Sayville

Leave Yourself Behind

Tom Paris 1994A quick note:  This piece originally appeared on an old blog of mine in July 2004.  I’ve edited and updated it.

My only regret is that I did not stay longer. I would have loved to experience more, go deeper into some countries and learn more about other cultures. However, being a Student Ambassador has opened my mind even further, as I am forced to think on a global scale about my life, and the lives around me.

That is the final paragraph of the journal I kept during the summer of 1994, after I had spent 23 days touring France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain as a People to People Student Ambassador. Written on a flight back from Paris after my fellow “ambassadors” and I had exhausted the plane’s supply of coffee and soda and had annoyed all of the other passengers, it’s a statement typical of a 17-year-old. At the time, I thought that the program changed my life. Of course, at 17, it had. Being on the verge of my senior year of high school, I was making earnest statements like that on a regular basis. Still, I cannot discount that those three weeks were a turning point in my adolescence, the result of a program whose educational experience was more well-rounded than intended.

Can You Really Get There From Here?

The mission of People to People International and its Student Ambassador program is: “to bridge cultural and political borders through education and exchange, creating global citizens and making the world a better place for future generations.” I received their brochure in the fall of my junior year, right around the time my guidance counselor was drilling into my head that I was in the most important year of my academic career, perhaps even my life. As a result, I went looking for the type of opportunities that would look good on what eventually became a rejected application to Dartmouth — Anchor Club historian, student journalist, and mock trial lawyer. “Student Ambassador to Europe” was something that college admissions officers were impressed with. Europe was where great art was born; where history took place; and where entire generations of disaffected young Americans fled to find themselves.

I convinced my parents that not only would I make it into the program, I would somehow come up with $1200 of the trip’s cost. Not that I knew how I was going to pull that off — this wasn’t exactly like the time I hoarded my $25/week from JillMatt Cards & Gifts so that I could save enough money to visit my friend Chris in Fort Lauderdale. But after some creative publicity, including a story in The Suffolk County News and a talk with the Kiwanis Club (where I made a never-fulfilled promise to come back and speak to them), I had my tuition. On June 24, I set off for Kennedy airport, where I met up with the rest of the Long Island delegation. We had our flight to Washington, D.C. canceled and were forced to cab it to LaGuardia where, in a move reminiscent of a bad Amazing Race moment, two of our group members were dropped off at the Delta terminal and not the Delta Shuttle terminal.

Don’t Smurf an International Incident

Ultimately, my People to People delegation arrived in Washington intact. The entire group of 28 hailed from Long Island, Connecticut, Virginia, Tennessee, and California, and was lorded over by three advisors — the LaMers of Connecticut and Mary Nolan, who had run the Long Island pre-trip meetings. They were all nearing senior citizenship (if they weren’t there already), and I have to admit that I admire anyone that age who is willing to travel for three weeks with a group of unruly teenagers. They had some help during those first few days while we stayed at George Washington University, where People to People’s representatives laid down all of the rules.  Essentially, they wanted to avoid three things: the “ugly American” syndrome, an international incident, and a babysit-the-rich-kids summer camp. I mean, that’s why the Student Ambassador program director stood on the stage in a university lecture hall and told us that we weren’t allowed to drink, smoke, do drugs, have sex, or even form cliques.

I honestly thought that last one was insane. Not that I wanted cliques to form, but it seemed that with 28 teenagers in close quarters, cliquing up was inevitable. In fact, small groups of friends formed on the very first day and would get even more defined as the trip went on. But when up against Papa & Mrs. Smurf (named so for Mr. LaMers’ beard) and Punky (Mary Nolan wore a spiked femullet), we were a single group of 28 students who annoyed everyone on the National Mall, the Metro and in the Crystal Underground. I guess all the things that annoyed me about D.C. when I was living and working there, then, were come-uppance for my acting like an asshat at 17. But anyway, I wrote about our initial camaraderie: “We started as … two groups of people from different states. We left as a group of Americans wearing stupid shirts and name tags.” (more…)

June 17, 1994: The Most Important Day of the Nineties

The cover to the 1994 Regents exam in English.

The cover to the 1994 Regents exam in English.

