On this day every year, I am required to tell my favorite New Year’s Eve story of all time.
So I will.
In the winter of 1996 I was a 24-year-old writer, home in New York for the holidays. My friend Dan worked for a major corporation in the city, and he told me one of his co-workers was having the New Year’s Eve party to end New Year’s Eve parties. “It’s gonna be incredible,” Dan said. “Guy is loaded.” So we decided to go—Dan, me, our longtime friend Paul, Mike Lewis, and Kyle, Dan’s roommate. Dan actually had to secure passes from the host, whose apartment was a stone’s throw from the Times Square ball drop.
On the night of Dec. 31, we all met at Dan’s apartment, then walked to Times Square. We handed a couple of police officers our passes, and they let us through a barricade. The apartment building where the guy lived was gigantic, as well as beautiful. A lobby with plush carpets, expensive paintings, piped-in classical music, etc. We took the elevator to the penthouse, and were greeted warmly by the host. “You guys are the first ones here,” he said. “But make yourselves at home.”
We did. The bar was loaded, the food was spectacular. We ate and chatted, drank and chatted. The goals were pretty clear—have fun, get drunk, hopefully meet some women, hook up, so on and so on.
Then, gradually, guests began to arrive.
Two more men.
Paul looked at me, real funny-like. “Jeff,” he said, “this is a gay New Year’s party.”
Indeed, it was.
I’ll never forget it. My friends were well-dressed, which was the norm at the party. I was wearing a University of Tennessee football jersey, which was not the norm (One cannot have a more prominent NOT GAY! neon sign than a Tennessee football jersey). Some guy kissed Paul, and at one point Mike looked around and said, “You know what—”I’m gonna mingle!”
It wasn’t awkward, but fun. Joyful. Memorable. As the clock counted down to midnight, I stood on the guy’s balcony, bottle of bubbly in hand, surrounded by, oh, 150 gay men. When 1996 arrived, everyone started yelling and cheering, then making out. One big simultaneous make-out.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when Republicans were known as the political party of hawks and hardcore nationalists.
Their take was pretty universal among far-right loyalists: America first. Fuck Iran. Fuck Russia. Fuck any nation that wants to mess with us. We are the United States, and we will never cower before or cater to a hostile adversary.
And while I hated the Cheney-esque philosophy, I at least understood it. There were doves. There were hawks. If you were a dove, you saw peace as the ultimate goal. If you were a hawk, you saw peace as the ultimate goal, but it hard to come via a fist. I suppose you could make arguments for both approaches. In fact, people have spent decades making arguments for both approaches. It’s the American way.
Lately, however, something has changed, and it behooves me to ask Donald Trump’s supporters to take a lengthy gaze in the mirror and ask: Am I sincere, or am I full of shit?
See, lately Donald Trump has been playing this really weird, really awkward game of footsie with Vlad Putin. Even though the CIA—and the vast majority of Democratic and Republican officeholders—are certain Russia both spied on us and set out to fuck with our election, Trump has said we need to “move on” and get over it. When President Obama smacked down sanctions against Russia (again, supported by the vast majority of Democratic and Republican officeholders), Trump offered zero support. Then, when Putin said he would not reciprocate, Trump Tweeted out this …
This gem was re-Tweeted 26,000 times and liked 70,000 times—so, again, I’d like Trump’s supporters to stand in front of the nearest mirror and ask this: Had Hillary Clinton won the election, and had the CIA provided the same information about Russia trying to fix it on her behalf, what would you be saying? Seriously. What. Would. You. Be. Saying? Would you argue, “Hey, there’s no proof”? Would you be OK with it? What if Hillary then Tweeted out her love for Putin? How would that go over? Because remember, when Barack Obama ran against John McCain, and said he would be willing to speak with Iran, y’all killed him. Absolutely killed him. So, tell me, how is this different? How is this kosher?
Or are you merely being swayed by a conman way over his head?
Any man with a functioning penis has certainly peed on a toilet seat and/or toilet rim. Lord knows I have.
But here’s the thing one sees from working in endless cafes: Very few people take the time to clean their pee up.
It’s an indictment of humanity. Of our ethics. Of our laziness. Of our indifference to the suffering of others. Imagine thinking to yourself, “Eh, I’ll just leave my sprayed piss for the guy who works here at a minimum wage salary. He can clean it …”
I mean, how big of a jerk must one be? And how hard is it to wipe your yellow liquid from the seat?
