Report from Wolfstock (Stony Brook Homecoming)

Umm, where were we?

OK, so I wander into the Stony Brook University bookstore to buy a Stony Brook cap to go with my Taylor Reveley William & Mary T-shirt (since one must be true to one’s school). And of course it’s a Barnes & Noble. And I’m browsing for the cheapest possible cap, since after today it’s going into a pile of caps about two stories high. And the manager decides to do a little hand-selling, and she turns out to be one of the friendlier and chattier people I’ve ever met.

So I say to her, I see you’re a manager at a Barnes & Noble college bookstore. I have a question for you

And so I tell my shaggy dog story about my endless futile quest to get your W&M bookstore to take that phony Jefferson quote down off the wall. That story is beginning to grow to Alice’s Restaurant proportions.

Turns out she’s actually been in your bookstore. Bottom line, she has promised to assist me in my mission, starting with a phone call to the W&M bookstore manager.

There’s always a way if you want it enough.

I got to Stony Brook about 11 a.m., unhooked my bike from the car rack and started riding. It was one of those stunningly gorgeous days that make any campus look incredible, the kind of day that would make some Supermax prisons look good. Just magnificent.

I took a map with me, determined to ride some of the backstreets I hardly ever visited in the ten years I was out there. The “Three Villages,” Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field, are really New England-class beautiful. But I hardly remembered most of those streets — and it’s not because they’ve changed. While the main drag is certainly more developed, the “North of 25A” backstreets haven’t changed a bit in 40 years. “North of 25A” always meant “more money,” and when you have “more money,” you can keep things that way.

I can’t get over just how different places feel when you’re on a bike — how much more personal and intimate. (If a place isn’t better on a bike — if you’re experiencing it with the same stress and disconnection as you would in a car — that’s a sign you’re probably somewhere awful. Myrtle Beach comes to mind.)

Ten years I was out there, and with a few scarce exceptions stayed on the main roads. I didn’t have a car or bike with me, but still. Take it from me: you need to figure out where the beautiful and interesting places are within several miles of Williamsburg, and go see them before you’re gone.

In your copious spare time.

“Wolfstock” is Homecoming (complete with the election of a king and queen who wander around looking royal, and are then formally introduced at halftime). The place is chock full of what certainly looks like school spirit.

For one thing, everyone’s wearing red, the official colors mandated awhile back when Stony Brook’s marketing consultants renamed its teams the “Seawolves.” (To promote this, they handed out thousands of T-shirts asking, What’s a Seawolf? And some folks recalled the Jack London novel The Sea-Wolf, wherein the title character is some sort of sociopathic sea captain.)

Maybe you can sense that, as someone who became sentient in the ’60s and came of age in the ’70s, school spirit is a strange and uncomfortable notion to me. Especially when it involves getting excited about your college sports teams. When I was here, we took great pride in not doing any of that. We saw it as a distraction from anything that could conceivably matter; somewhere between an absurdity and another “opiate of the masses.”

If we were a bit less light-hearted than the sun-drenched freaks of UC Santa Cruz, we shared a bit of the same worldview that led them to name their teams the Banana Slugs. (A name that thankfully persists to this day <grin>.)

But there it is. Stony Brook now has a brand-spanking, almost-new football stadium. It’s nice enough I can imagine the visiting team being jealous. ($27 million ought to solve that problem.)

Stony Brook’s stadium drives my friend David out of his cotton picking mind. (Granted, he is easily outraged). David particularly hates the idea that it’s named after State Senator Kenneth LaValle. David claims — I’ve not checked this — that there’s a New York state law banning the naming of public buildings after living individuals.

Mr. LaValle is not merely alive: he continues to shape the university’s budget as head of the New York State Senate’s Higher Education Committee, just as he has since 1979.

Say what you want about Stony Brook, someone there knows whom to appreciate.

