Friday, June 8, 2018

U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 2018

Ensign Braden Nelligan and President Donald Trump

One year ago I attended the Faber College commencement for Nellie Junior, at which the speaker informed the crowd that “If you were born a straight white male, well, congratulations, you hit the jackpot.” At the time, I immediately thought of my old man, who at age 15, was hauling ore in a Union Carbide vanadium mine underneath the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “Gosh, Dad,” I mused, “You never knew how good you had it.”

However, the thoughtful female Nigerian poet hadn’t even hit stride: “If you are a white woman, you are privileged because you are white.”  C’mon sister!  Perhaps at a celebratory event at an elite school, it verges on psychotic to denigrate 60 percent of your audience – you know, those privileged sad sacks who keep the school financially secure so that the oppressed can attend.  Nah.  The remaining 40 percent seem to nod vigorously while the colorful Third World shawls and scarves worn over traditional black gowns flutter in the carnival atmosphere. Now I know full well this “courageous” woman is entitled to freely her speak her opinions – after all, this is America. Not Nigeria. 

With that fatuous, comic nightmare a year old and the serious kids like mine and his pals heading off to old-fashioned work and paychecks, this year I attended another commencement, for Little Nellie, at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis.

Coincidentally, like my old man, the speaker’s Dad had started as another one of those jackpot-winning laborers; unlike Nellie Sr., he ascended to astronomical success.

President Trump spoke to the United States Naval Academy Class of 2018 and it was all that could be hoped for – that is, by the Midshipman and parents of Midshipmen who had seen their kids endure four years of military discipline, barracks life, tough physical tests, three summers away at sea, and mandatory softball courses like Electrical Engineering, Calculus, Thermodynamics, and Chemistry.  Seventy five percent of my middle son’s class (including him) are STEM majors. No B.A.s in Dance or Latino Studies or Gender & Sexuality. Or Poetry, alas. 

President Trump talked about “the path of hard work and sweat and sacrifice….the word impossible does not exist, because the Navy never quits.  You don’t give up. You don’t give in. You don’t back down. And you never surrender. Wherever you go, wherever you serve, wherever your mission takes you, you only have one word in mind, and that’s victory. That is why you are here. Victory. You are now leaders in the most powerful and righteous force on the face of the planet.” Bombast to be sure, but then again, even if you dislike him intensely, he didn’t insult his audience. And I don’t think he said, “I was also writing short stories and sending them out to journals.”  

Both at Faber and USNA, the brainpower is acute, but perhaps the rigor debatable. Approximately 13 percent of my kid’s class was forced out in the years following Day 1 of Plebe Summer. At Faber, if you get in, you stay in – the only way you leave is if you knock down a faux shantytown constructed by some kid wearing a guitar or if you fail to appear at an OWS rally.

Nevertheless, the intellects and ambitions do intersect. While it seems an increasing number of Faber kids opt for exploring their “creativity,” asking what this artistically starved nation can do for them, many of the Faber kids go on to use their privilege in finance and law and medicine to add value and economic vitality to the national engine. How do I know this?  The Faber Board helps manage a whopping $2.3 billion endowment, which I guarantee you is run by those “jackpot guys” whose sweat and skills allow the social justice warrior grads to stand on shores pleading for the oceans to recede all the while giving voices to the voiceless.

The Annapolis grads enter into a different realm. They are all almost immediately responsible for the welfare and lives of thousands of sailors and Marines and untold millions of dollars of equipment, some of it lethal. No time for performance art, comrade, when you’re sitting atop ordnance that can reduce a thousand voiceless bad guys and their shrines to ashes in a righteous instant.

What’s so compelling is that given these two institutions represent the extremes, their commencements represent the tenor of the times. At Faber, for an immigrant, no less from a flailing state (goodness, you cannot make this stuff up), it’s all about the introspection, the self-absorption - this desperately flawed nation the graduates are forced into; the recitation of a laundry list of all the tired and reflexive tropes – social validation, gender injustice, those without voices, evil privilege, and oh yeah, “calling your elected officials” – it’s the faculty lounge in full grievance mode. A majority of the crowd endures the “dialogue” with the stoic condescension it deserves.

At the Naval Academy, the language is swaggering bravado for certain, but it’s also resolute, confident, uplifting; it recalls heritage and sacrifice and heroism and a genuine acknowledgement of what the Midshipman have accomplished and a reminder of the responsibilities they will soon confront all over the globe.   