The above photo was texted to me via Matt Walker, a longtime pal who grew up about six houses down (and across) from where I lived in Mahopac, N.Y.
Matt, to my great dismay, had returned to the mean streets to grab a few slices at Cacciatore, the longtime pizza joint that has been making mouths salivate for decades. This is not an exaggeration. The pizza at Cacciatore is heaven. The smell at Cacciatore is heaven. The mojo at Cacciatore is heaven. It’s not merely the pizza parlor of our youths; it’s THE pizza parlor.
Were I on death row, offered a final meal, I’d send the guard to Cacciatore. “Grab some slices for yourself,” I’d add. “Trust me.”
I bring this up because, a few nights ago, I ordered pizza at a local place called, literally, “New York Pizza.” I entered to pick up the pie and was greeted by (egad) this …
Look twice. That’s quasi-pizza, sitting beneath a heat lamp. The cheese looks plastic. The meat hardened. There is barely any crust—and even that looks as if it were glooped out of some Pillsbury canister. And here’s the kicker—the place doesn’t sell pizza by the slice. It’s called NEW YORK PIZZA … and one can’t purchase slices?!
Anyhow, I love California. I love the sun, the palm trees, the Mexican food, the sushi, the beaches, the warmth, the coastlines.
So 2016 has become known as this year of great death, and I can understand the impulse. From Muhammad Ali and Prince to George Michael and Carrie Fisher, an absolute ton of iconic celebrities have passed over the past 360-something days.
So what’s the difference between now and past spans? In a word—us. Or, in four words—social media and us.
Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, people my age are learning of deaths and sharing the news of deaths that, in the past, were generally relegated to the obituary section of a newspaper. Sure, supernovas, a la Ali and Prince and Arnold Palmer and John Glenn, would be front-page news. As strange as this sounds, however, people of Michael’s and Fisher’s ilk likely would not have been. There would be a teaser on the bottom of A1, referring readers to the obituary. The same likely goes for, oh, 90 percent of those we’ve lost in 2016. Gordie Howe probably makes some front pages. Debbie Reynolds and David Bowie, too. But does Gene Wilder? Does Garry Shandling? As tremendously funny as those men were, well, I’d say no.
The other factor here is age. I’m 44. I grew up listening to Prince and George Michael and David Bowie. Those are the performers of my generation. And, if you’re reading this, likely yours, too. They carry weight for us that they don’t for others. “Freedom” is an enormously important song for me. So are “Space Oddity” and “Raspberry Beret.” Our generation is the oldest that lives and breathes with social media, and therefore we add weight to the passings by sheer volume. Truth be told, the reason we’re all talking about Debbie Reynolds’ awful death is because she was Princess Leia’s mother, and the heartbreaking timing crushed us. Otherwise, Debbie Reynolds doesn’t trend. She’s simply not of the social media era.
There’s a pretty crappy conclusion here, and it’s this: Just as the awfulness of 2016 won’t end with 2017 (Bad news: Trump becomes president), the death total of our people will only increase. The trickle was Whitney Houston. George Michael and Prince and David Bowie was the next wave. Aging sucks for myriad reasons—first and foremost because, as we get older, so do those around us.
Learned a few moments ago that Debbie Reynolds passed, just a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher.
The brain can work in odds ways, and maybe this is, indeed, odd. But the whole awfulness of a mother and daughter dying within 24 hours of each other reminded me of a conversation I once had with a friend. She was the mother of a young son at the time, and we were talking about flying. The woman told me she’d rather perish in a crash with her child than live without him. And, at the time, I found that crazy. I was thinking about the fragility of life, and the beauty of sunsets and palm trees; the taste of a delicious sushi roll; the cold joy of a thick milkshake.
But, with age and children of my own, I get it. Being a parent changes you in such profound ways. Mainly, it causes you to live your life for others. A child does not survive for a parent. But a parent does, factually, survive for a child. Like my friend, I, too, would prefer to die with my kids than after my kids. I’d choose to be on the plane.
I don’t know, for certain, whether Debbie Reynolds died of a broken heart. I don’t even know if that’s a real thing, or something we’ve created.
But my gut tells me she decided it was time to go.
So I recently subscribed to Apple Music, which means I suddenly have access to every song that’s ever existed.
