do you see a bond among comics, from a social standpoint?
Z.L.: I think a lot of people who grew up in rough situations, dealt with trauma, have depression or anxiety issues, were picked on in school, or don’t feel like they belong to any sort of group, find an accepting and welcoming community in comedy. Comics want to speak and be heard and we’re often able to relate to an audience by sharing details of our past and current personal lives. We learn about each other in a more intimate way than those in other professions, and if it’s just a hobby, than for those in other artistic areas.
No matter what type of joke you’re telling, other comics get that what you’re doing is trying to make what you’re saying funny and are often very willing to help punch up a joke to make it more funny.
I like doing lots of weird, abstract, sort of tangential humor, but I also try and give those thoughts context by revealing more details of my past and personal life, so I will talk about what it was like growing up poor and living in a motel, my experiences in therapy, experiences with failed relationships, and so on. Having a community that understands, if not the exact nature of the experience than at least what it is you’re trying to do on stage with that experience, lessens the burden of the experience itself; it allows me to see those events in a different light and in several ways has helped me move past them. I think it takes a fairly intelligent person to deconstruct life events and experiences and reconstruct them in a way that allows that person to experience them in a new way and from a new understanding, both personally and on stage.
As for a social bond among comics, there is definitely that. All of my friends are either comics or people I’ve met through comics I know. With respect to the social element outside of the comedy club I think it comes down to this: Most of us aren’t going to be famous but we still love doing it and we still love writing jokes, making people laugh, and being around people who are funny just feels good. I have a few very close friends from doing comedy, and when we get together to hang out, write, or meet up for breakfast, what was going to be a quick 30-minute meet up ends up being two hours of obnoxious joke telling, writing and laughter. Even if we don’t come out of it with a new couple of minutes to try out on stage, it was still two hours of laughing like hell. From a social standpoint, and others as well, working up the courage to try standup and then stick with it for going on three and a half years, has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
J.P.: Your website bio sorta sucks (no offense—heh heh). So … who are you? Where are you from, besides merely Greensboro, N.C.? What’s your path from womb to here? What was your first standup gig like?
Z.L.: Jeff, comics are sensitive people; the extra day it took to get this written is from all the crying. Who am I? I’m a man who cries. I cried when I watched “The Martian.” I guess that’s why I only saw that girl once.
I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My dad, to whom I don’t speak anymore, is from Miami, is Jewish and his grandparents left the Ukraine to escape the pogroms and first ended up in, of all places, Nova Scotia. My mom, with whom I have a fantastic relationship, is from Tennessee. Oddly enough, they’re still married and live in the same house. I tell people I’m a Jewish atheist. That comes from, first, having a great relationship with my grandfather—he was an air traffic controller for Pan Am Airlines and traveled the world—and two, being an atheist. People ask how I can be a Jewish atheist and I always say, “I think most Jews are atheists,” but that really just comes from reading an interview with Geddy Lee, from Rush, in Heeb Magazine (when it was still in print), where he said he was a Jewish atheist.
I’m not sure where the poverty comes in or how it happened. My dad would say it’s because my mom is incredibly financially irresponsible and wasted all the money he earned as an engineer for Kimberly Clark. My mom would say it’s because my dad wasted all his money buying property, starting to build houses, and then abandoning those projects as soon as the holes for the foundation were dug. They’re probably both right.
You mentioned in another question watching one video of mine but I can’t remember which jokes I told during that set. I have talked on stage about the house I grew up in being an awful place that was ultimately condemned by the fire department and torn down. We then lived in a motel for a few months and after that in a trailer park where our neighbors across the street were arrested for possession of Methamphetamines and the neighbors down the street arrested for dog fighting.
In seventh grade my grandfather, mentioned above, died. He’d had heart surgery and the doctors recommended my grandmother, who had Parkinson’s Disease, go to assisted living while he recovered. She refused. A woman of privilege, she saw something like that as being beneath her. One day, not too long after his surgery, she fell and he went to pick her up. The area on his leg from where the veins for his heart were removed hemorrhaged and his blood stopped clotting. My dad’s sister came to the hospital and before my grandfather died took his credit cards and spent over $30,000. On Thanksgiving my grandfather died. My dad never spoke to his mom or his sister again.
In eighth grade my best friend for many years died after a football game from a brain aneurysm. I’d moved to a different middle school and it was my new team, North Rowan Middle School in Spencer, N.C., versus my old team, Knox Middle School in Salisbury, N.C. I was on defense and he was on offense. We saw each other, greeted one another, the ball was snapped and run, the play was dead. My friend jogged to his sideline, collapsed, went to the hospital, and died the next day. I blamed myself for years for his death. It’s only been this year, after going to therapy and trying a few different techniques, that EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) helped me with the burden of having carried that guilt and self-blame for so many years. There are many reasons I’m ethically (and hypocritically, since I still watch it three or four days per week) opposed to football, one of which is the reason you and I came into contact in the first place – domestic violence by players and inaction on the part of teams, owners and the NFL itself. This event, concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the growing number of youth football players that die every year now—nine reported so far this year—are also reasons I’m opposed.
In response to this my parents moved us again, this time to a new high school. One significant thing is that every neighborhood I’d lived in and every school I’d been to was greater than 50 percent black. This new high school, out of nearly 1,800 students, probably had 100 black students. I’m a Jewish atheist white kid, but it was a massive shock. I was the first kid in my middle school with Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me,” I watched “Martin,” and now I was in a school where kids listened to country music and watched “Andy Griffith.” I’ve never once uttered the n-word in my life, but it wasn’t until I moved to this high school that I really knew the word was a racial slur.
Cut to college. I worked two years out of high school before going to college. I went to Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) in Winston-Salem, N.C. (also the alma mater of ESPN’s human shit spewing megaphone Stephen A. Smith). Within the first week of freshman seminar, they mentioned the chance to study abroad through the Office of International Programs. The next day I went and said, “Send me somewhere.” They said there was a new program called FIPSE-CAPES, an agreement between the federal governments of the USA and Brazil. I got a grant and a few credit cards and went for seven months. I returned to the United States after I graduated with a BA in Political Science and a minor in Brazilian Studies, I went to Israel with Taglit-Birthright. I extended my 10-day stay to six weeks and also went to Palestine, Jordan and Egypt.
When I got back, rather than going to law school, I moved to Washington, DC, where I struggled to find jobs for several years. I mostly worked in outdoor environmental education, teaching young students aboard a boat for Living Classrooms Foundation all about the biology and ecology of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, pollution, weather and climate, and more.
I moved back to North Carolina for graduate school, working at first on an MA in recreation management before moving to an MA in applied geography. If anyone that reads this wants to give me a job in stream restoration, watershed management, GIS (geographic information sciences), soil science, forestry, urban ecology, watershed ecology, or biogeography, please get in touch.
I actually started doing standup when I moved back to North Carolina. May 10, 2012 was the first time I stepped on stage at the Comedy Zone Greensboro. The last time I went on stage was yesterday. The Triad (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point) and the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and Charlotte are the places I regularly perform, but these three regions of North Carolina don’t add up to Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles, or any big comedy city, but I still perform, whether at a show or an open mic, at least four times per week. I try and make every one of those minutes on stage count.
When I’m not at work or doing comedy, I’m usually trying to find places to go hiking and camping. My most recent camping experience was in Grayson Highlands, VA, where a friend and I camped for two nights and spent three days hiking to and from the summit of Mt. Rodgers. I love traveling and language, also. I’ve been to 36 states, nine countries (I’m counting Palestine, sorry Bibi!) on four continents. I speak Brazilian Portuguese and am trying to regain my fluency in Spanish, although keeping fluency in both, for me, has not been easy. It’s one or the other or a strange mix of the two.
I also love cooking any and all types of food from any and all regions and countries. My mom didn’t work from the time I was in kindergarten to ninth grade, so I often tell people she taught me how to cook, sew, make quilts, and treat women with respect.
J.P.:I’m gonna call you a struggling standup, because it seems like all non-Seinfeld, Rock, Leno, Schumer standups are struggling. So what’s the grind? Like, how do you land gigs? How do you travel? How much does it pay? How hard is it?
Z.L.: The grind can be tough. I also work a full-time job. There aren’t too many stage opportunities in the Triad, so I’ll frequently go to the Triangle, Charlotte, and less often to Wilmington and Asheville. I have also traveled and performed in Athens and Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Whenever I travel for vacation I try and find open mic or show opportunities. I love performing in new cities and for new crowds for several reasons. The biggest reason is that those people have no reason to laugh unless they think I’m funny. At home or in cities I frequent, comics I know might be in the crowd and they can certainly influence a crowd with their laughter. It’s like people think, “Oh, all those guys are laughing? There must be something I’m not getting but I’d still better laugh.” Another reason is that I can dig into the well of material I have and do older material, material I love but don’t do as often, that particular crowd has never heard. I performed in St. Augustine, Florida recently and did several older favorites of mine, one of which I’d not done in over two years. My biggest worry is that I’d forget an important piece, but I was in the moment, the crowd was loving everything, and it worked.
To land gigs I really just have to e-mail everyone I can think of. I’ve traveled enough and try to network as well as I can, so I have a good-sized network to draw from. I’ll send out e-mails with headshots, my bio and links to one or two of my best videos. A lot of it, generally, is just being a funny person who is easy to work with. There are plenty of funny assholes out there who no one wants to work with. If you go somewhere and do great with your best five minutes people will remember you. From there your opportunities gradually grow.
You also might want to try and expand your presence outside of just doing standup. Lots of comics have podcasts that are focused on comedy and comedians. Some write and film sketches. I do both of these things, although I’m just getting to the point of actually putting the content out.
The biggest grind, I think, is just building an amount of material that works. Writing a joke is an involved process, beginning with cultivating an idea, then working it out on stage over the course of several weeks, trying to make it as funny as possible, then trying some more. Sometimes those jokes don’t and won’t work. Comics will tell you that a joke is never finished, and it’s true. I’ll come back to old jokes that were one isolated minute or so of stage time and realize I missed so many opportunities for tags and punchlines. Once you have five minutes, you work on building another five.
One thing that’s interesting is, two five-minute sets does not equal one 10-minute set. A 10-minute set involves, first, the stamina of just being able to tell jokes on stage for that long. You have to ride this wave of premise to punchline from joke to joke that, from a performance perspective, can be exhausting. I am at the point where I can comfortably do a 30-minute feature set. I write relentlessly and work on jokes as often as I can, whether it’s eating breakfast with comic friends or driving two hours to do five minutes at an open mic.
A lot of people would say there’s no way that’s worth the time, gas money, and so on, to not even get paid, but I’ve not felt many things greater than making an entire crowd of people laugh at an original joke you devised from premise to punch.
With traveling, generally I will try and arrange shows so I can go with at least one friend. We’ll both get time, have the ride there to talk about jokes, comedy in general, sports, movies and television, then have the ride back where we can commiserate over how poorly we both did.
LOL at the “How much does comedy pay?” question. It pays nothing. I might get gas money, free food and drinks, or the occasional $20. In the 3 ½ years I’ve spent doing standup, I’ve probably made a total of $500.
That part of it is certainly hard. It can come down to not doing a show because, even though they’re giving you gas money, you don’t have the gas to get there because you’ve got to go to work. Sometimes I’ll go do the show and rather than going home to sleep, I’ll drive back to work and sleep in my office just to cut out using a few gallons of gas. Doing poorly on stage is hard, for sure, but I’m to the point now where I can learn lessons from every show or open mic I do, even if I did well. I record all of my sets and go back and listen to find places where I slipped up, or where I could have put in a new tag I thought up on the drive back. But really—and this might sound corny—the positives of doing standup, for me, far outweigh the monetary costs of doing standup. I’ve made a great deal of friends, have laughed more in the past 40 months of my life than the 28 years prior to that, and I’ve truly been able to work through a few personal issues by going on stage and talking them out and trying to find the humor in them. Sort of like Jews did when faced with the Holocaust, only my problem is not being able to go into a coffee shop alone.
Z.L.: I don’t think I’ve used that line or even that entire first joke since. Usually the first line or little joke I’ll tell is just a throwaway thing that either has to do with something I’ve observed with that particular crowd, a particular way I’m feeling, or something that may have happened on stage before I went up.
The first minute of a set can truly determine how the rest of it goes no matter how much time you’re doing. I think in the first minute I try and accomplish two things: make the whole crowd laugh at least twice; and get them interested in what it is I’m talking about. A lot is made of the whole LPM metric (laughs per minute), where ideally you want minimum four LPMs, but less is made, at least for younger comics, of the importance of having a crowd actually be interested in what you’re saying. Sometimes this actually involves them not laughing and instead intently listening. Of course, you want them to laugh, and they’re there to watch comedy, so you want to make them laugh pretty much right away.
The first little bit of a set can kind of set the tone for how you might proceed. If I start off with, “I had an emergency session with my therapist today,” then you can see how that might send the set on one track. If I start with (as I do in a set I did at Foundry Ballroom in Athens) a joke about wearing a squirrel costume made of squirrel pelts, then you can see how that might go an entirely different track. Of course, with my particular style, I like to be abstract and go in weird directions. As I think it says on my bio on my website, I don’t really like to do a standard setup, tag, punch, A to B to C joke. My sequence might go: emergency meeting with therapist, the benefits to an adult for psychologically abusing children rather than physically abusing them, to why I wish I was a taco, to living in a motel.
The “wish I was a taco” joke was something I originally might have thought would be a throwaway. I was doing a show for a birthday party and had no idea all these people in their mid-30s would bring their small children. So I tried to think what little kids might find funny. I came up with why I wish I were a taco. Now I use it far more frequently than I ever thought I would. Sometimes it comes out when I’m trying to express frustration with therapy. For example, “How did that make you feel?” being asked of me several times over, until finally, frustrated that I can’t eloquently express my feelings, I blurt out, “I don’t know. Fuck, what do you want from me? I mean, seriously … sometimes, I don’t know … I wish I was a taco.” Someone angrily expressing that their true feeling is wishing they were a taco, at least to me, is very funny.
J.P.: How do you come up with material? Can you give an example of the development of a joke?
Z.L.: Here’s quick example of the development of a joke based on real life. I’m just going to type up the text of the joke as I imagine I’d tell it on stage …
I took a shower today. Anyone else in here like to shower at all, ever? I came out of the bathroom and my girlfriend noticed I was fully dressed. She asked, me, “Um, wait a second. Zack: Did you just get dressed … in the bathroom?” And I’m like, uh, yes, I did. Is there something wrong with that? And she yelled at me, “Yeah, Zack, you don’t get dressed IN the bathroom!” “Why not?” “Because, Zack, it’s hot and wet and humid in the bathroom. If you get dressed in the bathroom, you’re never going to get dry … because of all your crevices!” And I was like, “My crevices?” Do you know how much it hurts to have someone you love reference ALL of your crevices? I thought at most like, maybe I had two or three crevices. I said, “Well what am I supposed to do then?” And she said, “You go into the bathroom. You shower. You come out of the bathroom naked.” And I stopped her that because that is NOT happening. I do not like to be seen naked. I will come out of the bathroom naked if the power is out, at 2 am, and it’s a new moon. I seriously cannot risk being seen naked. She stops me as if I didn’t just reveal something deep about myself as a man. “Then you blow dry your entire body, otherwise, you’re never … going … to … get … dry.” And I looked at her and said, “Well shit, in that case, I have ALWAYS been wet. I’m like a clam, my junk is just always submerged under some small amount of water.” I was like, “Can I use your blow-dryer” and she goes, “Ugh. No!” And I’m like, “What the hell? It’s not like the blow-dryer sucks the moisture off of my body and into the dryer. It’s not gonna make your blow dryer dirty. Plus even if it did, I just took a shower! I’m clean!” And she goes, “You can buy your own blow dryer. Just make sure to get one with the snowflake setting.” I’m like, “The snowflake setting? What is that?” And she says, “It’s just a button with a snowflake on it. It blows cold air. But I guess I should know I’d have to explain that to you, since you didn’t even know you don’t get dressed in the bathroom.” I was like, “How much does a snowflake setting blow dryer cost?” She rolled her eyes at me and walked out of the room. I guess asking how much a snowflake setting blow dryer costs is like asking how much a Ferrari costs: if you have to ask, you can’t afford one. Also, I looked, they’re like $15. So yeah, I couldn’t afford one. We’ve since broken up. Because I can’t afford a $15 blow dryer. And also because I’m still kind of wet.
OK, so that joke comes from my ex-girlfriend basically explaining to me that I shouldn’t get dressed in the bathroom right after taking a shower, and that if I can’t get myself fully dry with a towel I should use her blow-dryer. I mean, it makes a lot of sense, really, but it never crossed my mind. I’m not one to do much of anything naked unless it is absolutely required that I be naked. Anyway, you can see how from me showering and her saying not to get dressed in the bathroom and to use her blow-dryer, from a comedy perspective, there’s a lot of potential routes to go with that. The trick (or whatever you want to call it) isn’t to find what’s funny about that interaction, because it’s likely that nothing is funny about it; it’s to find what’s funny around that situation: her telling me all that; what if she had said I can’t use her blow-dryer; what if she’d said all that about never getting dry; how would I respond to that; what might be funny about a blow-dryer to a guy who’s pretty much never used a blow-dryer and knows nothing about them except they blow hot air; and so on.
