Jeff Pearlman

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Category Archives: QUAZ

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Brian Vander Ark

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There is a good chance you know Brian Vander Ark.

As the lead singer of the Verve Pipe, he helped sell more than 3 million albums, and the band’s hit single—The Freshman—landed atop the Billboard Top 40 chart in 1997. Four years later, he appeared in the Mark Wahlberg-Jennifer Anniston film, Rockstar—a movie that closed with Wahlberg lip-synching Vander Ark’s single, Colorful.

There is a good chance you don’t know Brian Vander Ark.

Despite his accomplishments, he’s remained relatively quiet and below the radar. There’s no arrest record or TMZ file; no wild antics featuring Verve Pipe members throwing crack vials out of a London skyscraper window. You won’t see him on some faded-celebrity cooking show alongside Tiffany and Vanilla Ice.

No, Vander Ark just sings, records and tours. He plays theatres—and also plays your yard. He’ll teach your kid a few tricks on the guitar, play video games, cover any Hall & Oates song he knows. Put differently, in a musical landscape often poisoned by egomaniacs and dickheads, he’s a cool dude. He’s one of us.

Here, Brian talks about commercial highs and touring lows; opening for KISS and being confused with the guy who sings Bittersweet Symphony. One can visit Brian’s nifty website here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Brian Vander Ark, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Brian, I’m gonna start with a weird question. I love The Freshman. I mean, I absolutely love it, and think it’s an all-time great song that gets woefully overlooked in the category of all-time great songs. But I wonder: Do you feel this way? Are you more, “That’s my best song, and it’s amazing and tremendous …” or are you sorta like, “I wrote it when I was young, it’s OK, but I’ve done better?” When you hear someone rave about it do you think, “You have a golden ear” or “You’re overrating me a bit”?  

Brian Vander Ark: I don’t really feel the song is overlooked in the all-time great song listings. I’ve never felt like it’s in the same category as far as songwriting goes—it’s a bit too clumsy here and there, and if I could go back and change some of the lyrics I would. If we are talking about how people respond to it and if that comes in to play when deciding great songs, then yes, it’s overlooked.

J.P.: True story: Back in 2001 I was watching Rockstar, the film with Mark Wahlberg, and I hear this song at the end, Colorful. And I’m thinking, “I know that voice … I know that voice … I know that voice.” Bugged me for days, until I placed it as you. I’m wondering: Was it at all weird/strange to play a character in a movie, but not be the character who sings that song? And, overall, what was the Rockstar experience like for you? Did it make you want to be more involved in cinema, or less?

B.V.A.: Funny, I really enjoyed my time on the set—who wouldn’t? Two of the top starts in the world, then throw in a bunch of rockers?  Awesome.  As far as the character goes, I didn’t feel like it was a big enough part to have to really flush anything out. That could have been me in the 80′s, had I decided to go in the hair band direction. I didn’t think the ending worked at all with Mark lip-syncing, but I was told that people wouldn’t really care who sang the song, and it’s true—it’s believable enough to fool the masses. RCA missed a great opportunity to make something out of Colorful, but they had their sites on other things (a little show called American Idol).

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 10.55.24 PMJ.P.: You have one of the coolest openings to a bio that I’ve ever seen, including the sentence, “Rather than blindly attempt to reclaim a throne that was fleeting at best, the Michigan native struck out on his own, sold all his possessions, hit the road and released his acclaimed debut solo CD, Resurrection, in 2005.” I wonder, Brian, how hard it is/was to have massive success and not spend the next 15 … 20 years trying to commercially top it? Like, do you still have hunger pains for 3 million album sales? Do you still crave massive radio play? How have you been able to adjust, mentally, to being a fantastic singer who will never again reach those commercial heights?  

B.V.A.: Well, thanks for the nice words. I pride myself in not being a bullshitter, and I can honestly say that I don’t crave those sales numbers any longer. My life is great now—that pressure of selling records is off.  I have no desire to leave my home and go out for a couple of years on tour again. I hated that part of it—all of the promoting, promoting, promoting … too much. I feel very little pressure now, and I can sit back and enjoy life.  As far as radio is concerned, I would have to pander heavily to them to get anything played … I wouldn’t want that. I hear the same chord changes in about every song on pop radio—no surprises.  I don’t want anything to do with it.

J.P.: During summers you do your “Lawn Chairs and Living Rooms Tour,” during which you play the homes and backyards of fans. That’s something I’ve never heard before. How did the idea come to fruition? How does it work? And how can I book you for Pearlman Jam ’14?

B.V.A.: It came out of having too many bills, and not being able to pay them on club gigs that don’t pay shit, and still don’t.  I played a private party, and milled around after and played cover tunes for people for fun. I thought, ‘Wow what if I did this for a living?  Just went to people’s homes and played for them casually?’ Eight years later, I’ve done more than 500 all told. House concerts are my life now. You get paid, people are quiet during your performance. They offer to feed you. Then they all buy merch. As far as booking, its done very grass roots. You send in an email to spoiledbratmanagement@hotmail.com and give some basic details of some possible dates, location of your party, etc. and someone gets back to you with options and cost. Shows outside of the Midwest are generally booked together to try and save costs for each of the hosts. You get a two-hour engagement with a split between music and social time which has been anything from just meeting all party guests to playing Guitar Hero or teaching a song on guitar to a host. Each one ends up a unique experience.

J.P.: Here’s what I know: You served in the U.S. Army. You’re a singer. But, Brian, where did the love of music come from? How did you develop from a kid who probably liked tunes to a guy who has made a career of it? In short—what’s your path?  

B.V.A.: I was born in Holland, Michigan. I was in Germany in the Army. I always had a love for making up my own songs, and that guitar went with me everywhere—even got it taken away from me in my Army days, as punishment. The love of music is innate. We all have it. Those who want to perform have to have the courage to do so. And that courage comes with building confidence.

J.P.: What’s it like playing the same song 5,000 times? We can use The Freshman for example. I’m sure, early on, it held great zest and oomph to you. But how about after a year? Two years? Fifteen years? Is it agony to play it now? Can you still get a sweet feeling out of it? Is it just mechanical whatnot?  

B.V.A.: I have never gotten sick of it, because for the crowd, it’s the highlight of the show. People sing along and relive their past. That will never change. And that’s a good feeling. It’s the go-to song when things on stage aren’t working. It always works, so it’s like a reset button on bad sets.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 10.55.42 PMJ.P.: You don’t blog very often, but when you do so it’s really interesting shit; mainly advice to other artists about travel, booking gigs, etc. What are the hardest lessons you’ve learned in the business? What are the biggest mistakes, as a musician, you’ve made?  

B.V.A.: Listening to stylists was the biggest mistake. Have you seen that awful hair i had on Letterman? Seriously though—I have little regret. I’ve enjoyed the ride, and I have a catalog that I’m proud of. That’s all that matters.

J.P.: KISS was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I have many people from my hometown who think KISS is the greatest thing to ever hit rock music; that the guitar work is amazing, that Paul’s voice is dazzling, that Gene is … blah, blah. I sorta think they’re entertaining, but not especially musically adept. Brian, you toured with KISS. What was that like? And what’s your take of the band?

B.V.A.: Touring with Kiss was good and bad. It was amazing for us because we had never had a tour bus, never had catering, never played in front of 20,000 people. But the bad outweighed the good—getting booed and spit on for 30 dates took its toll. Although I’ll never fear another crowd. Musically speaking? It is what it’s supposed to be—dumb rock and roll with lyrics with very little substance, but you can’t help but cranking up. I still enjoy Destroyer very much, along with Gene’s solo album.

J.P.: Absolute greatest moment of your career? Absolute lowest?  

B.V.A.: Greatest was knocking U2 off the number one spot. Lowest was the release of our followup ‘Frog’ album.

J.P.: Shit, September 11, 2001 was a weirdly awful day for you. Besides the obvious horrific tragedy (which, we both surely can admit, trumps any other things), it was the day The Verve Pipe’s album, Underneath, was released, and also the day Rockstar hit theatres. I’m wondering, professional, what that was like for you, and when you realized—as a musician—“Shit, this is awful”?  

B.V.A.: It was awful for the fact that we really liked what we had done, and weren’t able to promote it. It was good, too—the fact that there was zero pressure. We could always blame the terrorists for our lack of sales. ;)

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 10.58.55 PM QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BRIAN VANDER ARK:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Swamp Thing, Dalton Hilliard, The Avengers, Ma$e, Armani, Craigslist, Cat Stevens, Tootsie Pops, Jennifer Aniston, Baltimore, The Doobie Brothers: Cat Stevens, Jennifer Tootsie Pops, Swamp Thing, Doobies, Baltimore, Avengers, Ma$e, Dalton, Craigslist.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Never—that’s the one time I give up all control.

• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $1 million to record a duet, “The Sophomore,” but you have to also get a tattoo on your left butt cheek that reads, “My heart will go on.” You in?: That’s a lose/lose. Out.

• The next president will be …: Hillary.

• Five greatest singing voices of your lifetime?: Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Elton John.

• What is the most overrated attribute of a rock band?: Drugs.

• I’m gonna be honest—every so often I used to get The Verve and The Verve Pipe confused. A. Has anyone ever done that to you? B. What’s your take on Bittersweet Symphony.: Every day. I have no problem with it—it’s a great song.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 11.25.23 PM• Absolute best venue you’ve ever played? Absolute worst?: Kalamazoo State Theater in the 1990s. The Lobby, in Flint, Michigan was the worst. We had to put our own socks over the mics so that we didn’t get shocked.

• One question you would ask Larry Wilcox were he here right now?: Who are you?

• Why do so many singers smoke cigarettes when it’s so bad for the vocal chords?: Its really, really, really, really cool looking. It says fuck you—I know it’s bad for my voice, but I don’t give a shit ’cause i look cool.  Rock is 90 percent visual.

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Jennie Eisenhower

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 12.18.42 PMSo several months ago I was contemplating a book idea that related to Dwight Eisenhower. I did some preliminary research, Googled around, looked high, looked low, wrote a proposal, had the proposal semi-discarded … and, in the process, discovered Jennie Eisenhower.

The Philadelphia-based actress is the great-granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Philadelphia-based actress is the granddaughter of Richard M. Nixon. That’s a whole lot of history in one woman. Which, of course, makes her the ideal Quaz candidate.

Here, Jennie talks famous names (and why she doesn’t use hers for advantages), big roles, acting dreams and how one makes herself cry. Also, do yourself a favor and don’t ask her about a certain political scandal. She’s heard that one, oh, a couple of times before.

One can visit Jennie’s website here, and follow her on Twitter here.

Jennie Eisenhower, f-bomb dropping future president, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Jennie, so the first question is sort of obvious, but I have to ask: Your great-grandfather is Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon is your grandfather. Let me repeat that, because it felt crazy to write: Your great-grandfather is Dwight Eisenhower, your grandfather is Richard Nixon. Yet on your website, this little ol’ fact is mentioned, oh, nowhere. Literally, not once. Why? It’s sort of a big deal, no?

JENNIE EISENHOWER: I made the decision early in my career to not lead with my heritage. Basically I don’t hide who I am and if people ask I am more than happy to talk about it, but I also don’t use it to draw attention to myself. I felt that it was important for me to know that if I “made it” in the business that I made it on my own merits and not because I was using my family connections to advance things in some way. Additionally, while the fact that I am related to presidents is an interesting “fun fact” I don’t know that it really would help me in the theatre world anyway. If Liza Minnelli was my mom, for example, that would certainly be a different story! I would also probably wear a lot more sequins.

J.P.: So you’re a summa cum laude graduate of Northwestern University’s theatre program. You’ve obviously had a very strong career in acting—a gazillion plays in different markets, commercials, movie roles. I wonder, however, what the road has been like. How hard is it—“making it”? And do you feel like you have? Did you dream of Broadway superstardom, or standing alongside Denzel on the big screen? What’s satisfaction for you?

J.E.: My definition of “making it” is something that has changed and shifted over the years for me and continues to change and shift. When I first graduated from school and moved to New York I did so with dreams of Broadway superstardom. But as I began to tromp the boards in New York City I realized that the lifestyle of the New York actor didn’t really jive with the personal life I had pictured for myself. I am a creature of habit and like to more or less remain in one place save the occasional vacation. The New York actor has to be somewhat of a gypsy, going where the work takes them. In my 20s in New York I worked Off-Broadway, but I also worked in New Hampshire, Florida, Washington, DC, etc. That was fun for me but I began to wonder how a family would fit into that picture. When I found my way to Philadelphia and realized that there was a vibrant theatre scene that didn’t require me to move around, I felt things clicking into place. Suddenly I could do what I loved without having to sacrifice the lifestyle I desired. But that meant giving up the idea of “making it” as a Broadway superstar.  Eventually I got over that and realized that if I am paid to do what I love and get to be surrounded by people I love I have “made it.” As for Denzel and I, I am still waiting for his people to contact my people about shooting that major motion picture in Fiji!

J.P.: You offer private acting lessons. I wonder, do you ever get students and immediately know either, “This person has absolutely no chops—and never will” or “This person is destined for stardom”? What gives either/both away? And if someone’s god-awful, will you say something? Pull the parent aside? Anything?  

J.E.: Let me say, on a side note, that I love your questions! I am enjoying answering these! As to the student question, I don’t feel like it is my job to tell someone they are “good” or “not good”—art is subjective and my opinion is just one. My goal with students is to guide them and help them be the best artists they can be. Anyone can improve and grow if they have passion. If they flat out ask me “do you think I can ‘make it’” (we’re back to talking about “making it!”), I am very candid with them about my opinion and can have an honest discussion about the business of show. But if they are taking lessons to explore who they are and grow as an artist and they want me to teach them, I am game regardless of where they are in that journey.

J.P.: What’s it like having your last name? I don’t even mean people knowing who your great-grandfather is. I mean, how often do you hear, “Oh, like the president?” or—jokingly—“Are you related to Dwight?” Is it cool? Annoying? Neither?

J.E.: I occasionally get the “Oh, like the president?” line, and I just say, “Yes, like the president.” Then, if they press the issue and ask more about it, I tell them. It is actually really fun to talk about it because it happens far less often than you would think and it seems to really make people excited to hear about it. It used to annoy me when I was in my early 20′s, I think because I was trying so hard to prove that I was an individual and not defined by my family, but I have mellowed so much since then and actually look forward to talking about it with people if they ask. Being related to who I am is a true honor and I am proud of it and willing to share with people about it. And often people tell me really interesting things about their personal connections to my grandfather and great grandfather. They served in World War II, for example, or they voted for Nixon, etc.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 12.20.15 PMJ.P.: How did you get here? What I mean is, why acting? I know you were born in California, raised in Philadelphia; your father is a public policy fellow and Penn professor. But when did you first know this was what you wanted? How did you pursue it? What’s the journey?

J.E.: I was just a showbiz kid from the moment I could walk and talk. I always loved to sing and dance and put on plays for my family. I blame Shirley Temple, Julie Andrews and my parents for being so supportive and for encouraging me. I first knew I could do it for a living when I went to a summer acting camp called Stagedoor Manor and all I did for six weeks straight was act from the moment I woke til about 11 pm. I was 15 at the time, and I had the sense to realize that if I could do something that intense every single day and get up the next day and still be incredibly excited to do it all again, then there was something special about it. It was after that summer that I decided to major in theatre when I went to college and that is what I wound up doing. There have been times in my life where I have left the business to pursue other things full time in order to make sure this was truly what I wanted—I was a full-time public high school music theatre teacher for a school year, for example. But I keep coming back to theatre. It is in my blood. It is a part of me.

J.P.: Greatest moment as an actress? Lowest?

J.E.: I think starring in Forbidden Broadway at the Walnut Street Theatre has so far been the greatest moment for me as an actor because it was the most unfettered experience I’ve ever had. I was basically given carte blanche to be as weird and wild as I wanted to be. The bigger and more bizarre, the better. I spend a lot of time toning down my natural tendency to be incredibly over the top so to not have to worry about that in the slightest was very freeing. And it was a well received show as well and it was thrilling to have people enjoy my weirdness! I won a Barrymore Award for my work in that (which is the Philadelphia equivalent of a Tony) and though awards shouldn’t mean anything because that isn’t why I do this, it definitely made me feel fancy!

As for the lowest … ooh, lord. Well, I was in a show once that will remain nameless where I literally sucked. I was so bad in it. And the director started to notice I was bad during rehearsals and he gave me a thousand notes. And the more notes I got, the worse I got. Then, because I was so nervous, I started falling onstage for no reason. It was like I couldn’t walk. I would make an entrance and fall on my face. I think I fell seven times or something in course of the show. I guess I was paralyzed with fear or something! It got to the point where the rest of the cast didn’t want to hang out with me. Like I was the dying animal that the herd has to shun in order to survive. I hated going to work just to suck in front of hundreds of people every night. It was hell. Being miscast is the worst because you’re stuck. But I survived, the show closed, I moved on with my life and I like to pretend it never happened.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 12.20.34 PMJ.P.: You appeared in the 2011 remake of Arthur—a film that received universally awful reviews. I’m asking you this because I’ve always wanted to ask an actor this: When you’re in a film—even in a small-ish way—do you know whether it’ll be good or bad? Can you get a true feel before it’s completed? And what do you recall from that experience?

J.E.: I thought Arthur would do well. There was a great atmosphere on set and the director (Jason Winer) was fun and relaxed and not at all stressed out. Russel Brand was doing really funny and specific work. And then it didn’t do well! I was shocked. On the other hand, I was an extra on The Stepford Wives (the remake) and that one was a movie I could tell had troubles. The producers were hovering nervously the whole time and writers were thrusting rewrites at the actors. And they were way off schedule and obviously over budget. And everyone seemed super stressed out. I just ate a lot of cookies at the craft services table and watched it all go down. It was definitely interesting.

J.P.: I’m not sure if this constitutes a touchy question, but your grandfather, obviously, holds a controversial-yet-fascinating place in American history. Has that made your life … weird? Are there questions people ask you that, normally, wouldn’t be asked? Do you know what I mean?

J.E.: Totally. Sometimes people even have the audacity to say negative things about my grandfather to my face. It’s like they don’t comprehend that he is someone I love and care for and am related to. It used to really make me enraged but now I just see that kind of behavior as a flaw in that person and not something I should feel upset about. I know who my grandfather is to me and how I feel about him. If I see a negative article or a negative show or movie, I look the other way and don’t pay attention to it. That attitude has definitely made things easier for me. As the saying goes, “what other people think of me is none of my business”—I am a big believer in that and it definitely extends to my family.

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J.P.: Serious question that eludes me: How does one make herself cry? 

J.E.: Ha! If you’re super invested in the stakes of a scene and really living in the moment of the character and you have a fabulous scene partner, it will happen on its own. If these circumstances are not present, you have to recall really horrible things that happened to you in real life until it makes you cry—like, loved ones dying, etc. That’s the desperate and really awful plan B. And if you’re in a not-so-good show with a not-so-good scene partner, you have to do that every single performance. So it can be very unhealthy. Now, I understand that if you have to cry in an on-camera scene in a movie they can put some stingy drops in your eyes. I thank that is awesome.

J.P.: Chelsea Clinton is all over the news here in New York—sorta plotting future runs. Have you ever even considered politics as a career? Why or why not?