Our Faber speaker, in an incredible turnaround almost completely indicting her past ramblings, closes with a quote not from Maya Angelou or Gabriela Mistral, but from a 19th Century paragon of white female privilege, Emily Dickinson: “`Hope is a thing with feathers.’  It makes me imagine hope as something both breakable and forceful.” C'mon sister! The eye-rolling is palpable as this tepid charge to the graduates echoes around the now half-full venue.

In Annapolis, it’s pure sound and fury: “You’re among the finest people anywhere in the world, the smartest, the strongest. You know you will make us proud. You are warriors. You are fighters. You are champions!”

And instead of feathers, all we get is the force of the Blue Angels blasting over the crowd at 300 mph, with yes, the woke sound of freedom.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Faber College, Class of 2017

Annapolis, Maryland - A few months shy of four years ago, I summoned the pretention to post a blawg (“Priceless Advice”) about Nellie Junior and his impending departure for university. This was 2013, a perfect time, such as with any period during the past eight years or so, to examine a lot of depressing economic facts, of which the piece was chock full. C’mon man, this was three years after Recovery Summer, donchaknow! Junior, like Senior, is a pretty loose guy and so we yukked it up about what the future would hold for him and then I said, “Hey chief, check back with the old man in four years.  Take it easy and remember, it’s all about the green.” And that was that. 

In the intervening years, the middle son left for a nearby maritime institution and the youngest is soon headed off to attend a similar organization, beginning with a summer patrolling jungles and firing weapons. I call it the real world “Call of Duty,” the faux-world COD being one at which a sizable percentage of millennials are really skilled because they play it in their parents’ basement. All day. And oh yeah, that percentage grew 8 percent during the last four years. No green there.

As a man who knows his limitations, I had only two pieces of advice for Junior when he left for Faber College: 1. “There are more important things than grades” (and yes, I almost added “like winning the Caddie Tournament.”). 2. “Don’t even think about coming home with a degree in Psychology unless you want to be serving me eggs and joe in the local diner when you’re 30 – and getting expert at COD.”    

Yeah, subtle Dad.  On 1: I didn’t want him to have a psychotic focus on his GPA and incessant worry about academics. Rather, I wanted him to make solid friendships, enjoy playing NCAA lacrosse, and develop a plan for a lucrative career.  On 2. I wanted him to eschew any major involved with “helping people” and instead, drive hard at what would help him. 

In addition, I advised him to distance himself from a certain, clannish group on campus, for whom the greatest skepticism should be shown.

“You will be,” I intoned, “in the presence of many people who received very good grades, but have never lived a moment in the every-day, rough-and-tumble of life and hence, have little idea how the real world actually operates. They are called," and here I grimaced and then said with mild dismay, "'Professors.’”

Now, at the end of four years, it’s quite clear Junior followed through on most of the old man’s priceless advice. He has a legion of friends in the BA category, played through four good lax seasons on the fields of glory, and developed a skill held by darn few Caucasian kids worldwide.  There remained one last challenge: Graduation and the Commencement-Day addresses.

I attended the event and first up were the student speakers – the screeching echoes still assault the ears. ‘….racism…sexism…xenophobism…glaciers…” and my fave gem from a kid, “…the one percent, like, control, like, everything!”  It’s sophomoric stuff that you hear from a surprising number of adults, and yet these kids are just entering adulthood and isn’t it so, like, cool that in order to come up with these, like, wise musings, they’ve been forced to live in a country club-like setting for four years?!  There’s no doubt where these students are headed: Performance art studios, arctic elk non-profits, and poetry slams. 

But alas, I hear all three are crowded “spaces.”

Then there was the outside Commencement speaker – a real dreamboat. Hey, can I even say that?!  She’s an “activist/writer/artist – a creativist.” Better yet, she also moonlights as a “public intellectual” from a “courageous” Third World nation which, as no less than The New Yorker Magazine informs, hosts the largest city in the world with no central sewer or water system.

I learned a lot from this “public intellectual” because she told me herself she was going to engage me in a “dialogue.”  She should know - it is after all, a thinking "persyn's" world, certainly not a world where drones - such as the audience of parents - have to show up, hustle, and sweat out real jobs, day after month after years for decades. We  hapless breadwinners were simply enthralled with the exhortations about inequality and global climate cooling change warming and multiculturalism and tolerance and the need for cross-hybrid gender rapprochement and transcultural synergies and before I leave, you can bet I’m gonna check my privilege. And goodness, I know darn well that it takes a village – just give me one with plumbing.