Then you take that premise on stage and you just work it out. A lot of times, when a crowd responds at one particular place, you can improvise a line to build on what they found funny to make it even funnier. This happened when I said, “In that case, I have ALWAYS been wet.” They laughed really hard and in the course of one second I thought, “What’s something that’s always wet? A clam! My junk is like a clam! Always wet!” Over time you continue building small pieces to it, even once you feel it’s perfect. To be quite honest, because her and I did break up, I just now came up with those last three sentences.
J.P.:What does it feel like to absolutely bomb? How long does it take to know it’s not working? And how hard is it to re-take an audience after you’ve lost it?
Z.L.: I think there are two categories of absolute bombing, both of which have happened to me.
One is when the crowd just sits there silent and gives you no response. Standup is designed, I think, to elicit a response, preferably laughter. But to get no response at all is very confusing.
The second is when a crowd just hates you and boos because they like you so little/dislike you so much they’re compelled to let you know not with silence, which is pretty passive, but with their voices, which takes energy. They have to really feel the hatred to boo.
Now I think I’ve been doing standup enough to get a somewhat decent read on the crowd and what they might enjoy, especially if I don’t have to open a show, but even then you can sometimes tell just based on the demographics of your audience. You can usually tell pretty quickly that it’s not working, and this goes into why I was saying earlier that one of the hard parts is amassing a wealth of material. If it’s not going well, you need to know when to pull the cord and move on to something else. Sometimes it’s not even that they wouldn’t find the joke funny, it’s that as a comic I’m not selling it hard enough. I flubbed one line that was crucial to the joke making sense, or not opening the joke with enough confidence. You, as the comic, have to know what you’re about to say is funny and that it will work. The crowd, I believe, can see any doubt or fear you as a performer may have. Once they see that, and if you believe that they’ve given up on you, then it’s probably going to be a difficult road ahead for the rest of that set.
One positive, however, about all crowds at a comedy show: They are there and they paid to be there to watch comedy. They want to laugh! They probably want to laugh more than you want them to laugh. They’ve already invested time and money into the experience of being at a comedy show. Once you realize the crowd is, almost by default, on your side, it’s hard to really, completely, absolutely screw up and bomb.
If you’ve completely lost a crowd I’m going to say, coming from someone who’s only been doing this for a few years, it’s not possible to get them back. You might have a joke they enjoy that they will laugh at, but getting them back full force where they’re behind you 100 percent isn’t going to happen. You’ve already put doubts into their minds, and likely your own mind, and it’s hard to fully erase that.
Even professional comedians—I’m thinking Jerry Seinfeld in “Comedian”—have to try out new material and it’s not always going to work. Perhaps on name recognition they’ll do well regardless because a crowd is there, most likely, to specifically see them. Whether or not they absolutely bomb or completely lose a crowd, I don’t know. But I’ve seen them struggle live just as much as less experienced comedians, which in a way is refreshing to know that never changes.
If you want to know what I was doing when I got booed, here’s that joke:
I had this idea about how global warming had finally started to affect the KKK. They’re sweating their asses off in some awful place with no air conditioning. And they call up Al Gore because he’s white, and they’re like, “Look man, it’s hot. We need some help. We’re willing to join your side in the fight against global warming. Can you talk to Barack Obama for us, because you know, it wouldn’t look good for us to talk to him?” Al Gore is like, “Yeah, for sure.” So Obama gives the KKK a call and they’re like, “OK, we’ll throw all the weight of racists everywhere to helping end global warming.” Obama is like, “Oh man, absolutely, that’d be great.” And the KKK is like, “One condition. You have to let us blame black people for it or it’ll never work.” Obama thinks it over and is like, “OK, that’s fine, but I have conditions of my own.” And they’re like, “OK?” And he says, “You can blame us for global warming, but everything else you blame us for? That’s gotta end.” The KKK is like, “OK, cool.” Then I talk about how it must feel for that one really old racist dude; he goes out to his garage and pulls a tarp off a big pile of junk, his wife comes in because he’s hammering inside the house and she’s like, “What are you doing?” And he moves, big grin on his face, and he’s hung his old “White’s Only” sign beside their air conditioner.
OK, that is probably just not a good joke, but I was a few months in and I thought the concept was funny. Maybe it’d be better as a filmed sketch, who knows? But I did that joke twice. The first time it was OK. The second time, I think the crowd heard me say, “blame black people,” and it was over for me right there. I still finished the joke, though, and I recorded it as well. I went back to listen to really see where I went wrong and really, just thinking the joke would work at all was probably where I went wrong.
J.P.: How does appearance play into a comic’s success? Like, could you wear a suit and tie and be the same guy? A Yankees jersey? Does the beard, the clothing do something?
Z.L.: A lot of comedians have their “uniform.” For many it’s just a black T-shirt and jeans. For me, it’s jeans and a hoodie. Others I’ve seen wear un-tucked button down shirts with jeans. There’s one comic I know who always wears a suit.
I’m honestly not entirely sure of the psychology behind it, but for me, wearing jeans and a hoodie, that’s basically how I dress all the time; like a 14-year-old child. I’m typing this in my office right now, at my job that pays me money so I can pay rent and eat food, wearing jeans, an oversized red long-sleeved shirt, a gray hoodie and boots. If they told me to shave or start dressing like a professional, I may just walk out. (To anyone who read my job solicitation above: I’ll totally shave and dress like a professional for you!)
When you’re on stage you’re, for lack of a better term, exposing yourself to the public: your thoughts, emotions, feelings, ideas, and so on. I feel like you want to give them your genuine self. If I wore a suit on stage it wouldn’t feel authentic. I don’t know if I could present a lot of my material, about growing up very poor and seeing a therapist and struggling with self-confidence issues and relationship issues, if I were clean-shaven wearing a suit on stage. All of that stuff is true, but I doubt it’d feel true if my outward appearance said something else.
It’s one of the reasons why people say very handsome and in-shape people can’t be standup comedians: If you’re super attractive no one is going to believe you’ve got some problem you just gotta talk about on stage.
What I wear on stage and my beard and glasses and general appearance—that’s genuinely who I am. I think my comedy expresses who I genuinely am, whether it’s some insane interaction I had with a guy carrying a dead horse around in the back of his old pickup truck or me talking about why black beans are the reason I don’t believe in God. I need to genuinely be myself on stage both inward and outward. It’s more believable for me and I think for the crowd.
J.P.:Hecklers—how do you handle them?
Z.L.: I am not good at dealing with hecklers. I wish I were better at it and maybe over time I will get there. My instinct to hecklers is usually to just threaten them with their lives. It’s not that I have a problem coming up with some witty rejoinder to their clever input; I just take what I’m doing up there seriously and I’m in a flow that I don’t like being interrupted.
Having said that, some people view anyone who talks at all during your set as a heckler, which I understand. For me, though, occasionally someone really loves what you’re doing and will throw out a comment that you can truly use to build on, whether it’s building that joke or a further and greater rapport with the crowd.
I have a joke about discussing suicide with my therapist (I’m not and have never been suicidal, by the way.) I go on to tell her the first time I thought of suicide was when I was in elementary school. She asked how I planned on doing that in middle school. I go on to tell her how and I get to the end of how I was, hypothetically, as an 8-year old going to commit suicide. This woman in the front is laughing really hard and goes, “It’s like mouse trap!”
I certainly did not view that as a heckle. Instead, what I said was, “Shit, you’re absolutely right! That suicide was like a Rube Goldberg machine. Too complex to ever really work. The people investigating would be way too focused on how I killed myself and completely forget about my body. Instead they’re like, ‘Hmm, how did he get this to work this way and this to react in a way that wouldn’t set off this other reaction, thereby ruining the whole process.’” To me, that made that woman feel like she was a part of the show and it made the entire crowd feel like, “This guy is on his toes. He’s really in the moment with us as a crowd.” I think a crowd loves that.
Threatening to kill a guy doesn’t always, although sometimes maybe it does, do that.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
Z.L.: Ah, the greatest moment now is you thinking I have a career as a standup comedian!
First, I’ll start with the lowest. I did a show opening for a pretty big-named national touring comedian It was very close to Christmas and there were lots of large corporate groups there. Everyone was completely drunk. I went up to do my set and it didn’t go well at all. There were lots of interruptions, people talking, and just generally lots of noise and chaos. Most of the people were there to get drunk and eat on the company’s dime, not really to watch comedy. That wasn’t really the issue. The issue was at the end of the show, I was waiting around with the other comics, shaking hands and talking to people in the crowd. A woman came up to me and shook my hand and said, “So, how long have you been doing comedy?” That doesn’t really express the way she said it; it was like she was talking to a child. I said, “Right at 2 1/2 years.” She makes this sad look on her face, like she’s trying to express empathy but it’s more like pity, and goes, “Yeah … it’s tough.” I don’t know why but that crushed me for probably two weeks. I guess it’s good she was honest, but I thought she could’ve just said, “Well that was good, then! Keep at it!”
I’ve had several best moments, but this one might take the cake. I did a show at Motorco Music Hall opening for two of my favorite people in the world—Johnny Pemberton, who was featuring, and Duncan Trussell, the headliner. I’d worked very hard to help the promoter sell out the show and we had a crowd of 300 people. I hosted the show, opened with 10 minutes, and it was so much fun and such an absolute blast that I totally forgot to say my own name. I was able to throw my name out there at the end, and it really helped me out; quite a few people from that night, even over a year later, come watch me perform at different areas around the state. Duncan gave me a huge hug after my set, told the promoter that I “was amazing” (his words; I have proof!) and told me the next time he comes through the area he wants me to do that again.
• One question you would ask Steve Jobs were he here right now?: Who supplied you with mushrooms, how much were they and can I borrow the money to buy some for myself?
• In exactly 17 words, make a case for yogurt: Yogurt is full of protein, calcium, and live cultures, promoting muscle growth, bone density, and healthy digestion.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Several times. I usually smile at the people panicking, know I can do nothing about it, and just close my eyes.
• Five reasons one should make Greensboro, N.C. his/her next vacation destination: Greensboro has America’s highest ethnic Montagnard population outside of Vietnam. They brought a lot of their culture with them, including their food, which is amazing and is well-represented across several restaurants in the city.
The International Civil Rights Center and Museum is located in downtown Greensboro. The Museum is located at the old Woolworth’s Building, where students from NC A&T State University began the sit-ins at the white’s only lunch counter. It opened in 2010, fifty years after the sit-ins sparked similar actions across the country.
The Greensboro Coliseum has the ACC Hall of Champions. The museum has numerous exhibits on the history of ACC basketball and ACC tournaments.
The Idiot Box, located in downtown Greensboro, is a local, independently-owned comedy club with a husband and wife team of owners that have spent tons of their time and money into ensuring Greensboro has a place for standup comedy to grow and thrive. You can even catch me there, along with plenty of other funny people, on Thursdays for open mic night and two shows each on Friday and Saturday.
There is a great theater scene in Greensboro, with Triad Stage and the Carolina Theatre having a full slate of plays, opera, dance, and more. Cone Denim Entertainment Center also hosts concerts, comedy, plays, and more. All three venues are within five minutes walking of each other, in downtown Greensboro.
You can come to Greensboro to eat great food, take in a bunch of civil rights and basketball history, then catch some live standup one night and a play the next.
• What are two interesting things you can tell us about your aunt?: She’s been teaching special education in Tennessee and Georgia for over 30 years. She’s lived in the same city, within 10 miles of where she was born, her entire life.
• In a Tweet you once wrote, “Holy nutsacks!” What are your other go-to Twitter expressions?: Haha, I only recently started using Twitter with any regularity. After my ex-girlfriend and I broke up, I all but stopped using Facebook. I still need a way to promote my comedy and website and other stuff, so Twitter was that avenue.
• From a comedy standpoint, who’d be the person you’d want to become the next president?: I’m not sure if I’d have anything original to say about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, so I’m going to go with Bernie Sanders. He’s new to the national scene, he’s an old, cantankerous Jew and I feel like he’d give comedians a lot of places to go with his behavior, speeches, miscues and policies. It helps that it overlaps with my general choice.
• Sometimes I pick my nose and wipe it beneath the rental car seat. Thoughts?: Sometimes I find old raisins underneath the seats in rental cars and eat them.
Blind Melon should have gone down as one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
I know. Blind Melon? The Bee girl? No Rain—the song people either seem to love or hate? Well, yeah. Blind Melon. The Bee girl. No Rain—the song I love, even though I’ve heard it 8,000 times. This is one of those things you’ll either have to trust me on, or simply learn for yourself by pulling out one of the group’s three albums. Because back in the early-to-mid 1990s, before singer Shannon Hoon’s death of a cocaine overdose, Blind Melon was putting out some of the most inventive, unconventional stuff in existence. People try to categorize the group as hippie rock, or alternative rock, or jam band, but none really sticks. They’re funky, cool rock—with a distinctive sound and vibe.
Anyhow, I’m babbling, because I friggin’ love Blind Melon. With Hoon’s 1995 passing, Blind Melon as we knew it passed, too. I mean, the band came back strong a decade ago with a new lead singer (Travis Warren—Quaz alum) and a solid CD (For My Friends), but Hoon’s absence changed everything. It just did.
Rogers Stevens, dreams come true. You are this week’s Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Rogers, I’m gonna start with a weird question, and I hope it doesn’t sound inane. So, I think it’s cool that you went back to college, then law school, then got a job with a firm. I really do. But there’s also a small part of me that finds it, oddly, dispiriting. Like, to me you’re the Blind Melon Guitarist. You’re a tour bus to Oakland; you’re riffs between Shannon Hoon vocals; you’re Woodstock ’94 and SNL and all that stuff. Really, it feels a little like Peter Pan growing up, or Christopher Robin no longer believing in Pooh. Um … do you feel this way at all? Like, was there any conflict going from a life of music to a life of law? And does my question even make sense?
ROGERS STEVENS: Your question makes sense in a rambling sort of way. I think you could’ve focused it a bit more, maybe pared down the premises a bit. The question comes off like you were still working it out in your head while you were asking it. But I won’t hold any of that against you, and I find it encouraging that your brain is actually working for this interview, despite my low-wattage, faux-celebrity standing. Ultimately, I appreciate that you care—or that you do a fine job pretending that you care. Anyway, yes … I do understand what you mean. But I never saw it like that. I always make an effort to follow my instincts and interests. I have a fetish for challenging myself. I crave new experiences, and I’m not comfortable when I’m comfortable. Does that make any sense?
J.P.:I’m sure, in the 20 years since he died, you’ve tired of Shannon Hoon questions. But here’s a Shannon Hoon question: Who was he? What I mean is, I know he sang, I know he had drug problems, I know he died young. But … what was he like? Was he happy? Brooding? Friendly? Standoffish? Was he great, in the way some people have greatness about them? Or just a guy? And how often does he enter your mind at this point of your life, if ever?
R.S.: I’ll say this—he was all of “happy, brooding, friendly, standoffish” and much more. I’ve met a lot of people along the way, and he was clearly one of the most interesting and conflicted people I’ve ever met. First impression for most people was “star.” He was incredibly gregarious when he wanted to be. He pretty much talked all the time unless he was pissed about something. He had absolutely no capability of editing the content of what poured out of his mouth. The trick to Shannon’s brilliance was that he said everything, and about 5-to-10 percent of it was really cool. Of the remainder, a good portion of it was nonsensical stoner logic, which also had its moments. You would find yourself saying, “Yeah … that makes sense in an alternate universe.”
And that temper … wow. He was prone to volcanic rages that came out of nowhere if he perceived a slight, either to himself or those close to him. When he opened that door, you could see a very, very deep level of anger in him that was truly frightening unless you were used to it—I got used to it right away. I saw him fight too many times to count, and I never saw him lose. He actually loved it, or at least had no fear of it. He was not a big guy, but he was agile and strong, and like many good street fighters he had heavy hands. To clarify, though, he was not a bully, and he generally fought people who were bigger than him for some reason … I can think of several instances with police. He just did not like authority.
He did not trust journalists, although he befriended many of them. Had you asked him a question that gave him the impression that you were fucking with him, he would’ve had it out with you.
J.P.: On your Wikipedia page—and in your bio—there’s a sentence that says, “In 1988, Rogers and [bandmate Brad] Smith left Mississippi for Los Angeles to pursue their musical interests.” It’s an easy one to read over, but sort of fascinating. You were 18. What does it entail, being that young and picking up and moving? Did you drive? Fly? Where’d you stay? How’d you know where to go? Look? Be?