J.E.: I never felt compelled to run for office while in my twenties but now that I have a child and have a greater sense of civic duty and a greater concern for the future of our country I have started to reconsider. Both Ike and Nixon were Republicans and I feel an allegiance to the party but I have been so disillusioned by the direction the party has taken in the last decade or so. I registered as a Democrat several years ago. But I feel like if I were to run it would be with the goal of getting the Republican Party back on track. I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative and I think there is a place for me as a moderate republican. It used to be an incredible party. I would love to be able to rejoin it or help revamp it. But then I would probably have to stop swearing and start wearing suits and I am just not sure that I am ready for all that yet. Ask me again in 10 years. I may be there.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 12.19.02 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH JENNIE EISENHOWER:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): James Franco, Entourage, Northwestern, ZZ Top, Pac-Man, the number 18, Ishtar, “The Descendants,” Peter Criss, Burger King, french fries, Robert Kennedy, snowy days, fake Christmas trees, Elvis Costello, seltzer: Seltzer (OBSESSED), Northwestern, Entourage, snowy days, Pac-Man, James Franco, fake Christmas trees, Robert Kennedy, french fries, Burger King, Ishtar, Peter Criss (had to Google him), The Descendants (haven’t seen it yet and probably won’t get around to it even though I have the free screener from SAG–just not interested)

• Oh, my—I just watched this insanely adorable video of you singing to your baby girl, Chloe. Awesome, awesome, awesome. You’re a new mom. How have you been able to manage the performer/director/mom balancing act?: So far, the performing has been going really well. I went back to a theatre job (starring in the musical “Parade” at the Arden Theatre) when Chloe was 2 months old. I had family support – my husband watched her in the evenings and my mom and sister helped with day times and the whole rehearsal process. And I still taught at Temple University this semester and that went well. The thing that has suffered a bit is my private voice/coaching studio which has always been the thing I do in my spare time or in addition to the acting and college teaching. Because I was always creating my own schedule week to week with a lesson here or there whenever I could fit them in and whenever students were free it was really flexible for me. But now, in order to do anything, structure is required because I have to line up help. So it has made private teaching very difficult. I am still trying to figure out how to resolve this issue so hopefully by the time this interview gets out into the world I’ll have a solution. But Chloe is worth slowing down operation a bit! She is incredible.

• Five greatest actors of your lifetime: Julie Andrews, Vivien Leigh, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Portman, Kate Winslet. I listed the ladies who inspire me.

• Celine Dion calls and offers you $5 million to work 365-straight days teaching her how to act. You also have to change your name to John Rambo and only speak French. You in?: I’m a total Francophile so the speaking-only-in-French clause works for me. And I’m all about the $5 million as I assume at some point she’ll either become a good actor and no longer need me or give up at acting and fire me. And then I can open my own theatre company. Can I renegotiate the John Rambo portion of the agreement? How about Jean Rambeau? More French and a little prettier to pronounce.

• Do you think Tim Raines belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame?: I grew up on baseball (my father is a huge baseball fan) so I am embarrassed to say I had to Google this one. Didn’t know about Tim Raines or the controversy. I’m just glad Mike Schmidt is in there. I was a huge fan of his when I was a kid.

• Five things you always have in your purse?: Cell phone, hand sanitizer, wallet, keys, pepper spray

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: My husband, my baby, my mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, my extended family, my friends, etc. etc. I am all about the people in my life—they are my life.

• Kanye West is really starting to irk me. What should I do about this?: Kidnap North West. Hold her for ransom. Your price for her life: his silence.

• The greatest movie line of all time is …: “Don’t fuck with me fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” (from Mommie Dearest). Do you see why I can’t run for politics yet? I love the f-bomb too much.

• In 22 words, make an argument on behalf of Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” …: It’s a public service announcement, really. How else are we going to know to “watch out” for her? Thanks Hall & Oates!

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Bonnie Hutton

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I once fell off a horse.

It’s true. I attended a summer camp that took trips to local places of interest. One day, we went to some sort of dude ranch. The dude (heh-heh) in charge put all of us on horses, lined us up and told us just to stay in line and enjoy the afternoon. Well, my horse wasn’t enjoying the afternoon. Without warning, he took off—faster and faster and faster. I was scared out of my mind, slowly falling to the animal’s side before, ultimately, landing in a puddle of mud.

That was pretty much it for me and Mr. Ed.

And yet … I love horses. The beauty. The grace. The taste (kidding, kidding). They’re regal animals; ones that have always fascinated me. Hence, today’s Quaz. Good ol’ No. 139.

As you read this, Bonnie Hutton is preparing for the Mongol Derby, a 1,000 kilometer horse race across the wilderness of the Mongolian steppe. To me, this sounds awful. Beyond awful. Yet Bonnie—horse lover, carer of wounded animals, woman of dignity and grace—can’t wait. It’s the event of her life; one she’s born to complete. She actually has a fundraising page, which—if you believe in helping people fulfill their dreams—is a pretty great place. She’s also the director of After The Races (ATR), a nonprofit you founded to rehabilitate and then find homes for unwanted retired racehorses. In other words, she’s fantastic.

Here, Bonnie explains what it feels like to fall off a horse, what it feels like to say farewell to a horse and why horses are the world’s best animals.

Bonnie Hutton, ride the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Bonnie, let me start with a question that’ll make you think, “God, what a dick.” So you’re training for the Mongol Derby—“the longest, toughest horse race in the world.” It’s a 1,000 kilometer race across the wilderness of the Mongolian steppe. And, I would agree, that sounds awful. But isn’t it truly awful for the horse, not the person sitting atop the horse? And—for a woman who clearly loves horses like nobody’s business—wouldn’t you rather just let ol’ Best Attack hang out in the barn, eat hay and have lots of sex? I mean, this sounds like pure torture for the dude.

BONNIE HUTTON: Ha! I would certainly agree it would be torture on the horse if it had to make it the whole way! In the 1,000 kilometers we have to change horses at each of the 25 stations, so each horse only has to carry me 40 kilometers. And as much as I’d love to take “Bestie” over to Mongolia with me, the horses we will be riding will be the semi-wild Mongolian horses. From what I understand they’re provided by many of the local herdsmen for the event. And at each of the stations the horses have to pass veterinary checks before riders are allowed to continue with a new horse, so we try hard to maintain a pace that, while efficient, is not too hard on the animal we’re riding.

These horses normally range free on the steppe and are accustomed to covering many miles a day on their own just to eat and drink as they largely fend for themselves. While the herders obviously have those they ride, I’d suspect many are never ridden or are only pulled out a few times a year at best. Most of the mares (females) are kept for their milk, which they ferment and drink, and drink heavily! However, I’m told the ones we’ll be riding have at least a month of training before we get on them. Which to an American or European rider does not sound like a lot!

I’ve been told to expect some falls and challenging rides at least for the first few days. I’m excited for the chance to expand and prove my riding ability, mostly to myself, and have even recently put out a post on Craigslist entitled: “I want to ride your naughty pony!” in order to get some practice.

J.P.: I’m a dog owner and a dog lover, but I’m also always confused by people who have an extremely, extremely deep bond with an animal. You, clearly, have a deep bond with horses. Horses don’t talk, horses don’t sing love songs, horses never say, “Damn, I’d love to hear some Eminem right now.” So how does one form such a connection with something that doesn’t emote particularly clearly?

B.H.: Horses actually can emote very clearly, you just have to learn to read their signals. They can be happy and content, nervous, scared, annoyed, even angry, and it is usually obvious by the position of their ears and head, their posture, and in visible and palpable tension that can build up in their muscles. I think why it can be difficult for a lot of non-horse people to get is because it is so different than humans, dogs, or cats (do they even emote?), as horses are prey animals, rather than predators. You have to approach it from a new angle. Horses are capable of showing affection, can form strong bonds with their handlers, and Thoroughbreds (the breed I work with) specifically will give their all to their partner.

When I was a kid I worked with a horse who was badly abused. In order to do this, my mom and the horse’s owner found a man-of-few-words cowboy down in North Carolina by the name of David Lowrey who had a special way with horses. He used his body language to communicate with them as if he was another horse in the herd, rather than as a predator about to throw a slab of dead cow skin on its back and chase it around. Even though I had already been around horses for several years, at 15, learning from David to work with the horses on this level changed my approach in a way that has always stuck with me. Miner, the horse we worked with together, is still with me at 25 years old. I recently let a friend of mine borrow him to give lessons to children at their farm, but when I come to visit Miner’s head pops up, ears forward, and he’ll even chase his pasture mate away so that he can get to me first. I think, in a way, horses are capable of showing love and appreciation for those who have done right by them.

Additionally, riding and working with horses well is about synergy. Synergy by definition is the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects. Once communication and trust has been established, the horse brings power and athleticism to the table that humans can only dream of. Over the years I have hit 40 miles per hour on a horse, jumped 4-foot fences, chased down loose cattle, climbed rocky mountains and slid down near vertical slopes … and all without so much as a seatbelt. Being prey animals with a high self preservation instinct, these are not things most horses would ever do on their own. But because I established a level of trust with them as we trained together, they generally gave without reservation. Having a 1,200-pound animal you can trust and work with like that is truly a special thing.

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J.P.: I know you’re 28, I know you’re from Raleigh, N.C. But … why horses? Like, where did this love come from? How did it grow? And how have you maintained it for so long?

B.H.: Growing up in Raleigh, I was raised with brothers and an entire family of male cousins on both sides, so I had to grow up a little tougher maybe than most girls. I played with G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles, but even so I always had a love for animals that set me apart. Either because my mother recognized this or because she wanted me to have my own thing, she started taking me to horseback riding lessons when I was about 9-years old. I took to it immediately. I was one of those annoying kids who got on with very little training and could manage the wiliest of lesson ponies and horses. When my trainer would get a new horse, one less well trained, I’d always be assigned to ride it. When another girl’s horse was giving them trouble, our trainer yelled for them to switch with me so that I could get the job done.

I liked working with the young ones and the nervous ones and never seemed happy with the quiet, older, dependable horses that many of the other girls were eager to ride. As the years went on, you could watch the girls I used to ride in lessons with disappear one by one from the barn, particularly as teenagers. For some reason, a lot of people seem to outgrow horses. I didn’t come from a horsey family. I was not raised on a farm, but as a teenager that struggled with depression and social anxiety, horses got me like no one else did. No matter how stressed or upset I was driving to the barn, when I sat on a horse, everything in the world disappeared. It’s not the reason I started with horses, but it’s probably part of the reason I stuck with it.

When I worked with Miner, the abused horse mentioned earlier, I think that experience gave me the drive to not only ride horses but to really work with them. Even though I didn’t vocalize it, I loved that horse and I was very proud of how far I came with him. I would go on to study animal science with an equine focus in college, but never with the intention of becoming a veterinarian or horse breeder. Even though I was good at the medicine and the genetics and management, I wanted to work with training horses, though I didn’t know in what capacityat the time. I still credit a professor at NCSU with pushing me toward race horses. Dr. Paul Siciliano told me about an internship in Lexington where I ultimately ended up getting to work with one of the world’s best farms breaking (training) yearling Thoroughbreds. From there I was hooked. There is nothing in the world like a good race horse. And once you get the bug, they have you for life.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 9.50.48 AMJ.P.: What is it like, emotionally, to put down a horse? For you and also—if it’s possible to tell—for the horse? Is the animal aware of looming death, do you think?

B.H.: Unfortunately, over the course of my career running ATR, a retired racehorse rehabilitation and rehoming facility, this is something I’ve had to face fairly often. We see a lot of horses who retire with what we call “career-ending injuries.” While most of the time these horses can be rehabilitated and be able to go on to live happy, fulfilling lives … some things just can’t be fixed. It’s part of my job to work with our veterinarian to make those hard calls. When we make the decision to put a horse down, it’s because the horse is facing a life of discomfort or pain or disuse. Not being rideable is about as much of a death sentence for a horse in this economy as a broken leg was 50 years ago.

The decision is usually a clear one. Once made, I will calmly call the veterinary office to set up the appointment, call the livestock removal company to pick up the horse afterward, and then usually spend at least a couple minutes afterward taking deep breaths as I am hit with grief and sadness. Not because I regret the decision, but because whether the horse has been with me a week or a year, you get to know its individual personality and it’s hard to think of that individual being snuffed out of existence because it was the product of poor genetics, or because it was run one (or 10) too many times. Making the calls mark the most emotional time for me, but after I’ve regrouped, I can go on with my daily routine until the time comes.

The day of, I brush the horse, and tell it things that are between him and me. Sometimes I’ll get hit with a wave of sadness, but I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing it away. I brush its tail and cut off a piece which will get braided and labeled and added to a jar I keep by my desk as a memory of those lost. I usually prefer to be alone when the vet comes, and try to schedule it at a time when there are no volunteers or staff that have to watch. I always hold the horse myself when the injection is administered. I feel it’s my responsibility to see it through, and want the horse to have a friend with it when the time comes. Perhaps part of me feels like Eddard Stark when he says the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. While it weighs on my heart, I know it’s the right call, and the day that it becomes easy is the day I know I need to stop doing what I’m doing.

I don’t know what the horses think about the experience. I try to remain a pillar of calm so they don’t absorb any anxiety, and the vet is very professional as well. The horse is usually brought outside where they can enjoy some grass up until the last moment, so I do not think they’re at all afraid or worried. At worst, maybe a little confused. Race horses are used to getting stuck with needles, so the act does not phase them. They’re simply with you one minute, being a horse, and then … gone. Quick, painless, and no suffering. I think it’s best that way.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 12.45.21 AMJ.P.: What are the physical rigors for you in training to ride a horse for a long distance? What are the muscles you need to focus upon? And how do you, specifically, train?

B.H.: Despite being a avid rider for years, going for long distance is a newer endeavor for me (jumped in feet first with this one!). I’ve noticed on my training rides that the first thing I feel is a loosening of my ankles and tightness in my knees. My ankles which are normally anchored in a heels-down position from years of training, start lifting, forcing me to actually think about keeping my feet in my stirrups! My endurance riding mentor Amy tells me the more miles I put in, the stronger the tendons and ligaments that control my ankles will become. I’d never thought I’d need to work on my ankles! My knees so far have felt tight, but not sore, thankfully. Having had horse-related knee injuries this was my biggest concern, but so far has proven to not be a problem.

After my first 22-mile ride (approximately one leg of the 25 that will make up the Mongol Derby ride), my inner thigh and calf muscles were very sore (though my seat was fine!). Despite riding several hours a day, nothing compares to real distance work and the constant change in terrain. It’s a lot of concussion on your joints and a real workout for your full body. I was told my back and abs would hurt afterward. Thankfully, these have done OK, but my legs definitely have a way to go.

I’ve made it a goal to go for two 10-12 mile rides a week initially, with at least one 20-plus mile ride a month. I am also training for a 25-mile race in the early spring of 2014. My hope is to be able to borrow horses and ride in 50 and 100 mile races throughout the spring and summer leading up to the Derby. In addition I’m adding running (on foot) to my routine, to build up cardio. I’ve been told if you’re thrown off in the middle of the Derby, it’s common for your horse to take off and leave you in the middle of nowhere, alone. I heard of one British guy chasing his horse down on foot for 10 kilometers and want to be prepared to do the same!

J.P.: You’re the director of After The Races (ATR), a nonprofit you founded to rehabilitate and then find homes for unwanted retired racehorses. Considering that the words, “Daddy! I want a pony for Christmas!” have been uttered, oh, 654,321 times in the past five years, why is it so hard to find homes for retired racehorses? And what are the complications involved?

B.H.: There are actually a large number of people out there who are looking to adopt race horses (and the number is growing). The hard part is getting the horse from the track to that person as most people are not equipped to take in a horse directly from the race track. A horse coming off the trailer on Day 1 is a different animal after spending a month in our care here at ATR. Their lives basically get turned upside down (for the better) and we have to help them transition. They are in their stalls nearly 23 hours a day, for example, at the track, fed high calorie diets, and maintained at a very high level of fitness. They also often come with injuries or ulcers or soreness and these have to be diagnosed properly in order to ensure they have the best chance at a long career after racing.

On the other hand, though, there remains a stigma against thoroughbreds in some circles akin to that against pitbulls. Many people stereotype them as flighty or even stupid animals which could not be farther from the truth. Thoroughbreds are highly intelligent, highly trainable animals. I think where a lot of people get into trouble is that a Thoroughbred will learn a bad habit as quickly as good. They will also learn very quickly what you will and will not let them get away with. They are incredible athletes with incredible stamina and most race horses come from environments where they have been exposed to so much that they are not as spooky as farm raised horses. They also come in so many shapes and sizes. Our retired race horses have gone on to play polo, to compete in hunters and jumpers, to event, to help as therapy horses, to be wonderful family hoses, to barrel race, to trail ride, and even to be a police horse. They can really do it all, and one of our biggest challenges is getting more people to realize how versatile they are.

As far as complications, there is a lot of uneasiness regarding taking horses off the track, not knowing their history of injury or how to rehabilitate them. One of the things we do here at ATR is tackle that ourselves so that adopters don’t have to. We are full disclosure and will provide adopters with every bit of information and history we have on a horse so that they can make the best, most informed decision when it comes to taking home a race horse of their own. On the same token, this can in and of itself be a complication as many people hear that a horse had a fracture, and ignore the statement that the horse has since made a full recovery.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 12.44.51 AMJ.P.: I live close to Yonkers Raceway. From this viewpoint, horse racing (not your genre; I mean at the track) strikes me as a pretty evil endeavor with shady characters and little regard for the animals. How off or on am I on this?

B.H.: First of all, Yonkers Raceway is a track where I believe only Standardbred horses run (the ones that pull their jockey around behind them). I have not worked in the Standardbred industry and cannot speak to the nature of those involved. A question I get a lot is similar though—whether or not I actually like horse racing. It is something I struggle with because when I started out, I started at the top, riding and working with horses literally owned by a Saudi prince with all the money in the world. The horses I was working with were treated wonderfully, had large numbers of people around them that adored them and truly cared for their well being more than whether or not they could get one more dollar out of them racing. Their horses also had a high chance of going back to the farm as breeding stock, whereas many of the ones entering ATR’s program did not, and may have had to work a little harder or longer before retiring.

While I know there are those out there who give the industry the bad name, I think that’s true with any industry. The unfortunate part is that when you have those that only care about the bottom line in an animal related industry, it’s animals that will suffer. But I would never make a blanket statement against those who work at the track either way. There are those that love the horses and treat them very well, there are those who care very deeply but are also very desperate to pay the bills, and there are a few who are only in it for the money (which is a joke in and of itself). The good news is that there are efforts being made to improve the industry, from local levels on up to the Jockey Club (the Thoroughbred registry), and I remain hopeful we will see some real changes over the next ten years.

Nearly all of our horses come to us from Parx Racing, a track near Philadelphia. The vast majority of these come to me in good weight, well groomed, and from trainers and connections that cared for them enough to want to see them retire into good hands. Many have continued to follow their former horses while they’re in our program and even after they’ve been adopted. Of course, there are always outliers, but at ATR, we’ll take them all.

J.P.: You’re using gofundme.com to raise money for your trip. I hate, hate, hate, hate asking for money, and always have, because it makes me feel very vulnerable and somewhat awkward. How has the process been for you?