What’s so rich is that this is the same jive I heard three decades ago when I graduated from Faber and had an obscure United Nations’ bureaucrat as a Commencement speaker, yelling at us about American capitalism and imperialism. "That fellow seemed rather sold on himself,” observed my calm, mild-mannered father, who was in attendance.  Yep, Dad - a self-made man who at age 18 took part in the invasion of Okinawa and later spent five months patrolling the streets of Tokyo as part of the occupation force, even as the UN was being formed in San Francisco.  Hey, who knew?! My laid-back old man - both a capitalist and an imperialist!

I wish Faber had called in Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs or Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, who once said in exquisite capitalist fashion, “In dealing with poverty here and around the world, welfare and foreign aid are a band aid. Free enterprise is the cure.”

Wait a minute, that wasn’t Dimon. It was Bono.  In the same month and year I
penned my first pre-Faber blawg to Junior.   

But Faber doesn’t get Bono, and doesn’t even get Dimon or Blankfein. But we did get holistic appeals to our guilt-ridden Ids.  Ich bin ein bedauerlich.

Nellie Junior is immune to these appalling lectures.  He majored in Chinese, is fluent in Mandarin, and spent last summer working on IPOs in Hong Kong.  He rolls on to finance, his middle brother boards a guided missile cruiser, and his youngest brother heads off to the delightfully named “Beast Summer.” Wow, just think of it: From Grandfather to Father to Sons – Nelligan men in this new generation boast one capitalist and two future imperialists! No creativists! Darn! But then again, this is America, where we have water systems, and where all non-creativists are quietly absorbed in a “work ethic.”

Today, as yesterdays four years ago, I only have two pieces of advice for Junior as he heads off to Taipei.  “First, gao fu schuai, there are more important things than dialogues. And second, don’t even think about coming home unless you have a cool ten million in green to show the old man.”

Priceless advice, indeed.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

40 years one night

“The Wild Bunch is gonna ride tonight,” said my old basketball pal, Jeff Wise. I nodded in agreement as we sat shoulder-to-shoulder on chairs in the Woodland Hills (CA) Hilton ballroom. Because only he and I knew what that meant.

Thomas Wolfe once famously wrote that you can’t go home again. Of course, for him, home was some poverty-stricken Tobacco Road affair in Asheville, where everyone was either blasted by noon or jobless, or both.  

Not so for me, Tommy-boy.  Because I was home again: Wise and I were surveying the El Camino Real High School Class of 1976’s 40th Reunion. 

The high school reunion is American folklore, truly the go-home-again scene writ large. Big minds like Wolfe can wrestle with the agonized gestalt of youth; small minds like Nellie can revel in seeing the pals with whom formative, important years were spent.

I had two basic groups of friends in high school – determined jocks and student council brainiacs. I was mediocre at the former and not smart enough for the latter. Hence, I learned a lot from both, for which my gratitude will never end.

For my athlete pals, I start with the tallest:  At 6' 8", Big Al Kennedy, former San Francisco 49er, winner of two Super Bowl rings, now running a large Bay Area security company. Matt Staker, Best Man for the groom in "My Fair Brady" (Chris Knight a.k.a. Peter Brady was a classmate) and a longtime computer company executive. Kurt Vetter, a fast-mover with Coca-Cola and now President of an international food company whose products I guarantee you have in your kitchen. Jim Benkert, one of the winningest high school football coaches in California history, with four state title teams. Roger Lang, former UCLA baseball scholarship man and AT&T executive. And, my Wild Bunch comrade Wise, a well-known Northern California teacher, coach and athletic director.

In minutes, we all dispense with the trivialities like careers and kids and move onto the important stuff. “Vetter was always bummed that season because we couldn’t get past Canoga High”....“Matt started Varsity in 11th grade after getting no PT on BEEs”....“In the Taft game, Benkert body-slammed Fisher (Jeff Fisher, now head coach of the L.A. Rams)....“Roger had that future NBA guy one-on-one with rest of us in the box defense on the corners”..."Check out Al's rings..."

After every season had been rehashed, I head over to the student government table. Emphatically, I tell the wife of Mark Pearl, a onetime neighbor: “Your husband, Futterman, Zipperstein and Shapiro were the smartest guys in the class.” I subsequently learn that ole Zip is a General Counsel for a Fortune 20 company, and Futterman and Shapiro are big-time attorneys in the Bay Area. Then she tells me her and Mark’s son was valedictorian of his high school class. “See, told you I was right!” I say smugly.

