Harvard University’s Commencement Speaker This Year Will Be . . . Moi!

Yes, you heard it here first, though Harvard’s administrative offices will be making the official announcement soon.

To wit: Yours truly has been tapped by Drew Faust, Harvard University’s outgoing president (her final day in office will be June 30 of this year), to deliver that esteemed institution’s Commencement address to the Class of 2018. The happy event will take place on May 24.

Man, I’m honored! I’m flattered! And I’m so nervous thinking about it I just might end up soiling my underpants any number of times between now and then. Little matter . . . I’ve got plenty of underpants in reserve!

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. There I was last week, joyously chewing away in the early afternoon on a BLTPB&J (bacon, lettuce, tomato, peanut butter and jelly) sandwich. An unusual concoction, yes, but invigorating and fabulously tasty. You should try it.

In between bites the phone rang. I pressed the Talk button.

“Khhhhhhhhhhhh,” I croaked, a huge wad of sandwich preventing any normal sounds from emerging. “Khhhhhhhhhhhh,” I repeated, having no better luck on the second attempt.

“Is this Neil?” asked the caller. “What’s the matter? You don’t sound well. I’m going to call 911.”

I worked hard, quickly, on the clump inside my mouth, somehow managing to send it on its way into my esophagus. I then collected myself and had success in getting out some words.

“No need for 911,” I said. “I’m okay. Excuse me for my terrible manners. And by the way, who is this?”

Drew Faust
(photo by Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe)

“Neil, this is Dr. Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University. I can imagine that you never in a million years expected to be answering a call from me, but stranger things have happened. Well, maybe not. In any case, here we are, about to have a conversation.”

“Hello, Dr. Faust,” I said. “Actually, in a million years I’d never have been able to guess who the president of Harvard is. Not to mention that I’ve never heard of you. It’s nice to meet you, though, needless to say. Just wondering, are you related in any way to the Doctor Faustus who has been written about over the centuries?”

“Ha, ha, ha! Neil, everyone asks me that. No relation, I assure you. And unlike him, I’m harmless. Please call me Drew.”

“Drew, I’m pleased to be speaking with you. What in the world, though, is the reason for your call?”

“Well, young man, and I’m using young facetiously of course, I’ve been at Harvard’s helm for 11 years. That’s a long time. And I’m getting up in years. So in a few months I’ll be retiring from the job, but before then the Commencement Day for the Class of 2018 will have arrived, and a few details for that extravaganza still need to be worked out. As I’m certain you know, one of the most important aspects of any commencement is the keynote speaker. For various reasons we here at the university haven’t offered the speaker’s job to anyone yet. My associates have agreed to let me make the final decision. Which is where you come in.”

Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

“Neil, I want to shake things up in these my final months at Harvard. And I can think of no better way to do so than to bring in a, shall we say, nobody to deliver the school’s Commencement address. This has never been done before. Commencement speakers always are persons of prominence and of great achievement. In recent years the Harvard speakers have included J.R. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, to name just a few. I want to show the 2018 graduates that this pattern is unnecessary, that an average Joe or Jane deserves the opportunity to impart whatever limited amount of wisdom he or she possesses to those who are about to become the leaders and doers and  shakers of the modern world.”

“My word, Drew,” I said, “that’s an amazing speech you just made. Hell, you should be the Commencement speaker. Forget the average Joe or Jane bit. Girl, you carry the goods!”

“No way, Neil. I’ve basked in glory long enough. Listen, one of my daughters somehow stumbled upon your blog yesterday and read one of your recent pieces, A Colorful But Awfully Flimsy Story. She called me and told me about the article, that she couldn’t believe how flimsy indeed it is, how perfect an example it is of the flotsam and jetsam clogging up cyberspace.”

“She also forwarded the story’s link to me. And I read the article. Neil, I totally concurred with her assessment. I then looked at several more of your efforts. My opinion about your talents didn’t change.”

