Tuesday, December 9, 2008

All About....

(Above: In keeping with his sense of fair play, Nellie takes it to the goal on barefoot 12-year old kid at Bordley Field, Landon School, in Bethesda, Maryland.)
“The thing is, Betty, I’m not into this for me. No way. Sports is all about what the boys want – it’s what they feel comfortable with.” The woman with whom I’m speaking on the sideline clucks appreciatively at my magnanimity and balanced outlook on kids’ athletics.

Of course, its Nellie talking so you know there’s a catch. In fact, it is All About Me. Every league, every practice, every game, every piece of equipment, every day. Why look -- I’m chatting up this mother at the famed Fairfax FallBrawl Lacrosse Tournament. It’s 22 degrees outside at 8 a.m., and I’ve got two sons in two different divisions playing all day. “I don’t care how cold it is! I want to see you jack up some people!” I tell them with fatherly calm during the dawn ride to the fields.

Harsh, eh? The boys know that maybe I’m kidding. But they certainly know that I have a relentless belief in kid’s athletics and team sports. I’ve seen what both have done for the men and women I most admire and respect.

Lacrosse, as it happens, provides a perfect example of the lifetime edge that sports confer. First, a kid builds true confidence in gaining athleticism, catching and throwing a small ball while on the run and getting pounded. There’s the instant decision-making, the physical endurance, all translating into a mental toughness. There is the extraordinary camaraderie: You have to get along with the good guys – and the knuckleheads. You have to strain to keep up, obey a coach. And the coaches are, for the most part, rough-hewn, stern and demanding. There is no relativism in lacrosse (or in most serious sports); no political correctness about “Everyone has fun! And everyone plays!,” no "be nice to Billie" smarminess, and no darn "snacks." Each kid endures 30 to 40 collisions in a raw, hard, fast game and it builds, like many sports, a self-confident attitude and paradoxically, selflessness.

And, like an astonishing number of parents, I practice what I preach. In 2008, the three Nelligan boys played in 28 different leagues spanning five sports – football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and lacrosse. We’re talking more than 230 games and meets, and that’s a lowball figure because all three are very good at lax and thus went into post-season and post-tournament play at least half a dozen times. Not that I’m counting or anything.

Or that I boast or anything – like about Darby, in his flag football league playing quarterback and calling plays, facing off every game, unbelievably, against some parent who insists on playing permanent QB for the other team. Hey, suit yourself, Suburban Joe Farve.

And if lacrosse is emblematic of the priceless lessons of sports, the FallBrawl is emblematic of the lax world. More than 90 teams come from all over the Mid-Atlantic. Braden’s team grabs first in its division, Devlin’s team gets third place. Braden is a tough guy, plays defense and puts more than several kids on the ground. Once he gets his stick under a player's arms and rips upward, sending the kid’s stick spinning end over end into the sky. “That’s what I mean, Brady boy!” I shriek. Dev is a finesse guy, gets assists and scores a couple goals, one shot bouncing into the bottom corner of the goal as Dev dives past a defenseman. “Princeton here you come, buddy” I whisper under my breath. Ah yes, the endless fantasies of a father.

Yeah, all these teams and sports require driving and games and practices. And, most important: Time. But what else are the three sons going to do with their Time? Listen to Nickleback while playing X-Box and text messaging on their cell phones? Since all three have none of that gear per Nellie edict, we’ll just leave that scene to the kids who are growing up to be IT professionals and will make tons of dough. My kids are going to focus on sports to the detriment of everything else and matriculate to an obscure Division III school, sit on the bench, and major in Sociology. Like dad.

When the championship series ends at dusk and we jump in the car to ride home, the sons are wiped out but exuberant -- 14 solid games between them, fired up by being with their closest friends, all that adrenaline and movement, sweaty, bruised, cuts on their legs, and two trophies.

We’re pulling out of the parking lot with a phalanx of other cars and the windshield wipers have frost on them and my breath is condensing in white clouds on the inside of the car window. Suddenly, Dev says with near alarm, “Dad, weren’t you cold watching the games all day?” “Are you kidding me?” I reply with disbelief. “I was watching you and Braden light it up out there. I didn’t notice anything else, pal.” Yeah, all about me, indeed.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Fixer

The request was simple, tersely delivered. “We need him back in the building at 1.”

“Will do,” was my terse response.

It was a meeting my boss was giving to a group of non-profit folks – each individual imbued with some ideals, genuine smarts, political skills, and whole lot of gabbiness. My mission: keep him on time, away from the gabbmeisters, and steer him through the labyrinth hotel hallways to the front door and into the car and back to the bureaucratic mother ship.

Hence, in bright lights, the one skill I’ve developed in my long political lifetime – aide-de-camp, special assistant, bagman, guy in a dark suit, white shirt, and rep tie. The Fixer.