Had the events of the evening of June 17, 1994 not proceeded the way they did, i am sure that I would have remembered the day anyway.  It wouldn’t have had the national significance that it does; still, it’s not every year that the Rangers get a ticker tape parade because they won the Stanley Cup.  In fact, that day wound up marking the end of two significant periods of my life hours before O.J. and A.C. managed to take the Los Angeles Police Department and every television station in the country up the 405 for 50 miles and a few hours.

At 8:30 that morning in the Sayville High School gymnasium, I sat down to take my English Regents.  This was both the culmination of three years of novels, plays, literary essays, and compositions at the hands of my English teachers as well as the very last Regents I would have to take.  That may not seem like much, especially to people who did not grow up and attend public school in New York State, but those who did know exactly what I mean when I say that I considered the end of my Regents-taking career to be a cause for celebration, if however minor.

Regents were what kept us in school until late in June (well, that an starting after Labor Day and having a week off in February) and were a ritual for high school students since the New York State Department of Education started them way back in the 1930s (a quick look at the archives, shows tests on homemaking in the 1950s and 1960s).  Coming sealed in plastic and bearing titles like “The University of the State of New York Regents High School Examination Comprehensive Examination in English,” the tests were more than a rite of passage–they were one of the most important rituals of our academic careers.  Starting after Easter, our book bags were further weighed down with Red Barron’s books full of old tests, which we’d take and then pore over to see what we were doing right and what needed improvement.

A Barron's Regents review book, courtesy of Amazon.com

A Barron’s Regents review book, courtesy of Amazon.com

And English wasn’t particularly hard, although I’m sure my students would blanch at the sight of it.  Whereas current students in Virginia take SOL exams in reading and writing that are passage-based and have one simple five-paragraph prompt-based persuasive essay, my generation had to endure spelling,  definitions, two essays (a literary analysis piece and a composition), and a listening section.  That’s right–a portion of our test required us to sit and listen while our teachers read a passage and we had to answer multiple-choice questions based on what we heard.  I’m sure that such a concept would send today’s average anti-testing advocate/expert into a blood-vomiting rage.  Personally, I never thought twice about it, but then again I was one of those students they’d accuse of having Stockholm Syndrome or something because I dutifully took my Regents exams and did well in school.

Anyway, I remember chugging through the multiple choice, choosing one of the two literary essay prompts (which have both made their way onto my 10th grade advanced English final in recent years) and writing a composition that I think I titled “Notes From a Rest Stop on the Information Highway.”  It was my attempt at wit, I guess, and it seemed to work because I did well enough to continue on my path to graduating with honors a year later.

A page from the spelling section of the 1994 Regents English exam.

A page from the spelling section of the 1994 Regents English exam.

I wasn’t thinking of any of that while taking the test, of course, because the Rangers parade was going to be on television and the Regents exam was the only reason I hadn’t asked my parents if I could take the train to the city that morning (same could be said for my friends as well because we all had to take the Regents).  So like everyone else, I watched it on television.  To this day, the Rangers hoisting the Cup as they drove through the Canyon of Heroes followed by the presentations at City Hall seem surreal.  I wasn’t wearing my jersey–I had finally thrown that in the laundry after superstitiously refusing to wash it throughout the playoffs–but I was glued to my television set the way I was eight years earlier when my dad taped the 1986 Mets parade for me.

The Rangers hoist the cup on Broadway.

The Rangers hoist the cup on Broadway.

Of course, the television would be more important later that night.  But I didn’t know that; did anyone?

Stone Temple Pilots were supposed to appear on Letterman.  I don’t think that’s why I stayed home, but at some point in the afternoon, I made a mental note to stay up late and turn on The Late Show after I was done with whatever Friday night plans I had made–which, knowing my life in 1994 was probably renting videos and watching them in the basement–so I could see one of my favorite bands.  But of course, that didn’t happen.  Well, the STP performance actually did because Letterman taped his show in the afternoon, but it never aired.

At some point–I don’t remember when–I turned on the television and saw live footage of a white Ford Bronco speeding down a Los Angeles freeway followed by police.  The news reporters said that driving the Bronco was Al Cowlings and his passenger was O.J. Simpson. (more…)

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 29 — Now I Can Die in Peace

Episode 29 CoverTwenty years ago, the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940.  Join me as I reminisce about that amazing run and talk about my life as a Rangers fan as well as share the memories of some of my friends.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And in case you’d like to relive the entire season, here is “OH BABY!” the Rangers highlight video from 1994:

 

 

A Banquet, a Song, a Date, a Mug

December_1963_oh_what_a_nightA few months ago, I was doing the dishes after breakfast, and after putting my coffee mug in the drying rack, I heard it crash to the floor.  I sighed and grabbed the broom and dustpan, and while sweeping it up, got annoyed.  I was annoyed at myself for not being careful, but also annoyed that a mug I had owned for twenty years was now gone.

