Back before Sports Illustrated and John Rocker and Walter Payton and Showtime, I was a kid at a student newspaper.
A giddy one.
The year was 1992, and as an assistant sports editor at The Review (the University of Delaware’s student newspaper), one of my tasks was to cover the men’s basketball team. It was an absolutely dazzling experience. The Blue Hens were in the midst of the best season in school history—a 27-4 record, a future NBA Draft pick (center Spencer Dunkley), the best dunker in the nation (forward Alexander Coles), a freshman point guard with uncommon on-court charisma (Brian Pearl), two dead-eye three-point gunners (Kevin Blackhurst and Ricky Deadwyler) and … and … and …
Stein was the Blue Hens’ coach, and well, I didn’t much care for him. He was aloof and, at times, sorta snide. I once arrived five minutes late for his weekly press conference and—in front of the entire room—he bellowed, “We’re graced by the presence of the famous Jeff Pearlman!” It was mortifying.
That said, Stein could coach. Like, really coach. He turned an awful program into a marvelous one; recruited a caliber of athlete the Hens never before touched. When he arrived, the team played in a dark and dank field house. When he left in 1995, they resided in a state-of-the-art facility.
Was he difficult? At times, yes. But he was also the man who brought Delaware into March Madness. And he’s mellowed a whole lot.
Today, Steve Steinwedel lives in Delaware. He’s a father, a grandfather, a retired basketball coach, a former counselor at Delaware Technical College … and the 198th Quaz Q&A.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Steve, I’m gonna take you back. It’s March 1992, and you’ve led Delaware to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. You’re playing Cincinnati in the state of Ohio, and Cincy is loaded. Van Exel. Corey Blount. Herb Jones. I mean, really explosive, really good. I was 19, thinking, “The Hens can do this! They really can!” But, I wonder, did you think you’d win? Or was it more, “If everything goes absolutely right, we might win?” Is there a realism a coach has that a fan lacks? And what do you recall from that game (which the Hens lost, 85-47)?
STEVE STEINWEDEL: Playing Cincinnati in Dayton. Well, that was big in so many ways. As the pairings were being announced on TV and we were all waiting excitedly in the Scrounge I had this moment, just before, that it was going to be Cincinnati and it was going to be in Ohio. I’d played high school basketball in Cincinnati, I spent seven years there and I started my coaching career at West Virginia with Bob Huggins—Cincinnati’s coach—as our graduate assistant. Over that year we became very close and certainly shared a lot of the same philosophy around how the game was to be approached, played and coached. So it was quite synchronistic in a Jungian sort of way.
I thought we could play with them but that we’d have to get some breaks and have to play very well. I thought they were the most underrated team in the tournament and they proved that by their play throughout. We had some opportunities and didn’t convert early and that hurt and if we could have played again well … just us and them in some remote gym, I honestly believe we would have kicked their asses. It was all so much to handle. I know it was for me. I mean, I didn’t sleep for nights before the game. So I can only imagine how it was for the players. We were almost too ready and it showed. Plus, Cincinnati was really good.
J.P.:You seem like a truly warm, engaging guy, and I’ve loved seeing that because—just being honest—when you were coaching Delaware and I was covering the team, I found you intimidating, a bit arrogant, sorta smug. And maybe it was just the perception of a college kid. But you didn’t seem particularly happy or jovial. Am I off on this? Or, looking back, you were, well, sorta jerky? (No offense).
S.S.: This is not the first time I’ve heard these thoughts about myself—surprise, surprise! I was very intense and determined, I cared a lot about what I was doing and it showed. Was I a jerk? Well, yes. I’m sure that I was, but like all of us I’m much more than that and I’m not sure many experienced the other (many other) Steves. I certainly didn’t help that and I was very young (how does it go? Young and dumb?) and I thought I had all the answers (or at least most of them), when in fact I didn’t even have most of the questions. One of my former players said it best: “I hated him for four years and loved him the fifth.” He was our graduate assistant coach for a year after he played and he got to see a whole different side. His perspective shifted considerably, not only of me but of how things are from the coaching side of things. It’s unfortunate that not to many of us get to see and feel, touch and taste that perspective. Because it’s eye-opening. Now, all that being said, could I have handled myself differently? Of course. But then again, who knows?
Oh, and no offense taken.
J.P.:Despite the previous question, I’ve long felt you didn’t receive the credit you deserved. Mike Brey is a great guy, and he did fantastic stuff at Delaware. But when people spoke of his “turnaround job” at UD, I’d always say/think, “No, the guy was Steinwedel.” Have you, through the years, felt at all slighted? Do you not get the credit you deserved?
S.S.: Well, you know, now that you mention it … yes, it does hurt some. To be honest. Not to take away from Mike at all. He did some really good stuff.
Of course, the place was a lot different when he came on the scene 10 years later. First, he was left with some talented players, not to mention facilities and a different realization from within the whole athletic department about what it would take to build a successful program, I’m still amazed at how many people think that Mike helped build the BOB (Delaware’s state-of-the-art arena, which broke ground during the Steinwedel era). And I’m quite sure he would say that he had a much better situation than the one I took over. But that’s the nature of the beast. Mine was better than Ron Rainey‘s, etc … etc.
J.P.:Coaches are hired all the time to revive programs or establish programs—and you actually did it. What did you find when you arrived at Delaware? And what were the steps you took to turn the program around? What are the keys to making something out of nothing?
S.S.: Well, as you know unfortunately it’s recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. And eventually we were able to put some very talented players together in a way that when it happens is kind of magical. As I mentioned above, it is an education project, too. You have to change the mindsets of the key people and get lucky, which in a way we did. I had a great staff, too. They have gone on to great careers in the business so that confirms it and they worked very hard and we got lucky. I can remember when I first started talking about a facility like the BOB. People and administrators looked at me like I had lost it and said things like, “Not in our lifetimes.” Well, things change. I grew up in Seymour, Indiana—pop. 12,000 with a high school gym that held 8,000 seats. So this was a very real possibility from my perspective and it happened eventually.
J.P.:Before coming to Delaware you spent two years as an assistant at Duke, then five years at South Carolina—all under Bill Foster. I’ve often felt Foster didn’t get the credit he deserves as a coach. So … what was he like to work for? Why was he so impactful? What did you learn from him?
S.S.: Bill is a great guy and the reason I got a shot at the Delaware thing at all. He was very smart and very intense, but in a different way that I was. He was inwardly intense and not something you felt in his manner. That was much different than myself—you could feel mine. He had a heart attack while we were playing Purdue, and that allowed me an opportunity to take over for the rest of the year and helped my career a lot. What he did at Duke with “Forever’s Team” (John Feinstein’s first book) was amazing. By the way he (Feinstein) served in the same capacity as you did when he was an undergrad at Duke. He was in our offices all the time. But Foster was much more approachable than I was. Ha. Coach was very innovative and creative in his approach to the game and I learned a lot about building a program. He moved around a lot and one of his favorite quotes—regarding the coaching profession—was, “Your friends come and go, your enemies accumulate.”
J.P.:Delaware let you go after the 1995 season, and I was convinced you’d turn up somewhere. Maybe not immediately at Duke or UNC, but certainly a Jacksonville, a Bucknell, a James Madison. Instead, you vanished—and never coached again. Why? What happened? And did you/do you ever miss it?
S.S.: Well, I guess in many ways I was ready for something different and on a deep level I was definitely moving in a new way. At the time I would have told you I wanted another shot, but after about six months I realized I wasn’t working very hard at finding that next basketball thing and nobody was knocking my door down. I had lost that fire, I guess you could say, and I didn’t really enjoy all the travel and the recruiting thing. My daughter was still very young and I didn’t want to leave her, so there were several factors but the biggest was my heart was not in it and I was being pushed in a new direction.
J.P.:Leading up to Delaware’s second NCAA tournament appearance, against Louisville in 1993, Spencer Dunkley, your center, guaranteed a win—and said he’d walk home if it didn’t come true. I wonder, as a coach, whether you were pissed about this. I mean, Louisville had more talent, was playing closer to home … they probably didn’t need more incentive …
S.S.: Yes, I was pissed and no, they certainly didn’t need anything else. But in an odd way it helped some of our other players change their attitudes about the game and open their minds to the possibility they might be able to beat Louisville. So, much to my chagrin, it may have helped some. Who knows?
J.P.:When I hear about pro coaches considering a return to college (Jim Harbaugh, for example), I think, “Who the hell would want to recruit?” It just strikes me as the worst imaginable task—you’re in your 40s, 50s, begging a 17-year-old kid to attend your college. So … what was recruiting like for you? Great? Awful? And what was your highest moment recruiting a player?
S.S.: You’re right. My most memorable recruiting moments were after the fact because I was always surprised at how my least-recruited players ended up being my best and the ones I was initially so hopeful about never really panned out. Brian Pearl, a point guard out of York, Pennsylvania was the one exception. We knew when we recruited him he would would have a great impact right away and he did.
J.P.: I’m gonna throw a weird one at you, and it’ll illustrate how naïve I was, too: Back when Dunkley was a senior, I found myself sitting courtside next to a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks. He was asking me about Spencer, and I starting saying the team also has this great guard, a kid named Brian Pearl, who could possibly … blah, blah, blah. The guy rightly looked at me like I had an IQ of 6. Steve, what’s the difference between an excellent college player and a pro prospect? There’s a line, clearly, but I wouldn’t recognize it. How do you explain it?
S.S.: Great question! The line is very fine indeed. I tell people it’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent who make it. Every college player was one the best in his region; the top 1 percent of the high school players. So those who are good enough and lucky enough to extend that career to the pros … well, it is the same percentage of all the college players who make it. You are in rarified air indeed when you get all the way to the best of the best.
J.P.:What’s the difference between a crap college coach, a good one and a great one?
I know … I know—it’s a flick that’s only grossed $29 million. It’s a flick produced by Disney. It’s a flick that will never generate any real Oscar buzz, and has been sort of lumped in with all of the other feel-good sports flicks of recent times.
Well, I don’t care.
McFarland USA is the true story of a California-based high school cross country team that, somehow, rises from nothingness to one state title after another. It stars Kevin Costner in one of his best performances in decades, and was directed by the excellent Niki Caro. For me, though, the performance that jumped off the screen belonged to Natalia Cordova, a 32-year-old Mexican actress who played the role of “Señora Valles”—poor abused wife and mother. There’s something about Cordova that leaps from the screen; an ability to emote sans words and express emotions without having to slam the audience over the head. Just like the movie, she was terrific.
Cordova also happens to be the 197th Quaz—which is terrific, because along with being an on-the-rise American film presence, she can shed light on Derek Jeter’s retirement and rank Gary Coleman ahead of Willis Reed. One can visit Natalia’s website here, and follow her on Twitter here.
Natalia Cordova, congratulations. You’ve joined the Quaz cast …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Natalia, this past weekend I took the family to see McFarland USA—and we truly loved it. I’d like to hear, soup to nuts, how you landed the part. When did you first find out about it? When did you audition? What did it feel like when you were officially hired?
NATALIA CORDOVA.: Jeff, I am so happy to hear that you connected with the film. Thank you for supporting it! I had been auditioning for a couple of months in Los Angeles when my representation heard about the project and submitted me and I got the audition. I did some research on the background of the story and fell in love with it. I received a call back with the director, Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) and we seemed to have a connection in the room. Three weeks later, I heard I got the part. It was an incredibly exciting moment for me as an actress, since it was the first feature film I had booked in the United States.
J.P.:How can an actor tell if the film she’s in is actually, well, good? I mean, scenes are usually shot out of sequence, there’ll be 1,001 things cut, inserted, moved around, etc. So how do you know? Or do you? And can you tell if a film is crap?
N.C.: From my perspective, I try to not judge a film as bad or good, per se. The first and most important factor is the script and whether it moves me or not. Certainly, in the case of McFarland, it did. The true story was inspirational, heartwarming and something I wanted to be a part of. It’s completely out of my control what the finished product will be. All that I can do is be at my best and give to that project what it needs from me. Nothing more and nothing else.
J.P.:Your film-and-TV resume is filled with Spanish titles … until Flight and McFarland. Which makes me wonder whether it’s hard to break out of what people expect? For example, I’m known as a sports writer. I’ve only written sports books. If I wanna do, say, an FDR bio, it might be rough. Is it the same for you? Is it hard to get attention in English-language films, even though you’ve spent much/most of your life in the U.S.?
N.C.: I think it absolutely is a difficult transition, however, I do believe wholeheartedly that an actor should be able to play at any level, work with any medium. That being said I don’t think everyone sees it that way. And there is a lot of boxing people into stereotypes being done in this industry. It’s not that it’s hard to get attention from English-speaking films as much as it’s hard making others believe you can play anything and ultimately that’s the job of an actor. To transform. To be a chameleon of some sort.
I’ve always enjoyed a hard challenge, and what attracted me most to making the jump to English-language films was two fold: the fact that it would be such an amazing challenge and also that, right now, America is creating such exciting work—both television and film. Work that is daring and obstacle-laden. To be frank, that is what I am after as an artist. To attack projects that will allow me to explore stories that I would never normally be allowed to journey through. Also, it was very interesting to attempt to root emotion into a second language, which proves to be quite scary at first when that particular tongue is not grounded in you. For me to work on my accent and be able to manipulate it so I could play a wider variety of characters was of utmost importance. People can expect one thing from you or put you in a limited box but it’s up to you to open their minds. And that is my job for now.
J.P.:So I know you were born in Mexico City, know you attended high school in North Carolina, know young grandfather is the actor Francisco Cordova. But how did this happen? Like, when did you know you wanted to act? When did you realize you were good at it?
N.C.: I started dancing when I was 4-years old. I took it very seriously until I was 16. It was dance that led me to acting. I would constantly hear from ballet directors that I was over expressing the part I was dancing. Because classical ballet can be so strict and straight I started to feel restricted in my expression. An acting teacher saw me dance once and came up to me and suggested I take acting classes and so I did. I fell in love with it immediately.
My grandfather was an incredible actor and artist. His story is truly beautiful. He studied to be a chemist and it wasn’t until he was around his mid-30s that he started acting. He achieved great success (artistically) through an enormous amount of passion and hard work. I didn’t get to know him well because he was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease by the time I was very young. I got to know him through his work. I know he is a big reason why I am who I am. I can constantly feel him vibrating inside me. Every single moment I get to perform or create is dedicated to him. When I was a dancer I would kneel down before entering the stage and say “Abuelo, voy contigo”, which means “Grandpa, I’m on my way to you.” It’s a line from a movie called El niño y la estrella (The boy and the star) in which he plays a loving grandfather. This is the way I chose to built my own relationship with my grandfather.
J.P.:Weird question, but why do you think we’re so enamored by actors and actresses? I mean, a firefighter walks by, or a pilot, and we barely notice. Yet someone whose job is to pretend is often mobbed by autograph hounds and fans. Why do you think that is?
N.C.: Not a weird question at all. The first reason I think would be because actors and actresses work with their faces; we constantly see those faces and get to know them so well that we can recognize anywhere. So I would assume that is largely responsible for why they are so enamored by the public. Secondly, I believe that when people watch films or TV, there is the possibility that they will immediately gain a personal relationship with an individual storyline that perhaps can be a missing puzzle piece for whatever might be going on in their lives at that moment. They empathize with the characters they watch and thereby connect with the performer. When those performers are seen in public, people tend to want to describe and be grateful for being given that gift of emotionality and association. I myself could say the same for many artists. Were I to meet them, my first instinct would be to gush about how their artistry has moved or changed me. I think it’s got to do with connection, which ultimately is, I believe, our most primal and deepest desire in life as emotional beings. To connect with each other on a deeper spiritual level, and that can only be achieved through how we make each other feel. All that said, firefighters, doctors and teachers are terrifically underpaid and should be as admired as artists who have the world’s eye. If we could ever compensate them for what they are truly worth, I would hope, that depending on the quality we give others, we would find ourselves equal on financial scale.
J.P.:In McFarland USA you play the mom of one of the runners. Your husband is abusive, and you’re the woman who sort of has to take it. How do you prepare for such a role? Is there research? Studying? And, when you’re acting, what do you think of? Are you aware you’re acting, or do you throw yourself completely into the moment?
N.C.: Research and studying is something I absolutely treasure as an essential part of being an actor. I’ve always loved learning and investigating. As a child I was incredibly curious. My all-time favorite word was (and in some ways still is) “Why.” I can confidently say I’ve annoyed the living hell out of people with my enormous desire to know every why. I’ve just always loved finding out the reasons behind anything and everything.
So to answer your questions, Yes! No matter how big or small the role, preparing, studying and researching is not only crucial to the creation of the character but something I crave like I crave few things.