R.S.: Brad and I packed everything we owned into an early 80s Honda hatchback … a couple of guitars, sleeping bags, clothes, music. Honestly, we were completely nuts. Looking back on it, I understand now the risks. We were blessed with complete ignorance of what we were doing, and we just assumed that it would work. We were pretty matter of fact about the “dream.” We had been plotting it for a couple of years, not telling our families and whatnot, which in both our cases were somewhat fragmented. We had each other, and that was something that came to be very important once we got there. We didn’t know anyone, nobody would rent us a place to live, we ran out of money pretty quickly … I had to talk Brad out of standing on a corner on Santa Monica. We were in dire straits for a while. Neither of us had ever spent much time at all in a city, and I don’t think I had even been on an airplane at that point. I remember when we arrived in Los Angeles … we drove straight past it on the 101—out of the Valley toward Santa Barbara. We kept waiting for it to look like we imagined it, and it just didn’t from the freeway. I remember it was late in the afternoon by the time we turned back around toward Hollywood. We did not have a lot of cassettes in the car, but I remember REM’s “Document,” the Rolling Stones’ “Hot Rocks,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Greatest Hits,” AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds,” GnR’s “Appetite” and some lame folk shit that Brad enjoyed but I hated. One of the first things we did that evening was go to Tower Records on Sunset. We bought Jane’s Addiction’s “Nothing’s Shocking,” because I had seen an article about it in Rolling Stone, and we were completely floored.
J.P.:I’m 43, and in the process of getting my masters degree. And I hate it. Like, r-e-a-l-l-y hate it. I feel like attending college has sorta passed me by. But you went back for both an undergrad degree, then a law degree. Why? What was the inspiration? And was it hard getting back into education? To thinking again as a student?
R.S.: I always read a lot of philosophy books—much of which I did not understand. But I made myself think. So when I went for that gear, it was still there. However, “getting back into education” would require having been into it in the first place, which I did not do. Once I got into the guitar, I was just obsessed. I missed the maximum number of days possible from grades 10-thru-12, skipping out to engage in my true studies. I’ll say this, though—it’s certainly not too late to do this if you’ve got a lick of sense. It just requires being interested and focused. Had I gone to college on a more conventional path, it would’ve been a disaster. I had to get my ya ya’s out, or at least enough of them so that I can concentrate. Still have a ya here and there … in fact, a lot of them. Always.
J.P.:As I mentioned, you played Woodstock ’94. I remember being a young newspaper writer, wondering, “Is this a great event or corporate nonsense? Is this cool or contrived?” You were there. What do you remember? And what was it?
R.S.: It was better in hindsight than in the moment. I had grown tired of being around crowds all the time—I think we all did. It was logistically difficult as well. A blur. I remember this: Airplane from Hawaii to New York, van from New York City airport to upstate near the festival, hotel for a few hours, van to somewhere else near the venue, another van, a helicopter (very cool) over the crowd, land backstage (really far from the stage), another van to a trailer, wait, then play. We were suffering the lingering effects of some substance procured from Porno for Pyros in Hawaii, and so many of us couldn’t get the snarl off our faces. The band was not great that day … it just didn’t click, but Shannon was amazing. We were doing a bunch of stupid stuff with our show at that time … refusing to deliver what we were capable of, simply because we had to make it “different” every single time. We could’ve delivered the goods and met Shannon on his level, but we just weren’t in the right headspace … frustrating.
J.P.:I love Blind Melon. I really do. But I wonder—and this might sound weird—do you love Blind Melon? Like, would you say you guys are amazing? Great? So-so? Do you think, had Shannon lived, you guys go on toe legendary things? Or do you peter out, like so many other bands?
R.S.: Sorta like asking me if I love my left leg. It’s difficult to be objective about my left leg, or the other one for that matter. I will go to my grave knowing that we would’ve really been great. We were in a period of rapid development when Shannon died. When we wrote/recorded the first record, I had been playing guitar only for a few years. It was still very difficult for me to play—perhaps it sounds that way. By the second record, we had developed a lot, and there were just too many ideas. We couldn’t address everything that everyone was doing. Much of it was good. I have a ton of outtakes songs that were coming together and I think they were potentially amazing. We would’ve forgotten all those had we gotten to the writing process for a third record. It was just happening really fast, and everyone had gotten so much better. I contend that nobody sounded exactly like us, and we would not be an easy band to cover. It was just crazy … nobody would play “normal” stuff. Everybody was driven to make it unique, and everyone had very high standards for what was acceptable. Fairly competitive within the band, and everybody wanted to shine. Much of it was a product of immaturity and substance abuse, but there were moments when it would stop you in your tracks. We were getting to the point where we could’ve tied those moments together. For us at least, it was just crushing to stop where we did … I’ll never get over it.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?
R.S.: Greatest moment was the very first note I heard out of Shannon’s mouth. That’s when I knew we would do something. When Brad and I arrived in Los Angeles, we had plain ol’ dumb optimism, and for no good reason. However, after looking around for a while, and trying to work with some other singers, we came to realize it was going to be difficult, and perhaps that the odds were against us. But then Shannon opened his mouth, and it was incredibly musical in a way that was perfect for the style we had developed along the way. Christopher and Glen joined us and it was complete. It was perfect, or at least we knew it would be.
Lowest moment? Hmm … we had a couple of failed recording sessions that were frustrating. Hard to think of any performance as a low moment … when people watch and listen, you’re an asshole if you don’t appreciate that. I’ve had plenty of shows where I played poorly, but I can’t say I would’ve rather not played any of them.
J.P.:Why do you think bands with members in their late 30s, early 40s can’t score on the regular pop charts? What I mean is, even had “For My Friends” been the second coming of, say, Abby Road, there’s no way it would have been a staple on pop radio, because kids wouldn’t have responded. But … why? Isn’t good music good music?
R.S.: It’s always been a youth-driven biz, and rightfully so. Young people will always be an endless source of new ideas, and most of them do not want to hear from “old” people. And “old” people aren’t as invested in it once they have families and mortgages. It just doesn’t seem all that complicated to me. I submit that rock music, or pop music, is best made by and for young people. Abby Road was made by some 20-year olds. There’s a certain amount of room for “adult” artists, but those records need to be very well rendered to break out of that limited market. I like about half of “For My Friends,” and think it could’ve been better had we not been going through our usual difficulties … I know a lot of bands are internally unstable, but this one is exponentially more so than most.
J.P.:I know it’s been a long time, but … your lead singer dies. You’re still a very young guy. It happens—Bam. What are you thinking? Like, you find out, you digest the news. Are you like, “OK, new singer”? Or are you, “Shit, we’re fucked”? Or are you simply overcome by grief?
R.S.: Chaos. What to do? The first-order problem was the death of my true friend. A few hours later you’re supposed to be onstage, and people start asking whether you’ll go to the venue and say something …
We just didn’t have any way to deal with it. We were already winging it on the road, as always, and then we had to figure out what to do. The worst was getting on a plane and flying back to Seattle and then sitting in my house by myself. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out that I had to leave. I was on the road with all my stuff driving to New York City within three days. We thought about a new singer, and even looked around, but we were just clueless and didn’t know what else to do. We should’ve known that the star of the band was gone and we were over … but it was sort of like waking up and discovering the laws of physics were no longer in effect. What would you do? It took us many years to even be available to the idea that we could keep going. And Travis came along and was really great, so that got us going.
J.P.: I’m gonna throw a random one at you: A few weeks ago the wife and I went to see Hall and Oates. It was a huge outdoor amphitheater, sold out—and they played a 50-minute set. I thought it was pretty bullshit, and I LOVE Hall and Oates. What says you? Is there a minimal amount one must play? Does it matter how many hits you have, or how old you are?
R.S.: We’re pretty conscientious about giving people their money’s worth. I don’t know many performers who aren’t. And stuff happens. Maybe Daryl gave John an unusually aggressive wedgie before the show and it set John off … no matter how hard you try, sometimes people don’t get their money’s worth. That sucks, but it happens. We’ve cancelled so many shows, tours, appearances, etc. I always feel terrible, because I know how I would feel in that situation.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROGERS STEVENS:
• Five greatest guitarists of your lifetime?: Keef, EVH, Jack White, Clapton!—and I’m leaving an open slot for all the ones I love but will not remember right now.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Anna Kendrick, Travis Warren, Bartolo Colon, Milwaukee, John Carlos, Willie Gault, Johnny Manziel, long walks on the beach, People Magazine, egg sandwiches, wood tables, “Gin and Juice”: Kinda fucked up to throw Travis in there, because I now have to put him first or otherwise listen to him bitch and moan. I can’t help it … I want Johnny Manziel to do well because I love a fuckup who can still manage to excel. I’m writing this on a wood table, so that’s something I enjoy. Milwaukee is difficult, but I am open to exploring it with someone who really knows it. I like to walk on the beach for about 15-to-20 minutes, but then get freaked out because I think I’m being lazy—I realize that’s somewhat lame. “Gin and Juice” is familiar … I know the track … we were so busy at the time that I didn’t give it the attention it warrants. For the rest, I’m familiar with the sports people, but don’t know who Anna Kendrick is. I’m sure she’s fabulous. Love an egg sandwich on occasion.
• My kids think Christmas in Hollis is the greatest hip-hop song of all time. Which is sorta odd, because they’re Jewish. Thoughts?: My kids are a coupla half-breeds, so I’m familiar with the challenges of Christmas. We go down to Mississippi and they love Christmas, etc., of course because of Santa. I think the Jews need a Santa-like gimmick to really put things over the top. I know there have been efforts, but it’s tough to compete with the presents. I spent some time in Israel, and it’s the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been. I just realized that I’ve never heard “Christmas in Hollis.”
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Yes. My wife and I were flying into San Paulo in the dark. There was turbulence. Or just one turbulent moment. It felt like God had punched the nose of the plane. People hit the roof, and I looked over at my wife … she was so whacked out on Xanax (a necessity for her) that the drool sort of sloshed off her lower lip. She looked at me and asked me if we were in Rio yet. I told her to go to sleep and I’d see her on the other side hopefully …
• I fear death—the inevitability of nothingness. Does it plague you at all? If no, why?: Best question ever. I live with a constant sense of existential dread that is neither interesting nor novel. I am one of those who will never find inner peace. I’m just going to squirm around for a few more years and then die. And I have no expectations for anything beyond that. I’m not ruling it out, but there’s just no way to know. I do know this—atheism and any sort of religious belief or other belief of the afterlife or of meaning to any of this … these are all equally illogical positions. And “meaning” is whatever you can manufacture while you’re here. Like Santa …
• Five reasons one should make West Point, Mississippi his next vacation destination: 1. People—Southern hospitality is a very real thing. I took my commie Jewish in-laws down there, and they were shocked. They loved it. 2. The South gets a bad rap, and much of that is legitimate, but if you went to West Point, you’d be in Howlin’ Wolf’s hometown, a short drive from the origins of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, Elvis, etc … just go down the list. A good portion of what I consider to be great American culture comes from right there—but it’ll take you a while to get a sense of it. 3. Unlike anywhere else in the world, I feel completely comfortable there … the pace of life makes sense to me, even though I’ve lived in cities since I left at age 18. 4. The music all makes perfect sense to me because it reflects that pace. I can play any of it because it’s just in me.
• Would you rather receive a check for $1 million in the mail, or never have to go to the bathroom again?: I place a premium on bathroom time … highly valued in a house with two grade-schoolers. Tough to put a price on it. Hmm … I’ll get back to you on this one.
• Who wins in the third Rocky Balboa-Clubber Lang fight?: Nobody wins that fight. Or they both do. At this point, I’m guessing they would both benefit from the pay-per-view.
No, I don’t love Stage Steele, in some weirdo, “Dear Sage, we should meet and hang out because I’m really cool and you’re really cool” sorta way. I love Sage Steele because, as televised sports media continues to bring forth loudmouths and dunderheads and attention-seeking dolts, she is as respectable and legitimate and insightful as it gets. And I friggin’ love insight.
If you watch professional hoops, you certainly know of Sage, who hosts the Friday and Sunday editions of NBA Countdown on ESPN and ABC. But you probably don’t know that Sage was a military brat; that Sage lived in four countries by age 11; that Sage told her family of her future plans of sports casting … when she was 12; that Sage wrestles elephants and knows all the words to every Menudo song and once boxed Mr. T to a draw (OK, those last three aren’t true—that I know of).
One can follow Sage on Twitter and Instagram, or just turn on the dang TV and see her face throughout basketball season. It’s an honor to introduce Sage Steele as magical Quaz No. 230 …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Sage, I’m gonna start with one that has nothing to do with sports or media. Earlier this year, in a guest blog post for People’s Celebrity Babies section, you wrote about being a new mother a decade back, and two middle-aged women approaching and asking if you were the nanny of the infant girl who happens to be your daughter. You write that you were “devastated”—and I was wondering why. I don’t mean to belittle your feelings at all. Like, not at all. But in the piece you explained that you are an African-American woman in a mixed marriage, with three kids who were extremely light skinned. And, if we’re being honest here, across America it is surely far, far, far, far more common to see a brown-skinned nanny pushing around white kids than a brown-skinned mother pushing around her white kids. I mean, it sort of seems like an understandable mistake. So … what am I missing?
SAGE STEELE: I’m actually glad you asked this question. There are so many layers to this. First of all, yes, it is more common to see darker-skinned women as a whole working as nannies versus white women, but I, personally, can’t imagine ever asking someone that question. You know that old saying, “Some things are better left unsaid”? This is a perfect example. If they were that curious and just had to know, there are better questions to ask to find out. Even if they had just asked how old my daughter was, it likely would have been easy for them to figure things out by my answer. I also think that in today’s day and age—and, yes, even 13 years ago when this happened—mixed marriages are so common … especially in the Washington, DC area where we lived at the time, so to assume that I was the nanny based on the color of my skin is pretty presumptuous and close-minded. But maybe the biggest point here is … why does it even matter?
J.P.:I hate how women are treated in sports media. Not all women, obviously. But it seems like you can be a guy and be 60 and look like a pile of pudding and you’re safe, and women need to be perky and blonde and young. Again, obviously not all women. But how do you not wanna scream and say, “We need to fix this!”? This is a topic that comes up a lot, but its probably pointless because I don’t see it changing anytime soon.
S.S.: The double standard has always existed and likely always will. I’m not ignoring the issue, I’m just being realistic. However, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who became a television sportscaster by accident, so the fact that this is a visual medium is something we are all well aware of before we start down this path. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m not annoyed at times when the only comments I get are related to how I look or what I’m wearing … it just means that there are so many amazing parts of my job that I try to take the good with the bad. You’ve gotta maintain perspective in this industry, and if that’s the worst part about being able to work in sports—my dream job—than I can handle it.
Social media has definitely taken it to another level, and it can certainly be ugly at times. But I really try to focus on the good—and the good part of the “pressure” to look my best is that it has forced me to be healthier. From the way I eat to the amount I exercise, I’m better for it. Most of all, my kids see their mom (and dad, who is in amazing shape at age 44) working hard to be healthy so I can be around as long as possible for them … and they, in turn, are establishing good habits as well. #perspective
Sage’s nephew, Colt, pointing excitedly to either his aunt or the Clippers’ center.
J.P.:So I know you were raised in an Army family, I know you grew up in Greece and Belgium until you moved to Colorado Springs in seventh grade—but your path really rivets me. How did you get here? When did the journalism bug bite? Was there an ah-ha! moment? A realization this was your career? A moment when you feel like, looking back, you made it?
S.S.: Yeah, I’m a self-proclaimed Army brat. Proud of it. I lived in four countries by the time I was 11-years old (along with Greece, Belgium and five states in the U.S., I also lived in Panama—all before I graduated from high school). When we returned to the States the summer before seventh grade, I will never forget watching the 1984 Olympic Games on TV as we were moving into our new house. I was in awe of the athletes and their ability to maintain poise under what I considered (and still do) to be unthinkable pressure. I knew I’d never be a good enough athlete to make it to the Olympics in any sport (track and equestrian show jumping were my sports) so I decided that being a sportscaster would be the next best way to be as close as possible to the competitions.
I remember announcing my intentions at dinner one night just before my 12th birthday—my parents and two younger brothers were my witnesses—and sometimes I’m still amazed that my dream actually came true. It obviously took a ton of work, years of ups and downs and doubts and fears and struggles just like everyone else in other professions. But I knew at a young age that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
As far as when I “made it”? The first time I was actually on TV was a big deal—1995 at my first TV job in South Bend, Indiana. Then I anchored my first real sportscast in 1997, working at the CBS station in Indianapolis, and covered my first NFL game that year too—both of which were amazing accomplishments. But since ESPN was always my ultimate goal, the first day I co-hosted SportsCenter was probably the pinnacle!
J.P.: The wife and I just finished watching the last episode of Hard Knocks with the Houston Texans. On one of the days Carli Lloyd visits to talk to the players—and they embrace her, show respect, decency, etc. I was thinking, “No way, 20 years ago, does a pretty young female athlete show up to speak in a pro locker room and not get heckled, catcalled, etc … etc.” You came up in the mid-90s. What were your experiences like as a young woman in sports, and have you seen attitudes change?
