One of the things that always fascinates me about pro sports is how 99 percent of the participants play, play, play, play—then vanish.
Think about it. Sure, guys like Mike Piazza and Emmitt Smith and Patrick Ewing will always have famous names and faces that carry them through lifetimes of autograph shows and free meals. But the vast majority enjoy their time in the sun before disappearing into the world at large. They exist among us, as teachers and mechanics and dentists and college coaches.
But not really there.
Today’s Quaz, former Major League pitcher Wayne Franklin, was there. From 2000-06, he performed for five Major League teams, winning a career-high 10 games with the 2003 Milwaukee Brewers. Neither Pedro Martinez nor John Van Benschoten, he was a workmanlike starter/reliever whose left arm offered a certain level of protected longevity.
In today’s 326th Quaz, Wayne explains his respect for Barry Bonds, his dismissiveness toward Alex Rodriguez and his love for the state of Delaware. One can follow him on Twitter here and read his blog here.
Wayne Franklin, you’re the new Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Wayne, whenever I’ve covered jerkish Major League players, I always think, “Why are you so surly? So mean? Such an ass? Because this will be the greatest time in your life—and one day you’ll look back and realize you spent the time being a tool.” Wayne, am I right about this? Do you look at your life and think, “It’ll never be better than my time in the Majors?” Or, does life actually get better post-retirement? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
WAYNE FRANKLIN: Do I miss it? Yes, of course. Do I dwell on it? No. I don’t ever try to be “better than my time in the Majors.” There’s nothing to which I can compare this; so, I just focus on my family (which also has no comparables), because this is where everything began, and it is where everything ends. To me, life is about people. So I now teach baseball—the correct way—to all eager minds I can, which is very rewarding to me.
J.P.:You played two years at Cecil Community College, two at UMBC, then you were selected in the 36th round of the 1996 amateur draft by the Dodgers, and signed four days later. I read somewhere that you were thrilled (Your quote: “All I dreamt about when I was a kid playing baseball was that some day I’d like to be playing for the Dodgers”)—even though 36th round doesn’t seem so thrilling. So why the euphoria? And how did you find out you were drafted? Where were you?
W.F.: First, that is a misquote. From the day I began watching baseball I was a Yankees’ fan(atic). I still am, although I watch baseball in an entirely different way, now. Second, where I was drafted did not concern me, which I can honestly say I’ve proven. Plus, it was something over which I had no control. Here’s a lesson about baseball: There is much to be said about “knowing thy self.” The only thing I was wondering, come draft day, was who would draft me (Mariners or Dodgers), and at what position. In college I was a pitcher and first baseman, and at the time I was a much better hitter than I was a pitcher. The day I was drafted I was in my parents’ back yard, working on some hitting drills. Ironically.
J.P.:Don’t take offense to this—but why weren’t you great? I mean, you’re great compared to 99.9 percent of us. But you’re not going down as Dwight Gooden, as Pedro Martinez, as Sandy Koufax or Jim Palmer or Bob Gibson. And my question is, specifically, what’s the difference between those guys and the rest of the guys? What do they have that you didn’t?
W.F.: This is a great question. Philosophically, you can only define greatness by comparing things, which your question actually does. Statistically, I was not one of the “greats” of Major League history. However, there are many variables, and this would take a while to discuss. I’ll just simplify by saying that it all comes down to execution of pitches.
J.P.:I know you were born in 1974 in Delaware, I know you were drafted by the Dodgers. But what was your path from the womb to baseball? Like, how did it happen for you? Where did the passion and love come from? And do you still have it?
W.F.: My passion for baseball began (and this is no bullshit) the very day I learned how to play catch. My passion was real, and it felt very innate. Maybe this innateness is where all passion dwells. If so, I recommend that everyone look for anything innate; very blissful. Growing up in Maryland, the winters were long and tough, probably because of my impatient anticipation of baseball season. What fueled me more than anything else were cynics. Anyone who has ever played at the highest level of any sport can probably empathize with me wholeheartedly.
J.P.:Getting old sucks. I hate it. But I was never an top-level athlete, performing at the top of the top professional rank. What is aging like for you? Is it frustrating, no longer able to do the things your once did?
W.F.: Old? Man, 43 is the new 25. I’ve never stopped staying in pretty good shape. I don’t kick my own ass as much as I used to, though. Like I said, I’m still around the game all the time. And, trust me, I can still pitch. Also, my wife is a really good athlete (she used to kick my ass in golf all the time). So she’s my partner, and she keeps me accountable so that I don’t become some potbellied old man.
J.P.:You were teammates with Barry Bonds in San Francisco in 2004. I wrote a book on Bonds, found him to be a pretty remarkably not nice guy. What do you recall of playing with Barry? What was he like for you as a teammate?
W.F.: I came to know Barry as a teammate first. From that perspective, he was great. I thought he had a great capacity for empathizing with teammates. He just never had much patience or pleasure in dealing with the media. To me, Barry’s greatness came from his ability to leave irrationality (or, emotion) at home, and he never took it onto a ball field.
J.P.:You bounced to some interesting spots toward the end of your playing career—the York Revolution, the Uni-President Lions in Taiwan, the Chico Outlaws. When you’re with those teams, is the goal to keep playing because you love playing, or to keep playing because you want another Major League taste? And when did you know—like, know know—it was over?
W.F.: At the end of my career, I played in York because it was a chance to let my baseball come full circle, because my family could easily travel from Maryland, whenever they wanted, to watch me play. I went to Taiwan because it was another chance to experience baseball within an entirely different culture. I knew it was time to walk away from the game when teams weren’t calling—early and often. I knew that if I had to begin making contact with them. it was a bad sign.
Lowest Moment: The day I rode off into the sunset.
J.P.:In 2005 you appeared in 13 games for the New York Yankees. That team featured guys like Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Cano, ARod, Jeter, Matsui, Bernie, Giambi, Sheffield—a Who’s Who of modern-era Yankee legends. You’d been around a bit at that point—is it still at all awe inspiring playing for that team, with those guys? Is it merely another paycheck? And what do you remember from New York?
W.F.: Playing with the Yankees was literally my dream come true. I loved all of those guy—truly—except for A-Rod, whose personality really did not resemble any other on that squad. It almost seemed as if he was intimidated by the pinstripes and playing on that stage. I didn’t care for him, because I felt he was more about his image, and he had nothing that was old-school about him.
J.P.:How important are catchers? Being serious—you threw to some greats, some forgettables. How meaningful are they for a pitcher’s success? Is it at all overrated? And who’s the best you played with, as far as helping a pitcher along?
W.F.: Having a great catcher is very underrated. For example: When a catcher is very good at calling a game, he and the pitcher get into a great game-flow, which is difficult for other teams to slow down. Once a catcher develops this reputation, pitchers trust him, and in turn, trust their own pitches even more (conviction is one of those great intangibles a pitcher needs).
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH WAYNE FRANKLIN:
• Five reasons one should make Wilmington, Delaware his/her next vacation destination: Wilmington Blue Rocks; the River Walk; tax-free shopping; Italian food; quick train ride to New York City (which is then easy to come back to a big hotel room in Wilmington, and not have to pay sales tax on it)
• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Glendon Rusch?: Glendon “Tits” Rusch is the funniest guy who ever played Major League Baseball
• We have you start one game, right now, for a Division III baseball team. What’s your line?: You could bet the farm on me. I’m putting up a lot—if not all—zeroes.
• You’re both from Delaware—how good was Delino DeShields? And did you ever talk Delaware with him?: I do know that he and Marquis Grissom were the first teammates (Montreal) to ever finish first and second in stolen bases.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash?: Can’t say that I have.
• Climate change—myth or real?: Myth (at this point). I believe that weather is cyclical.
• Three memories from your first date?: Movie (Three O’clock High); miniature golf (at Vince’s Batting Cages, Chestnut Hill); goodnight kiss.
• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $25 million to move to Las Vegas and teach her to pitch. You work one year, every day, but have to change your name to Jack Dawson and also live on a diet of cabbage and M&Ms. You in?: Without hesitation—yes. I’m a silver-lining type of guy. I use the cabbage to make sauerkraut, which is great for digestion. The M&M’s are there for me to keep my sanity about the cabbage. Celine better be ready to get her ass on that mound and work, too.
Back, oh, a decade or so ago, Bomani Jones and I both served as columnists for ESPN’s Page 2.
I’m pretty sure no one actually read ESPN’s Page 2—but I did. And even though he was young and inexperienced and relatively obscure, Bomani’s words soared from the screen. I know … I know—that sounds sorta goofy cliche. But it’s true. The man could straight-up write, and before long I considered his pieces weekly must-reads.
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Bomani, I was just reading your bio, and I truly wonder whether anyone has spent more time talking over the past decade and a half than you have. You’ve always hosted one show, two shows, three shows. Just this endless string of shows. And I wonder, truly, what the joy is. Like, what is it about speaking, talking, conversing on air that does it for you? And do you ever tire of hearing yourself speak?
BOMANI JONES: I’d definitely say I get tired speaking, though I’m not so sure I get tired of hearing myself. I also don’t necessarily enjoy hearing myself speak, but I do like the act of it. I like playing around with different ways of saying things, flipping up what words are used to describe what situations for maximum effect. In a technical way, that’s a draw for me. But in media, I truly enjoy being able to connect with people. Radio has been my favorite medium, and it’s because it’s the most intimate one. It’s the place where the presenter and the audience typically know each other the best, and each is most comfortable. Time is tight on television, and there’s so much one must get done before the next commercial break. Writing requires a certain perfectionism, and everything is meticulously chosen in a way that makes it difficult to be natural.
But in everything I’ve done, I’ve wanted it to come across as being sincere and earnest. I don’t think I could have a career without conveying those two qualities. And by doing so, I’ve met so many incredible people. Not the people I’ve interviewed or worked with necessarily, but those who truly connect with my work. Many people in my audiences have become my true friends, and the shows were our point of connection. That creates more joy than anything else for me, the ability to truly affect people. Through sports, I can demonstrate both how big and small the world is, and make points I think are important for an audience who may not hear them otherwise. I’m not changing the world with this, but I do think I can make it better in small moments for a large number of people, and that truly makes me feel good.
J.P.:You and I wrote for ESPN.com at the same time for a while, and you’ve been with the company for many years. So I wonder what you make of the layoffs, and the state of the network. Can it survive relatively intact? Does a sports network in 2017 need to completely rethink what it’s been doing for nearly four decades? Is there a risk, with 1,000,000 viewing options, people ultimately simply no longer need a place to watch sports programing?
B.J.: I start with the reminder that I don’t work in the department at ESPN that makes any decisions. At the risk of sounding like a company man, I do think people should wait and see what happens after the layoffs before determining exactly what they mean. I’d also look at layoffs across the industry to see the similarities in who got cut, as I think that broader look is more illustrative than just looking at ESPN.
I would say, though, that there are very few television properties that any consumer truly needs. The most needed cable channel ever was probably The Weather Channel, and it’s one that truly has to deal with the fact that consumers don’t need it in the era of apps. But I’d say everyone in sports has, for years, tried to woo consumers by making this something they want. I imagine ESPN is studying what its consumers want and the best way to reach them. But anyone in this industry banking on surviving because their property is necessary is doing this wrong.
J.P.:So I know you were born in Atlanta, then relocated to Houston. I know you graduated from Clark, then earned a pair of master’s degrees. But how did this—sports media—happen for you? Was there an ah-ha lightbulb moment? Something or someone specifically who pushed you this route?
B.J.: Now this is a long, circuitous story, but the long of the short—my senior year of college, I started freelance writing with the goal of becoming a music critic. I managed to achieve that, though I also realized in that process that anyone can be a music critic just by criticizing music. I got lucky because I reached a point of making a livable wage doing so. While I was doing that, I was in a Ph.D program at the University of North Carolina studying economics. Well, in the 2004-05 academic year, I both flunked out of the Ph.D program and saw a decent-paying column turn into a low-paying blog, and the little bit of security I thought I’d found was gone.
I’d done some sportswriting by then, and I had been walked up to the door at Page 2 by the late, great Ralph Wiley. After everything in my life got shaky. ESPN.com asked for more of my work. Some was sports commentary and some was based on the interplay between sports and pop culture. It was weird because I started doing things that were an expansion of the sportswriting paradigm of the time, but was also trying to learn, yanno, how to be a sportswriter. I was covering events for the first time and trying to learn to navigate locker rooms and media relations departments and everything else. I had no idea what sportswriting really was. I just loved writing and wanted to write and thought I had things to say about sports that were worth hearing.
But I don’t think there was really a eureka moment about it. Circumstances threw me in this direction, but it’s not like I’m saying circumstances threw me into working in a factory or anything. I didn’t have many options…and then ESPN called and I tried to make the best of it. But it was making the best of a dream-like scenario. Once I was in, it was clear that this was what I did. I went from writing to radio to the Internet to television, but it was always in sports at that point. This was my world.
J.P.:I recently engaged in a pretty heated spat (from afar) with Stephen A. Smith. I wrote that I hate the brand of media he and Skip and a bunch of others bring forth. He thought my take was sharpened by an unspoken racism. And, off of that, I’d like to ask—as an African-American man, who do you see when you look at the sports media landscape right now? Do you feel represented? Do you feel marginalized? Have things improved? Gotten worse?
B.J.: I feel marginalized by some, but I don’t think I take that personally. The people I work with have demonstrated that they respect me as a person and they respect my work, and I don’t think there are too many “for a black guy…” caveats to that. There are some viewers who will always see me as whatever black guy they’ve decided I am. I might be the “ghetto” guy with bad grammar to some, the arrogant jerk to others and, of course, the angry black guy. But that’s got less to do with the sports landscape than being black in America. I guess I feel no more marginalized at work than I do anywhere else, but it’s been a while since I let the perceptions of strangers affect my day-to-day.
Now, do I feel represented in the industry? Probably not, but that causes me less of a problem when I consume sports media than, in my career, when I’ve dealt with decision makers. The lack of representation feels more problematic when trying to sell my vision to someone with the power to help make it happen, but who can’t get beyond the fact that I’m a little younger and blacker than he’s used to. I would like to see more black, non-athletes in visible positions, but I’d also like to see more women and Latinos in those places, too. Part of that is a simple notion of fairness, but I also think that would improve the quality of the overall product. How can we, as an industry, properly cover baseball when so many players only speak Spanish and so many around baseball only speak English? How can a writer understand the players without having a real understanding of the factors that led many of them into athletics in the first place? That’s not something that is innate to a person of color, but it’s something a person of color is more likely to be familiar with.
I suppose, though, I would say things have gotten better. That said, it’s not like they could have gotten worse than they’d been at different points in memory. So yes, better, but not good enough.
J.P.:I don’t know what to do with myself about Donald Trump’s presidency. I’m angry, I’m agitated, I often feel helpless. Bomani, what to do?
B.J.: Not really a great answer for this one. I do think a lot of people have become informed on how much there is to do to affect politics beyond voting, and how simply casting a vote can only do so much, no matter one’s ideology. I think a renaissance of informed citizens is under way. We’ll have to see how much power those people will have and for how long.
J.P.:God, I hate Around the Horn. It’s not you AT ALL, it’s that format, and the loudness, and the goofiness. I ask, sincerely, what don’t I see? What am I missing?