“That’s when a brainstorm hit me,” Drew said. “Considering the worth of your works, you show a remarkable degree of courage by publishing them at all, in my humble you-know-what. Having courage is an admirable quality. And although you lack prodigiously in the insights department, I am absolutely certain that a few nuggets of near-wisdom are lodged within your cranium. Ergo, you, whom just about nobody has ever heard of, are my choice to address the 2018ers at Harvard’s Commencement Day.”

I gulped. “Holy Toledo, Drew,” I then said. “I don’t know what to say, except that I’ll do my best. Offer accepted.”

“Neil, I thank you. Harvard thanks you. You are soon to embark on a wonderful journey, one that will thrust you into the academic spotlight and possibly increase your blog’s readership, though I wouldn’t bet too heavily on the latter. Anyway, please give me one or two examples of what your speech might contain. Small but helpful tools for living would be welcomed by everyone in the Commencement Day audience.”

“Yes, Drew, I understand. Give me a moment.” A moment passed, then several more, at which point I began once again to speak. “You know, I can’t overstate the importance of dental hygiene, Drew. It wouldn’t look good if tomorrow’s leaders were in possession of ugly, swollen gums and loose teeth. Which is why I’ll stress to the graduates that they must brush regularly throughout the day and also floss diligently before hitting the sack.”

“That’s good, Neil. Very good. Anything else?”

“Uh, nothing much beyond that is coming to mind. Oh, wait. There is one other piece of advice I might offer: Don’t step on cracks in the sidewalk. Not because it’s bad luck but because you might trip!”

“Excellent, Neil. You’ll do just fine.”

“Drew,” I said. “You know, there are a couple of jokes I heard a few years ago that have stayed with me. Would it be all right if I worked them into my speech?”

“I don’t know why not, Neil. Everybody needs laughs these days. Throw ’em at me, guy!”

“Okay. What do you call it when a Frenchman tosses a hand grenade onto his kitchen floor?”

Drew was stumped, so I told her.

“Linoleum Blown Apart!” I shouted. Drew exploded in laughter.

“A classic!” she screamed. “What’s the other one?”

‘What do you get when you cross the Atlantic with the Titanic?”

“Tell me, Neil, tell me!”


Drew couldn’t contain herself. She was laughing so dangerously hard I was seconds away from calling 911 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But she pulled herself together. And we chatted for a few more minutes.

The bottom line is that Drew is absolutely convinced that she has made the right choice. Me, I’m not so sure. But as she said, I’ve got courage. And so, any day now I’ll begin to craft my Commencement Day speech. Harvard might not need me in any truly remarkable sense, but they’ve got me.

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A Long Walk In Philadelphia On A Warm Winter’s Day

Cira Centre

There I was two Wednesday mornings ago, unfruitfully occupying space on my living room sofa. My shoulders were tense, my mind was neither here nor there. In other words, it was business as usual.

“Yo, schmuck! Snap out of it!” I silently yelled to myself. “Somebody ought to paint your portrait right now and call it Here Sits A Schlump. Life’s for living, boyo. Get with it already.”

And so I did. Gathering myself together, I decided to go for a walk. A nice long walk. But where? Not in my suburban area, whose charms are incredibly limited. Philadelphia it would be then. Philly’s the metropolis that never bores me. Soon I was at my little town’s train station. A late-morning ride arrived and I climbed into the second of its three cars. Fifty minutes later I exited said metal box at 30th Street Station, in the city’s West Philadelphia section, all set to explore a nearby area that I was barely familiar with. Ferdinand Magellan I’m not, but I’ve always liked to poke around.

It’s amazing though, being someone who likes to poke around, that I’d never done so among the blocks only a hop, skip and a jump northwest of 30th Street Station. Those streets, part of West Philadelphia’s Powelton Village neighborhood, contain a good bit of Drexel University’s sprawling campus. From the mid-1970s until 1991 I lived in West Philadelphia, only a mile and a half from Powelton Village, but I didn’t venture to the Drexel enclave there, despite Drexel’s rise during that time to major-player status in the academic world. And in the ensuing years, which have seen me visit West Philadelphia who knows how many dozens of times, the pattern continued.