S.S.: Overall, I’ve had pretty good experiences. I remember being somewhat shocked working in Indy when I had my first opportunity to break a story. I was 25-years old, covering the Colts, when the player suddenly backed out of the interview and told me the only way he would talk to me on camera is if I went out on a date with him. It took me all of one millisecond to tell him that I was no longer interested in doing the interview … and after I hung up, he called back a few minutes later to tell me that he was just kidding. I interviewed him later that day and it was never brought up again.
Through the years, there were several “moments” while working in NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League locker rooms, but after a while those moments were few and far between because the players and coaches I covered realized that I wasn’t in this business to meet some rich, famous athlete and go on to live happily ever after. It helped once I got married, and really helped once I started having kids. Walking around football fields, locker rooms and even onto team charters with a huge basketball-sized belly was a turn-off to all of them—and it was awesome! But most of all, I got to see the gentlemanly side of so many athletes. I didn’t get special treatment, they were just respectful to me, and I am thankful that overall, my experiences over the last 20 years have been very positive. I’m also one to defend these guys because too many of them get a bad name thanks to the handful of idiots who make headlines.
J.P.:I had always dreamed of working for Sports Illustrated, and when the magazine hired me I sat in my shithole apartment and cried. ESPN was your dream, and you were hired in 2007. A. How’d you land the gig?
S.S.: Funny story. I actually received my first job offer from ESPN in 2004, but turned it down. At the time, I was very pregnant with my second child, I already had a 21-month old at home, and my husband and I wanted more kids. I had heard through the grapevine that working at ESPN wasn’t for the faint of heart, and considering the fact that I would have been starting just a few weeks after giving birth, I knew that there was no way I would be mentally ready for that kind of pressure.
So, much to the chagrin of my agent at the time, as well as some friends and family, I said, “No thanks” and re-signed for three more years at my then-job (anchor/reporter at Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic). Trust me, I was scared that I was possibly throwing away my only chance to fulfill my dream of working at ESPN. Scared to death. But I just knew in my gut that I was making the decision for the right reason—my family.
Three years and one more child later, ESPN made me another offer, and that time I jumped at the chance. Taking that job truly was a dream come true. Twenty-three years after I announced to my family at the dinner table that I wanted to be a sportscaster on ESPN, I was on my way. It was surreal. I was surprised that they still wanted me after originally turning them down, and even before that, I tried to land job there for about four years but was repeatedly told that I wasn’t ready, that I was too green (and they were right). But this time, I knew I was ready. I knew I had worked really, really hard and had tried to always do things the “right way,” and it was unfathomable that it was all paying off.
I’ve now been at ESPN for 8 1/2 years—which is crazy. Remember, as an Army brat, many of us thrive on change, and that’s me in a nutshell. This is by far the longest I have ever been associated with anything in my entire life. Its kinda crazy, but really awesome and I am confident that I will never lose perspective. Being able to say that you achieved your dream, landed your dream job, the same exact job that you wanted since you were 12-years old is so rare. Its a true blessing!
S.S.: Not many people realize this but I covered the Ravens as the beat reporter and host of their magazine show for five seasons (2001-2005), and Chad was their PR guy for the final four of those seasons. So, needless to say, we’ve had some very interesting conversations over the years.
I’ll never forget when they hired him in April of 2002. I was at a pre-draft event for the team and after it was over, then-head coach Brian Billick came over to me and … I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically asked me if Chad and I were going to be able to maintain our professionalism despite being siblings working on “opposite sides.” I remember taking a deep breath and biting my tongue because I didn’t appreciate what he was insinuating, but what I did say was two-fold. First, I reminded Brian that I had already been covering his team for an entire season, and they knew I was in it for the long haul when they decided to hire my brother (who had interned for the team in the late 1990s), so that was on them. But more important, I made it very clear to Brian that all the Steele kids (there are three of us) were raised to do things the right way. Individually, we had worked too hard through the years to jeopardize our reputations by giving anyone even an opportunity to perceive any favoritism, conflicts of interest or anything else.
Looking back, we probably went overboard to make sure no one had anything on us, and we legitimately never once crossed any lines that would have put the other in a bad light. It wasn’t always easy for either one of us because we knew that there were always a few who thought I had an advantage when it came to covering the team, and that hurt both of us. But as any good reporter knows, if the PR person is your lone source of information, you have serious issues. No offense to my brother or anyone else in his position, but my “sources” were players and other coaches. Enough said. So we just learned to ignore the haters, because we knew that we both were true pros.
However, there were also so many positives. Its rare to be able to work in such close proximity to a sibling, especially in the sports world, and I must say, it was pretty cool to be able to watch my brother in action. For the first time in my life, he was more than my annoying little brother. He was always a true professional during our time together. He was (still is) damn good at his job, and that compliment comes from his highly critical big sister. It was also quite evident that the players not only liked him, but respected him, and boy did has he had his hands full through the years with stars like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Deion Sanders, Derrick Mason, Jamal Lewis … the list goes on and on. I will never forget those years because I got to witness his growth as a professional in a tough, unique environment. But most of all, I got to get to know him as a man, not just a sibling. He was waiting right outside of the doors of my hospital room in downtown Washington, DC the night I gave birth to my first child, waited for hours on end, and cried when he got to hold her when she was just 5-minutes old, and he has been there ever since for all three of my kids. Family always comes first to Chad, and always will. I miss those years for many reasons, but most of all, I miss getting to see and travel with my little brother (all 6-foot-7, 240 pounds of him).
S.S.: Yes! In my opinion every American teenager needs a good six weeks of military boot camp to teach/remind him/her how to be responsible, accountable, respectful adults. And everyone should know what it’s like to wait tables. In my humble opinion, having to learn to multitask, speak to strangers, deal with rude people, bite your tongue when necessary and learn the definition of true customer service is priceless. I’m a very generous tipper because of all of those years as a server, but I also have pretty high standards and will let them know if they suck. I usually find a nice, friendly, passive-aggressive way to tell them that they dropped the ball, but I think the best way to let them know is to put a little note below your signature on the credit card receipt to tell them why they got a crappy tip. That way at the end of the night when they have to turn in all of their receipts, their boss sees it, too.
Accountability. What a concept …
J.P.:You made your SportsCenter debut on March 16, 2007, and you seem to consider it your all-time TV nightmare. So … hey! Please tell us what happened. Details!
S.S.: All I’ll say is that I wasn’t prepared. It was the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and I was hosting the 6 pm ET SportsCenter… a show that was always slotted for one hour, but turned into a 2 hour, 45 minute extravaganza to cover all the results that were streaming in. I now know that it would have been a crazy show for any ESPN veteran, much less a rookie like myself.
I was hosting with the incomparable Jay Harris, whom I had just met, and after the carnage we walked out of the studio and he just hugged me as my eyes welled up with tears, convinced that, in my opinion, I had just thrown away the one and only chance I had to make a first impression. Jay told me on the long walk back to the newsroom that none of it was my fault, and that I would be fine. I won’t go into all of the gory details but I will say that there was one executive who is still there today who called me into his office and apologized for setting me up to fail.
Eight and a half years later, I think about that moment a lot because I’m not sure I would have made it had he not said that. But from there, my career path at ESPN (as far as my assignments were concerned) changed drastically. I went from being told that I would be a full-time SportsCenter host to doing early morning updates on Mike & Mike in the morning and First Take. At one point, I was so convinced that they wouldn’t renew my contract that I began selling skin care products on the side to prepare for having to find a new job, a new career. So I would work all morning and into the early afternoon, come home and spend some time with my kids—who were ages 5, 3 and 1—and then go host these skin care parties at friends’ homes at night to try to secure a backup plan financially.
When our first child was born in 2002, my husband gave up his career to stay home because we didn’t want to put our kids in daycare (going down to one salary was a big stretch financially at the time, but our decision was based on whose career had the best earning potential for the future of our family, which is why I kept working), so I became the breadwinner and once things started going south at ESPN, I was scared to death about the future of our family. Eventually, I was given an opportunity to do some filling in on SportsCenter when ESPN launched the live daytime shows in the fall of 2008, and that was the beginning of a slow-but-steady climb. It started with trying to regain my confidence, which was a good two-year process—and then some. Good thing I found it, because I was a horrible salesperson.
With Jalen Rose.
J.P.:You’re the host of NBA Countdown on ESPN and ABC. Which seems like a pretty sweet gig and also reminds me of this: Back in the day, I used to hang a lot with a guy named Russ Bengtson, my pal and the former editor of Slam Magazine. And he was a hoops fanatic—until the sports just seemed to burn him out. It was always the same storylines, just different names on the jerseys. You have the underdog no one believed in, the superstar from nowhere, the hometown kid, the Euro gunner, the guy deemed the next “FILL IN THE BLANK.” So, Sage, I wonder if you ever find yourself yawning, or drooling, or doodling, or wishing to never again see another ball. You know what I mean?
S.S.: I know exactly what you mean but I can honestly say that I never feel that way. I truly feel so fortunate to be in this position because I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. I know that for the countless people who doubted me, didn’t support me and laughed at me, there are so many who did support me and who truly are happy for my success because they know that nothing was given to me, and I have the resume and grey hairs to prove it (thank goodness for good hair-coloring kits). Then again, so do so many other people, many of whom may have overcome even more obstacles than I have.
But by the grace of God and lotsa blood, sweat and tears, I’ve been able to do so much—so much beyond what I even dreamed possible when I announced at the dinner table in 1984 that I wanted to be a sportscaster. Now that I’m older and have better perspective, I really do try to sit back and smell the roses quite often. Who knows, all of this could be gone tomorrow. I continue to mourn the loss of my dear friend, Stuart Scott. His battle against cancer taught me so much, and is a great daily reminder for me and my family to never take anything for granted. Maybe that sounds cliché, but its so true. I’m the luckiest girl I know.
• Your husband is caucasian. I was wondering if, in 2015, people still look. Like, are there ever glares of disapproval? Or curiosity? Or … whatever? Or have we mostly moved past that?: Yup. We still get looks. Most of the time the looks (and negative comments either in person or on social media) are from African-Americans though, which has been particularly hurtful. Diversity is quite the popular word these days, but then when I find out that many people who push for diversity and acceptance really only approve of it when it’s on their terms, I have a problem with that.
As for my husband, we met in college at Indiana University and have been together for nearly 23 years, married for 16 years this month, so we don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I will say that my perspective is somewhat unique—I come from a bi-racial marriage and my parents went through hell when they got married in 1971. My father is black, my mother is white (half Irish, half Italian) and neither one of their families were particularly thrilled with their relationship—especially my mom’s parents. Times were different then—much tougher than they are today—so Jonathan and I fully realize that what we have experienced, and continue to experience, is nothing compared to what my parents have gone through. They’re an amazing example—44 years and counting! #perspective
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. It didn’t really enter my mind until I became a mother, and then every time I traveled for work, I would leave a hand-written note to my kids in the glove compartment of my car when I parked it at the airport. It was a note that just told them how much I loved them, and I figured that eventually when the tow company went to get my car that my husband would go through it and find the love note and give it to my kids so they would know that I was thinking about them up to the very last second. I know …. I was nuts. I have since chilled out a bit, but can’t help but think that as often as I fly, I’m obviously increasing my chances of dying in a plane crash. Hopefully if that happens, all of my miles and status on American Airlines and Delta will be transferred to them and they’ll take one helluva trip in my honor!
• One question you would ask Renee Zellweger were she here right now?: Why, Renee? WHY?
• What’s your biggest singular on-air screwup?: How much more space do you have in your column? I seriously have too many to count but here’s the one that my friends refuse to let me live down: I was filling in for Dana Jacobsen on First Take back in 2008 and I was interviewing Mark Wahlberg about some new movie he was starring in. At the end of the interview, when I thanked him for joining us, I accidentally called him “Donnie”—and this was long before Donnie resurrected his career. Mark was definitely the superstar in the Wahlberg family. Oops. Needless to say, he caught my mistake and totally called me out on it by laughing and busting on me for quite obviously having been a fan of New Kids on The Block back in the day. So busted.
• I never bought Arnold Jackson kissing Lisa. I mean, they hated one another for years, and suddenly they were smooching when Willis wasn’t around. Your thoughts?: Which one is Arnold Jackson? See—this is what happens when you live in Europe with no access to American TV shows—you miss out on some of the classics! So funny … I’m always so clueless.
• In exactly 27 words, make a case for why the 76ers were wise to select Shawn Bradley ahead of Anfernee Hardaway and Jamal Mashburn in the 1993 Draft: Nine years after the Trail Blazers took Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan, the Sixers were just trying to make Portland feel better about themselves. (They failed).
• Why is your first name Sage?: Because my parents just didn’t think that Parsley Steele, Rosemary Steele, Thyme Steele, Salt Steele, Pepper Steele, Paprika Steele or Cumin Steele had the ring to it that Sage Steele did. Does. My mom did admit that they considered naming me Stainless for a minute, though …
• Would you rather change your name, permanently, to Luther Wright Steele or spend two weeks having to share a cruise cabin with Celine Dion and her 10 closest friends?: Celine Dion. No brainer. I will admit to having a few Celine tunes downloaded on my phone. Her Christmas albums are the bomb! But I also have Tupac, James Taylor, Notorious B.I.G., Adele, Bruno Mars, Journey, Earth Wind & Fire, Ed Sheeran, LL Cool J, Straight No Chaser, Maroon 5, Dr. Dre and countless others on my playlist. So good luck figuring me out.
I have often said that I would rather interview the average dude you meet on a street, or in a bar, or at a restaurant, than a celebrity. And I mean it. Give me the sanitation worker over Derek Jeter. Give me the mailman over Selena Gomez. Give me the traveling salesman who is passionate about BBQ and believes strongly in the Houston Astros and the Second Amendment and cool hats over, well, anybody.
Which is why we’re here.
On the surface, Paul Shroyer’s narrative isn’t sexy. He’s a middle-aged man who roams the Southwest selling stuff. But take a look. A close look. He’s the last of a dying breed to traveling salesmen. He’s a BBQ connoisseur who goes to great lengths to find America’s yummiest meat. He and his family were involved in a terrifying gun holdup, and he had to talk his way out of a Jamaican riot. He blogs (somewhat) regularly and (often) brilliantly here, and Tweets (not often enough) here.
Trust me, trust me, trust me—Paul Shroyer and I may well agree on but six or seven things. But he’s an awesome guy, and an even better Quaz.
Paul, take a break, pull up a chair and have some beef. You’re good ol’ No. 229 …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Paul, you’re a traveling salesman. Which leads me to ask, how does one become a traveling salesman? What was your life path from birth to meat peddling?
PAUL SHROYER: I was born a middle class fat child in Pittsburgh. My father worked for Gulf Oil at the time and Gulf was headquartered there. My parents had just been transferred from London. My father is from Crockett, Texas and he met my mother in Fort Smith, Arkansas at Fort Chaffee during World War II. She was a singer with the USO and, well, they met and got married. I am the second of two boys. My brother is a tenured professor of political science in Washington, DC. I was a late-in-life child for my parents as my mom was 39 when I was born and my dad was 43.
I spent the first six years of my life in Pittsburgh where I became a Pirate, Steeler and Penguin fan. We then moved to Toronto for four years. It was interesting to be an American in a country that seemed to a 7-year old to be just like the United States. From my perspective at the time, Canadians had a big chip on their shoulder toward the United States, because I spent the first three years of elementary school in Canada getting my butt kicked to and from school. We then moved on to Denver for four years. When I was a freshman in high school, we moved to Houston which was my father’s last move before he retired. Moving from a great place like Denver to Houston was a little traumatic. Houston was a big culture shock. High school in Denver was great, no dress code and very relaxed. In Texas, at the time, no hair on the collar was allowed and absolutely no shorts. However, we could have gun racks in our trucks and it was not uncommon to see a Winchester 30.30 lever action rifle in the gun rack on the back window of somebody’s pick-up truck. Really, I am not exaggerating. We also had corporal punishment which was infinitely better than detention hall. Ninety seconds of stinging pain vs. two hours of D-Hall? No brainer. I was not misbehaving, but it seems that my mouth moved more often than my teachers would have liked.
I graduated (much to my teachers’ surprise) and attended Stephen F. Austin State University where I planned on studying forestry to become a forester, hoping to go to work for a big paper company. One of my professors told me that in 30 years newsprint would be dead, so I changed to Ag-Business.
I met my wife and she foolishly started dating me and said yes when I asked her to marry me. She has since quit drinking because of the impaired judgment it caused. This year will be my 28th year of marriage and she is my great love. She is a Texas native, BOI (Born On the Island, Galveston). She is still a mystery to me and I suppose she always will be. She claims to hate old classic country but when I have “Willie’s Roadhouse” on Satellite radio she seems to know all the lyrics. My wife is responsible for my love of smoked meats. After dealing with under-cooked, overcooked, poorly seasoned, and just bad home BBQ, she got together with my cousin and sent my cousin’s husband and I to #BBQcamp at Texas A&M University. It is put on by Foodways Texas and has become my passion outside of my family and faith.