B.J.: I think you’re missing how knowledgeable all the panelists are. I started doing ATH after the show had been on the air for nine years. I had my impressions of everyone because I’d watched them for years. What I found after doing a few conference calls was that the panelists were so smart and knew so much. I’d sit in my house amazed, at times, that I got to listen to Bob Ryan give his thoughts on whatever we were talking about on a given day. The panelists on ATH are truly some of my favorite people.
I’d say, though, that the complaints about loudness and goofiness are a bit outdated. Everyone who’s been involved with the show for a long time laughs at how far things have come as they got their legs under them, and that process legitimately took years. But I truly believe that you can get more insight and information in an episode of Around the Horn than you can on any other show, just because you have four really bright people approaching sports from four different angles. You should give us more chances. I really think you’d find us worth your time.
J.P.:You’ve served as an adjunct professor at Duke and Elon. What are we supposed to tell journalism students in 2017? Do we guide them toward the profession, even with all the problems? Do we encourage them to go elsewhere?
B.J.: I would tell them the same thing I told journalism majors before things seemed so dire to people—don’t major in journalism. And that’s less a knock on journalism than my belief in the value of a liberal arts education. I think you should learn to think, then apply that to a vocation of your choosing. Going all-in on any job as a major seems like a bad idea to me, especially when that industry changes as rapidly as journalism has. I also think, should you decide to become a journalist, you need to be a more sophisticated thinker than ever. With so much content available, differentiating yourself requires as much talent as it ever has. You’ve got to be able to make connections that weren’t quite as necessary before. Thing is, that’s probably the case in dozens of industries. So prepare your mind to jump in and out of a few things, because there’s no telling when circumstance may force you to find something new.
That said, media has always been something for those who love it. It’s the sort of business that will weed out those who only like it. The perks that make it worth it are really only for those who are totally into this work. The perks that anybody in the world would want are available to only a few, and there’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to go through to get there that probably aren’t worth it if this is just something you sorta like.
J.P.:I feel like everyone in journalism has a money story—that craziest thing that’s ever happened to them, and it winds up being a great party story for years. Bomani, what’s yours?
B.J.: Now this is interesting. I feel like my best stories are peripheral to the industry, like things seen at parties, than specifically on-the-job stuff. The best on-the-job one, sadly, isn’t one I can share. Damn, neither is the second. I do, however, like telling a story about interviewing Mystikal when I was in college. It was the first in-person interview I’d done with an artist, and I was doing it as he rode in his limo from the airport in Atlanta to the barbershop (he was performing at the homecoming concert for Clark Atlanta University, my alma mater). It also happened to be the day his album “Let’s Get Ready” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
So we get in the limo. I’m fumbling trying to get my tape recorder going, and the dude representing the university tried to lean on me about it, as if I wasn’t going as fast as I can. He also didn’t seem to notice that Mystikal didn’t mind the delay, as that allowed him to whip out a blunt and fire up. I’ll always remember what he said—”Am I charming y’all or boring y’all?”—and what he didn’t say—”Anybody wanna hit this?” We all said we were fine, as you don’t get in a limo with a musician if you draw the line and someone smoking weed. The interview went from there and was pretty ordinary for that sort of fare.
The best part for me that day, though, was that Mystikal left his seafood platter in the limo. He has seafood on his rider, so he clearly wanted the food, and I imagine he was really gonna want it, with munchies and whatnot. I took the seafood home. That seafood was so good. And, at 20-years old, a free plate of seafood and the privilege of inhaling a rapper’s secondhand cannabis smoke was more than enough for me.
J.P.:How do you feel about social media interaction? What I mean is—BOMANI, YOU’RE A FUCKING WHORE. Do you respond to that Tweeter? Ignore him? Block him? Mute him? Do you think we in sports media have any sort of obligation to engage? Should we?
B.J.: Well, I think my social media presence indicates that I reply to that guy, and then I block him. Maybe not all of them, but lots of them. I don’t know if I engage most of them, though. I like to knock them around a little, then go on about my business. There’s not much back-and-forth to be had with trolls. They do the back. I do the forth. The cycle is complete. I just tend to do it with probably more people than I should, but I admit I enjoy the sport of quickly coming up with a retort. I can do it in my sleep. So, I do those things and retweet them for those who enjoy the show, fully understanding that many people don’t enjoy it as much as I do.
But no, you don’t have an obligation to engage someone who simply hates you. I’m inclined to engage those with good points, but I don’t owe everyone a response. Hell, I don’t owe anyone a response. But I do owe it to myself and my audience to engage anyone whose perspective can better inform my own. That’s the way you get better. Back when e-mail was the primary mode of feedback, I’d reply to lots of people because lots of people made good points. There were haters, but fewer of them. Social media has absolutely increased the level of senselessly negative feedback. You don’t have to reply to anything senseless.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
B.J.: Hmmmm, greatest moment of my career is tricky because I don’t know if I’ve done anything truly great yet. But I think the most gratifying moment of my career was when I got a midday radio show in Raleigh, N.C. in 2008. What made that great, for me, was that I was less than a year removed from being let go by ESPN.com. After that, I started doing a Saturday show and every shift I could pick up before working all summer on afternoon drive. My career was in the balance, and I focused on becoming a good radio host. And in a relatively short period of time, I got good enough to do a show that jumpstarted everything that’s happened for me since. That was make or break time, and I haven’t broken yet.
Now, the lowest? Probably that same job, when I read in a press release that the time slot I had would be filled by someone else, after a pending sale would be completed. And this was shortly after finding out I did fantastically in the previous ratings book. It happened because of a miscommunication, but it felt like unnecessary humiliation in a situation where I was getting the short end of the stick and most people knew it. It was a miserable feeling, and I had no idea where my career would go from there. That was 2009.
But here’s the thing—the next job I got paid more and was on Sirius, which was technically “national” and allowed me to do things like appear on “Around the Horn” within a year. Things have a funny way of working out sometimes.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BOMANI JONES:
• Your name is Bomani Babatinde Jones. Which is awesome. Please explain the background: Bomani means “warrior” in a handful of languages, but I think my parents specifically got that one from Mali. Babatunde means “return of the father,” a name I received as I was the first male Jones born after my grandfather died. Jones … I’ve actually never looked that one up.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I have never thought I was going to die, but I’ve definitely been on alert. Then I quickly realized I couldn’t do anything about it and if the plane crashed, I wouldn’t remember what I did right before.
• One question you would ask Lionel Manuel were he here right now?: What’s the craziest thing you ever saw Lawrence Taylor do?
• In exactly 16 words, make a case for Alan Henderson’s Hall of Fame credentials: Somehow, some way, he managed four full years at Indiana without plotting to maim Bobby Knight.
• Three memories from your first-ever date?: 1. Picking her up for the date; 2. Her realizing we were going to a different theater than she expected; 3. Finding out she’d actually planned to meet someone else after our ride dropped us off.
• What concerns you more—climate change or the unemployment rate?: Climate change. Unemployment rates tend to go up and down. Climate change seems to be going all in one direction, and that’s all bad.
• What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?:“I’m becoming a big fan of yours.” — Ralph Wiley
So a few weeks ago an issue of SI for Kids arrived in the mail, and my daughter Casey squealed audibly when the magazine included a trading card of someone named Maggie Steffens.
“I follow her on Instagram!” she said. “She’s amazing!”
That was enough for me. I reached out to Maggie via Twitter, fired off a quick DM—and here we are, taking water polo and nutrition and hearing the national anthem play on foreign soil. But here’s the cool part: When I told Maggie that my daughter was about to begin tryouts for her high school team, she volunteered to reach out and offer a kind word. A day later, Casey texted me from school.
Her: “Did you have Maggie Steffens text me?”
Me: “I did.”
It was a life highlight. It also spoke to the goodness of a young woman who believes in her sport, and also believes water polo participants need to stick together.
Maggie Steffens, two golds are impressive. But the 324th Quaz? Legendary.
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Maggie—I open with this. You won gold in the 2012 Olympics. You won gold again in the 2016 Olympics. And I wonder, after you win gold, and you receive the medal, and after you return home … what does that feel like? Does the glow remain? Does it vanish? Do you ever have moments of, “Is this as good as it gets?” or is it a perpetual, “Yes! We did it! Yes!”
MAGGIE STEFFENS: Honestly, it only gets better once you get home, at least for a short while.
We are not Olympians and/or Olympic champions because we woke up one day, all on our own, and did it. It takes an entire team and years of preparation—physically, mentally and emotionally. Many members of our own personal ‘teams’ are those from our home towns, our schools, our colleges, our friends and our family. I even think back to my first soccer coach and how much he believed in me—just at age 9! I think about my high school teachers who supported me and were so understanding when I had to split my time between school and full-time training for 2012. I think about my friends who I grew up with, the ones who challenged me and the ones who smiled with me. I think about my water polo coach, Maureen O’Toole, and holding her Olympic silver medal… dreaming one day maybe I could have one of my own. I think about striving to be amongst the best and grateful for the Stanford dream.
But mainly, I think about my family: my older siblings and my parents. Wow. When I got to let my family hold the gold medal, they had won that medal too. It gives me the chills to think about. My family, even my crazy Schnugg cousins (yes, Gramma Schnugg had 13 kids and each of those kids had lots of kids, so I have about 40 cousins who all are stellar athletes and live in the Bay Area), shaped me into the girl I was then and then woman I am now.
So because of that, the glow remains. Sharing the gold with the people who may not be wearing a zipper suit and water polo cap by your side, but the people who have been there with you from the start. They deserve a piece of the gold as well because none of us could do it without them. So in that way, that happiness and pride never fades.
But the excitement definitely does. A few weeks after the Olympics, it’s on to the next thing and life goes on. It’s pretty weird how one month after all your dreams coming true and being the happiest you’ve ever been, you may be in a dorm room studying for your first college midterm and just trying to figure out the partial differential equation … um, what?!
In all seriousness, I did struggle a bit after my first Olympics. I knew London wasn’t “as good as it gets,” but I was a little lost for sure. It took me some time, but I always came back to my dad’s words—“Strive to be amongst the best” and “Always remember your last name.” With these in mind, I knew there was still so much more. I focused on the values of what the “Steffens” name means to me and thought about my goal of always striving to be amongst the best. I was fortunate to have that at Stanford and with Team USA. My dream was still to be an Olympian and an Olympic champion—I had just done it once before. The dream remains today, it just follows a different path and a different journey, which makes each new quad so special.
There are so many paths in life, which helps keep me motivated and excited for the life to come. I don’t just want to be an Olympic champion, I want to take my Stanford degree somewhere, I want to possibly have my own business one day, I want to make a difference in the world, I want to have fun. My family always makes fun of me for always wanting to do everything, but helps keep me dreaming.
Anyway, now that I have ranted for 20 minutes, I’m not even sure if I answered the question … but I will tell you that sometimes, out of nowhere, I will just smile because I know our team accomplished our dream together. That is what it is all about. Sharing this with your team—the team you play with and the team behind the scenes. I have that moment of “Yes! We did it!” all the time. I smile and then I continue to get back to the life at hand.
J.P.:So we moved to SoCal three years ago, and my daughter immediately gravitated toward water polo—a sports we barely knew back in New York. So I wonder—why did we barely know it back in New York? What I mean is—the game is fast, exciting, thrilling, athletic, dynamic. Yet it seems like, across America, it’s pretty limited in knowledge and appeal. Am I wrong? Am I right? And is there a reason?
M.S.: I’m so happy she gravitated toward water polo. It is the best, so I hope she loves it. But Jeff, I ask myself this question every day. I still don’t get it. How is water polo not a sport every kid is doing and loving? Water polo is truly a mix of so many sports, which allows for great opportunity. Just like basketball, there is a center and a center defender, there are outside shooters and people who drive to the hoop, there is counter attack and counter defense, there is ball movement/passing lanes/picks/anticipation … just add another player, a goalie, and a net!
Just like soccer, there is an offsides component, corner kicks, angles lanes and penalty shots. Just like hockey, there are man-ups and man-downs, quick play and movement. And it’s really physical—just under the water :).
So, add the endurance and sprint swimming component as well as the mental and physical toughness it takes to play the game, and there you have it! It even used to be called “water rugby,” so I’m sure that can help paint a better picture. But to me, if the game were more simple to understand from a regular audience perspective, the sport would be more popular. That’s why exposure to the sport at a young age would be super beneficial in its overall growth. I think this is why it is more popular on the west coast. There are outdoor pools everywhere, a little bit warmer, and people are pretty comfortable with the beach.
In the Bay Area, I was very fortunate to have Maureen O’Toole and Jim Purcell start Diablo Water Polo Club and have the exposure to the game at a young age. Anyone who plays other sports and can swim will love water polo. I guarantee it. So at a young age when people are trying out soccer, basketball, swimming, etc… water polo ties them all together.
Something I would love to help with is exposure and opportunity. Take basketball and soccer. If you walk around a city or even a suburb, at almost every other block there is a public basketball court or grassy field. All you need is the ball and you can play around. It becomes a pastime that reminds you of your childhood when sport was simply fun. With water polo, you can’t just hop in a random pool by yourself and somehow find a water polo cage and float it by yourself (too expensive, too much liability, no cages or balls, and not enough pool space/time!). I was lucky because I had a backyard pool and three older siblings and a water polo cage to play around with… “3, 2, 1… she shoots … she scores! aaaaahh”
We were able to play almost every day just like some kids can walk across their street to play basketball, soccer or football. If every kid had this opportunity, I think the sport could really grow. I went to Croatia this summer and there were water polo cages at every beach! People just jump in and play. I would love to channel that opportunity here in the states … the water is just a little bit colder.
I also just want to add that water polo is a great sport for kids simply because any body type can play. It’s almost like the water is an equalizer. You can be short, you can be tall, you can be built, you can be skinny, you can be lanky, you can be bigger, you can be smaller.
J.P.:Your dad Carlos was a fantastic water polo player—three Pan Am Games, three-time All-American at Cal, 1979 Pac-10 Player of the Year. And, as a sportswriter, I’ve found that people with such backgrounds can go one of two ways as parents. They either 1. Push, push, push their kids; or they 2. Sorta hang back, let the love develop organically, or not at all. What was your dad like in this regard?
M.S.: My dad is the most passionate person I know and water polo is one of his biggest passions. So his love for the sport exudes out of his every being. When he watches our games, he is up in the corner of the stands, wearing a colorful shirt and his white Panama hat. He pretends he’s playing.
It’s a mental game and he loves putting himself back in those competitive situations, but he keeps it to himself—he simply wants to enjoy. Which is his biggest passion—enjoying life and enjoying it with his family. For this reason, he definitely let us discover the sport and find the love for it on our own. He would “push” us by having water polo balls around the house as kids and playing keep away with us in the backyard pool. We learned to love this yellow ball and what it represented (a fun game with family). We even would throw around coconuts in the Caribbean, pretending to play water polo in the waves! He always “pushed” us to give everything—our first, second, third, fourth effort, and to “represent our last name” in all that we do. In this, we learned so many values of sport and competition, which have been so valuable to me not just as an athlete, but as a person. He definitely has been my best coach, though, with tricks of the trade and little talks after games. I learned so much and am still learning. Not to mention, he also made us very mentally tough, which you need to be a water polo player.
J.P.:You recently signed to play for UVSE, the best team in the Hungarian professional league. I’m curious how that came to be. I’m also curious how you feel about that. Are you like, “Yes, Hungary!” Are you like, “Um, Hungary?”