As for Señora Valles of McFarland, USA. I read up on the real story as much a possible. I was not able to meet the real Señora Valles, but I felt like I knew her. I personally know women who have crossed over to the U.S. with nothing but their name. Women who have put everything they are and have in danger to find a better life, not only for themselves, but for their loved ones. I also know the strain that that constant uphill puts on a marriage and family. The poverty. The hardships. The loneliness. I have dear friends who have personally fought this fight and I could not admire and respect them more than I do. Being close to these people and hearing their stories definitely helped me not only have a deeper sense of the character but also fuel my desire to tell this story.
I don’t know how to act any other way than to throw myself completely into the moment. After all the research, and the emotional and physical studying is done (if it can ever be done), I try to not think much more and just allow this new being to drive the vehicle. I don’t like to look at takes, or judge how I look or if I did well or not. I prefer to leave that in the hands of the director. I choose not to be aware of the actor behind the character. I love to leave Natalia behind. And that I think is a big reason why I am in love with my craft. It’s a privilege to me, to be able to escape this reality and go live another. It’s an incredibly freeing sensation.
J.P.:In 2013 you played a ballerina in Flight. You list yourself as a dancer, but what goes into actually playing a ballerina?
N.C.: You ask, what goes into playing a ballerina? Well, what goes is the same amount of hard work as it takes to play anything else. I played a modern dancer in my first lead in a feature film Ventanas al mar. It was and indie film so I had to prepare on my own. I lost weight. I went back to dance class for two months. I took long walks and tried to do physical activities as the character. I went every week to a dance company and watched dancers just be. I did everything I could to immerse myself into that world and create something from it.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
N.C.: I don’t have just one. I value immensely every time I get to do what I love to do most. Those are the highs. The moments I get to work on what gives me flight next to people that are as passionate as I am about this endeavor. The lows are the opposite of that. The low moments are when I have to do all that that is required of an actor and has nothing to do with creating or acting. But I am aware that that’s the price we pay for flying.
J.P.:What’s the difference between great acting and so-so acting? Like, what makes someone like Meryl Streep different than 99 percent of folks out there? And do you have that? Do you aspire to have that? Is it attainable?
N.C.: I think the difference between anything being great or not has a lot to do with the eye of the beholder. We all have different tastes. But I do believe very strongly in quality. I think we can sense quality when it’s in front of us. And the majority of the time its because of the way we feel in its presence. I can also tell you that hard work has a lot to do with something achieving its best.
Speaking about Meryl Streep, I remember hearing a story Julia Roberts told in an interview about working with Meryl Streep. She said it was a privilege to watch Meryl work so hard to be great and that that was of great comfort. Look, I am not a believer that we are all created equal in abilities and talents. But I do believe in hard work and the payoff of it. Do I aspire to be Meryl or anyone else for that matter? No. They are unique beings never to be repeated again. Do I aspire to work as hard as her? Yes. And with that hard work accomplish as much as her? I certainly hope so.
I also believe we have to stop defining success in a general manner and start defining our own success on an individual level. What is the definition of your own success? And when you find that answer, make certain to work very hard to accomplish that individual definition of success.
Under the watchful eye (and camera) of cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia during the filming of Ventanas al Mar.
J.P.:What’s the worst auditioning story of your career?
N.C.: Auditioning is an art on its own. Embarrassment is definitely a given when it comes to auditions. I’ve been embarrassed plenty of times. But I have to say that it’s not embarrassment or making a fool of yourself that’s the most painful. That’s just part of playing the game. The worst for me is when I find the other side of the room trying to fit me into a box or stereotype. When I witness a lack of imagination and an abundance of close mindedness or fear of risk.
• You played Olga in the TV series Bienes raices. Three memories from the experience?: 1. Working with director Javier Solar for the second time. I’ve worked with him three times. He gave me my first job (Simuladores) upon arriving in Mexico City after CAL-ARTS; 2. The story between my character and her mother. Personally it was very moving to me; 3. Waiting for hours in a motor home listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Both sides, now”.
• Five greatest actresses of your lifetime?: “Greatest” is a big word. There are soooooo many. I’ll name the first five bad-ass women actors who come to my head: 1. Emma Thompson; 2. Cate Blanchett; 3. Frances McDormand; 4. Naomi Watts; 5. Viola Davis.
• You’re married to Brian Buckley, the musician. How did he propose?: He proposed in the most personal, intimate and magical way a man could ever propose to me. That’s when I knew I was with the man who best knew me.
• What does it feel like to see yourself in a movie for the first time?: It’s a thousand emotions all coming at you at once. It’s a feeling that is nerve-racking, surreal, incredibly weird, lovely, passionate, prideful and above all a feeling of gratitude for being able to do what you feel you are meant to do.
• Why do so many people seem to dislike beets?: Because they taste like dirt or soil and we have grown accustomed to preferring the taste of plastic or cans than that of our earth? I really don’t know. I love beets.
• The world needs to know—what does Kevin Costner smell like?: Didn’t get close enough to really get a good whiff, but if he smells as he looks I am guessing it’s pretty good.
• Do you think Derek Jeter will reconsider his retirement?: I have absolutely no idea. I know nothing about baseball. But I grew up with the biggest NFL fan (my older brother). So next time ask me about football.
• The Cable Guy is my all-time favorite movie. Thoughts?: Too weird for a lot of people. Perfectly fun and odd and delicious for me. Love that film.
• What’s the nicest thing someone has ever said to you?: “I see you!”
It’s true, and no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there’s no denying our inevitable collective fate. Plastic surgery and Botox won’t save you. Two hours a day at Gold’s Gym won’t, either. You can eat 100 carrots, jog 20 miles, try the lifetime juice diet. Whatever. Come day’s end, we all cease to exist.
The question is: How to use the time we’re given?
Kate Granger has asked herself this quite a bit since 2011, when she was first diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare-yet-terminal form of cancer. At the time, she was a 29-year-old elderly medicine registrar at St. James University Hospital in Leeds, and the news—naturally—hit her like a Mike Tyson hook to the ribs. As a doctor, she had certainly been around death. But …. she was dying? How could this be? Why me? Why now?
Shortly after the diagnosis, Granger made the decision to live. She created an amazing bucket list—and is tackling the items one by one. She has written two books—The Other Side and The Bright Side, chronicling her journey (all proceeded benefit the Yorkshire Cancer Centre). She blogs regularly, and kicked off a social media movement (#HelloMyNameIs) to, in her words, “encourage and remind healthcare staff about the importance of introductions in the delivery of care.” She has thought long and hard about life, about death, about legacy, about love. You can follow Kate on Twitter here, learn more about #HelloMyNameIs here and visit her personal website/blog here.
It’s an honor to welcome our 196th Quaz, Kate Granger …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Kate, I’m gonna start this very bluntly. You are dying of cancer. What is it like to be dying of cancer?
KATE GRANGER: Well, I wouldn’t have chosen it if you’d asked me what my life ambitions were in my early 20s. However, in some ways it has allowed me to make sure my friends and family know I love them and to do some amazing activities over the past three years. I think of it as a kind of gremlin we now carry with us every single day, which sometimes sits quietly and allows me to live my life relatively normally, but sometimes chooses to prod me hard to make sure I know it’s still there. My cancer causes lots of pain, particularly at night so my sleep is disturbed and I’m reliant on strong painkillers to be able to function day to day. However to anyone glancing at me in the street they’d probably see a normal, healthy-looking girl. I struggle with that all-too-common comment, “You look really well!”—especially when I’m feeling rubbish. The invisible effects of dying mean that I carry a huge burden of fears, anxieties and uncertainty about my nonexistent future. I can’t plan anything more than a few months in advance and a common response to wedding invitations is, “I’d love to come, if I’m still alive.” The only way to cope with it, I’ve found, is to live by a one-day-at-a-time mantra, embracing humour as a coping mechanism and trying to enjoy every last little piece of life that I’m lucky enough to have.
J.P.:I have long suffered from a horrible, sometimes crippling fear of dying. It’s not the act itself (cancer, plane crash, drowning, etc). No, it’s being dead. Not existing. No consciousness, no awareness. Just being nothing. I tell this to others and they usually blow it off—with either God talk or the ol’ “You’re dead, so you don’t know you’re dead. What’s so awful?” Neither soothes me. As someone who has surely given her mortality quite a bit of thought, I’m fascinated by what you think …
K.G.: I’m scared of the non-existential aspect of dying, too. I’m scared of the process of actually dying more though—the chances are that my dying will involve bowel obstruction, bleeding and pain. And being unable to control those horrible symptoms is a hugely scary prospect. I’ve seen lots of patients die in similar circumstances throughout my career so my professional experience doesn’t really offer any comfort. I think the aspect that causes me most distress though is the pain I’ll cause my husband Chris and my family when I do die; that I won’t be there to comfort them; that I will be the source of their tears. I was brought up in the Christian faith and we were married in church, but illness seems to have pushed any faith I did have away. I can’t remember the last time I went to church and I’m not sure I even believe in God anymore.
Checked off the bucket list.
J.P.:Here’s what I know: You have a husband, Chris. You live and work in Yorkshire. You graduated from Edinburgh University in 2005 and passed your MRCP in 2008. But what’s your journey? Like, why did you become a doctor? When did you decide to become a doctor? What sort of medicine do you focus upon?
K.G.: When I was little my mum used to volunteer at a day centre for older people with mental health problems. She used to cook the lunch once a week and in the school holidays I used to go along and help. I loved sitting and chatting with the older people there, playing Bingo and doing crafts. I think that’s where the foundations of my career to become a geriatrician were laid. I was bright at school and worked hard so with my love of people and science it seemed obvious to go for medicine. I was educated at state school but was a very under-confident teenager. I didn’t get a place at university in the first round of offers, but when I was studying for my final A-level exams I received a phone call from the admissions dean at Edinburgh offering me a place to study there. I was obviously elated at this news and didn’t stop smiling for at least a week. All through university I enjoyed the medical as opposed to the surgical specialties and the specialty I loved above all was elderly medicine. I loved the challenge of diagnosis, the variety, the people. I was fascinated by how very different one 90-year old is from the next. The stories patients have to tell and the context of their illnesses within their lives still excites me today. I have trained for 10 years post graduation and have for the past three months been acting up into a consultant role in medicine for older people. It has been hugely exhausting, challenging and scary but wonderful all the same. Many of my professional ambitions were stolen when I was diagnosed so to have the chance to do the job I’ve spend 15 years of my life training for has been amazing and a huge tick on the bucket list.
J.P.:You were diagnosed in 2011 with a rare and aggressive form of sarcoma. How did you know something was wrong? How long did you wait before seeing a doctor? How was the awful news delivered, and how did you initially respond?
K.G.: I was 29 and working hard as a medical registrar doing long days and night shifts. I’d been studying for my last set of post-graduate exams. So I felt tired. Understandably so, but looking back perhaps that fatigue was the first pointer to something being wrong. I then missed a period. I did a pregnancy test which was negative so I didn’t think much of it. Then Chris and I took a holiday to California. His aunty and uncle live in Santa Cruz in California and we love that part of the world. I had back pain when we stepped off the plane but thought I’d just slept awkwardly. I took some painkillers and got on with our holiday. We were very busy exploring San Francisco, Monterey and spending time with family. My symptoms weren’t going away though, and I started to go off my food. I just couldn’t eat—it was really weird. The pain was becoming unbearable. Eventually Chris found me lying on our bed in agony and put his foot down. His uncle took us to an urgent care centre where the doctor thought I looked unwell and referred us to the local emergency room. Within an hour of being in the hospital it became apparent that I was indeed very sick. My kidneys had failed and an ultrasound scan showed my kidneys were swollen. A CT scan showed the reason for my sudden illness; multiple tumours throughout my abdomen and pelvis, obstructing my ureters and causing the renal failure. I’d worked out I had cancer before they told me; there was no other reasonable explanation for the early test results. The doctor who told me stood near the door of my side room with his arms crossed and his back against the wall. He said, “We think it’s ovarian.” He didn’t finish the sentence with the scary big C word. I remember being calm and collected. I had to protect and shield Chris. I had to take charge of telling my family thousands of miles away. It was not a time for hysterics. I had to concentrate on the immediate hurdle of getting well enough to fly home.
With Chris, the hubby.
J.P.:You’ve started an amazing movement, the #HelloMyNameIs campaign, to “encourage and remind healthcare staff about the importance of introductions in the delivery of care.” Which strikes me as sort of strange, in that, well, why wouldn’t a doctor introduce himself/herself? Why wouldn’t a doctor ooze compassion, humanity, empathy? So, Kate, why was this needed?
K.G.: In the UK healthcare is publicly funded and in the recent times of austerity that funding has been squeezed. This means everybody delivering healthcare in the NHS is under immense pressure. I think when that is the case and you are incredibly busy the first thing that tends to suffer is the compassion staff feel able to deliver. Somewhere we’ve gone wrong and along the way forgotten the basics of care and the person on the receiving end. I started the #HelloMyNameIs movement in 2013 after an experience in hospital where I’d been admitted to a surgical ward with post-operative sepsis following a routine stent exchange. I’m a keen observer of my healthcare and one of my starkest observations on that occasion was that very few staff introduced themselves to me before they started interacting with me. This felt very wrong, as the first thing we are taught in medical school clinical skills sessions is that you start with introducing yourself, your role, asking what the patient would like to be called and explaining what you’re going to do. So I decided, after discovering on Twitter that my experience was not unique, to do something positive about it. Hence #hellomynameis was born. I think it is needed to remind healthcare staff, by using my fairly powerful narrative, that the little things do matter and mean a huge amount to patients, and that delivering truly person-centred care can benefit both patient and staff alike. It is essentially a gentle reminder to inspire and encourage a change in personal behaviour of healthcare staff by harnessing the immense reach and power of social media.
J.P.:In your Nov. 23, 2014 blog entry you wrote this: “Charlie. That was what we planned to call our first born in honour and remembrance of Chris’s paternal Grandfather. But Charlie will always remain in our dreams and never become a reality. I will never have those precious new-born cuddles or experience the wonder of childbirth.” Kate, how have you been able to deal with these things? With the child you’ll never have? The events you miss? Because you seem to possess a profound bravery most people surely lack.
K.G.: Life is what it is. I can’t change what’s happening to Chris and me. We try our absolute hardest to live in the now most of the time. However, I am reflective about my losses and grief in my writing and the space of my blog and books; I guess as a cathartic exercise. I’ve been lucky to have been given much more time than we ever expected. I’ve managed to get to perform those bridesmaid and wedding cake baking duties; I’ve managed to get to know those children I never thought I’d see born. I have to be grateful for those things. I don’t see it as brave because being brave implies making a choice to act in a certain way. I haven’t had any choice about what has happened to us so we just take it each day as it comes. I do shed tears for Charlie, for the life we should have had, for the guilt of not being a complete wife for Chris and causing him pain, for not giving my parents grandchildren. But if I allow myself to dwell on those things I would be overwhelmed by depression and anger so I simply don’t allow myself to. I suppose that is my choice, so that could be viewed as brave.
J.P.:You decided to blog about dying–in v-e-r-y detailed, gripping passages (“Why had you come along to ruin our lives? Abolished dreams of having my own family? Stolen my lifelong ambition to become a Consultant Geriatrician? Chris and I would never grow old together and be able to spoil our Grandchildren”). First, why? And second, do you find it more exhausting or exhilarating? Is it therapy? Painful therapy? You trying to leave a legacy? Both? All? Neither?
K.G.: Writing was not part of my life before illness. During those early days of a six-week hospital admission when I was very sick and the outlook was especially grim my boss at the time suggested to me the idea of writing a diary. It had helped his late sister gather her thoughts and deal with her emotions during her cancer journey. So I did and kept a diary, initially in a notebook, and when the notebook was full on my laptop. It grew into almost an obsession and during long, painful, lonely nights I would take solace in pouring my feelings and observations out onto the page. I wasn’t trying to write a book—not initially anyway. When I read back what I’d written it became clear to me it held a message and that message was to healthcare staff. It had become apparent to me that how the people looking after me behaved, whether that be in a positive or a negative way, had a profound impact on my experience as the patient. Those messages were not ones that I had considered much in my medical training before illness. Sharing my experiences as “one of them” but “one of us” seemed like the right thing to do. One of my passions professionally is medical education and I guess writing is kind of teaching … I enjoy writing and I do find it therapeutic. I like to try and say the “unsaid” to try and stimulate conversation and trigger reflections from others. It is comforting to me that my blog will exist long after I’m gone as a permanent record of my journey. Legacies are important to me. I really don’t want to be remembered as “that poor young doctor who died of a rare cancer before her time,” but rather someone who made a positive improvement to healthcare.
J.P.:Do you feel like people approach you differently since cancer was diagnosed? I mean, are there those who overdo it, those who stay far away? And, going through this, what would you advise people to do, if a friend has cancer? Is there a proper emotional/behavioral response?