I always had a natural inclination toward sales. My mother in law must have thought I was going to be good at it because she used to say that I was “full of shit.” I bounced around my first couple of jobs and then began working for a company that makes air pollution control and liquid filtration products. I enjoyed the work, had some success and have been with them for 20-plus years. I travel around my territory meeting with customers and prospective customers. I have traveled all over this hemisphere from just south of the Arctic Circle to the southern part of Chile. I have two wonderful kids, my son just graduated from Texas A&M University and my daughter just started there. I have been living in the Houston area since college and have come to love and hate this city.
I hate the traffic and constant suburban sprawl. However, there are few cities in this world with the same level of economic opportunities, cultural diversity, recreational options and great restaurants. One writer for the New York Daily News described Houston in a byline during the 1994 NBA finals this way—“This place is a hellhole.” I get that from someone who only spends a few days here. Jerry Jones once compared Dallas to Houston this way (my paraphrase): “Dallas is champagne and white linen while Houston is beer and checkered picnic table cloths.” He is right and I can live with that. In one way it really is the caricature of Urban Cowboy and yet we are home to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities in Rice. Recently Forbes ranked Houston as the No. 2 city in the U.S. for young adults to live. People fly from all over the world to seek medical treatment in our medical center.
While on the road I do my best to take time to experience the great food options in this state. I try and stay away from the chain restaurants and instead look for the local dives that people love. I especially look for good BBQ. I hope to retire someday and open up a little BBQ trailer that is open only a couple days a week. I think I am like a performer who gets a high off of the audience’s applause. I love to hear people tell me that they have never had better BBQ. I don’t always hear that, but when I do, it’s a rush.
With Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas.
J.P.:In your Jan. 12, 2014 blog entry you wrote an absolutely beautiful paragraph: “So why is BBQ an essential to life? Because it is fire (warmth), meat (sustenance), sharing (human contact), and art (human expression). It is connecting with our primal selves and sharing in our heritage and sharing this with our friends and family.” I don’t quite share the sentiment, but it’s wonderfully put. So do you feel like people who don’t barbecue are missing out on something? Or people who don’t eat meat?
P.S.: Now that I read that paragraph it comes on a little strong on the “essential to life part,” huh? Maybe I should have written that as, “BBQ contains all of the essentials of life.” That being said, it is certainly essential to the Texas lifestyle. You asked if people are missing out, and I would have to say yes. I have shared more hopes and dreams, laughs, personal disappointments, religious disagreements, heated political discussions and deep personal moments with friends and family while sitting next to the pit drinking beer or coffee. Every time I cook, I feel that I am sharing a part of me that is deeply personal that no one else can see. They may not get that deep connection, but I do.
As far as vegetarians go, I have not tried to put smoke to tofu but it probably wouldn’t make it worse. If there were vegetarians at one of my BBQ events I wouldn’t discourage them from trying one little bite.
J.P.:You end every blog post with “God and Texas.” Which I get, but don’t get. Texas has, from my perspective, some crazy backward political beliefs when it comes to the teaching (or lack thereof) of evolution, the dealing with immigration, the denial of climate change, the desire for God in public education, blah, blah. But I know we come at this from different perspectives. So lemme ask it this way, Paul: A lot of outsiders view Texas as this crazy, backward state where half the people wanna secede and the other half walk around with guns in holsters. What are we missing? And what, to you, makes Texas so great?
P.S.: Three quotes may help here:
1. “I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.” — John Steinbeck, 1962.
2. “All new states are invested, more or less, by a class of noisy, second-rate men who are always in favor of rash and extreme measures, But Texas was absolutely overrun by such men.” — Sam Houston, President of the Republic of Texas and hero of the revolution.
3. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” — Line on my cousin’s business card
There is a book by a man named Fehrenbach called Lone Star: A history of Texas that is an excellent read and used as a textbook in many college courses on Texas history. I think that people in the United States look at Texas much the same way the world looks at the United States. Loud, brash, gun totin’ racists who are a little bit nuts. Texas is a country within a country that had it’s own revolution, was an independent country, and still thinks of itself as having the right to pick up its ball and go home but won’t because we are fiercely loyal Americans. What makes this state great is its diverse population. I am married to a native Texan who’s family immigrated from Poland and was raised Jewish. Her best friend’s family were Chinese immigrants who moved here from Minnesota. She is married to a man of Hispanic heritage who can trace his family back to before the Texas Revolution. I am a Yankee whose father was born a poor cotton farmer and raised here but got an Ivy League education after his discharge from the Army. There is a saying that Aggies use that fits the rest of the state well. I am not an Aggie, but my wife and I made two of them so I think I get it: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”
The other 49 states have the great privilege of being associated with us. As far as the gun totin’ and fighting, I will leave you with four more quotes …
1. “Like most passionate nations, Texas has its own history based on, but not limited by, facts.” — John Steinbeck, Travels With Charlie, 1962.
2. “No true Texan ever used summer as a verb.” — Molly Ivins, talking about George Herbert Walker Bush and his vacations in Kennebunkport, Maine.
3. “Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may.” — Sam Houston.
4. “Screw you, we’re from Texas.” — Ray Wylie Hubbard.
With his daughter Shelby at Minute Maid Park.
J.P.:In another blog post you wrote, “I am thankful for wonderful friends and family. I won’t go into to much detail here but God has blessed me with wonderful friends and extended family.” So, as you know, I’m not big into faith, but I’m fascinated by it. My question to you—you write a lot about God’s blessing, and giving you this and that and that and this. Which I get. But somewhere in the Middle East ISIS is wiping out scores of people. In Africa AIDS, Ebola, myriad diseases have killed countless numbers. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. I guess, Paul, my point is: Isn’t it possible this is just blind luck, not God? Because why am I—a non-believer—sitting in a coffee shop, comfortable and secure and living in Southern California, while some poor Cameroonian child is being sold off into sex slavery at age 12?
P.S.: Jeff, I am not a theologian but I am a believer. This is one of the great questions of mankind against the existence of God. What I can tell you is that I have read extensively on the subject and I personally have come to the conclusion that God does exist and his son died on the cross to atone for my sins as well as everyone else’s. I am human and still have my doubts, but I always come back around to belief as the most logical for me. As to why all the bad things in this world exist while some of us live in relative safety and comfort I will draw upon something that C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” I have come to believe that God has imprinted upon us the ability to discern good from evil. However, he has also given us free will to act upon that knowledge. I do not believe that God has us on strings like a marionette. We are free to choose or deny him on this earth. I have a quote from the pastor at our church and I don’t know if he is the originator but I believe it to be one of the truest facts of life on earth. “We do not break God’s laws, we break ourselves against them.” God’s laws are immutable and breaking them only hurts us.
I am by no means perfect, and I still sin every day. But I do try to own it and then learn from it. I don’t act the way I do to get into heaven. I do it because of what has already been done for me through Christ.
To answer your question, I used the term “blessed” not because I believe that God has given me favor, but to express my thankfulness to God for the wonderful things in my life. I have complaints, I wrestle with God often about the world and the things I am not happy with in my life, but there is a peace in understanding his word that I cannot explain. Jeff, you say that faith fascinates you and I see that you Tweet often about it. It seems mostly negative, but I admit I have not read all of your Tweets to see if there are positive Tweets as well. I do not mean to be rude or disrespectful in any way, but I challenge you to read 3 books:
They are not going to prove the existence of God to you. However they may open your eyes to what the Christian faith is about to me.
Paul and his wife, Lisa.
J.P.:I absolutely love your passion for barbecue. Therefore, I must ask: What’s the difference between awesome, top-shelf BBQ and meh BBQ? Are there things people can look for before choosing a restaurant? And do you count chicken as BBQ? Or does it have to be beef?
P.S.: BBQ is a method for smoking meat. Whether it be poultry, beef, pork, or whatever. BBQ to me is smoking meat with real wood on indirect heat, over a long period of time. There is a rich history for this style of cooking from many regions of the country. East Texas BBQ is very different in taste and style from Central or West Texas BBQ, Kansas City is different than Memphis, etc. I have found that the best way to find good BBQ is to find a blogger you like and follow their advice. I follow @BBQsnob on Twitter. He had a blog called “Full Custom Gospel BBQ.” He has since transitioned his blog into a job as the BBQ editor for Texas Monthly Magazine. He has also written a book called the “The Prophets of Smoked Meat”. However, there are some clues to look for in a good BBQ restaurant:
1. Is there a line at lunch time? The best joints have only so much pit room to smoke meat and serve it fresh. Most of the best joints in Texas run out of product by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. If there is long line, it’s probably for a good reason. I met a guy from Chicago in line at John Mueller Meat Company in Austin who planned his honeymoon around touring the BBQ joints in Central Texas. We waited in line together for more than an hour. Franklin BBQ in Austin has two-to-three hour waits and people start lining up at 8 am to get in. They sell out every day.
2. Stay away from gas fired pits. These are pits where the heat comes from natural gas burners and they use wood chips to add smoke flavor the meat. Some have decent BBQ, but they have taken a lot of the artwork out of tending the fire and cooking the meat.
3. Stay away from chains. For the most part chains do not have freshly cooked meats. There are a couple of chains in Texas that aren’t bad. Rudy’s and Pappas BBQ are OK if you don’t want to wait in long lines for craft smoked meats.
4. If the meat needs sauce, it’s not good BBQ. Good BBQ should stand alone. Don’t get me wrong, good sauce can compliment BBQ. I like it on drier meats or on a sandwich.
J.P.:On Oct. 23, 2003, you wrote a blog post about your struggles with weight loss, adding, “I am morbidly obese.” At one point you lost a crazy 170 pounds by limiting yourself to 1,500-1,700 daily calories and lots of walking. I feel like a lot of people look down on those among us who are obese, without empathy or understanding. So, Paul, what is it to be obese? What does it feel like? Is it always a struggle? Can you forget about your weight, or is it always … there? What don’t people understand?
P.S.: Tough question, Jeff. It is something I have struggled with all my life. Here is the thing—I don’t think of myself as obese. People think of me that way but I don’t. I spend 45 minutes to an hour in the gym five days a week and ride my bike 10 miles a day on most weekends. If I eat more than 2,400 calories in a day I will gain weight if I don’t work out. It’s frustrating as hell, actually. I have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which is something that my mother dealt with as well. It’s hard to find clothes that fit me the way I want to dress. Everything is more expensive, and never looks quite right. Those of us who are obese are looked upon as lazy, yet I work more hours during the week than most people I know.
I am sure that some people who read this Quaz will think to themselves, “Well, maybe he should lay off some of that BBQ.” However, many times I get the chicken or turkey and eat low calorie sides such as pinto beans or green beans. So, what do I do? Well, first thing, I am trying to accept myself the way I am and try to be as healthy as I can be. I am who I am but I hope that I am always trying to get better. I have developed a pretty thick skin. The unfortunate part is that it is so obvious to others. People make assumptions about me that may or may not be true. You just hate to be judged by others based on something that is so difficult to hide. I mean, there are people with much worse personal issues that no one knows about because it is not outwardly obvious. Bottom line is, most people find me to be an OK guy to hang out with. I can live with that.
J.P.:You travel across the Southwest selling. So, please, give me the craziest story of your career?
P.S.: Most of the really crazy stories seem to happen to others. I have been lucky/unlucky enough to not have experienced anything too weird or dangerous. The craziest thing that ever happened was when I was in Jamaica on business. I was staying in Kingston and traveling to different customer sites during the day. I was always told that if you see people putting old tires in the streets that you should turn around and go the other way as soon as possible because a protest or riot was about to start. So I am driving down the road and I see people lighting fire to tires in the street about 300 yards ahead of me. I notice that there is no traffic in this part of Kingston, which is rare. I look for a place to turn around, the fire is getting larger, and I have to make a three-point turn to go the other way. I am moving as fast as I dare back down the street and another group of people are laying tires in the street ahead of me. I was trapped. I was getting kind of nervous. A guy walks up to my rental car, laughing at me and says, “You’re not from around here, Mon.” I laughed and said no, not from around here. He told me to wait in my car, jogged up to the crowd—which was starting to pour gas on the tires—talks to them, and they start moving enough tires to let me get through. The guys waves me through and I stop to thank him and he just tells me, “Ho, Mon, go.” I will be forever grateful to that man.
Other than that, not much crazy. Just getting stuck in bad weather, or having to slam on my breaks for a herd of pronghorn sheep. That’s it.
J.P.:It seems like, with technology, the need to traveling salesmen has sorta, well, vanished. No? I mean, why would a company pay for your travel expenses (gas, food, hotel, etc) when it can conduct business via e-mail, text, etc? So, Paul, do you fear this? Becoming obsolete? Or is there something about sales that needs to be face to face?
P.S.: The type products we sell are, for the most part, consumable products. We manufacture some capital equipment but is not a majority of our business. The bottom line is that I build relationships with my customers through face-to-face interaction. Much of the detailed work is done with the technology available today from my office. But if someone calls me and says I have a problem, then I can go to the site and see what the problem is and solve it for them. That is not something that can be done over the phone in my business. You build a level of trust, a relationship. My favorite book on the subject is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. The bottom line is that my company is one of the few in our industry that has so many people in the field. Our company celebrated it’s 100th year in 2006. People don’t buy from people they like. They give information to people they have a relationship with to help them solve their problems. The truth is that helping someone solve a process problem with one of our solutions is more rewarding than getting the sale. I guess that’s why I love my job. Bottom line is that it is a lot harder to say “no” to somebody in person than it is on the phone or via e-mail.
J.P.:You and I exchanged Tweets about guns. You’re fairly pro-gun rights, and had a scary experience where you were approached by a gunman. I’m very anti-gun and kinda wish handguns were all but illegal. I just feel like we’d all be safer with fewer guns. Tell me why I’m wrong …
P.S.: As you stated, Jeff, we have disagreed on this before. I believe that we, as individuals, have the right to defend ourselves. I have personal experience in this matter. Let me say this first: I do not carry a gun at this point in time unless I am hunting or in the wild. I do not wish to talk about what measures of defense I have in my home, however, I am covered. I do not carry a handgun because of my company’s policy on this when I am on the job or in a company vehicle. Their vehicle, their rules. So the question comes up, would I carry if I were not already restricted? More than likely, no. However, I support people’s choice to do so.
Back in about the fall 2001 my wife and two children were returning from a trip to visit my mother in law. We stopped at a Fuddrucker’s for dinner. We ordered our food and sat down at a table in the middle of the restaurant. After about five minutes we saw people rushing to the back of the restaurant like they were hiding for a surprise party. Sounds weird but both my wife and I had the same feeling. We then heard yelling and I saw a man holding a gun to another man’s head, telling everybody to be cool. My wife and I immediately got the kids to the ground and we covered them up. I looked up and saw the gunman moving the gun from the captive’s head to the customers, back and forth and so on. If someone moved or made a noise the gun went in that direction. For a brief moment, the gun paused on us and then went back to the captive’s head. That was the first time I had ever had a gun pointed at me and I will never forget the feeling. You go cold. It seems like it lasts forever. I was mostly scared but very, very angry. Angry because I knew if the shooting started, all I could do would be cover my family and hope for the best. What right did that guy have to threaten my family? It was a primal rage. There are times I review this incident in my head. Truth is, after review, what would I have done differently? I almost always come to the conclusion that nothing would have changed whether I was armed or not. Not sure how that reflects on me, but that is the honest answer. The situation did not call for a hero. However what if they had decided to start robbing the customers as well? What if a customer resisted and shooting started? I will never know because that is not how it played out. I probably would not have acted unless directly threatened. However, you never forget that moment.
But what if the gunman did start shooting? What then? Look at the Luby’s massacre in Killeen. What if there was a citizen with a concealed handgun who could have stopped that guy before the death toll got so high? Many on the anti-gun front associate pro-gun people as being nutjobs. The truth is that the people I know who carry are the most even keeled calm people I know. They don’t talk about bravado or that they can’t wait to be a hero. They just say that they want to protect themselves and their loved ones. I did not look up any studies or statistics, I am just shooting from the hip here (no pun intended) but it seems to me that most gun violence is caused by criminals and the mentally ill. So outlawing guns is not going to reduce violent crime very much, if at all. People will find a way to do harm to others no matter what. So what is the answer? I don’t know. I do know that, as long as I have the constitutional right to protect myself, I will. During prohibition, there was bootleg liquor and beer. Marijuana and other drugs are illegal, however it is easier for an 18-year old to get pot than it is to buy beer. Why would it be any different with guns? By the way, East Texas is overrun with feral hogs. It’s costing me thousands of dollars a year to fix the damage. Want to help me reduce the wild pig population?
J.P.: I don’t get Rick Perry. I mean, I look at him and hear him and feel like it’s some cartoon version of a Texas politician. Tell me what I’m missing. Or not missing …
P.S.: I have to admit, I am not a Rick Perry fan. I’m not sure you are missing anything. Texas politics is fun, isn’t it?
