Jason Gay, I WOULDN'T DO THAT IF I WERE ME: Modern Blunders and Modest Triumphs (but Mostly Blunders)

Jason Gay, I WOULDN'T DO THAT IF I WERE ME: Modern Blunders and Modest Triumphs (but Mostly Blunders)

Wall Street Journal sports columnist and NYT bestselling author Jason Gay joins Zibby and Kyle to discuss his hysterical new book of essays, I Wouldn’t Do That If I Were Me: Modern Blunders and Modest Triumphs, which they read (and cried laughing at!) while sitting in standstill traffic. They discuss the importance of finding joy and humor in everyday moments, our society’s frighteningly low attention spans, our fear of aging, and our undeniable need for human interaction, all of which we re-learned during COVID and can read about in this book!


Jason Gay: Hi there.

Zibby Owens: How are you?

Jason: I’m just great. Thanks. How are you today?

Zibby: Good. I brought Kyle. I hope you don’t mind.

Jason: I appreciate that. Thank you for your kind words.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, we’re such fans.

Kyle Owens: Major fans.

Jason: I appreciate that a lot.

Kyle: I couldn’t believe it when I saw it on her calendar that she was interviewing you today. I was like, I need to jump in and be part of this.

Zibby: He’s like, “Tell him I’m a fan.” I was like, “Why don’t you just sit here?”

Jason: Appreciate that. Kyle, let me ask you a question. What do you think of all this pickleball stuff?

Kyle: That’s a great question. I think it’s really interesting that a lot of guys, like Noah Rubin, for instance, has just decided to make the switch over full time and feels like he’s found his home. Being a former tennis player myself who’s not gifted with the gift of height, I totally hear what he’s saying. It really takes height out of it. Then again, I recently saw an interview with Sam Querrey suggesting that he would probably be the best pickleball player in the world if he decided to pick up a paddle given his height and his, obviously, knowledge and skill of tennis, saying that he hasn’t seen someone in the top fifty of tennis get into pickleball yet. I think it has a long way to go. I think we’re at the really beginning stages. I saw LeBron just bought a team.

Jason: The thing that I was wondering about just from a business standpoint is that — pickleball has this really cool thing for a sport right now. It has this genuine, organic excitement. People are playing it. You go to almost any community now, and there’s a little bit of a pickleball scene happening. You haven’t seen that in tennis since the seventies, really. Your neighbors are playing pickleball. It has this advantage, of course. You don’t have to run as much. You can learn it in an afternoon. I get why people are excited about it. I almost worry that if they over-professionalize it and they focus too much on the celebrity aspect of it, they’re going to sort of squash the thing that is really great. The other part of it, Kyle, that I’m curious about is, are people going to want to watch it? I like to play it, but do I want to watch two hours of people playing pickleball? Is it that appealing? I don’t know.

Kyle: I feel like I would watch it if there was a match right now between Sam Querrey and Noah Rubin, for instance. I would watch that. It plays often, actually, nowadays on Tennis Channel, which I find interesting. No, I don’t really watch it, mainly because I don’t like the way it sounds.

Jason: You know what? There’s a billion-dollar business out there for someone who invents the first silent pickleball racquet.

Kyle: It’s like a wiffle ball sort of sound. I just absolutely love, love, love the sound of a tennis ball and a tennis racquet.

Jason: It’s much more aesthetically appealing. I endorse anything that gets people moving, so that’s great. It is a funny scene, for sure.

Kyle: I would love to try it out. We should do it someday.

Zibby: It’s almost like everybody started playing Kadima. Do you remember Kadima?

Jason: Sure.

Zibby: Everyone’s like, do you play Kadima? You just do it on the beach. Now it’s becoming so official.

Jason: Zibby, thanks for coming on Kyle and my pickleball podcast.

Zibby: I know. I’m like, this is great. Thank you. My job here is easy. This is great. I’m going to include all this so that everybody can hear about pickle.