K.G.: Inevitably … I want to just be treated as Kate. The Kate that I always was. Just because I have a serious disease doesn’t mean that I don’t still enjoy the same things in life; have the same values. I hate being treated with kid gloves—independence is so important to me. But cancer is part of me now and does mean things are different. I’ve always been the sort of person who has a small circle of close friends and that hasn’t changed. I’m also quite happy in my own company much of the time. I know those people are there for me no matter what, but they don’t smother us with attention. I’m not sure there is a ‘correct’ response to support a friend on a cancer journey as everyone’s needs are so individual. I think remembering the importance of ongoing support after diagnosis is essential though. People can be quick to send cards and presents in the beginning but putting the effort into being there for the long haul means a lot more to me personally.
J.P.:What do you think people, in day to day life, fail to see? Fail to grasp? Fail to do?
K.G.: I think it is very tough for people who look at me to see someone who is not going to get better, who is dying. I have fairly clear skin, glossy hair and I’m certainly not skinny. Even at my most sick I didn’t outwardly look that unwell. I’m also incredibly open about the fact that my life is going to be cut short prematurely and regularly speak about the ‘D’ word. I’m sure trying to associate those two disparate factors can be difficult for people. Because I’ve defied the odds in terms of my prognosis I think many people think I’m invincible. I hear, “You’re not really going to die though, are you?” I am. I always try to keep the realist view of what’s happening.
I’ve often been faced with people who perhaps haven’t seen me in a while who are in fact rendered completely speechless by the situation. They always seem to have those sad, sympathetic, “But you’re too young” eyes. Everyone wanted to be involved at the beginning—we were overwhelmed with messages and visits. But as time has dragged on we’ve found out who our true friends are; those people who have kept up their support week in and week out; and those who have disappeared from the scene. I keep many of my symptoms to myself and don’t allow most people to see my suffering publicly. Chris is the only one who really sees how unwell I become with chemotherapy; the tears at 2 am because I’m in so much pain I can’t move. We are blessed, though, to be surrounded by some wonderful support and are extremely lucky in that respect.
J.P.: I love your bucket list—especially your accomplished goals of making brioche, riding a horse, skydive, visit Venice and getting a tattoo (which, sort of ironically, is listed right above visiting Anne Frank’s house). So tell me, Kate, what was skydiving like? What’s the tattoo, and where’s it located? What was the horse’s name, how was the brioche? And what did you think of Venice?
K.G.: My bucket list has given everyone in my life such a positive focus to create special memories not associated with illness and has led to some amazing experiences. Skydiving was simply awesome—I’ve never done anything like that before but I loved it and would do it again. It was such a rush. The tattoo is a small, pretty purple butterfly on my left ankle. The horse was called Harvey and was very patient with me after so many years since I’d be in the saddle. The brioche turned out really well. I love to cook and bake, and some of the items on the list are about learning new skills. Michel Roux, Jr. who is a famous French chef in the UK, gave me a lesson in brioche baking at his restaurant. With all his tips I’ve made it at home successfully twice now and it was delicious (if I do say so myself!). Venice was beautiful—we’d always talked about going but never quite got there. I loved the Rialto market, the ice cream and the tiny back streets crammed full of a huge array of different shops. We nearly fell out of a gondola on the Grand Canal when we got a little too close to a large boat! I would say my favourite item on the list though has been renewing our wedding vows. It was an incredibly emotional and special day.
• Three things you can tell me about your husband, Chris: He’s like a human calculator—if you ask him any mental arithmetic he’ll give you the correct answer straight away. He’s amazing at blagging free stuff which has meant my bucket list has been extra special. He’s a keen walker and has done some amazingly long hikes for charity.
• Should there be another A-Team movie? And do you like the idea of Rampage Jackson filling Mr. T’s shoes?: I’m not really that bothered for me, but if the A-Team fans have an appetite for another movie then fine. I wouldn’t be first in the queue at the cinema to see it though.
• I’m starting to have lots of hair growing from my ears. What should I do?: Don’t stress. Life’s too short.
• What are three things that should immediately turn a person off of a new doctor?: As a patient you form a judgement of a doctor extremely quickly. For me it’s when someone fails to introduce themselves, stands over you when you are in bed or has disinterested body body language such as lack of eye contact.
• Tell me the best joke you know: A bit childish but someone told me this one the other day: ‘Doctor, doctor, I’ve got something wrong with my eyes. I keep seeing an insect spinning round my head.’ ‘Don’t worry, that’s just a bug going round.’ I’m rubbish at remembering the punch line to jokes!
• Can you create a poem, right now, that incorporates Starbucks, Cleveland, Muhammad Ali and the number eight?: Been sat in Starbucks since about 8/ They asked me my name, #hellomynameis Kate/ I’m reading an article on Muhammad Ali/ Before meeting my friend from Cleveland called Sally/ Must rush now before I am late! (Thanks to Chris for his help on this!)
• Six words that describe your knees: Pale, fat, scarred (I knelt on a piece of broken glass when playing in long grass as a little girl) and best covered up!
• You have “another visit to California” on your bucket list. I’m officially offering up my house in Southern Cal as a place to stay. You coming?: If you’re offering and I survive round 3 in the chemo boxing ring Chris and I will be there. Thank you! That’s an incredibly generous offer.
Back when I was growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I had an enormous crush on a girl named Teresa McClure.
Was Teresa cute? Sure. Personable? Absolutely. Smart? Yup. But what made me really want to date Teresa was her role as the keyboardest in Illusion, the high school rock band.
Alas, she rejected my offers, and we never hooked up.
Even with that scorn, I’ve never lost my love and respect for musicians. There’s something about the ability to play an instrument that impresses me. And when one plays it at a high level, for tons and tons of people? Well, it’s magical. Just magical.
Josh Kantor, Quaz No. 195, isn’t your typical musical star. He’s neither the lead singer for Rush not Taylor Swift’s guitarist. He doesn’t tour the nation, doesn’t sell millions of albums, doesn’t evoke screams from lustful fans. Nope, he’s just the Fenway Park oragnist.
Which is absolutely, amazingly, supremely … awesome.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Josh, so you’re the organist at Fenway Park. Which leads to a pretty obvious question—How the heck does one become the organist at Fenway Park?
JOSH KANTOR: I went in for two rounds of auditions at the beginning of 2003, having gotten the first audition through a recommendation by a friend who was working for the Red Sox at the time and who knew about my baseball fandom and organ-playing abilities. The auditions primarily tested my knowledge of popular music genres, my ability to generate lots of short musical ideas quickly, and my sense of how those ideas could best be incorporated into baseball games. As a popular music fanatic who’d studied the work of long-time White Sox organist Nancy Faust and who’d done lots of musical accompaniment for improvisational theater, I was fairly well prepared. A high-level Red Sox staffer who was supposed to be listening to the first audition was stuck in a meeting, and his conference room had a window facing the ballpark, so he opened it and had the audio engineer turn on the ballpark speakers so he could listen during his meeting, which made me a little extra nervous to have my audition echoing throughout an empty Fenway Park.
J.P.: I wrote a book about the Showtime-era Lakers. When Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979, one of his early moves was canning the organist and replacing him with lots of piped-in rock music. Why? He considered the organ uncool. In baseball, however, it seems like the organ brings something to life. Matters. How do you explain the long marriage between a somewhat obscure instrument and ballparks?
J.K.: It’s ironic that recorded music taking the place of organ music is commonly said to be “piped-in,” but that doesn’t answer your question. During the organ’s initial era of prominence at sporting events, it wasn’t obscure at all. It was (probably) the most common in-home musical instrument in the U.S. during the decade prior to the explosion in popularity of the electric guitar (which began with the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan). And the organ remained a staple of rock music (albeit in more of a supporting role) throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Since then, it’s gone mostly out of favor in the NBA, remained largely in favor in the NHL (as a companion to an increase in recorded music), and gone alternately in and out of favor around Major League Baseball. Technological advances have allowed stadiums to present recorded music more crisply, and most stadiums have taken advantage of that (some more effectively than others). I can understand why Dr. Buss and others would see “traditional” instrumental organ performance as anachronistic in the context of a team and a sport and a town and an era that were emphasizing a “razzle-dazzle” presentation, though it feels a bit short-sighted to me to dismiss the organ altogether rather than modernize the repertoire. Why do people tend to feel that the organ is more vital in baseball? I’m not entirely sure, but the iconography of the sport is more pastoral, and maybe there’s currently an association with the organ as being part of that. I think that, for the most part, the baseball organ tradition has been able to remain rooted and simultaneously to adapt; my favorite sports organists these days are the ones who include contemporary song selections and who take requests in real time from their teams’ fans via Twitter. At Fenway, a lot of the vibrancy of the organ music comes from a shared ability between our skilled DJ (T.J. Connelly) and me to play off of each other and build a presentation together.
J.P.:I would love to hear the memory of your first game as the Red Sox organist. My guess is you were pooping large organ bricks from nervousness. How did you feel? What were you thinking? Did you make any mistakes?
J.K.: Certain memories from that day are still pretty vivid. Prior to April 11, 2003, I was very accustomed to playing for crowds of 50 to 100 people, and I’d occasionally played for crowds as large as 500 or 600 at the most. As if suddenly jumping to a crowd of well over 30,000 (not to mention a substantial radio and television audience) wasn’t terrifying enough, I hadn’t yet learned the extent to which I would always need to be ready for any number of last-minute changes or surprises. The day before, I’d been told by a boss that I would be eased in gradually over the first few games in order to help me get comfortable; when I arrived on game day, I was instead told that I should play for 90 minutes straight during team warm-ups. That’s the kind of change that wouldn’t even register on the nervous-meter in more recent years, but on that first day, it was a hard assignment to prepare for on short notice. After getting through those 90 minutes, I was hoping for an uneventful remainder of the day. It was at this point during the opening ceremony that my boss said, “OK, Josh, here’s what’s going to happen. Lou Rawls is going to come onto the field and sing the National Anthem. After that, Ray Charles will come out to a grand piano and perform his iconic version of ‘America, The Beautiful.’ Then, I’m going to need you to play something.” My first day on the job, I’m being instructed to follow two legendary performers, both of whom are among my inspirations for pursuing a career in music. My memories of the rest of the day are hazy, and I don’t remember what I ended up playing in that spot. Again, these types of late developments at games no longer faze me, but back then, I didn’t feel entirely ready for it. In the long-run, the good part about that first day (aside from getting a fun story out of it) is that I began to feel like if I could get through that, then I could get through anything, and I’ve very rarely been nervous in any performance situation since then. My other memory from that day is that the game ended up getting rained out.
J.P.:I just read that, on the 40th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s amazing Innervisions, you covered the entire album—on the organ, during a game. Um … how the hell did you pull that off? Did people get it? And … why?
J.K.: How? I figured there were nine songs and nine innings, so the math was easy (I didn’t play the entirety of each song, but I played roughly a minute of each tune during various breaks in the action). Did people get it? As best as I could tell from Twitter feedback, some got it pretty early on, and then some more got it as the game progressed. Why did I do it? Well, why not; I mean, it might be the best album I’ve ever heard … that (along with its strength of melody of recognizability) is a good enough reason for me. As I was on my way to Fenway that day, I saw a tweet from Matthew E. White (a great Richmond-based musician whose songs everyone should listen to) about the 40th anniversary, and I thought, “I know I’ve heard that record 200 times, but I wonder if I know it well enough to cover it.” I did a quick mental run-through of the album and decided I would try to pull it off if it was working within the flow of the ballgame. If memory serves, it was the fifth or sixth time I’d covered an album at a game (though the prior instances were all during batting practice).
J.P.:I know you’re from Chicago, knew you grew up a big White Sox fan. But how did this happen—womb to now? When did you develop your love of music? Learn to play the piano? Know you were good enough to play for thousands of people?
J.K.: The deep love of music has always been there; it’s also evolved over time. Until I was 13, I lived mostly in Athens, Georgia, rooting for Dale Murphy and the (mostly lousy) Atlanta Braves teams of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The proliferation of great Athens-based rock bands at that time (R.E.M., the B-52’s, Pylon, etc.) had somewhat of a role in my interest in music, but I wasn’t old enough to go see them play. I started taking piano lessons at age 5; I liked some aspects of it but not others, and I was good at some aspects of it but not others. My parents had a large (and mostly great) collection of soul/R&B/pop/rock records, which I dove into deeply and frequently as a youngster. I moved to the Chicago area for high school and adopted the White Sox—partly as an act of teen rebellion against my Cubs-loving parents, partly as affinity for my older cousin who took me to games, and partly out of admiration for Nancy Faust (the best stadium organist there’s ever been). Some of my more lasting musical tastes were forming, I was taking some music classes, a lot of musical concepts were starting to coalesce, and I was developing a knack for being able to listen to a recording and then mimic it on piano. I played occasionally at the neighborhood synagogue and had a great musical mentor there. I played in some garage bands and for some theatrical productions. At age 17, I moved to the Boston area for college; my first week in town, I made my inaugural pilgrimage to Fenway and saw Mike Greenwell hit the first Red Sox inside-the-park grand slam in 29 years en route to a 15-1 victory over the Yankees and the ninth win of a 10-game streak, and I’ve been hooked on the Red Sox ever since.
During college, I got involved with more bands and more theater. Near the end of college, I got particularly interested in the organ. For a few years after college, I very rarely performed or recorded, but I played at home every day; I was starting to get good without knowing it. Then I spent a few years playing semi-regularly (mostly with friends) at small clubs and black-box theaters before being hired by the Red Sox. During the first few years of playing at Fenway, I continued sporadically doing club shows. Over the last four years or so, I’ve been more active in pursuing the kinds of shows and recording sessions that I most enjoy being part of; sometimes that yields desirable outcomes and other times it leads to rejection. I’ve always been pretty aware of what my sources of inspiration are; what I’ve tried to focus on more in recent years is being equally aware of what I’m learning (technically, artistically, practically and interpersonally) from each musical experience and encounter. I’ve always tried over the years to be dabbling (mostly in self-taught fashion) with some instrument other than piano and organ (i.e. clarinet, oboe, guitar, banjo, upright bass) … I’m currently on a big accordion kick. When did I know I was good enough to play for thousands of people? I was probably eight or nine years in with the Red Sox before I reached a point of feeling that way more often than not; I’m often my own harshest critic.
J.P.: I say this as a compliment—you strike me as a pretty big baseball geek. You’re in a band, The Baseball Project. You’re in another band, the Split Squad. What is it about the game that you love? Why the devotion?
J.K.: I am a pretty big baseball geek, and I take your remark as a compliment. The Split Squad actually has nothing to do with baseball; it’s just a name that a friend of ours suggested, and everyone in the band liked it. The Baseball Project, on the other hand, is a band full of baseball geeks who have written roughly 70 songs that are all about baseball; that may seem gimmicky, but I think we execute the concept in a genuine and interesting fashion (though I admit my bias on that opinion). I’ve always loved watching baseball and playing it and reading about it and looking at (the fronts and backs of) baseball cards; I don’t know exactly why. I like that any player can be the hero in any given game; that seems much less true in other sports. I’m interested in baseball’s relationship with civil rights issues. I like that there are different ways in which I can enjoy watching games: whether I watch passively or actively (though I always watch actively when I’m on duty), whether I pay more attention to pitching or to hitting, whether I focus more on statistics or on situations, it’s always stimulating to me. And that’s something that has always been that way, despite the technological and cultural changes that alter how we watch and follow sports over time. There have been times and places in my life where it was considered un-cool as a rock enthusiast to admit to loving baseball; that’s no longer the case, and I actually think (again, with bias) that Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey’s songwriting for the Baseball Project has contributed to that positive shift.
J.P.:What’s the biggest musical screw-up of your career?
J.K.: I’m not certain; whatever it is, it’s probably something that I’m not (and may never be) insightful enough even to have realized. That said, I do wish I’d been confident enough to think of myself as a “real musician” prior to my ninth season (or even my first season) of playing for three million people per year; I feel like that would have helped create some additional opportunities that would have been rewarding and instructive.
J.P.:I’m always fascinated by mental approaches. What’s yours at Fenway? What I mean is, do you think about playing for thousands? Are you, mentally, playing for yourself? Do you consider the tastes of fans? Does that even matter? And, while you’re playing, what runs through your head? Anything besides the song?