• Why do you think the WNBA fails to draw more viewers?: My kids grew up with two of the Ogwumike sisters. So I paid attention to their careers until they got into the WNBA. In my mind it’s pretty simple. I just think there are too many options out there for the viewing public. I am a baseball and college football fan. I barely have the time to follow those sports the way I want to. I know I paid more attention to it when Houston had a team. It’s just not on my radar for entertainment.
• One question you would ask A$AP Rocky were he here right now?: I honestly did not know who this was until I looked him up on the Internet when I saw this question. So now that I know, I would ask him how his life has changed since he became successful and what parts of your life do you wish were still the same?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Not really, but I was on a flight from Paramaribo, Suriname to Curacao on Suriname Airways. The pilot left the cabin door open and decided to fly back over the city and waggle his wings over somebody’s house. He also gave a little kid a tour of the cockpit during the flight. The lack of professionalism was a little unnerving but I really didn’t believe we were going to die or anything like that. It was the last smoking flight I was on. Pretty funny actually.
• Five coolest cities/towns in Texas: 1. Marfa (This is just one cool, quirky little town. UFOs (Marfa Lights), art scene, great scenery); 2. San Antonio (The River Walk, Great Food, The Menger Hotel, The Alamo); 3. Gruene (Oldest dance hall in Texas. Drops mic, etc.) 4. Bandera (Cowboy tourist town. dude ranches); 5. Austin (Berkley East. Very cool place to visit. Best BBQ on the planet; Bonus City—Turkey, Texas during Bob Wills Day).
• What’s your best joke?: Told in a Scottish Brogue: MacGregor walks into his pub on the Scottish coast, sits at the bar and orders a pint. He chugs it down, slams the glass on the bar and yells to no one in particular “ you see that house over there? I built that house with me bare hands. I framed the house and built the roof, but do they call me MacGregor the House Builder? NO! MacGregor orders another pint chugs it down, slams the glass on the bar and says “You see that boat down there? I built that boat with me bare hands. I installed the mast and sanded the planks on the deck, but do they call me MacGregor the boat builder? NO!” By this time the patrons are getting a little nervous and glancing around. MacGregor orders another beer, drinks it, slams the glass down and yells… “You see this bar here, I built this bar with me bare hands. I sanded it smooth and polished it to a glass finish, but do they call me MacGregor the Bar Builder? NO! But f*ck one goat …”
• How’d you propose to your wife?: On my knees, on the River Walk in San Antonio.
• The last time you threw up, what caused it to happen?: Vegas, ate bad sushi. Was like throwing up a bunch of dead minnows.
• If you had to vote for Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton for president, who do you go with?: Wow. Had to think about this one but Sarah Palin. I am not a Palin fan, but Hillary embodies all that I hate about politics.
• In exactly 17 words, make your case for Ariana Grande …: I have heard the name in Tweets and the news but who the hell is Arianna Grande?
I don’t usually start these Q&As off in such a declarative way. But, eh, screw it. This is an awesome Quaz.
I’ve never met Jennifer Weiner. I’m not even sure how I thought to request her presence here. But not only is she the New York Times best-selling author of 11 books, she’s now one of my all-time favorite writers. Why? Because she’s been there (as so many of us have been there), struggling at a newspaper covering completely undesirable sludge, itching to make it, busting her ass, fighting against naysayers, battling, scrambling, clawing.
And now, this.
If you haven’t read one of Jennifer’s books, you’ve certainly seen them. And, probably, her. She’s a ubiquitous writing presence these days, as well as a wickedly fun Twitter follow (Time magazine included her on its list of “140 Best Twitter Feeds”). Jennifer loves The Bachelor, doesn’t fear death and couldn’t recognize Rey Ordonez is a police line of one. You can visit her website here, her Facebook page here and check out her Goodreads zone here.
JENNIFER WEINER: After the film rights to “In Her Shoes” were sold, I made one of the rare mentally healthy decisions of my life. I decided that the book was where I got to tell my story, describe my characters and settings, how people looked and sounded, what they were feeling inside, and that the movie was going to be the filmmakers’ chance to tell their story. Whatever they did, whatever choices they made, it wouldn’t change a word of the book. If it was a good movie – and I thought it was – it would bring people to the book. If it was a bad movie, it would do the same thing.
I was happy with the casting. Of course, in my head, the characters were Jewish … but how many Jewish actresses in Hollywood who were the right ages were there ten years ago? Natalie Portman was too young, Deborah Messing was still on TV, which leaves us with … Bette Midler? I guess? So when they cast Cameron Diaz as the Jewish girl, I was kind of like, “Huh. Well, okay, I know a lot of Jewish guys who’d love to believe in that possibility.” Toni Collette is an amazing actress, and a total chameleon, and she’d gained weight for “Muriel’s Wedding.” In the book, Rose was a bigger girl—I’d imagined her looking more Muriel-sized than Toni Collette-sized—so when pre-production started I was getting phone calls from Hollywood. “She’s eating! She’s eating lots! She’s gaining weight! She’s gained five pounds!” And I remember thinking, “Five pounds? For some of us, that’s a good weekend!” Then they said, “She’s gained 10 pounds!” Then 15. Then I got a phone call I will never forget—“She’s hit the wall.” I was thinking, “There’s a wall!?! There’s no wall! At least, I’ve never found one!”
So. Did the visuals line up perfectly with what I was seeing in my head? Not really. But in the long list of things to be unhappy about in life, “Actresses in the Major Motion Picture Made of my Book Did Not Look Exactly the Way I Thought They Should” strikes me as a pretty bullshit complaint.
J.P.:Fiction intimidates me to no end. So I’m fascinated by your process. You have this vague idea for a book, I’m guessing. Then how do you attack it? What do you do?
J.W.: Sometimes the story comes first—I’ll see, for example, a magazine picture of a wealthy white woman holding the baby she had via surrogate, while a uniformed black nurse stands behind her, on the grounds of the woman’s estate in the Hamptons, and think, “there’s a story.” Then I’ll start to come up with my characters. The wealthy woman – why does she want a baby? Maybe she’s the third wife of a wealthy man and she’s trying to lock in her inheritance by giving her an heir. Who’s the surrogate? How’d she get into this line of work? Maybe I do a little research and find that military wives are often surrogates—it’s paid labor they can perform while their husbands are away, and the army has excellent health insurance and a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it’s time for the delivery and it turns out the insured soldier is not the baby’s biological father.
Sometimes it’s less a story than a voice, or a piece of a memory—something I heard about, something that happened to me.
Once I’ve got my idea, I’ll make an outline, which will generally serve me well for about 50 percent of the project. Half the time I’m usually veering off in directions I never imagined. Then I revise and revise and revise. My agent reads a draft and gives me notes, and I rewrite. Then my agent and my editor read a draft and give me notes, and I revise. This happens three or four times, and I’m usually still tinkering right off until it’s time to go to press. My guess is that maybe one of every four words from the first draft makes it anywhere near the finished project. It’s a lot of work, especially for writing that reads as very easy and conversational … but, of course, things that look effortless very rarely are.
J.P.: I know you graduated Princeton, then took a gig as a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa. Why the journalism route? And what do you recall from your first gig at a newspaper? Did you learn a lot? Was it frustrating?
J.W.: When I finished college in 1991, there was a recession. I knew that I wanted to write fiction, so I asked my parents if either one of them was interested in becoming a patron of the arts, and supporting me for a year while I wrote my first novel, about their divorce and how much it had hurt me. After they both shot me down, I had to figure out a way to get paid for writing. John McPhee, who’d been my professor, was the one who encouraged me to take a job at a small newspaper. “You’ll be writing every day,” he told me, “and seeing parts of the world you haven’t seen, and your job will be to ask questions about what you see, what you hear, what’s going on.”
I graduated, then went to a six-week journalism boot camp run by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. I’d written for the college weekly—lots of opinion pieces—but had no hard-news background. I learned the basics there, then got hired at the CDT.
What I learned there was humility and patience and diligence. Nothing knocks the, “I am the second coming of F. Scott Fitzgerald” out of you quicker than having to type in the school lunch menus for five different school districts each Monday. Or covering sewage-board hearings and science fairs, or writing about the school board’s new budget and what it meant to taxpayers.
I’m too good for this, I would think, typing up news briefs and police reports. I studied fiction with Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison! I should have published a novel by now! Three of my classmates already have!
Except I wasn’t too good to do that job. I was a terrible reporter at first. I made all kinds of dumb mistakes. I got numbers wrong, names wrong. I’m sure I even got my byline wrong a few times. But I was making my mistakes, and learning my lessons, in a very small pond; not the national stage. I learned how to be careful, how to be thorough, how to be edited, which meant being humble enough to understand that what I’d written could always benefit from another set of eyes and another round of revisions. I learned to write with economy and precision, with voice (but not too much). I learned about pace, and flow, the importance of a great, grabby first sentence and a succinct, memorable kicker. I learned how to ask people questions, how to approach people who were grieving, or excited, or angry or frightened or who didn’t want to give me their real names (useful trick: If you’re interviewing someone and you say, “What’s your name?” with your pen hovering over your notebook or your digital recorder turned on and the person says, “My friends call me Three-peat,” or whatever, say, “What does your mother call you?” Works every time.)
I learned about planting my ass in the seat and putting my hands on the keyboard and working until a story came, and polishing it and tuning it and shaping it until it was as good as I could make it. I’d do it all day long with news and, eventually, feature stories, and then I’d go home and work on my fiction in my free time.
Thanks to journalism, I will never be one of those, “Oh, my Muse has not spoken to me today” writers. There’s a word for reporters who sit around waiting for the Muse to whisper in their ear about how best to begin your 10-inch opus on the sewage board hearing, and that word is unemployed.
I remember burning with jealousy when I read about classmates getting big national magazine contracts, writing books, being hired by the Times or the Wall Street Journal. Looking back, I am so grateful that didn’t happen to me, that I go to make my mistakes in a paper that expected its young reporters to be less than perfect, and would work to help them get better, so they could move on to their next job. I am lucky to have had the jobs that I had, and to have been out in the world, supporting myself, for a solid decade before my first book was published.
J.P.:We both write books. I sorta feel it’s a potentially dying industry and all the world’s authors are fucked. Tell me why you think I’m right or wrong (hopefully wrong).
J.W.: Luckily, you’re wrong. There will always, always, always, be an appetite for stories. It’s part of our hard wiring. People love to hear stories. I believe that the method by which these stories are delivered, the forms that they take, will change. We’ve got e-readers now, and digital shorts, and people reading books on their cell phones, and by the time my kids are grown they will probably be selling books in pill form, and you’ll be able to pop a little Cormac McCarthy over lunch. Books—physical books—might not be the big deal they once were. My theory is that hardcovers are going to become true collector’s items, and that smart publishers will turn them into luxury acquisitions—fancy endpapers, beautiful covers—basically works of art that you can display or keep on a shelf. But stories themselves will always be needed, the same way journalism will always be needed. We’re just going to have to endure bumps and bruises and growing pains as the industry figures out how to navigate the new world.
J.P.:You wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer until 2001, when your first book, “Good in Bed,” was released. So how did you make what had to be a somewhat courageous decision to pursue books as a full-time medium? Was it a hard decision? Scary? What went into it?
J.W.: I am super-cautious about money and jobs, and I’d never quit unless I knew for sure where my next paycheck was going to come from. If you just read the chronology, it looks as though the day the book came out I went to work, yelled, “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya,” then mooned the entire newsroom and flew off in a helicopter made out of hundred-dollar bills.
That is not what happened. What happened was, I sold “Good in Bed” as part of a two-book deal in May of 2000. I told my friends in the newsroom about this, and they found out the size of my advance. During the year between the sale and publication in 2001, I had some people in the newsroom who I’d never met go out of their way to befriend me (and ask me for my agent’s contact info). I also had a few people treat me really poorly (“Ooh, Miss Author, thinks she’s so fancy, let’s send her out in the middle of the night to cover a pier collapsing underneath a club on Delaware Avenue and then ‘forget’ to put her byline on the piece.”). One editor in particular—a woman who’s since left the business—seemed to make it her personal mission to dump awful assignments on me and generally treat me horribly during the year after the book was sold and before it was published. Her husband was a writer. He’d published a book, it hadn’t done well, and at least once a week this woman would tell me, “You can’t make a living from books.”
I believed her. I took a year’s leave when the book came out in 2001, and I planned to go back when my year was up. By then, though, “Good in Bed” had been on the bestseller list for more than nine months. I’d finished my second book, and gotten a contract for books No. 3 and 4. I still was planning to back to the paper, but that same managing editor called and said that she needed to cut her budget and either I would quit or she’d have to lay someone off. By then, I had a pretty good sense that I would be able to support myself as a writer, and I wanted to have a baby. Leaving made sense … but I would strongly, strongly caution other writers against it. The vast majority of writers do not support themselves with their writing. They do it because they love it; because they couldn’t stop, even if they wanted to.
J.P.: There’s a sentence from your Wikipedia page that I absolutely love, and it is this: “Jennifer Weiner made her TV debut on The Tony Danza Show in 2005, reappearing in 2006.” Fuck, I’m not even going to ask a question. I’ll just say, “Do tell …”
J.W.: I have never once looked at my Wikipedia page—that way lies madness!—but that fact is actually wrong. I went on “CBS This Morning” with Bryan Gumbel in 2001 when “Good in Bed” came out, and that was my TV debut, unless you count appearing in the background of a pro-choice rally in Washington in the summer of 1990.
My sense is that Tony Danza is a super-entertaining guy, and the network wanted to harness that super-entertaining ability … so they gave him a talk show. My further sense is also that networks were handing these shows out like Halloween candy back in the day. They don’t cost much to produce—you had to pay your host and build a set—but besides that initial investment, you aren’t paying to produce, say, episodes of a soap opera, or episodes of a game show where you have to give the winners money.
I went on a ton of shows that are no longer with us—so many that I started to wonder if I was killing them just by showing up. Producers at one show would all move to the next one, once their existing gig got cancelled, and I actually don’t mind doing live TV, and I manage not to spit or make too many weird faces when I talk, so I ended up in a few producers’ rolodexes, and did guest spots on a bunch of these shows: Carolyn Rhea, Jane Pauley, Nate Berkus, Jeff Probst, Martha Stewart and Tony Danza. Who, by the way, was lovely. Not sure he actually read the books I went on the show to promote, but he was very gracious, both on the air and off, and he gave me the best parting gift I’ve ever gotten—a three-foot-high ribbon-wrapped stack of Altoid tins. Ten years later and I’m still enjoying those Altoids.
J.P.:I know you were born in Louisiana, I know you moved to Connecticut. But when did the writing bug get you? When did you first realize this was the career for you? And when did you first think it was a realistic career option?
J.W.: I can remember being in first grade and asking my teacher for extra paper so I could stay in from recess and write stories. This was, in part, because none of my classmates liked me very much … but I loved to write. More than that, though, I loved to read. I read constantly, my parents read to me and my siblings, I grew up in a house full of books, a house where books were revered, where being a writer seemed like the coolest thing that you could ever be. For as long as I can remember wanting to be anything, I wanted to be a writer, and I went to college determined to find a way to get paid to do the thing I loved.
In terms of it being a realistic career, I got my start as a reporter, and I think—I hope—that I will always have those skills to fall back on. Should things go sideways, I could probably go find a job as a ‘content creator’ on some website somewhere. At this point, I bet I could get hired to write some politician or CEO’s tweets.
J.P.: You’ve become sorta known as the great defender of “chick lit.” Which, I’m thinking, is a weird unofficial title to hold. A. Isn’t “Chick lit” itself a fucked-up phrasing? B. Are you cool with the designation? C. Why can’t we simply refer to fiction as fiction? Why gender designations?
J.W.: Chick lit is a super fucked-up phrasing, and had I known that’s what people were going to call my books, I would have gone with a male pseudonym, or insisted on different titles and more quote-unquote literary covers. I did not know. That’s my excuse. Back in 2000, if you were a young woman who had a story to tell, you could, according to a New York Magazine cover story, find an agent and get one of those fancy six-figure advances. That was the year I sold my first book … but by the time “Good in Bed” was published, the market was beginning to get jammed with lots of young-single-woman-having-problems-in-the-city books. When lots of men write the same kind of books, nobody seems to mind, but when women do it, it’s, “Oh, quick, let’s find a dismissive label to slap on these books and find a cubby to cram them into so we can ignore women’s voices and focus on the books that really matter, which are not about who to date and your bad boss and your screwed-up relationship with your family. Unless it’s a man writing about family and relationships, in which case he is super-brave, and writes women so convincingly, that we should probably give him a prize.”