The black coffee mug with a gold rim and “Sayville High School ’95” was the favor from my junior banquet, which took place on April 18, 1994. I honestly don’t know why it was called a banquet and not a prom–I suspect it had something to do with the seniors not wanting the juniors to call our dance a “prom” because my high school was all about that petty sort of crap–but it was the first formal school dance I ever attended.  In fact, if you want to get technical, it was my first date.

It is shocking to absolutely no one that I was an incredibly late bloomer.  Oh sure, I knew as early as elementary school that I liked girls, but at sixteen, I had not evolved socially beyond the awkwardness I had around girls when I was twelve.  I could control my behavior and wasn’t as obnoxious or immature in the presence of a pretty girl, but I still had ridiculous crushes on girls who were way out of my league, and even as late as college it took signals brighter than the average Times Square billboard for me to pick up on the fact that someone found me even marginally attractive.  In fact, at that point, my pursuit of the opposite sex amounted to asking out my crush in the ninth grade (and getting rejected) and getting friendzoned by someone prior to Christmas break, so the idea that I’d actually get a date for a dance was pretty ridiculous.

The junior banquet, though, was the social event of the year–at least for me, anyway–and because of that I felt that finding a date was necessary.  Okay, there was no stated obligation to find a date, but I definitely felt some sort of pressure to make sure I had a companion for the evening.  Maybe it was because my friends were getting dates or maybe because the dance was formal.  Personally, I blame our class’s choice of a theme song:  “Oh What a Night.” (more…)

Bowling, Burgers, and Birthdays

Sayville Bowl Interior

The interior of Sayville Bowl.  Image courtesy of MapQuest.  Year unknown.

I went to a kid’s birthday party a few weeks ago.  Normally, these are held at one of those huge playland places that have ball pits, inflatables, kiddie habitrails, and that have names like Bounce and Play or Adventure Central.  This party, however, was at the local bowling alley, and as I watched my son bowl (well, more like drop the ball in the lane and rush back to the chair so he could see the computer animation), I couldn’t help but think of the number of bowling birthday parties I attended as a kid.

My birthday parties–and most of my friends’ birthday parties–were pretty standard back in the 1980s.  We’d go to the birthday kid’s house, play a few games, eat pizza or hamburgers and hot dogs, drink way too much soda, and finish off with Carvel cake.  Then everyone would go home with goody bags that matched the decorations–cups, plates, paper tablecloths, etc–for Star Wars, He-Man, or whatever the party’s theme was.  Sometimes, the party would be a sleepover and we would put the parents through hell because hours of fun and hours of soda and candy equals no actual sleeping at the sleepover.  The parties were straightforward and always fun.

But bowling parties were a reality and we considered them some of the most memorable at the time, even if they don’t measure up to the standards of today’s epic theme parties and play apparatus.  Bowling at a birthday party in the early 1980s was some of the most fun you could have as a kid for a few hours, and Sayville Bowl was the typical AMF bowling center whose decor would remain so unchanged for years that when I was in high school and college it seemed like 1979-1983 were being preserved for posterity.  I don’t remember being a particularly good bowler–it was a lot of gutterballs and not enough Superman III–but I remember having an enormous amount of fun anyway.

Sigh … it’s never Superman III. (more…)

Two Liters With a Pie

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The flat remains of a two-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi. Yes, that’s my kitchen in the background.

A couple of months ago, I was at a work function where food was being served.  We had a few tables of fried chicken and some sides as well as a table of two-liter soda bottles.   As I poured myself a cup of Diet Pepsi, I couldn’t help but think of how ubiquitous the two-liter is—it’s a party and holiday industry standard and has been ever since I was a kid.