Kyle: I would hope so. There’s a lot of pickleball fans out there. They want to know the scoop.

Zibby: There are. You two will be on top of the prototype for the new racquet. We’ll see what you two come up with. We loved, loved, loved your new book. We loved your last book, Little Victories. We love this one. We love all your columns. It’s the only thing I routinely still read out loud to Kyle. Whenever we’re driving the kids to school and you have a column, I’m like, “Oh, new Jason Gay column.” We’re just such fans. I feel so lame even saying that to you. We just love your sense of humor.

Kyle: We just drove down to San Diego this weekend for a writers’ festival that Zibby was speaking at. Caught in traffic for three hours. She read almost your entire book out loud.

Zibby: That’s all we did.

Kyle: I almost got in six different accidents because I was crying laughing so hard. I couldn’t even see. It was dangerous.

Zibby: I’ll have you know at the beginning of the drive, I was like, “Kyle, I should just record this. I’m basically recording his audiobook for him.”

Kyle: I was like, “He does not want you to record his audiobook in the car ride down to San Diego.”

Zibby: We didn’t record it. I should’ve.

Jason: That makes me so happy. I’m sorry you were in miserable traffic. If that word gets out that you can survive the 405 to San Diego — what is it? The 10?

Zibby: Don’t even ask what route we took. We went on the shortest route according to the maps, which was hundreds of miles out of the way. I don’t know. We were in the desert.

Kyle: We ended up on the 60 to Sedona.

Jason: That drive is crazy because it’s either fine or the worst day of your life.

Zibby: It was the worst day. It was almost four hours. I was like, this is crazy.

Kyle: But it was such a treat to listen and laugh. Oh, my god, you’re obviously such a genius. It’s so beautiful that you share it with the world. Thank you.

Jason: You’re very kind to say so. I appreciate that. Zibby has been here since day one as a advocate. I’ve just been blown away by what she’s grown. I’m very grateful for the kind words.

Zibby: Thanks. There were a couple of passages I was hoping I could read, even just short little sections, if that’s okay.

Jason: Yeah.

Zibby: I’m not going to read the one that made us laugh the most because I want people to go get the book. That was the texting chapter. Oh, my gosh.

Kyle: I don’t want to give it away. We were thinking about that one hours later.

Zibby: It was so funny. I can’t even read it out loud. In your book, you cover everything that people of a certain age, we’re all thinking about, basically, parenting, aging, what time you wake up, recreational sports like golf, watching sports, and then the very poignant things about your mom and the cat and the cat escaping. Here are a couple things that really resonated. One is watching your parents get older and trying to deal with the empty nest-ish to come, perhaps. You had this one passage where you talked about your mom. Baxter is the cat that you gave her. You said, “We talk about when Baxter should come home, but we don’t really make a plan. In the summer, we ‘borrow’ him back for a couple weeks on vacation. At first, it goes well. We’re staying at a house with trees, and he can run around outside and chase moths, but then a neighboring dog starts stalking him, so he retreats under another bed. When we return him to my mother’s, on the drive home, he looks relived. As we pull out of the driveway, I swear the two of them have this conversation. ‘How was it?’ my mother asks. ‘Don’t ask. I need a drink,’ Baxer says. ‘Dewar’s?’ ‘You know me.’ She missed him. My mother is not exactly an open book in terms of revealing her own emotions, but she confesses she’s grown to need Baxter more than she ever expected. My father has been dead for six years, and until Baxer showed up it was just my mom and the hum of the coffeemaker, which is not enough, especially now. I like to whine about my overcrowded apartment and the calamity of young children and how much I want to live on a deserted island, but I know how much it fills me up. It’s noise. It’s life.”

Jason: The backstory of this, of course, is that my mother adopted our cat during COVID. We moved out of town to a house where we couldn’t stay with a cat because the homeowner was allergic. My mother stepped in and adopted this cat and fell in love. Really, it’s a love story of this — what I should emphasize is that this is not an, entirely, book about a cat.

