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!”

“Halfway.”

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.)

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One More Look At 2017 Before It’s Gone

It’s now 7:20 on a Wednesday morning as I sit my ass down to type this little opus. It will be my final post for the year during which Donnie Trump first sat his ass down behind the desk in the Oval Office. His ass, unlike mine, is fat. And he, unlike me, is nasty, intolerant and a pathological liar. Just sayin’.

“Hey, Neil,” my wife Sandy, who is staring over my shoulders at the computer screen as I peck away, said two seconds ago, “I thought you weren’t going to talk about Trump in this essay.”

Well, she’s right. He’s depressing. Maybe I’ll turn my attention to other topics, such as Yemen and Myanmar (the former Burma). Wait — am I nuts? The horrors going on in those regions are immense. Talk about depressing. I tell you, I’ll never understand what the story is with the human race. Actually, I do understand. Bottom line is that scads of people just don’t like scads of their fellow women and men. Never have. Never will.

“What are you doing, Neil?” Sandy just asked. “You told me 15 minutes ago that you were going to keep this story light. You know, like all the other disposable, puffy pieces that you’re known for churning out. Get back on track, boy! You’re out of your realm right now.”

Thank goodness I’m married. Okay, Sandy, let me see what I can do. Enough about Trump and hatred. Hmmm, an end-of-year story should offer some words of wisdom, shouldn’t it? Wouldn’t hurt. And though I’ve always been more than a bit low in the wisdom department, I did have a good thought or two in a recent article. Here’s what I said: “ . . . if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that being friendly to people right and left is the way to go. It won’t kill you. Or so I’m told.” Imagine that — me quoting me! There’s a first time for everything. Or so I’m told.

Moving right along, folks, I might do well to mention a whole lot of things that satisfactorily filled my well during 2017, excluding those I’ve previously oohed and aahed about on these pages. But to avoid being at my keyboard for the next three days I’m going to forget about a whole lot of things and limit myself to only two. Which two shall it be? Ah, yes . . .

Number one: If you want to dive into a better than average novel, may I suggest you glue your eyes to Perfume River, which came out in 2016. Robert Olen Butler, an acclaimed author whom I basically knew nothing about before almost randomly pulling Perfume River off a local library’s shelf a few weeks ago, penned the graceful volume. The book’s narrative floats easily between the near-present and the Vietnam War eras. That war impacted the lives of the Quinlan family in mega-blast ways. The book examines their plights, the decisions that brought them to where they are, and the secrets they hold from one another and, in truth, from themselves. What insights into their own makeups and into those of others are people able to gain as the years elapse? Perfume River is where to look to find a number of delicately-threaded answers to that question.

Mbongwana Star at Abington Art Center

Number two: Do you enjoy exuberant, scarily good music? Then go to see Mbongwana Star, the band from the Democratic Republic Of The Congo that melds African melodies and rhythms with blazing rock and roll. Your chances of ever catching them, though, aren’t large. The band does tour, but not all that much. That I was in their presence over the summer is, to me, rather miraculous. And their performance was, by a reeeeally wide margin, the best I took in during this expiring year.

I’d never have been at their concert were it not for Later . . . With Jools Holland, probably the best music show on television. In the early months of 2017 I caught a repeat episode (from 2015) of Later, which is taped in Great Britain, and was floored by one of the bands appearing on it. Mbongwana Star, needless to say. Their name stayed with me as the months passed. And that is why I nearly fell off my living room sofa when, in June, I saw on Abington Art Center’s website that Star was scheduled to perform on the center’s lush, rolling lawn the following month. How was this possible? How had the center even known about this band? Whatever, I wasn’t complaining. I was exalting. Abington Art Center, in the Philadelphia suburbs, is only three miles from my house.

This show was to be among Star’s final on foreign shores for 2017. Sandy and I arrived early, grabbed a good spot on the lawn for our folding chairs, and waited for the group to come on.

Well, unstoppable, roaring power blasted from the stage from the opening notes. No ballads for Mbongwana Star. Rarely do I rise from my chair at concerts to boogie, but boogie I did, heading down to within 15 feet of the stage and kicking out the jams in my inimitably nerdy, old-guy manner. It was fun of the highest order. Here’s a video of the band playing in Europe in 2015:

Besides Star’s incredible musicianship, the astounding thing to me was that two of the performers, both of whom are vocalists, are in wheelchairs, victims of childhood polio. And yet these gentlemen, dealing with profound problems, are able to celebrate magnificently through their music. Some remarkable people are on our planet, and Theo Nzonza and Coco Ngambali are among them.

Like I said, I’m limiting myself to only two items. And (sometimes) I’m a man of my word. Thankfully, this article has manifested itself fairly fluidly, rather than in the fits and starts that are common for most of the pieces that I write. I take that as a good sign. And so, I now shall conclude the proceedings by wishing one and all a safe, happy and healthy 2018. A relative smattering of hours after I hit the Publish button for this story, Sandy and I possibly will be at Penn’s Landing, part of Philadelphia’s waterfront. If we’re there, we’ll gape at the fireworks being launched in the middle of the Delaware River. We’ve ushered in many previous New Years precisely like that. Let there be light.

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