The Yang Slinger: Vol XV
What 20 years of marriage have done for my writing and my career. Plus, five questions with Clayton Trutor and the story of the time I (glub) profiled myself for a newspaper.
My wife says these Substacks are too long.
I’m ignoring that opinion. Because, after two decades of marriage, I’m comfortable turning the other cheek and walking away from her points.
Unfortunately, it rarely ends with that. I’ll think about it. And think about it. Maybe stew a bit. Ultimately, a few other people will unintentionally join in: “You know, your Substacks are a bit lengthy …”
I’ll curse, stomp, moan—then acknowledge the truth.
Catherine Pearlman was right yet again.
Today is my 20th wedding anniversary.
The wife and I were married on Jan. 19, 2002, in a ceremony that cost way too much money and featured a DJ who looked exactly like Larry (Bud) Melman. There was an octagon-shaped cake created by the late Sylvia Weinstock, an ice cream sundae bar, a choice of chicken, fish or steak and a preposterous mountain of Hors D’oeuvre. Our wedding song was “I Could Not Ask for More” by Edwin McCain. I wore a tuxedo. She wore a red sash around her dress. Because the woman I married is slightly deranged and indifferent to the suffering of poultry, there were scores of wishbones (actual fucking wishbones) spray-painted silver and turned into centerpieces. People agreed we looked very much in love; that it was incredibly romantic; that sometimes you can just tell when two folks are made for one another. “Peas in a pod,” my mother liked to say.
But the truth? The real truth: We barely knew one another.
I first spotted Catherine at the wedding of Jon and Ellie Wertheim back in the early months of 1999. I was a fringe work friend guest (Ellie: “Who is he?”). Catherine was the maid of honor. During the reception I was standing alongside Grant Wahl (there were a good number of SIers in attendance), who pointed to my future bride and noted, “She’s cute …”
And she was (factually) cute. Only I was a wuss. So instead of approaching that day, I asked Ellie and Jon for the digits. Come September, we had our first date at a tiny Spanish restaurant in midtown Manhattan. It was good. Mostly good. I wore a houndstooth vest I’d purchased at Marshall’s, along with a ratty black T-shirt I’d stolen from the father of an ex-girlfriend. The second date was brutal—too long, too many activities, a terrible movie (“For Love of the Game”) and a dried booger affixed to the tip of my nose for seven hours. That, Catherine believed, was the end of it—until night’s end, when I handed her a mix tape I’d created. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever underestimate the late-1990s aphrodisiac powers of the Hall & Oates-infused mixed tape. On the next date we went bowling. When it came time to type in our names, she said, ‘Give me a bowling name.’ I punched in ‘Earl.’ She asked, ‘So I’m Earl, or you’re Earl?’ True story—since that day we have called each other ‘Earl.’ And only ‘Earl.’
I proposed in the spring of 2001. We wed less than a year later. The cake, again, was octagon.
And, seriously, we barely knew one another. In the moment you think you do because, well, youth is wasted on the young. She knows I’m a sports writer. I know she’s a social worker. She knows I love Tupac. I know she loves Elton John. She knows I’m a runner. I know she’s a painter. She dreams of long hikes through nature. I dream of inhaling the world’s largest cities. You have all those facts—lists upon lists of likes and dislikes that can fill notepads. But the thing about marriage is (to sound simplistic) it’s legitimately not about checking off categories. That’s why dating sites are so flawed. Just because two people dig sunsets, Ellie Goulding, the smell of papaya and Pauly Shore comedy specials doesn’t mean they’re a match. It doesn’t even hint that they’re a match.
Nope. Marriage is all about growing together. About merging. Mostly, about putting someone else above yourself, and being presented with a new standard for how you want to live and who you want to be.
Which is (you’ve been waiting) where writing comes in.
I was an asshole writer.
It’s true, and anyone who worked with me from, oh, 1990 (when I started at my college newspaper) thru the early 2000s can confirm. I was arrogant and cocky and obnoxious. I thought every word mattered. Worse—I thought every word (I wrote) was perfect. I viewed edits as an intrusion and editors as unskilled labor. My stated collegiate goal was to become the world’s greatest sports writer, an utterly preposterous/warped ambition that: A. Doesn’t exist; B. Certainly isn’t me.
There was a time when, if you’d asked me why I ceased being a complete asshole, I’d have struggled to find an answer. But the truth is, it comes down to one thing: Marriage. Actually, two things: Marriage, and marrying a really good person.