Zibby: No, no. It’s an essay.

Jason: There’s a couple of stories in there that form, hopefully, a little bit of a backbone of the book about this pet and getting through COVID and what it meant for my relationship with my mother. It really was this way to talk about childhood and parenting and the relationships. One thing that was a very interesting experience about doing this book was that originally, the idea was, effectively, writing a humor book about COVID, probably the most unfunny thing that’s happened in our lifetimes and a very severe thing that caused an enormous amount of heartbreak and death and destruction. Yet we did learn a lot about our interior lives and our communities and what were important to us. People sort of have rebuilt their value systems and priorities in the wake of this. I just felt that since we all went through it, there’s some fertile ground there to go at. My experience is my experience. I certainly wouldn’t claim that it’s universal, but I think there are some universal aspects of this experience in terms of our relationships with our children, parents, families, friends, communities, neighborhoods, and so on. I think that a great shift has occurred. In any kind of social, cultural revolution, there’s always some humor to be found. That’s what I was trying to get at. I made this sound way too highbrow. I’m just trying to make you laugh in a traffic jam.

Kyle: You definitely made us laugh in a traffic jam. It wasn’t the first time. All your books, they find their way into our lives in the sense that she’s reading them to me while we’re driving. It is really memorable.

Jason: I appreciate that.

Zibby: No more praise.

Jason: I’m trying to write books that you can pick up at any point. They’re individual stories and essays. I like reading books out of sequence. Even books that are supposed to be read in sequence, I read out of sequence. I don’t know what that means. I feel strongly that there is a place for humor in our very severe times. In some ways, I’m trying to do kind of a throwback thing, which is to an era when, whether it was people like Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry or Lewis Grizzard or Molly Ivins or, later, Nora Ephron — they were contemporary humorists who found joy and humor in almost anything. In my little, humble way, trying to steal a little bit of that.

Zibby: I love that. Seinfeld too. It’s the humor in the everyday moments.

Jason: Of course. What’s the deal with…? Exactly. The founding principle of every joke is, what’s the deal with X?

Zibby: You also had this funny section about reading. Can I just read these two paragraphs too? The context of this one is the fact that we have no attention spans for anything in life at all. Then you say, “Why bother focusing if no one’s demanding it? It’s only a matter of time before Broadway shows turn on the lights at the final curtain. Why waste three minutes clapping? Musicians will be asked to stop guitar noodling and get straight to the chorus, the song parts we like most. One day, there will be a fast-forward option for me to press when Jesse or Jojo starts talking about the day at school. I don’t care what happened in math. Just get to the dead pigeon you found at recess. Think of ‘skip intro’ deployed at Thanksgiving dinner. Your Uncle Phil’s Canadian camping adventure doesn’t stand a chance. We are slicing away the tedium, but at what cost? How long are people going to read books? Do people still read books? Asking someone to read a book these days feels like asking them to join you on a sail from Maine to Portugal. A whole book? Publishers deploy edgy moves to grab readers, the most recent of which is putting curse words in titles as a way of shocking a consumer into attention and purchase. Look at any best-seller list, and six of the top ten books will contain an unnecessary expletive and an exclamation point. To be sure, there was brief talk about naming this book Hey, Asshole!, but come on, I can’t publish a book with that kind of crude title, at least not while my father-in-law can still beat me in a fight.” So funny. It’s humor, but of course, there’s truth in every joke, as Kyle often points out when I make mean jokes. What do you make of this whole attention phenomenon? By the way, I have watched every intro. Every time it says “skip intro,” I’m like, I’m watching the intro now. I’m watching the intro.