J.K.: The tastes of fans matter tremendously … probably more than anything else. They pay good money to be entertained, and even though my contribution is secondary to the game itself as a form of entertainment, I owe it to them to play as well and as thoughtfully as I can. Because I’ve done this job for a long time, I can allow the thoughts about how many people are listening to flutter in and out organically without them being disruptive to my overall focus. What runs through my head while I’m playing? It depends. If I’m playing a song that I don’t know very well, then I’m focusing as much as I can on listening to my playing to make sure I get it right. If it’s a song that I know well, then it’s a lot easier to think about all the other things that help me adjust my “game plan” on the fly, like who’s coming up to bat, how long is this relief pitcher going to take to get ready, is this hitter likely to be intentionally walked, is this pitcher about to be pulled, how long is the videoboard going to show this guy in the stands dancing like a madman, is this game more of a family crowd or more of a boozing crowd, what is this fan who just walked up to me saying, what is this fan on Twitter saying, what is the ballpark’s AV producer saying in my earpiece, when is the ideal moment to hand off to the DJ, does it look like it’s about to start (or stop) raining, what tempo should this song be played at in order to fit the entire chorus into this pitching-mound visit, how conclusive does this replay review appear to be, how long will it take for these 200 Little Leaguers being honored during the pregame ceremony to exit the field before the game starts, is this game nationally televised and thus subject to slightly longer inning breaks (and music breaks), what’s the duration of this trivia segment on the scoreboard, how and when do I best articulate a heads-up about something to the DJ or the producer or the technical director or a camera operator… and the list goes on and on. There’s a lot of multi-tasking as far as everything that I’m looking at and listening to, and that can be both challenging and exhilarating. I’m playing for myself only insofar as I’m trying to apply a relatively simple (and occasionally evolving) set of guidelines that I think will help make my playing enjoyable to the greatest possible number of people. Among those guidelines:
• Don’t repeat: aside from playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th-inning stretch at each game, I try not to play any song more than once during a homestand (including during batting practice, pre-game ceremonies, and the post-game exit), and I try not play any artist more than once per day.
• Related to the above, play songs at each game that represent a diverse array of genres, eras, tempos, and keys: too much of one type within any of these elements will start to bore people (I get a little stubborn about keys; if the song I want to play next is in the same key as the song I just played, I’ll sometimes try to transpose it quickly in my head. It’s kind of like those swordsmen in “The Princess Bride” who are only satisfied by the added degree of difficulty that comes from dueling left-handed).
• Don’t be mean: it’s OK for a song to jab lightly at the on-field exploits of the opposing team; it’s not OK to be cruel about it or to draw attention to any off-field issues.
• Emphasize melodies and hooks: I’m trying to evoke lyrics for listeners without the use of lyrics, so the component of the song that people will be inclined to sing along with (either aloud or in their own heads) has to be in the forefront. The rhythm and bass line and chords matter, but the vocal lines and riffs have to be the things that shine through.
J.P.: You’re a musician. You work in sports. I know many parents who want their kids to one day play at Lincoln Center. I know even more parents who want their kids to start at second base for the Yankees. Which do you consider a more admirable goal? More attainable?
J.K.: My work in music and in sports has always been primarily avocational; my various day jobs in libraries over the years are the thing that enables me to pay the bills. That said, I’m sure that more people have played at Lincoln Center than have started at 2nd base for the Yankees, so that would make the former more attainable. But as far as comparing elite concert musicians with major league athletes more generally, I don’t know which is more attainable or more admirable. Most top musicians can perform at a high level for a greater number of years than most top athletes. As a kid, I dreamed more of being a ballplayer than of being a musician, but neither of those is as admirable as being a great teacher or firefighter or doctor. My wife works in homelessness services, so I’m regularly reminded that the heroism of my favorite athletes and musicians is relative.
J.P.:I would love, love, love for you to play Tupac’s Brenda’s Got a Baby on the organ at a Sox game in 2015. Serious question: What has to happen for that to occur?
J.K.: Serious answer: I appreciate your enthusiasm about this very much, and I love receiving and accommodating requests. My general criteria for requests are:
• Send me your request via Twitter; it’s the easiest way for me to keep track of requests and to reply with a dumb joke. Asking nicely will often get you bumped up in the queue.
* You should be at Fenway when I play your request; what’s the point of me playing your request if you’re not there to hear it?
* The song should fit at the game. If you request “Moon River” during the late innings of an intense, tied game, I’m probably not going to play it. As for “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” I like the song, and it would sound good on an organ, though I feel that a couple of the themes are dark enough to render the song possibly not fitting for a ballgame.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOSH KANTOR:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Shea Hillenbrand, Billy Dee Williams, organic orange juice, Oliver Stone, Third Eye Blind, Luciano Pavarotti, chicken burritos, Pan Am, Atlantic City, Milk Duds, Lauren Bacall: 1. Milk Duds: my favorite candy of late. Not the least bit lost on me is the horrible irony that, on more than one occasion, I’ve used my Rite-Aid Pharmacy “Wellness” card to buy them at a discount; 2. Organic orange juice: a close runner-up on this list and perhaps even a winner if you’d asked me on a different day; 3. Luciano Pavarotti: Points for bringing opera to a wider audience. By many accounts, he wasn’t great at reading music; I identify with that (not saying I’m remotely in his league as a performer, just acknowledging one similarity). Bonus points for his duet with James Brown are offset by points deducted for his duet with Bryan Adams; 4. Billy Dee Williams: At this stage of my life, I could take or leave “Star Wars,” but I love “Lady Sings the Blues” and the “Bingo Long” movie. And without delving into malt liquor advertising controversies, I’ll just say that his Colt 45 spots make me think of Houston’s MLB franchise from ’62-’64; 5. Shea Hillenbrand: Points for hitting a walk-off home run for the Red Sox as a rookie against Detroit in the 18th inning on June 5th, 2001. Bonus points for having a knack for getting hit by pitches; 6. Lauren Bacall: I’m only familiar with her in “The Big Sleep,” but what a movie!; 7. Atlantic City: I’ve never been there, but I give them points for hosting two professional baseball teams: the (African-American) Bacharach Giants from 1916-1929 and the independent Atlantic City Surf (cool name) from 1998-2008. Man, I really hope there’s a Burt Bacharach tribute band called the Bacharach Giants that plays at one of the casinos down there; 8. Pan Am: I assume you mean Pan Am Airlines, in which case I give them points for flying the Beatles to America in ’64, but otherwise, I’m moving this to the bottom of the list if you’re referring to the Pan Am Expo of 1901 where President McKinley was assassinated; 9. Oliver Stone: the only film of his that I’ve seen is “The Doors.” By the way, isn’t it remarkable how kind history was to the Doors for so long and how that seems to have changed dramatically in the last couple years? I still like them OK, but a lot of rock people whose tastes I respect have come to loathe them; 10. Third Eye Blind: I like the way they sing “Doot doot doot.” The rest of it isn’t particularly my cup of tea; 11. Chicken burritos: You had me at “burritos,” but you lost me at “chicken”
• Three memories from your senior prom: 1. I didn’t go. I thought then (and still think now) that skipping it was the right choice; 2. Instead of going to prom, I went to a café that night with my friend Keith, a terrific singer with whom I’m still occasionally in touch, but not as often as I’d like to be; 3. One of my conversations with Keith that night was about recent musical discoveries that we were excited about.
• Who wins in a 12-round thumb fight between you and Archie Manning?: If we go left-handed, I think I’m strong and dexterous and nimble enough to take a slim majority of the rounds. If we go righty, I would expect his mighty thumb to triumph with ease.
• One question you would ask Christine McVie were she here right now?: Since I’ve never met her before and she certainly has no idea who I am, I’d probably ask some polite variation of, “What brings you here?” If, however, we’re in an alternate universe where it’s socially acceptable to ask a probing question of a stranger, then I’d ask the following multi-part question about her self-titled solo album from ’84: “What did you like best and least about how it turned out? Were you satisfied with its level of commercial success? And how much thought did you give at the time to the possibility of doing more solo releases?” Out of curiosity, I posed your question to my friend Patrick Berkery (an awesome Philly-based drummer and writer who’s probably the biggest McVie fan I know), and he replied, “I know EXACTLY what I’d ask her: ‘It’s great to have you back [in Fleetwood Mac], Chris, but how the fuck are you NOT playing “Hold Me” on this tour?’” That’s the kind of passionate answer that your question deserves and that I couldn’t provide without an expert assist.
• Rank the Boston groups: Letters to Cleo, New Edition, New Kids on the Block, Buffalo Tom: It’s a three-way tie for first between New Edition, Letters to Cleo, and Buffalo Tom. I might have given a slight edge to New Edition, except that Kay and Bill have both offered a lot of encouragement for my song selections at Fenway. Either way, New Kids are a distant fourth. Your question led me to think about who would be on my Mt. Rushmore of Boston bands; I’ll need to ponder that some more, but I can say with certainty that the Modern Lovers are on there somewhere.
• In 23 words, tell me why organists get all the hot chicks: I’m re-wording the question so it’s more palatable: why are organists so attractive? Not sure; I haven’t always found that to be true.
• I always found Nomar incredibly rude and unlikeable. Am I wrong?: I’ve only met him once; he was really nice.
• What’s the world’s grossest food?: I’m not especially worldly when it comes to food (or to most things), so I’m sure there’s plenty of gross foods out there that I’ve never heard of. Something like haggis or Spam would be an easy answer, but it’s a cheap one since I don’t think I’ve ever tried those foods. So I’ll go with beets; I’ve never liked those things. There’s also certain kinds of fancy cheeses that seem pretty inedible to me.
• This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Your thoughts?: With Hall & Oates, I confess to knowing pretty much only the hits, so I don’t think I’ve heard this one before. It’s a bit wimpier than all those hits that followed in later years, more in line with the sensitive singer/songwriter vibe of the early ’70s (nothing inherently wrong with that). It’s almost too earnest for me, though, both structurally (the peculiar 3-bar phrases in the verses, the extra beats when he says “locket,” the significant changing of musical gears three separate times in a 162-second song) and lyrically (it feels like a pretty heavy-handed/unsubtle tale). And why would a singer specifically mention the sound of an accordion twice yet not allude to the instrument musically (maybe that’s my own accordionist’s bias asking that question)? “The next thing she knew, she died” is a dreadfully bad lyric on multiple levels, but “peal of a bell” is a pretty terrific lyric. Overall, the writing isn’t great (I’m not saying I could do better, and obviously those guys later went on to become very skilled and accomplished songwriters). The playing and singing on this song are generally very good, and the arranging is pretty strong, too (though all those root parallel octaves in the string part when he says “preacher was a sorry mess” are surprisingly unimaginative by Arif Mardin standards). If I’m missing what it is that makes you love this song as much as you do, feel free to fill me in. And thank you for inviting me to do this interview; I enjoyed it.
I’ve been writing for two decades, which means I’ve shared press box space with some of the best folks in the business and some of the worst folks in the business. For every Tyler Kepner or Steve Cannella (greats), there’s always a Mike Lupica (dick). For every Jemele Hill or Tom Verducci or Doug Glanville (terrifics), you’ll inevitably run into Skip Bayless (egomaniac).
Of all the highs and lows, cools and awfuls, few rival Pedro Gomez for pure kindness.
I first knew Pedro back in the late 1990s, when we both covered the Majors. But my true appreciation of the man came in the early 2000s, when I was researching a biography of Barry Bonds and Pedro was damned with the task of blanketing the moody San Francisco slugger for ESPN. It’s no exaggeration to say Pedro couldn’t have been more helpful and more friendly. He’s simply a decent man who doubles as one of the best TV reporters in sports. He’s honest, sincere, knowledgeable—and boasts the forever helpful newspaper background. The guy doesn’t just jabber. He reports.
Anyhow, today Pedro explains how a graduate of Miami-Dade Community College made it to ESPN; what it was like living and breathing Barry Bonds, and how Rickey Henderson may well be history’s strangest man. One can follow Pedro on Twitter here.
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Pedro, we’re creeping toward a decade since ESPN created the Barry Bonds beat—and placed you on it. So I’ll start with this: What was that like? How hellish was the experience? And did you ever figure out—or theorize—why Bonds treated so many people like absolute grime?
PEDRO GOMEZ: It wasn’t nearly as bad as most on the outside envisioned, but maybe not for the reasons most realized. Yes, covering Bonds was not pleasant. He absolutely seemed to thrive on making me, and the other reporters, jump through hoops and make our lives difficult. But, as you know, the goal of any reporter is to be relevant. In this case, we were usually in the “A Blocks” of SportsCenter, meaning we were in the first seven- to eight-minutes of the show when ratings usually the highest. It certainly doesn’t mean he wasn’t an ass most days. As to why Bonds treated most everyone, including some teammates, so poorly, obviously only he can answer that question. My theory is that he enjoyed having the hammer, that he was so important that most everyone had to do what he wanted all the time. I think one of my favorite stories was when his “personal trainer,” Harvey Shields, was telling reporters about his résumé, how Harvey had trained Olympic athletes and made others into elite athletes. Suddenly, Bonds walked into the clubhouse and barked, “Harvey! Go get me a bottle of water.” Suddenly, Harvey went from talking about what an elite trainer he was, to scrambling through the clubhouse to fetch Bonds his bottle of water. And this was one of Barry’s guys. He just seemed enjoying humiliating people. Why? Only he knows. But he always seemed like a very lonely individual, someone who didn’t have any real friends.
J.P.:You’re the son of Cuban refugees, and you were born 20 days after they arrived in the U.S. I’m wondering—do you ever think to yourself, “What would my life have been had they not come here? What would have happened to me?” And, since we’re on this, what would your life had been? What would have happened to you?
P.G.: This is actually something I have often thought of, but not something I’ve really talked about with anyone. I’ve had the fortune of going to Cuba twice with work, once in 1999 when the Orioles played in Cuba and again in 2008 when the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team was playing a World Cup qualifier against Cuba. The ’99 trip was incredibly emotional for me, I actually broke down inside my room at the old Havana Hilton thinking about how my family was basically forced to be displaced because of Fidel Castro’s communist government and the incredible hardships that presented my family. But I know they made the choice to leave because of the opportunities this country allows all of its people, something that seems lost these days. While there, I visited the neighborhood where my father grew up and my parents wound up living before they came to the US in 1962. Amazingly, there were still people in the neighborhood who remembered my family and could not believe I was the baby inside my pregnant mother when they left. It was an amazing experience. The old man who lived above them in their duplex who argued with my parents that I needed to be born in Cuba so I could make up my own mind of where I wanted to be, still was alive. When I reminded him of that story, he simply said, “well, it looks like things worked out well for you.” I truly have no idea what would have become of me, but I do know, having visited twice, my life would never have turned out as well as it has in the US. I know from seeing how people live in Cuba, that I would have been pigeon-holed into some meaningless job where I could draw my $21 or so a month in government subsidies.
J.P.:We live in this stupid hyper-competitive world, where every parent seems to be pushing his/her kid toward greatness. Extra tutoring! Extra coaching! My son needs Harvard! My daughter needs Yale! Um, you attended Miami-Dade Community College. So how did you make it? And is there something to be said for life experience and struggling over Ivy degrees and nonstop help?
P.G.: I’m a huge believer in inner drive and passion. Too many times passion gets a bad rap. What is wrong with being passionate? You always hear people say, “Oh that person is too hot-headed or too passionate.” I say, give me passion over the dead fish syndrome. Of course education is important. But where the degree comes from does not dictate what you’re capable of. Maybe it’s the first generation American in me, but give me hard worker who wants it over the Silver Spooner who believes he’s entitled.
Back in 2013, Pedro got doused in the Tigers clubhouse after Game 5 of the ALDS in Oakland.
J.P.:You covered the Oakland A’s for the Mercury News and Sacramento Bee. Which forces me to ask: Can you explain Rickey Henderson to me? What was he like to cover? I always thought he was either really smart or really dumb—but I couldn’t figure out which.
P.G.: It was an amazing experience. Those A’s—with Rickey, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Hendu [Dave Henderson], Tony La Russa—made it like we were traveling with The Stones. Every city, you could see the opposing fans in awe of the incredible talent the A’s had compiled. Then, in talking with opposing players, you definitely got the sense that other players were jealous of what the A’s were accomplishing. After all, they averaged more than 100 wins for three straight years. They were so big, physically, that they seemed to intimidate other teams. It was as if they had won two games before a three-game series even began. As for Rickey, I’d say both of those descriptions are appropriate. Street Smarts, he is a PhD. Nothing gets by him when it comes to real-life common sense. But simple things, like knowing his teammates names? Well, not so much. One time he was upset with his contract—yeah, I know, what a shock—and he told us reporters, “If they want to pay me like Mike ‘Gah-LEE-go’ then I’ll play like Mike Gah-LEE-go.” Of course, it’s Gallego, as in “Gah-YEH-go,” who had been a teammate for years. When we then told Gallego of the quote, Mike laughed and said, “I’m just glad he kind of knew my name.” I’ve heard Rickey has been extremely smart with his money, as in he has every bit he’s ever made because he’s been so smart investing his money.
J.P.:When I was covering the game, I often felt American writers looked down upon Latin American players. You’d hear about shit work habits, laziness, a lack of heart. I figured it was either resentment over not being able to do lengthy interviews without a translator, or just xenophobia. You’re the son of Cuban immigrants. You (I’m guessing) speak Spanish. Is my take off? On? And why do you think the perceptions existed/exist?
