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.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece on social media or via email. Gracias.)


A Colorful But Awfully Flimsy Story

Some stories coalesce properly, their meaningful themes presented intelligently, their aims met, their pacing expertly handled. Such stories have a powerful reason for being.

And then there are those stories that don’t have any good reason for being at all, such as the one I’m attempting to bang out right now. Holy crap, sweat beads are pouring from my brow, straining so hard am I to create product out of the thinnest threads of inspiration. My editor, Edgar Reewright, whom you possibly might recall from his previous appearances on these pages (click here and also here, for instance), couldn’t believe how low I was reaching when I tried to convince him that it didn’t matter if I published a pretty pointless article, considering that an infinitesimally small percentage of the human population ever reads anything I pen anyway.

“Edgar,” I said to him over the phone recently, “I’m shit out of decent story ideas. But I have to publish something, you know. Can’t let too many days elapse between articles, right? Right.”

And then I quickly summarized for him what I had in mind. I was met with dead silence for 15 seconds after I stopped talking. Finally Edgar spoke.

“Neil, you’re out of your friggin’ skull if you green-light this piece. It’s ridiculous. It’s dumpster-worthy. I want no part of it. You’re on your own with this one, cowboy.” And he hung up. Brusquely.

I took a deep breath. Tried to steady my nerves. And decided that, yes, the next day (February 11) I would proceed with my plan by beginning the writing process. Which is what I’m doing right now, as today indeed is the 11th. On what date I’ll complete the opus and punch the Publish button, I can’t say yet. But it will, of course, be well before Hell freezes over, unless that event occurs within the extremely near future.

The saga began a few hours before I dialed Edgar’s phone number. I was sitting on my living room sofa, trying to come up with something to write about, when I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section and began perusing the box scores of the previous day’s National Basketball Association (i.e., professional) games. In the distant past, when I was one of the way too many sports fanatics stomping around on our blue planet, I not only read the box scores every day during the pro basketball season, I also knew who just about every player was. My fanaticism having dissolved long ago, these days I’m familiar with maybe one out of six basketballers. But I continue to read the box scores nonetheless. What, like I have anything better to do?

Lo and behold, when I reached the final box score on the page, a synopsis of the February 9 game between the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, my eyes were drawn to an oddity in the Houston listings. What the listings contained was something I can’t remember ever coming across before during the countless hours I’ve spent in my life studying box scores from various sports. To wit, the final three surnames listed for Houston, meaning the gentlemen who were the last three to enter the game for the Rockets, were Green, Black and Brown. Wow! Three colors in a row! I had no idea who the players were (it turns out that their first names, respectively, are Gerald, Tarik and Markel), but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I, story idea-wise, now had something to work with. Colors would lead me to good places I naively assumed.

Maybe, I mused, I’ll package the green/black/brown coincidence with a discussion of my favorite colors then and now (yellow when I was a kid, blue in my adulthood), some thoughts on the insanely huge numbers of colors described and displayed in Wikipedia articles (click here, here and here to see them), and somehow bring the proceedings to a tuneful conclusion with entertainment by musicians whose names are those of colors.

But on second thought all of that seemed too much, too ungainly. What, after all, do I have to say about the infinity of colors out there? Not a whole lot, except that it’ll drive you crazy when you’re trying to decide which color to choose for your living room or bedroom walls. Too damn much choice, as is the case with nearly everything nowadays.

And so I was left with music. Poor, pitiful me. Down to the dungeon I lumbered. It is there that I store my vinyl album collection, not to mention my world-class collection of pet spiders. I’ve got about 1,000 albums in all. And about 700 spiders. I’d decided to search for color names among the vinyl platters, which hold a nostalgic and esthetic spell over me, rather than from my sizeable trove of CDs. That’s because vinyl album covers have a whole lot more charm than their CD counterparts.

On the way down the stairs I further decided that I wanted color names that were surnames, not first names, in order to continue the pattern established by Monsieurs Green, Black and Brown. And I didn’t want to duplicate the colors already taken by the basketball guys. Thus, Red Garland (jazz pianist) and Pink Anderson (blues singer and guitarist) were out, as were James Brown, Jackson Browne and Al Green.

Patient readers, let me cut to the chase. I found only three musicians who met my goofy criteria. I selected one album by each. The musicians were jazz artists. I use the past tense because all of them, sadly, are gone. Only one (Horace Silver) is fairly well-known to the general public. The other two, Don Cherry and Michael White, decidedly aren’t, especially White. Silver, a prolific composer and hard-working band leader, played straight-ahead jazz. Cherry, one of my musical heroes, was an adventurer. His trumpet forays often would blister the atmosphere. White, who wielded an electric violin, possessed a mindset somewhat similar to Cherry’s. As a side note I’ll add that Horace and Don were major talents. Michael was good, but certainly not great.

Here then are three YouTube videos. Each offers a track from one of the albums whose front covers I’ve ever so lovingly photographed for this article.

A basketball box score. And three weirdly-chosen musicians. Yup, that’s what this story is all about. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on Facebook, Twitter and their ilk. I thank you.)

Santa Claus, With Keith Richards In Tow, Is Coming To Town

Keith Richards, with brisket gravy dripping down his chin like a Mount Vesuvius lava flow, couldn’t contain himself earlier this week. “Bubala, my kishka’s sendin’ out an SOS. I’m gonna plotz!” he nearly roared, beaming at my wife Sandy. “The potato latkes, the brisket, the roast chicken . . . a magnificent feast! Sandy, my tuches must be three inches wider than it was before we sat down to eat.”