Jason: Good for you. I’ve definitely gone to the skipping part. Listen, I am just as guilty as anybody else of falling into this atrophying-attention span world that we live in. I’m frightened by how quickly I can shift to watching short videos and TikToks and things on Instagram and just amuse myself that way and feel less and less inclined to invest in something that requires the full span of my attention. Especially when you consider the biochemical element of it, the neurological aspect of this that publishers are capitalizing on, it’s frightening. It’s frightening for anybody who has a job, mine included, that requires people to focus for, in the newspaper column, ninety seconds to three minutes or, in a book, longer than that. Yet it’s really funny. It is funny that people have gotten to this point that we are just taking out any of the tedium. There’s that old book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I feel like we’ve really officially arrived there now because we are striking out anything that is unnecessarily explanatory or slow. Anybody who’s had the experience of going and watching a movie from — let’s just go back to the eighties. A movie from the 1980s feels like a silent film compared to a film that’s produced in 2022. When you consider the action and the pacing of an Avengers movie to even something like Star Wars, Star Wars feels like a student film compared to what movies are made like today. That’s a complete cave to this short-attention span world that we live in.

I want to, in my humorous way, resist it because I do feel there’s incredible value to those kinds of things. There’s value to sitting through the credits and learning, who are the masterminds behind the shows that you love, and the actors and the key grips and the set designers who spent their genius and time putting together these kinds of things? I worry about it. One of our jobs as parents is, of course, to professionally worry about our children and the next generation. I see my own children’s attention spans. When I see the video scrolling across my children’s brains, I sit there and I think, they’re never going to have the tolerance for a two-hour movie. My son sat down — he was home sick a couple weeks ago. He watched a movie. To me, it was like watching him build a table. He had not done that kind of thing in a long time. I was kind of proud of him. I was like, “I’m proud of you, Jesse, for watching a movie.” If someone had told me that I could stay at home and watch a movie when I was nine years old, I would’ve been dancing in the streets. To him, it was work to actually labor through that much attention for that long.

Zibby: It’s true. We recently took away the iPads from our little kids. I got to a point where I was about to throw them against the wall and happily watch the glass shatter. They were just so addicted. They’re young. I shouldn’t even admit this. They’re seven and nine. One day this summer, I was just like, “That’s it. I’m done. I’m sending these to New York City without you.” Whatever. Then I couldn’t find them. Now they’re back to watching TV shows together, which I love. They have to negotiate what show to watch. They watch twenty-six minutes at a time. I’m like, this is great. I feel like a good parent. Whereas before with my older kids, I was like, “You can only watch TV once a week.”

Jason: I’m literally right there with you. My children are seven and nine. They’re exactly in that spot. I don’t like, necessarily, the idea of them hunkering off on their own to have their own entertainment. You see that even, people go away on their summer vacation, and everybody’s got their iPads out at night watching five separate forms of entertainment. Whatever happened to making the popcorn and watching a bad movie together? We need to have those sort of communal experiences. If we learned anything from COVID, it is our incredible desire for human interaction. The idea that we could be some sort of self-sustaining species is not true. We do crave those kinds of things. The reason why people are so excited to get back out there again and have those kinds of experiences, to go see Top Gun, is exactly that.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s good we’ve all —

Kyle: — I do find it interesting, though, that people have a really hard time sitting down to commit to a two-hour movie, but they will sit and watch ten hours in a row of some show.

Zibby: Our older daughter is fifteen. Yesterday, she’s like, “I watched six episodes of Riverdale.” I was like, “What?” It’s terrible.

Jason: Don’t you think that part of that is a function of the way that shows are constructed? They’re almost constructed like the way that Dan Brown wrote his novels. They’re very brief chapters. They all ended with, “He turned the corner, and you never believed what happened next.” The way that episodic TV is structured, it’s making you move on to the next because you can’t stand the idea of putting it down then.

Zibby: It’s true, just like your essays.

Kyle: Absolutely. It’s the same.

Zibby: There’s one more. You didn’t get to read this one because I read on a little without you. I’m really sorry.

Kyle: Really?

Zibby: Yes. It’s about aging, which was also really funny.

Kyle: All right, I’ll take it.

Zibby: Last couple things. Am I reading too much? I can stop.

Jason: No, please.