But I don’t know about that law. There’s also an Asian Arts Center here named after Charles B. Wang, the entrepreneur who spent the ’90s building Computer Associates into one of the world’s largest software firms — until, as BusinessWeek put it, “the company imploded amid Justice Dept. charges that its executives had violated accounting and securities laws. Eight of them went to jail.”

Wang himself wasn’t prosecuted, and walked away with more than enough cash to donate $40 million dollars for the Wang Center (with plenty left over to buy the New York Islanders hockey team, which he is now selling.)

Maybe the law only prohibits naming buildings after living people who don’t personally pay for them? I will have to look this up.

The Wang Center is actually a great building, packed with exquisite Asian art and containing a pretty decent Asian restaurant. I was there for the pre-Wolfstock lecture. The speaker was Howard Schneider, who used to edit Newsday back when it was winning Pulitzers right and left. His topic: “How can you tell if you’re getting the truth from the news media?” I figured I already knew what he was going to say (don’t assume every web site is accurate, check Snopes, etc.) but I really got a lot out of the talk. You’d have enjoyed it.

Schneider runs Stony Brook’s undergraduate journalism program now. He said one way it’s different is it also tries to teach nonjournalism people how to be good news consumers. I was wishing cousin Joyce could enroll.

He told one reporter story I especially wanted to share with you. During Hurricane Katrina, one of New Orleans’ best reporters interviewed two policemen guarding a huge freezer in the New Orleans Convention Center. They told him the freezer contains massive numbers of bodies of people who’d been killed by criminals during the chaos following the hurricane. Here’s the story the guy wrote.

That story went viral, since it fit so neatly with lots of folks’ preconceptions about New Orleans. But it turned out nobody was in the freezer, and the vast majority of the stories about deadly criminal violence in flooded New Orleans later proved false.

The reporter described it as the biggest mistake of his career. He went back afterwards and re-interviewed everyone he’d spoken with as he wrote that story. Turned out the two cops had gotten the information from some random guys on a food line at the local Harrah’s Casino. Nobody had opened the freezer to look — not the cops, not the reporter.

Schneider’s moral: Open the freezer. I liked that and thought it was a great lesson to share. It’s kind of a version of Ronald Reagan’s old line, Trust but verify.

After the talk, Wolfstock officially began: what they call “Long Island’s Biggest Barbecue.” Which meant, of course, trying to find something vegetarian to eat. Potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and OK, portabello mushroom on hamburger bun.

Outside, massive tailgating. And when you went inside the stadium, the walls were covered with hand-painted bedsheets from all the clubs and organizations and fraternities out supporting the Seawolves. Especially frats. More Greek letters there than in Homer’s Iliad. It’s the very antithesis of everything I’d imagined Stony Brook would ever become.

But life’s funny that way, huh? Another thing Schneider talked about: for all the talk about media bias, we news consumers need to look in the mirror and recognize our own biases. Implicit association tests and so forth. Keeping an open mind — and how the research indicates that’s even harder for educated and informed people than for everyone else. True that.

So… as for this “school spirit” stuff, I’m looking around and people are clearly into this. There are local businesses advertising and hanging out on campus who’d probably never be here if it weren’t for the sports. Outside Long Island, plenty of people never heard of Stony Brook until Joe Nathan became a big-time major league closer and the Stony Brook Seawolves made it to the NCAA College Baseball World Series.

So… as much as I can’t stand big-time college sports (and I really can’t stand the institution)… sitting in this nearly packed stadium full of people wearing red, I get why college presidents keep buying into that package. And we did have great seats, right behind the Tribe bench. (Your town-mate carries a mean clipboard.)

Clearly, at the moment, American society has no surplus of people jumping at the chance to identify with large institutions or join in shared purpose. Even if the shared purpose is hollering at a football game. It’s better than bowling alone.

Oh, and by the way, congratulations. You guys won in OT.


wolfstock 2014

AWFUL picture, but it’s good for me to work on my vanity.



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