B.H.: I grew up in a household that never talked about money. Starting up a non-profit has been very hard on me because it’s my job to ask for money (for ATR), and it’s something I struggle with on a daily basis. At ATR we put so much time and energy and money into getting these horses the the veterinary care, dental work, feed, hoof care, etc that they need, that it may often look like we’re doing pretty well for ourselves, but the truth is that we’re almost always in desperate need of donations to keep the doors open. The hard part is figuring out how to ask for it without just turning people off. So often our pleas for donations seem to fall on deaf ears, or perhaps only on the ears of those who, like most of us, don’t feel they have enough to make a difference. It can be disheartening for someone who already struggles discussing finances.

For myself, starting www.gofundme.com/bonnieforthewin to raise money for the trip has been a tremendously humbling experience. I think partly because of my work with the non profit, I’m a bit more open to crowdsourcing, but it’s still at least a little embarrassing. I mean, if I had money to pay a $12,000 entry fee or for the $2,500 plane tickets myself, I’d never ask! And by asking, it’s pointing my general lack of funds out to everyone. However, when I learned we could ride for charity and that past Derbyists have been very successful in raising money, the race took on a whole new level of importance to me. This is a chance for ATR to raise some serious dough hopefully, through pledge drives and sponsors, but it can’t happen if I don’t make it to Mongolia.

I honestly started it more as a way to keep track of progress in my search for big sponsors (outdoors or sports companies, local businesses that want a unique way to promote their name), but have been very surprised and humbled by how many friends and family have come together to contribute. Once I was chosen to ride, my husband and I made the first payment which ensured my spot in the Derby. Since then I have been able to make the second installment largely through the help of friends, family, and my first sponsor Turning for Home, and I am incredibly grateful.

If it all helps ATR get more attention and some funds to help keep it going, it’ll be worth the act of effectively throwing myself at the mercy of those around me and on the internet!

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 9.50.35 AMJ.P.: My wife is a social worker. She’s v-e-r-y concerned about malnutrition in inner-city schools. I agree with her—but I ultimately think that climate change destroying the earth seems to be a much bigger and more pressing problem. Your cause of choice is horses. With starvation and climate change and ethnic cleansing and Wall Street corruption and all the millions of problems facing the world, would someone be wrong to say, “Meh, they’re just horses? We have bigger fish to fry …”

B.H.: The needs of humanity will always come before the needs of horses if you try to stack them against each other. But I don’t think that diminishes what we’re trying to accomplish here. People will always follow and support the causes that are nearest to their heart, and I also think that people like to see their money making a difference. I know our organization can tell you definitively that $30 just paid for a horse’s vaccinations, that $70 you just donated paid for shoes for one horse, or $763 paid for one ton of grain (which it takes two to feed our guys for a month). $200 and you just paid for an ultrasound for a horse with a badly damaged tendon, or that if you donate $10,000 you will help keep us open and helping nearly 20 retired race horses for another month.

I personally don’t have the skills to be able to contribute to solving world hunger or climate change, but I am really good at helping horses recover from injuries and transition to new lives beyond the race track, so that is what I choose to do. Thankfully, ATR has managed to attract many wonderful people who like what we do and volunteer, donate, or advocate where they can, and over 130 horses have found homes through After the Races in the past three years. Going back to your first question, if they could talk, I think they’d tell you it was worth it.

J.P.: What’s it feel like to fall—like, really, really fall—off a speeding horse? What’s your most memorable experience doing so?

B.H.: It’s a little like being one of those car crash dummies in the slow-motion safety test videos you see on TV … but without the air bag. Or like being thrown over a castle wall in one of those catapults in the movies, but without the convenient haystack on the other side. Hitting the ground can feel like hitting a brick wall, or being run over by a truck, and it almost always feels as if it’s happening in slow motion. But barring serious injury, as the old adage says, we must always get back on.

To date, all of my worst falls have been at slow speeds (broken bones and concussions for me seem to happen when horses have fallen out from under me at the trot or canter – a truly frightening experience). Generally, once galloping at speed, I’m good! However, I used to ride a Thoroughbred called Tracy who, while generally not a good race horse, was a good exercise buddy for the bigger, faster race horses that I worked with. Because he was slower and fatter, Tracy tended to take the lead pony position. Despite having a bit of a reputation as a chicken with four legs, Tracy would lead the bigger horses up to their gallops, only to be passed about halfway along the course once the horses got up some speed. You couldn’t let Tracy’s looks and attitude toward galloping fool you though. Tracy could move in pretty much any direction but forward faster than any horse I’ve probably ever ridden. People who fell off Tracy reported being on him one moment and on the ground the next, with little recollection of what happened in between.

Thankfully, I only ever came off Tracy once, but it was on one of these workouts with a horse named Pierrot. Tracy did his duty, getting the two of them to the base of a long grass gallop which went up a bit of a hill, and led til about the midway point, when Pierrot took over. About the time I set Tracy’s cruise control, I suddenly found myself flying face first into the grass. Instinctively tucking, I managed a fairly neat roll and when I came to a stop many yards later, I saw Tracy galloping down the hill in the exact opposite direction. It did not look like he’d missed a beat. The last thing I can remember before being launched into space was Pierrot flicking his tail in Tracy’s face, which was enough to shatter whatever confidence Tracy had mustered up for the day.

Of course, I got up and caught the darn horse, got back on, and we finished our ride. All in a day’s work!

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 9.49.04 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH BONNIE HUTTON:

• Five greatest horse-related movies of your lifetime: Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, National Velvet, The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, Secretariat.

• Who was responsible for JFK’s death?: Someone with military training I’d guess. Whether it was Oswald or someone else is above my pay grade.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Seattle Slew, Will.i.am, Snickers, Joel & Ethan Coen, Giorgio Armani, Katie Couric, C.J. Wilson, blue T-shirts, Tommy Hearns, karaoke Tuesdays, Mystery Science Theater: I’m going to admit to both having to look a couple of these up (not naming which!), and really liking Snickers. So I’ll go: Seattle Slew, Coen brothers, Mystery Science Theater, Snickers, Katie Couric, C.J. Wilson, Will.i.am, Tommy Hearns, karaoke Tuesdays, blue t-shirts, Giorgio Armani.

• Would you rather permanently have horse shoes attached the the soles of your feet, or get a tattoo across your forehead that reads, ZIGGY MARLEY IS MY DADDY?: I’m going to go with horse shoes on this one. As long as there’s some borium on there.

• One question you would ask Carson Palmer were he here right now?: Do you like horses?

• Six words you would use to describe the scent of a horse: Warm, earthy, rich, sweat, love, happiness.

• You’re on a date. The other person is perfect (kind, caring, loving, great family, charitable), but suffers from a severe horse allergy. Is there still a shot of success?: I want to say yes, but it’d probably require too much effort.

• Best joke you know?: It’s partly in Spanish, but has always been a favorite …

A well-dressed man walks into a store and asks the clerk, “Tiene calcetines?” The clerk apologizes as he doesn’t speak Spanish and offers to show the man to the men’s section where he points out some nice suits, hoping it helps. The man shakes his head and says, “No quiero trajes. Necesito calcetines.”

Flustered, the clerk apologizes again and leads him to another section, and then another, until the customer pointed down at his feet and said, “Solo necesito calcetines. Entiendes?” Thinking he finally understood, the clerk gets excited and rushes him over to show him the shoes only for the customer to again shake his head.

As they walk the customer sees a sock display and grabs a pair, and exclaimed to the clerk, “Eso si que es!”

The clerk, annoyed, says, “Well if you could spell it, why didn’t you just say so?”

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. Thankfully despite some turbulence, my flights thus far have always been uneventful!

• You walk into a 7-Eleven. You can pick out seven items. What would they be?: Mountain Dew, a hot dog, Orbit brand gum (peppermint!), Swedish fish, a Black Mamba energy drink if I can find it (why can’t I find these anymore?), some Fritos, and batteries (never know when you’ll need them!).

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Chuck Culpepper

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Chuck Culpepper is the writer I aspire to be.

First, he’s an amazing wordsmith. Just insanely gifted, and his work for Sports On Earth is must-read material. Second, he lives life with an uncommon vigor and passion. If there’s a place to go, and a story to be written—Chuck’s off. Bag packed—gone. Third, Chuck is gay. Which, in and of itself, isn’t so unique. But when, leading up to last year’s Super Bowl, he wrote a column about sexuality, it was courage and pride personified.

One can follow Chuck on Twitter here, and do yourself a big favor and start reading his stuff. Ain’t many doing it better.

Yo Chuck, break it off on The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Well, Chuck, I have to start with this: Last February, while covering the lead-up to the Super Bowl, you came out to readers with the line, “I am that exotic creature, a gay male sportswriter.” I obviously knew you were gay, lots of writers knew you were gay. But I’m guessing most athletes didn’t, and most readers didn’t. What convinced you to take that step? How nervous or uncomfortable was it? And what, ultimately, was the response?

CHUCK CULPEPPER: I wish I’d done it years ago, but I went a long time with a fear of the unknown that nowadays strikes me as unacceptable in myself, and then from 2006-12 I lived abroad (London, Paris, Abu Dhabi, Dubai) and lacked the forum for it. I did mention it in my U.K.-based soccer book in 2008, but in the acknowledgments, not the text, per the sage advice of a New York agent named Susan Raihofer who said, “Write one book at a time.”

For me, a crucial component of life is the gradual shedding of fear, and while I’m generally unforgiving of myself – wish I were more this, wish I were more that – I reckon the best thing I could say for myself is I’ve shed some fears along the way. That said, pertaining to homosexuality, the United States to which I returned in 2012 had zoomed improbably from the United States I departed into exile on Virgin Atlantic Flight 46 on 2/14/06 (Seat 55-K). In that sense, I would accuse myself of tardiness and cowardice in writing such a column only in February 2013. The landscape was so much smoother by the time I got to it.

By the time I did get to it, any discomfort about it had shrunk to minuscule, and I had just spent a lot of time in Boston with a friend I am so lucky to know, Steve Buckley, Boston sports-media superduperstar. I had ridden with him to Foxboro for the Ravens-Patriots AFC Championship Game, the game that led unexpectedly to the brief conversation with the Ravens’ Brendon Ayanbadejo, which prompted the sudden decision to write the column. Steve had written his similar column in January 2011, and he had stressed to me that he had heard from so many people who said it had helped them. If there was one kid out there who happened upon it and derived even a jot of sustenance from it, then there’s a responsibility to write it, and so on.

Athletes didn’t factor into my decision as much as for Steve. He’s a Boston mainstay in a city he cherishes. I’m a nomad who has ended up living, by chance, in 12 cities since college. He has a marvelous home life, with three chocolate Labrador retrievers he shares with an excellent next-door neighbor. I once traveled so protractedly that in my apartment, a cactus died. He appears regularly amid certain teams. I hopscotch.

He got overwhelmingly positive response as did I. In fact, I’m floored at the bullet-train change in the national feelings on the issue. I never expected to live in this tone of country. I would say the leading complaint you get nowadays is that some are tired of hearing about the issue, but in a free society, we’re all tired of hearing about something. Just for starters, I’m tired of hearing about Justin Bieber.

J.P.: I wanna ask you something that’s gonna sound silly, but I’m being quite serious: As a writer, how do you stay sane? I always think I’m dying of some awful disease, always lose myself in subjects, often feel isolated and lonely. So, Chuck, how have you not lost your mind? Or have you?

C.C.: I feel like I have lost that fight already to some degree. Often the battle with the self is just wretched. At the same time, I want to keep the battle going, and I never want to assume I’m any good. I think you drift into trouble once you assume you’re any good. It’s important to have benign misery.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 11.51.02 PMJ.P.: I’ve read your bio, obviously I’ve read tons of your stuff. But how did this writing thing all begin for you? When did you first catch the buzz? What was your career path from there (wherever that is) to here?

C.C.: I have wanted to be a sportswriter or broadcaster since age 8 or 9, when I saw the words and datelines of George McClelland and others in the Virginian-Pilot. I stated the career wish in a school newspaper at age 11. I remember giving my brother 50 cents to go get the newspaper from the box down the sidewalk at the street on a really cold day, and to this day his money-management skills remain tremendous while mine are atrocious. Then, when I was 14, in Suffolk, Va., we had neighbors and great friends the Smiths, and Ed Smith was-and-is one of those vivid characters with big personality and a penchant for rare (and incorrigible) gab. He was in the peanut business in our self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World,” but somehow he knew someone who connected me with the Suffolk Sun, a twice-weekly Suffolk-based tabloid inside the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot.

At 14, I started writing weekly roundups of the Bennett’s Creek Little League, mostly just recounting what had happened on the previous Saturday, including the pitching and hitting performances of friends, a raging conflict of interest. At 15, I once wrote a game story about a game in which I had participated and in which I had struck a rolling but persevering single up the middle to drive in the first run. The final score was 9-4, I think, so I could omit that single plus any reference to myself without leaving any catastrophic reporting hole. Furthering the journalistic sins, my coach that night (and for several years) happened to be my own father, Dick Culpepper, who one season later would pilot to prominence the once-moribund Tigers of the Bennett’s Creek minor league (ages 8 and 9), a feat of painstaking coaching as good as any I’ve seen.

Through high school, I would walk the sidelines on Friday nights at football games, often at my own school in another reprehensible conflict, but often at other schools in the area. At the University of Virginia, I helped cover the Ralph Sampson years for The Cavalier Daily, as well as covering a gem of a human coaching women’s basketball, Deb Ryan, plus some ne’er-do-well soccer coach named Bruce Arena. Two years after college, and after an eight-month New York stint that included ad-agency work and the sighting of a great many downtown 3 a.m.’s, I finally fulfilled a possibility we Americans are so lucky to have: I drove across the free and vast country, alone, Virginia to California, felt the whole big continent roll under my tires. It remains thrilling. The sunflowers in Kansas!

From there, it has gone through two newspaper carcasses (Los Angeles Herald Examiner, The National Sports Daily), two The Nationals (one in the U.S., one in Abu Dhabi), one state that, for me, qualifies as its own region (Kentucky), one Oregonian, one great job where I’d hail a cab in Times Square on Saturday mornings and wind up in, say, Auburn (Newsday), one Randy Harvey, who gave me the astounding privilege of corresponding from London for the Los Angeles Times. It has gone Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Lexington (Ky.), Portland (Ore.) with a ton of Seattle mixed in, New York, London, four months of Paris, New York again, Abu Dhabi/Dubai and now just drifting merrily for Sports On Earth. And the wandering has fomented a terrible craving to wander more: In August and September, they sent Sports On Earth around the world in 14 days (eight cities), and right about now I’m answering some of these questions aboard a magnificent Korean Air Airbus 380-800 screaming quietly above Canada toward the International Date Line toward Seoul, toward finding Manny Pacquiao in the southern Philippines. I just relish this kind of thing, probably still because I came from a small town and can’t believe it’s true.

J.P.: How do you approach a long story? I know this varies from piece-to-piece, obviously, but what’s your soup-and-nuts approach?

C.C.: Yellow legal pads. I tend to have oodles of them. When the time comes for the hardest stage, the long slog back through the notes and quotes gathered, I take each source and give them separate yellow-legal-pad pages with their particular quotes. This can take two or three or four or five hours, but it helps me semi-organize my naturally inefficient brain.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 11.49.45 PMJ.P.: You took your writing talents to the United Arab Emirates several years ago. And while we’ve chatted about it via Facebook, I have no fucking idea why you were there. So, Chuck, why? And what was it like?

C.C.: I needed a job in 2010, and thank goodness I needed a job in 2010, for what a phenomenal adventure. By then, I had shed many of my fears about frontiers, and in fact had become almost addicted to frontiers. So by then in life it had become a little bit of ecstasy to board a jet at JFK for a direct flight to Abu Dhabi, a place I’d never been, in a region I’d never visited, with only two suitcases of stuff in the plane belly. (I’ve come to loathe stuff. I want less stuff.) As we went over Ukraine and Iraq and beside Kuwait down toward night in Abu Dhabi – that Etihad plane even had a window in the loo – I felt thrilled that in life my curiosity finally had trumped my fear.

I loved just about the whole two-year thing, even as there’s guilt intertwined with that because of the grim labor situation for guest workers, most hailing from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, some of whom became friends, and one of whom (Filipino) I roomed with for seven months in Dubai, a real education about this world. (It’s a f—— hard world.)

I loved everything from the sports editor to the deputy sports editor to the cohorts to the new Emirati and Arab and Indian friends to the occasional sights of camels peeking out of trucks on highways to interviews with Arab female athletes, unfailingly inspiring. I loved sitting up half the night with two souls I treasure, a married couple, he and she, Osman and Anisa, both sports journalists, Pakistani and Indian, listening to them talk about life in Karachi or the natures of Pakistan and India. I also believe we need Osman and Anisa in the United States, if they’re interested, to converse with as many Americans as possible.

I had few moments of loneliness, and certainly none of fear, as Abu Dhabi and Dubai are safer than anywhere I have lived, an idea Americans, unacceptably, don’t grasp. (We should know the world better, period.) There were edifying discussions every day if you wanted to have them. A Syrian man gave me, through words and smartphone video, a harrowing sense of the bleakness that has visited the lives of his family and friends inside the country, not to mention the devastating stress on himself from afar. (The gym was the only way he could sort of cope, so his chest kept getting more impressive.) An Iranian man with his wife in the Abu Dhabi airport learned I’m American, hugged me, said we should be friends and handed me a date (fruit). As South Asians often take care of their parents to the point of co-habitation after growing up, a Pakistani man on a bus asked me – and you can see how he might wonder about this – if, once Americans have grown up to adulthood, we ever see our parents again. (Answer: “Oh, yes. Some of us even enjoy it.”) In a gay club (not an official one, and no kissing, of course), I saw Egyptian and Lebanese and Syrian young men singing every word, in English, to Lady Gaga, and while I wished the music could change somewhere in the 24 time zones just for variety, this was amazing. I made a friend who is a Nepalese soldier. I mean, this goes on and on and on and on, to the point of embarrassment at my own wonder.

Don’t get me started.

And then, I fell crazy-in-love with surrounding myself with people unlike myself, with the whole frontier of that. I love walking, and on some evenings in Abu Dhabi, I’d walk through sidewalks filled with Pakistani men, just out in the night air after work, many of them staring at this strange creature with light hair and blue eyes, some smiling and waving insecurely as if timid to greet. I went to Mumbai – a three-hour flight – and people just talked to me all through the days, whether it was three 15-year-old boys plopping down next to me on the promenade near the Indian Ocean to ask me about New York, or two men walking by and snapping photos of my weird and pasty face, causing laughter nearby.

I used to feel nervous in new places; now I revel in the mystery. A given place never has the same allure as at first sight.

And the assignments, I mean, come on: the northern Philippines to watch Pacquiao train in 2011, Qatar (with gorgeous souk) for the 2011 Asian Cup soccer, cricket matches in Abu Dhabi with ticket-less Pakistani fans standing outside the stadium just to be there, the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race (sailing) with stops in Spain, Cape Town, the Chinese island of Sanya, Auckland, Miami, Lisbon, hearing the first Zhosa I ever heard in Cape Town . . .