Zibby: This is the last one. “Allow me to be the zillionth person to discover that to age is to be constantly reminded of aging. It is nothing less than a steady abandonment of youthful sensations replaced by a slow climb of infirm sensations, atrophy, and not infrequently, pain. I am lucky in this regard. I do not have acute pain. I know people who do, and it is merciless and grinding, the kind of wincing that alters behavior and actions and can overtake a life. I, mercifully, do not have this. When the conversation at the barbeque turns to the various states of back hell, disks, sciatica, stenosis, I am relieved to not make a knowing contribution. My back, at the moment, seems sturdy, and this feels like a miracle as I spend much of my day hunched over a computer like a squirrel. I sometimes debate buying one of those posture buzzers that wheeze out an air-raid system whenever the wearer’s shoulders hunch. It sounds terrifying, and I decided it’s much calmer to just hunch. My pain is more mild, dull-shaped. It is the feeling of not living in a pristine body, but instead renting a run-down cottage in Maine with poison ivy in the front yard.” Oh, my gosh. I tried to write about aging on Instagram the other day when I was having a similar moment. I’m like, oh, look at how funny people can write about aging. Mine was this despair, complete existential despair.

Jason: Look, this is, again, one of the most universal experiences. We all have it eventually, hopefully some less severe than others. What provoked this, honestly, was — I play in this little tennis group. At the changeovers, we would sit there. There was a time when we’d talk about our lives, our careers, our children. Now all we do is talk about our various pains. We do an inventory of the knees. The next changeover, we do an inventory of the shoulders, then the ankles, then the back. Everyone’s got an opinion. Everyone’s got a chiropractor. Everyone’s got some take on some new form of, whether it’s yoga or exercise in some fashion to solve things. What also provoked this was, during COVID, I broke my fourth toe. This is a toe you don’t even realize exists. It’s the toe next to your pinkie toe. It’s kind of the Marsha of your toes. No one really pays any attention to this poor toe. I got a stress fracture in it. I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t kick anything. I didn’t drop anything on my foot. It laid me flat. It made me whimper. It just was the most absurd mechanical breakdown of my body. It really made me question my existence. It really required me to stop doing anything. A stress fracture, you go to the doctor, and they shrug and say, “Well, you got a stress fracture. What are you going to do?” You can’t really cast it and keep it unused because it’s in your foot. Long story short, I feel that this will be a continued topic throughout my life as I continue to atrophy and infirm. There could be more of this to come.

Zibby: I hope so. I know people talk about aging a lot, but finding all the humor in it is really important because it can be very depressing and discouraging. It’s like your body is overtaken by terrible forces changing everything about you. There’s nothing you can do except try to cover it up, if you choose, or not.

Jason: Also, the other aspect of it is sometimes it’s just good old-fashioned luck. We all know people who didn’t really take care of themselves who, for whatever reason, just are in fantastic, fit health, and then people who are constantly trying every new diet and exercise routine who are constantly struggling with body breakdown. There’s an element of roll of the dice here, which I think is really maddening as well.

Zibby: It’s so true. What’s the plan? I’m like, do you guys know Jason Gay? He writes sports, but you don’t have to like sports. He writes about parenting. He writes about all this stuff. For some people, it’s like, forget the sports part, even though that’s your whole job.

Kyle: I feel like even the sports part, you don’t have to be a fan of sports to appreciate the article. I always think about it. I always think, wow, if someone didn’t like sports, they would find this article about sports really entertaining.

Zibby: That’s true. Talk about your sports passion, your career, what you’re going to write about, essays versus the column, and all that.