Even since I came to Washington, I’ve been lucky to work for powerful and prominent people. You've seen me -- I’m the guy that is always with Him or Her wherever He or She might be, ensuring that they have the correct speech, the special award to be presented, the phonetic spelling of “Adznanyvir Schlappaduchesski” on a note card, checking to ensure the principal doesn’t get lost or stolen and gets what they want, no matter how outrageous. Today, it’s called “staffing” someone. Well, to me a “staffer” is some brainiac geek who carries around bulging binders and knows the details of Section IV, subparagraph 2 of the Hopelessly Complex Legislative Act of 2005.

No genius, I, my friends. Instead, I’m the Fixer. In fact, I tried to explain it my parents once, as they saw no relationship between the Fixer and a high-priced education. “You mean you carry notebooks and coffee cups and what not?!” my mother said incredulously. “That’s what the Fixer does,” I said robotically. “He fixes things.” “Coffee cups?” she repeated in a daze.

Tallinn, Estonia: It’s near midnight in a bleak, barely functioning ex-Soviet state. “Hmmmm,” says my boss, a regal Deputy Secretary of State in charge of foreign aid, “I think it would be grand and gracious to honor Prime Minister Grmylbk’s wife with a bouquet of 100 splendid flowers to symbolize the next 100 years of harmony between Estonia and America." I don’t even blink. “Check.”

Next thing you know, I’m hustling off into the shadows of a deserted street after whispered conversations with a greasy concierge and a cop, brand new US dollars are flashed, there’s a cab ride halfway to Latvia, a greenhouse run by a World War II German generator, a screaming ride back to town, and I’m in the hotel lobby with two huge bunches of fresh flowers at 7:30 a.m.. “Here you go, sir.” “I thank you for your prodigious efforts.”

This skill was honed at an early age. I distinctly recall an incident when I was 7-years-old; my father, a gracious guy, was being given the hard sell by some earnest furniture salesman. The guy was talking bonus this, half-price that. My father looked pained as he listened to the shtick. I instinctively knew what to do: I grabbed my dad’s hand and urgently said, “Dad, can you take me to the bathroom? I really gotta go bad.” The salesman shot me a dirty look, my dad smiled with relief, and I realized a career was born.

House Floor, U.S. Capitol: The Member stands there clutching colored graph paper and rolled up survey maps, talking to my boss. “Chairman, I really need this project …local mayor’s banging on me…only 13 million bucks….improve a lot of lives…economic development…reelection..” “Sure, Joe. Give the info to Jeff here and he can follow up with your people.” The Fixer swings into action. “I’ll take that,” I say matter-of-factly, grabbing the paraphernalia out of the startled Member’s hands. “Now let me get with the Army Corps hydro team and run the numbers on the levee option.” The two happy men drift away and I’m left standing alone, with two of the maps slowly slipping out of my grasp and falling to the carpet.

It’s not that these men and women can’t fend for themselves – they can. It’s just that the demands on them are such that it’s better to save the important stuff for guys like me. I call it the Hierarchy of Needs: these folks are high on the hierarchy and the Fixer takes care of their needs, or something like that.

Downtown Washington, prestigious think tank: A speech given by my boss on the weighty subject of health care, the dire situation facing the country, the financial sacrifice, generations fighting one another for resources, poor people, sick kids, the whole ball of wax. Afterwards, my boss strides out, serious reporters from major national publications gather round for additional Wisdom and the air hangs heavy with Meaning. Before anyone can get a word out, some elderly guy in shorts, t-shirt and a ball cap darts in and says, “Hey there, fella. I hear you run that big agency. See, I’m having trouble getting someone there to pay for this chiropractor for my back pain and I bet you could call your boys in billing and—“

I know how to handle this guy. See, the Fixer has to come through in any situation, no matter if it’s Estonia or K Street. There are countless challenging circumstances and one must adapt with instinct and poise.

I step up to the senior and say, “Sir, let me help you with that” and try to outflank him from the reporters and my boss. He protests, “What do you know about it, son? You’re not on Medicare.” “But I will be someday,” says the Fixer cheerfully, taking the man’s shoulder and arm and gently steering him away from the crowd.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Day Without End

The announcement arrived in an email, fitting communication to a soulless drone glued to a screen in an office cube farm that stretched from Corridor G to Destiny. “Please join us in Take Our Daughters And Sons to Work Day!” Goodness. Finally the chance for my three sons to get a load of what the old man does every day of his moribund, monotonous life. In fact, I dimly recall this exercise in parental futility from last year. Back then, faceless human resource bureaucrats even gave us a check list to follow while emphasizing our career failings to our kids. Here’s what happened…

“On this day, children between the ages of 8 and 12 will visit the agency with their parent to learn about our work.”

“Boys,” I said in dramatic fashion as we sat in my workspace after lurching through an endless traffic jam of public servants, “My work is about changing the world. It’s all about thinking outside and inside the box, playing in the sandbox, expanding parameters, breaking templates, modeling models, framing frameworks, having dialogues with folks above my pay grade, singing off the same sheet of music, bringing my A game, taking it to the next level with my elevator speech, cross walking when I’m not partnering, and leveraging the metrics of everything I see. Now, hand me those rubber bands and paperclips – that’s right, next to the tape dispenser -- and I’ll show you how to make a catapult.”

“Explore with them the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for the future workforce.”