Hallelujah, now the deed is done! I came and I saw. I’ll leave conquering for another day.

Powelton Village
Powelton Village

Now, let me say that my stroll through Powelton Village, checking out not only the Drexel facilities but the sturdy, soon-to-be-leafy residential blocks, wasn’t a walk for the ages. I mean, not too many urban campuses are going to knock your socks off. And Philadelphia’s older housing — rowhouses, twins and stand-alones — are so much with us in Powelton Village and in many other Philadelphia neighborhoods, I’ve come to think of them as comfort food.

Still, stretching my literally old legs felt great. Especially since the day was sunny and warm, as in 74°F, an insanely high number for mid-February winter. I worked up a good, pungent sweat hauling my ass and my bones around. And my eyes did plenty of darting, admiring the college girls who were dressed for summer. Skimpily, shall we say.

In addition to the girls, certain sights during my travels did make quite the impression on me. For instance, before I reached Powelton Village — in fact, when I was only 150 feet from 30th Street Station — I remembered to take a look at the Cira Centre, a majestically sleek office tower that smiles down upon the station. But I didn’t see it. Was the station somehow obscuring my view? Turns out, of course, that Cira was there in plain sight. Sort of. A glass wonder, the reflections of the sky on its surface were camouflaging the building, as the photo at the beginning of this article reveals. Man, that was something, clouds seeming to float everywhere on the glass along with the reflected image of a tower under construction several blocks away.

Drexel’s Buckley Recreational Field
Vue32 apartment building

And in Powelton Village, just up the block from Drexel’s Buckley Recreational Field, I was most surprised to see a tall, modern apartment building (Vue32) being erected on North 32nd Street. Some might say that Vue32, a non-Drexel project, is totally out of place in a quiet two-and-three-story-high neighborhood, and if I lived nearby I’d probably agree. But it looked cool to me.

SEPTA rail yard

Speaking of North 32nd Street, if I hadn’t been there I would have missed being near-stunned by the sight of oceans of commuter railroad cars — just like the one I took into the city — a smattering of feet east of where Vue32 stands. As I later learned, I was looking at a rail yard used by SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s public transit agency, to house and do maintenance work on trains. I’ve lived in Philadelphia or its suburbs for most of my adult life and I’d only vaguely noticed that enormous yard before, though it is glimpsable from numerous vantage points in the city. Call me Mr. Observant.

An open square on Drexel campus

Well, the early afternoon passed pleasurably. I ambled along block after block in Powelton Village. Many streets contained a mixture of private homes and Drexel buildings. Everything was peaceful and quiet, just the way you’d wish that all the world would be. I saw many students, some on their way to or from classes and residences, some munching away or doing work at tables in a campus open square, some lolling on the grass in pocket parks. I enjoyed being a college student, but you’ll never find me enrolling once again in an institution of higher learning. There would be just too much work. In these latter stages of my life I prefer things that are way on the easier side.

By the time I made my way back to 30th Street Station I’d racked up four miles of ambulation. My shoulders were a lot looser than they’d been five hours earlier. My mind was no longer neither here nor there. And I was happy to be heading home. A few minutes before the train pulled in to whisk me back to my sleepy town, for no particular reason I took a photo of the “Watch The Gap” warning painted on the platform. It refers to the open space of an inch or two between the platform and each train car. Looking at that picture the next day it occurred to me that watching the gaps elsewhere in life is good advice too. Relationship gaps can be painful. Equality gaps are unfair and often hideous. But, with effort, gaps can be closed or dealt with productively, though not always.

With those words of wisdom I’ll now take my leave. But (hopefully) I’ll be back! Till next time.

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Everybody Wants Some!! (A Look At Linklater’s Latest)

They keep their noses to the grindstone, often think outside the box, avoid publicity most of the time, and write and direct movies right and left. Not being a film scholar, I’m unable to say how many of our fellow humans currently fit that description. But I’ll offer the two names that pop into my mind: Woody Allen. Richard Linklater.