And finally (sorry for length), as for an American in the Middle East, I’d note three crucial lessons:

1. The overwhelming majority of people in the world are just trying to get through the day;

2. We’re basically well-liked (with Hollywood a big factor), and guest workers comment on how amiable we are compared with certain other nationalities, and;

3. In the national Narcissism we’d be wise to jettison especially at this point in history, we don’t realize that people don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about us as we think they do (a point stressed beautifully by the blogger Mark Manson)

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 11.52.01 PMJ.P.: In 2008 you wrote a book, “Bloody Confused! A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace In English Soccer.” A. Why, dear God, did you decide to write a book? B. Why THAT book? C. Looking back, how do you feel about the book-writing process, compared to magazine, web, newspaper pieces?

C.C.: A. I always did want to write a book. B. I was fresh in London in exile with no job, so David Black, your agent (for the big projects) and mine (for less-big projects) steered me to the concept. He stressed that the things an American might learn following English soccer could fit into a narrative, which spurred the idea of choosing a club and following it for a season. C. To my surprise, I adored the process and yearn to do it again but keep rummaging around for a topic.

J.P.: We know print newspapers are dying. Actually, pretty much dead. When asked, would you still encourage young scribes to enter the field? Why or why not? And what advice would you offer?

C.C.: For me, the key word in life should always be “adventure,” so I’d never discourage anybody young from trying anything. And life has made me a big believer in losing everything and starting again, so I would stress that if it wound up not working, that’s far from the end. You’ve still gained something for wherever you veer. My great friend Doug Cress never failed as a sportswriter or feature writer, but he left it and works now at the United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership in Nairobi, Kenya. I bring that up to say that sometimes I think people don’t realize what’s possible, especially if you don’t limit yourself geographically.

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

C.C.: I think of the dreamlike 1992 Barcelona Opening Ceremony with the archer Antonio Rebollo lighting the torch from afar, Rulon Gardner’s monumental wrestling upset in Sydney, Mike Jones’ tackle at the 1-yard line for the Rams against the Titans in Atlanta and the goose-bumpy Champs Elysees the night the French won the World Cup, but really it’s Sunday afternoon, 12/11/11.

That day, I jumped off the back of a raging sailboat into the frigid South Atlantic Ocean off Cape Town, the celestial Table Mountain in view. I was in the water for about 30 entire seconds, but what exhilaration.

As the Volvo Ocean Race boats leave one port for the several-week sail to the next, they often invite guests who then jump off the back as the boat whisks toward the barren ocean. At the first stop in Alicante, Spain, in November 2011, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing boat invited Zinedine Zidane, who did a backflip into the Mediterranean. At the third stop, there were two famous English cricketers whom I loathed for their shark-less, warm-water, weenie plunges in bad-picnic shorts. But at the second stop in Cape Town, there were no celebrities, so about two hours before departure they invited me so that I could write about the experience. I knew it was a ritual, and the sailing people were really blasé about it as no one had ever wound up deceased, but I was nervous to distraction. I barely could focus on any conversation.

First, I rode along on the back of the boat for about an hour as it performed competitive maneuvers within viewing distance of the shore. This closeup gave me even greater respect for these – yes, this is the right word – athletes. The sailors, mostly Kiwis and Brits, kidded me about the regional shark infestation. I didn’t worry about sharks, but I did worry about wetsuit malfunction and the unknown. Eventually the skipper, the English two-time Olympic silver medalist Ian Walker, said, “Chuck, your time is up.” First, I got my shoe caught in the railing on the stern, then I slowly took a step off into the humongous water, seeing the mountain in the background as I descended. I just could not believe this . . . just . . . could . . . not . . . believe . . . this.

I hit the water, and it was hypothermic as promised – you don’t see South Africans swimming even at the beaches – but the wetsuit inflated per always, and a R.I.B. (rigid inflatable boat) with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team members came by and hauled me in within half a minute which, when you think of all of it, is ludicrous and dubious, but so very thrilling.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 11.50.11 PMJ.P: Lowest moment of your journalism career?

C.C: I longed all along to get to New York and live on a high floor, then I got the chance in 2002, lived on a 39th floor with a great-great job at Newsday. (It was something, climbing 38 flights of stairs, thrice, during that blackout of August 2003. Good thing my mother has a fondness for giving me flashlights.) So then, I had to leave all of it in early 2006 because my Other Half is foreign (Colombian), and because we had no U.S. immigration rights to sponsor the foreign partner for residence the way an opposite-sex couple would, and because you should always, always choose people over things, right? We went into exile in London, and the perma-clouds were brutal on him, and I lost just about everything including my country – and you really don’t realize the many layers of that until it happens. But then I get to this part: That exile, an excruciating sideswipe in life, still fueled every last adventure that has followed. I’m not sure I’d trade it anymore, so I’m not sure that constitutes a low. Isn’t that the funny thing about lows?

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 11.48.12 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHUCK CULPEPPER:

• If someone’s going to read one thing you’ve written, what should it be?: Sheesh. I think of two stories I did on the Pacific Lutheran coach Frosty Westering, one a column upon his death last April, but the first thing that popped to mind was that as the Red Sox won in 2004, I was in Boston, and Newsday had assigned me to Red Sox fans all that season and October. In the days after the last out happened in St. Louis, I combed Globe and Herald obituaries to find Red Sox fans who had lived normal American life spans but had died that summer or fall before seeing the ultimate, a fate I deemed howlingly cruel. I contacted the relatives or co-workers of three. A man named Chuck Houston, who had just lost his Red Sox-faithful mother in late September at age 76, told of standing in a bar as Foulke flipped to Mientkiewicz for that last out, and I still get chills thinking about Mr. Houston’s reaction. All that said, I still want to change the lead. It needs an explanatory paragraph at the top. I was in a hurry. This devastates me.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Harry Reid, Christopher Hitchens, Ron Kittle, wicker, Pebbles Flintstone, iced coffee, lime, Mormon missions, the designated hitter, Sports Illustrated, Victoria’s Secret, Axl Rose, Mike Lupica: Hitchens, SI, Lupica, lime, Victoria’s, Kittle, Rose, Reid, DH, Mormon missions, Pebbles, iced coffee.

• Odds, in your mind, there’s life after death?: It changes day-to-day, but today I’ll go with 50-1.

• Would you rather have a dime-sized hole drilled in our skull (you’ll live, but no numbing agent during the procedure) or spend a year as Mitt Romney’s publicist?: Romney’s publicist. Adventure.

• Celine Dion calls – she offers $800,000 to write her memoir, but you have to move to Las Vegas for two years and also work as her dog Muffy’s personal groomer. You in?: As long as I don’t have to listen to the music, yes. Adventure.

• If you had the chance, one question you’d ask Lam Jones right now: “If you don’t mind, please tell of a New York night in the wild, early 1980s, sparing no details, and then peg where that kind of story fits into your consciousness by now.”

• Five greatest journalists of your lifetime: I’d have about 200 in my top five, many never famous and some I’ve never heard of.

• Biggest jerk athlete you’ve ever dealt with?: I’ve run across so few jerks doing this, and this guy actually wasn’t a jerk, but he hated talking about himself, so when I asked him about himself one day after a game at Wrigley Field, he got really surly with me, and it really startled me and threw me off, much more than it should have except that it was very early in my career. Ryne Sandberg.

• Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?: I guess we all received this advice, but it’s Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

• Master’s degree in journalism – good idea? Bad idea? Why?: Why not? If you’re really into it, it could be an adventure. We’re almost to the International Date Line, and I want to look out the window and see if it’s a black stripe as indicated on the map.

Screen-Shot-2014-01-14-at-11.52.56-PM

Bowen Kerins

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It’s not every day you interview one of the world’s top pinball players.

It’s not every day you interview one of the world’s top pinball players, who also writes math books.

It’s not every day you interview the world’s top pinball player, who also writes math books and—oh, by the way—once won won $32,000 on ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

It’s not every day.

I love the Quaz. Not because I get paid for it (I don’t) and not because it generates millions of hits (it doesn’t). Nope. I love the Quaz because it brings me into the minds of men like Bowen Kerins, a truly fascinating dude who combines intelligence and creativity into one wacky package of funkadelic cool. Here, Bowen tells you how to kick ass at pinball and why not to believe the hype about the Good Will Hunting equation. He knows a (disconcerting) lot about Disney Channel actors, and believes Peter Criss to be directly related to Jesus.

One can follow Bowen on Twitter here.

Bowen Kerins, pinball wizard, welcome the Quazfest ’14 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Bowen, I’m gonna start with a quirky one. You attended Stanford. You write math textbooks for a living. You’ve been a consultant to game shows, who use you to figure out the odds of victory. Oh, you’re the reigning world champion of pinball. Put differently, you’re a genius. A genuine, real, legitimate genius. But do geniuses know they’re geniuses. Like, do you think to yourself, “Fuckin’ A, I’m REALLY smart”? Or, are you burdened by what you don’t know; by a longing for more information?

BOWEN KERINS: My wife will be the first to say I am book smart but not street smart. I locked myself out of my house today. Hopefully I’m more “Real Genius” and less “Revenge of the Nerds.” My knowledge has become a lot more specialized about pinball and school mathematics, but these are the things I love. I hope I don’t go around thinking how freaking smart I am, because that’s when you realize just how dumb you really are.

J.P.: You’re the three-time World Champion of Pinball. About 1 ½ years ago I Quazed Nelson Dellis, the world memory champion, and I loved how his motivation was, well love. A pure love of memory; of using the brain in a very precise and specific way. Bowen, what’s your love of pinball?

B.K.: It’s pretty similar. I was drawn to pinball’s physical nature: the fact that you are driving a real steel ball around, banging into things, creating the sounds and displays and scoring that occurs. You’re in charge, except that you’re not: anything can happen, like the ball hopping over your flipper or screaming down the middle. Some of what keeps me playing over 20 years of competition are these rare events, lucky and unlucky, that could never be duplicated by a computer simulation.

I also loved that you could win free games at pinball if you played well enough. Pinball is cheap entertainment, and it gets cheaper as you get better.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 11.53.32 PMJ.P.: Millions of Americans (like, eh, me) suck at pinball. We’ve got 50 cents dangling in our jeans pocket, we’re in an arcade, 10 minutes to kill, so we walk over to the glowing KISS machine and play … and watch helplessly as the balls rolls away. Bowen, what are the simple bits of advice you could offer a scrub like myself on how to at least be passable? And, along those lines, what does it take to be great?

B.K.: PLAY BETTER!

Seriously, the first two pieces of advice are to only flip when the ball comes, and only flip one flipper at a time. Pinball skills can be put into three categories: shotmaking, catching, and nudging. Shotmaking is mostly timing; you don’t have to flip as soon as the ball reaches the flipper. Timing determines aim. Catching involves using the flipper to stop the ball instead of pushing it away, then you can make a more accurate shot from a trap. And nudging is the only way to keep the ball out of the side lanes or avoid a dead center. If you don’t like where the ball is going, you move the entire machine to change its location.

The folks at the Pro-Am Pinball Association have published a series of short videos on gameplay techniques. They’re solid.

J.P.: As I write this, my daughter is sitting in a fifth grade classroom in a suburban New York elementary school, going through a lot of dizziness. Where we live (like much of America), there’s a tug o’ war between veteran teachers who have been doing this for decades, and state standards that demand students know Z, Y and Z by year’s end. Truthfully, Bowen, it strikes me as a huge clusterfuck that helps no one. Am I off on this problem? And what—if anything—is the solution?

B.K.: Why should they have to learn about Z twice? There’s the first problem solved. I’m pretty happy with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is acting to simplify things. Fewer topics should be taught each year, and more deeply so that knowledge can actually be retained year to year. More important than anything is attention to habits of mind, the ways that adults think about solving problems—Common Core addresses this head-on with eight standards of what it means to think mathematically, such as perseverant problem-solving and building reasonable arguments.

J.P.: So my daughter’s math homework assignments always include the sentence, “Do the work two different ways.” Could be addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. Has to be shown two different ways. This make zero sense to me. Am I just dumb? 

B.K.: I don’t like this. What should happen is that in class, get the students to tease out multiple ways of thinking about a good problem, then let students decide which way they favor. Or for these situations, show in the book someone using an alternate algorithm and ask the students to figure out what that fake kid tried. Forcing someone to do something a way they don’t want to do it just makes them angry. It’s busywork.

On the flip side I don’t want students to learn things in a “procedural” way—many adults took an entire course in algebra or geometry without learning anything of long-term value, because the course focused so specifically on a set of answer-getting skills. If we are preparing students for a changing job market with fewer procedural jobs, they need to learn how to solve problems without spoonfed answers and procedures.

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

B.K.: The greatest moment is always difficult, because you remember your most recent championship the best, but the best moment is probably my first championship in 1994 at age 18. I made the round of 16 and didn’t play well, thinking I was eliminated. I left the tournament area and got changed, returned to watch the finals—then found out I had advanced. After that the pressure was off and I played lights-out in front of a large crowd in New York. A few hours later I had won a new machine, a big-ass trophy, and $4,000 … a fortune for a college student.

The lowest moments aren’t really low, they’re near misses. In 2008 I made the final round at PAPA, and was in the lead going into the final game—all I had to do was not finish last in a four-player game of Addams Family, and I would be the champion. I played like crap and ended up with less than 1/10 the points of the other players. I still had a chance to win, with the last player needing to win big to catch up, and I got to watch him take the title with great pressure-packed play. Finishing second in a big event can be a real gut punch, I’d almost rather not get anywhere near the finals. It’s funny how I hear that from real athletes talking about losing the Super Bowl or World Series, and it really does feel that way in pinball at the highest levels. We’re playing in front of crowds for up to $10,000 cash, it’s serious … by our standards, anyway. I’m lucky that I get the chance to be an athlete a few times a year, and the group of players is very friendly to one another.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 11.53.12 PMJ.P.: I’ve heard 1,001 times by now that America has fallen behind myriad countries when it comes to science and math. Two questions: A. What are we doing wrong? B. Does it matter?

B.K.: I don’t agree. If Massachusetts were a country it would be sixth in the world in these math and science studies. Nationally we perform on par with these top countries, when accounting for poverty, which has a huge impact. There’s a great talk by Uri Triesman about this, and he says it a lot better than I can.

We are not doing a good job at all in this country of providing an equitable opportunity for all students. The quality of schools throughout each state and throughout the country should be the same, but it’s not even close. I don’t know how we fix it, but I know that our group concentrates its efforts primarily on urban and underperforming districts. I’ve also seen teachers working their tails off in all sorts of districts. I really feel that to fix this problem we need to fix the huge underlying inequities in family income and opportunity, and who knows if such a thing could ever happen.

J.P.: You have started doing commentary for pinball webcasts. Uh … this seems … eh … like … mmm … it … wouldn’t be all that fun to watch. Tell me why I’m wrong.

B.K.: Did you watch any? Compelling sports is about watching the best in the world do something no one else can, ideally for high stakes. That’s what we’ve got! Commentary makes it work, because people who know pinball will want to know why things are happening, and people who don’t know pinball will want to know what the hell is happening. We tell stories about the players and detail the play as it unfolds. The same can be said about poker … about bowling … about golf … about football.

To be honest, when we first starting doing this I didn’t think it would be interesting either, but the series of videos now has almost 2 million views. The live broadcast of the two largest tournaments, Pinburgh and PAPA, drew people to watch for many hours, especially some that had never watched any pinball before. We hear people are having viewing parties around the country. We ran a Kickstarter to raise money to livestream events all over the country, and raised $58,000—the initial goal was $20,000. Players are getting sponsorships. It’s really happening, we may even end up on The Ocho someday.

As a start I recommend the Pinburgh 2012 finals, with commentary by me and former NBA center Todd MacCulloch, who then went on to be a radio color man for the 76ers.  He’s hilarious and the pinball play is pretty great. It’s online.

J.P.: I’ve asked many people why they don’t fear death, and they cite eternal life and Jesus loves them and blah, blah. You’re wicked smart. Do you fear death? Why or why not?

B.K.: Death is a wicked pissah, I’ll tell you that. I like to think that those around me who have died still live on in me and the others whose lives they have changed for the better. I don’t much believe in eternal life, except as the name of the ball saver on the Indiana Jones pinball machine, and I hope that when I die I will have helped others live a better life. Thinking about the inevitability of death can sure be depressing, so thanks a lot for asking this question! Dammit.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 11.52.45 PMJ.P.: Bowen, in 2000 you won $32,000 on ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Uh, what the heck? How did that happen?

B.K.: I was on Millionaire in its first six months. Back then, anyone could call an 800 number and answer questions over the phone. Some friends and I would get on IRC and call the number, then shout at Regis when we got one wrong. One day I got them all right, and got the lucky callback to be in a second round, with 200 people fighting for 10 spots on the show. The second round was questions like “Put these states in geographic order by their nickname” and “Put these chemical elements in order by how they appear in the periodic table”. One question asked to put four rock albums in order, and I heard one as “Aw buh bah”. Not good.  (It was Beck’s “Odelay.”)  Somehow I lucked into getting it right, which was a fun conversation among the 10 people selected for the show … “What album was that?” “How are you here if you didn’t know?”

The show was amazing. They really do play that music live, and Regis was a great guy both on and off camera. To get on stage you had to win the “fastest finger” contest, and with other players thinking about the money or the live audience or the fact that 30 million people would see what they were doing, I tried to forget it all and focus on answering questions. It worked, and I think that’s the same reason you see coaches say “Do your job”—anything else is a loss of focus that can only make you perform poorly. I did as well as I would have at home, which is all I can ask for. One of the most surprising things about the process was its speed: qualified on Monday, taped on Thursday, aired on Sunday.

We used some of the money to go to Disney World, and while there we walked by the fake Millionaire set built at the park. Looking toward the waiting room I find a life-size picture of Regis with me. So now I have a photo of me standing next to a photo of me, and a blue check that I wish could be cashed a second time.

J.P.: Mathematically, and logically, how do you explain the existence and success of Selena Gomez? I’m baffled.

B.K.: Selena Gomez is just one in a long series of celebrities spit out by the Disney Machine. How did we end up with Britney Spears? Miley Cyrus? Demi Lovato? Zac Efron? Hilary Duff? Vanessa Hudgins? All those freaking Jonaseses? That guy from Transformers whose name sounds like a French person saying “Where’s The Beef”? Lindsay Lohan?! Basically all a kid has to do is get on one of these Disney shows and ride it into adulthood. And this isn’t a new concept: Kurt Russell was a Disney kid. Except that “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” is a great movie. If you want to see who will annoy you in four years, turn on Disney Channel and see who’s on. I vote for Zendaya.

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 3.11.17 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH BOWEN KERINS:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Gottfried W. Leibniz, The Jonas Brothers, Karim Garcia, Peter Gabriel, T’Pau, Cookie Monster, Peyton Hillis, Christmas lights in late January, David Sabino, Sylvester Stallone, The Goonies, the number 22, NWA, wrist warts: Cookie Monster’s an easy No. 1. Liebniz, then Sabino, then Stallone, each of whom should be getting more respect. NWA, then Peter Gabriel, then “The Goonies” and T’Pau, all on the plus side. My son likes Christmas lights all year round, but take ‘em down already, people. Then the lesser of two Peytons, and 22 is one less than my favorite number so it sucks. Ugh, Jonas Brothers next, above Karim Garcia—who is that guy? Wrist warts way last, because any hand injury makes pinball a real pain in the ass.

• In 20 words or less, make an argument against M&Ms: Why all these colors? They all taste the same. At least Skittles taste different. They should be named M&Ws.