P.G.: I do speak Spanish, fluently. It’s probably been what has helped me most in my career. And yes, I have heard those criticisms and they could not be more off base. If any of these journalists had an inkling of what most of these players have gone through to simply reach this level, they’d start to understand the amount of hard work and incredible sacrifice it took for these players to reach the big leagues, they would start to understand the human will to succeed is never more evident than what so many of these Latin players have demonstrated.
J.P.:You left print for ESPN in 2003, and I’m sure—at the time—I thought, “Ugh, another print sellout.” But, well, you were right. And smart. And ahead of the curve. So why’d you make the jump? Did you see the decline of print happening? And what made ESPN think of you as a guy to do TV? How hard of a decision was it for you?
P.G.: I wish I could tell you that my crystal ball was that good. I simply got lucky. I answered the phone. I truly wish I had some sexy story to tell when it comes to how I made the jump from print to TV. It’s really anything but. I was at home one day and a call came from a coordinating producer, David Brofsky, who asked if I would be interested in coming for an interview. My immediate response was, you know I’ve never really done much TV work, right? He said, look at our reporters, most of them come from print. And it’s true, Tim Kurkjian, Sal Paolantonio, Ed Werder, Shelley Smith, Buster Olney, Rachel Nichols, etc. They all came from print. It wasn’t an easy decision because I was really happy at the Arizona Republic. My initial thought was, I’ll give this TV thing a shot and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just jump back to print. That was 2003 and things quickly began spiraling downward on the print front. Almost 12 years later, it’s been the best move I have ever made professionally.
J.P.:You covered Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire with the A’s. What were those two like to deal with? Did they hate one another, as it seems? Were they approachable? And did you suspect PED usage back in the day?
P.G.: Hate is a pretty strong word. I would not say they hated each other, nor did they dislike each other. They were indifferent toward each other. They really had very little in common. Think about it, one was a Southern Californian who grew up with the laid-back attitude that many from the Los Angeles area did, just wanting to hang out. Canseco I knew a little bit more about since he and I both went to Coral Park High at the same time (I was one year older). He came from the hustle and bustle of the Cuban-side of Miami, the fast cars, fast girls and putting very little effort into school work. Jose was an incredibly talented baseball player but he had trouble with authority. He was on the junior varsity as an 11th grader because of insubordination toward the varsity coach. McGwire and Canseco simply had nothing in common when it came to hanging out after games so as much as the public wanted the “Bash Brothers” to be inseparable because the story on the field had them joined at the hip, the reality is they never hung out together because there was nothing bringing them together. Each was definitely approachable, but like most baseball stars, they were far more approachable if they recognized the inquisitor. If they did not, I know each could be standoffish. As for suspecting PED use, I’m not sure any of us covering in the late 1980s or early 1990s really thought of PEDs in baseball. It just wasn’t something that most anyone inside the game believed had trickled into baseball. That was something for Olympic-type sports or football, but never baseball. We were obviously very wrong about that aspect.
J.P.:You covered Bonds when he broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. I’m wondering how you felt when it happened? Sad? Excited? And do you consider Bonds the legit all-time home run king?
P.G.: No way I consider Bonds the all-time home run king and I know I’m not alone in that belief. I was there that night when it happened and it really was a sense of indifference. There was little joy that crashed over the event. I remember as a 10-year-old watching Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record on the old Monday Night Baseball and the sense that we were watching an amazing slice of history. That is not something I sensed, even from Bonds sycophants and apologists, and I was inside the stadium for Bonds. The overarching ties that Bonds had to PED-use suffocated his accomplishments. I would say I was indifferent toward Bonds passing Aaron.
With Theo Epstein
J.P.:Why journalism? Like, what drove you toward the field? When did you know it’s what you wanted to do? Was there a moment? A high?
P.G.: I took a J-101 course as an elective while at Miami-Dade South Community College and immediately thought, “This could work for me.” I was never a great academic student, but once I found something that truly grabbed my attention, I dove in head-first. I had a great instructor, Pete Townsend, who really brought out the best in me and showed me how I could outlast everyone on the field as a guy off the field covering the athletes. Best elective course I could ever have dreamed of taking and why electives in college are so important. You never know what you’ll learn about yourself.
J.P.:Bob Ley was Quazed last year, and he spoke of the “red light fever” that accompanies television work. The ego. The buzz. You’re walking through an airport and someone recognizes you. You sign autographs at a ballpark. Be honest: Has this impacted you at all? Is the notoriety something you feed off of at all? Do you understand how it can warp people?
P.G.: It has definitely happened to me and every time I am shocked anyone would want my autograph. But I always oblige. I honestly believe it has not affected me (though I could be wrong). I am of the belief that if you have no ego, then there is nothing there to pop. You cannot pop an empty balloon. It has, however, impacted my life because there are times when my wife and I will suddenly be moved to the front of the list at a restaurant (if there is a wait). She’s always amazed at this also, but adds, “Sometimes it’s good to know Pedro Gomez.” Having said that, I absolutely understand how some people might be warped and affected by the attention. People are amazed with people they see on television or the movies. For those that are grounded, I don’t believe you will fall into the trappings.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PEDRO GOMEZ:
• The world needs to know: What was it like covering Lance Blankenship?: Funny you should mention Lance. Despite attending Cal-Berkeley he never struck me as a particularly deep thinker. Very nice guy, though. But he did hold a distinction on those great A’s clubs. He was always one of the guys who was inserted into the lineup when Oakland was playing against Seattle and Randy Johnson was on the mound. You know the guys who suddenly had a tight hammy or sinus headache on days Randy pitched against them? I don’t have the exact number, but I remember Lance breaking up at least two, maybe three, Johnson no-hitters after the seventh inning. Maybe it was because he really didn’t think about who he was facing.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Stan Javier, Dr. Oz, Malik Yoba, Jeffrey Osborne, Khloe Kardashian, Jay Horwitz, Pete Berg, wedding rings, Kangchenjunga, corn on the cob, alphabet soup, knee-high socks: Not exactly sure how you knew, but a few of these strike a chord near me. 1. Stan Javier (good friend); 2. Wedding rings (been wearing one 23-plus years); 3. Corn on the cob (have to eat it like a typewriter, across. Not around); 4. Knee-high socks (all I use when I wear suits. I hate the below the calf ones); 5. Jeffrey Osborne (we used We’re Going All the Way as our wedding song); 6. Jay Horwitz; 7. Alphabet soup; 8. Kangchenjunga; 9. Dr. Oz; 10. Malik Yoba; 11. Pete Berg; 12. Khloe Kardashian
• In exactly 15 words, make an argument for or against Advil instead of aspirin: I’m old school, give me aspirin. It’s like newspapers. It works. It really does. Yep!
• Do you think the iPhone has made us better or worse communicators?: Far worse. Sit an airport gate and watch a woman and her husband, or a family. Everyone is on their phone but no one is speaking to each other.
• Greatest moment of your athletic career?: I wasn’t a great high school athlete, but after high school me and some of my best friends started playing softball in Miami. I was a third baseman with a nice inside-out swing, always hitting these opposite field dunk shots down the right field line. We won a few tournaments and I was named MVP of a tourney when I, at least in my mind, played like Brooks Robinson at third. Still have the MVP windbreaker they gave me.
• Biggest mistake you’ve made as a journalist?: Going back to the early 1990s, not being aware of PED use within baseball. I guess you could say the evidence was somewhat there, but we were just so naïve when it came to believing it had or could infiltrate baseball.
• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay $5 million for you to be her publicist next year. But you have to work 364 days, shave your hair into a Mohawk and legally change your middle name to Fuckface. You in?: No way I could listen to that Titanic song more than twice without probably going postal.
• I have no faith in God. Does this mean I’m likely damned to hell?: I certainly hope not. But if you are, then the first round is on me because I’ll be right there next to you.
This sounds weird because, really, who doesn’t love legends? But I love them differently. For me, legends aren’t interesting because of their accomplishments and resumes. No, they’re interesting because of the peaks and valleys, highs and lows. To be a legend means you rose from somewhere. To be a legend also means, with rare exception, that with age comes renewed expectations of what’s important and what matters. Maybe, at 25, George Gervin only cared about finger rolls. Maybe, at 25, Joan Jett only cared about limos and bubbly. Maybe, at 25, Bill Clinton only cared about getting laid.
Anyhow, Melissa Manchester, here’s something new to sing about. You’re the 193rd Quaz Q&A …
JEFF PEARLMAN:In your bio it says you’re celebrating both 40 years as a Grammy-winning performer and songwriter, but also a “renewed independence and vitality.” I’m 42, and feel my vitality draining every day. So what does this mean, exactly?
MELISSA MANCHESTER: First of all 42 sounds just about right for the first wave of the depletion of vitality. But that’s OK. You’ll bounce back. Because I teach at USC, my students have opened my eyes to a new world. To the current world of the music industry. Because the music industry is going through the industrial revolution. And literally the wheel is being reinvented, and I’m not entirely sure it will end up the same type of round that we’re used to. And what that means is they taught me about crowd funding and how to get my music out without the conventional agreement between artist and record company. And it was my students who not only explained to me how one can do this, but one became my project manager. So I’m seeing something fascinating. And it really was an adventure I did not want to miss, regardless of the outcome. And so with my tour manager Susan Holder and a bunch of friends and fans that wanted to be a part of this … I had no idea whether they’d want to or not. But they did. And the process of creating and recording music became sort of a living experience. So now I just want to keep the adventure going, because it’s so spiritually refreshing and beautiful that it feels like it validates my creative hunger. I always had it, but it was corroded because of politics and conventions that were just wearying and losing their luster to me.
J.P.:I’ve interviewed a lot of artists who, maybe they had their greatest hits in the 1980s or 90s, and they are frustrated and sort of confused by the modern music mechanisms. I mean, if you get a million YouTube views of your song, you’re a success—even though you’re not making money off of it. Do you feel like it’s better now than it was back in the you-need-to-have-a-record-deal days?
M.M.: I don’t know. It’s different. You know, based on where I am on my adventure, I’ll let you know when I find out. What is different is I’m not subscribing to the same old paradigms, which is I sign with a great big record company which essentially bankrolls my project. Which is great. And they put their energy behind it, which is great. But even after I make them back their money and we’re both in the black, they keep my work. They own my work. That’s the component that’s different.
The truth about being an independent artist is you have to do four times the work you ever did before, but at least you’re actually seeing how the mechanism works from the inside. As opposed to being sort of dismissed by people saying, “Oh, you’re just the artist. Just do your art and let us do the grownup work.” So all of this is different, and a lesson I wanted to learn to see how far I could take this.”
J.P.:I interviewed John Oates for this series, and he released an album that was excellent. He’s about your age, and we talked about how the odds are your album won’t appear on pop radio, it likely won’t chart, Ryan Seacrest won’t be talking about it. So … what is the motivation? You release an album, is there a goal? Sell X number of copies?
M.M.: I can’t speak for anybody else. I have to work and I have to express my art. That’s what I do. And my hunger needs to be vented and find a way out. So the thought that I should wait for somebody to approve of me and try to gain momentum and energy through that … through radio play … it’s not for me in this moment. I wish I had a crystal ball that works. I don’t.
That said, even pop radio isn’t necessarily the only way to get music out these days. The truth is, the beauty of being part of this industrial revolution is there are plenty of artists who never get played on the radio who are huge stars. So it’s just being a part of this moment and seeing how it turns out.
Your question to Mr. Oates is framed in an old paradigm. And that’s fine, but that’s pretending him not being played on Ryan Seacrest means it won’t be successful. There’s evidence it very well might be successful, just with a different definition of success. And that’s what’s interesting. There’s just no one path. And will you sell millions of records? Well, I don’t know. But the fact that fans can be brought closer to the process and actually be a part of the process is so unexpected. That’s one of the things I realized—even though you lift the veil a little bit so they can actually see the process and, by participating in crowd funding, they can actually peak into the components of production … it doesn’t diminish what they’re hearing in the end. It doesn’t diminish their delight if they like it. It doesn’t diminish their delight if you’ve written a song that helped shape their life or save a marriage or clarify an issue with a kid or something. Because the purpose of the song will do those things, regardless of the apparatus used to get it out.
J.P.:It’s just such a different world …
M.M.: It’s a different way of putting out music. And I didn’t want to be sitting in a corner complaining about something when I was being shown a light on an unexpected path when all I had to do was say yes to the adventure and try it. And that’s the deal.
J.P.:Most singers have their greater commercial success in their 20s and 30s, probably because it’s a visual medium. Are you a better songwriter now than when you were 25? Does age impact an ability to write a song?
M.M.: I think as you hone your craft your sense of discernment … your ability to sculpt language and melody becomes more refined. On the other hand, in the early days, because my writing was coming out of that initial writer’s voice gush, there were songs that I was so free to write because I had no deep editorial muzzle in place yet. I don’t think I could write some of those songs now.
On the other hand, I’m delighted that there was an innate wisdom in some of those songs, and an innate depth of wisdom, that not only allowed me to write those songs in my 20s, but allowed those songs to grow and deepen with my experience.
Also, the statement that music is a visual medium … with all due respect, when I started music was not a visual medium at all unless you were on a television show. Listening to music was the medium. Listening to music was the apparatus. Listening to music was the way you got music. You weren’t looking at music unless you were on television. It was a different event, and the event—releasing an album—was the event. I’m releasing this album, which a lot of people aren’t doing anymore. But that’s my platform. One of the liberating aspects of getting deeper into my career is I no longer look too much to the right and left over my shoulder to see what other people are doing or how they’re doing it. The part of my career that won’t be changing much is that the album is the platform. It’s the body of work. It allows the listener to pick and choose from a big variety of songs. And, at the end, I hope the songs service them in some way, because that’s what I’ve been told over 40-plus years that my songs do.
J.P.:You’re Melissa Manchester. You’ve had a great career. How do you get Stevie Wonder to sing on your album?
M.M.: Well, the people who are guests on the album are people I’ve either toured with or have loved and I have made my love and admiration for them clear since I was 15-years-old. On my third album, which was my first album on Arista, I wrote a song with Carole Sager about Stevie Wonder called Stevie’s Wonder, and he never forgot. And when I see him to this day, he sings that song. I used to do that in my early career—I’d write odes to people I just loved. I wrote an ode to Paul Simon. I wrote a song about Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell because these were my soulful guides on my early journey. They were changing the shape of American popular song. It’s hard to know what that meant, historically, but prior to the 1970s even early rock n roll was based on a very conventional form, language-wise. It was based on a very simple, conventional format. It was great, because it was singable and humable and danceable, and even when rhythm was starting to be the pinnacle of the song rather than the song itself, still the compositions were very basic. And when I started writing, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder and the Beatles and Sly and the Family Stone and Joni Mitchell were really changing the shape of what constituted the song lyric and melody. And so those are the heroes I grew up with. Some of them became colleagues, which was a real blessing. That’s how I attracted some of them to say yes and come on the album.
J.P.:Is it still a thrill to sing with people like that?
M.M.: I’ll tell you, the deeper I get into my career, the more precious this all becomes to me. Not only does the shared journey of my colleagues become more precious, but the actual song form becomes more precious. Because, to me, songs are what I call soul currency. And something like a song, which most of us take for granted—we listen to a song, we pass by it—and every once in a while you write things where you do not know what the effect will be on the world. You just sit down and hope for the best. And when people tell you the effect of your song, that holds such a deepening gravitas as you get older. As you get deeper into your consciousness and you get deeper into your life’s walk, and I am truly grateful for that and take nothing for granted.
J.P.:You studied songwriting with Paul Simon at NYU. I read that, then went back. What exactly does that mean—studying songwriting with Paul Simon at NYU? And did you learn anything from the man?
M.M.: Haha. Well, he felt like teaching for six months. I don’t know why he was in one place for so long. But Bridge Over Troubled Water was number one all over the world at the time. And he auditioned everybody that was applying for his class. And he auditioned me. And asked me to play a song, then he asked me to play another song. And then he asked me to play one more song. This was for the audition. And he said, ‘Have you been listening to Laura Nyro a lot?’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, she’s my muse, she’s my queen, I listen to her all the time, day and night.’ And he said, ‘You need to stop now.’