Maybe I’ll pen an essay about Woody one of these days. But today not being that day, I’ll proceed with some thoughts about Richard Linklater and about his latest movie. It’s called Everybody Wants Some!!, and it’s a really raunchy comedy. If you’re uncomfortable with fu*ks and sh*ts filling the air like swarming gnats, then you’re gonna wanna sit this one out. I saw Everybody recently with my wife Sandy, who doesn’t always go for raunchy comedies. She liked this one, though. And so did I. It’s cruder than crude, but it’s also kind of sweet and nutty and charming.

You know, Linklater’s newest ain’t no masterpiece. But who cares? It’s a romp. A blast. And Linklater undoubtedly needed a breather of sorts after finishing production on Everybody’s predecessor, Boyhood, in 2014. Boyhood had to have been a challenge and a half. It followed the life and times of a lad over a 13 year period, up to the start of his freshman year at college. And it did this in real time. Linklater filmed Boyhood for a few days every year from 2002 through 2014. Same cast each year, and pretty much the same crew. It’s hard to imagine the patience and discipline required to devise and orchestrate a project of such magnitude.

Boyhood aimed high, examining life’s nuances and complexities. Everybody Wants Some!! aims a lot lower. Its focus is on the cravings of the gonadal regions of a group of collegiate male student-athletes gathered together a few days before the start of classes, in 1980 Texas. The boys comprise the college’s baseball team, and have been allowed, and assigned, to live together in a big old house off-campus for the upcoming school year. The college’s administrative geniuses who made that decision never saw Animal House, for sure.

Boys being boys, and testosterone being testosterone, the baseball tribe’s upperclassmen lead the newbies from bacchanalia to bacchanalia all over town for several days, including the blowouts in their big old house. Vast numbers of college girls are ogled and flirted with. And some, certainly not as many as the boys would have hoped for, are bedded. Actually, though, Everybody details the high life too. Amazing quantities of beer are drunk during the movie. And so much cannabis smoke is inhaled, I left the theater with a contact high. Thanks, Linklater, I needed that . . . and I’m not joking.

Not every scene in Everybody plays out as wackily as intended, and not all the dialogue slips easily off the actors’ tongues. But the pursuit of wild fun rarely slows. Where else are you going to see guys and girls, gleefully drunk, riding a mattress down a flight of stairs? Or watch a team’s veteran players duct-tape its new guys to an outfield wall, and then launch balls at them during batting practice?

Everbody Wants Some!! is drawn from Linklater’s collegiate life, and is a follow-up, in spirit, to his 1993 movie Dazed And Confused, which emerged from his high school experiences. High school, for Linklater, was a time of frustration and confinement. College? Hey, kind of the opposite. Goodbye to parental restraints, hello to freedom and experimentation. Linklater’s quasi-alter ego in Everybody, freshman Jake (smoothly played by Blake Jenner), is the eyes and gonads through which the movie unfolds.

As part of my attempt at research for this article, I read an interview that Linklater gave not long ago to help promote Everybody. He said: “That’s what the [new] movie’s about, navigating that transitional period and the notion of identity. Who are you? Who do you want to be?”

Huh? Richard, I disagree. Only a smattering of screen time is assigned to analyses of the big concepts that you mentioned. Yeah, the guys (and the one girl who has more than five lines during the flick) are possibly semi-consciously on a quest for self-discovery, but who isn’t? To me, what Everybody Wants Some!! is about is grabbing hold of good times while you can. Because they don’t necessarily last forever.

And something very basic dawned on me in the midst of my research. Namely, without having realized it before, I’m a Linklater fan. He has directed 18 feature films over the years, and I’ve seen (and liked) eight of them. That’s 44%, which isn’t bad. But his five most recent movies, a string that began with 2008’s Me And Orson Welles, are a different story. I’ve caught them all, which was news to me. The quintet includes Bernie, a delightful movie from 2011 starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine that I urge all to see.

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