• Is the mathematical premise of “Good Will Hunting” legitimate?: NO! The problem that Good Will solves at the beginning is a crappy entry-level problem in matrix theory that no MIT student would be amazed by. It’s not even a “theorem” like they said. I have taught many students and teachers to solve that problem, then I show them the movie clip.

• Celine Dion calls—she offers you $4 million to play Naked Pinball Guy in her new 350-day Las Vegas Musical—“Celine Dion Physically Mocks A Naked Pinball Player While Making Him Eat Scallions.” You in?: Ugh, does it have to be scallions?  I’m in, but only if I get earplugs. Her audience retention rate is going to be terrible.

• Is time travel even remotely possible?: It is: you can travel forward in time. Everyone can. Going back in time is hard.

We don’t all travel forward in time at the same speed.  Objects moving faster go forward in time faster. An astronaut returning from nine months at the International Space Station is younger by 1/100 of a second compared to someone who stays on Earth.

• Is there any link between raw athleticism and pinball? Put differently—if, say, RGIII and I have the same pinball experience, can we expect he’d be naturally better?: There’s reaction time, but competitive pinball can be a game of managing pressure, and RGIII is probably going to handle that better. I remember my hands shaking at one of my first tournaments.  I got over it pretty fast. I credit playing pinball for helping me win on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, by knowing how to deal with pressure situations comfortably.

• Pinball scouting report on Todd MacCulloch, former NBA center/current pinball star (and your pal)?: Todd and I just took second in a 48-team tournament in Chicago this weekend. His shooting accuracy is excellent. His catching skills are very good, but he can forget to use them. His nudging skills are poor, which is kind of incredible given his size and potential. The place to beat him is in game strategy, but he is also very coachable and follows a solid game plan when he knows what to do—last weekend he got several personal best scores during the team competition when I could give him advice on shots and goals.  He’s risen quickly: when he won the A Division singles title in Chicago in 2011, his wife assumed he must have won the B Division instead. I heartily enjoyed booing Todd during the Celtics/Nets conference final in 2002, but he miraculously made every free throw he attempted!

• What are the mathematical odds that former KISS drummer Peter Criss is actually Jesus Christ, brought back to earth as a faded musician?: There’s almost a 100 percent chance that some part of Christ’s body is now part of Peter Criss. Seriously.

• Three memories from your first date?: My first date was an eight-hour bus ride from Penn State University to Rhode Island at the end of a weekend math competition, started when exactly the person I hoped decided to sit next to me. We talked about our favorite equations and integrals all night. Okay, maybe it was mostly card games, conversation, and snuggling. But the second date was at her high school … not her high school prom, just visiting her high school during a school day. I did not have “game” or even a driver’s license.

 • Five chain restaurants/stores you’d be happy to never, ever, ever see exist again: 1. Applebee’s, easily; 2. Hooters… but they have good wings!; 3. Little Caesars Drive Thru Pizza. Is that really necessary?; 4. Wetzel’s Pretzels. Just makes me wish it were Auntie Anne’s; 5. Abercrombie. Because that Abercrombie owner guy’s an asshole.

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Rudy May

Screen-Shot-2014-01-09-at-12.11.51-AMLife is quirky, and I have the proof.

Two months ago, my dear friends Robyn and Dave got married. As I was writing the card, I thought I’d be funky and tape something to the front. I looked around and looked around and there, sitting on a desk, was a random, out-of-place 1973 Rudy May Topps baseball card. I had purchased it, oh, 30 years earlier at the Stormville Flea Market, and somehow it stuck around. Hence, I pasted it to the note and never thought much of Rudy May again …

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.24.26 PMUntil a week later. That’s why—without rhyme or reason—Rudy May’s name popped up on my Twitter feed. I added him as a friend because, hey, who wouldn’t add Rudy May as a friend. When I ultimately asked whether he’d join thw Quaz party, Rudy offered an enthusiastic, “Sure!”

And here we are.

For those of you who don’t know, Rudy May was a fantastic Major League lefthanded pitcher; one whose 16-year career resulted in 152 wins, a 3.46 ERA and an appearance in the 1981 World Series. Here, Rudy talks about the fading away of pro athletes; why fishing trumps baseball and why Earl Weaver trumps Billy Martin. One can follow Rudy on Twitter here, and visit his website here.

Rudy May, The Quaz is your kingdom …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Rudy, so there’s this thing with retired athletes that’s sorta funny. The insanely famous ones, we follow (Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, etc). The insanely infamous ones, we follow (Mike Tyson, Steve Howe). The rest, however, sort of vanish. They drift off into the real world, rarely to be heard from again. Rudy, I did some digging—and found almost nothing on your life since retiring from the Majors in 1983. Please, fill us in. What is your life? What have you been doing?

RUDY MAY: I found out in spring training of 1984 that I couldn’t pitch anymore because of injuries to my back, so I retired. When I retired I was set to never work again. After about 10 years, however, my daughters thought it was best that I go back to work, so they badgered me until I did.

I had a friend who lived in Fresno who introduced me to the convenience store business. When I decided to go work, however, I realized I didn’t know how to work. I didn’t know what to do. I had a friend who was managing a convenience store, and he introduced me to it. So that’s what I started doing—making $3.25 an hour.

I struggled at first and I quit. But I went back and thought to myself, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this well.” Within time, I was managing three convenience stores successfully—so much so that they moved me up the corporate ladder to a marketing consultancy position. It wasn’t until I became a marketing consultant that I worked regular business hours and I liked it—9-to-5, five days a week, weekends off. When that company eventually went bankrupt, and I moved onto British Petroleum as a marketing consultant, where I worked for 20 years.  I really enjoyed it there and had a good retirement earlier this year. It was really, really good.

My wife, my grandchildren, fishing and work in the yard: that’s my life now and what really enhances me. At this point, I take more pride in my fishing accomplishments than anything I did in baseball.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.14.38 AMJ.P.: In 1962 you were an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Twins out of Castlemont High School in Oakland. You were 18-years old, un-hyped, unheralded, an African-American kid during a time of much racial uncertainty in America—and you’re sent off to Bismarck of the Northern League. I can’t even imagine what this must have been like. So, Rudy, what was this like?

R.M.: I did really, really well in high school in both baseball and football but I didn’t know anything about racial uncertainty—other than my parents’ talking about it. I was born in Coffeyville, Kansas but we left there when I was a year old. I was raised on the West Coast where my schools were predominantly white.

When I left California, to go to Spring Training in Fernandina Beach, Florida—I was in for a big surprise.  It was in a small town. My initial reporting orders said I was to report to the hotel in the town but it turned out it was for the white players only, so I ended up staying in a black home with the other black players in spring training.

I got into a little bit of trouble because I was the only black player from the West Coast. I didn’t know that I was not conducting myself as I should have been. For instance, the clubhouse was segregated. The whites were on one side and the blacks were on the other … and I was there a whole week before I realized that. I didn’t know. One of my teammates told me, “Why are you going in the front door of the clubhouse? Why are you drinking out of the fountain—you’re not supposed to do that. There’s a bucket in the back for us to drink out of.”

When spring training broke, they were going to send me to a higher class team but they thought if they sent me to the South, there was going to be trouble—so they sent me to Bismarck, North Dakota … and it was fine up there. No problems.

I remember the next year (1964), I was in the White Sox organization. I was playing in the Carolina League on a team that predominantly black—but, at the time, the bathrooms still had signs on the doors that said ‘white men only’ or ‘colored men only’ and ballparks had segregated seating. On the day the Civil Rights Act was passed, we were in Kinston, North Carolina and we were checked out of the black hotel in the middle of the afternoon, and walked through the town to the white hotel—we were scared to death!

J.P.: It’s amazing how all the different miniature Rudy May bios on the Internet fail to mention, perhaps, your most amazing baseball achievement: On April 18, 1965, after less than three full minor league seasons, you reached the Majors, starting for the California Angels against the Detroit Tigers at Dodger Stadium. In that game you went nine innings (against Dennt McLain, as well as a lineup featuring Al Kaline and Willie Horton in the middle), allowing one hit, one run and striking out 10 … and the Angels wound up losing. Rudy, what do you remember about the build-up to that start, and the start itself?

R.M.: I don’t remember a lot from that day. I was so young.

I had made the team out of spring training. Dean Chance developed a blister in his first game, so my manager, Bill Rigney, told me a couple days beforehand that I would be starting in his place.

I told my mom and dad, and asked them if they wanted to come down and watch me play. My dad and my brother flew down from Oakland (it was the first time my dad had ever flown).

As for the game, I remember Jake Wood getting a looping single into center where Jose Cardenal did everything he could to catch it—but couldn’t. I really don’t remember striking out Kaline or Horton, but I know I did. The game was like something that happened but then it had come and gone. It was a great feat, I just don’t remember a lot about it—I was that young.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.15.03 AMJ.P.: I’ve always wondered what Major League clubhouses were like, back in the 1960s and early-70s, when it comes to race relations (I read an article where your dad warned you, “Blacks don’t play baseball!”). There was this odd mix of white Southern ballplayers—who were raised with segregation, and the idea that blacks needed to know their place—with black ballplayers expressing themselves by growing out their hair, speaking out, etc. Was it weird? Uncomfortable? Odd? None of the above?

R.M.: My dad said to me after I pitched my first major league game, “I never would have believed that I would have a son who would play in the Major Leagues.”

My dad played baseball as a catcher and he loved it. And his dad loved it. I, on the other hand, didn’t know much about it. As a youngster I used to watch my dad play for the Navy team. He had all the equipment in the car, and when he wasn’t watching, I used to go and play with it.

But Dad would let me know that there was no place for a black baseball player. Long before that, they had Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays—but dad didn’t want me to go that way because he didn’t believe I had the ability to do it.

My aunt lived across the street from where we played baseball in high school. When we played, a lot of Major League scouts would come and watch. I played with six guys who signed to play pro ball (one was Joe Morgan). My aunt would tell my parents about all the scouts, and how well I was doing. She would give the scouts cards to my mom—but my dad was not interested. He would use baseball to get me to do well in school, and do chores around the house. I had to keep my grades up because there was a chance I was going to get a scholarship, as I was an All-Northern California football player. I was not doing well in English, so my dad told me that I could only pick one sport: football or baseball. I said football—so I played football.

When the football season ended, the baseball one started. Both my parents worked so they didn’t know I kept playing baseball. One night, I came home late and my mom asked me where I had been. I had to tell her and she said, “Well, I can’t protect you. You know your dad is going to find out … but I can’t protect you.”

We had a game against Oakland High School, and I threw a no-hitter. When I got home, I walked in the door, and was sent to my room by my mom. My aunt called and told my mom that all the scouts were excited and talking about me, and they want to talk to her and my dad about my prospects. My mom asked me: “Are you really that good?” and I told her “I’m better than that.”

My dad was very angry. The next morning, my mom came in the room and asked me if I wanted to play baseball. I said yes, so she said “OK, but don’t lie to your dad. He’s going to ask you some questions.”

I went into the living and my dad was reading the morning papers, and he said: “Hey boy … are you playing ball? Don’t lie to me because I’m reading the paper and I see ‘Rudy May pitches no hitter against Oakland High,’ and I was at work yesterday, so I know it wasn’t me! Is this you?” So when I answered yes, he sent me back to my room. My mom eventually came in and said, “Your dad wants to see what you have … I’m serious.”

So we went outside and I started throwing to him. He had his catching gear on, and after a few pitches, he said to my mom: “This boy’s got nothing”—but I can see he’s starting to flinch at my throws.

My mom walks over and she says, “Dad says you don’t have anything.” I said I couldn’t throw the ball hard because he was flinching, and that if I did, he was going to get hurt. She said, “Do you want to play ball?” and I was like, “Yeah!” so she told me to “Give him what you have.”

I threw a three-quarter fastball, he flinched, missed the ball. It hit him in the chest and knocked him over. I ran down there to pick him up and he yelled, “You go get that ball!” When we went back inside and my dad said, “I’m going to let you play but you have to bring those grades up!”

Two years after that, I was in the big leagues.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.14.27 AMJ.P.: On June 15, 1974, you were purchased by the Yankees from the Angels. I know guys feel uncomfortable being traded. I know guys struggle with free agency. What was it like being, literally, purchased by a team? And what was it like for you, a Californian, to have to relocate to New York?

R.M.: It was a blessing in disguise when I got sold. It enhanced my career—it was like I had never played before and I was a whole new player. When I was with California, I was on the brink of being a superb AL pitcher when I hurt my back and it was like I lost everything. I lost my desire to play and my ability at that point. Man, 1973 was a bad year—I wound up in the hospital because of my back. They said I was faking it, that I wasn’t hurt. I had thrown three shutouts in a row and then my back went against Kansas City. For the rest of the year, I was trying to pitch with a bad back. On top of that, things weren’t going well with my pitching coach, and he was real instrumental in getting me sold to the Yankees.

The strange thing about it was that it happened on Monday after the game (June 15). The Angels were playing the Yankees in Anaheim Stadium. So on the Tuesday, I just went to the Yankees clubhouse (next door). On the Wednesday, when the game was over, I got on the bus and flew to New York. When I got off the bus, it was so different than California. I was left standing with nowhere to go. I didn’t even know where to go! So I went to the hotel where we stayed as a visiting player and I checked in there. After getting a good rest, a friend picked me up, and I stayed with him. It was weird.

J.P.: Midway through the 1976 season you were involved in my all-time favorite Major League trade, because it includes so many cool names and interesting players. It involved you, Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan going to the Baltimore Orioles for Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Freeman, Elrod Hendricks, Ken Holtzman and Grant Jackson. What do you recall of the trade? Also, that season, the Yankees went on to play in the World Series—without you. What does that feel like? Did you watch the games? Celebrate? Cry?

R.M.: I didn’t watch the games. I didn’t celebrate or cry.

Something really traumatic happened to me in the weeks leading up to the trade, that’s hard for me to write or talk about even now.

Early in 1976, I pitched against Cleveland. I pitched well, but we lost the game. After the game, I went into Billy Martin’s office because I wanted to talk to him about the game—and he lit me up. He let me know that I would never pitch for him again. I just left it at that and then I didn’t pitch for a while. But things between Billy and I were never the same.

Soon after, Dave Pagan (who took my spot in the rotation) got sick, and he couldn’t pitch a game in Detroit. When I got to the ballpark that day, Billy told me I was pitching that day. Billy said, “I will tell you when you come out of the game!” We had a heated disagreement about me coming out of games prematurely and he didn’t like it when I asked about it. After our talk, he threw a ball at me, and it hit me. That night, I went out and I threw a 1-0 shutout. After the game, we flew to Boston.

The next day, I was in the hotel talking to my mom on the phone when someone came in and told me my wife was there. I knew that was going to cause more trouble with Billy because there was an automatic fine if a wife showed up on the road. I sent her home the next day and everything was fine was fine with Billy at that point.

Then the next night, I was out with Goose Gossage and we stopped at a watering hole, where Billy and Art Fowler happened to be. Goose got into it with Art Fowler. Billy was drunk … I am not going to get into the details—but it was a big hassle. So much so, that that I was psychologically beat.

The season went on and Billy wouldn’t speak to me—and I wouldn’t pitch. One day in Minnesota, Billy was on the clubhouse phone, he looked over at me and started laughing. I didn’t know why. That night, I was back to my room, and Catfish Hunter came back and told me I was trade to the Orioles. Billy had sent him to tell me, instead of telling me himself. I told Catfish I was sorry he had to do that.

It took me a very long time to get over the whole ordeal.

I played for Billy again later in my career but the relationship was superficial. After I retired, I realized that none of it mattered. It was a just a phase in my life and that I needed to forgive Billy. On an old timer’s day, a few years after I retired, I saw him in the clubhouse. I walked up to him, told him that I loved him and that I wished him well. He said the same back to me. We kind of hugged. It wasn’t long after that he died.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.13.26 AMJ.P.: Your calling card was your curveball—a nasty, nasty pitch. How did you learn it? How did you throw it? And do you feel like anyone can learn to throw an effective curve—or is there something inherent about the ability?

R.M.: It was certainly inherent. I threw my breaking ball a certain way. There were a lot of other pitchers in baseball who I asked, looked at, and compared myself to … but there was nothing like it. Guys like Nolan Ryan, Andy Messersmith, Bert Blyleven and Sandy Koufax—but I didn’t throw mine like any of them. It was something I learned out of trial and error.

Whitey Ford and Sammy Ellis worked with me. Whitey didn’t teach me as so much as I was self taught, but he showed me the motion and what I needed to do at the end of the pitch to get the most out of it. The more I worked on it, the better it got. People feared it. It was that devastating. I didn’t learn to pitch until late in my career. But when I was on with it, I could throw it at any time in the count. Hitters had to look for it.

J.P.: You retired in 1983—thirty years ago. There’s a line in the movie Everybody’s All-American, where the main character—a long-ago football star—says, “I’ve told the same stories so many times, I can’t remember them actually happening to me?” Do you ever feel that way? Does baseball seem like another life ago? Does Rudy May—the ballplayer—seem like a different person? Another guy?

R.M.: Yes. I see my life as divided into 3 stages:

1) Adolescence/youth

2) Years as a family man and father

3) And now, the elderly years, with the appearance of grandchildren, and the faltering health as a senior citizen.

When I look back at that, those early parts of my life are gone. People see me as Rudy May the baseball player. My neighbors know that of me, but they don’t think of me like that.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.12.36 AMJ.P.: While you were a ballplayer you also became a professional diver, and received an NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) license in order to be called upon for emergency jobs. Uh … that’s something I’ve never heard of with a ballplayer. Please explain, Rudy. And do you still dive?

R.M.: It’s something I did and enjoyed immensely. What I did was legal but while I was playing baseball, it was illegal. If some of the teams knew that I was doing it, and knew the extent to what I was doing it, they would have disallowed it. It was written out of my Baltimore contract because I got caught.

I wasn’t making any money in baseball but I was making $400 per hour diving. That was good money. It really supplemented my baseball income (which wasn’t much).

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.16.08 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH RUDY MAY:

• Lowest moment of your baseball career?: Retirement

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Lyndon Johnson, Quebec, Google Maps, General Hospital, Abba, Sanford and Son, Jennifer Lawrence, Gloria Steinem, Reggie Jackson, Roberto Duran, cabbage, Alf: Sanford and Son, Roberto Duran, Lyndon Johnson, Gloria Steinem, Reggie Jackson (good when under control), Quebec, all the rest.

• Right now, we give you a month to train, then one start for the University of Delaware baseball team in its game against Towson State. What’s your pitching line?:  9IP, 3H, 1ER, 1BB, 12K—and I get the win. Of course!

• Celine Dion calls—she offers you $5 million to move to Las Vegas for a year and give her 8-year-old son daily 7-hour pitching lessons. You also have to clean her sink and get a tattoo of the Titanic on your neck. You in?: No! Not for $20 million. There’s no fishing in Vegas.

• Five nicest guys you ever played with?: Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, Earl Weaver, Dick Howser, Andre Dawson

• What happens after we die?: We go to heaven (or hell).

• The next president of the United States will be …: I don’t know

• Best advice you ever received?: Keep the ball down.

• My daughter seems to like One Direction. I would like this behavior to immediately stop. Any advice?: That’s a tough one. No. Sorry.