There were 10 students in the class, very interesting disparate group of students. Some wanted to write the great American musical, some wanted to do folk. But the basic assignment in the class was everybody had to show up with a new song every week and perform it. And we would analyze it and talk about it. But he also came in with things he was working on. Which was really fascinating, because you saw his process. Which was so scholarly and so in the trenches. For instance, once he was talking about Bridge Over Troubles Water. And he was talking about the composition writing of it. And he said, ‘You know the bridge—Sail on, silver girl.’ He said, ‘It actually has nothing to do with the song. I had a girlfriend who was going prematurely gray and I thought it sounded good.’ I thought that was the most fantastic thing I heard. That’s the thing about songwriting—you have so little time to create a world that what he said in essence was, ‘All of the stories have been told. It is the way that you tell the story which is your stamp of authenticity.’ And it’s true. You have so little time in a song to keep the listener engaged. The thing about songs is that simple is not easy. And a lot of people dismiss simple. They just don’t understand the soul of it. And that’s why people are frequently why the American Songbook lives on. When I’m teaching at Thornton School, I’m teaching pop writers, and I’m always finding them songs by Gershwin and Porter and Berlin to learn. And it blows their mind. They can’t figure it out, how these people could pack so much into these tiny little songs. I said, ‘Because they weren’t worrying about rhythm too much. They’re worried about melody and the content of the lyric. You’re just not used to that aesthetic, because it’s not the aesthetic of your day. The aesthetic of today is rhythm. And that creates a challenge to develop lyrical and musical ideas.’ Anyhow, that’s a long, circuitous answer.”
It was Paul Simon in an article of the New York Times magazine section, oh, 25 years ago. He said what would happen to the aesthetic of American popular song. He said it will lose its melody-driven bridge and it will become rhythm driven. He was right.
J.P.:There’s a song on the radio called “Timber” by Ke$ha and Pitbull. And I read an interview where someone asked Pitbull what it was like working with Ke$ha. And he said something along the lines of, ‘We’ve actually never met.’ I was thinking how weird that is—she recorded her parts one place, he recorded his elsewhere. You said in your bio that you have students who never before saw music being created by actual human beings, because you recorded your album at a studio at Citrus College. Is there a disadvantage to Ke$ha and Pitbull recording in different places? Does it matter?
M.M.: Well, I had that experience when I recorded a song called Lover’s After All with Peabo Bryson. He was in Atlanta and I was in California just because our schedules weren’t working out. But I knew his voice, and I knew he’d be perfect on the song. And he knew me. We had done some Christmas tours together. And because his voice was so similar to Donny Hathaway, who I absolutely loved and who had just died, it worked out OK.
But the second part of your question, which was really interesting to watch, these students down at Citrus College where I recorded the album, had such reverence for what was going on. The actual collaborative spirit. It’s not working in a box of a studio in somebody’s garage with tracks. This is actually having discussions about how to approach original songs to bring the songs to life. To find the inner life of the songs. Songs to me are not piles of words. They’re expressions. So what I need the musicians for is to bring that voice to life so the audience can feel it. And these students who were studying to be young musicians and young engineers, and my engineer, Tim Checkett, who was also a musician and also the professor of sound there at Citrus, he had trained them so well to really understand what they were listening … he’d tell them someone like Stevie Wonder or Al Jarreau was coming in, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or even the caliber of my musicians. Lenny Castro, John Pruett—these were insane musicians. Insane. And to have them all looking over charts, all discussing ‘Is this what you want? What are you looking for?’ Or allowing me to change the approach because a deeper idea came up … it was always very respectful. Because it was all about the conversation trying to come to a radiant end. They could see process, they could so the articulation of ideas. As opposed to people throwing stuff out there. There was such a deep mature musical conversation going on, and hopefully that gave them at least a sense of what could be in a creative space. Perhaps they don’t have the chops to do that at this moment in their very early 20s and late teens, but perhaps they can see it. You know, we’re the elders. And we have experience and wisdom to share. It’s ancient stuff, really. And for them to be in the presence of seasoned creative forces, it’s beautiful. It was my feeling with Paul Simon. Someone isn’t coming at you from theory. They’re coming at you from the trenches. And that allows you a peek into what it looks like. It’s deep stuff. It’s fantastic.
J.P.:Man, I wanna take your class. And I have no musical skill …
M.M.: Come on down.
J.P.:The wife and I consider Whenever I Call You Friend to be an all-time great song. You co-wrote it with Kenny Loggins, then he scored a huge hit with Stevie Nicks. What do you remember about writing that song? When you’re a singer and songwriter, does it at all suck when someone else succeeds with your material and people think of the work as someone else’s?
M.M.: Kenny chose Stevie, I guess because of her cool factor. Which is fine. Clive Davis, when I presented that song to him, he passed on it. He didn’t get it. I said, ‘Really? Even the Kenny Loggins element doesn’t do much for you?’ That kind of stuff happens.
Honestly, I’m honored when other artists want to sing my song. Again, I came from the school where songs are written for artists. I mean, Sinatra didn’t write his own songs. And so, there are a whole top tier of writers who wrote for the top-tier artists. So I was honored Nicks sang with Kenny. And the process of the song was interesting. It’s quite a while ago, but Kenny is a formidable writer for sure, and he had this idea and it was just sort of in pieces. And the pieces were not making sense. We finished it and glued it together and made it better and stronger and clearer and all that stuff.
J.P.:You’re driving in your car and that songs come on. Do you …
M.M.: I’m delighted. Of course, I’m delighted. I don’t get it when people get irked by other people singing their songs. I don’t get it when songwriters get irked hearing their songs. I just don’t get it. What’s the problem? That’s the universal wallpaper nodding in your direction. I’d just shut up and say thank you.
J.P.:If it’s on the radio, do you sing along?
M.M.: Sometimes. (Laughter). Sometimes.
J.P.:In 1982 you won a Grammy with your biggest hit, You Should Hear How She Talks About You. Do awards matter? Someone says, ‘This is the best song of the year!’ Are you with it? Why? What do you recall of that win? And where’s the Grammy?
M.M.: Well, awards are nice, because they create an instant energy field of more people wanting to see you. It creates that energy field of attraction. It’s really astounding when people recognize a song you’ve either written or performed. It’s amazing. Because it’s not that they recognize the song—they recognize the first two notes of the introduction. Which means you established a world that didn’t exist prior to this song. And you’ve made a pathway for people to project whatever needs they have for the song, that helps clarify and restore and shake loose something for them. It’s unbelievable. It’s only 3 ½ or four minutes. Or it can galvanize a nation. It’s just unbelievable. So in answer to your question, yes, of course awards are lovely. But the truth is the record industry is about what have you done lately. But it’s lovely to know I was acknowledged by my peers.
J.P.:Where are the awards?
M.M.: In my living room, in front of a sunny window.
• I had this debate with my friend Malcom, and he said I should ask Melissa Manchester. You drop $250 sunglasses into a public toilet. What do you do?: HA! I pick them up. Ha.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Yes. I was flying into New Jersey many, many years ago in April or March, and it was a terrible fear, and I just started praying. I’m a big prayer person. And I just kept saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you for this life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’
• Three memories from appearing on Blossom?: Ha ha ha. Well, one was being introduced to the great, late Bill Bixby, who was the fantastic director. At the time he was quite ill, but he was still directing. He was very jolly. Everyone knew he was in pain, but he was still jolly. And he said, ‘I want you to be very comfortable and feel free to make suggestions. This is an open dialogue between me and the cast.’ I thanked him, and I made a suggestion and he said, ‘That’s a bad idea’ and moved on. Ha ha. Two, going to Paris for the filming of Blossom was really, really a beautiful adventure. The kids were fantastic. Mayim Bialik was unbelievable. I mean, this woman is so brilliant. She could be president of the nation. She was really raised well, and she had this confidence about her as a teenage girl where she just did not get flustered. She just walked through and created this bond. All the kids were raised really well. It was a wonderful, beautiful experience.
• What do you consider the best and worst songs that you’ve released of your career?: Ha ha ha. I don’t know about the best. There’s a song … if I have a chance to write with the Bergmans again. I was very overwhelmed and intimidating. They’re magnificent friends, and couldn’t be more loving and kind, but at the time I just wasn’t used to writing a melody first, and then have somebody set lyrics to it. And that’s how they were used to writing. I tried to do that. The song was called Tears of Joy. It’s just a hodgepodge of a melody. Their lyrics were lovely, but my nervousness shows. I don’t have one best. I think a lot of my best is on this album. I think the song, You’ve Gotta Love the Life really captures my life and the life of the artist. I also love the song Feelin’ for You with Keb Mo—and the way he produced it.
• Who wins in a karaoke battle between you, Celine Dion and Madonna?: Hahahahaha. Well, it’s between me and Celine.
• You composed and recorded the score to the direct-to-videoLady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure. In 30 words of less, can you tell me the movie’s plot?: Um, it’s about Tramp’s son and Lady’s son—a puppy who takes after his father. He’s a little rebellious and wants to be free and gets in trouble with a gang of dogs. And then he realized the error of his ways and he realizes he needs his family. That his family was really solid.
• Why aren’t you Tweeting more?: Should I? Is that what I should do? I do Facebook quite a bit. I like Facebook.
• Would you ever consider recording an adult contemporary versions of Snoop Dogg’s 10 greatest hits?: Ha ha ha. I really have to sit with them. I really have to sit with them and listen to what it is he’s trying to say. My first impulse is to say no. But I’ll give everything a listen and listen to it as far as I can.
• Five greatest pure vocalists of your lifetime?: Well, pure vocalists—that’s good. Very good. Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra and … hmm … number five, that s a tossup. I would say Tony Bennett.
When we first moved to California a bunch of months back, we took the kids on a trip to the San Diego Zoo, then stopped off at a diner for dinner. It was a place called Corvette’s, and it featured video games, singing waitresses, thicker-than-thick milkshakes and—most important—a dude walking table to table, making creations from balloons.
My son and daughter saw Marcial Gutierrez as grand entertainment.
I immediately saw him as perfect Quaz material.
Why perfect? Well, because he’s a balloon artist. And what’s more quirky and cool than that? So I asked the man for his business card and, well, here we are. Glorious Quaz No. 192.
Turns out Marcial is an amazing man with an amazing story and an amazing talent. He’ll make pretty much anything, he’d gladly work for Celine Dion and he even sorta believes in love at first sight. You can visit his website here.
Marcial Gutierrez, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Marcial, so I’ve seen you do balloon animals, and you’re extremely talented. Which leads me to ask: Balloon animals? Like, how does one think to himself, “You know what I’d really like to do? Make balloon animals?” Why do you do it? How did the idea first enter your head?
MARCIAL GUTIERREZ: My entry into the twisted world of balloon art was mainly an act of desperation. Seven years ago I was a struggling independent filmmaker trying to earn a living working freelance gigs and odd jobs, while attempting to get some film projects off the ground. But doors starting closing for me left and right: a mentorship program at an indie filmmakers’ fellowship in LA had just wrapped up without bearing any fruits for my career in show biz. Also, I had just finished shooting a pilot scene for a feature script I had written, but our main financier/producer dropped the project after he realized we were working on an over-the-top gory zombie comedy flick. My only steady gigs were filming weddings and pretending to be an Iraqi insurgent for a local movie studio that had a deal with the U.S. military running hyper-realistic combat simulations for the USMC. But that dried up once the studio moved beyond hiring ambiguously brown actors capable of yelling gibberish to actual Arabic-speaking role players.
Broke and a bit hopeless, I began to doubt my capacities as an artist. But then I encountered balloon twisting through one of my friends in the entertainment industry, a woman who was an aspiring actress and singer, who also earned her money working multiple gigs. Among the many talents she possessed was balloon twisting; I think she learned to do it while she was in college getting her degree in theater. She taught me the basics of both balloon twisting and working at a restaurant for tips, and later introduced me to other people who did it more “professionally”.
I thought I became a balloon twister because of the money that one can make doing this. My motivation, at least initially, was the people who I knew were making pretty good money working as balloon artists. But I truly enjoyed twisting balloons from day one, and I discovered that I wasn’t half bad at it either. After about a month of twisting balloons something happened. I wasn’t happy with the cookie cutter shapes and designs that I was taught. I wanted to make my own designs, invent my own new shapes. And I did. After a few months of starting, I had a few designs of my own, much to the surprise of the more established balloon twisters. In my first year of balloon twisting I caught up to the guys who had been around for five or six years, and in some cases I was actually twisting more intricate things that they were. I felt pride as an artist again. So quickly I realized that I became, and remained, a balloon twister not because of the money, but because balloons became my new medium for artistic expression. After having so many doors close in my face as an indie filmmaker I needed to feel like an artist again. I needed it bad. So I put down the film camera and picked up the bag of balloons. Oh, and by the way, the money’s not bad either.
J.P.:What does it take to be great at making balloon animals? I mean, I’ve seen many shit balloon animal makers who twist and turn and deliver crap. What separates the good from the bad and the great from the good?
M.G.: Well, at this point I would say I do more than just “balloon animals.” I can make almost anything out of balloons. But yeah, when I first started I was hesitant to pick up the craft because I thought all there was to “balloon twisting” was the easy, one-balloon dog we’re all used to seeing. What really got me hooked on balloon art were the really intricate creations that I saw coming out of conventions and competitions; only then did I realize that I wasn’t getting into a craft, per se, but rather an art form.
What does it take to be great at balloon twisting? I don’t know first-hand, since I wouldn’t call myself great at it. I think greatness is relative and I’ve seen some truly amazing creations that make me realize how much more I have yet to learn. But I think it takes the same as in any other art form: it’s part a person’s own innate ability to see the world a bit differently, and part learned skill. In my case I love to draw as well. I’m not that good at it, but I love to draw and paint. I realized early on that if I could draw something off the top of my head I could also make it out of balloons. Sounds weird, but if I can draw something I can also break it down into the several steps necessary to make that something into a balloon shape. I was never taught how to do this. This strange ability was just there from day one. Over time, however, I’ve been learning different techniques like pinching, twisting and weaving balloons in different ways to make my designs look better.
J.P.: So I’m a kid. You ask what I want and I say, “A sea horse! I love sea horses.” You’ve presumably never made one. How do you then go about creating?
M.G.: (Laughs) I’ve actually made many seahorses before, Jeff. And other more bizarre sea creatures like crabs, narwhals and squids! I hate saying “no” when I’m twisting balloons, so depending on how busy we are at the restaurant, I may decline to twist your request. But say your parents hired me to come out to your birthday party and I have plenty of time, I will attempt to make your requested balloon. If I can’t twist it off the top of my head, I do a Google Image search on my phone for your request and twist it off of that image. It’s actually a lot of fun to accept these challenges, under the right setting, because I feel like I get to put on more of a show, since people are watching to see if I can deliver or not.
J.P.:We met you at Corvette’s, a restaurant in San Diego. I’ve gotta think 50 percent of people either don’t know to tip you or simply don’t tip you. Be 100% honest: How much does that piss you off? And are there subtle ways of dropping hints?
M.G.: Yeah, that’s always a problem. It generally doesn’t affect me that much. It does, however, if I’m having a slow month and I got no private parties for that weekend. Or if I’m having a bad night and non-tipping becomes a trend, then it’ll get to me. But generally people are good and they like taking care of the balloon guy. As to my strategy to drop hints, I generally just use phrases like “Are you interested in getting balloons for anyone that you’re taking care of?” By me emphasizing “interested” and “taking care of” I’m generally successful in prompting people to ask whether the balloons have a cost, to which I reply, “There is absolutely no cost, but I’ll accept a tip if you like my work”.
J.P.:What’s your story, womb to now? How’d you get here? What’s the ultimate goal?
M.G.: I’m a native of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. I was born in Tijuana, Mexico into a family that is scattered on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. I grew up in both San Diego and Tijuana, speaking Spanglish and going to school here and there, but eventually ended up feeling much more at home on the U.S. side of things. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a hyperactive imagination, much to the chagrin of my parents. It wasn’t uncommon for me to sleepwalk or act out my dreams in my sleep until everyone was awake, which must’ve sucked for my dad who had to wake up at 4 in the morning for work. That went away as I grew up. When I became a teenager, I skated the streets of Tijuana and had dreams of starting a punk band with my middle-school buddies. But I wasn’t a punk rocker. I was a straight-A student, graduated from International Baccalaureate in high school and Outstanding Senior of my class in college. But graduating from college wasn’t easy. I changed majors five times: international business, liberal arts, English, TV and film production and finally settled on political science. Now I’m a graduate student working on an M.A. in Public Policy, a former filmmaker and a balloon artist.
I ended up marrying my first girlfriend. We met back in middle school and had a short-lived, puppy love thing that I was never able to shake off as time went on. We just held hands. I never mustered up the courage to kiss her. We didn’t see each other for 13 years but found each other on Facebook three years ago. We started going on dates and pretty soon we were back together. However, I made sure that I kissed her this time.
For now I’m focused on finishing my M.A., doing a job as teaching assistant at San Diego State University, being a good husband and continuing to twist balloons. We don’t have any plans to start a family yet, since my wife is also working on getting her graduate degree in clinical psychology, but maybe in a few years I’ll add “father” to the labels I wear.
J.P.:You mentioned attending some balloon animal conventions where guys just, “go crazy.” What does that mean? What do y’all talk about? And who is the average person in your profession? Like, is there a profile?