Obviously, it’s not that overt or considered (also obviously—I know there’s a difference between my books and prizewinning literature). Nobody comes out and says, “I believe that women’s stories just aren’t very important.” Instead, you hear things like, “This isn’t very well written,” or, “there’s shopping in this book! It’s celebrating consumption!” Or, “it’s just a beach book.” But even if “chick lit” novels are just beach books—and I believe that some are, and some aren’t—it’s worth noting that beach books written for men—thrillers and mysteries, John Grisham and Dan Brown—get reviewed in the New York Times. Meanwhile, the Times will not touch romance—the best-selling genre in publishing—and tends to ignore books like mine. A few weeks ago, some guy in New York Magazine referred to me as the “bestselling but subliterary” writer. “Subliterary?” Dude. I know I’m not writing “War and Peace,” but I also don’t think I am writing in cuneiform.
Unfortunately, these kinds of insults are what you get when you write what’s called chick lit. It’s been happening forever. I was going through old blog posts and came across a response to something another blogger had written in 2005 that was charmingly entitled “8 Reasons Why Chick Lit Writers Should Be Kicked Until They Are Dead.” I was like, you couldn’t even come up with 10, dumbass? And that’s not even as bad as the (anonymously written) piece that said that chick lit writers were “hurting America with their words.” People haaaaaate “those kind” of books. Even people who are normally very careful about not disrespecting other women’s work feel free to slam books like mine.
For example, feminist icon Lena Dunham gave an interview where she talked about hating “airport chick lit,” or any book that is “motored by a search for a husband.” Which made me wonder: has she ever read Jane Austen? Or Henry James? Or Edith Wharton? Or anything involving the marriage plot? Does she really base her opinion of a book on where it’s being sold? Did she understand that the popularity of all of those shopping and dating books that she sneered at were probably one of the factors in convincing executives that there was a market—however small, however niche—for a show like Girls? And who uses “motor” as a verb? (Before your readers send me angry letters, yes, I am aware that disliking books like mine is Dunham’s personal opinion and her right. But she wasn’t gabbing with her girl squad over brunch. She was giving an interview to the New York Times, and using that platform to disparage other women’s work. The personal is political.) (And speaking of her girl squad, she seems to appreciate Taylor Swift’s well-crafted pop tunes just fine, and I’d argue that some of those songs are the musical equivalent of chick lit).
So. I am not cool with the designation, but, thanks to people speaking up about it, it’s fallen out of favor. Now, people mostly say “commercial women’s fiction.” Critics still ignore it, but at least it doesn’t sound like a piece of gum.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
J.W.: Greatest—telling my mom that a publisher bought my first book. Lowest—having my mother hug me, weeping, then pull away, holding onto my shoulders, and, with tears in her eyes, ask me, “What’s the book called?” And then having to tell her.
J.P.:You live Tweet The Bachelor. This is too weird for words. Why do you live Tweet The Bachelor?
J.W.: I love “The Bachelor.” It’s a crazy, conflicted, guilt-ridden love, but still. I also love Twitter. I love it when my loves collide, and I can hate-watch my program with a social media crowd of people who are all e-rolling their eyes and virtually yelling some version of “Can you believe this shit?” at the screen. It turns a shameful guilty pleasure into a cathartic shared experience. It’s bliss, and I suggest you try it immediately if not sooner.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JENNIFER WEINER:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Silver Surfer, “American History X,” Rey Ordonez, Grantland Rice, tennis balls, Twitter, cranberry muffins, Lady Gaga, Tennessee Walking Horses, Seventeen Magazine, the woman in front of me in this coffee shop jabbering away on her cell phone: 1. Twitter. It’s the party I never get invited to in real life. 2. Seventeen Magazine published the first piece of fiction I never got paid for. They gave me $1,000, and I used it to buy a couch from Ikea. 3. American History X (my brother Jake was one of the producers, so I love it, in spite of the Edward Norton rough sex scene. OR DO I LOVE THE MOVIE BECAUSE OF IT?!?!). 4. Grantland Rice. I love the idea of God as the One Great Scorer. It ties in nicely with my “Bachelor” thing. I also tell my daughters all the time that it’s not whether they win or lose, it’s how they play the game (but only winners get trophies). 5. Tennessee Walking Horses. I like that “walking” is right there in the name. Like, I could be American Lounging Woman. If only. 6. Tennis balls. Fetch! 7. Lady Gaga. She amuses me, and I feel like she’s in on her own joke. 8. Silver Surfer. Who I gather is some kind of a superhero? But there was a character in one of my books named Sylvia Serfer, and people thought I was punning with Silver Surfer, which I was not. 9. Rey Ordonez, who could be great, but I’ve never heard of him, and, 10., the jabbering lady.
• The woman in front of me in this coffee shop is jabbering away on her cell phone. Do I have any real rights here?: You do! I think we are all morally obligated to be considerate about sharing public space and not turning the entire world into our office (the thing that makes me stabby are people walking down jammed New York City sidewalks with their eyes on their iPhone screens, which makes it everyone else’s job to get out of their way).
Try this: tap her on the shoulder. When she glares at you, mouth the words, “You have another call,” and point toward Heaven. When she looks confused, give her a beatific smile, and say, “God.” speaks to all of us. He is speaking to you right now, through me. I am His instrument, the holy chime through which He blows His divine breeze.” Keep smiling as you reach into your pocket and say, “May I share some important literature with you?” Not only will she end her conversation, she’ll probably leave the coffee shop in a hurry. And never come back.
• Worst sentence you’ve ever written?: That one right above, about the holy wind-chime. Or I bet if I looked carefully I could find one where I talked about not liking children’s books that are motored by the heroine’s search for Prince Charming.
• One question you would ask Tommy Lee were he here right now?: What are you doing here? Seriously, how’d you get into my hotel room?
• Five reasons one should make Simsbury, Ct. his/her next vacation destination: 1. It’s the childhood residence of Jennifer Weiner; 2. It’s beautiful there, if you’re into that leafy Cheever-esque Connecticut suburb sort of thing, and there’s a bicycle path that runs the entire length of the town, along the Farmington River, and an outdoor ice-skating rink at Simsbury Farms; 3. You can visit Flamig Farm, where my sister Molly had a summer job collecting organic eggs from disgruntled chickens who did not want to be rummaged, and would pepper her ankles with retaliatory pecks; 4. The new Simsbury Public Library has an impressive new children’s section; 5. And now, for some reason, there’s this unbelievably fancy ice-skating facility that draws international skaters, who live in Simsbury and train. How Simsbury became one of the world’s centers for elite figure skaters is beyond my ken, but there it is, out Bushy Hill Road.
But, really, there’s not a ton to do there. I could give you dozens of reasons why you should go live there—great schools, pretty, safe for kids to ride their bikes around—but as a vacation spot, the best thing it has is its proximity to Bradley International Airport, from which you can get to someplace good.
• Your three favorite famous Jews are …: Can I name Ruth Bader Ginsberg three times? Probably not … so I’ll add Susan Isaacs, who’s one of my favorite writers and favorite people, and Nora Ephron, because ditto.
• How did you meet the lovely Bill Syken?: I interviewed the lovely Bill Syken for a job in 1992. I’d been a reporter at the Centre Daily Times for about a year, and he’d just finished graduate school in journalism, and he came to apply for a reporter’s position. The deal at the CDT was that after you’d spent a day taking tests, writing sample stories and meeting with editors, you were rewarded with dinner with an actual reporter, from whom you would presumably get the inside scoop about life at the paper. This was considered a very desirable gig among reporters, because the paper would pay for dinner, ad we were earning something like $16,000 a year, so free food was not to be scoffed at.
I was Bill’s reporter. I’d already figured out where I was going to take him for dinner, and what I’d orderWe went out to dinner, and we really hit it off. We talked and talked, and it was like the best first date you could imagine, probably because it wasn’t actually a date, so there was no pressure. I went to work the next day and told the city editor, “You’ve got to hire this guy.” He said, “Do you think he’s a good reporter?” I said, “I have no idea…but I really like him!”
• If you were opening a chain of hamburger restaurants, what would you name it?: Bite Me.
• Describe your prime writing spot: Anywhere that’s relatively quiet, with enough light and a level surface. After nine years in a newsroom, where the TV sets bolted to the ceiling blare CNN and the police scanners are constantly erupting with static and code and people are making phone calls or yelling questions over your head, I can – and have – written almost anywhere. Waiting in the minivan for my kids to be picked up. On trains, on planes, in hotel rooms, in bed. But these days I do most of my work in my closet. Which sounds like a joke (my mom came out of the closet, and I went into one!) The thing is, my closet is ridiculous. Whoever designed my house gave me the Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City: The Movie” closet. Except, not having a Carrie Bradshaw-sized body or shoe fetish, I do not have a Carrie Bradshaw-sized wardrobe. Thus, my closet has become kind of a combination library/office/repository for clothing my older daughter has outgrown that my youngest isn’t ready for yet.
So a couple of years ago, while preparing to appear on Jim Rome’s daily TV show, I was told that there would be a substitute host for the afternoon. “It’ll be Roger Lodge,” a producer said. “Do you know Roger?”
Did I know Roger? Did I know Roger! Well, no, I didn’t know Roger. But I sure as hell knew of Roger, the former host of one of the staple shows of the late 1990s/early 2000s—”Blind Date.” It just so happens Roger has appeared in 1,001 TV shows, movies, game shows, sitcoms. He’s been anywhere and everywhere, and now is also known out here in Southern California for hosting The SportsLODGE every weekday afternoon. Roger happens to be one of the true good guys of the business—friendly, likable, open, smart. I know many people in this game, and nobody ever seems to have a bad word about the man.
Anyhow, one can follow Roger on Twitter here. He’s been on two soap operas and hosted the coolest dating show of all time. But now, at long last, Roger Lodge has made it.
He’s Quaz No. 227 …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Roger, it’s clear any interview with you must start with one question, and I feel compelled to ask it. What can you tell us about your memories of appearing on That’s So Raven, and have any ensuing accomplishments been mere gravy?
ROGER LODGE: I have been fortunate to experience some pretty amazing l things in my life. I was once on stage with the Beach Boys at the old Yankee Stadium. I played a charity basketball game at the old Boston Garden. The birth of my children … Wilt Chamberlain once hit on my girlfriend right in front of me. On and on and on …
But to actually star on That’s So Raven, as a dating show host, that was the pinnacle. Kind of my walk-off. My Joe Carter; my Bill Mazeroski if you will.
J.P.: When we first met my immediate reaction was an excited, “Blind Date!” Roger, I loved loved loved “Blind Date.” Funny, quirky, weird, terrific television. So I ask, A. How did you land that gig? B. What was it like? C. How do you feel about the show being your calling card? Are you comfortable with that? Were you hoping for The Godfather or Terms of Endearment?
R.L.: I was in the middle of a two-week hosting run on E! Entertainment’s Talk Soup, when my agent called with an audition for a new dating show called Blind Date. I walked into a room of about 300 people—men, women, little people. They had no idea what they wanted.
But there was a note on the board in the casting office that read, “We are looking for a Talk Soup-type mentality for this show.” Since I was in the middle of my run on Talk Soup, I left the audition without even auditioning, called my agent and said, “Just tell them to watch Talk Soup over the weekend.” Which they did, and they offered me Blind Date. Timing is everything! So to this day I’m grateful to E!, and it just goes to show you, in this town you never know who’s watching. Which is why you can never disrespect the craft and phone it in. George Karl, the Sacramento Kings coach, always tells his players, “Never disrespect the game!” It’s the same in showbiz. Plus, everybody needs a door opener. Blind Date was mine.
Oh, and I have no problem whatsoever with that show being my calling card. Sure, some of those dates got wild and crazy, but I never bought into the inappropriateness. I just saw it as joke opportunities. A dater running around naked in a restaurant was kind of like a 2-0 fastball down the middle to Mike Trout. I never set out to be a dating show host, but it just kind of worked out that way, so I ran with it.
J.P.: I know you’re from Fontana, Cal., I know you played hoops at Cerritos High, then at Whittier College. But how did this happen for you? Like, when did you get the acting bug? Why? When were you like, “I know what I want to do!”?
As far back as I can remember I was always interviewing people one way or another—whether it was at my little talk show desk as a kid, or in the dugout or locker room in high school or down in the bullpen at Whittier College. I was always doing my little make-believe shows.
I used to go to Hollywood Blvd. and interview tourists, or go to the old Forum, Dodger Stadium or the Coliseum and interview fans walking into game. I just always loved talking to people and getting reaction to the latest and hottest topics. When my parents would go out to dinner, I would write out a little sports report and put it on my step-dad’s pillow so he could read it when he got home. Needless to say, I got the performer bug at a really young age.
J.P.:According to IMDB, your first noteworthy acting appearances came as “Albert Andrews” on Days of Our Lives and “James” on General Hospital. What’s it like acting on a soap? Like, do actors bring their A games, or is a filter of cheesiness that needs to be applied? A sorta wink-wink, “We know this is silly” nod to the viewer?
R.L.: Working on a soap is amazing training for any actor. My goodness, you have anywhere from 10 to 40 pages of dialogue to learn a day, you’re on a set every day, learning the nuts and bolts of your craft.
It’s the things like hitting your mark, knowing your lighting working off other actors. As long as you focus on the craft and don’t get seduced by the whole “being a soap star” thing, it is incredibly beneficial to any performer’s process. There is no way to recreate performing on an actual working set. I compare it to hitting live Big League pitching—you can do all your work in the cage, or down in the minors, but there is nothing like standing in a Major League batter’s box. Same thing in Hollywood. You can do all those scenes in acting class or in a play somewhere, but something happens when you are standing under all those lights and there are a bunch of crew members staring at you while you have to know your lines and bring it.
Ultimately, working as James the maître d’ at the Port Charles Grill on General Hospital was one of my favorite gigs ever. Nothing teaches you discipline like a lot of dialogue. You either respect the craft or look like a fool in front of your entire cast and crew.
With wife, Pamela.
J.P.: I had a talk with Jim Rome about this, and it really interests me. Namely, hanging on in Hollywood. It seems what came along in the 20s and 30s is significantly more elusive in the 40s and 50s. True? Not true? Is there a fight/battle to maintain relevancy? To keep your name in front of people who matter in the casting world? Do you even care?
R.L.: I would be lying if I said I never think about how long can I keep this going. I admit I color my gray … I think about my kids and say to myself, “Well, my oldest son is good, but my little ones are only 11 and 9 so I have to keep this rolling for another … what? Ten years at least …”
But I guess showbiz is like any other profession where the suits are always looking for someone younger and cheaper. But I hit it so hard, I rarely have time to think about that. And that’s all you can do. Just work hard, do what you do and don’t waste time and energy worrying about things you can’t control. Everybody has a last day. I just hope mine isn’t for a while. And, I have to say, once you start trying to do things just to get or keep your name out there, you’re in trouble.
I end my radio show everyday with, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift from God—go make the best of it!” I try to live by that because when you think about it, all we really have is today. So go make it great.
J.P.: I know you’re pals with John Stamos. How did that friendship come to be? And since we’re on it, it seems—whether people admit this or not—“Full House” somehow managed to stick in the psyches of viewers. Like, people mock it, but love it. Agree? Disagree? And how’d you end up on the show?
R.L.: Johnny and I grew up in the same neighborhood in Southern California, down near Orange County. We didn’t really start hanging out until we were late teens/early 20s when he was a teen idol onGeneral Hospital. Then we got an apartment together and stayed roommates for 11 years. He is an absolutely amazing cat and the best friend you could ever ask for.
It’s so funny when you see guys like Justin Bieber and, in sports, guys like Johnny Manziel … all they attention they get. But when John was doing Full House, we couldn’t go down the street for breakfast without him having a crowd of people around. It was craziest thing you’ve ever seen. And he was—and still is—cool to everyone who approaches him. I learned a lot about show business from him. Most important, I learned how to treat people with respect.
As for Full House—that was his calling card, and it is amazing how that show has remained so popular. But it’s one of the few shows that kids can watch without their parents having to worry about it. It’s good clean fun, with a message every episode. Call it corny, but it works. And as far as how I ended up on Full House, well, I had to audition like everybody else. But, just being honest, being Kato to Uncle Jesse didn’t hurt …
Rocking out with Uncle Jesse and The Rippers during Full House dominance.
J.P.:Back when I was in elementary school a classmate named Larry Brown one day just showed up as Larry Glover. It was always this great unspoken mystery, and I never dare asked about it. You were born Roger Chavez, then changed your last name after your mom married Robert Lodge. Perhaps a dumb question—but why? When? And do you remember it being an awkward or difficult or cumbersome experience?
R.L.: I was born Roger Chavez. When I was 3-years old, my real father went to work one day and never came back, walking out on my mom and four kids. Never to return. No contact. Nothing. Crickets.
My stepdad came along when I was about 5 and he was amazing to me in so many ways. He came to all my games, taught me how to shoot a jumper, came to all the plays I did, was always there for me and my two brothers and my sister. I was the youngest of the four and really don’t remember my real father. In fact, the only two memories I have of him are not good: One was walking in on him smacking my mother—my beautiful mother—around; the other was the fact that he a deserted us. (Wow, I’ve never, ever told anybody that),
I grew very close to my stepfather, who was amazingly loving and supportive. So, to honor him, I took on his name, Lodge, to honor our relationship. He was the true father figure in my life and one of my best friends.