When you’re in love with an exceptional human, you aspire (and usually fail) to match said exceptionalism. You want to be as good as they are. As decent as they are. As ethical as they are. And the biggest thing: You want to make that person proud. I can’t overstate that feeling, so I’ll say it twice, with italics for emphasis: When you marry a top-shelf person, you dream of making that person proud.
And as corny as that might sound, it’s 100-percent true. Back when I was single, I was all about me. It was a Jeff-centered world. I wrote for Jeff, and only Jeff. Jeff, Jeff, Jeff, Jeff. I actually look back at my Tennessean years and laugh. There was a critic for the Nashville Scene, the city’s alt-weekly, who tagged me the paper’s “enfant terrible.” I resented it at the time, but he was correct. I was a self-absorbed dick. As my editors went home to spouses and kids and activities, I was fully committed to … me. Only me.
Then I married a social worker who helped run a New York City youth homeless shelter. One whose gift wasn’t merely making people feel better, but empathizing with their plights and working to improve their futures. How can you be arrogant over a profile of the Detroit Tigers’ third baseman when your wife has devoted herself to a 100,000-times higher calling? One of my earliest Catherine memories actually involves Christmas at Covenant House, when each resident received a gift. Catherine and her crew combed New York City for the perfect items for each person. I’ll never forget a kid named John, opening up the gift wrapping to find … new socks. And he was giddy.
I can still see that moment in my head.
A kid and his socks and my beaming future wife.
When you share a home (and bed) with an empathetic person, it increases your sense of empathy. And of all the tools that come in handy for scribes (probing questions, fine penmanship, quick story turnarounds), nothing (absolutely nothing) is more important than the ability to feel the pain/joy/fear/heartbreak of the subject sitting across from you. That’s not just me writing some warm sentiment to up my wife’s Q rating. The best way to profile someone who, say, lost a parent to cancer is to try and grasp precisely what that pain feels like. Empathy is understanding, and understanding is the gateway toward greatness.
In her decades as a social worker, Catherine has seen it all. She’s dealt with myriad populations, myriad issues. She’s seen people at the end of their ropes; people who feel useless; who feel ignored. She’s dealt with gay and trans teens rejected by society; overmatched parents unable to cope with children; racism, sexism … on and on. She’s a 5-foot-tall Jewish woman from Long Island who magically places herself in the position of those who need her help. It’s her gift.
Catherine’s kindness has only (if possible) multiplied. She’s helped countless people as a social worker, as an educator. She volunteers time, pursues causes. When someone needs a meal, she cooks it. When someone needs a kind word, she supplies it. A warm note? A quick visit? A random gift? All Catherine Pearlman. For fuck’s sake, a few years back she donated a kidney to a stranger—an act of empathy that is impossible to quantify.
I, by comparison, write books about athletes.
Which is slightly less important than farting.
If you scroll to the very top of this entry, you’ll note the center image of Catherine and I sitting side by side, heads slightly together.
That picture was taken in the spring of 2006. I remember the exact moment, because it came a couple of minutes after one of the worst calls of my career. It was from an editor at HarperCollins, who told me the draft of my second book, “Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero,” was dreadful and needed to be blown up. “We have to hire an outside editor to do the heavy lifting,” the man told me. “We’re going to take $10,000 out of your contract to do it.”
This, obviously, was a whole lot of bullshit. But I was young, dumb and devastated. De-v-a-s-t-a-t-e-d. We were in Florida, visiting my in-laws, at a playground watching my daughter climb a slide. I had stepped aside to take the call, and Catherine read my expression upon returning.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I told her.
I actually don’t remember what she said. But she told me it would be OK; that all would work out; that there were bigger days and better things; that this was mere hiccup. Then—for some reason—her mother snapped the photo. The image is framed in our house. It’s not a particularly noteworthy picture, save I always remember the circumstance under which it was taken and that, in the aftermath of a legitimately shitty moment, someone loved me and had my back.
And, really, that’s the biggest thing. Catherine has always had my back. Good and bad. Highs and lows. She’s read the manuscript of every book I’ve written, always accompanied by a blue or black pen and plenty of feistiness.
She takes pride in my writing, just as I take incredible pride in her writing. She tells me when I’m being dumb, when I’m overreacting, when I’m Tweeting like a vindictive asshole, when I need to step away from the laptop. She has gifted me with perspective and insight and compassion and love and the ability to realize, come day’s end, there are more important things than the next byline.
The title of this Substack is HOW 20 YEARS OF MARRIAGE MADE ME A BETTER WRITER.