M.G.: Going crazy means twisting anlife-sized jazz quartet entirely out of balloons. Or weaving an entire collection of night gowns out of balloons and hiring models to show them off on a runway. That’s going crazy. Also, some of these conventions host a 24-hour jam room, usually a conference hall or ballroom in the hotel where the convention is taking place, where one can just walk into at any hour and twist away. You’d think that people would want to sleep at night so that they can have all the energy to attend the workshops during the day, but no, some of these people are maniacs and pound can after can of energy drink in order to stay awake and twist balloons as much as they can. Because these conventions attract all the best twisters in the world, they’re a great place to learn new tricks, so sleeping is often seen as a waste of time.
There is also a lot of drinking. Man, can balloon twisters drink. That’s why we don’t blow up the balloons ourselves anymore and use pumps now; the breath inside the balloon is highly flammable! Joking aside, I have seen the most impressively assorted miniature bars at balloon conventions. At one convention I attended, there was this older guy who pulled a full bartender set out of his briefcase, complete with shaker, martini glasses and a respectable amount of vodka.
J.P.:You’re doing a balloon animal for some spoiled dickhead kid. He’s gross, snot dripping from his nostrils, awful parents. You hand him the panda you took 10 minutes making, he screams, “That sucks! Make another!” Mom says, “Make another!” What do you do? And what is your worst moment as a balloon guy?
M.G.: Before suspending my disbelief in order to immerse myself fully in that scenario, I’d like to tell you Jeff that if I took 10 minutes working on a panda no kid ever would scream, “That sucks!” (Laughs) That sculpture would actually be Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants in a mid-swing pose. Well, if that kid were a Kansas City Royals fan then yeah, he’d probably scream, “That’s awful, make another!”
I’m not gonna lie, I would probably be pissed as hell, so I would assume that the hardest part would be just keeping my cool. What would I do? I probably wouldn’t make him another. I’d just apologize and move on. I mean, I usually work at very busy places where there’s either a line or people waiting at their tables to get a balloon, so taking additional time to make a second balloon for a bratty child is just not possible. I’d try to make him a lightsaber or something quick and easy so that at least he gets another balloon, but I would not take a fancy request.
My worst moments as a balloon guy come when I get hired to work at parks. I HATE TWISTING BALLOONS AT PARKS. There’s a lot going on and kids are usually running around not taking care of their balloon creations. It can get a bit windy and a sudden draft can just take a balloon away from a child’s hand. But what’s worse is that parks are covered in the No. 1 enemy of balloons: grass. There’s nothing worse that spending 10 minutes on a panda that a child absolutely adored only to watch it pop into deformity a few seconds later as it lands on grass. If the child hated the panda than at least he gets a kick out of watching it explode. But when a little cutie thing bursts into tears because the balloon slipped out of her hands and popped on the blades of grass, that breaks my heart, Jeff (cue the violins).
J.P.:How does your mind work as you’re creating? With as much detail as possible, can you explain what goes through your head?
M.G.: So it all begins with an image pulled from the Internet. Whenever I’m figuring out how to do something for the first time, I’ll usually do a Google search from an image that I’ll leave on the computer screen the entire time. I usually work top to bottom. I’ll start with the head (if it has a head) and work my way down to the feet. I carry different sizes of twisting balloons, so depending on how large I want the sculpture to be that will determine the gauge of the balloons that I’ll end up using. There are several basic techniques one needs to know, like pinching and lock twisting, and more advanced techniques, such as double stuffing or weaving balloons, that go into creating specific shapes and structures. I haven’t invented any weave patterns yet, so what I know I’ve learned from the pioneering balloon artists who’ve created most of the basic techniques used by all of us in the field.
After staring at the image for long enough, I’ll start breaking down the subject into a version of itself composed of basic geometric shapes, similar to the way people are taught to draw. Balloons aren’t polygons; they don’t have sides or angles, but you can then check to see if the subject has broken into a shape containing any circles or ellipses. You can start with those. Usually limbs are the easiest to make, because all you need is a straight balloon with some hands attached to them at the end and a pinch twist to attach to the shoulder. After you’ve worked on the rounder parts of a subject, then you can proceed to make the more angular parts of it, by twisting the balloons into segments and adding lock twists to hold them in place. This technique allows you to replicate geometric shapes that can then be added to the sculpture as separate components.
It all sounds so precise and mathematical, but it really isn’t. In no way am I an balloon egghead. The process described above goes on entirely in my head. I don’t take any notes, nor do I keep track of everything I do. I usually improvise and twist without knowing where I’ll end up. It’s the same way I like to paint or draw; I’ll put on some of my favorite music, and if I’m up for it, I’ll pour myself a glass of wine and twist.
I’m a little impatient and somewhat of a perfectionist, so every time I do something new, I’m determined to get it right the first time. This has brought me a great deal of frustration, since as with any art, there is a lot of trial and error involved with balloon twisting. I’m still learning this lesson, despite my seven years as a balloon artist. So whenever I twist something for the first time, it ends up becoming the beta version of whatever it is I’m trying to make. I’ll usually end up spotting two or three things that I would like to do differently, make a note of that and try again. I usually get it right by the second or third time around.
J.P.:You’re at a restaurant, taking requests. Someone says, “Can you make a penis?” Or, “Tits” Or anything like that. Do you give it your best shot? Insist you can’t? Are there such things as dirty balloon creations?
M.G.: No, I will not make “body parts” when I’m at a restaurant, not because I have a moral code that dictates “balloons are supposed to be clean,” but because of common sense. Most places I work at are family-friendly joints, so I have to politely decline requests of penis hats. I have, however, gotten hired to work a few adult parties outside of the restaurant circuit where I’ve twisted all sorts of body parts from 10 at night until about 2 in the morning, for all kinds of drunk guests. I enjoy adult parties to a degree; they’re a good change of scene from the usual children’s parties but they’re actually harder to work. It’s actually easier to entertain a bratty child than it is to entertain the thirty-something-year-old with a sharp tongue who’s on her fourth rum and Coke. That’s because adult parties are so few and far between that I’ve lost some of my edge and witty comebacks. As a result, I do end up taking quite a bit of abuse sometimes (laughs).
J.P.:Why do you think more people aren’t freaked out by the potential eternal nothingness that accompanies death?
M.G.: Because I think most people don’t associate death with an eternal nothingness. To most people death is about an eternal something; an eternal existence where all the wrongs of life will be corrected. But If you think about it, which I have—and plenty of times, for that matter—both ideas sounds terrifying. To think that we’ll potentially return to the state we were in before we were born, or to an eternal fate as decided by a deity are enough to make one lose sleep at night.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARCIAL GUTIERREZ:
• Celine Dion calls. She wants to hire you as her personal balloon artist. You’ll make $5 million next year, but you have to move to Las Vegas, sleep in a crib, eat only cranberries and sausage and get a tattoo of a ketchup bottle on your thigh. You in?: I’m in as long as the ketchup bottle is one of those Heinz 57 old-school bottles. I’ll just have my wife get a matching tattoo of a french fry on her thigh.
• Who are your five all-time favorite actresses?: Gloria Swanson, she scared me to death as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Sigourney Weaver is amazing and has been in some of my favorite films, like the Alien franchise and Ghostbusters. I’m also a fan of Scarlett Johansson; I think she’s crazy talented and her performance alongside Bill Murray in Lost in Translation made me develop a fanboy crush on her for a little while.
• What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen made from balloons?: A life-sized Xenomorph alien from the Ridley Scott Alien movie. Who knew H.R. Giger’s stuff would translate so well as a balloon sculpture?
• If I’m eating at Corvette’s, what’s the one thing I should order? And shouldn’t?: Get the Rory Burger, it’s got bacon and peanut butter! Stay away from the salads, not because they’re bad, but because they’re salads. I mean, you’re at the Corvette Diner man, so when in Rome…
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Yelp, mushrooms, Anaheim, Joni Mitchell, Bar Mitzvahs, Trader Joes, Tom Cruise, Bella Thorne, Colt McCoy, Anthony Bourdain, OutKast, Power Rangers, your feet: 1. My Feet (As long as they’re covered in a pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars); 2. Anaheim (one of my guilty pleasures is visiting Disneyland); 3. Trader Joes (It’s sort of a somewhat-poor-man’s version of Whole Foods); 4. Mushrooms (they’re good on steak); 5. Anthony Bourdain (doesn’t he have the best job ever?); 6. Power Rangers (I’m more of a Ninja Turtles guy, but PRs were cool for while); 6. OutKast (I’m sorry Ms. Jackson, I am for reeeeaaalll); 7. Joni Mitchell (I’ve heard she’s iconic, but I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t heard too much of her music); 8. Yelp (it’s helped me make improved decisions as a consumer, but I’m not on it); 9. Bar Mitzvahs (Never been to one. I grew up in Tijuana and San Diego’s South Bay so I never had any Jewish friends growing up. Been to plenty of quinceañeras though.); 10. Colt McCoy (I’m not a huge NFL guy); 11. Bella Thorne (Don’t know who she is); 12. Tom Cruise (Um, because Tom Cruise)
• Do you believe in love at first sight?: Kind of. Love at first sight is such an improbable thing though, it’s a rare natural occurrence, sorta of like an eclipse. All the stars need to line up in order for that first eye contact to evolve into this thing we call love. I believe in infatuation at first sight though, that’s easy to do. Love, on the other hand, takes time and effort.
• I’m 42. Be honest—in your mind is that old, really old or ancient?: Not at all. I think we gauge how old someone is based on how well we can relate to them. People in their 40s have awesome taste in music for example. Some of my friends who are in their 40s have gotten me into really cool music from the 70s and 80s, like Bon Scott-era AC/DC and old-school punk rock. No so Jeff, you’re cool.
• We just moved to Southern California. Gimme three places we absolutely have to go: I appreciate odd and unusual places, so I would recommend that you visit the Salton Sea. It’s got three different spots to visit, all within close proximity of each other: Bombay Beach, Salvation Mountain and Slab City. The only “touristy” spot on the list is Salvation Mountain. In case you’ve never heard of it, it is a giant work of folk art. It’s basically a climbable hill covered in religious messages brushed on with thousands of gallons of paint. Bombay Beach and Slab City, on the other hand, are actual communities so I wouldn’t suggest showing up like a nosy tourist. Instead try to grab a sandwich or a beer and get to talk to some of the locals.
• I hate Ariana Grande’s music. In exactly 17 words, defend her: I haven’t heard her yet. She’s gotta be so good her stuff is by invitation only.
• Best birthday gift you’ve ever received: A birthday cake shaped like the face of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I love Ninja Turtles!
Back when we were kids, growing up on Emerald Lane in Mahopac, N.Y. Matt Walker and I lived for the New York Jets. They were our team, and even though the green and white never sniffed a Super Bowl, we were as loyal as loyal gets. Name a player (even the worst friggin’ players) and we were diehards. Wesley Walker, Lance Mehl, Al Toon, Joe Klecko, Pat Leahy, Marty Lyons—those were our guys.
In case you don’t remember, Ken spent 10 years as a Jet. He had absolutely breathtaking arm strength, looked off receivers well, took hits like the toughest of men. Did he always get rid of the ball, eh, quickly? No. But that was his only glaring weakness.
Oh, wait. He had one more weakness—something not of his doing. O’Brien was selected by the Jets with the 24th pick in the 1983 NFL Draft … three spots ahead of Dan Marino. So as the Dolphin legend went on to have a Hall of Fame career, Jet fans often wondered what could have been …
I never felt that way. Truly, I didn’t. O’Brien was a helluva player. He was my boyhood quarterback.
Anyhow, here Ken talks about the 1983 Draft, about the wacky life of a Philadelphia Eagle and how one adjusts when the cheering stops. He now lives in Manhattan Beach, and works in wealth management.
JEFF PEARLMAN:I recently saw an ESPN 30 for 30 on the 1983 draft, and it’s always the same. Marino! Elway! Kelly! Studs! Eason, Blackledge—sorta busts. And Ken O’Brien—um, yeah. Strikes me as unfair to a really great NFL career. Bug you at all?
KEN O’BRIEN: You know, to be honest I know it’s there and three of the guys are in the Hall of Fame. So they’re great players, but they’re also all great guys. And we’ve had the chance to get together. It’s an honor to be friends of theirs and have competed against them. But you only control what you control. Every situation is different. What I had in New York was different than what other guys had. I’m not saying worse, but different. And inside that building things were done in ways that you didn’t always see on the outside. I played with great guys, and I wouldn’t change that at all. But as far as the perception—it is out there. I know it is. But I don’t lose any sleep over it. I know I did everything I could do. It’s a cliché, but I really tried to give 110 percent every day. I can’t look back much after that. I did my best. I’m comfortable with that.
J.P.:Blair Thomas once told me being a Jet back then was … different. And he sorta felt that, had Emmitt Smith been drafted by New York and Blair went to Dallas, everything about his career is different. Better.
K.O.: I think it sort of does. Blair was a great guy, and he was coming off being hurt a couple of times. So it took him, physically, a while to get to be 100 percent. But every organization is different. And you learn along the way. That was a time when I was young, and had I learned a little more and approached things differently, maybe I could have made the team better. I don’t know. You’re a sum of all your experiences.
J.P.:You were a California kid—Jesuit High, Cal Davis. What was it like transitioning to New York? The frenzy? The cold? Worse than one would think? Easier?
K.O.: Well, my mom and dad are … my dad is from Kew Gardens, my mom is from Bay Ridge. My uncles are New York City cops. My entire family is back there, so it was fun going back. I got to spend more time with my aunts and uncles and cousins than I ever before did. When I was a kid we’d vacation in New York. I mean, in those days vacations with six kids were like Brady Bunch rides. So we didn’t do a ton of them. But when we went back, my uncles would take us around. One time we went to see the pitchers from the World Series team of 1969. They were doing an event at a park. Seaver, Ryan, Koosman. They’d take us to the Jet facility, and I actually met Joe Namath when I was a little kid. Small world.
So coming to New York as a player felt like coming home in many ways. That made it pretty easy.
J.P.:When you played, the big knock was that you held onto the ball too long. 1. Fair? 2. Easier said than done?
K.O.: I mean, anyone’s opinion is fair, so I don’t blame that. But it’s what you’re asked to do on offense. Back then, maybe it was my deal, but I was supposed to stand in there, take a shot, get rid of the ball. The game has changed—now you see guys getting rid of the ball real quick. One-step slants, back-shoulder throws, all these things that are involved now that were not part of the game then. I think it’s the evolution of the game. For me, you do what the offense asks. I mean, I guess the easy answer is if I saw someone open sooner, I would have let the ball go sooner. But it’s sometimes being stubborn, too, because you always think there’s a chance to make a big play. So could I have been better at it? Yes. And we worked on it. But at the same time you’re trying to make the plays as guys get open, and you wanna hang in there as long as you can.
J.P.:I’m as fascinated by ends as beginning. In 1993 you went to camp with Green Bay, you were cut, then you spent the season in Philly with Randall Cunningham and Bubby Brister. Good? Bad? When did you know it was over?
K.O.: It started out strange at Green Bay. I was comfortable in New York. I knew my teammates, my coaches, the office managers, everyone. All the guys in the building. There’s a real comfort factor. Then you go to a new place, and you have no home and you’re starting over. It’s hard to explain, but it was hard for me.
When I finally got to Philly, well, I wish I’d stayed in New York for 20 years. Going to Philly was a great life experience, because Philly was so different than anything I’d seen in the world of football before. It was just crazy. It was run by the prisoners a bit. Buddy Ryan had just left and he bent over backward to give the players all sorta of controls. Especially defensive players. Then Richie Kotite came in and he was there and he had all the holdovers from Buddy’s era, and there was just some crazy funny stuff, things that would never happen in the 10 years in New York. There were just some outstanding stories …
J.P.:Wait! How about an example?
K.O.: It was every day. Guys were on their own schedules, they showed up when they wanted to. There was a race one day … this is a great one. It was late in the year and Philly had an offense vs. defense type deal. That’s what Buddy had instilled—defense would win games, offense just couldn’t screw it up. That’s the short version of the impression I got when I talked with other guys. Because I never played for Buddy. And Zeke Bratkowski was the quarterback coach, and he had that job with the Jets. I became friends with Mark Bavaro and Herschel Walker—go down the list and there were a bunch of really good guys there. It was an opportunity to be with some quality guys. And one day at practice I was walking with Herschel, and we had a defensive back named Mark McMillian. He’s a little guy, probably one of the really fast corners in the league. And a bunch of guys were giving Herschel a hard time, and Herschel never said anything. And they were laughing at him, calling him an old man. Herschel and I were close to the same age, and he was so accomplished. They didn’t even know he’d won the Heisman Trophy. They had no idea all he’d accomplished. And Herschel didn’t say a word. It was snowing, we were practicing outside, and Mark challenged Herschel to a race. And I was taking bets, and I was putting everything on Herschel. I promoted him. And he gets out and they get on the field, and Richie Kotite and Bud Carson are holding some DO NOT CROSS tape. And they’ve got down jackets on, gloves, hats. It’s freezing out. And here comes McMillian, and he’s got his tights on. Everyone else is freezing, but Mark has the tights on. And Herschel doesn’t show up. He’s not there. He’s not coming out. And they’re all making fun. “Your buddy’s not coming out. Hahahaha.” And finally here comes Herschel, and he’s coming out like he’s going to practice, gear on—shoulder pads, pants, helmet. And they’re like, ‘He’s not gonna run!” Making fun. And he walks up to the line and says, “OK, you ready to go?” And they get down to race, and guys are lined up—offense on one side, defense on the other.