I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to play abroad next year because I am finishing up my Master’s at Stanford as well as trying out some business ventures. The opportunity to be a guest player for a team presented itself and allowed me to fulfill my other passions and pursue my professional career abroad. To be honest, I NEVER thought I would play in Hungary and at first didn’t even consider them as an option. I always imagined I would be in some tropical place where I can salsa dance and play in the ocean… Hungary is not quite that. What sold me on Hungary was the opportunity there as well as the energy of Budapest. I feed off passion and energy – and it was flowing through me while we were in Hungary for 5 weeks this summer. It truly is a beautiful country, with so much history and incredible people (and good food… a necessity for me!). What I loved most about it though and what really opened my eyes to this opportunity was the love for water polo. Budapest was like the heart beat of water polo, the mecca to the sport I love. I wanted the opportunity to play in a place like that, where my sport is loved and celebrated. Not only that, legends were born here and the current players (men & women) can teach me a lot – I’m excited to simply ask them questions and learn/play with them.
I am inspired by the culture of the country and the culture of the sport in Hungary and am eager to be a part of it. I feel like I can really develop there as a person and as a player WHILE being in a place where people know, love, and respect water polo… HOW COOL IS THAT?! There is nothing like that in America for water polo and even many places around Europe. I look forward to playing in other countries later on in my career, but why not go to the mecca of our sport – learn, grow, develop – and LOVE It all at the same time?!
J.P.:I recently had a long discussion with my 10-year-old son about athlete psyche-up music. Namely, does it actually do anything? I’m being very micro here—do you think there’s a direct relationship between pre-game music and performance? Or can we play Jay-Z or Barbra Streisand and it makes no difference? And do you have a psych-up tune?
M.S.: I think music does a lot. But, everyone is very different. This is why I think “psyche-up” music is more of a mental thing. It allows you to get in the mindset you believe you perform at best in that given moment. Everyone has their different vibe they are trying to channel before battle. For example, I like to play focused and intense, but loose and fun. I like to play as if I’m back in my backyard pool playing keep away with my dad and siblings or in the 12-under Junior Olympic Championship with my club team—but with the knowledge, experience, and toughness I’ve built up through training/games over the years. So I tend to listen to happy songs and lots of Spanish/Latin music—I mean the rhythm cannot be beat! And it reminds me of family.
This may be a little superstitious, but I also tend to listen to music with lyrics that represent the way I want to play. In 2012, alongside my many Spanish/Latin songs, one of my main pump-up songs was Maroon 5’s “Lucky Strike” (hoping I would have some lucky goals) and in 2016, two of my main songs were Andy Grammer’s “Good to be Alive” (to remind myself how amazing it is I get to play this game at the Olympics) and Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” simply because of these lyrics: This is the moment. Tonight is the night, we’ll fight til it’s over… like the ceiling can’t hold us. So, I am totally weird! But I like to listen to music and then not have my headphones in so I can be with the team, dancing (lots of dancing) and laughing and connecting so we are mentally and physically ready to accomplish our goal.
J.P.:In 2011 you skipped your high school graduation to join Team USA at the World Championships. That strikes me as a pretty hard decision to make. Was it? And how was the decision made?
M.S.: It wasn’t a tough decision, but it was a tough journey. I actually only went to about half of my last semester of my high school senior year. Full-time training in Southern California started in January, 2011, which was at the beginning of my last semester. I was fortunate enough, and still am, to have Adam Krikorian as my coach and someone who believed in me early on. He had mentioned full-time training to me before my senior year had started and I knew I wanted that opportunity. I had been dreaming of being an Olympian since I was young enough to start sport. But I also had the dream of going to Stanford and balancing my athletics with academics. So at the beginning of my senior year, I printed out a calendar for each of my teachers and one for myself. I sat down with them each individually and told them my dreams and aspirations and asked them how we could make it work. We ended up coming up with a schedule where I would come to school for a couple weeks then fly to SoCal to train for a week … then fly to school for a week then fly back to SoCal to train for two weeks.
I was very lucky to have teachers who also believed in me and allowed me to try to accomplish both of these dreams. I still remember taking an AP calculus test and crying in the middle of it, because I had no idea what was going on and was so stressed from all the travel/etc. That had never happened before and I was simply overwhelmed. This would happen during training, too. We were doing a swim set and I got lapped! I kept my head down and swam as hard as I could, but my body just couldn’t keep up. My eyes were teary during the swim, but I didn’t want to show that to anyone. I didn’t want to let anyone down.
After these moments, I wrote that swim set, that test, and different quotes on a bunch of sticky notes and put them all over my bathroom mirror. They were a reminder of how I didn’t want to feel and how important preparation was and who I wanted to be moving forward. Missing graduation, the social events and all the leadership activities was tough, but they were simple sacrifices in order to be the best I could be for Team USA. The hardest part was trying to be my best self for Team USA, for Stanford, for my friends and for my family while traveling back and forth at 16- and 17-years old. My friends made a fun video for me for my birthday which I received in Russia right before our USA team held a graduation ceremony for me in China (hotel robes, a Diploma signed by my coaches, & some local Chinese Pizza Hut). This was so special for me because it didn’t matter where I was in the world, I was surround by family and was very fortunate to have such great people to inspire me.
J.P.:The other day I was talking with a colleague at ESPN who covered Michael Phelps for many years. And he was sort of bemoaning the way we often turn athletes into symbols of patriotism come Olympics; how we’ll paint a Michael Phelps or a Maggie Steffens as the “all-American story” when, first and foremost, you guys are top-level athletes there to compete. So I wonder—when you’re in the Olympics, do you feel more American (for lack of better phrasing) then usual? Do you feel like representing the U.S. makes it extra important? Does patriotism come into play?
M.S.: I wouldn’t say I feel more American at the Olympics. It is more that your American pride is heightened. I remember my first time representing Team USA. It was in Khanty-Mansisk, Siberia for junior worlds. We heard our national anthem before the first game and I had immediate chills. I was only maybe 15-years old and representing the Junior team, but we were still representing the United States. There was this pride that overtook my body and a respect I knew I had to play with. Once I caught this feeling, I knew this was what I wanted to do.
Preparing for the Olympics, you aren’t just thinking of yourself, but also your teammates. You are thinking about how can I make sure their dreams are fulfilled. You are thinking of your family and friends and how much they have helped all of us get here. And you are thinking of your country. You are thinking how you have the most special name on my cap, the name of the United States of America, and it is your job to represent it the best you can because that is what that name deserves. Truly, it is an honor to wear the red, white and blue and a constant reminder of how fortunate we are to be women, playing the sport we love, on the biggest stage possible.
My favorite moment of the Olympics, well there are many. One that is always extra special is standing on the podium, alongside these incredible and badass women you love and respect, and watching the American flag rise up with our hands on our hearts. I only sing the anthem in this moment, and I sing it loud and proud. I literally just laughed and smiled to myself thinking of this moment—it is breathtaking. Every breath and every thought has been about this moment, and now we get to cherish it. Our every dream has officially come true. It is a representation of what our country is about and we always want to represent the competitive and dream-oriented values of our great country. In 2016, I got to send out a video to the Armed Forces Network and felt so lucky to say “thank you.” Because they are representing our country and making sure that we, as athletes, get to simply play and compete for our country and represent in a completely different way. If it weren’t for them or their predecessors, we wouldn’t be up on that podium. It was a surreal moment. I love being American every day. The Olympics just make us even more proud of the opportunities we are given.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
M.S.: The greatest moment of my career was standing on the podium and looking down at my oldest sister, Jessica Steffens. In 2008, Jess was playing for gold and our family was up in the stands. It felt like I played that game although I was just a young kid supporting my biggest inspiration. They came up short and won the silver, and I could feel the emotion and pain from the girls in the water. My dad looked at me and kind of gave me a look and said, “Now it’s your turn.” In that moment, I knew exactly what he meant. He believed that I would be in that water next time. Winning in 2012 was amazing and all the cliches you can think of apply, but winning alongside the women I had watched in 2008 and helping to change their destiny was the most incredible feeling one could ask for. I was playing for all those girls, but the main one was my own blood, Jess. Locking eyes and knowing that we just achieved our dreams together, as sisters, is truly the greatest moment of my life. She always was the one I looked up to and who I never wanted to let down, and now we were looking at each other knowing we had just fought to our last breath to make sure we would be standing in that moment together representing Steffens and Team USA. We got to look up and find our family in the stands and the looks on their faces were priceless. That moment of finding your family after the gold is truly the photographic moment everyone thinks about. In that moment is when you realize, wow, we did it.
My lowest moment was in 2013. I would say it was less of a moment and more of a way of life. I struggled in this year although I was extremely happy to have an Olympic gold medal and be a freshman at Stanford. A lot of great things happened and I was still very fortunate, but I wasn’t the “Maggie” I wanted to be. We lost in the 2013 NCAA Championship and ended up getting fifth at World Championships that summer. These losses definitely contribute to this being the lowest moment of my career, but it was more so the loss of the values that make me who I am. It wasn’t like I went and did something crazy or something awful like that, but my passion and my drive was not where it needed to be. I struggled with trying to keep the happy face that I always do, but missing a lot of the values that make me happy.
It really made me reflect on how I want to be and who I want to be. My dad always told us, “Remember your last name,” and I didn’t think I had done that that summer. I wanted to be my best self in all that I did, and I fell short. This year really helped me prepare for 2017 knowing that the year following the Olympics is definitely tough and I’m not shy to say it. You never know what life will throw at you!
J.P.:The wife and I were just looking over your Instagram feed—and you’re clearly in insanely good shape. So I wonder—what’s the key? How important is diet? Sleep? Fitness? Will you have an ice cream cone, drink a Coke? Will you ever skip a workout? Or is it all about regimentation?
M.S.: Oh, will I have an ice cream cone? I most likely will buy an entire Ben & Jerry’s pint for the week and eat it in one sitting. I love dessert, so you’ll definitely find me looking for the nearest Cold Stone wherever I live. But I do this because of my fitness and overall nutrition. I think that is what is most important, at least for me. I am aware of supplementing my body with what it needs in order to perform at the highest level and I am also very in-tune with my body. I listen to it.
Whether it’s a tart cherry shot or lots and lots of veggies, I want to make sure my body is ready to perform. With that, our sport requires you to be in great shape and it’s not easy. I truly believe you need to be in the best shape for water polo—although one’s shape is different for everyone. Not touching the water or a polo ball for a couple days makes you feel like you’ve never played the sport! It’s super important to keep your body ready to play the game at all times, which I believe you can do even with cross-training during down time. I also think sleep is extremely beneficial. Kaleigh Gilchrist was my teammate and roommate in 2016, and she used to make fun of me because I always wanted to be asleep early enough so I could get my eight hours in. It became a running joke, but you better know I made sure it happened. If I didn’t, I was already planning a nap. Sufficient rest and recovery simply becomes part of our routine during full-time and I believe is a major asset to fitness and training.
Lastly one of my favorite quotes is from the Marines—“The more you sweat in battle, the less you bleed in war.” I think of this in terms of training. If I can train/practice at the physical and mental level it takes to play in the highest pressured game, then I will be prepared physically and mentally.
J.P.:Can you still swim for fun? I mean, allllllll this time in the pool. If friends are going swimming, and they ask you to join, are you like, “Yes!” Or, “I’d rather eat rat poison”?
M.S.: Um, yes! Especially if it is in the ocean! Chlorine and water are simply part of my DNA at this point … not going to turn down an activity with friends. But I would suggest playing some water basketball instead.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MAGGIE STEFFENS:
• Five coolest places water polo has taken you?: Rio, New Zealand, Budapest, Barcelona and Siberia (Not because of the place, but because, well, who else can say they’ve been to Siberia twice?)
• Grossest thing you’ve ever seen in a pool?: Throw up floating on the surface.
• One question you would ask Leon Spinks were he here right now?: Do you regret the rematch?
• Best advice you’ve ever received?: Both from my dad—“Always remember your last name” and “Strive to be amongst the best.”
• First thing you do when you wake up in the morning?: An aggressive and odd full body stretch/twitch while making a high-pitch dinosaur sound.
• Are farts more funny or embarrassing?: Funny.
• Best joke you know?: I have two: What do you call a Fish with no eyes? A FSHHHHHH! and What do you call a deer with no eyes? No Eye Deer (Saying these aloud are way more fun).
• Five reasons to make Danville, Cal. one’s next vacation destination?: 1. Great wildlife such as cows, wild turkeys, dee, and coyotes; 2. A bowling alley ready for any type of party; 3. Great hikes at every turn, where you will see lots of … dogs. 4. Fro-yo everywhere!; 5. The people! (OK, not all of those may be the best reasons, but they remind me of good ol’ Danville!)
• Most embarrassing moment of your life?: I’m not exactly sure of mine, but my nickname at my first swim club (from ages 2 to 5) was “Maggie Baggy Underpants.” Soooooo that’s something I hope I’m not called too often anymore.
A bunch of months ago, while appearing at a book festival in Green Bay, I found myself in a bar alongside a fellow author.
An organizer introduced us, and once David Sigel told me he was a firefighter who has had a book out, well, the book part faded into dust. A firefighter? A real fight fighter? Shit—I had questions.
Over the next two hours, I listened to a genuinely fascinating, decent man talk about duty, about honor, about saving lives and giving of oneself. It was riveting stuff, and when it was time to leave I said, “So, this is random, but would you be up for a Quiz Q&A?”
JEFF PEARLMAN:So David, I’m a big fan of money stories—meaning, the most memorable moments from a career. You’ve spanned the decades as a Green Bay firefighter. What’s your money story? The scariest moment? The most exciting moment? The craziest moment? In other words, what’s the story you would tell, if you could only tell one?
DAVID SIEGEL: I can’t answer this one to my satisfaction. The fire and EMS stories you’re asking for defy my ability to convey to non-firefighter/paramedics. There’s an old joke that somewhat explains this. What is the difference between a fairy tale and a fire-rescue story? A fairy tale starts out “Once upon a time,” whereas a fire-rescue story starts with, “OK, this is no shit.”
We’ve all had experiences that fit your criteria. I just can’t describe them to the point of justice. This is why so many relatives of combat veterans describe how their loved one never talked about the wars. Same with fire-rescue and law enforcement.
J.P.:How did this happen for you? Soup to nuts? Like, when did you know you wanted to fight fires for your career? Was there an ah-ha moment? A spark?
D.S.: I had a previous career after college and lived in a small town in southern Wisconsin. To impress a gorgeous woman, I joined the volunteer EMS agency. Initial “hands-on” training was done in the ER of a Madison hospital. The first patient I dealt with had shot himself through the roof of his mouth with a small caliber handgun. The bullet passed through the front and top of his brain, but was not immediately fatal. The nurse directed me to clean to blood from his face. I started to do so with a wet towel. The patient said it hurt and asked me to be more gentle. He was fully conscious and coherent. Though he later died from the damage, the first human I ever spoke to as a responder had been shot through the brain! The “spark” was when I realized just how difficult and challenging it was to do this. The bug was in my blood and within a few years I changed careers to become a firefighter/paramedic. And that is no shit.
J.P.:How do you explain the kinship of firefighters? It seems to cross geographic, age, ethnic, gender lines. Doctors don’t have it. Journalists don’t have it. What is it about firefighters?
D.S.: We’re like dogs, because we’re drawn to each other, though there’s a lot less sniffing. Much has to do with the fact that nobody else understands what we go through. Civilians just don’t understand what happens and words can’t express the reality. Additionally, our shifts are 24 hours long. We essentially live together and form a secondary family. That imparts a closeness and bond that doesn’t happen with nine to fiveers. Twice a day we eat together and that’s one of the ultimate family experiences, whether it’s blood or camaraderie.