Really, it should be HOW 20 YEARS OF MARRIAGE MADE ME A BETTER PERSON—ALL BECAUSE OF MY WIFE.
Happy anniversary, Earlie.
I love you.
The Quaz Five with … Clayton Trutor
Clayton Trutor is the author of the upcoming Nebraska Press release, “Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta–and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports.” He holds a PhD in U.S. history from Boston College and teaches at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. Clayton is also the Vermont state chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). You can follow him on Twitter here.
1. Clayton—you're the author of a new book about Atlanta and the impact of pro sports on the city. You title it, "Loserville," which sorta surprises me, because I never thought of the city as such. Explain ... : In 1965, Atlanta had no major professional sports franchises. By 1972, Atlanta had teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball. It was home to a pair of state-of-the-art facilities in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and The Omni. Atlanta made this rapid ascent by making major civic investments in pro sports. Atlanta's political and corporate leadership envisioned pro sports as a durable source of civic unity and prestige. It didn't work out quite as envisioned, at least initially. Atlanta's teams struggled on the field and, particularly, at the box office during the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the adoption of the "Loserville" moniker by the local press and, for a time, by the national sports media. The title "Loserville" is a commentary on Atlanta's sporting past and certainly not its present. The Hawks, Falcons, and, especially, the Braves enjoyed significant success on the field in recent years and have, more often than not, found a large audience for their respective products.
2. A confession: I oftentimes look at academics who write sports books a bit skeptically. Like, "This is gonna be boring and stilted." Is that me being a biased asshole? Or do you think people who spend time in academics tend to approach such projects differently than schlubs like ... me?: That is not you being a biased asshole at all. There is plenty of academic writing about sports that is written by people who are clearly not sports fans. Typically, it reads like it, too. There is a studied aloofness to much of it that makes me cringe. I was a sports fan long before I was an academic and my intention with “Loserville” was to create something that served both masters. I couldn't be more proud than to have my book published by the University of Nebraska Press, which has put out an incredible number of sports history books that are both entertaining and insightful about the past.
3. You recently wrote a lengthy piece on Frank Lucchesi's retirement years in Colleyville. Lucchesi died nearly three years ago. What makes a guy think, "Here's a subject ...": I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a three-generational household with a grandmother who loved me dearly and whom I miss deeply. It made me conscious of aging and the lives of elderly people probably to a much greater extent than many of my peers. I'm preoccupied with the idea of people aging with dignity and on their own terms. Early in the pandemic, I wrote a profile of the later years of the great former New York City mayor John Lindsay. While I was working on that piece, by chance, I came across an obituary for Frank Lucchesi, whom I knew as a former Major League manager. The obituary talked about how this son of Italian immigrants from the Bay Area turned baseball lifer decided to retire to a small town on the outskirts of Dallas. I'd just spent a lot of time thinking about Lindsay's later years in Hilton Head, far from his home in New York. So it made me curious about what Lucchesi's life was like in retirement. It proved to be an extraordinarily rich one.
4. What's the lowest moment of your writing career? Highest?: I interviewed Barbara Ehrenreich over the phone about 10 years ago for a blog I had going at the time. After the fact, I realized that my recording equipment hadn't worked. I'd told everyone I knew how excited I was to interview her but then had no interview. I was too embarrassed to try to set up another interview and ended up shutting down the blog shortly thereafter. The highest moment of my writing career was convincing an agent to take on “Loserville” and help me get a book deal. I pitched 40 different agents and only one said "yes."
5. Rank in order (favorite to least): Post-It notes, Otis Redding, Mark Wahlberg, J.J. Stokes, Bob Horner, Blues Traveler, McDonalds fries, Herschel Walker's son, peaches, "Leave it to Beaver," the number 88: 1. Peaches (particularly with cream) 2. Otis Redding (particularly his duet of "Tramp" with Carla Thomas) 3. Bob Horner (both for his strident assertion of the value of labor and as depicted in Robert Whiting's "You Gotta Have Wa") 4. J.J. Stokes (particularly the UCLA years) 5. Post-It Notes 6. McDonald's Fries 7. Mark Wahlberg (mostly just like him in "Boogie Nights") 8. "Leave it to Beaver" 9. Herschel Walker's son (whom I didn't know existed until seeing this question) 10. Blues Traveler (my attention span for a song is roughly three and a half minutes) 11. The Number 88 (I nearly wrote this book about Cleveland and have a soft spot for the city and for the Browns. When I think of the number 88, I think of Red Right 88 and the '81 AFC Divisional Playoffs).