On your mark …
Get set …
And when they said “Go,” the look on the kid’s face after five yards was disbelief. Herschel comes up and he’s gone. And Mark knows at five yards he’s done. This speeding bullet goes by. And Herschel beats him, and Coach Kotite has the money in his hand, Herschel jogs by, grabs it, jogs into the locker room and practice is over. That was it. Everyone was laughing. It was the funniest thing you’d ever seen. The poor kid had no idea he was with a world-class sprinter.
Every week something like that would happen. The Eagles were the Animal House of the NFL.
J.P.:A lot has been made of concussions and the afterlife of football players. How are you? What do you think of the lawsuits? Concerned for yourself?
K.O.: Fortunately I’m OK. I just turned 54. When I turned 50 I was fine. You do have aches and pains, but maybe that’s just getting old. Your back, your knees, everything else. I’m not what I used to be, but I don’t think anyone would notice anything falling apart on me just yet.
As far as the concussions and lawsuits, I think there are a lot of guys out there who are much worse. You run into former players occasionally and you wish there was something in place where they could get some help. I know they’re fighting for it, I know it’s a big money deal—but at the end of the day it’s the right thing to do to help guys get through this. It’s just the right thing to do. A lot of them can’t get the right medical insurance, and they need help. I actually went into this business because I wanted to help people after seeing people go sideways.
J.P.:You played in front of 50,000 people, adrenaline, fame, perks. How did you adjust when it ended?
K.O.: The main thing that I learned—it’s hard to replace the passion. I mean, it’s not like when you’re playing football you’re working. Every day you’re doing something you enjoy doing. You’re working out, you’re developing a game plan, you’re throwing a football. Are you’re around guys who become your best friends. There’s a reason why football is so popular—people love it, and we loved playing it. I certainly did. So how do you replace that passion? It’s very hard. Do you want to go and work in a bank? Maybe, but it’s not the same. You’re punching in, you’re working 8-to-5. I bounced around a lot, trying to find something that gives me satisfaction. It took time. But you also need things outside of work—family, kids, travel, hobbies. Because you’ll never fully replace what you had. It’s probably impossible. You’re only passionate about so many things.
At UC Davis back in the day.
J.P.:People always say when they’re playing, “This will haunt me.” Do you feel haunted by never making a Super Bowl? Do you care?
K.O.: I wouldn’t say haunted. But the goal every year was to make it. You feel unfulfilled in that regard, especially because we came close. It does matter, but it’s one of those things where I know my teammates gave everything they had, and I did. We fell short, but we fell short fighting. Whether it was a play or running out of time, it didn’t work out. if you didn’t give it everything you had, it’d hurt.
J.P.:I remember when you left New York and they brought in Boomer Esiason, gave him your number, and it struck me as disrespectful to a longtime quarterback. Did I read that wrongly?
K.O.: You know, I never really spent any time thinking about it. It really wasn’t a big thing for me. Number doesn’t mean anything to me. They actually called later down the line, and someone with the organization apologized and said they made a mistake. But I said, ‘No big deal.’ There are a lot of things to lose sleep over. That’s not one of them.
Now if you ask my wife, she might have a slightly different opinion.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KEN O’BRIEN:
• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Nuu Faaola?: Ha. It was exciting every day. It was like I was back in the tropics.
• Who’s the most underrated guy you ever played with?: Dan Alexander, our offensive guard. Dan played at LSU as a defensive lineman. He came to the Jets when they had the Sack Exchange, moved to offensive guard and stayed there for ages. He was terrific. Plus, he had a great mustache.
• How often are you recognized?: Um, as I get older and further removed from it not as much as I used to. But every once in a while someone says something nice about an old guy that makes me feel good.
• Five greatest quarterbacks of your lifetime: Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Dan Marino. And, ooh boy, Tom Brady and Brett Favre and Peyton Manning are all there. But I’m going Bert Jones. He had a rifle. Plus, I’ve gone hunting with him. You can’t ignore hunting buddies with strong arms.
• Three reasons one should make Manhattan Beach home?: I don’t think they should. Pass it by. It’s full. There’s no room for anybody else here. I’m not publicizing it; saying that you should come live down here. You should go to Laguna. It’s so much better.
• How’d you meet your wife?: We grew up together. I met her the first time when we were in seventh grade.
• What’s your Super Bowl prediction?: Tough one. Pete Carroll is a good friend, he lives down the street. But I really like Tom Brady. I’m not good at predictions, but whoever can put pressure on the quarterback will win. I think Seattle will find a way. Somehow. They have a lot of speed in every area. They find ways defensively to do it.
• What are the five ugliest NFL uniforms?: Um, not including throwbacks. I think the Bengals uniform is horrendous. I don’t like the color for Carolina. Tampa Bay doesn’t do anything for me. And put the Dolphins up there, too. I hate the Dolphins on general principle.
• Because he was drafted before Jerry Rice and got hurt early, people forget about Al Toon. How good was he?: He was a freak. He was a really good friend, first, and we’ve kept in touch. But as far as a player, he was a freak. He could do everything. He was like a quarterback in that he understood the whole offensive scheme. We could communicate with just a look. He made some unbelievable catches all the time in practices, games. He could do whatever he had to do to get open, deceptively strong. And when he had someone chasing him, no one caught him. The longer he played, the better he would have been in people’s memories. But he’s one of the best.
• Are the Jets cursed?: No. Todd Bowles is an interesting hire. They’re really happy with him as the new coach. Rex has a way about him—he’s a great player’s coach, but if it doesn’t click after a while people stop listening. It got to the point. But the Jets need to settle on a quarterback and have confidence in him. The last three games or so, Geno Smith played well and looked like he got it. I haven’t watched film to know he’s the guy to take us there. But I sure hope so.
Last October, I was scanning through Facebook when I stumbled upon an angry rant from Jessica Kupferman, my former University of Delaware classmate. It seems that her 17-year-old daughter, Emily, had been sent home from Brandywine (Del.) High for violating the school’s dress code. This is what she was wearing …
Yup. It’s a cruddy jacket and black leggings. As sexy and risque as a stick of Trident. While I enjoyed Jessica’s angry ode to stupid academic rules, what truly got me was the aftermath. Namely, instead of meekly adhering to poorly constructed regulations and fading into the abyss, Emily battled back. She spoke up, spoke out and drew the interest of local media. And while I don’t know if anything changed, I found myself overflowing with respect for the young woman.
Which brings us to the 190th Quaz.
Emily Schaeffer is a high school senior unafraid to put herself out there. I asked her mom if her daughter would consider being Quazed, and the response was a quick, “Absolutely!” Will she discuss what it’s like to be a high schooler in great detail? “Absolutely!”
This was no lie.
If you’re a parent, wondering what your teen is thinking, meet Emily. If you’re a teen, wondering why you feel so alone, meet Emily. She’s cool, she’s smart, she’s vulnerable, she’s aware.
She’s an absolutely fantastic Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK Emily, so this all starts with a Facebook post from your mom, who was outraged by reaction from a school administrator to the (jarringly unrevealing) outfit you wore to Brandywine High School recently. Your mother said a school official saw you and said, “I’ve had enough of this with you. No more leggings for you ever.” So … what happened? In detail …
EMILY SCHAEFFER: OK, just as a little back story, the code of conduct says that you’re not allowed to wear “form fitting pants” without a shirt that covers four inches above the knee. I wore leggings only one other time this school year and I was asked to change, and I was compliant.
So I came to school an hour late wearing my aunt’s plus-size jacket. I went into the office and my administrator saw me and pulled me aside. He told me something along the lines of, “It’s something every day with you. You’re not allowed to wear leggings. And since you’ve already missed so much school, I want you to go home and change.”
For a moment I tried to tell him, “But Mr. Regan, I know this is covering up to four inches …” He replied by repeating what he said before. I drove all the way back home to change and came back to school, missing another hour of class time.
J.P.:It sounds like this is something of an ongoing issue at your school: the way female students dress, and the reaction of administrators—most of whom (I’m guessing) are male. Am I wrong? Right?
E.S.: There are three male and two female administrators at Brandywine. And, honestly, the only ongoing issue is the inconsistency of the rules. Some days no one will say anything to students about dress code. Others, you’ll either have to wait in the “time-out” room for a parent to bring you a change of clothes, or you’ll get sent home to change. I’ve heard they like to “make examples” out of some girls.
J.P.:I can’t imagine being a high schooler in 2015. It just seems sorta sucky, especially with all the technology, everyone on Instagram, talking shit, showing pictures of the party you weren’t invited to. Tell me—what role does social media have on the life of the current high schooler? And is it more for the better of the worse?
E.S.: Instagram and Twitter have a huge role in the lives of average high schoolers. Personally, I don’t have Twitter—I think it’s the worst of them all. Social media has led everyone my age to believe that every thought they have throughout the day is important and worth sharing with the public. Social media has been in my life since the sixth grade, and because it’s been in my life my entire teenage years, I have literal documentation of everything I’ve ever done or thought from age 12 until now. It’s horrifying. No one should be reminded of how awful they were when they were 14 and 15. Before you turn 16, you are a completely different kind of person than you will be for the rest of your life. And the horribly embarrassing things you say and do on the Internet as a pre-teen potentially have the power to hurt you later in life. That being said, social media has given a voice to an entirely different kind of bully. I’ve been on both ends of cyber bullying. I know how it feels to completely trash someone online, knowing only I have the power to delete it. People can “like” what I say. I also know how it feels to read the post that someone wrote about you, feeling your stomach turn in knots and your heart drop. It’s total power, and total humiliation.
Between arguing with people online, the “shit talking” like you said, and the naked pictures and personal relationship things like that—I think i speak for a lot of people when I say social media has made life as a teenager extremely difficult.
J.P.:I never thought about body image in high school. Never thought about the value of how I looked; whether I was too fat or too skinny. None of that. But it seems like girls are under such insane pressure to look a certain way. Do you feel it? And, if so, how does that manifest itself?
E.S.: All over television you see women who are skinny and covered with makeup. You see women with big boobs and little waists. You hear men on the radio talking about big butts and long hair. I know as a young girl I felt so awkward because I didn’t have what these women had. I felt like total shit about myself for a really long time because all these women were special. They were being talked about in songs and they were on my television. I didn’t feel as special as them because of this. And it’s not just your weight or your makeup, it’s also how your peers will look at you. Boring or slutty. Like a good girl or a whore. I don’t really know how to explain how it manifests itself. It’s messy. It’s a constant battle with a bitter voice in your head. “I want to eat this—no, you need to stay thin.” Or “I want to wear this dress —no, you’ll look like a whore.” Or “I want to wear this shirt—no, youll look like an idiot. Show some more skin.”
I’ve spent the majority of my teenage years trying to find the right balance of makeup, the right balance of skin to show, the right kinds of clothes and the right styles of hair. It’s hard enough trying to find yourself as it is. The pressure to be perfect makes it worse. Every girl who reads this will relate to looking in the mirror and picking herself apart. Every girl will relate to seeing a really beautiful woman and getting knots of jealousy and sadness because they don’t look like she does.
With Nate, her brother.
J.P.:Blunt question. My daughter is entering puberty, and it scares the hell out of me. You’re 18. A high school senior. You’ve been through it. How should I, as a dad, handle this stage? Is there a Do list and a DON’T DO list?
E.S.: Always always always talk to your daughter. Remind her that she’ll make a lot of mistakes, but you’ll always be there to listen to her and to help her. Tell her that you’ll always be there to protect her from the mean girls at school and the boys (or girls) who break her heart. Make sure she knows she’ll always have you to support and love her. Tell her she’s beautiful and loved. That she can be anyone she wants to be and do anything she wants to do.
J.P.:Do you feel like you understand boys? How they think? Why they act the way they do? Do you find them mostly infuriating, endearing or frustrating?
E.S.: I don’t really want to generalize the actions and feelings of an entire gender. Every boy is different. But everyone is a product of their surroundings, so I think there are a lot of different types of boys who act generally similar. And it all depends. I think some boys are great. Other boys could get hit by a bus for all I care.
J.P.:There’s a perception out there that your generation is pretty dumb and disinterested. Fair? Unfair? Do you think most of your classmates know about ISIS? Ebola? The California drought? Or is it all about college and Saturday night parties?
E.S.: I think that perception is totally unfair. I think my generation, for the most part, is a lot more insightful and intelligent than people think. Yes, my classmates know about ISIS and Ebola. Aside from what i think about social media, it’s also very resourceful. People my age talk about “world issues” online a lot. I don’t think my generation is filled with a bunch of idiots, but I do think my generation is somewhat desensitized about the world.
Emily with her mother, Jessica.
J.P.:Back when I was your age, I’m pretty sure I thought of people in their 40s as ancient. I’m 42. Am I ancient to you? And, more to the point, do you ever think about aging? About death? Or is it mostly the here and now?
E.S.: No! you’re definitely not ancient. I can’t wait to be older. Being a teenager sucks so bad. I feel like I’m a lot smarter than everyone treats me. I do think about aging. Having a job, being done with school and having real responsibilities sounds like a dream, honestly. And, yes, I do think about death. It’s a little disappointing to think that this is it. You do whatever you’re allowed to do, whatever you can do to survive your whole life, just to die and that be it. I wonder, Does your brain just turn off? What happens? Where do you go? i don’t believe in a magical man in the sky. I don’t believe there’s some magical place you go after you die to hang out with everyone on the history of the earth who’s ever died. I think science has proven religion to be a bunch of crap. But thank you for giving me a minor existential crisis.
J.P.: I know shitloads of people who look back at high school as the best time of their life. Do you think that’s genuinely true, or merely a glossy flashback? Because I sorta remember high school being really hard and awkward and pressure-stuffed.
E.S.: I think that’s a really general question. I think it’s different for everyone. I’m sure some people really did love high school. I’m sure it scared the living hell out of others. Personally, I think some adults just say that because they didn’t have any real responsibilities back then. I’m sure that everyone’s disappointed being an adult and not a kid anymore. I assume nothing is fun or carefree anymore for most people.
J.P.:What do you hope to do with your life? And do you have hope in humanity?
E.S.: I hope to change something in the world. Whether it be with my voice or something I physically do. I don’t want to live my whole life being a waste of space. You can do anything you want to do, I feel nothing holding me back in my life. So knowing that, I want to do something that made my life worth remembering. Or just simply living. And yes, I do have hope for humanity. I don’t think everyone in the world is evil, i think the evil people are just more exciting to talk about.
• Tell me one thing about your mom that could embarrass her: My mom is a terrible cook and makes a decent dinner like, once a year on Thanksgiving. It’s usually good but she still burned half the skin off her arm one year from turkey juice. Another time she burned the outside of the bird and the inside was still frozen.
• Do you support the legalization of marijuana. Why or why not?: Yes and no, mostly no. I think it’s mind-altering and I don’t really want to live in a world where people can walk around high all day. There’s a weird obsession people have with smoking weed that I’ll never understand, but I feel like that’s only because it’s not allowed so it’s “cool and exciting.” But at the same time, I think it should because that fascination wouldn’t be so strong. Also because iId be a total hypocrite not to think it should be legalized. I think alcohol should be legal and it’s just as bad for you.
• Tell me a joke: I can only think of “yo mama” jokes and they’re all offensive, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Lol
• I want my kids to stop growing so fast. Any ideas how to make it all slow down?: Spend time with your kids, just them. If you take away their phones and friends and Internet and actually hang out with them and talk to them, you’ll see they’re still really young. Also try to be a part of the things they do with their friends or by themselves.
• Why do so many people enjoy the music of One Direction?: Because it’s simple. Easy lyrics to remember on top of a simple repetitive beat. Everything is repetitive. and the lyrics are general enough that every girl in the world can think, “Wow these cute boys are talking about a girl just like me!” Because children are lost.
• What’s the nicest thing someone has done for you?: When I got my wisdom teeth out, my mom kept bringing me literally piles of toast to eat since it’s all I could chew. Like every hour on the hour she made me four-to-six pieces of toast with butter, and would refill whenever I asked.