On to the “girls,” now women. I tell them all that I had a crush on all of them in 10th grade but was too much of a geek to pursue any of it further. “You weren’t a geek,” they assure me with no enthusiasm and then ask what I’ve been doing in my career. Ascertaining the political winds in the room, I tell them the truth. “I’ve worked for the Evil Party for thirty years” and then I pause dramatically. “But I’m better now.” They nod approvingly and I slide on. Why upset anyone unnecessarily?

The disc jockey – they are now called “DJs” for your information - is "spinning" groups like Chicago, Neil Diamond, Van Halen, and Elton John.  I shudder as I see people dancing.

One kind soul asks me if I have any kids. “Yes,” I say brightly, “Three sons and two have cleared parole.”  Between the throwback Van Halen and the crowd noise, maybe she doesn’t hear me. “That’s nice,” she responds and drifts away.

I always have had a good mind for numbers (though don’t ask Staker and Geoff Horn how we gamed Mr. Reedy’s 11th grade Geometry class;  no wonder I’ll never be Senate confirmable). So I tell the nine athletes at my table what their jersey numbers were in 11th grade. This turns out to be my sole original contribution to the evening.

I understand quite well high school is a super-charged environment in a long life that can be awfully benign, and perhaps I’m unusual that my experience was truly good - except then I glance at my athlete and student council pals. Like them, I had a lot of friends, I was too nervous to get in trouble, I was around guys and girls who were motivated and resilient, and not much of this good fortune ever wore off. I look at these individuals now – many virtually unchanged in appearance and every one of them solid contributors to the great machinery of American society.

Near the end of the evening, I’m with Wise and he confides, “The Wild Bench went out in style, that’s for sure.” He’s right.

It was February 8, 1976, El Camino Real High versus Jefferson High in the Los Angeles City Playoffs.  Wise and I were, in fact, the sole members of the Wild Bunch. It was our self-proclaimed nickname, gleefully familiar to every kid in the school. Because when the Wild Bunch got in a game, everyone knew that game was out of control.

El Camino was behind by 20 points with 50 seconds left when suddenly, Wise and I were thrust onto the floor by our mournful coach. Dribbling, Wise bounced the ball off his knee, it caroomed to me, and he got an assist when I lofted a crazy, off-balance jump shot (two of my four points for the entire season). The El Camino crowd erupted in good-natured laughs and cheers, as though we were up by 20. Take that, Wolfe-man.

Wise kind of muses, “Nellie, I remember that game and man, it just doesn’t seem that long ago.” Looking back 40 years over a room full of once-inseparable friends, I too recalled the game and the lockers slamming in the gym and the school bells and the books thumping shut and the joke sessions at lunch and the yells across the football field and all the years of success and shortcomings and general prevailing.

I paused and then replied, “It wasn’t.”  
  The Wild Bunch flanked by real basketball players.

                                                           (Vetter, Nelligan, Wise, Lang)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Nellie's NCAA Way: Getting Your Kid Recruited For College Sports


Washington, D.C. -- A lot of Dads have sons who are good – maybe very good – at a particular sport. Some are great. Moreover, many of these athletes don’t want their athletic careers to end after the last whistle in high school.  

I had two sons like that.  One now plays NCAA Division III lacrosse. The other was recruited in two sports (football and lacrosse) by a dozen D-III schools. He instead attended a Division I school where he tried out as a long-snapper for the football team and got cut. Yeah, that’s how it goes sometimes and it was tough as hell on both of us. But he's still damn happy at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Hence, during the past four years – and now picking up again with my 11th grade son – I have been closely involved with the college athletics recruiting process. It may appear to be daunting and complex, but here’s the surprise:  it’s not.  Rather, assuming your kid is determined and resilient, and you are as well, the process involves old-fashioned research, a lot of proactive legwork and follow-through, and decision-making.

How did I learn this?  Typical plodding Nellie:  Four years ago, I sought the advice of Dads whose kids had been through the recruiting process. I called and met with a range of current and former college athletes and guys who knew college sports; I read a ton of material on recruiting and I put together a basic plan.  It wasn’t perfect, but it got my sons the attention they sought.   And here it is:

1.    Skill Expectation: This is the honesty part: Simply put, how good is your kid at his sport?  The NCAA is comprised of three Divisions - I, II, and III – corresponding to the level of competition. As a Dad, you need to frankly discuss with your son where his skills fit within this hierarchy. And it shouldn’t be hard: A good athlete gets that way by being aware of his capabilities and those of his peers. Be alert, however: Yes, your son may be truly gifted, Division 1 material, but rarely leave the bench in four years.  At a D-II or D-III school, he may start every game. Once you and your son have established where he fits in these unforgiving Division categories, time to move on.