Photo by Mark Seliger

We were at my and Sandy’s dining room table, gorging on a traditional Chanukah dinner. It was the eighth and final night of the holiday. “Keith, we’re glad you’re here with us,” said Sandy, the meal’s creator. “And I have to tell you that you did a wonderful job tonight lighting the candles on the menorah and an even better job saying the Chanukah prayer. Not every goy can pronounce baruch the way it’s meant to be said, with that khhhh sound grinding away deep in the back of the throat. But you, Keith, you nailed it.”

“Thanks, Sandy,” said Keith sheepishly. “I’ve been practicin’ hard.”

“Would you expect otherwise?” I asked Sandy. “I mean, Keith’s a mensch.”

Keith, my longtime friend, liked that comment. He smiled his widest smile at me. Thank you was written all over his face.

It was good having Keith at my suburban Philadelphia home. I hadn’t seen him in a real long time, though we keep up pretty regularly on the phone (you can learn how our friendship came about by clicking here). I was happy to hear from him when he called last week from his Connecticut estate. He said he needed to get away from the spotlight for a while, seeing that his plans to leave the music biz and celebrity game, which I wrote about 10 months ago (click here), had fallen through. And so, the spotlight remained blinding.

“Neil, I’d like to stay with ya for a couple days next week, if that’s all right,” Keith had said. “I can relax when I’m around ya. Your humdrum, vanilla way of living is something I kinda crave, bro.”

“Yeah, Keith-o, that’ll be cool. Come on Wednesday. And brush up on your Yiddish, okay? Remember how you got a 50-point bonus in Scrabble a few years back when you laid out all seven of your letters and spelled schmuck?” I could feel Keith basking in the glow of that memory.

“Oy gavalt!” Keith muttered into the phone. “Patti [his wife] just whispered in my ear that a reporter from People magazine is at the front door. He’s the fifth media person to show up today. One of ’em wanted to know if the Christmas season increases my sex drive. I told him ‘only when my balls are cold.’ He liked that quip. And another asked why The Stones never recorded a Christmas album. You know, that left me tongue-tied. I mean, we shoulda done one of those. We’d have knocked The Little Drummer Boy out of the ballpark. And Mick was born to sing O Little Town Of Bethlehem, don’t cha think?”

“See you soon, Keith,” I said.

The Chanukah dinner over, and Keith’s tuches looking not the least bit rock star-ish, we three retired to the living room. A Scrabble board was open on the cocktail table. We were about to start the game when, incredibly, the roof of the house shook, startling the crap out of all of us. And only 15 seconds later a lot of frantic words began to emanate from the direction of the fireplace.

“Help! I’m stuck! Give a guy a hand, you nitwits,” said the shouter, who was dangling headfirst from the bottom of the chimney. Needless to say, it was Santa Claus. He and I had bonded last year (click here), so I can’t say I was surprised to see him again. Sandy, Keith and I moseyed to the fireplace and pulled the portly gent out.

“Hello, Santa. Great to see you. What gives? Christmas Eve isn’t for another five days,” I said. “Not to mention, in case you forgot, that Christmas isn’t my holiday.”

Santa Claus shot an exasperated look my way. “I know that,” he grunted at me. Then he presented a nice and warm “Hello, Sandy” to my wife and did a double take when he saw our guest.

“Santa, Keith. Keith, Santa,” I said by way of introduction.

“A pleasure, my man,” said Keith, extending his right hand.

Santa grasped it immediately and said to Keith, “What in the world are you doing here?”

“Huh? Ya know who I am, Santa? I wouldn’t have expected that.”

“Are you kidding? Of course I know who you are. Where do you think I live? Siberia? On those long sleigh rides I’m famous for, I’ve got Beggars Banquet and Exile On Main Street playing on repeat on my iPod. I’d never be able to complete my rounds if it wasn’t for you and your bandmates. How’s Mick, by the way? Any chance he’d consider teaching me how to dance? That boy’s got more good moves than Bobby Fischer.”

I glanced at Keith and could tell that he didn’t want to break the news to Santa that the chess champ Fischer is long gone.

“So, what brings you this way, Santa?” I asked. “Do you need some cheering up, just like you did last year?”

“I do, Neil, I do. But I’ve got a more pressing problem that I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me with. Bringing toys to millions of children isn’t easy. The average Jill or Joe wouldn’t in a million years be able to handle my job. But I’m not getting any younger, as the saying goes, and I really and truly could use a helping hand. Neil, if you’ve got nothing better to do on Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning, how’s about you join me in my sleigh and pitch in with the deliveries? That would be heartily appreciated.” And Santa then let rip a “ho, ho, ho” for the ages.

I didn’t want to let Santa down. But what could I do? Sandy and I would be flying south on the 24th for a six-day vacation in Jamaica. I explained the situation, and Santa, though disappointed, seemed to accept it.

“Oh well, just thought I’d ask. You and I got along so well last year, I couldn’t think of a better companion than you for the upcoming big night. No worries. I’ll get by.”

That’s when Keith Richards, who’d been listening to the conversation with mouth agape, placed his hands on Santa’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes.

“Santa Claus,” Keith said, “there is no doubt in my mind that cosmic forces of an extraordinarily wonderful essence are at play here. They brought us together in this unlikely spot tonight, and the reason is obvious.” I kind of swooned at Keith’s unexpected eloquence.

“Santa,” he continued, “you’re lookin’ at your man. I’m a fountain of energy. I’m skinny, so droppin’ down chimneys will be a breeze for me. Don’t worry about my expanded tuches, by the way. It will be back to normal size in 48 hours. And I love to deliver goods. I’ve been deliverin’ the goods all my life. Where, and at what time, do ya want to meet on Christmas Eve?”

Well, ye of good spirits, little more needs to be said. A relative handful of hours after I publish this story, a Stone shall be flying through the air, out of the media spotlight while performing his mission and happy as a lark. Christmas 2017 will go down in history as indescribably remarkable. Who’d ever have thunk it?

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks.)