J.P.:What’s the most misunderstood thing when it comes to your profession? What do we, the non-firefighters of the world, get wrong?
D.S.: The vast majority of our responses are for emergency medical services. Fires are much less frequent than just a few decades ago. EMS is now our bread-and-butter and this keeps us very busy.
J.P.:I’m sure you guys get a ton of false calls, unnecessary calls. Cat in a tree, I can’t find my keys, etc … etc. Do those piss you off? Do you have to handle them a certain way? What’s your approach?
D.S.: More than false calls, it’s the misuse of emergency services. A tremendous segment of the population has no reluctance or compunction about calling for complete BS. They do not need to go to the ER or travel by ambulance, but could get their problem addressed by more routine appointments. These people are without consciousness or with absurd senses of entitlement. Some people have such profound social dysfunction they ignore right from wrong. They know what they’re doing, they just don’t care. For example, I’ve been called to a home to transport a person the hospital. They tell me they just left the hospital after waiting longer than they wanted. They thought that getting brought in by ambulance would move them to the front of the line! So, they leave the hospital, go home, call 911, get transported back to the same hospital. Ultimately they go back to the end of the line and get a citation for misuse of emergency services.
It’s aggravating to be taken advantage of and upsetting to know the ambulance is busy dealing with a BS call when someone could really use our help for a legitimate medical emergency. However, we commiserate with each other because we understand. Again, this is why we are drawn to each other. I imagine many readers are astounded this happens. It does and that’s no shit.
By the way, the cat in the tree thing is a total urban legend. Ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree? Of course not. They come down when they get hungry.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
D.S.: Greatest: I saved a baby’s life. A 3-month old baby was born with brain-fluid issues and had suffered seizures. It already had surgery to address this when the mother called 911 to report another seizure. There was definitely something wrong with the baby. However, I took a closer look and realized there was something “off” from a typical seizure. I tried ventilating the baby and immediately the baby spit out a plug of milk, took a deep breath and the crying began in earnest. The baby was choking on vomited milk … not a seizure. Because of the recent seizure and surgery history, the mother had tunnel vision. However, I kept my eyes and mind open and remembered an old adage, “Nothing is as it seems.” If I hadn’t cleared the airway, that baby would have choked to death.
Lowest: You’re asking me to put into words the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. I can’t do it justice, so I won’t try. This is why firefighters/paramedics are such a tight group. I could convey to them and they’d understand, but writing for civilians would prove inadequate.
D.S.: I originally intended to write a short article, thinking it would be a simple, basic history. However, the early history of the Green Bay Fire Department is incredibly rich and fascinating. Most important, I found a clear trend in our history. Change never just happened. All the major changes occurred because major fires went horribly wrong. The fire department, community, newspapers and municipal authorities resolved never to allow these disasters to repeat, so the Green Bay Fire Department changed. This trend holds from creation in 1841 to the present. Most human endeavors change reactively, but with the fire service, the events are dramatic. Makes for a great story.
I discovered a previously unknown Green Bay Fire Department line-of-duty death. In February 1892, Hans Hansen died after being thrown from a horse-drawn host-cart that overturned at a corner. At that time, only those dying at the fire, directly due to the fire were considered a line-of-duty death—Hansen did not fit the criteria. Furthermore, his family buried him in an unmarked grave because they didn’t have enough money and the city provided just enough for the funeral. However, current fire department culture recognizes Hansen as a line-of-duty death and we considered the lack of recognition as intolerable. Therefore, as part of a formal fire department ceremony in July 2016, we dedicated a donated grave marker, about 124 years after he died. Hansen had no children nor did his only sibling. Consequently, finding living relatives proved unsuccessful. So the honor guard presented the folded American flag (typically given to family members) to the current Green Bay fire chief, representing his Green Bay Fire Department family. Now, Hans Hansen will never be forgotten again. Above all other aspects of this history project, I’m most proud of this.
J.P.:We spoke about the loneliness of the book signing event—four people, strange looks, awkwardness. You had some of these. What were they like for you? How’d you handle it? Because, Christ, it’s my least-favorite thing in the world.
D.S.: A total kick to the confidence and ego. When we met, you told be that because I’d been skunked at signings I’m “now officially an author,” which made me feel like I’d gone through a rite-of-passage. I’m grateful you shared that with me.
J.P.:You work a job where death is a very real possibility. When you approach a particularly big blaze, does that run through your head? Should it/should it not run through your head? Can a firefighter be successful and also fear death?
D.S.: I’ll borrow something from the military … you don’t fight for country and apple pie, you fight for the people next to you. What goes through my mind on every call is to do right by my comrade brothers and sisters … don’t screw up! It’s the benefit to having a pseudo-family, rather than a group of coworkers. This is true whether it’s a large blaze or a simple medical call. Do my job right for my people. First and foremost, I worry about their well-being.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVID SIEGEL:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Faye Dunaway, Sterling Sharpe, Chris Cornell, Oscar the Grouch, Ft. Lauderdale, raisins in your oatmeal, Tupac, Mike Pence, Bermuda shorts: Raisins in oatmeal, Oscar the Grouch, Faye Dunaway, Bermuda Shorts, Mike Pence, Sterling Sharpe, Tupac. Never been to Ft. Lauderdale and don’t know who Chris Cornell is (and resisted temptation to Google him).
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you an Aaron Rodgers? How does it end?: Really? A 33-year-old, 6-foot-2, 225 pounder versus a 52-year-old, 5-foot-11, 183 pounder. It doesn’t end because it would never have begun. Can we make this a one-on-one competition playing hockey?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never had an incident with threat of a crash. As a side note, I always introduce myself to the flight crew as an off-duty paramedic and offer my help in case of an emergency. They love it and sometimes I get an extra bag of peanuts. Yes, I have had to help with medical problems mid-flight, once over the middle of the Atlantic.
• What’s the absolute grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: On a warm summer day, a neighbor checked on a man who lived alone and found him dead. He had died several days earlier while laying on a heated water bed. The weather and bed dramatically sped up the decomposition process and basically turned him into soup. We could smell him from the street as soon as we got out of the rigs. Everybody on the crew was gagging and all of us showered and changed uniforms back at the station. And that is no shit.
• Five reasons one should make Green Bay his/her next vacation destination?: A frequent misconception is that Green Bay is a very large city because there is a professional sports team here. However, we’re actually mid-sized with about 100,000 population in the city and similar number in the adjacent area. So, rather than five reasons, I’d say a visitor would experience the uniqueness of big city life emerging from a small town. Frequently there are deer, turkeys, foxes and skunks in my yard and there even are a couple of working farms within the city limits. LA got those?
• Why would anyone live in a city that hits negative 20 in winter?: Perspective. It makes the summers that much more enjoyable. It’s a cliché, but the change of seasons is a great experience.
• What are the keys to growing a kick-ass mustache?: Eastern European ancestry, don’t shave your upper lip and keep it groomed. I spend more time on my mustache than the hair on my head.
• I never much cared for Ben Seaver in Growing Pains. You?: I have never spent a moment of my life watching Growing Pains, but I suspect I haven’t missed anything.
I mean, that’s just the way it is. You ask a rabbi about a higher power, he/she will explain—in great detail—how God is in charge of all; how God led our people to safety; how God is looking after the Jews as a parent looks after a child. God knows all, and you must obey Him!
Three years ago, shortly after our relocation from New York to California, the wife and I decided to join the University Synagogue in Irvine. We’d been members of a reconstructionist congregation in Westchester County, and the chill approach to religion appealed to us (Or, put different, I’m not a particularly involved Jew). What we found at University was a bunch of lovely people, a perfect-for-us hands-off dogmatic style, a fantastic Hebrew School run by an even better director and a rabbi who, well, didn’t believe in God.
Or, wait. Hold on. “Didn’t believe” isn’t quite right. Rabbi Arnold Rachlis’ position is that God is not a supreme being, per se, but the inspiration, creativity, conscience and consciousness that dwells within humanity. I’ve never heard him speak of God being angry, or annoyed, or frustrated. Nope—not once. Instead, his sermons focus on betterment, and helping others, and making a difference.
I dig that.
I also dig the non-pressure of the rabbi’s approach. As you’ll see below, he’s not begging (or guilting) me to attend synagogue. If you wanna go—please go. If you don’t, hey, it’s your time and your life. Use it wisely.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, you’ve blessed … as the new Quaz.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Rabbi, I’m gonna kick this off with a tremendously awkward question. About an hour ago I received an e-mail from you, asking if we’d like to take part in an upcoming Friday night service. And, to be completely blunt, I have no interest. I actually hate going to services. I hated going as a kid, as a teen, as a young adult, as a middle-aged adult. I don’t find service inspiring or interesting. I’m not moved. I don’t want to make new Jewish friends. I don’t want to join one of the chavurahs. It’s not about the rabbis, or the venue, or the music. I’m … just … not … interested. Being blunt—at this point in my life I see the synagogue’s value as a place for my kids to get three hours of weekend education. That’s pretty much it. So I wonder, as a rabbi, if this sorta pisses you off? If you understand it? If you view it as your job to change my mind? And, really, does it even matter?
ARNOLD RACHLIS: It’s not an awkward question. I try to make services as interesting as possible through relevant-to-life sermons, participatory music (often with a band), meditation, dance and discussion, but, even then, it’s OK not to be interested. I’m trying to attract people to a different kind of service, not make them feel guilty for not attending. I also have problems with the idea of prayer since I don’t believe in a supernatural God. Rather, for me and most Reconstructionist Jews, if God exists, we conceive of divinity as a force or power within human beings and the universe that moves us toward being loving and caring. There’s no God who commands, demands and punishes. Rather, this humanistic philosophy sees God not as a supreme being but as inspiration, creativity, conscience, consciousness and motivating us toward Tikkun Olam/repairing the world.
J.P.: So you head a reconstructionist congregation—which fascinates me, because there’s this sorta, “Take what you want, ignore what you want” flow I’ve picked up from the movement. So how do you define reconstructionism? What separates it from reform or conservative?
A.R.: In addition to our humanistic philosophy that I mentioned above, we focus on opportunities for human growth, not obedience; on affirming individuality, not prohibiting the actualization of the self; on choosing within Judaism and all cultures what’s meaningful to each person. We’re inclusive and equal—men and women, gay and straight, Jewishly learned and not, Jewish and not Jewish. We have lots of intermarried couples and even a few non-Jews not in a relationship with a Jew and all are welcome and fully integrated into our congregation, University Synagogue in Irvine, CA.
We also see Judaism as an evolving religious-cultural civilization, meaning that Jewish culture is as important as religion, that change is good and that each person—liberal believer, humanist, agnostic, atheist or whomever—needs to find his/her path within Judaism honestly and meaningfully. My role as a rabbi is to provide a roadmap within Judaism to help people find significance. My goal is not only to make Jews more meaningfully Jewish, but also more meaningfully human.
J.P.: I’m mental about death. I think about it almost every day, as this eternal nothingness that creeps closer and closer, and there’s nothing I can do to escape. I mean, it terrifies me. But how about you? How do you feel about it? Do you believe in an afterlife? Does it matter?
A.R.: My father died when I was 11, so death has always been a part of my life. I don’t literally believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in “immortality” through deeds, genetics and physics. How we love, help and mentor people shapes an ever-widening future; our biological children keep our genetics eternally alive; naming children after deceased ancestors and telling them stories about whom they were named after keeps us alive in memory and, if matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, but just transformed (e.g. ice to water to steam), then we are forever part of the “All” of the universe. We may not be distinct souls, but we are still here. I truly enjoy life, and the love of my wife and children. I hope that I’ve contributed value to the world and I’ve had a good time. So, I’m not afraid. Although I’d like to live a long time—in Judaism, we say: “may you live to be 120 years old”—I’m well prepared for fewer years.
J.P.: You’re somewhat outspoken politically. I mean, clearly you’re not pro-Trump, pro-wall, pro-a lot of what’s going on in America. But what’s the balance for clergy? Do you feel comfortable bringing politics to the pulpit? How far should a rabbi, priest, etc. go?
A.R.: I bring ethics to the pulpit, not partisan politics. I wouldn’t endorse a candidate from the pulpit, but I do give money and sign ads and petitions as a private citizen. I want people to feel comfortable during services and not be worried that their candidate will be attacked by me. After President Trump’s election, we had a number of evenings devoted to examining our anxieties and hopes for the future with speakers who ranged from liberal to conservative. Everyone knows that my politics are liberal, that I worked in Washington, DC as a White House fellow and that I annually attend the political think tank Renaissance Institute, started by friends of the Clintons. We have hosted, at the synagogue, speakers from Gov. Michael Dukakis to Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, from Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) to GOP consultant Frank Luntz—a very broad spectrum of opinion.
J.P.:How did this happen for you? Like, was there a lightbulb moment when it came to being a rabbi? When did you first know this would be your path?
A.R.: My parents were immigrants; my father from Ukraine and my mother from Vienna. Both became successful physicians in Philadelphia after fleeing anti-Semitism. America saved their lives. My mother, especially, instilled in me a love of America and a hatred against injustice. She worked hard for civil rights, treated African-Americans with dignity and had a lifelong interest in Jewish history and ideas. I have, in a way, followed in her footsteps. Also, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I became inspired by the depth of Jewish philosophy and ethics and decided to become neither a physician nor a lawyer (my original choices). After college, I entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and simultaneously a graduate program in World Religions.
J.P.: I feel like every profession comes with an absolute must-tell-at-parties money story. I dunno—a drunk uncle ruins the Bar Mitzvah story, etc, etc. So, Rabbi, what’s yours?
A.R.: I really don’t have a funny religious story, although “Shaky the Mohel” is one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes! Rather, I love that the rabbinate has afforded me unusual integrative opportunities that have brought together my human and Jewish lives. The founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, spoke of “living in two civilizations” as American Jews. I’ve had a diverse rabbinic life—one of two rabbis to ever be a White House fellow, winning an improv comedy championship at Second City in Chicago, traveling the world, meeting and studying with Nobel Prize winners, political figures, academicians, artists, actors and composers at the Renaissance Institute, being the subject of a documentary film and recently attending the Tony Awards. I’m curious about so many things other than Judaism and I’ve been able to integrate all of those interests with my Judaism and offer that synthesis to my congregation through the years.
J.P.:A congregant dies. You’re the rabbi. What do you do? What’s the approach? What are you supposed to do? And how hard was that to learn/adapt early in your career?
A.R.: My early experience of the death of my father created not just pain and loss, but also empathy. I never have to feign caring—at a funeral, wedding, Bar/Bat Mitzvah or naming. I really do care. I always feel privileged to enter the “sacred space” of a family in celebration or mourning. It’s what I find to be most meaningful in my work as a rabbi. I never had to learn how to do it. I’m just there, in the moment. I listen, and then I speak, offering condolences in the face of death or “mazel tov” for life’s blessings.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
A.R.: There’s no one greatest or lowest moment. Seeing the admiration from my children for what I do—a vocation that helps people, educates them, consoles them, enhances their celebrations and gives them a respect, love and pride in their Jewish identities—that’s at the top. One son is a lawyer and the other an actor and neither has an interest in the rabbinate—but both are proud and knowledgeable Jews and fine people. Some of that, I think and hope, comes from what I do professionally. Among the lowest moments are when I have to spend precious time convincing people that they should trust my instincts, experience and knowledge. I may be wrong, but I want to experiment, try to make changes and see if new ideas work.