2.    Geographic Location: Where does your son want to be? This is easy. Ask him. Does he want a big university or small college?  Urban or suburban? A school in the South, the West, New England, the Middle West? Warm climate or one with seasons?  Close to home, kinda close, or wwayyy away from home?  “I don’t know” is not an answer.  Discuss at length with him what he wants – drive him to schools close to you. Walk around and introduce yourself to students and adults you see.  You can’t afford to be shy – hey, this is your son’s future you’re dealing with here.  There are approximately 2,170 colleges and universities in the United States, of which there are athletic programs at 442 Division III, 302 D-II, and 335 D-1 schools. There are more than enough choices. Choose and decide, don’t equivocate.

3.    Academic Interest:  What does your son want to study?  Trust me when I say this is secondary. Because unless you have a single-minded kid who wanted to be a doctor or a businessman or a pilot since age 7, this is probably unanswerable.  The fact is, most kids don’t know what they want to do until they actually get on a campus with other kids, take classes, and find out what they like and at what they excel.  If he has a general idea, then factor that into the equation.

These are the first, basic steps. Now comes the mechanics:

4.    Using the criteria above, sit down with your son in total seclusion – I mean no phones allowed or distractions whatsoever – in front of a computer screen and search for 15 to 20 schools that match the criteria above (Here’s a tip: Start with your son’s sport, and punch in NCAA Division III).  Full disclosure: This may not sound original, but it is the only way to get a sense of an academic institution outside of driving yourself nuts driving around the nation. Start with colleges you know, those that are close, and those that you’ve heard of.  Look over every webpage of these college sites. Get a sense of the place, take written notes.  Repeat: Total isolation – no devices and interruptions.  As well, seek out individuals whom you respect and admire and ask them about their college experiences – they’ll have invaluable advice. 

5.    Review the team pages for the relevant sport at each of the schools in which your son is interested.  Examine the rosters: Where do the kids come from? Competitive high schools?  Geographic distribution of the players?  What are the sizes of the kids?  What are the coaches’ backgrounds? How long have they been there? What’s the team record during the past five years? What kind of athletic facilities? What’s the conference like? What kinds of schools does it contain?

6.    Now apply Nellie’s "Broken Leg Theory.” If your son breaks his leg in spring practice or slipping in the dining hall and is finished with sports, does he still want to be at that school?  

7.    Next: Email the coaches. Send along a highlights film and or statisticcs for sports that don’t lend themselves to film.  Send a one-page “Fact Sheet” on which are the following: GPA, test scores, classes taken last semester, classes for the current semester, your son’s size, 40-dash time where relevant, brief description of positions played, other sports played, records if team is a winner, any athletic honors and any extracurricular activities. 

8.    Bonus round:  If your club team or high school team goes to tourneys, list those on the Fact Sheet. The same with sports camps you attended.  If you are at tourneys or camps and you happen to see a college coach, have your kid - not you! - introduce himself.

9.    If your aim is true based on your son’s skills, you’ll get responses back from coaches.  If not, don’t worry – do a Round II of searching.

The key, as I said in the beginning, is to be proactive, constantly reaching out and then following through.  If your kid is a superstar, coaches will call him. But there aren’t that many superstars.  I know - my sons weren’t.  The Dads and kids who succeed in this process are the ones who grind it out, day after day, never missing an opportunity at promotion.  Moreover, it’s wise to print and catalog the emails and responses and all other notes and documents, placing all as a measure of progress in a three-ring binder. If you're diligent, it will be two binders.

When to start?  If you and your kid are serious, start the summer after his sophomore year. Don’t worry about scholarships – they are few and far between for those at the D-1 level, funds are only partial at the D-II level, and they are nonexistent for sports at the D-III level.

If you have any questions, just email me ( ).  I’ve been through this twice. Yep, I made some errors - some were embarrassing to me personally and were a result of being a rookie and being too aggressive.  But hey, when you are in contact with a cumulative 53 schools, you're going to make mistakes. I'd rather be shot down than miss an opportunity.  

The success the boys had was based on their athletic abilities and academic consistency, and most importantly, because of their follow through and desire to play beyond high school.

Sports as a profession is not going to lead anywhere for 99.9 percent of high school athletes.  But athletics of any kind places your son in a situation of camaraderie and competition, from which he learns resilience, drive, and ambition.  Those are the qualities can’t be taught in a college classroom, but will be the most important qualities your son can ever possess.