We lost him two years ago and I miss him every day. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t use the principles and ethics he taught me about business and life.
J.P.:So you’re the host of The SportsLODGE every afternoon out here in Southern Cal. I’ve done a ton of sports radio … it’s a medium that fascinates me. I wonder, how do you tolerate the morons? I’m being serious—the, “The Angels should trade their backup second baseman to the Mets for Matt Harvey and Daniel Murphy! Obviously!” Because you know they’re coming … every … single … day.
R.L.: I honestly enjoy every call I take. There is no such thing as a bad call or a bad guest. If they are bad, that’s on me as a host. I really feel that way.
There’s always something I can do to make a phone call interesting or entertaining. But if you call my show to rip somebody, you better have a reason why you are ripping him. You can’t just call and say, “That manager sucks! He should be fired!” Give me a reason or I will rip into you. Bad phone calls are like bad singers on American Idol. But they’re bad in an entertaining way, and it’s up to me to make it entertaining in some way.
Plus, if a caller calls to suggest the Angels should trade Albert Pujols for Clayton Kershaw, I will actually take the time to explain why that would never happen, because there are folks who aren’t fully versed on contracts and there are kids who listen who aren’t aware of the intricacies of sports business. So I explain andmove on to the next,”First time caller, long time listener …”
One more thing: Why would I, as a host, want to make anyone feel bad about themselves for not knowing something? It’s hard enough growing an audience these days with all the other ways of gathering information.
With Billy Eppler, the new Angels’ general manager.
R.L.: I have so much respect and admiration for my wife Pammy. The girl leaves Perry Hall, Maryland for L.A., works her tail off, meets a buffoon like me, we have two kids together and she is now the most incredible, loving, nurturing mother our children could ever ask for. As far as her in bikinis … she did all that stuff in her teens and 20s. She traveled the world, experienced amazing things, met some incredible folks in the process.
Sure, I know there are a lot of guys who love to look at her stuff, but I also know that when we put the kids down after a long hard day, we are together. And she is a wonderful person with a kind and loving soul. I absolutely out-punted my coverage with her.
J.P.:So you spent some time hosting The Price Is Right Live! stage productions in Las Vegas. Which sounds … I’m not sure. Fun? Maddening? Electric? Exhausting? I don’t know. What was it like? And how’d you land the gig?
R.L.: I had to audition, and I hosted the show in New Jersey, Las Vegas and at Foxwoods in Connecticut. I love, love, love, game shows, have hosted game shows and my partner and I just sold a game show to Sony called Pure Luck! Hosting Price Live was fun, electric and the most energy I have ever felt from an audience. Plus, I got to meet Bob Barker. Now that’s a plus.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROGER LODGE:
• Six adjectives to describe your socks at the end of a pickup basketball game: sweaty, stinky, salty, tired, floppy (like Pistol Pete’s) and often victorious!
• One question you would ask Gabriela Sabatini were she here right now?: Sabatini? What kind of conditioner do you use?
• The next president will be …: Anyone but Trump. He’s a joke, a clown and a complete and utter boob, who has never said anything remotely interesting or compelling.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I used to fly into New Mexico to shoot a late-night show for ReelzChannel that nobody watched. I must have flown through 15 thunderstorms. One particular time in lightening and thunderstorm our little United Express plane was bouncing around everywhere. People were screaming and praying. If I remember correctly, when I asked for a ginger ale, the stewardess who brought it to me was wearing a parachute. I’ve never been so happy to sit in traffic on the 405 in my life …
• Celine Dion calls. She offers $100 million for you to spend one year starring as Bitch Boy 6 in her new Las Vegas production of “Bitch Boy: The Musical.” Your job is the walk around the stage naked while repeatedly muttering, “I love apple sauce, but only if it’s grape.” You in?: Celine? I’d do it for $10 million.
• What do you remember from your first date?: My first date? How I didn’t have enough money for the check and having to explain to my date and the waiter that I couldn’t leave a tip because of religious reasons.
• Why do you think the world repeatedly rejects leftover sushi?: Because even the first time around, sushi is dangerous!
It’s all we parents seem to be about these days. Winning. Skill development. Extra practice. Extra coaching. Being the best. Being a champion. Making it in college. Making it in the pros. Big contract, shoe deal, cereal box. It’s everything.
And it’s insane.
We’ve gone too far, and I see it every weekend when my son plays baseball and my daughter water polo. Most of the adults are sane. But there’s always one or two (or 10) pushing, prodding, demanding, berating.
Enter: Sean McEvoy.
I first came across Sean on Twitter about a year ago, and I knew I wanted him to be Quazed. Why? Because I have a real problem with private sport tutors, taking kids and turning them into single-sport specialists, so focused upon one task that they forget stuff like, well, fun. Via his Tweets and his ID, Sean came to represent the very thing I hated. He was The Quarterback Whisperer.
Then, however, he sat for a Quaz. And he was reasoned. And smart. And, clearly, filled with both knowledge and good intentions. One can visit the website for Premier Quarterback Training here, and follow him on Twitter here. Sean lives in Georgia with his wife and kids, and currently tutors more than a dozen up-and-coming quarterbacks. Maybe, one day, a McEvoy student will reach the NFL. Maybe not. Either way, he seems to be looking to educate and assist.
Not sure anything’s wrong with that.
Sean McEvoy, drop back. You’re the new Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Sean, I’m gonna start negatively, but don’t hate me too much …
So I recently moved to Southern California, where baseball is king and parents are insane. And many, many, many dads and moms hire personal coaches to teach their kids to throw harder, faster; to hit the ball farther, into gaps. And, truly, it pisses me off, because I feel like it takes what should be a fun youthful pastime and turns it into something serious and adult. As a private quarterback coach, you do this same job—only in football. And I feel the same way. So … am I wrong? Do you feel like I’m misunderstanding something? Why can’t kids just play on teams and learn without extra sessions?
SEAN MCEVOY: Haha, I completely get that. Sports have undoubtedly become more competitive than ever and I also am concerned with the effect of putting too much pressure too early on kids. It is imperative that kids are able to have fun, try different sports, learn in a nurturing environment and decide what interests them. The key is finding a balance where private coaching can complement and enhance this environment instead of being mutually exclusive.
So let’s start by separating the high school/college athlete from the youth athlete. The high school (and, more so, college) quarterback with whom I work competes, for better or worse, in a serious and adult world. The reality of the position is that only one quarterback is on the field at a time, and this player seeks private training to ensure that he plays at a high enough level to earn that privilege. He is willing to devote the necessary time and effort to get better to serve his teammates. But this isn’t the “kid” you are concerned with.
The majority of youth quarterbacks that I train are relatively new to football and new to the quarterback position. More often than not, he has received very little position-specific training and is fairly raw when it comes to throwing a football or even taking a snap. What he knows is he likes “the idea” of playing quarterback and wants to learn how to play the position well. His parents are very supportive, want their child to be happy, and are willing to invest in providing their son the best opportunity to be successful. I will introduce and teach proper form and mechanics to build a foundation for his development, while providing encouragement and fostering a passion for the game. The result is a confident player who is enjoying playing the sport more because he feels like he knows what he is doing and is playing the position he wants to play. Not exactly evil, right?
To your last question, the beauty is that kids can just play on teams and learn without extra sessions! The vast majority of kids have a blast year-round going from football to basketball to baseball to lacrosse, etc. and learning how to play them all from dedicated volunteer parents. Others compete in middle school and high school for knowledgeable coaches who are able to teach and develop the necessary skills that enable them to succeed and even earn athletic scholarships and play in college. For those that desire a more personalized approach or better position-specific training, we private coaches are out here, too.
Sean quarterbacking at age 4.
J.P.:Along those lines, I sorta think—knowing what we know about injuries—a parent has to be on crack to let his/her kid play tackle football, what with all the safer sport options. I’m guessing you disagree. Why?
S.M.: This is probably the toughest football-related question out there these days. I have two sons, ages 4 and 3, and I honestly have no idea what my wife and I will decide if/when they desire to play football. I like to think that at least now we are more aware of the potential injuries and consequences of the sport. I believe that the game my sons will play will therefore be a safer game than the one played 10 years ago or even now. I love what USA Football is doing with its Heads Up Program and coaches across the country at all levels are becoming more knowledgeable about safer ways to practice and minimize contact. Add to this the technological advances in safer helmets and better mouthpieces, and I certainly lean toward being comfortable with my boys playing. I would, however, be cautious as to how early they are exposed to serious contact. I like the option of playing flag football until maybe middle school.
J.P.:Two of my all-time favorite quarterbacks are Doug Flutie and Brett Favre, both of whom never had private coaching, but of whom were instinctive and funky and unique. I kinda feel like, had they been guided by a quarterback coach, some of that instinctive brilliance would have been lost. So are there players who should avoid personal coaching? And are there times when you, as a coach, see a player and think, “Eh, doesn’t need me”?
S.M.: One of the goals of quarterback training is developing proper form and mechanics, along with decision-making processes, that become habitual and ingrained in the player—thus becoming instinctual. Darin Slack and Dub Maddox, two experts in Quarterback Development, write about the differences in explicit and implicit learning. Basically, the explicit learner tries to process everything and “thinks too much,” thus becoming mechanical and tentative under pressure. The implicit learner “knows too little” and is impulsive, which causes him to panic and make poor decisions under pressure. The key is the ability to find balance between both methods and train the athlete to “think without thinking.”
While Doug Flutie and Brett Favre may not have had “private coaching,” they certainly both had high-level quarterback instruction throughout their careers. The ability to instinctively make good decisions and be consistently accurate in high-pressure situations is a testament to that. All players can only get better by working on their development, fine-tuning mechanics, and increasing consistency. I have never met the perfect quarterback.
J.P.:I hire you to coach my 13-year-old son. I think he’s the next Joe Montana. After 20 minutes you conclude he has zero quarterback skills whatsoever. Where do we go from there?
S.M.: First and foremost, I am honest in my evaluation of the quarterbacks that I work with and ensure that both the player and the parents are realistic about expectations. While I work with quarterbacks who play FBS/FCS football and top high school recruits with scholarship potential, I also work with many players who simply want to be the best they can be for their high school team on Friday nights or help their middle school team win more games. If willing to work hard and commit to being better, I can work with your son to maximize his talent to play at his best. We can ensure he learns the basic skills of the position—proper stance and grip, how to take a snap, footwork, throwing mechanics, run game, etc. Until he is able to do things the right way, it is difficult to determine what potential he may have. Then we can formulate a plan to realize that potential. If you/he do not believe the effort is worth it unless he will play in the NFL, then we go our separate ways. If it is worth it to your son to have a shot to try out for the freshman team at quarterback and/or continue to develop to maybe earn the starting spot by his junior/senior year, then we get to work!
Unionville High’s quarterback in 1999.
J.P.:I know you have a pretty long coaching resume, but how did this happen for you? Like, what was your life path from womb to here in football? Why do this?
S.M.: My father played college football at Villanova University in the late 70s (Division I-A at the time), so that influence was there from the time I was born. I did not play tackle football until fifth grade—and I happened to be placed at quarterback from the beginning. I played through middle school and high school as a fairly average player, but believed in working hard and playing my best. I played well enough to be a captain and starting quarterback of my high school team my senior year. Knowing that my gridiron dreams would end here, I savored that season and loved every minute of it. Additionally, I was fortunate to play for great coaches and great men who developed my passion for the sport. During college, one of my old high school coaches gave me the opportunity to join his high school staff as a volunteer coach on the ninth grade football team. I continued to coach quarterbacks and defensive backs at two different schools for the next nine seasons. During this time I was blessed to work with great quarterbacks who challenged me to be a better coach, and sought out as much information and expertise as I could in order to better serve them. My first quarterback went on to play at Temple University, my second at Northeastern University (both started games as a freshman) and I felt that I had the opportunity to be good at this.
During this time I had gotten married and had two kids, and less and less availability to commit to the demands of coaching high school football. I began exclusively doing private quarterback training, relishing the opportunity to continue to coach football as well as work around my own schedule. My family and I relocated to Georgia in 2013 and I was able to quickly gain new clients and grow my private coaching business. In the beginning of this year, I founded Premier Quarterback Training, began working with National Football Academies as a certifying quarterback coach, and currently work with 15 quarterbacks throughout north Georgia.
J.P.:So my kid is a solid quarterback. I bring him to you for private sessions. What do you work on? How can you improve him?
S.M.: In short we will work on everything—from ensuring proper stance, center exchange, grip on the football, footwork, run game mechanics, throwing mechanics, pass drops, defensive recognition, read progression, etc. I will take the time to evaluate all aspects of playing the position and address any flaws that will detract from being efficient and consistent. I will teach and fine tune his throwing mechanics to ensure that he is bio-mechanically sound to generate maximum power while minimizing stress on his joints. Using video analysis, I will ensure that your son both understands the why and the how of the throwing motion, thus being able to consistently repeat the motion and more importantly identify the error in a poor throw and fix it.
I mentioned National Football Academies earlier, and the “Quarterback Self-Correct System” created by Darin Slack is the process through which I train; in my opinion there is nothing better out there. Along with the throwing mechanics, we will ensure your son understands the proper steps in his pass drops to enable him to be in a position to throw accurately and quickly in sync with the receiver’s routes. As we progress we will work to develop his decision-making process, enabling him to recognize the defensive alignment/coverage and progress through run/pass reads. What we will improve is his ability to be consistently accurate in all his throws, to make sound decisions under pressure, and to be confident every time he steps on the field.
With wife, Katie
J.P.:You never played quarterback in college or the pros. I wonder if that at all hurts your cred? And what can you tell people to assure them that you’re legit? That you know your shit?
S.M.: I have never thought about that much, but I’m sure it does a little. Probably more so for the parent who thinks his/her son is the next Joe Montana. I do have a current NFL player whose son I train, so I must have some cred out there. My coaching resume certainly helps, the fact that I have been training and developing quarterbacks for 13 years lets people know I am legit. I have been fortunate to acquire a glowing list of reviews and testimonials from current and former players and their parents which help me stand out. As Premier Quarterback Training continues to grow, the word of mouth and referrals have started to be a key piece. I encourage any prospective athletes to do an initial session with me and then decide if they want to invest in a training package; I am happy to have my work speak for itself. Certainly now working with NFA and becoming a certified quarterback coach will continue to add credibility and enable me to keep growing.
J.P.:Back when I was growing up, nobody hired personal youth coaches for sports. You played in your yard, on a team—and that was that. So why has this become a thing? And do you think it ever goes too far? Do we, perhaps, take sports too seriously?
S.M.: I am not sure why sport has become more competitive over the years, but it certainly has. The chances of earning an athletic scholarship to college or playing professionally has only gotten slimmer, but it seems more athletes than ever are hoping to defy those odds. Due to the high-profile nature of playing quarterback, and the fact that there is only one on each team, quarterbacks working with private coaches have gotten younger and younger. I don’t know that I have an issue with people setting a goal and working hard to chase a dream. As long as we can all keep things in perspective!
Working with the future greats.
J.P.:Greatest and lowest moment from your career?
S.M.: Greatest moment was my first year coaching at Unionville High School in 2005. The team was coming off a 5-5 season, and we had an undefeated 10-win regular season and made the state playoffs. I had never been a part of something like that, and there is something special about winning every game on your schedule.
Lowest moment in my career was the previous year at Avon Grove High School. We had just started the season when one of our team managers passed away suddenly over Labor Day weekend. The next few days and weeks were as difficult as I have ever experienced, and playing football became the least important thing we did as a team.
J.P.:How do you feel about girls wanting to play organized football?
S.M.: I am all for it. We were fortunate to have an outstanding female athlete approach the team about wanting to be a kicker her senior season one year at Unionville High School. All she did was outwork almost everyone on the team, prove everyone wrong who doubted her and won the starting kicking job. She could not have been a better addition to the team, and was as consistent and accurate on extra points as anyone I have ever been around.
• Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were selected in the same draft. Who has had the better career, and who do you take with one big game to win?: I mentioned my Villanova connection earlier, so I hate to pick a Delaware guy … but Joe Flacco
• Three memories from your first date: We teach quarterbacks to have a short memory (forget about interceptions and move on). In that vein I have more than likely repressed any memories of that disaster.
• How did you propose to your wife?: We were down in Wildwood, N.J. for the week, staying at her family’s beach house. Her grandfather had built the house, and Katie had grown up spending summers down the beach with her parents and grandparents. As both of Katie’s grandparents had recently passed away, the house had even greater meaning. Right before we left to go home after a great week, I talked her into a picture in front of the beach house. Immediately after the picture, I knelt down and proposed.
• Do you aggressively pop zits or sorta let them chill?: Pop them
• The next president of the United States will be …: Ah—now we get political and I lose half my clients. But probably Hillary