J.P.:Do you ever do weddings and your gut says, “This marriage just isn’t gonna work?” And, if you have concerns, is there any moral obligation to say something? To step in?
A.R.: Twice in the hundreds of weddings I’ve done, I’ve felt that something was deeply wrong. Once, I told the couple that they should postpone getting married and go into counseling to work things out. They left my office immediately, furious at me and even left a phone message later saying that Rabbi X thought that they were just fine and was going to marry them. The other time, I brought up delaying to the couple; they disagreed; I performed the wedding thinking that perhaps I was being presumptuous and they divorced within a year.
J.P.:A lot of people (myself included) are losing boatloads of sleep over Donald Trump’s actions, from environmental to legal to … on and on. So what are we supposed to do? How do we ease our minds without turning off our antennas? In short, how do we survive?
A.R.: Having lived through Watergate, I agree with John Dean and Carl Bernstein—this Presidency is “worse than Watergate.” The offensive rhetoric of the campaign and the possible collusion with Russia have poisoned even further our already fractured politics. So going to marches, demanding action from Congress, getting involved in the 2018 and 2020 elections, financially supporting progressive organizations and advocating for the importance of honest journalism are crucial. Also, we need to understand why so many people in this country are frustrated and angry and voted for Trump. They didn’t vote for a true Republican; they voted for a protest candidate. What can Democrats and the GOP truly learn from that anger and will they find responsible ways to address these concerns, offering normative, conventional, informed and decent leaders?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RABBI ARNOLD RACHLIS:
• One question you would ask Lil Uzi Vert were he here right now?: “What did you like most about Philly where you and I came from?”
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Only once, when the breathing masks dropped, the plane was badly shaking, people were screaming and, even though I was anxious, I didn’t panic. I breathed deeply and meditatively and looked for the exits.
• This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: With due respect … I prefer some of the other Woodstock era performers, especially folk, pop and soul from the late sixties.
• In exactly 16 words, can you make a case for California pizza?: Not as traditional as New York or Chicago, but more experimental—a perfect metaphor for California.
• Global warming terrifies me, yet most people don’t seem to care. What the hell are we supposed to do?: Spread more awareness, do more small acts around the house and lawn to build consciousness, support candidates and organizations that are fighting for the planet, advocate for science over narrow business interests, and widespread ignorance.
• What word do you overuse in your sermons?: “Finally”
• On Facebook, I tend to block all the arch-conservative wingnuts from my high school. Then I get ripped for it. What to do?: Be kind and patient. Forward articles to them. Don’t get overly involved emotionally.
• Your wife is the congregation’s cantor. How did you guys meet?: At the synagogue. Colleagues first, then friends and now the luckiest guy in the world!
• What are your three favorite Yiddish words/expressions?: “Mazel tov”—colloquially “congratulations,” which means that you’re at a “simcha”/happy event. “Mentsch”—one of the best words in any language – a humane, honorable and decent human being. “Schmooze”—to be with people, sharing your life, through the joy of small talk.
Catherine Pearlman is the most decent human I know, which works out quite well because, hey, we’re married. She’s compassionate, she’s big-hearted, she’s devoted her life to assisting others—be it as a director in a youth homeless shelter, as the head of a summer camp for disadvantaged kids, as a family coach who goes into homes and helps mothers and fathers solve their parenting difficulties. She also happens to be the best parent I’ve seen, which helps explain this week’s arrival of her first book, “Ignore It: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction.”
I know … I know—I’m biased. No doubt. But if you’re a mother or father, and you need to figure out how to raise your children while simultaneously maintaining sanity, Catherine’s work is biblical. Again, I’m not speaking solely as a reader. I’m speaking as a daily witness.
Anyhow, today Catherine (aka: The Family Coach) explains why ignoring our children is wise, why iPhone management is key and why (preach!) Dr. Drew is little more than a fraud.
Catherine Pearlman—mother of my kids—you’re the 321st Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN.:You have a book coming out called “Ignore It!” And it’s great and wonderful and I love it. But, because we’re married and I’m the father to your two kids, I know there are occasions when you haven’t ignored it. So, in that regard, would you say ignoring it is easier said (or written) than done? Is it REALLY possible to perfectly adhere to your advice?
CATHERINE PEARLMAN: Ha! Ignoring children who are pushing our buttons is the hardest thing to do. I’m not a perfect parent, and I don’t believe anyone is. I am human with feelings and, at times, I’m tired, frustrated and upset. It’s during those times I’m not at my best as a parent. I engage when I shouldn’t or I get angrier than is necessary. But being a good parent means learning as you go. I try to learn from my mistakes so the next time my child pushes that very same button I have the wherewithal to ignore it.
In Ignore It! I advise parents to think of their triggers, the times when their kids get the best of them. I also recommend for parents to think about what part of their day is the most difficult for them. It is possible to learn how to ignore someone calling you names or whining and complaining. It takes practice. But once kids see that none of their tactics will give them what they desire, they quickly decide to give it up. And when parents see this change in their kids they gain more strength to continue to Ignore It! in the future.
With our daughter Casey back in the day (painting by Greg Kuppinger)
J.P.: Our son enters sixth grade next year, and he’ll have a phone. And it’ll likely be an iPhone of some sort. And while I understand this, I also think—from a purely logical standpoint—it’s insane. He’ll be 11, with access to pretty much everything and anything. I mean, forget just porn and violent film clips. I’m talking neo-Nazi websites, ISIS recruiting videos, on and on and on. So why is this OK? And how, as a country, has this become acceptable parenting turf?
C.P.: Our son will not have access to anything and everything on the Internet from his phone. He will have restrictions and parental controls. Also, even if our son watched a Nazi or ISIS recruiting videos he isn’t going to become a terrorist. I feel confident on this one.
Nowadays, there really is nothing stopping middle school children from Googling whatever they want. If we put all sorts of restrictions on our son’s phone or even if we don’t give him one, he will likely have access on one of his friend’s phones. I can’t guarantee that other parents will be as conscientious as we are. Furthermore, nothing creates greater interest than banning something. Look at what happened recently with 13 Reasons Why. I believe we have to teach kids Internet responsibility at a young age. I’ve explained to both our kids that anything they view online cannot be unseen or unlearned. They need to use caution and common sense. We’ve also made it clear that they can, and should, come to us when they see something disturbing or if they have questions about anything. They won’t be in trouble for looking something up. It’s better to open the communication than punish them for their curiosity.
J.P.:You don’t think of yourself as a writer. You’ve never written a book, you have no journalism background. So why do this? I mean, writing is torturous and hellish and not all that fun. So, eh, why? And how did you feel about the process in and of itself? Sitting down, putting words on page?
C.P.: I consider myself a social worker who now writes. It might be a long time until I see myself as a writer, even though I’ve written a book and am a weekly columnist. My mission in my practice and writing is to help parents enjoy their children and parenting experience more. I hate seeing parents beaten down by the job. After working with hundreds of families I found myself giving one piece of advice to every parent no matter the reason for the consultation. Parents are dealing with a plethora of unpleasant behavior and one small piece of advice can make a huge improvement. I wanted to be able to share the Ignore It! philosophy with more parents so I decided to write it all down in the book.
The writing process was arduous and great at the same time. Writing for hours a day, every day, is draining. It’s really hard day after day to keep focused. By the end I was exhausted. But I was also insanely proud of myself. I wrote a book that came mostly from my brain. I didn’t do a ton of research or interviewing to write this book. I wrote what I know and teach every day so in some ways this was an easier book to write. All in all, though, the experience was incredibly satisfying.
J.P.:When we met you ran a youth homeless shelter in New York City. You were this very short, very young-and-innocent-looking person dealing with kids from all sorts of tough backgrounds with all sorts of pasts; troubles; complications. How did you land that gig? What made you qualified—I don’t mean simply on paper, but temperament, judgment, wisdom, demeanor? And what’s your best story from the experience?
C.P.: Growing up I planned on being a doctor because I wanted to help people. As a child I was never exposed to a social worker so I didn’t even know of the profession. When I went to college I majored in History of Medicine and took the pre-med track. But I struggled with the mess and gore of medicine, and I wasn’t enjoying biology or physics much. In one of my sociology classes I was exposed to social work, and I never looked back. Social work is about improving the well-being of all people with a special emphasis on the most marginalized, vulnerable and poor among us. Social workers aim to end discrimination, poverty and social injustice. That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I applied to a master’s program during my senior year, was accepted and graduated with a MSW two years later.
After graduation I worked for 10 months as an office temp while applying to hundreds of jobs. Eventually I was hired in the Rites of Passage program at Covenant House, a homeless shelter for youth. My job was to manage a unit of 18-to-21-year-old young men. I was only 24 at the time. While some of these guys were gang members, drug users or hardened from years on the streets, they were still people who deserved their dignity and my respect. I learned in that job how to de-escalate a crises and how to keep my calm at all times.
Today, with the excess of police violence, I often think of my time at Covenant House. Most of those guys outweighed me by 100+ pounds. My only weapons were my body language and my words. Those often very angry guys were able to see that I cared about them. Sadly, for some, it was the first time in their lives where someone actually cared about them, asked them about their day, helped them find a job or obtain training. I showed them empathy, I listened and I cared. Those qualities can’t be taught in a school. You have them or you don’t.
I did learn a lot of skills in social work school. But it was the on-the-job training and my ability to look at my actions to constantly improve my work that made me qualified. I’ve been working in the field for 20-plus years, and I’m still learning, analyzing myself and growing as a professional. Being qualified is a life-long process. I hope I’m never finished.
J.P.:We live in Southern California, where youth sports—in my opinion—reign in an unhealthy way. They’re the everything of everything; the obsessions of many; the killers of family togetherness. So, well, what should we do? If my kid loves baseball, and he wants to play 24/7, isn’t that OK? Or if my daughter has unbelievable hoops talent, and we think she can get a DI scholarship, why shouldn’t it be pushed as far and hard as possible?
C.P.: When children devote all of their out-of-school time to one endeavor (sports, music, dance), there is an opportunity cost. That means that while the child is busy enjoying intense activity in one area, another area is being unexplored. I think parents forget that childhood comes only once. Kids have one opportunity to discover what they enjoy and sometimes I wonder if it’s wasted on the singlemindedness of the current obsession. I only know I love camping and sailing and water skiing because I had a chance to do those activities at an all-around camp. I grew up playing the piano and loved it. I still do. But I didn’t spend hours upon hours practicing. I played, enjoyed it, and also did other activities I enjoyed like volleyball, tennis and art. Of course there are prodigies and children whose talents will become a career someday. I don’t believe most children fit into this category. Parents are living out their hopes and aspirations through their children and the children are the ones who end up on the losing end of that proposition. And all of the time spent “playing” is taking time away from families spending time together. I absolutely cherish the dinners and weekends our family is all together. When the sports schedule has 10-year olds playing until 8 pm and high schoolers spending more than three hours on the field every day I think a vital aspect of family life is lost.
Getting a college scholarship is important for many children. However, the vast majority of parents who are signing their kids up for three leagues at once, hiring private coaches, training all year round and creating the 24/7 mentality would be better off putting their money in a savings account to be used for a college in the future. Additionally, I have grave concerns about what the intensity of youth sports is doing to children’s bodies. Damage done in childhood is often not seen until adulthood. Pitching too many games, six-day-a-week practices with pads in football, micro concussions, running programs that have 11-year olds doing marathons all concern me.
J.P.:What’s the absolutely craziest thing you’ve seen in your career as a social worker? The moment/action/whatever that blew your mind?
C.P.: I have seen so many amazing moments in my career but also incredibly sad moments, too. I don’t think anything blew my mind though. Being a social worker often means meeting people in their worst moments, the day they hit rock bottom, the day they become homeless, the day their child is removed from their home, the moment they realize they need Hospice. It’s painful to witness so much pain. Often there isn’t a moment where you get to see how it all works out for clients. They come into your life, they stay as long as they want or a program allows, and then they are gone. There isn’t always a goodbye or a happy departure. Sometimes life for clients becomes a lot worse before it gets better. But we don’t get to see their success. So whenever I do have a chance to see someone’s moment of improvement, big or small, I cherish those memories.
I’ve seen a young girl whose father raped her and gave her HIV obtain a job and move into her own home. I’ve seen a young man with schizophrenia, depression and drug addiction work incredibly hard to stay on his medication and safe. I’ve been able to witness hundreds of nontraditional college students graduate with their social work degree after battling poverty, illness, family issues, taking care of relatives while also working full time jobs. I’ve seen incredible resilience on the front lines, and I’m grateful to those people for always reminding me that truly anything is possible with the right support and determination.
J.P.:Your book is based around a philosophy—“ignore.” But is there truly a such thing as an original philosophy? I mean, you can’t possibly be the first family coach/social worker to advise people to ignore bad behavior. So what makes you unique? What makes this advice yours, per se?
C.P.: That fact that Ignore It! isn’t an original idea gives me great peace of mind. It’s based on many high-quality research studies performed by a variety of researchers. As a social worker it is important to me to have veracity in my advice. I have to know something is going to help or at least is backed by evidence-based practice.
One of my abilities as a family coach is to take research and break it down into practical bites of information for parents. That’s what I’ve done in Ignore It!. I’ve taken well-respected psychological concepts (extinction and reinforcement) and given them a modern practical twist. I added tons of anecdotes from parents who I’ve worked with to help moms and dads implement the advice. The voice in my book is mine. The way I write about the concepts and advise parents how to use them is all me. People who know me who have read an advanced copy say they hear my voice very clearly in the book. My personality, my sensibilities and philosophies and my advice is front and center in this book.
J.P.: You spent a summer working at a sleepaway camp for disadvantaged children—and it was an absolute shit show. What happened? What do you remember? And why did it bother you so much?
C.P.: Actually I spent several summers working at camps for disadvantaged youth. The first one was in England while a was a college student. That camp experience changed my life and afterward I changed my career from being a medical doctor to a social worker.
But one summer I worked at a camp for homeless children from New York City. I’ve worked at many types of camps, and I think camp can do a world of good for all children regardless of socioeconomic status. But the particular camp you mention upset me because it was dangerous and completely chaotic. The day before the start of camp the director quit. Days later the chef quit. The camp was left in the hands of a young and inexperienced assistant director. The nonprofit that ran the camp stopped paying bills so supplies like milk, food and laundry detergent stopped arriving. Imagine running a camp for 100 homeless kids without food and laundry. Some children didn’t have blankets after nighttime accidents and some never had pillows. Counselors quit every day because the conditions were deplorable. I refused to quit that awful job because I felt that these kids deserved my time even though the company didn’t. I ended being so upset about what was happening at the camp that I wrote a searing letter about the realities of camp life. Then you helped me overnight those letters to the homes of the board members. The very next day supplies and staff arrived. I made it through that summer, but it was one of the hardest of my career.
I was incensed and infuriated about that camp because homeless kids deserve more, not less. That camp was a throwaway, total crap. It was shocking that an organization that did so much for homeless families would run such a shoddy camp.
J.P.:You don’t like to get into politics too much, but I want to ask—you believe in decency, in setting examples, in positivity, etc. Yet we have a president who doesn’t exactly place decorum atop his priority list. Do you see this resulting in any genuine harm? Or are we making much to do about nothing?