Jason: First of all, I appreciate all those kind words. You’re exactly describing what I’m aiming for, which is to try to write general-interest columns about things that are happening in the world of sports that have appeal to people who might not be closely following it. It began with this environment that I’m in. I write for The Wall Street Journal. Not known as America’s leading sports publication. Not known as a place where humor is the principal way of delivering information. I was already an oddball to begin with. To me, I felt this enormous advantage because I didn’t have to do the hardcore sports stuff that you might have to do, say, if you’re at The Daily News or ESPN or some place where you have serious sports fans paying attention. It allowed me to experiment a little bit, reach an audience of people who, again, are reading the paper because they have much more important things going on. This is just a little piece of dessert that they can have later in their read of the paper. It is the number-one thing that I hear from people. They aren’t a big fan of, whether it’s football, basketball, baseball, whatever the sports du jour is, but they read this because it amuses them, because they might learn something.

I always try to keep in mind the idea that somebody coming to a sports story doesn’t always have all the information, certainly, that I do or even the regular, everyday sports fan does. If you spend any time nowadays watching ESPN or hardcore sports radio, the intensity of knowledge now is staggering. The amount of information that’s accessible to the regular sports fan at home now by a computer and analytics and beyond is incredible, so it almost sounds like people are speaking a foreign language. If you’re coming to this not knowing much about basketball and listen to a basketball podcast, you’re like, these people are speaking French. I don’t get any of this. What’s going on? I try to keep in mind the fact that there is still a substantial population of casual fans, people who might tune into the Super Bowl second half to watch the halftime show and the commercials and people who watch one tennis event in a year, and it’s the Wimbledon final. They watch the Olympics. They have kids who play sports. They play sports occasionally themselves. There are all kinds of ways that sports can enter individual lives that aren’t necessarily about the Xs and the Os and the betting lines and all that kind of stuff. I want to grab those folks.

Zibby: Very smart.

Kyle: That’s amazing.

Zibby: What’s your career plan going forward? Where are you headed?

Jason: I’m just running out the clock here, Zibby. I’m just going to hang on as hard as I can. Listen, the funny part about being in the newspaper business is that — I’ve now been at this for more than twenty-five years. At no point did anyone ever pull me aside and said, hey man, newspaper business, that’s where it’s at. It’s been in a constant siege. It’s been, since the day I began in it, a profession that has been categorized as endangered or on the verge of destruction. Certainly, there has been a lot of carnage in newspapering. We’ve lost a lot of tremendous publications and so on. It’s not a career that when kids come home and tell their parents they want to become a newspaper reporter, the parents shake their head and say, that’s great. I was hoping you were going to be a newspaper reporter and not a neurosurgeon or a private equity guy. I’m thrilled you’re going to risk it all. I just believe very much in it. I still believe that good writing and stories well-told and reported and truth to power means something. There still is a lot of consequential stuff happening. This is a long way of saying that there isn’t a part of me that wants to try something radically different. There are kinds of writing that I’d like to try a little bit more of. I’d love to continue writing books. That’s been a really validating experience. It’s been interesting to meet people who say, I read your book. I found it . Do you write anywhere else? I’m like, yeah, four times a week at this other — I’m writing all the time, man. There is a different audience you can reach through books. I’m thrilled about that. I do like the fact that if I have a thought about something I care about, I can unload it in this paper. I’m very grateful to be at a place where — as we all know, The Journal has this incredibly august reputation for financial reporting. I sort of get to ride in back of the jet ski on this incredible paper with all these talented people. I sound like I’m joking, but I would sign a lifetime deal. I’ve found the thing that I want to do.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much for all of your entertainment. I will buy anything you write, read everything. It’s just so great. Thank you for delighting us.

Jason: I appreciate both of you. I appreciate your support from, again, day one when I was this little, random person. I’m still little and random, but even more little and random person out there just trying to find my way. Let’s get some pickleball going.

Zibby: Let’s do it.

Jason: We’ll make Kyle play. Are you righty or lefty?

Kyle: Righty.

Jason: Okay, so we’ll make you play lefty. The rest of us will play.

Zibby: Perfect. That would be really fun.

Kyle: That would.

Jason: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Have a great day. Bye, Jason.

Kyle: Thank you.

I WOULDN’T DO THAT IF I WERE ME: Modern Blunders and Modest Triumphs (but Mostly Blunders) by Jason Gay

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