I suppose that is  not something to get really nostalgic about, especially since it’s a plastic bottle.  It’s not the iconic 6.5-ounce contour shaped glass Coke bottle that is the “nostalgic” Coke bottle and it doesn’t have the personality of the 20-ounce bottle, which is easily accessible and personal, plus it’s shaped like an old classic glass Coke bottle so it calls back to images where people from the 1950s or so pop a top of a glass Coke bottle.  The two-liter has never had that.  When you buy one of those, you twist off the metal or a plastic cap, and don’t think twice about it.

Which is indicative of the area and time period that constitutes my youth.  Having been born in 1977,  I have this attraction to the shopping mall, the multiplex, and everything else in the suburbs.  It is an era that is by and large disposable and I think on some level, even though nostalgia has turned its eye a little more toward my formative years, that nostalgia is selective at best—it’s the music, the movies, the fashion.  Nobody is going to look at suburban life in the 1970s and 1980s with the same rose-colored glasses our culture uses for the 1950s.  Because the decades of my childhood are the rose-colored 1950s’ unfortunate afterbirth:  Levitt homes and small towns gave way to shopping malls, gated communities, and McMansions, especially where I grew up.  You cannot go anywhere on Long Island without seeing shopping malls or multiplexes.

But then, there’s the pizza parlor. (more…)

Being Michael Grates

stillerrealitybitesAbout a week or two ago, I came across a few articles filled with emotional hand-wringing on the part of the generation often referred to as Millenials.  I read about how there is a generational conflict between this younger generation, which seems to be dismayed that the world doesn’t think they are entitled to anything; and older generations, who wish these kids would get over themselves.  It’s accompanied by talk about the uphill battle this generation faces as it enters a very touchy employment situation–the job market, after all, is terrible–and will have an enormous amount of student loan debt.  There is also the sentiment of “You created this mess and we inherited it.”

I found myself thinking about how Millennials need to get over themselves and how they’re all entitled brats, but then I couldn’t help but be reminded of two decades ago when Generation X seemed to be facing the same problems.  I am sure that your average Millennial will tell me otherwise, but it seems that there is something universal here:  the up-and-coming generation takes crap from the older generation. And I also couldn’t help but watch Reality Bites, the 1994 Winona Ryder-Ethan Hawke film that attempted to capture the struggle that particular group of twentysomethings was going through at the time.  Watching it again–and I watch it every once in a while–I knew that I would have a slightly different perspective and perhaps even view at least one of the characters a different way.  Not surprisingly, the character I seemed to sympathize with more than I did when I first saw the movie as a teenager was Michael Grates. (more…)

“Generation X” is … (a post from 1994)

Before I get to the meat of this, I should provide some preamble.  The post that will go up later in the week is titled “Being Michael Grates,” wherein I take a look at Ben Stiller’s character from Reality Bites from the perspective of someone who is in his mid-thirties and see, much like Mr. Vernon in The Breakfast Club and Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything … how much that perspective has changed.  As I was writing that piece, I thought of a piece I wrote in my high school newspaper where I referenced the movie in some screed about then-current stereotypes about teenagers and twenty-somethings of the day, who were labeled collectively as “Generation X” (taken from the Douglas Coupland novel of the same name).  I thought of quoting an excerpt from it in the post and then I decided, why don’t I just reprint it?

So, this is from the November 1994 (Volume 4, Issue 1) issue of Voices Inside, the then-student newspaper for Sayville High School.  I was seventeen years old, and it was the first in a regular “column” I had (read: gave to myself since I was made editor-in-chief) called “@#$&!”, which is an early precursor to this blog.  Perhaps one day I’ll write about that and “From the Nosebleeds,” the column I had in college.  But until then, enjoy this and come back later in the week for another all-new post as well as next week’s episode of the podcast, which also touches on Reality Bites.  Until then, here is the original column in its entirety (with a few punctuation errors fixed). (more…)

Self-Righteous

The watershed moments in your life rarely come with a script.  Oh sure, you have your major milestones and accomplishments but the moments of true epiphany are the most random, often happening when you least expect it.  One such moment in my life came before a club meeting during my senior year of high school.  I was helping pass out agendas and had left my backpack on my seat.  A friend of mine, Jim, was a fellow officer in the club happened to see my Walkman and out of curiosity, pulled it out of my bag and gave it a listen.  I returned to the table in time to see a look of complete confusion make its way across his face.