C.P.: I’m not going to comment on the president because I prefer to stay apolitical in public forums. Life is full of hardship, struggle and moments of indecency. Parents should try to keep that from young children as much as possible. However, I do feel that news stories and politics should be shared with children on an age-appropriate level at times. Kids hear all kinds of information (sometimes inaccurate) on the playground at school. Parents should make sure to discuss public issues with children to help them understand and cope with current events. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to give their opinions on politics, but leave room for kids to find their own viewpoints and takes. Use these events are ways to open up dialog and communication but be mindful of giving kids more than they are ready to handle.
J.P.:You have a really big problem with folks like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew. Why? What’s your beef?
C.P.: Doctors, psychologists, social workers and therapists all have a code of ethics that is fundamental to the integrity of the work we do. Doing no harm to patients might be the most important principle to which all people in the helping professions must adhere. Because of an inherent power differential, doctors and therapists must also take great care not to take advantage of vulnerable people. Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Dr. Drew all very clearly use defenseless and exposed people for their own gain. There is a horrific conflict of interest, and it disgusts me.
Here’s just one example. Last year, Dr. Phil interviewed the actress Shelly Duvall, who was in the middle of a psychotic episode. It was clear to anyone who works in the field. And yet, Dr. Phil paraded her on television under the guise of helping her get treatment. Why not just help her find treatment? Throughout the entire interview he repeatedly asked her if she wanted to consent to treatment. She could not provide that consent, which means she also couldn’t provide a credible consent to be on his show.
Dr. Oz peddles products that have no evidenced-based benefit. A study by the BMJ showed that only half of Dr. Oz’s recommendations have any scientific support and worse, some advice was actually against research of best practices. What’s the big deal? Well, people look up to these doctors and trust their advice. When the Dr. Ozs of the world recommend unproven remedies for serious conditions, viewers may not seek proper treatment or may distrust the advice of their own qualified doctors. These TV “doctors” are trusted and revered by millions of Americans. They aren’t just damaging the unlucky few who are guests on their shows. They are potentially damaging viewers in unknown ways with their poor medical and psychologist advice.
Dr. Drew might be the worst of the bunch. He is the most opportunistic professional I see on television. I cannot watch him without wanting to throw heavy objects within arm’s reach at the TV. His Celebrity Rehab show has had five former cast members die from drug-related causes. Sure, he takes people with an existing addiction and tries to help them. Some people might say he does his best with people who were already at risk. But that’s the point. People at risk shouldn’t be treated on television. No responsible psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker would recommend a person with drug addiction or debilitating mental illness join a reality program. The death toll shows these people needed real care, not to have their problems displayed for the world. The worst part is that Dr. Drew, Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil all get paid handsomely for acting like the lowest in their professions. What’s the lesson there?
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Snooki? What’s the result?: I’d actually like to see that fight. Well, I was going to give it to Snooki because she’s 16 years younger than I am. But she’s a mere 4-foot-8. I’ll go with Pearlman for the win in six embarrassing rounds.
• Your maiden name is Guggenheimer. Give me all the ways that nightmare was misspelled: I loved the name Guggenheimer and was always proud of my family’s pickle legacy. But I hated people mispronouncing my name more than misspelling it. To this day it’s important for me to say someone’s name correctly.
• Five reasons one should make New Rochelle, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination: 1. 30 minutes on the train to the greatest city in the world (Yes, I am totally biased.); 2. Incredible people from the most diverse backgrounds. It’s truly a melting pot and a special place; 3. The Pain to Paine half marathon on the Leatherstocking Trail; 4. See where E.L. Doctorow wrote Ragtime, Norman Rockwell and Lou Gehrig lived briefly and find Mariano Rivera hanging out at the local Starbucks; 5. Visit the cutest children’s library in America.
• In exactly 17 words, make an argument for that classic Elton John song, “Made in England.”: There can be no argument but it’s crazy he said the words “made in England” eighteen times.
• Four advantages to being just 5-feet tall?: 1. I can scrunch up and sit comfortably in an airplane or train; 2. My clothes are small, and I can fit more in a suitcase; 3. I look up to everyone; 4. People mistake being short for being young so often people think I’m much younger than I am.
Back in the late-1990s, when I was somewhat on the rise at Sports Illustrated, a kid came along who made me feel awfully ordinary.
Jamal Greene was quiet and soft spoken, which didn’t do a person particularly well at the magazine. But if one paid close attention, he realized he was in the presence of a brilliant young scribe. Jamal was was a skilled writer and an even more impressive observer. Baseball was his sport, and he looked at the game from an intellectual level that I often failed to master. Although many of us were territorial and protective of our places at the magazine, I was certain this Jamal Greene fella was destined to be a star.
Alas, some editors failed to see it that way. For reasons I’ll never fully understand, a handful of power brokers determined that Jamal couldn’t cut it at SI. To my dismay, he ultimately left, destined to a wayward life of ambition-less hardship and meaninglessness.
Orrrrr … he’d graduate from Yale Law, then become one of America’s leading legal minds.
These days, Jamal serves as Columbia Law School’s Dwight Professor of Law, where he focuses on the structure of legal and constitutional argument. He has penned dozens of law review articles and can regularly be heard speaking on issues related to the Supreme Court.
In the 320th Quaz Q&A, Jamal’s discusses his brother (Talib Kweli, the hip-hop superstar), his president (“generally sociopathic disposition”) and his willingness to endure the music of Bananarama. One can read more about Jamal here, and follow him on Twitter here.
Jamal Greene, to hell with SI, to hell with Columbia. You are the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Jamal, you’re the Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, and you focus on the structure of legal and constitutional argument. Lately there’s been growing national dialogue on whether our democracy, our government can survive the Trump Administration. Or, to be blunt, I’m sorta terrified that something is fundamentally changing in a very bad way. What says you?
JAMAL GREENE: I am less worried about the Administration itself than what Trump’s election says about American democracy. Although many of the specific actions Trump has taken were not predictable, his intellect, his temperament, his history of scams and failures, his mendacity, his sexism and racism, and his generally sociopathic disposition were all well-known at the time of his election. He beat a distinguished (if boring) public servant. Any nation whose electoral process can legitimately elect Trump under those circumstances is one whose politics are broken at the core. We will survive Trump—I doubt he serves a full term—but someone like Trump, or worse, is in our future unless we become less polarized and fractured as a people. We have actually gotten lucky that Trump is incompetent. Our luck may run out with the next demagogic candidate. I am not optimistic.
J.P.:We first met in the late 1990s, when you worked as a reporter at Sports Illustrated. And I always thought you were done wrong at the magazine; that you were this young kid with oodles of talent who wasn’t given an opportunity. Looking back, I wonder how you feel? And what did you take from your time there?
J.G.: I appreciate the sentiment but I have a different view. I think there are things I am talented at, but I don’t think being a sports reporter was one of them. I have always liked to write, but I didn’t much like the reporting part, which is the meat of the job. I didn’t enjoy talking to athletes and agents, building relationships, or chasing stories, and I wasn’t good at it. I was an unreformed introvert in a job that doesn’t reward introversion.
I agree that I had a fairly short leash at the magazine—that is, there are folks there who gave up on me relatively early in my short career there (in addition to many who didn’t)—but I think they made the right call and I have no resentment at all. In fact, I have very fond memories of and great respect for the people I got to work with at SI. The fact that I enjoy my current work and unquestionably made the right decision for me in leaving gives me the luxury of having no resentment, but I think I’m right on this. Legal academia is a better fit for my skill set.
J.P.:From the little-known-fact department: Your brother is Talib Kweli, the famous hip-hop artist. I find this ludicrously fascinating; the widely divergent paths of siblings. What was your relationship growing up? What is it now? Did you see this coming for him? Would he say he saw it coming for you?
J.G.: My brother and I lead very different lives but the view from the outside looks more divergent than the view from the inside. We were very close growing up, right up until he was about 11 or 12 (he’s two years older). That was the point at which we started going to different schools. He went to a magnet school in Fort Greene, which was then a gang-riddled neighborhood. I went to a school for mostly nerds on the Upper East Side. He got into hip hop and I got into Harvard. The worlds each of us live in have very different norms, different pressures—he is constantly on the road—and different measures of success, and so the paths we have traveled have led us apart. But we have always gotten along and share the same basic set of values. It is fair to say that I did not expect him to be an internationally renowned hip hop artist, because who has those expectations for anyone? I have no idea whether he is surprised that I am a law professor, but I would guess not. I was always comfortable in academic environments, much more than I am outside of them.
J.P.: In 2006-07 you were a clerk for John Paul Stevens. We always hear “so-and-so clerked for so-and-so,” but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about what it actually is to clerk for a justice. So what is it to clerk for a justice? What does it entail? And what can you tell me about Stevens? What is he like, just as a guy?
J.G.: Law clerks are the substantive right hands of a judge. Typically, they write memos informing the judge about the issues in the case, they offer recommendations, they act as sounding boards, they draft opinions. Clerks are (almost) never final decisionmakers, at least not at the Supreme Court level, but they often play a substantial role in framing issues and facts and so can end up very influential.
I think the influence of clerks with Justice Stevens was less than for almost any of his colleagues, for the simple reason that he structured the job to ensure that that was true. The main jobs of Supreme Court law clerks are three: (1) to screen cert petitions, which are applications to have a case heard by the Court, (2) to help prepare the judge for cases on the Court’s docket, and (3) to help write opinions.
Justice Stevens was, at the time I clerked for him, the only Justice who had his own clerks individually screen every one of the 8,000 or so petitions. The others participated in what is called the “cert pool,” where clerks from all of the eight participating chambers draft a memo on petitions that is shared with the participating chambers. Justice Stevens did not want his decisions to be influenced by the pool memos, so he didn’t participate. He also didn’t want his decisions to be influenced too much by his clerks, so when we thought a petition was important, he just wanted us to flag it for him very briefly—no elaborate memos—so that he could look at it with fresh eyes. On case preparation, most judges ask their clerks to write a lengthy “bench memo” describing the issue in the case, the lower court opinions, the arguments in the briefs, and a recommended outcome. Justice Stevens did not want any bench memo. He prepared for cases on his own and would just have an oral conversation with the clerk assigned to a given case some time before the case was argued. Again, he wanted to ensure his own independent thinking. On opinions, he always wrote the first draft of opinions. I’m pretty sure he was the only Justice who did that as a matter of principle. Personally, Justice Stevens is about the kindest, most humble, and most delightful brilliant person one can imagine. I doubt you would find anyone who has ever met him who would say otherwise.
J.P.:I know you’re from New York, I know attended Harvard, then Yale Law—but why this path? Why law? Why constitutional law? Did you have an ah-ha moment as a kid or teen? A light bulb moment? In short, why are you here?
I told myself that if I didn’t see a promising career in journalism in the next three years, I would go to law school. And that’s basically what happened. I think 9/11 pushed me a little bit—I just stopped caring about sports. Plus, as you’ll recall, SI underwent some changes after the AOL-Time Warner merger that made the product more sensationalist and pandering than it was before. That rubbed me the wrong way and made me feel like I just needed a fresh start. Law was something with some real intellectual content that also opened some possibilities for gainful employment.
Once I got to law school, I knew by my second year that I wanted to teach. The biggest thing for me, as a former journalist for a big magazine, was that I could write what I wanted and how I wanted to write it. A standard legal academic article is 25,000 words. You write the argument you want to write about until you think the argument is finished. No boss. No subscriber. The tradeoff is you get a lot fewer readers. I’m still searching for the middle ground between that and a 400 word article on the Brewers second baseman’s tattoos, but I like where I am right now.
J.P.:You wrote “The Age of Scalia” for the Harvard Law Review, and he’s one of the judges who truly fascinates me. I remember when he died, I was at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah and someone—inappropriately—let out a yelp of glee. He was so beloved by one side, so abhorred by the other. But how do you view his ultimate legacy and impact?
J.G.: I recommend anyone read the article for the full picture, but in brief, I think his legacy is multifaceted. He was very influential among legal scholars. He is the single person most responsible for the prominence of originalism—the idea that the Constitution means the same thing now as when enacted—and that has generated a huge scholarly literature. He also had a very charismatic and sharp writing style that has given his ideas a greater reach into the broader culture than any of his contemporaries on the bench. On the court, he has been an important interlocutor on issues of statutory and constitutional interpretation, and his dissents were justly feared. He made his colleagues better, which is a pretty nice legacy.
That said, his impact ended up somewhat limited by the fact that he promoted relatively uncompromising positions. Legal interpretation at the Supreme Court level is messy and is beset by lots of reasonable disagreement. You just can’t get that far by being doctrinaire about methods. Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts have gotten further in less time because they are more flexible.
J.P.:How is it OK for Clarence Thomas to never ask questions? I know that sounds simplistic, and perhaps it is, but I’m always bewildered by this. Is it a lack of curiosity? A love of listening? A preference for silence?
J.G.: I have defended Justice Thomas’s silence in the past and I will continue to do so. He has said that he doesn’t talk because he wants to hear the lawyers speak. Although I think that reason probably doesn’t justify almost never speaking, I think it is a generally sensible position to take—especially for him—that I wish more of the Justices took.
It’s important to bear in mind that oral argument matters but is far from the most important input into a Supreme Court decision. Most of the decisions get worked out based on the written briefs. If you listen to arguments from the 1980s and earlier, you hear lawyers explaining their positions to the Justices, often for minutes at a time, with occasional questions from the bench. Arguments today are dominated by rapid-fire questioning from the eight Justices other than Thomas. It is common, even expected, that lawyers will not be able to answer questions they receive from one Justice because they are interrupted mid-answer by a different Justice. This is no way to hear a serious constitutional argument, in my view. And since eight people interrupting each other is quite enough, I respect Thomas for deciding not to be the ninth. I say it is an especially sensible position for Thomas to take because his views are so often on the margins of the case, and he tends to be quite uncompromising. Oral argument is most useful for the Court to work through a set of precedents that Thomas often ignores or is uninterested in because of his particular philosophy.
J.P.:This is sorta random, but you’re a law professor at one of the finest institutions in the world. You have the best, the brightest, the sharpest, the most accomplished. And I wonder—do you see social media impacting your students in negative (or positive) ways? I mean, I just teach journalism, and I’m eternally forcing students to put their phones away, to get off Twitter, Snapchat, etc. Is that even an issue for you?
J.G.: Many of my colleagues ban laptops from class in order to avoid having distracted students. I respect this position, especially since the distraction can be a distraction for other students as well, e.g., the ones sitting behind the “offender.” Still, I don’t ban laptops myself. I teach adult students who need to have the judgment to know when they need to pay attention to me. I doubt most of them can do well in my class while distracted, but I feel like it’s their decision to make. I warn them in advance about it, but I don’t go further than that. It might be somewhat less of a problem in law school than in other schools, since we cold call students, but I have no doubt that students sometimes tune out. I think we’re too far into the social media age for me to put the genie in the bottle during my class. My job as a teacher is to make class more valuable than its alternatives.
J.P.:How are we supposed to feel about the Merrick Garland affair (for lack of a better word)? Does it go down as a blip on the radar, or is a fundamental destruction of how judges are traditionally appointed to the court?
J.G.: I think it crossed a red line that can’t easily be uncrossed. The second we see a Republican president with a Democratic majority in the Senate, we are likely to see retaliation. I think we need a dramatic reset of the judicial nomination process. If I had my druthers, I would take it out of presidential control entirely (which would require a constitutional amendment). Many countries have a commission with a balance of political types and judges. I’d favor that here. The idea that a president and a bare majority of the Senate can give a lifetime appointment to a Supreme Court Justice is disquieting in the polarized era we live in. When politics is broken like this, we should try to limit the damage.