This is good, in that I can roll with Tupac for hours upon hours.
This is bad, because I’m now hooked on the song “Separate Lives” by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin. I don’t quite know how this happened. I was driving home from San Diego two nights ago, toying with my new toy, and suddenly I thought, “Hmm … that song from ‘White Nights’ … that was pretty good.”
Next thing you know, I was playing it and playing it and playing it. Then I Googled it. Then I Googled “Marilyn Martin.” Then I found out Marilyn Martin is now a Nashville-based Christian singer who dabbled in real estate. Then I e-mailed her, requesting a Quaz. Then I realized the song was written by the great Stephen Bishop. Then I was YouTubing Stephen Bishop singing “Separate Lives.” Then I was e-mailing with Stephen Bishop.
This is who I am. For good and for bad. I get my hooks in some obscure pop culture thing from long ago, and my brain runs wild.
So I’m sitting in a delightful coffee shop in Encinitas, California. It’s very crowded and noisy, which I dig, but only has one bathroom—which I don’t dig.
A few moments ago I needed to take a piss, so I tried opening the door. It was locked.
Finally, after a solid five or six minutes (time stretches when one needs to pee), a woman opened the door, looked at me, grinnedand exited.
I’m not a fan of boldfacing words here, but I both boldfaced and italicized grinned for a reason. Put simply, there is no grin in the world quite like the exit-a-bathroom grin. It’s a subtle-yet-unambiguous acknowledgment that something just escaped my body, and you’re now going to have to either:
• A. Smell it.
• B. See some of it in the toilet.
• C. See some of it on the seat.
Best-case scenario, the person urinated perfectly, without so much as a dollop left behind. Actually, scratch that. Best-case scenario is the person thought he/she had to pee, but nothing came out. Also, no tushy sweat on the seat (so nasty, and more common than one might think). Alas, the positive scenarios rarely happen in business restrooms. Lord knows, I’ve seen it all.
Anyhow, back to the grin. It’s hard to explain that specific facial gesture. In a way, “grin” is too strong. It’s more like a grin-grimace conglomerate. A joke … combined with death. Chocolate … mixed with salmon. Justin Bieber having sex … with Helen Mirren. Really, there is an intrinsic homo-spanien need to contort our faces in some post-excretory mannerism, and it’s the best we’ve come up with.
OK, back to work.
PS: I Googled “awkward grin,” and the above photo of John Edwards came up. I have no doubt John Edwards grins awkwardly after he shits. I also have no problem with a Google search of “shit” and “awkward” bringing forth Edwards’ face.
Way back in 1989-90, I sat in front of Lou Hanner in science class.
We were both seniors at Mahopac High School, and Lou would … not … shut … up. He had opinions on the Jets, the Giants, the girl I liked, the T-shirt I wore, the T-shirt he wore. He was a wonderfully funny and sharp kid; never mean, but often a fire starter. He used to ask me (on what I recall to be a weekly basis) whether I was ready to ask out Lisa Frieman—loudly, with Lisa sitting two seats away. I later learned that Lou also urged the boys’ basketball coach to keep me on the team, an act of uncommon adolescent kindness that still touches me.
Anyhow, Lou was a phenomenal athlete, and he went on to play college soccer, then devote his life to teaching and coaching at Elwood-John H. Glenn High School on Long Island, N.Y. He was recently named the New York State Large School Soccer Coach of the Year, and I felt inspired to bring him here, to the Quaz. Yes, like all Q&A subjects, I was curious of his path. But, truly, I wanted to know how a modern coach deals with the crap-a-palooza that is today’s obsessive, parent-driven need to have Junior become the next Mike Trout, the next LeBron, the next Eli Manning.
So here’s Lou Hanner—a man I am thrilled to host as the 289th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Lou, I’m gonna start with something you probably hear quite a bit—the nonstop refrain of “Kids today just don’t [fill in the blank] …” And it always ends with something like “respect authority” or “work hard” or “appreciate what they have.” You’ve been coaching and teaching for two decades. Are kids today different than when we were growing up? Or is that just something every past generation is required to whine about?
LOU HANNER: The kids are not different. What is very different is the culture we live in. When we were kids if we got in trouble in school you were less concerned about the school administration, you feared going home to your parents. Today, the parents run to the rescue of their kids as if it is not their fault, but that of the teacher or the coach. Parents hover over every aspect of the kid’s education and athletic programs. They want complete control over their grades and assignments. We have apps on our phone to get immediate feedback. We have moved away from accountability. If I had a bad game, or wasn’t performing to ability in school, I was going to hear it from my family much worse than I would from my coaches.