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Lauren Shank, senior at Liberty University and editor in chief of the Liberty Champion.
So look—I’m not exactly a Liberty guy. I don’t like what the school stands for, I don’t like the way it stuck by Jerry Falwell, Jr., I don’t like the emotional suppression that doubles for an Honor Code. But that’s not the burden of students who choose to attend the school and pursue and education. That’s not their cross to carry.
And, Falwell and Co. be damned, I absolutely love this piece, headlined FALLING IN LOVE WITH BOOKS, by the talented and expressive Lauren Shank.
Here’s a snippet …
Keep reading, Lauren. And keep writing, too.
You can follow Lauren Shank on Twitter here. Bravo, kid …
Yet another story of one of my myriad career fuckups …
In the summer of 1990, right after graduating from high school, I had an unpaid internship at the local weekly newspaper, The Putnam Trader.
It was awesome. I compiled tons of bylines, met some cool people, had the honor of working under Joe Lombardi, one of my all-time favorite editors.
There was, however, one major misfire.
I’d be heading off to the University of Delaware in a couple of weeks, where I’d try walking on to the Blue Hens’ cross country team. Joe knew this, and suggested I write an article about (cough, cough) myself. He assured me it’d be fine. No byline would be applied.
Soooo … I wrote this …
And the day it came out, I was walking somewhere in Mahopac when I ran into a girl I’d attended school with.
“Hey, Jeff!” she screamed. “Nice article about yourself!”
Random journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: Howard Bryant may well be America’s best sports writer. And If he’s not, it’s only because (truth be told) there is no real such thing as “best.” But the guy is an artist, and this piece for ESPN, “Novak Djokovic is a profile in selfishness, and sports leaders are failing us all,” is pitch perfect and important to read.
Musing 2: I have no remote idea what the New York Times was thinking with this headline and the accompanying story. Seriously, not everything that enters a reporter’s mind needs to wind up being a piece. Just because one has a history does not mean he’s any more or less worthy of a life-saving procedure. Jesus Christ.
Musing 3: If you’re looking to not feel good about journalism right now, how about this Politico story, headlined U.S. HAS INTEL ABOUT POSSIBLE RUSSIAN FALSE-FLAG OP. Which features quotes from a “U.S. official” who refuses to give a name and is presented—presented!?—by Lockheed Martin. How in God’s name is an article “presented” by anyone?
Musing 4: Right here, Richard Ruelas of the Arizona Republic shows exactly how you do it. Seriously, this is it …
Musing 5: I love this. Love, love, love. The Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism, a Baltimore based nonprofit organization, recently signed a lease for a 15,000-square foot newsroom in the Inner Harbor. From the news release …
Musing 6: Tremendous storytelling here from Jovan Buha of The Athletic on Russell Westbrook’s continued shooting struggles with the Lakers. Perfect merging of scene setting and reporting.
Musing 7: So Donald Trump held a rally in Arizona on Saturday night. And during his speech he mocked Joe Biden’s low approval ratings. And the thing is—while Biden’s approval rating is low, it’s actually higher than Trump’s at the same period. And the authors of the Arizona Republic piece—Ronald J. Hansen, Ray Stern and Dan Nowicki—neglected to mention that. Which reflects a major problem I have with Trump coverage: He lies and lies and lies, and too often we report those lies sans any sort of fact check. Which is infuriating. And a bit dangerous.
Musing 8: Every so often, when looking for the next book to read, I’ll scan through my shelves to see what stuff has been sitting there, collecting dust. Well, a few weeks ago I picked up, “We Fed An Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal At A Time.” It’s written by José Andrés, and is just … really, really, really strong work, as well as a brutal reminder of how poorly the people of Puerto Rico (aka: United States citizens) were treated, post-Hurricane Maria.
And in case you need a reminder …
Musing 9: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang stars Chris Herring, the exceptional Sports Illustrated senior writer and author of the new book, “Blood on the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks.” Listen here.
Quote of the week …
“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
— Frederick Douglass
Why didn’t she say, “So, um, just so you know, there’s a booger attached to your nose”? I’m still bewildered.
I still have my moments—as we all do.
This was wrong on 800 different levels.
Thank you for sharing yourself and your writing. It is apparent that Catherine is a huge part of your success- congratulations on your 20th Anniversary!
I absolutely love this. Explains the giving side of you. Especially the line ‘’Empathy is understanding, and understanding is the gateway toward greatness.’’ You go, Catherine Pearlman, for being you. And you go, Jeff Pearlman for letting yourself merge.