J.P.:Another weird one—at this moment I’m reading Robert W. Creamer’s biography of Babe Ruth. It’s riveting, beautifully written, absorbing. You, on the other hand, must read a trillion legal papers, briefs, decisions every year. Do you enjoy the material? Do you view it as a dry-yet-necessary part of the profession? Because, Jesus, I couldn’t do it …
J.G.: I like reading good legal academic work, which is most of what I read. I think you’ll find the same is true among most law professors. Some of it can be very well written—Charles Black comes to mind, for example—but at bottom you read it for the quality of the ideas. I don’t read as many court opinions as you might think, and fewer legal briefs. Many of these are not exactly pleasure reading, but you’re reading them for information, and with practice it can be done quickly and relatively painlessly.
• Three strangest memories from your time at SI: 1) The magazine ran a photo of Darryl Strawberry, then retired, standing next to a woman in a swingers club. This photo had no news value. It was pure clickbait. But it ended up imperiling Strawberry’s return to baseball. A few days after the photo ran, he suffered a drug relapse and crashed his car. Has to be one of the low moments in the history of the magazine and I am ashamed that I had anything to do with it; 2) Enjoying taco night at the home of ex-Astros and Tigers catcher Mitch Meluskey (where he lived with his mom), in Yakima, Washington. I was doing a story on him. As I was leaving into the pitch blackness to find my car, he told me that his last dog “don got ate by the coyotes.” Right on cue, I hear howling coyotes outside; 3) You returning from your interview with John Rocker and telling me what he said.
• Would you rather sit in a room for 54-straight hours listening to the music of Bananarama or change your name to Daniel Habib Horseradish-Chairguy III?: Bananarama.
• One question you would ask Joe Klecko were he here right now?: Who are you?
• Does climate change ruin the earth and cause our great-great grandkids to die horribly?: Some of them.
• In exactly 22 words, make an argument for Melville Fuller: Fuller presided over the Lochner Era, when the Court made lots of mistakes but, for the first time ever, took rights seriously.
• How did you propose to your wife?: I surprised her in her parents’ kitchen and proposed in front of them.
• Three memories from your first-ever date?: I don’t know what my first-ever date was. Seriously. As to my first date with my wife, I remember that (1) she emphatically did not consider it a date, (2) we had Ethiopian food, and (3) she wore blue, the Germans wore grey.
Working as a woman in sports media is a bear, and while you no longer hear the athlete-exposing-himself-as-a-female-reporter-approaches-in-the-clubhouse stories of yesteryear, the Internet is overflowing with WHO’S THE HOTTEST CHICK IN JOURNALISM? lists and YouTube videos comparing everything from breast size to legs to lips to …
You get the idea.
To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I’ve used this space to try and support a good number of women colleagues, and it’s also why I have so much respect for today’s 319th Quaz Q&A.
Yes, Fox Sports’ Laura Okmin is one of the best (and most experienced) football sideline reporters in the business, and her two decades in sports media feature everything from Olympic Games and Super Bowls to NBA Playoffs and Atlanta Braves coverage. But what I dig most is that Okmin gives back to the industry. She is the founder and CEO of GALvanize, a business dedicated to teaching and training women who aspire to careers in media working before and behind the camera.
Today, Laura explains what it is to be a woman in sports journalism; why her mother’s cancer inspired a book; why she’d take Dolphins-Bills Week 7 over a Super Bowl; why she prefers Danny Manning to Jeff Daniels.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Laura, so I just watched the HBO Real Sports segment on women in sports media, and I was mesmerized, saddened, embarrassed for the profession. And one thing that struck me was the reporter explaining how most of the women contacted for the piece refused to talk. Why do you think that is? And why did you?
LAURA OKMIN: I actually agonized over doing it for about a month. My fear—and so many other women’s—is you can either look like your ripping your boss … or other women. I know, for me, when I’m doing interviews about this topic, there are two dialogues going on—the one you’re having out loud and the one you’re having in your head. Should I say this? Will I offend anyone? Piss off my boss? To be honest, I still haven’t watched the piece because I’m sure I’ll wince at an answer I gave, or I’ll hate how something was edited. It’s such a sensitive topic, and, as a reporter I know there’s a risk at how the piece is edited. It’s scary to go on the record with something so personal and important to you and know it’ll be cut down for time or context. I struggled with that. But at the end, it was really simple: I have a company that teaches young women how to find their voice. How can I teach them if I don’t use mine? I thought it was hypocritical if I didn’t talk.
J.P.:I’m gonna throw a blunt one at you: I was absolutely horrified when Pam Oliver was replaced by Erin Andrews. Horrified. And at the time I thought Andrews should have turned down the job in the name of decency, in the name of professionalism, in the name of taking a stand against the blatant age discrimination faced by women in sports media. Was I right or wrong?
L.O.: Sigh. I guess I’d say both. You were dead on with your reaction. I was horrified too—but Erin was also put in a horrible situation. It’s not about the women … it’s about the position they’re put in. It plays into every horrible stereotype and in cases, it creates one. Suddenly these two women are pitted against each other and that is so harmful to them and to all women. I’ve been in Pam’s shoes and it’s hard. It’s hard because you feel embarrassed, hurt and angry and I had to really challenge myself not to make it about “her versus me.” It’s not fair to compare me to a woman 15 years younger than me and it’s also not fair for her to be compared to someone who has two decades of experience on her. It’s unfair to both women. You find the value in both women. There’s room for both … and so much value in both.
My mom passed away when I was in my early 20s—she was just 50—and her life and death have shaped everything about my life. During the year she was sick, I didn’t know anyone who had lost a parent and I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone because I knew how hard it was for people to listen. It made them have to think about the day they would inevitably be in my shoes. So I didn’t share what I was going through. I tried to find books to help but every book was about grieving a loss and I wanted to read about grieving while someone was still alive. There was nothing.
So I used to sit in the hospital chair next to my mom’s bed and think about how, if it’s this hard for someone at 23, what must it be like for a young child. I made a vow that eventually, when my heart would begin to heal, I would write that book. I wanted them to have something I didn’t. A voice that had been there. It took me about seven years to be able to open that wound and put pen to paper but I’m so proud of that book. I recently had a call with a sports information director at a university-about something sports related—and he ended the call by telling me his wife passed away years ago and he would read that book to his young daughter and how much she needed it. I can’t even find the words to say how much that meant to me.
J.P.:So I know you attended Kansas, know you worked for CNN, for TNT, spent time in Chicago, Montgomery, Chattanooga. But, soup to nuts, how did this happen for you? When did you know you wanted to do this? When did you realize you could succeed at it?
L.O.: I always knew I wanted to be a journalist—writing has always been my foundation and my passion. I didn’t know what that looked like until college when I fell in love with broadcasting. That was it for me. I knew I wanted to tell stories and there are no better stories to tell than sports.
I didn’t have a Plan B—even as I was consistently and continuously told how hard it would be for a woman. And it was (and still can be), but nobody said how amazingly rewarding it would be. You know that, Jeff. I still consider it such a privilege to be trusted to tell someone’s story. It’s an enormous weight to have that power … for someone to trust you with the most personal and valuable thing they have—their story. I think that responsibility I felt, and the preparation and time I put into each story along with the gratitude you get, well, it made me feel like I was doing it right and hopefully differently.
It’s funny, because I’m asked often about aging these days and I’ll tell you that when I turned 40 … that’s when I realized I’m good at this. I stopped hearing everybody else’s voices in my head and started listening to my own and finally, it was a confident, supportive voice. And that took a while. I think 40 was when I finally allowed myself to say, “Hey, you’re good at what you do.”
With Tony Romo
J.P.:The Real Sports segment showed you working with young women who aspire to be sports reporters. And one thing I found obvious—though it went unstated—was they were all extremely pretty. And I wonder, have unattractive women given up on doing televised sports? Do you get women who are short and overweight and maybe have a protruding cheek mole or a bad hairline? And do they have a shot in the current climate?
L.O.: I hear you, but you know what’s funny … most of those young women don’t even know they are attractive. We spend more time on confidence than anything—the on camera part is such a small part of GALvanize. You’ll be told for the rest of your career that you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re not that hot, you’re not that good—so they have to have their voice louder than everyone else’s and more positive than anyone else’s. I can tell you most of their voices aren’t there yet. Their voices are saying, “You’re not as pretty as her, as talented, as good” … and that’s what we work on. Empowering themselves—and each other. Because women supporting women in this business is magic.
But what bothers me more when I see certain bootcamps (not all) is a lack of diversity. We need storytellers in this industry, and they need to have backgrounds and stories as diverse as the people we cover. I want to see more women in this business—and a much more diverse group of women.
Laura (front right) alongside Tad Dickman of the Jaguars during a session with 23 Jags rooks & 29 GALvanize enlistees
J.P.:You’ve worked more than 10 Super Bowls. I HATE covering big events. Hate, hate, hate. The crowd, the competition, the excessive hype. Give me Brewers-Reds on a Thursday in June any time. But what about you? And how does working a Super Bowl differ from, say, Jets-Colts Week 9?
L.O.: We are kindred spirits, my friend. When you’re young, the big events are the highlights (as they should be—you work hard to be there), but the older I get, the thing I most appreciate about a Super Bowl is catching up with old friends and peers you only see once a year. I’m all about building relationships, so I’ll take a great Week 9 conversation over fighting a crowd of people any day. I really do love a regular-season matchup as much as I love covering the post season. I’m still so in awe and in love with what I do. Cheesy, sure—but true.
J.P.:So last year I was at the gym watching Fox News on an exercise machine, and I just got really pissed. It was five people on a couch—Geraldo, and four women with preposterously short skirts. So I fired off a Tweet: “Serious question: do women on Fox News get extra money for dressing as hookers? Just embarrassing.” Well, I got slaughtered. And rightly so. And I felt awful, because I was actually trying to stand up for women in media, and it came off very wrong. Then, a few months later, one of the women filed a sexual harassment suit against the network and said she was forced to dress that way. And I guess, in a long and winding way, my question is—What are we men supposed to do to stand up for women in media? What should we be doing?
L.O.: I remember seeing that Tweet—and the ensuing firestorm. I really did understand what you were saying, but I also know your voice because I’ve always read your work. Men and women … women and men … Mars … Venus … it’s always layered, right?
Speaking for this woman, not all women, we want to be respected, period. I had a great male mentor once who told me he didn’t compare me to other women broadcasters—he compared me to other broadcasters. I’m not good for a woman … I’m good. And that was a huge thing for a young woman to hear. We want to be respected for being great writers, storytellers, producers, journalists, and we want to be criticized the same way.
I had a player tell me when there’s a scrum of reporters he looks to a woman first to start the questions but if she asks a bad one he’s done with her. I asked if he’s the same with men and he said, “No, I just think that he asked a stupid question.” I tell that to my women all the time—men ask stupid questions, but we’re stupid. We need to work twice as hard and leave little room for error. Challenge expected—and accepted.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
L.O.: Starting a production company, securing money from a corporate sponsor, creating producing, booking and hosting a TV show for two seasons. I had to learn how to negotiate commercial spots, airtime, budgets, navigate lawyers and a partnership while hiring a team. I didn’t know I had it in me—showed me how smart I was and completely shifted the way I looked at business and myself.
I spent the pre-game crying with Chuck Pagano, a cancer survivor, as well as players and peers who knew and loved him. I don’t remember anything about the game except for the moment of silence they held before kickoff. That moment was worth being there. Stuart would’ve been so touched by that. And he would’ve told me to get my ass to the game—because man, did he love football.
J.P.:We’re the same age, and I’m starting to struggle with this getting old thing. I mean, it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were on the rise, up and comers, etc—and now, it just seems like an ugly downhill fall is awaiting. How are you dealing with aging in media? Aging in life?
L.O.: Jeff, I finally embraced it. All of it. I thought having a company where I’m surrounded by young women would’ve made me feel so bad about myself, but it’s done the opposite. I love my girls but I wouldn’t do that age again for anything. I’ve never felt more confident, smarter, sexier or wiser. I don’t care what anyone else sees. I care how I feel. Don’t get me wrong, it took work to get to this place … but I can tell you my second act is so much better than my first. So my advice is to embrace it, my friend. It’s so much better that way.
L.O.: Small things are big things. Peanut and I talk about that moment every single time we see each other. It’s our connector.
It was pouring rain, I had a hood over my head that created blind spots on both sides and I had ear pieces in both ears with the game turned way up so I could hear the game over the rain. I was following Peanut, who was injured, and while they were moving him behind the bench I was following him and couldn’t see anything but him. When you’re working sidelines, you can be viewed as such a nuisance (saying it in a nice way) because you’re eavesdropping and staring at guys at their toughest moments.
So when Peanut jumped up and grabbed me out of harm’s way, it was really appreciated. I’m sure some guys would’ve just been focused on their injury and the game, but it was so indicative of who Peanut is to be concerned with somebody else’s welfare. We had no idea it was caught on camera—and I hated that it was—but I also love that it shows who he is.
• Five all-time greatest football players you’ve ever covered: This is tough so I narrowed it down to who they are versus what they did—and how covering them meant something to me. Yes, my Chicago roots will be coming out: 1. Walter Payton—As a Chicago girl, this was a thrill every time I interviewed him); 2. My analyst for a show I hosted was the late Doug Buffone. One of the kindest people I’ve ever worked with and, again, a Chicago girl, so working alongside an old Chicago great was a pinch-me experience; 3. Peyton Manning—I learned so much about being a pro watching him. Not just on the field, but at practice, production meetings, interviews, his professionalism after losses. I always appreciated what a pro he was. He never took a day off from that; 4. Brian Urlacher—One of my favorite people I’ve ever covered and known. One of the most unaffected stars I’ve ever known. An outstanding teammate to anyone who’s played with him, coached him or had the pleasure of covering him. 5—And Peanut Tillman. Obviously. The man saved me from physical harm!
• We give you 30 carries for the New York Jets in their season opener, what’s your statistical line?: This is awesome. I had to ask my husband what he thought. Mike thinks I’d have one carry—and probably get some yards simply due to a stunned defense. But that’s all I’d last. However… he insists it’s because of my size, not because of toughness or heart.
• Five things you never leave home without?: 1.Appreciation for where I’m at in my life right now; 2 If he’s not leaving with me—a kiss and an “I love you” from Mike; 3. A prayer that I’ll be returning; 4. My mom and I had matching rings made with our initials that we always wore. I put mine on her when we buried her and I haven’t taken hers off in the 20 plus years she’s been gone; 5. A positive attitude. Sometimes that takes work but I try to make my heart my face.
• One question you would ask Hubie Brooks were he here right now: You played on five clubs in 15 years. That’s quite a journey. What was the most valuable insight/lesson you learned with each team?
• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $25 million a year to be her personal life reporter. You have to move to Las Vegas, work 360 days a year, shave off all your hair and change your middle name to RoseDawson. You in?: This is awesome. And easy. Nope. At a different time in my life…HELL YEAH!!! But right now I’m so into my own story, I wouldn’t put it on hold for anybody else’s-for any price.
• You’re gonna hate me for asking this—but what the fuck?: Buddy, you know I’m not answering this one.
• Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?: Take the job seriously, not yourself. (Harder to do than I thought).
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Of all the planes I’ve been on and all the traveling I’ve done for 25 years, believe it or not, only once. I thought we were going down … and I didn’t care. It took that moment for me to realize how unhappy I was and how much I needed to change my life. We landed and my work began. It was one of the most important moments of my life. That was the genesis of my second act.