L.H.: Actually, that is what motivates me. This is a profession that is always changing and evolving. Every single day is a challenge and an adventure. I have had many great mentors in my life and career. One was Joe McAvoy—the longtime teacher and coach at White Plains High School. He always said, “Teaching is coaching, coaching is teaching.” I never forgot that. I get to do it every day for a living. I feel blessed because of it, and I enjoy going to work every day. Many educators don’t. They should step down and move on.
J.P.:I feel like something has changed in our national approach to kids and sports—namely, we intrude far too much. Back when you and I were growing up in Mahopac, it was a ton of games in the yard, games in the street, games on some nearby field. And now, everything seems very structured, organized, programed. A. Do you agree? B. How does this impact the athletes you receive on the high school level?
L.H.: I totally agree. Most kids today only participate in structured teams, clubs, and leagues. We coached ourselves in the neighborhood. Or our dads coached us in little league, CYO and club soccer. Now we pay a lot of money for trainers and “professional” coaches with a license to provide these services. I do as well for my own kids. It is the sports culture we live in now. However, I am proud of the fact that my kids also love playing games in the yard and neighborhood like we did as well.
That said, because so many kids are playing organized athletics today at such a young age, it has certainly raised the level of talent and ability of the high school athlete. When I began coaching here at John Glenn in 1998, a handful of kids played on a club soccer team. This year most of our starting lineup plays at a high level all year round. The three-sport athlete is a thing of the past. And honestly, because of the youth sports structure, specialization has almost become mandatory if one wishes to play most sports at the next level. This concerns me, but I am witnessing it firsthand with my own kids. The time and monetary commitment for youth sports programs has most parents handcuffed.
Hanner, No. 23, teamed up with star center Larry Glover (No. 5) as Mahopac High seniors in 1990.
J.P.:You were an excellent high school athlete; an excellent college athlete. How does that impact the way you coach kids who aren’t particularly talented? I mean, you were always skilled. Is it hard to relate with and work with those who aren’t?
L.H.: Not at all. That is what coaching is all about. I really enjoy working with the low-level skilled players. But youth sports have advanced so far since we were kids. Those who do not play club sports outside of school have a very difficult time making most varsity teams. What frustrates me most is when an athlete doesn’t work hard on the field or in the classroom.
J.P.:We just got through a very bitter, heated presidential election. I wonder how much of a topic this was among your students? Your players? And do you feel comfortable discussing politics with kids? Is that an OK role for a teacher and coach?
L.H.: The election was very interesting to observe. Never before did we see the students get very involved or engaged with a presidential election like this one. You would hear kids making comments to each other in class and even inside the locker room. I did not observe any hostility like we did on TV or social media. I think it was great to see high school students involved and concerned about our government. Discussing politics can be very touchy for a teacher and coach. Keeping the conversation healthy and not biased is imperative.
J.P.: Why did you become a teacher and coach? Like, what was your path? When did you realize it was what you wanted to do?
L.H.: If you told me in our senior year of high school in 1990 that I would one day be a teacher and coach, I would not have believed you. I was going to Oneonta State, playing soccer and studying business. In my sophomore year I realized business wasn’t what I was passionate about. I was passionate about working with kids. Our college team would put on clinics for kids and youth coaches in the community and I worked soccer camps in the summer. My mom said to me one day, “You can’t sit behind a desk. You should be a PE teacher.” The rest is history.
I transferred to Cortland State as a senior and finished my undergraduate degree while playing soccer my senior year there. I was blessed to play for two great programs and my experiences could not have been better. I was fortunate to be hired right out of Cortland as the head boys’ soccer coach and high school PE teacher at White Plains High School in 1995.
With wife, Kerry.
J.P.:I love asking this of people I grew up with—so … who were you? What I mean is, I remember you as a pretty cocky, affable, confident kid. Your nickname was Lip, you talked a lot of fun trash. But who were you, inside? Were you confident or insecure? What were you thinking about? What were your worries?
L.H.: The Lip thing was something my uncles used to call me because I was named after a great uncle and that is what they called him. Nobody in school really used it. When we grew up all we did was compete. On the fields, yards, driveways, streets, parks, woods, garages, basements. Wherever. All we wanted to do was play, play anything, anywhere.