• Who would have won in a fight between Earl Weaver and Billy Martin? How many rounds?: Billy would have won the fight but Earl Weaver and Dick Howser were the best two managers I ever played for. Weaver was the epitome of what a manager was supposed to be.

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Malcolm Hillgartner

Screen-Shot-2014-01-01-at-12.35.36-AMThe Quaz has never been about headlines or showstoppers or making people say, “Dang, you got Walter Mondale/Spike Lee/Will Smith’s sister’s cousin’s uncle’s barber’s friend to do a Q&A!” No, there are few Mondales here. Instead, this is the ultimate mixed bag. John Oates, a KKK leader, Miss Black Iowa, Phil Nevin. If life is truly like a box of chocolates, the Quaz is a REALLY big box of chocolates. Week to week, you never, ever, ever, ever, ever know what you’re going to get. That, to me, is the fun of it all.

Along the serendipity line, today’s featured guest is no exception. Although odds are you’ve never heard of Malcolm Hillgartner, odds are very good you’ve heard Malcolm Hillgartner, one of America’s most prolific readers of audio books. In a word, Hillgartner’s vocal skills are awesome. He read my last book, Sweetness, and did so with such skill and precision and vigor that I found myself dazzled and moved.

Malcolm is also an actor, director and writer—as well as a man who prefers Dave Winfield to Public Enemy. You can hear his voice 1,001 places. Now, however, meet the guy behind the sound.

Malcolm Hillgartner, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Malcolm, I’m gonna start off with an odd one. You read the audio version of Sweetness, my book on Walter Payton. And I thought you did a masterful job. One thing, however, gave me pause. You’re a white dude from North Africa. Walter was a black man from Mississippi. You tried doing his voice—high, a bit of a Southern twang—and I was initially a bit uncomfortable with it; whether it came off as more mimic or imitate (ultimately, I came to appreciate and like it). My question is—how do you figure out how to do voices? When to go for an impersonation, when to just sound like yourself? What goes into such thinking?

MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: It’s not an odd one, it’s a big one, and one I’m still trying to work out in my work. In the audiobook biz the prevailing mode is to go for voices and characters at will in fiction but stay voice neutral in non-fiction. I don’t try to impressions per se, I’m not good at that but I do try to suggest a figure’s personality tonally, and with rhythm, if for no other reason than to help the reader keep the characters distinct and clear. And when the author lobs you a softball down the middle (“Kissinger never lost his guttural, thick German accent”), you go with it.

J.P.: I don’t have to exact figure, but it seems as if you’ve narrated dozens of audiobooks. I say this with all respect, but it strikes me as very isolating, very dull work. Am I off on this? What—besides money—do you get out of the process?

M.H.: My first audiobook, I was pretty nervous going into the studio and was sitting in the booth trying to settle my nerves when the disembodied voice of my engineer Raymond Scully came over my phones and said, “OK. Tell me a story.” And we were off. That’s the pleasure, the satisfaction—bringing an writer’s work to life in a context that’s as old as humanity. Best of all, you as narrator are in total control of what the listener will experience, you’re the madman at the controls of the carnival ride. It’s actually exhilarating.

J.P.: You appear once on the IMDB database—for “The Ruby Princess Runs Away,” which you wrote and appeared in. I’m sure there’s a story behind this—do tell …

M.H.: My wife Jahnna and I have written some 130+ books for children and young adults. They’ve sold about 8 million or so copies, and one of the most successful was a series for young readers called The Jewel Kingdom. We turned the first book of that series into a film, raised the money to produce it. Yes, I acted in it as one of the evil Darklings. The filming experience was a gas and it turned out well … wound up winning a few awards including Best Feature at the Burbank Int’l Children’s Film Festival, rave review in Time, a couple of “Best of …” lists. But we got burned by our distributor, they went bankrupt, we lost our shirts and our house, and I now refer to that time as a “character building experience.”

J.P.: So what, exactly, is the process for you? You’re assigned a book. In this case, we’ll use Sweetness. What happens from there? What do you do, step by step, through the finished product?

M.H.: It isn’t rocket science. Hopefully (and it’s often not the case) you’re assigned a book with enough time to prep it. I read it through with a yellow pad handy, noting and looking up unfamiliar words and names, foreign language pronunciations, etc. I’m also making notes to myself about the arc of the story, where tension mounts, what patches are drier than others, what I’ll do to sustain the listener’s engagement through those patches, etc. If it’s fiction I make choices with character voices, looking for simple hooks that will help the listener navigate passages of quick dialog easily and clearly. If it’s nonfiction I troll YouTube for clips of the actual personages speaking, to get a sense of their rhythm and sound when speaking. I’ll make reference samples of voices I want to use for each character on a handheld recorder so I can refresh my memory on a character during the reading, which on a big book, can take weeks.

I used to write my notes onto the manuscript pages but these days I, like most narrators, read from an iPad (no noisy page turns, you can read fluidly for longer) and use an app called iAnnotate to load a PDF of the book, and mark it up on the screen. And then I go into my studio and start recording. Again, like many narrators today, I do my own engineering, running my recording software from inside my home booth (a 4×4 foot enclosure I affectionately call the Pit of Despair). In audiobook narration you’re paid by what’s called the finished hour, that is the final edited patch of narration that’s heard by the listener, not the time spent in the studio making mistakes, rethinking your attack on a passage, etc. A good ratio to aim for is 2:1—two hours in the studio for every finished hour. Most skilled narrators do better than that; I fall into the 1.5:1 range. So I try to get three finished hours in a day. Usually I get there in less than six hours. Fiction reads more quickly than nonfiction, for lots of reasons, not the least of which it’s usually more fun. But good nonfiction develops a narrative thrust that equals that of fiction and can fly by with the same intensity of engagement you get in a good story. I had that experience with Sweetness, and more recently with a book by Scott Anderson called Lawrence in Arabia. After a session there’s busy work cleaning up the files, checking for and editing out noises, converting them to wav files, uploading to the publisher’s FTP site, where their in house production people take over, and gussy everything up for the actual audiobook publication. If they find mistakes in proofing I redo those sections. And then I move on to the next project.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 12.35.05 AMJ.P.: I know you’re from North Africa, I know you act and narrate. But what’s your life path? Where were you born? Raised? How did you end up in America? And how did you end up doing books? In short (or long): What the hell are you doing here?

M.H.: I grew up in Tangier, Morocco but I was born in Indianapolis. My dad was a radio engineer at WIBC and joined the fledgling VOA (Voice of America) shortly after I was born. VOA had a relay station in Morocco and that was his first position (we later went to Thailand and Sri Lanka). North Africa was a great place to grow up as a kid. Although Tangier has the reputation of being the Tijuana of Africa, that experience is for tourists, not people who live there. Tangier has a beautiful wide crescent of a beach about five miles long; the apartment we lived in was right across from it. Summer was spent in a bathing suit, swimming, getting sunburned, playing beach soccer, pickup basketball, meeting girls. My school was like a model UN, mostly Moroccans but kids from everywhere. I was 6-foot-2 in eighth grade so of course I played basketball and stood out like a sore thumb (my teammates used to call me Snowflake) but they were some of the best guys I ever knew, mostly Arabs and Berbers but my best friend from kindergarten through high school was a Moroccan Jew. We’re still in touch, he lives in Madrid these days.

I was also a musician, my brother and I had a rock band with some local guys, we were playing clubs when I was 12. Heady times in the mid-60s. I came back to the states after my sophomore year of high school and suffered culture shock on a grand scale. Going from a lively city with stuff to do 24/7 to a sleepy agricultural college town in California was tough—a few weeks after starting school in California, some guys invited me to hang out one Saturday night. Naive me thought we’d hit some clubs, hear some bands, etc, go to a party, maybe. But no. Explained one guy with great excitement, “We’re going to go to the 7-Eleven, boost a few cases of beer, go out to the levee and drink until we puke!” Sad to say, I made the adjustment without much problem … went on to college at UC Santa Cruz and Davis, became an actor, worked the regional circuit here and in Europe until my early thirties. My wife and I started writing YA books in New York City as something to do between acting jobs. The contracts started coming, the books took over, and we realized we could write from anywhere. So we went to Maine, Oklahoma (don’t ask why), Virginia, Montana (we had our son in Virginia so he could be president, our daughter in Montana so she could ride rodeo) and wound up in Oregon, writing books, scripts, plays, musicals, catalogs, industrial films, commercials, whatever paid the mortgage and, more recently, tuition. I kept acting, too, but only from time to time. Friends kept saying, “You have a great voice, you should do audiobooks.” I put together a demo CD, sent it to Blackstone. Grover Gardner called me and had me read some more, and gave me my first audiobook. I’ve done more than 100 since November 2007.

Malcolm and Jahnna Beecham, his wife, as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre.

Malcolm and Jahnna Beecham, his wife, as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre.

J.P.: Do you think print is doomed for death? Is there a way to save it? Do we need to? And how does the rise of all things digital impact your career?

M.H.: No. But it will be a niche medium, I think. When you can put a library on a tablet and take it anywhere, it’s hard to justify shelves of paper and cardboard. Hardcovers will be reserved for collectible editions. I think textbooks will—and should—be completely digital. But there’s too much pleasure and convenience in handling a print version of a book for it to go away forever. Personally, I live the tactile joy of opening and reading a new book. (And I much prefer being hit in the face with a book when I fall asleep reading in bed than a Kindle or Nook.)
As for my career, things digital have made all the difference. Jahnna and I could never have written 130 books with a typewriter and cut-and-paste editing with scissors, et al. Digital recording software has made it possible for me to record from home affordable; and I doubt audiobooks would be as popular as they have become without the advent of downloads.

J.P.: What separates the crap narrators from the good ones from the great ones?

M.H.: Good narrators do the right things, the story flows, the characters are vividly defined and the listener is engaged and delighted. The difference between good and great? Only my opinion but … with a great one the narration appears effortless, it’s seamless storytelling, never flashy or showy. You’re so involved you’re barely aware they’re there. Too many narrators work too hard to entertain, you hear the work involved, it’s too self-referential, “Hey, look how many voices, accents I can do!” Not the great ones. I aspire to that quality.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 12.34.21 AMJ.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

M.H.: In audiobooks it’s all been pretty good. However, I’ve only been doing this for five years or so. As a writer it has to be getting the go-ahead to write two series in the same week. That was a big day, followed by a year of absolute hell writing a book a month, doing rewrites, correcting galleys with overlapping deadlines. So that was a hi-lo twofer.

J.P.: How does the quality of a book impact your narration of it? How does your interest in a book impact your narration of it? Is it hard to bring you’re a game if you’re bored as hell?

M.H.: Quality is huge. Badly written books are agony, requiring so much more effort to just make presentable. You have to tweak lines over and over with emphasis and inflection just to make them comprehensible. Great stuff is like buttah. Like driving a classic Mercedes 500 SL. Smooth, silky, powerful. Bad ones? I have been known to stick my head out of the booth and scream, “This guy sucks!” at my 13-year-old black Lab, who parks herself outside the booth while I record. Thank god she’s deaf and doesn’t notice.

A younger Malcolm Hillgartner in Tangier, Morocco. A younger Malcolm Hillgartner in Tangier, Morocco.

J.P.: Would you/have you ever turned down a project? Let’s say you’re asked to narrate Sarah Palin’s book? Or Barack Obama’s book? Or some KKK skinhead’s book? How does that work for you? Are there conflicts within?

M.H.: I’ve considered it. I lean to the left and I’ve read stuff by people way off to the right that made my gorge rise. But, just as lawyers represent the guilty, I feel everyone has a right to be heard. The First Amendment thing. And the actor in me finds it fascinating to get a glimpse inside a mindset I may disagree with or find reprehensible and find a human commonality in there. So yeah, I’ve squirmed with it but so far haven’t reached the, “Not that … no way!” point.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 12.32.42 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH MALCOM HILLGARTNER:

• If your name weren’t Malcolm Hillgartner, what would you like it to be?: Chuck Yeager.

• Five all-time favorite books?: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles; A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean; Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard; Kim by Rudyard Kipling.

• Without looking, tell me five things about Walter Payton: He was from Mississippi; He played for the Chicago Bears; He was one of the best running backs of all time; When the Bears finally won the Super Bowl, he couldn’t enjoy it because he wasn’t the star that day; He might be one of the saddest celebrities I’ve ever read about.

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Nelson Mandela, Twitter, Dave Winfield, Hartford, Men Without Hats, Twix Bars, the number 77, MacBook Pro, “Candle in the Wind,” Whitney Houston, 10k road races, Public Enemy: 1. Nelson Mandela: one of the most impressive figures in history, period; 2. Hartford (only because Mark Twain lived there); 3. MacBook Pro (been a Mac guy since the Mac II); 4. Dave Winfield (don’t have strong feelings about Winfield—who seemed more talented than his career turned out to be. But I like baseball, although I came to it late as a fan, having grown up overseas. My first Major League game was July 31, 1971 at Candlestick Park, a 13-12 slugfest between Giants and Pirates. Willie Stargell homered twice, Mays made one of those eye-popping catches he was famous for but a San Francisco rookie named Dave Kingman stole the show with his first Major League grand slam in the seventh. Funny how you remember that stuff.); 5. 10k road races (don’t actually run these but I feel I should); 6. Twix bars (Meh. I’m a Snickers guy myself); 7. The number 77 (only ranked this high because I dislike the rest intensely); 8. Twitter; 9. Men Without Hats; 10. Whitney Houston; 11. Candle in the Wind; 12. As for Public Enemy, can’t comment. They may be ranked 44th on the Rolling Stone’s all-time greatest groups list but they had all their mainstream success in late 80s-early 90s when I was living in rural Montana and my kids were little and my musical universe consisted of Raffi and Barney and Reba and Garth et al.

• What’s the greatest word of all time?: Yes.

• If someone offered you the opportunity to never have to go to the bathroom again, would you take it? Why or why not?: No. Like a good thriller, both types of human elimination provide perfect avenues to deliver the exquisite double whammies of tension and relief.

• Would you rather have to spend two years repeatedly narrating the same three pages, or have to spend that time cleaning the toilets at Citi Field?: This is a choice? Pass.

• Which guy has more talent, Hall or Oates?: The one with the mustache. Since he was never the front man in their partnership you have to figure he was the genius in their songwriting team. They wrote some good songs in their early days, She’s Gone, et al. And Hall’s solo efforts were just awful. And being a guitar player I always go for the axe over the keyboard.

• Why do you suspect breakfast cereal costs so much money?: They have to recoup all the money they spent thinking up all those stupid offers and pseudo-giveaways on the boxes.

• You and your wife, Jahnna Beecham, wrote a musical, Holmes and Watson Save the Empire! Give me the plot in, exactly, 22 words: What is Queen Victoria’s secret? Who is the Nightingale of Nuremburg? And why is Watson wearing her dress? Holmes must find out.

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June Beck

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Welcome to the very special Christmas edition of the Quaz.

Oh, wait—I’m Jewish. And not especially interested in ornament-laced trees. This, however, doesn’t mean that I’m completely cold to holiday magic. That’s why, a bunch of weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch with Kid One and Kid Two watching the original “Miracle on 34th Street”—a genuinely excellent film about Macy’s and Santa and the joy of Christmas. Midway through the movie, I began wondering about the leading woman, and whatever became of her. This led me to the Internet. And to IMDB. And, ultimately, to a place called Maureen O’Hara Magazine.

Um …

Yes, there is a Maureen O’Hara Magazine—a website 100-percent devoted to the life and times of the 93-year-old Irish actress. Which, of course, begs the question, “Who the hell devotes a website to a 93-year-old Irish actress?” Which, of course, resulted in my sending an e-mail to June Beck. Which, well, resulted in today’s Quaz—an ode to the random unpredictability of this weekly Q&A session.

Turns out June is a wonderful woman who views her site as a method to keep a legacy alive. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. June Beck, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, June, so usually these Q&As are reserved for somewhat-to-very famous folks. Ballplayers,  actors,  politicians, etc. You’re not famous. You’re June Parker Beck, and you run an online magazine in honor of Maureen O’Hara, a 93-year-old actress probably best remembered for her starring role in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Uh, June, why in the world do you run an online magazine in honor of Maureen O’Hara, a 93-year-old actress probably best remembered for her starring role in “Miracle on 34th Street”?

JUNE BECK: I frequently ask myself that same question. In fact, I have done so periodically for the last 20 years. In 1991, working as a secretary in the special needs department, I sat in a cubicle at the district office of the Tempe Elementary School District typing psych evaluations for school psychologists. We had already been introduced to computers back in 1983, giving way to a great revelation in word processing—”Goodbye typewriters!” I was then rounding the ‘age 55′ corner and I guess I had sort of lapsed into an identity crisis. My five kids were almost all grown (a couple were still in high school) and I simply wanted to find some of the me that used to be before the wife and mother thing.

I’d always been involved in the performing arts in community theater and also loved to write. The logical choice for me at that time was to try my hand at writing. One of my friends was a successful freelance writer and the only advice he offered to me as a beginner was to first write about something I liked and knew a little about. Feminism was a big issue back then (of which I had very little knowledge), but I thought of Maureen O’Hara, one of my favorite actresses when I was in high school in the 1950s. So there you have it … I decided to write about Maureen O’Hara being a feminist in her own time. And the games began. I surged forward not having a clue as to what I was doing.

Maureen O'Hara from myriad gigs.

Maureen O’Hara from myriad gigs.

J.P.: When I initially contacted you, you were surprised. You wrote: “Are you sure anyone would be interested in the ramblings of an old grey-haired broad like me? However, on the flip side, I sure have had quite an adventure the past 20 years knowing Maureen, her family, and doing the website. Never a dull moment and meeting people I never would have known in my lifetime, I’m sure. Better than playing Bingo every Tuesday night.” I’m fascinated by this—what’s the adventure been like? What are the thrills?

J.B.: As I began research on my first story (which, incidentally, I sold almost immediately to some now-defunct cinema nostalgia magazine for $250) about Maureen O’Hara, I quickly learned that she was no ordinary actress. Search engines on the Internet weren’t like they were today, so I had to camp at the local library and pour over the microfiche offerings and books. I quickly learned that to get facts about Maureen I had to read about director John Ford, and, of course, the legendary John Wayne.

Maureen’s marriage to Gen. Charles Blair, the famed pilot, was another whole world and I learned a little bit about aeronautics—specifically “seaplanes.” Blair owned “Antilles Airboats,” a commuter service in the Caribbean based in St. Croix, VI. After Blair’s tragic death in an airplane crash in the 1970s, Maureen took the reins and became the first woman to ever manage a scheduled airline.

Then we have her parents and her siblings; her mother was a former opera singer and her father was a clothier in Dublin and part owner of the Shamrock Rovers—Ireland’s pro soccer team. Her brother, Charles, was a solicitor (lawyer) and the youngest in his country to ever attain this academic degree; another brother, Jimmy raced motor bikes; a sister, Margot, was an equestrian who competed in dressage. It just goes on and on. One path would take me here and another would take me there. It just kept on going—on and on. It put me in constant contact with people all over the world. I found myself on a plane to Los Angeles (a short flight from the Phoenix area where I live) and had somehow set up interviews with actress Anna Lee in her home in Hollywood; producer Paul Keyes in West Lake Village (he produced the TV party in 1976—”All-Star Tribute to John Wayne,” in which Maureen sang to Duke “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.” Keep in mind that I had no idea how to conduct an interview but my subjects were very patient and kind. Thank God!