• The people at my gym never clean off the StairMaster after sweating all over it. Give me a creative idea how to get revenge: Oh my gosh—I will not help you exact revenge! I get it, it bothers me, too, and it’s totally rude, but I would tell you to remind yourself that if it’s the worst thing that happens to you that day—it’s going to be a great day. (But that being said, can you give me a creative way to tell someone to stop cracking their gum on a plane? Ugh.)
I’m often asked, “How do you decide who will be Quazed?” The actual explanation is quite complicated, and demands I go into great detail …
First, I think, “Who would I like to do a Q&A with?”
Second, I reach out to that person.
Um, so that’s about it. Which explains why, after finally seeing “The Joy Luck Club” for the first time a few weeks ago, I tracked down Lauren Tom, the veteran character actress whose portrayal of “Lena” in the 1993 film leapt from the screen. It turns out Lauren enjoys one of those riveting careers that has taken her to everything from “Friends” and “Quantum Leap” to “The Cosby Show” and “Futurama” to “Kim Possible” and “Billy & Mandy’s Big Boogey Adventure.” She also happens to be a undeterred survivor in a profession that too often leaves women for roadkill as they age.
These days one can catch Lauren on (among other things) the Disney series “Andi Mack,” where she plays Celia. She’s also very involved in Homeboy Industries, the charitable organization that rehabilitates formerly incarcerated ex-gang members. Lauren will be participating in Homeboy’s 5K this September, and is raising money here.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Lauren, I was going to start this by telling you how much I loved “The Joy Luck Club,” but then I began to wonder whether that’s the right approach. The film is 24 years old. It probably feels like another lifetime to you. In fact, for all I know you look back and think, “I should have been better” or “If only I knew then what I know now.” Truly, I have no idea. So, Lauren, how do you feel about “The Joy Luck Club”? Do you love the film? Love yourself in the film? And what did that role do for your career?
LAUREN TOM: I was immensely delighted and proud to have been cast as one of the daughters in The Joy Luck Club; it remains one of my favorite movie credits to date. When it first came out, I was touched that so many Asian women stopped me on the street to tell me what the film meant to them—that they had seen it with their mothers, and that it was cathartic to watch characters articulate thoughts and emotions that they could not come up with in real life.
The release of the film wasn’t all praise and roses, though. While the Asian community embraced the idea of Asian-Americans up on screen, there were some who had grievances about the way the Asian males were depicted in the film. I remember at a panel discussion, one young man stood up and said, “Why are all the Asian men jerks?” And Wayne Wang, our director said, (unapologetically), “Because Asian men are jerks.” There was a grumble in the audience, and Amy Tan, our writer, jumped in and said, “Look, this is just my experience—I’m only one person with a story to tell. That doesn’t mean that audiences should take this as the be all and end all of Asian-American experience. There need to be many more stories reflecting the Asian-American community, so I encourage writers to get their stories out there. I just happen to be the first one, so the script is coming under great scrutiny.”
Lauren with her brother back in the day.
J.P.:Along those lines, your grandmother came to America from China as a teenager—which means (I imagine) your role in the film couldn’t have felt like a total stretch. And I wonder what that was like for you emotionally. Did it help you bring something extra to the role? Did you feel at all as if you were performing your family’s history, in a sense?
L.T.: I took my mother and grandmother to the premiere of The Joy Luck Club, which was sort of a total disaster. Looking back on it, I have to laugh, but at the time, I was nothing but mortified.
At the top of the aisles there were ushers standing there to give little packets of Kleenex to audience members since the film is a bit of a tearjerker. My grandmother turned to an usher and said, in her fabulous broken English, “Why I need that? What? You think I’m going to be some kind cry baby?” I whispered to her, “Grandma, just take it. It’s free!” At which point she said, “Oh!”, and snatched it from the usher’s hand. We sat down, and toward the beginning of the movie, my grandma pulled out a bag of moi (dried prunes with large pits in them) and a plastic grocery bag to spit the pits into. She shook the empty bag open and placed it on her lap, which made what seemed like a deafening crinkly noise in the dead-silent movie theater. Then she proceeded to clack the pits between her teeth and spit out the pits with, literally, a patooey! sound. I slid down in my seat and wanted to disappear. My grandmother had seen a lot of pain and strife in her life in China and talked at the screen for the entire movie. “Why everybody crying? I seen worse. What’s the big deal?”
After the movie ended, my mother, who, by her own admission, is a very competitive person, asked me why I had less lines than the other daughters. Was it because I wasn’t as good as them? Was some of it cut out?
Needless to say, the premiere was not the triumphant moment of my career I thought it was going to be …
J.P.:Hollywood is infamous for typecasting and for its treatment of actresses as they age. You’re a woman, you’re Asian, you’re about to turn 56. Yet somehow you’ve maintained this really active, really diverse career. How? Is there a secret? Luck? And the criticisms of the business overstated at all?
L.T.: Criticisms of the business are not overstated at all. I often marvel at why and how I am still working as much as I am given the fact that I’m teeny tiny (5-feet tall), in my 50s, a woman, and ethnic! I think my saving grace is/was that I’ve never been tagged as the ingenue/pretty girl. I’ve always been a character actress, which I think has given me more opportunities to play interesting roles.
It baffles me why I am so often cast as a bad ass, when in real life I feel like a giant marshmallow. I suppose I’ve perfected channeling my mother and grandmother, as I come from a long line of very strong women. When young folks ask me for advice about how to break into the business, I always tell them to study their craft as much as possible in order to set themselves apart. To be so good that producers take notice—because they may not get the particular role they are reading for, but might be remembered for a different part in that film, or a different project down the line. You just can’t control anything in this business—it’s so subjective, you can only control yourself, your attitude toward the business and your craft. I remember an acting teacher of mine once told our class that in his mind, the actors who have made it all have these three things in common: focus, sex appeal, and a sense of humor. And I would add “craft” to that. At least the ones with very long careers …
Alongside David Schwimmer in “Friends.”
J.P.:How do you know if something you’re filming is good? Or sucks? Can you tell as it’s going on? Are you ever caught off guard? I mean, for example, did you know “The Joy Luck Club” would be brilliant? Did you know “Mr. Jones” perhaps wouldn’t be? Are there clues along the way?
L.T.: I have the worst sense of what is going to land with an audience. I think my tastes are probably a lot quirkier than most people. I remember that when I read the script for Friends I wasn’t that excited because I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal at all. Cut to the second season, when it was a gigantic success already, and I was offered the role of Julie, Ross’s love interest and the foil for Rachel. I jumped at the chance and was so thrilled to be a part of the show!
And you are right, I thought Mr. Jones was going to kill at the box office! I loved working with Mike Figgis, because like me, he comes from theater, and let all us actors improvise most of our lines. So no one should ever ask me what’s going to be a hit. Or they can, and assume it will be the opposite of whatever I say.
J.P.:This is sorta random, but in the aftermath of most presidential elections there’s a backlash against actors endorsing candidates. You know what I mean—the whole “Stick to showbiz!” and “Ugh, Hollywood elites suck!” sort of thing. And sometimes I wonder, as a liberal, whether the input of a George Clooney or Tim Robbins might perhaps hurt more than help. What says you?
L.T.: I’m always delighted and inspired by actors who take a stand politically—especially the ones who are unexpectedly intelligent. I think most people assume that actors are dumb, vain and self-absorbed (which can be true of course, myself included), so I’m always relieved when folks can counterbalance that image with intelligent personas. I know that the entertainment community is seen as a giant club of “snowflakes,” but we need all kinds of voices in the world, and I happen to agree with the more liberal stances taken by our community.
J.P.:I read an old article where you said you used your grandmother as a model for film roles. You said, for example, that you behaved as your grandma would have to land the role of Jack Nicholson’s wife in “Man Trouble.” You also channeled her for “Mai” in “Men in Trees.” I always hear about acting methods, but I don’t fully understand how they’re implemented. So how do you actually channel another person? Is it mimicking? Is it emulating? Do you actually think of the person as you’re performing? And is that a common approach to acting?
L.T.: I’m an actor who works from the outside in—meaning I can adopt the way a person moves, holds her head and speaks in order to get inside the character. My brother and I used to mimic my grandmother when we were really little, so her voice and mannerisms are a part of me, a part of cell memory. It’s pretty cool to be able to conjure that up so easily; I’ve been practicing my whole life! Other actors work the other way around, and like to understand the character on an intellectual and emotional level first—what they are thinking and feeling, and then the physicality comes afterwards. I used to be a dancer when I was young (my first show was the Broadway musical, “A Chorus Line”) so I’m more comfortable with using the physical as a portal.
From “Mr. Jones”
J.P.:I know you grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Highland Park, Ill., I know your family came from China—but I don’t exactly know how this happened for you. So, when did the acting bug bite? When did you think, “Yes! This is my a calling”? And when did you first realize you could make a career of it?
L.T.: You’ve done your research! I was quite shy as a child so dancing was perfect for me. I could express myself through my body and didn’t have to talk. When I was 17, the touring company of A Chorus Line came through Chicago, and on a dare from my friends I auditioned for it. There was actually a part in it for a tiny Chinese girl if you can believe that. So I do believe there is luck involved in having a career (at anything, really) which I should’ve mentioned in your previous question. I always tell my kids to work their butts off so that they are prepared should opportunities arise, but to know that there is some luck involved, and sometimes no matter how hard you try, the right chance may or may not come your way.
J.P.:It might just be me, but I feel like your most recognizable TV gig has to be as “Julie,” Ross’ girlfriend on “Friends.” How’d you land the gig? What’s it like, finding out you snag a job that big? And what was the experience like?
L.T.: One of the producers from Friends had seen the Joy Luck Club, which had just come out prior to their looking for someone to play Julie. She may have thought of me because Julie was supposed to be a super nice girl (and the joke was that Rachel thought she a bitch anyway, because she was jealous), and my character in Joy Luck Club was sort of super nice as well—bordering on wallflower, actually. I still remember I was walking on my treadmill while eating a donut (calories in, calories out) when my agent called with the news of the part. I almost fell of the treadmill, and said, “Well, let me think about that for a minute—YES! Of course!” It was almost eerie because toward the beginning of Friends I was watching David Schwimmer and thinking to myself, “Boy, I’d love to work with that guy someday.” And then—bam!—a half a year later I got the call. The universe works in mysterious ways sometimes …
From “Bad Santa”
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest moment of your career?
L.T.: Some great moments: Joy Luck Club, Being given an Obie award in New York that Morgan Freeman presented to me, working on Friends, Futurama, Supernatural because my character got to punch someone in the face, (plus the fandom for that show has been unbelievably supportive), and the show that I’m on right now. It’s called Andi Mack and it’s very diverse and edgy for a Disney show. It stars an Asian cast, complete with black and gay best friends. Very proud of it.
Worst moments: At 15-years old, booked a TV commercial as a dancing bear and wore a bear costume with a gigantic bear head, couldn’t see and almost passed out from heat stroke. Working on Grace Under Fire was miserable for me. It was the most money I had ever made up to that point, and yet, I was unhappier than I had ever been. The star hated my guts (never really knew why) and consistently tried to get me fired; she eventually succeeded.
J.P.:You performed in the award-winning, one-woman show, “25 Psychics.” And I would love to ask a question that calls for a ton of detail. Namely, what’s it like? I’m v-e-r-y sincere in wanting to know this: What’s it like standing there, all alone, before an audience? Is it terrifying? Electrifying? Does it get old after, oh, the 40th performance? Does it always thrill? What are the applause like? What’s it like when you expect laughs and they don’t come? What’s it like when a theater is half full? What’s a standing ovation like?
L.T.: I absolutely love live theater because I love the idea that the performance is only for those people in that room, in that moment. I loved performing 25 Psychics because I really felt like I was just talking to this group of people, since all the words were my own. I remember a friend asking me if I had really thought things through—that by admitting I went to psychics, I was basically outing myself as a weird, new-age flake. And to be honest, there was one critic in San Francisco, who basically called me just that.
But as a whole, I felt like I connected to people, and that just happened to be my experience at that time. My father had died young, and so after he passed, I began a search to find out where he went, and to possibly figure out how to fill this gaping hole that he left there. I’ve since come to learn how dangerous going to psychics can be. People are usually at their most vulnerable and desperate when they visit a psychic. I had a friend once have a psychic tell him that he had had a terrible curse placed on him and that the psychic could help him remove it for a mere $2,000! I don’t feel a need to search for meaning and guidance in those ways any more, and have finally begun to keep my own counsel.
Live theater can be exhilarating when all is going well—the laughter and the standing ovations can be heavenly, but of course, if those things don’t come, it can be pretty devastating and make a person question why they are performing at all. I toured the country at a lot of colleges, and am happy to say the kids were so open and generous as audience members, that I remember the whole experience as quite a positive one.
• Three memories from your role as “Shopper” in the 1997 TV series, “Pinky and the Brain”: Haha, no clue.
• I assume they’re long deceased, but you’ve had dogs named “Richard Gere” and “Vivica A. Fox.” Explain: All my dogs have been shelter rescues. Richard was a black basenji mix with close set eyes, only half an ear, excema all over his skin and bowed legs. I told him, “After I get done cleaning you up and loving you as hard as I can, you are going to be sleek and sexy just like Richard Gere.” Vivica A. Fox was also a basenji mix from the shelter whose name at the time was “Vivachi” because she was so lively. At the time, I was working with Vivica on a medical show, and Vivachi looked like a fox. So it seemed like the right name for her.
• One question you would ask Anson Williams were he here right now: What was it like working with Ron Howard? Is he as nice of a person as he seems to be?
• This is my all-time favorite song. Thoughts?: I’ve never listened to Blind Melon (I’m a million years old), but I really liked the song. Lots of food for thought there. Great lyrics. A bowl of bitter beans … (reminds me of a saying my brother and I always say to each other—“Bitter—Table for one!”) and Have to decorate a dying day makes me think of Van Jones, “You can’t polish this turd.” But on a more serious note, the song to me deals with loss, which we all have coming in some way or another. I had a meditation teacher once tell me to try to be as kind as possible because we, as human beings, all react to helplessness in a different way.
• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Dylan Sprouse in “Grace Under Fire”?: I’m sure Dylan was as sweet as he was cute, but honestly, I sort of blocked that whole chapter out!
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope. Not really that afraid of flying!
• You’ve gone to a ton of psychics. What’s the strangest thing one has ever said to you?: That I was going to be working on a lot of different sound stages doing a ton of voiceover work. I had never tried my hand at that, and years later, it turned out to be absolutely true. For awhile there, I took a break from on-screen acting, and did almost all voice work.
• You grew up among my people. Give me three Bar/Bat Mitzvah memories from your childhood: Bar/Bat Mitzvahs were long-ass events when I was 13—like three hours long. I started to memorize some of the prayers because I was hearing them so much. I remember squirming a lot. I have a son who’s 13 right now, and he tells me that all the Bar Mitzvahs he goes to are only about an hour and a half these days. He’s so lucky.
• What’s the biggest on-stage/on-air screwup of your career?: I was performing the Greek tragedy, “Ajax” at the Kennedy Center and completely missed my cue. I had to come on stage sobbing so I was backstage preparing with my headphones on, and couldn’t hear the monitor. My fellow actors had to improvise lines (not an easy thing to do in a Greek tragedy) for what seemed like an eternity. They nearly killed me after the show; they had so much egg on their faces. I’m pretty sure the audience got a good laugh out of it.