During those times, we would all like to talk a lot of back yard banter. Challenging one another and talking trash was what we did. Looking back, that played a big part of my development and fostered my competitive nature. One that I still have today. I compete against the students and athletes in class and at practice all the time. Therefore, I would consider myself more confident than insecure. I was only thinking about playing sports.
Looking back I wish I had put more effort into school. I mean, I did OK, but it wasn’t until I went to college that I put the right amount of time into it.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
L.H.: Greatest—The relationships and bonds built with all of the kids who have played for you. Seeing them grow up into men, get married, being successful, and starting families of their own. Having many want to come back and coach on my staff has also been very special to me. Others have become teachers and coaches as well. When they come back to our annual alumni game it is always one of my favorite days of the year.
Lowest—In January 2014 we lost a player in his senior year. He was killed in a tragic sledding accident. Attending the wake and funeral with your program and coaches is horrible. Words cannot describe the hurt and sorrow you feel for the family, your players and the entire school community.
Receiving Coach of the Year honors.
J.P.:There are many clichés about the American gym teacher. You’ve heard them—mindless task, roll out a bunch of balls, blow a whistle, make kids run two laps. But does teaching phys ed rule, or is it awful? Fun or challenging? How do you deal with the kid who has no interest whatsoever?
L.H.: We live in the Game Boy Generation. When we were kids we spent every second of free time outside playing sports, riding bikes or motorcycles. Today’s kids are much less active than we were. They live on their devices. We need health and PE now more than ever. We don’t respect it whatsoever in our culture. We talk a big game but we don’t support it. Only six states in the entire country mandate PE. Most only mandate health for one semester in middle school and high school. Maybe if we were to respect it like every other subject our country would be in a much better place …
Most of the kids at John Glenn High School enjoy and respect PE. I think it is because of the culture we have created. We ask the kids to work hard within a fun learning environment. Education needs to be fun. That’s something that we have moved away from with all these standards and common core requirements. I remember genuinely enjoying going to school and class every day at Mahopac High School. Teaching health and PE is one the greatest jobs in America. I feel blessed to go to work every day and have the opportunity to influence the lives of our youth.
J.P.:I’m gonna throw a weird one at you. When we were at Mahopac High, there was a smoking section. And I remember we’d have an annual SAY NO TO SMOKING day, or something like that. And I wonder, 26 years later, is smoking even the slightest of slightest of concern with high school kids? Like, do you think most even ponder it? Hell, packs cost $10, CVS stopped selling, etc. In short, is it a dead issue?
L.H.: Dead issue. The kids today do not smoke cigarettes. They smoke pot. When I began teaching we would catch kids smoking in the locker rooms and around campus all the time. I can’t remember the last time I saw one of our students smoking. I survey my health classes every semester and they confirm this. Marijuana is the drug of choice with the kids today. The legalization has created the perception that it is not bad for you; that it’s actually healthy.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LOU HANNER:
• In exactly 12 words, describe the emotions after being named the first, and last, Chieftain Mahopac High Athlete of the Year: Was honored, humbled, proud. Never felt comfortable wearing the jacket in public.
• One question you would ask Tom Paciorek were he here right now?: What was the guiding force in your 18-year career?
• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: Lake Mahopac, Mahopac Golf Club, Rodak’s, Mahopac Inn, Mom’s cooking
• Who are the five professional coaches you most admire?: Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden, Sir Alex Ferguson, Bob Knight, Herman Boone.
• Three memories from the senior prom: Friends, van, and Piano Man.
• How did you propose to your wife, Kerry?: On a balcony overlooking Virginia Beach.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember?: Slightly. We were about to land at Newark International airport in New Jersey. The pilot pulls us directly straight up from the runway as we are about to touch ground. We begin to circle Manhattan for what seemed forever. Nobody came on the loudspeaker to give any information. The passengers began to anxiously worry. Finally, the pilot comes on and apologizes for the aborted landing because a plane was stranded on the runway that we would have hit it had we continued.
• What happens in the third Balboa-Clubber Lang fight?: Split Decision
• Self-indulgent, what do you remember about me from high school?: Great kid, sports nut, fun to hang with, quitting varsity basketball after I convinced coach DeMarzo to keep you on the team!