Probably the key to it all came after a friend in Los Angeles, writer Angela Fox Dunn, helped me set up an interview with Maureen’s brother, Charles FitzSimons, who was then executive director of the Producers Guild. That was without question the interview that opened the door.

My oldest son, Jimmy, then in grad school in Seattle, suggested to me that since I had gathered all this information I should put it into the form of a website. The Internet was just in its infancy then and I assured him that I was not capable of doing this; I didn’t have the cyberspace skills. Jimmy is really the one responsible for it all getting started in this then fairly ‘new’ media. He agreed to start it for me on the web space he had there at the university. I’d send him photos and text and he’d publish it. Eventually he became so busy with his studies he told me I’d have to do it myself. I said I couldn’t …. he said I could … and I did.

I dabbled a little bit in computer graphics and as the website became rather popular it kept me busy researching and writing. In 1993 Maureen’s brother, Charlie, saw the site, liked it and felt it would be a good way to get accurate info out there on Maureen. And the rest just happened. The subsequent publishing of an extension page on Facebook a couple of years ago started out slowly but now is doing well and I find it much more fun than the regular site. More one-to-one interaction. Probably a high point in my research was a trip to Ireland in 1999—I visited Maureen there in her village of Glengarriff, and saw all of “The Quiet Man” film sites with Prof. Des MacHale, author and artist Paddy McCormick as my tour guides. That was, as they say today, “amazing.” Or should I saw “awesome?”

The glamorous Maureen O'Hara.

The glamorous Maureen O’Hara.

J.P.: Your web magazine is all about Maureen O’Hara, little about you. So, June, what’s your story? Where are you from? What’s your life been? How did you get here?

J.B.: I’m the youngest of four children from a little town in Northern Illinois named Ashton. It’s about 110 miles from Chicago (near Rockford). I had the best of both worlds. We would frequently travel to Chicago to the museums, ballets, operas, etc. on school field trips and then return to the security of what I called my “Dick, Jane and Baby Sally” town. My parents were divorced when I was very young and my mother raised all four of us with no help or support from my father. I did, however, have such a wonderful, loving family; aunts, uncles … the whole nine yards and I don’t know if when you get my age you have selective memory, but I feel I had a great childhood. Our small school had a huge focus on music and the performing arts so I began performing from first grade on and loved it. After high school graduation I moved to nearby Dixon, Illinois (Ronald Reagan’s hometown), and got a job as a secretary and became active in local community theater. I married at the age of 27 (considered spinsterhood in that decade)—had five kids, moved to Arizona in 1974 … and here I am, age 76, retired, editing a website and chatting with Maureen O’Hara on the phone several times a week. Who woulda thunk it?


J.P.: There’s something about your site that makes me quite sad, and I’ll explain it thusly: It’s hard to see someone as beautiful as Maureen once was now in her 90s, old and wrinkly and—according to a story I found—struggling with short-term memory. Perhaps it’s a reminder to me (healthy, age 41) that, inevitably, we all crumble and decline and fade off. In keeping your site, and routinely looking back at Maureen in her heyday, do you ever feel this way? Do you even know what I mean?


J.B.: I know exactly what you mean. As I, myself, begin this decline at age 76, I feel my purpose in all of this is finally become more clear to me. Everybody raves about how beautiful … how pretty …. how gorgeous Maureen is—and I do so want them to appreciate the Maureen that I have come to know. Her work ethic, her stamina, the odds even “pretty” people have to battle. What amazes me is that the website visitors can see Maureen’s aging in recent photos—and yet to them she is forever beautiful. I frequently share the following e-mail I received a few years ago from Jeanine Basinger, author and cinema professor at Wesleyan University. To me it says it all …

“I was thrilled to hear from you because from childhood onward I have loved Maureen O’Hara. I am pleased you’ve liked what I’ve written because I think she is both totally fabulous and underestimated … not that she’s hurting for loyal fans or appreciation … but she should have even MORE than she has. She is a fine actress, a stunningly beautiful woman (one of the most so in film history) a versatile performer and a real icon. As I say in my new book, many of the “legends” never appeared in as many films that are taught in colleges now as O’Hara did. To my students she is better known (and more loved) than Davis, Crawford, Garbo or many others. I believe that history is turning her into the legend she really is, and making a superstar out of her! Just being in the John Ford movies … playing opposite Wayne as much as she did … or appearing in the annual showings of “Miracle on 34th Street” alone guarantees her legend.  And there’s more. I have to stop here because I have to go to class, and could go on and on. Please tell Ms. O’Hara that I send all my regards, my deepest appreciation, and my admiration and respect for her life, both professionally and personally.

Jeanine Basinger

June and Maureen at the airport in Phoenix, mid-1990s.

June and Maureen at the airport in Phoenix, mid-1990s.

J.P.: Your Facebook page has 35,326 Likes. That’s huge. How do you explain this?

J.B.: You’ve got me. I can’t explain it. Yet for 20 years it has remained constant. Perhaps it’s all those classic films like Hunchback of Notre DameHow Green Was My Valley, The Parent Trap, or the ever-popular The Quiet Man that remain so beloved that they keeps her center stage and creates a continued interest. People don’t have to build shrines or film schools or form foundations to honor Maureen O’Hara. Her legacy will continue without them just fine.

J.P.: Having devoted so much time to Maureen’s film career, how do you feel movies from the 1940s, 50s and 60s compare to today? Better? Worse? And do you think a young Maureen O’Hara does well in today’s Hollywood? Or was she a performer for a different period?

J.B.: I have seen so few movies of today that this is a difficult question for me. I do love the special effects and technology that allows them limitless art on the screen. My fourth son, Danny Beck, is an artist in California and worked for Blizzard Entertainment as a character designer for computer games for a time so I am exposed to at least some of the trends in that area. As far as drama and comedy of today—not so much. The last movie I saw on the big screen was Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and I loved it! I do watch a lot on TV and most are a bit too graphic; more left to the imagination to me is always the best. Does that sound like a grandma or what?

J.P.: When I look at the old black-and-white Hollywood pictures on your site, I feel—somewhat remorsefully—that I missed a golden age. True? Or is it just the power of good cameras and cool dresses?

J.B.: In this day and age, if you’re so inclined, the golden age is right at your fingertips on your computer. From Turner Classic Movies for feature films to the wonderful YouTube to see clips from the great films, etc., etc. I do, however, feel it’s important that we move on with the world. All these things are a foundation for the entertainment and things we enjoy today. I feel people my age who are turning their backs on the technology and proudly denouncing it all are making a huge mistake. Scoffing at smart phones, Facetime, and Kindles makes no sense. I don’t see any of them driving a Model-T Ford! Nothing irritates me more than when I approach a check-in window at a bank or even my physician and the clerk talks down to me like I’m a child just because my hair is grey. LOL

J.P.: What’s your day like? How do you update regularly on an actress who no longer acts?

J.B.: I roll out of bed at 4 am, check my email, have breakfast in front of the computer and, at about 6 o’clock, I sometimes take a quickie nap and then start my household chores. I usually call Maureen around 11 am—we chat a bit and what we call “long distance tea” together. The reason for the early rising is twofold. First is that when Maureen was in Ireland over a year ago, they are eight hours ahead of us so to contact her, or various media contacts there, I had to get up early. Also, having five kids who as babies all woke before sun up, well, my body clock adjusted and remains so today.

J.P.: Why do you think we care so much about celebrity? I mean, they’re just people who sing and dance and entertain, no? So why do we devote so much time and energy to them?

J.B.: You are absolutely right—they are just people. Maureen helped me a lot with understanding that making movies is a job. I went to work in an office; she went to work on a movie set. In her line of work the possibility of celebrity status makes the end result quite different, but it’s still work; mortgages to pay, kids to raise. I think people love the seeming excitement of it all. Just as movies are an escape from reality, so is losing oneself in the lifestyle of the rich and famous. I once said to Maureen, “You always look good.” Her response: “The hell I do!”

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JUNE BECK:

• Five best movies involving Maureen O’Hara?: Maureen was cast in many male-driven adventure films—especially in the studio days when they had no choice in the roles they played. However, she was cast in enough classics to go on forever and she was rescued by John Ford for several films that gave her the chance to really show her acting skills. In my humble opinion, I’d say her best films are: McLintock (the most popular of all, believe it or not); Sitting Pretty, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Quiet Man and a made-for-TV film in 1972 with Henry Fonda—The Red Pony. One more I must mention and is hardly known by most is The Deadly Companions with Maureen, Brian Keith, Chill Wills and Steve Cochran. It never received proper distribution in the States but was produced by Maureen’s brother, Charles FitzSimons, and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It’s so nice to Maureen seen un-glamorous and a little disheveled for a change. Her acting was fantastic; just like “The Red Pony.”

• You’ve probably seen Miracle on 34th Street a dozen times (or more?). I’m an agnostic Jew with a 7-year-old son who’s slightly confused over why Santa doesn’t visit our house. What should I tell him?: I can’t help you there. I was lucky to get my five kids raised. Remember the days when every parent wanted their sons to be doctors, lawyers and dentists? “My son the doctah!” Not today. I have four sons (one daughter—the youngest) and I’m cool because I’ve got a computer genius, an artist, and two more computer guys as well. One declutters my computers, the other writes code, another keeps my iPhone updated. I am very pampered.

• Five reasons one should make Phoenix his/her next vacation destination?: Great winters! Summer not for sissies (does the word “inferno” mean anything to you?). Very few natives, almost all transplants from some other state; and you’ve got mountains and desert—take your pick. Phoenix is kind of like Los Angeles in slow motion. And with flatter terrain.

• One question you would ask Drake were he here right now?: ????

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Tom Glavine, Elvis Costello, apples, seltzer, Ernie Ford, Snoop Dogg, Henry Mancini, Facebook, Coors Light, Dublin, Russell Wilson, candied yams, NBC, Pat Robertson: Ernie Ford. He outshines them all. Bless your little pea-pickin heart!

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 11.36.33 PM• What did it mean to you to win the Mesa Tribune’s 1997 Mother’s Day Essay Contest?: Oh boy—that’s a good one. It meant so much to me because it said what I wanted to say to honor the wisdom of my mom. But I had to actually consolidate all these feelings into just a small amount of words. That in itself is an accomplishment.

• Best piece of advice you’ve ever received: As I said in the winning essay for “Mother’s Day”—Her simply telling me that during all rough times we must be thankful that we are together and have the strength of family and friends to support us through whatever comes to us in life.

• I know someone who drinks between six and eight liters of Diet Coke every day. How can I help her?: Offer them some R.C. – no artificial sweeteners.

• You have five kids, and you seem perfectly sane. How is this possible?: I must concede that perhaps I have to have been a bit crazy myself to get through it all. I was a PTA president but I was not a “normal” mom. As toddlers they were dancing around the house to Broadway show tunes, and doing ballet leaps off the arm of the sofa. I am probably the only mom in the world who went to her 5-year old eldest son for advice on how to handle various life situations. That kid was 40 when he was born.

• Fill in the blank: “The one thing everyone should know about Maureen O’Hara is …: how very much she loves her family and how important they are to her. I remember when she was writing her autobiography, Tis herself, and I was assisting in the research she wanted to include more about them, but she was limited to a certain page count by the publisher. Her pride in her Irish heritage also factored into just about every part of her life. If anyone has ever seen the 1957 TV show, This Is Your Life Maureen O’Hara, and see her with that wonderful family and their interaction even at that very public moment of bringing them together, they would understand. This kind of devotion and loyalty held steadfast through so many obstacles in her life (some fairly recent).

Screen-Shot-2013-12-17-at-10.29.42-AM

John Degl


degl

A pre-Quaz story …

One day, as an eighth grader at Mahopac Junior High, I was playing Wiffle Ball in gym class. Someone hit a soft pop fly. I drifted back. A kid named John Degl drifted in. We slammed into one another, and the ball fell to the ground. Degl scowled my way. Then, when class ended, I spotted him walking toward me. Closer. Closer. Closer. POP! He punched me in the face—hard. Like, harder than I’d ever been punched. Tears immediately streamed down my cheeks, and my jaw throbbed.

Upon entering my next class, Chris Guadagnoli asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I got hit,” I said, “by John Degl.”

Over the ensuing year, I lived in fear of John Degl. He kicked my books a few times, ripped a poster from my hand. He was a tough kid with an apparent chip on his shoulder; I was a geek runner with acne. I avoided him at all costs. It was, for me, awful.

Fast forward to 2003. I’m writing “The Bad Guys Won” about the 1986 Mets, and the first chapter concerns my boyhood in Mahopac. I think back to those days—watching baseball in Mr. Gargano’s house. The acne. The loneliness. John Degl. So I jot down this passage …

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.50.23 AMShortly after the book comes out, one of John Degl’s pals sends me an e-mail saying, more or less, “Why would you write such a thing? John’s a good guy.” My rapid-fire initial reaction is to laugh—karma, it is a bitch. Then, I’m hit by guilt. Did I really hurt John Degl’s feelings? I certainly harbored no grudge—it was merely a story from back in the day; a fleeting incident from a fleeting period of time. The whole thing inspires me to do some research on John Degl. I find out that, since high school, he went on to wrestle at the University of Iowa, then to coach at multiple places. He’s a husband, a father, a guy from Mahopac—just like me.

For many years, I wanted to reach out. I believe I called him once, without getting a reply. As the years passed, I felt worse and worse and worse. Are we really supposed to hold people to acts from 20 years ago? Was it fair to memorialize a guy on the first page of my book?

Hmm …

Hence, I am thrilled—beyond thrilled—to have John Degl as today’s Quaz. Not only did John punch me in the acne-coated face, but he’s someone I now consider a friend. He runs his own wrestling academy, Iowa Style Wrestling, and his saga is one of overcoming multiple obstacles to reach a dream.

John Degl, it’s an honor to have you as today’s Quaz Q&A …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, John, so I’m gonna start this one off with something very personal, and we’ll go from there. And the reason I feel OK asking this is because I feel I’ve developed very nice friendship via Facebook with you and your wife, and time has passed, and blah, blah, blah. So … when we were in junior high together, you punched me in the face after a gym class—then bullied me for a spell. You were a big dude, I was not. You were tough, I was a wuss. Years later, I actually wrote about this in the first chapter of my Mets book—and several people said to me, “I was afraid of John Degl, too.” John, this is anything but an attack, or an assault. I simply feel the need to ask: Looking back those 26 … 27 years, who were you? Why did you seem so angry? And, now at age 40, does that help you understand what kids with similar dispositions are thinking?

JOHN DEGL: People thought I was angry, but I wasn’t angry per se. What I wanted was to be left alone. I loved to read. I loved to compete. I loved chess. I loved art. (I was an art major at Iowa) What I did not like was school. I hated school. I hated being stuck inside. I was super competitive, and I wanted challenges. So if I seemed angry it was because I was forced to be in a classroom that was not reaching me. I had some great teachers and I was always fine in their classes, but mostly I had good teachers and they didn’t do it for me. School was a bad environment for me. In kindergarten I had a teacher who I despised. She jaded my opinion of education. I was a little kid who was not good at managing my frustrations. That turned into a high school kid who couldn’t wait to get to practice every afternoon.

As a kid I had two sides—sweet and sour. The bad side was very mean and if I felt threatened my fight-or-flight response was not flight. I always went to attack mode. There was no middle ground or attempt to see things from the other’s point of view. I viewed everything as a zero sum game. I either won or lost and I hated losing. That, I can’t explain. My parents are great, generous and kind. My brother was nothing like me. My parents didn’t fight or have any major issues. My grandparents were all alive well into my teens. We had enough and more than many. I never suffered or had any reason to act the way I did. Even to this day I have a very strong idea (my own code, so to speak) of right and wrong and if I feel wronged in any way I have to be careful to not lash out. As a kid I didn’t have that skill. I think what happened when I hit you and the subsequent bullying was just a simple case of you not caring about winning that Wiffle ball game and that made us enemies in my head. It’s not very flattering to admit. But I remember you dropping the fly ball and I said, “What the **** “and you were probably defensive and I considered that an affront so I hit you. Then I was mad at you forever and picked on you when I saw you. If my child acted like I did I would be mortified. My poor parents did a better job than I represented. I was taught better but this almost compulsive need to be right or win made me make many poor choices.

Now I am a coach and I see all kinds of kids and I do understand that what happens in their mind is very real to them. It doesn’t matter if it is illogical to us as adults. The human brain is not fully developed until our early to mid 20s, yet we expect them to be adults at 16. We give them cars, phones and the power to ruin their lives in an instant. The mind of a child or teen is not the same as an adult. Their friends sometimes mean so much that it is impossible to convince them that other things are more important. They worry about money and yet they have their whole lives to work. It is crazy what they think is important but they believe so strongly, it’s a major challenge to approach them in a way that will help them. It took me many years and, admittedly, I still fall back into old habits sometimes when I am arguing with a high school student-athlete I coach. It’s the hardest thing to work in their reality. To talk to them in terms of what they think about as important. I have learned that to help a teen it is critical to not embarrass them in any way; to be super patient and to let them find the answer themselves through very precarious guidance. It’s so easy to lose them to girls, drugs, alcohol, cars, Internet fantasy world, or just to making money because they want gas money. I feel my many imperfections make it easier to deal with them because now that I am “old” they look at me as not a friend but an adult (aka: the enemy), so I work hard at establishing a relationship of trust. I over-share sometimes to let them know that I, too, was very flawed. For sure the mistakes of my youth help me as a coach, but I wouldn’t recommend so many mistakes for anyone looking at coaching as a profession.

Degl, right, alongside his early wrestling hero, Mahopac High's Phil Mazzurco.

Degl, right, alongside his early wrestling hero, Mahopac High’s Phil Mazzurco.

J.P.: You own and operate Iowa Style Wrestling, a wrestling academy in Putnam County, N.Y. John, how do you explain your love for the sport? What is it about wrestling that does it for you?

J.D.: I love wrestling because for the most part it is pure. A bad call can screw you but, unlike baseball or football, you can control your own fate. In this regard it’s even better than boxing, because the scoring is immediate and you can make up for a bad move or bad call with a pin. You are almost always “in” the match.

My first love was baseball. I wanted to be Bucky Dent. In eighth grade I missed tryouts due to having surgery. My appendicitis burst. I missed tryouts and the coach refused me a later tryout. I didn’t like that answer so I asked the head varsity coach to intercede. The head varsity coach intervened and I was put on the team. The coach was so mad about me going over his head he never played me. One day our catcher dropped a ball or had someone steal on him and I said something derogatory, so the coach—knowing I had never caught ( I was always at shortstop)—said, “Can you do better?” I said yes, and he put me into to embarrass me or shut me up. However I was better at catcher than at short. Who knew? So I played the rest of the season and in ninth and tenth grades I was the starting catcher until I gave up baseball to concentrate on wrestling. I realized that in baseball I was at the mercy of a coach’s opinion, while in wrestling I was master of my fate. So painfully—very painfully—I quit baseball.