“Give me that,” I said, snatching the Walkman out of his hand.  Jim didn’t respond, and I put my headphones on to hear what had prompted such a strange look.  Playing near full blast was “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

Luckily, the meeting soon began and Jim didn’t care enough to mention it again or to anyone else, and needless to say that had me relieved because while I brushed the incident off, I felt the same sort of weird guilt you’d feel as if you’d been caught masturbating.  This was music I had been listening to when nobody was around, an act of musical self-pleasure that I kept hidden from the guys I talked heavy metal with at the lunch table where for all they knew, I was genuinely impressed that Jeff tracked down a Megadeth bootleg or that Brian finally acquired the studio version of “Breadfan” when he bought the Japanese import single for “One.” Had he mentioned it to the group of people we hung out with, I would have been mercilessly ridiculed, like the time they found my copy of Born in the U.S.A. and wrote “Nice ass!” on the cover.

I probably shouldn’t have cared, to be honest.  What’s wrong with having your own tastes?  Who cares what other people think, right?  But I was an individual with serious self-esteem problems and a need for approval that meant not only did I really want to seem like I was cool, but I was quite possibly the easiest target for ridicule.  I will spare you the vulgar nicknames, the perfume sprayings, and other jokes in my honor and say that though Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield’s glory years were a good thirty years behind them at that point, my listening to the Righteous Brothers tape I’d borrowed from my mother, especially “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” had a perfectly reasonable explanation:  Top Gun. (more…)

Fuzzy memories of summer camp

On Monday, my son started summer camp.  Beng that he is a four-year-old rising kindergartener, this was a pretty big deal because it is his first “summer break” after a year of school (whereas up until last August he was simply in daycare).  The camp is run out of his school, so there really is no difference in our morning and afternoon routines of dropping him off or picking him up, even though he is going to spend most of his days going to the pool or making crafts or playing games as opposed to sitting in class and learning letters and numbers.

Apparently, camp around here is kind of a big thing, to the point where every spring, there is not only a huge advertising supplement in the local newspapers about the various summer camp programs offered throughout the greater Charlottesville area, but there is a “summer camp expo” held at a local hotel where parents can stop by, pick up literature, sign up for camps, and meet local newscasters (I don’t know what the appeal is in meeting local newscasters, but there you go).  Where I grew up on Long Island, I don’t remember the ramp-up to summer break being a huge rush to get kids “signed up for something,” because quite a number of my summers were spent sitting around and doing very little.  I know that I sound like an old fart when I say that I was a kid in the days when kids could be left home alone and there was no danger in that, but it is actually true.  Most of the friends I had in later elementary school were kids whose parents weren’t always home and as long as I could ride my bike to their houses and as long as I was home before dinner time and wasn’t committing any criminal acts (and seriously, I grew up in freaking Sayville … the most “illegal” thing I ever did was cut through an abandoned lot and buy smoke bombs from the ice cream man), everything was fine.  Granted, there were days where my friend Tom and I spent time jumping out of trees and body slamming his little brother and I’m amazed that nobody got seriously injured, but we wound up fine.

But for those kids whose parents: a) were sick of their children doing nothing except watch TV all day; b) didn’t want their children unsupervised; or c) had the money, there was “camp.”  I didn’t know many kids who went to a “sleepaway” camp like the type portrayed in Meatballs or Wet Hot American Summer, probably because by the time I was old enough to do a sleepaway camp, those places had become synonymous with machete-wielding, hockey-mask-wearing killers.

Okay, that probably wasn’t the reason–it was probably more like sleepaway camp was a pain in the ass and parents preferred something more local, of which there were plenty of opportunities, some of which were almost like a sleepaway camp but were called “day camps.”  Every spring during my childhood, when I would be home in the afternoon watching G.I. Joe or He-Man and the Masters and the Universe, the local syndicated stations (like WPIX and WNEW/WNYW) would air a commercial for Young People’s Day Camp:

Now I am sure that this commercial ran well into the late 1980s and maybe even the early 1990s because I remember seeing it for years and I am sure that most of the kids in the commercial were in college by the time I was watching it.  I’d say that Young People’s Day Camp is the Mount Airy Lodge of children’s camps–the type of place that if you visited it now, it would be mired in bankruptcy and one skinned knee from being shut down by either the board of health or child protective services–but they are still up and running throughout the New York and New Jersey area, even if they’re not airing the same commercials. (more…)