Even then wrestling was my third-best sport. I also loved football and wanted to play it in college. All my recruiting trips were for football. I was all set to play football at Columbia or Union but didn’t want to decide until after wrestling season just in case. Well, I won states and that changed everything. I wanted to go to Iowa. That’s all I wanted. They told me no and don’t even bother applying because the wrestling team is full. Coach Jim Zalesky, who later became a great friend, flat out told me don’t come to Iowa, because I couldn’t wrestle there. So I listened and found myself at Manhattan College. I followed my high school idol, Phil Mazzurco. No sooner did I get their then I knew it was not for me. I was not meant for the Bronx. I told my family that I was going to Iowa with or without their help. I bought a plane ticket and showed up on the first day of the second semester. I had no classes and nowhere to live. I enrolled and went straight to the wrestling room where I was told no again—only this time by Dan Gable, the head coach. He said I would quit and that there were no spots left, but I could watch. I did this every day for more than a month before he walked up to me and said, “You promise you won’t quit? It’s, like, $300 wasted if you quit. I need to get you a physical and a mouthguard and they are expensive.”

Nowhere else can you walk on to the reigning national champions and make the team. What sport? Try walking on at Duke basketball or at Alabama football.

Wrestling does it for me because no one can stop you if you don’t let them. You can’t hide, you suck because you suck or you are great because you earned it. No excuses.

Degl, standing and third from right, was a star at Mahopac High School

Degl, standing and third from right, was a star at Mahopac High School

J.P.: Back when I arrived at the University of Delaware in 1990, the school was eliminating its wrestling program—as many colleges continue to do. Why do you think schools so eagerly and willingly cut wrestling programs? And do you worry about the sport, ultimately, vanishing from the Division I college scene?

J.D.: Wrestling is easy to cut. It is a minor sport at many institutions. It costs very little in the grand scheme of things but you can get 20-to-40 males off the list of athletes to make the gender equity portion of Title IX more manageable. If you cut basketball its 10 kids, even lacrosse and baseball have small rosters compared to wrestling.

Coach Gable has been a huge advocate for wrestling. He has tried to combat the cutting of programs. Some have fought successfully to get outside funding that Title IX isn’t applied to. I think that is the only way wrestling will survive. It will take wealthy alumni to make endowments that are beyond the scope of Title IX because it’s private money. It’s sad because education is not just about the classroom.

I have a daughter and I am very glad we live in a country that values equity and fairness. However, hurting men’s sports to help women’s sports isn’t the best answer. I hope they find a better way than cutting men’s sports

The sport of wrestling has been hit hard and yes I am very worried because I make my living coaching and helping student-athletes try to wrestle in college.

My facts might be a bit dated, however …

• 669 American colleges/universities have had wrestling and dropped their programs.

• 48 states and Washington D.C. had schools drop wrestling programs.

• Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii have had programs, but dropped them and left their states without a single collegiate wrestling opportunity.

• Alabama, Georgia and Washington have had multiple programs at all levels, but now have no four-year collegiate wrestling program to take part in.

• Using the NCAA’s average roster size of 27, the number of lost individual chances to compete collegiately are 18,063 nationwide.

J.P.: Odd question, perhaps, but can anyone be good at wrestling with dedication and intensity? Or are people born to be wrestlers—and some people not born to be wrestlers?

J.D.: The only way you can be good at wrestling is to never quit. Many people don’t have what it takes to lose for a long time and stick with it. If you have the mentality to not see results but believe they are coming anyway, than you can be a wrestler. Suspension of reality and a belief that you can be great is all that is needed to be very, very good at this sport.

Jordan Burroughs is special. He was born better athletically than most. But in football he would be fast and people would see his talent right away. Yet in high school he never won a state title until his senior year. Delayed gratification is a must in wrestling.

Burroughs is arguably the best athlete on the planet. His athleticism is unreal. He is a freak. But it took him years to see success. There are many four- and five-time state champs who never reach Burroughs’ success after high school.

The best thing about wrestling is that you can win so many different ways. You never see a bunch of short fat kids winning the final four in basketball. You can be anything in wrestling. Some fat heavyweights are great athletes and learn to use their size. Some small heavyweights are great and use their size (smallness) to be more agile and quick and are great at heavyweight. Frank Molinaro was, like, two-feet tall and won a NCAA title. Kyle Dake is long and he won four. Anyone can be a great wrestler—maybe not an NCAA or Olympic champion, but anyone can be very good with dedication and intensity.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.31.39 AMJ.P.: You wrestled for the legendary Dan Gable at the University of Iowa. We always hear how great coaches are—but rarely do we hear why they’re great. John, what—specifically—made Gable great?

J.D.: Dan Gable is great for so many reasons, I could (and you should) write a book about it. However, to summarize I will tell you it was because of passion.

He sister was murdered when he was in high school. He knew who did it and told the police. He could have felt guilt. He could have drifted to drugs and the party scene. He didn’t. He took all the pain and the hurt his family felt and made himself the focus of their world. He outworked everyone. He gave them something to latch on to.

As a coach he took that intensity and made you believe you could do it because he did it and he knew what it took. If Gable said cut a tree down and chop it up, you believed it would help you win a national title. He made you passionate about the sport of wrestling.

He also never quit on anyone. He let kids who would never start be part of the team as long as they came to practice and tried hard. He loved work ethic. He forgave so many people so many things. He didn’t ignore it, but he forgave you if you failed a class or got caught doing something wrong downtown. He always made you feel welcome. He was a taskmaster and hard as granite in ways, but never demeaning. He would ride you if you needed riding and he would mentally break you, but he always put you back together stronger. He never left the pieces out for you to figure out. He supported his athletes.

Gable was smart—he treated everyone as an individual. He figured out what made everyone tick. He was a master psychologist. He knew what we needed and gave it to us. I wasn’t a star … never All-American, but I was treated like I was one. He didn’t ignore me because I wasn’t his best wrestler. He got the most out of you. Whether you won or lost he worked to make you understand that you could win, and he motivated you to always push harder and train smarter.

Other teams looked great at the beginning of a season. Gable’s teams always looked best at the NCAAs. He was a master at peaking. He knew the less-is-more approach worked when others did not.

He is a genius.

deglJ.P.: There are some wrestling forums and chat rooms that tear into you. Overly competitive. Too intense with people. No class. On and on. John, I know nothing of the wrestling world. Where does this stuff come from? Is there a point? Is it jealousy? Both? Neither?

J.D.: Well, some of it is true and some of it is completely false and some is just the perception of someone who dislikes me. We all see things differently. In college we had to look at an old woman/young girl. Same picture. Some people saw a beautiful woman. Others saw an old hag.

I am overly competitive. I don’t know what too intense is, but I am intense. The worst thing I did was tell an 18-year-old he couldn’t hide anymore and to enjoy it (winning sectionals) while it lasted. He lost at states and I still was the jackass who yelled at a kid. If he won I would have been the jackass and wrong. That was bad. I didn’t do a Woody Hayes but I crossed a line. I was way wrong. And that was classless.

The rest is mostly jealousy. I came home from Iowa and tried like heck to be the savior of Section 1 wrestling. We stunk. In 1991 Section 1 had three State champs and took fourth as a section. In 2002 Section 1 was 12 out of 13in States. No Champs and only three all-state wrestlers.

In between and after we were bad. I came back in 2001 after coaching Hofstra and coming back from Iowa for a second time.

No one wanted saving. The coaches did not want to have me help them. They didn’t respect me. They didn’t want to change. I coached one year of high school and Mahopac won the Section 1 team title. I know a Hall of fame Coach who went 33 years before winning one.

I am reading a great book, David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell. He points to how Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne simply decided to create their own pond. They “abandoned” the “Salon”—the establishment did not respect them, but they all worked together. If they had split up no one of them would have stayed the course.

“There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable of liking a painting without Salon approval.”

But they went ahead anyway and changed the world of art forever. I was brash and didn’t care about the old guard. I felt so strongly that wrestling had so much to offer, but the section failed the athletes. The coaches failed the athletes. No one was going on to wrestle in college. So I decided if they didn’t want to work with me I would crush them. So I made no friends and alienated the ones I had. It took many years before someone finally convinced me I was an idiot. I had a clue I was, but this good friend wouldn’t quit until he made sure I knew it 100 percent. My friend, Eddie Mezger made me see that wrestling was not an individual sport and that’s when things changed. I found a way to create that critical mass the artist in Gladwell’s book found. I built a community to fight the old guard. I tried to mend fences with coaches and some took me up on it. I made the club (ISW) more of a family and developed a selfless culture instead of a selfish one. Instead of pitting the athletes against each other to see who was the best I tried to make them see that even their biggest rival was an asset; that the key to winning at the state level was training with the best-available kids, and since then we have done amazing things. There are currently 25 Section 1 wrestlers wrestling on college teams. That is the basis of the jealousy. In the end my club has done what no one thought could be done. But it cost me a lot. Now it’s better. I learned that I could be successful and not be a jerk. Before I thought I had to be ruthless and push so hard. I’m a better coach and get better results without all the madness. I still get tweaked here and there. Also, having a family makes a difference.

I truly thought I had to be a bully to the world to make kids win. I felt huge pressure to win right away. That led to many bad decisions and behavior. At Iowa Gable never acted like that. But we had no culture and no one believed they could compete. Now I have a track record and kids believe. In the beginning I’m not sure we would have gotten there without some of the craziness—some was needed. Now I can let my resume speak for itself and kids get on board or they don’t. I have less to prove and more work to do.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.28.25 AMJ.P.: Greatest moment of your career in wrestling? Lowest?

J.D.: Greatest—coaching kids in my club and seeing them go to college and wrestle. One year we had five state champions in one year and 13 state finalists. That was the best!

Winning a New York State Title was the most rewarding as an athlete but at the time it was not because I didn’t think it was a big deal. I truly just expected to win like any other match. Now I realize how hard it was and how few people do it. I have coached kids who were way better than I was and they did not win States.

The lowest was, for sure, my last college match. I lost to Airron Richardson of Michigan. I was mounting a small comeback when I heard (incorrectly) Gable say, “two seconds” when there were 20. I tried a real quick duck and got put on my back, thinking there was no time, but I gave up backs and was down by a large margin. In the end I lost 16-4. My career was over. Years of sacrifice and nothing to show for it. At the time I felt I was a loser and a huge waste. Gable was the best and I failed him. I failed my team. I failed myself. I didn’t cry. I balled. I was beyond inconsolable. I hid for over two hours and cried. I’ve never felt pain like that until my friend Tom lost his 5-year-old son. That hurt worse. That cured me of thinking losing a match means shit. I have never recovered from that. I have recovered from losing in college and not keeping my spot at 190 and letting Mike Derasomo catch my weak pop up in the Babe Ruth Mahopac Sports Association World Series to end the game in our loss. But I have never recovered from my friend losing his son.

J.P.: How do you feel about the emergence of MMA and the decline of boxing? And how do both those things impact the sport of wrestling—if at all?

J.D.: I don’t watch MMA, but I think it is a great sport. They have done a very good job of taking some of the brutality out and making it more skill-based, even though it still is very dangerous. The original MMA was really deadly. Now MMA is a great sport.

I think that’s why boxing is declining. Kids are told fighting is bad. You can’t hit or you get arrested. Many people used to fight, with some sense of fair play. If you fought a friend or enemy you didn’t try and kill them—it was just a fight. That was when boxing was an art and kids who liked to fight found boxing. Schools don’t support boxing any more. You can’t fight because of the societal rules being so harsh. Kids have to play nice and no one feeds into boxing. Also, boxing was very corrupt.

MMA is good for wrestling at the amateur level. It is a place where you can land. Before MMA you either quit or did freestyle or Greco to try and make an Olympic team. You had no way to make a living. You risked everything to put your career on hold and you had very little shot at Olympic gold. Even when you did win, you had no money so the risk was huge. Now with MMA if you keep the warrior lifestyle you can always land in the MMA world and try and make at least enough to support yourself. It’s a great way to follow your wrestling dreams with at least a little hope of using the skills to earn a living. It’s like a writer who, before the Internet, was either publish or perish. Now you can have more options to take your passion further into your life and maybe make a career out of it instead of a hobby or a teaching gig.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.28.05 AMJ.P.: I’m torn on youth sports, and I’ll tell you why: When we were kids, it seemed much more about the experiences; about playing different sports different seasons; about teamwork and fun and being outside. Now, all around me I see kids playing one sport two, three or even four seasons; parents gunning for scholarships; pressure, screaming, yelling, shouting, taunting. John, can an argument be made that, perhaps, the youth sports experience isn’t so valuable? Or, perhaps, that something has gone wrong?

J.D.: In my opinion youth sports are way off the mark. I make my living by people paying for coaching. I love youth sports. I think they have as much to teach youngsters as any classroom. Not in lieu of the classroom, but in conjunction with a great academic education, sports are vital. Nowhere else do children learn about real life as effectively. The classroom is monitored 100 percent of the time. The rules are very strict and the teacher is omnipresent. The playground is where real-world skills used to be learned, but now there is less play and more monitoring.

The youth sports programs should focus on the skills and then let the chips fall as they may. Instead, the coaches all want to be Vince Lombardi or Don Shula and the parents all think their child is a star. We give everyone a trophy. Its not real life and then we wonder why as teens they lack life skills and are soft. We make them soft by pampering them physically and mentally.

Specialization is happening too early and even though I think wrestlers should wrestle most of the year (even at an early age), the sport is not like any other. It develops everything, like gymnastics. Baseball all year is no good. Too narrow. Football all year would be bad—kids would be too physically beat up. But gymnastics, yoga, wrestling, karate and things that are really skill sports can be done properly all year and the kids can do other spots as well and not burn out mentally.

Youth sports should be about skill development and fun. Parents have ruined the experience with the “winning” becoming the goal. I can’t tell you how many “championship” youth football teams I hear about. It’s a joke.

I think other countries have some great ideas. I read in “Outliers” that the first year or so in Russia in this “hot-pocket” of tennis that the kids can’t use a racket—because it will hurt their minds. They use their minds to see perfect shots. The results are theoretical based on the skill of their stroke. That’s brilliant.

J.P.: I’ve always wondered this—so I’ll ask: What did it feel like, seeing your name in “The Bad Guys Won”? Were you hurt Flattered? Indifferent? To be honest, I’ve long felt I’ve owed you an apology. I never held any sort of long-term grudge. It was merely an experience to write about. But, in hindsight, I believe I treated you unfairly. I’m sorry.

J.D.: Well, it wasn’t very flattering, so I guess at first I was annoyed. Then I was defensive, because it had very little context. I was a year behind you in school and I didn’t seek you out to harass you. That year you mentioned was when you were in ninth grade and I was in eighth and we were in completely separate buildings. I do remember being a huge dick when I saw you but I don’t remember ever laying in wait or seeking you out to bully you. Admittedly, when I did run in to you I was a huge jerk—which, since I like Karma, I kind of appreciated the fact you stuck it to me in the book. I deserved it. I don’t think you owe me an apology.

As an adult I felt bad because regardless of what I thought about it, you had a very different perspective on the events. Kids I coach have brought it up often to me and I can then share with them how your behavior and choices follow you. So in the end it has been a good thing to have in the open and I can also finally apologize to you for the horrible way I treated you. I’m sorry, too.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 12.23.54 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOHN DEGL:

• Five greatest wrestlers of your lifetime?: Jordan Burroughs, Dan Gable, John Smith, Terry Brands and Tom Brands (can’t pick—they are twins), Cael Sanderson.

• Right now, you vs. Hulk Hogan in a no-holds-barred steel cage match. Who wins, and how?: Hulkamania has no chance! I’d put him in a Camel Clutch and he would tap out faster than a Texas two-step.

• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: 5. Camp out on Canopius Island in Lake Mahopac; 4. Attend the Muddle Puddles “Mess Fest” to support the Ty Louis Campbell Foundation 3. To see Them Bonds play at the Pub or J.P. Cunninghams. 2. See Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Massaro House on Lake Mahopac. 1. Visit childhood home of famous author Jeff Pearlman.

• How did you propose to your wife?:  I met Jen in (then-Mahopac High baseball coach) Frank Miele’s office and he told her to stay away from me. Well, after only a few dates Jen said I could date other women. I was amazed at this forward thinking, but then she mentioned I would have to stop dating her. So I knew I had to marry her. She was very smart. I said, “I love you” for the very first time the day before we went to the comedy club Caroline’s in New York City. Well, I insisted we sit up front. That was dumb. The second comic asked me in front of the whole club if that was my girlfriend. I said yes. Then he says, “Do you love her?” and I hesitated a split second and he killed me. Jen laughed it off but I hurt her feelings because just the day before I said it for real.

Fast-forward a year and the same headliner is at Caroline’s so I planned everything to be the same. I invited the same people and had a ring ready. I had called ahead and had the guarantee that the opening act guy would ask me the same two questions. Well, this did not happen. The whole night went by and no questions to me! I was getting very stressed and Jen was getting very much into her cups. Finally, I had her cousin go and ask WTF, why didn’t this guy do the act. So in a very forced way the MC comes out and all the acts are done but the place is still full and he says, “Is John Degl here? Is that your girlfriend? Do you love her?” It was the worst because he ruined my whole plan but this time I had to say it right so I said yes instantaneously and then said I love her so much I want her to marry me. Jen looks at me and says and I quote” You have to be shitting me …”

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Rampage Jackson, Nelson Mandela, Fozzie Bear, Elmo, Pearl Jam, “A Walk to Remember,” Willie Nelson, Dave Fleming, Dwight Howard, Candyland, Legos, Erik Estrada: Pearl Jam, Nelson Mandela (he would have been No. 1, but I found out he didn’t write or even use “Our Deepest Fear” by Marianne Williamson. he still is a superman, though; Dave Fleming; Willie Nelson, Legos; “A Walk to Remember,” Fozzie Bear; Elmo, Erik Estrada; Candyland, Dwight Howard, Rampage Jackson.

• What the heck is up with wrestlers and cauliflower ear?: It tastes good with butter. No, it’s gross and it hurts, but wearing headgear is a pain in the neck so many kids train without and they get hit and their ears swell and the blood hardens and you get cauliflower ear. If you wear your headgear you don’t get it! All kids and college kids should wear it all the time.

• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $5 million to move to Las Vegas and work 363 days next year teaching wrestling to her poodle, Ed. You also have to clean up the dog’s excrement and bake 200 cookies daily. You in?: I will take it. Cael Sanderson doesn’t make $5 million a year and he is currently the best of the best results wise. I will never make $5 million. I have a daughter and I love her enough to bake cookies and clean poop. I would never debase myself for money because it would teach my children that money is important, more important than self-respect, but I would be silly as hell for $5 million. I’m in if you can broker the deal—I’ll kick back a 10-percent finder fee after taxes.

• Dumbest thing you’ve ever heard a youth sport parent scream from the stands?: Impossible to answer—too many to even begin. However, once I heard a parent tell the kid to throw a half (a move to turn an opponent to his back) while the ref was talking to the kids about what anklets top wear before the match.  I have had kids actually stop mid-match and tell their dad’s to shut up. I think all youth events should be held in hockey rinks and the parents are behind the glass you can’t hear them that way at all.

• How do you explain the continued existence of The Bachelor on TV?: I didn’t know it was still on. My best guess is because too few people listen to baseball on the radio. If we listened to radio baseball and took time to talk with friends instead of texting them, then no one would ever watch a show like that. But somehow we text instead of calling and we e-mail instead of writing and we allow reality TV to exist. I know I like many modern technologies and conveniences but the impact on the culture is bad.