“Hey guys, here’s a skill.” I log onto my computer, whisper to them the secret Caddyshack password I use, and then when presented with a prompt screen, take a short cut to get to my Outlook email box, where there are no new messages for the day as of about 10:00 a.m. “Onwards, gents.” I take a bunch of papers that I haphazardly printed out, staple them together, and place in a wooden Out Box. ”What does that box mean, Dad?” says young Darby. “That means I’m done with that little project.” “What did it do?” he presses me. “Hell if I know,” I say distractedly, checking my empty email account once more.

"Expose the participants to an environment that values the balance of work and family life."

I expose the three to my workspace – they're crowded around my dingy desk in a cube with 6-foot high partitions. “Wow, Dad, you get to have carpet on your walls.” Yep, I tell them, one of the perks of being a key employee. The eldest, Dev, squeezes into a chair, Darby sits on the floor, and Braden crouches on the desk and peers over the low walls at my coworkers. I clear my throat and brush the glazed donut flakes off my tie. “Your dad is quite aware of the balance between work and family life and how the two intersect. For example, we play basketball all the time and I help coach your teams, right? So watch this,” and I wad up a piece of paper and shoot it at the waste can down the aisle outside my work area. It goes in. “See, just like at the gym or in the driveway, I can hit the 3-pointer here at work as well. Get it?”

"Showcase the abilities needed for the future workforce. "

I point to a stapler on my desk. “Dev!” I shout suddenly, “What do you do if that runs out of staples?!” He’s frozen in shock. “C’mon pal, you don’t have an hour to chew on this!” I shriek. “Call the stapler person?” he says hurriedly. ” Exactly, man! Good job.”

“The children will be able to shadow their parent and participate in other hands on and interactive activities."

When I hear the word interactive, I think one thing. So I take them to the copier room. “10 years ago, gents, this room was the nerve center of the modern office. If you had five copies of anything, you were a hero in a meeting. I know, because I often brought seven,” I say matter-of-factly. The boys stare uncertainly at the whirring machinery. “Now listen up, you rascals, because this is important. In the old days, you didn’t have machines that could collate. Can you say that word?” They repeat it with a vapidity that bolds well for following in Dad’s footsteps. I continue: “However, today, you can program the machine to actually staple individual copies together. It remains one of the major technological breakthroughs of our time.”

"The activities will reinforce the importance of education and preparation."

“Education and Preparation are important,” I tell the guys at about 3:30 p.m., reading from the Human Resources prepared statement. By now, all three sons are in daze from the office environment. As we review the day and the numerous coffee breaks, Braden notes, “Dad, you don’t even drink much coffee. You just sit around and chat with people.” “That’s right. It’s called workforce cohesion – everyone you see is in this long, tedious haul together.” “Maybe that’s why no one is smiling around here,” he says as he periodically peers over the partition walls. “Bingo, pal,” I answer.

The theme for this Day without End is “Making Choices for a Better World.” So as the wise father, I break it down for the boys. “My three loyal, optimistic, talented sons. Please look at your old man in his element here and then review all the choices you have before you. Make the right ones and you won’t have to bring my grandsons to this kind of world.”

Friday, February 29, 2008

Remembering WFB

There’s been a tidal wave of eloquent retrospectives on the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr. Bill McGurn, Peggy Noonan, George Will, Rick Brookhiser, Rich Lowry – folks who knew WFB as a person and as a gargantuan ideological force. Most of what's written about Buckley mentions his massive intellect, his reach, his transformative ideological power. Everything written about him notes the sheer number of lives and people he touched. Count me in as one.

I’d read “God and Man at Yale” while a freshman at UC Berkeley, a highly incongruous spot to read such a book. In fact, Cal could easily have been viewed as the cultural endgame of what WFB glimpsed at his alma mater in the late 1940s. No precocious intellectual I, I didn't get all of the book. But planted on the parade ground of liberalism extremis, I sure as heck understood enough.

I transferred to Williams College as a junior, figuring on a different milieu in traditional, staid New England. I was soon a bit surprised to see around campus and inculcated in many kids nearly the same Berkeley ethos I’d just left – the apartheid “shanty towns,” the rants about multinational corporations and and baby grey whale seals and pesticides and greed and pollution and "workers" and yes, a militant vegetarianism -- the whole liberal shopping cart. Compleing the farce was a political science department chairman who was a proud Communist, an Austrian who wore leggings and a mustache like Hindenburg's. It was All Too Much and the logical refuge was National Review and WFB.

Spring 1983 -- I was living at home with my affectionate but dangerously liberal parents. I was interviewing with the CIA, freelancing for Surfing and Surfer magazines, and playing in a band. On a whim, I wrote him WFB a letter, enclosing my clippings, including some articles I'd written for National Review, and noted that while I wasn't a supercharged intellect, I was a muscular Christian, a true believer, and oh yeah, I got things done. One May day, the phone rang and Pink Lady mother answered. It was WFB. He told me he had a small project that needed sheparding along and he asked if I'd like to take the post. Fully aware of the reigning ethos at my alma mater, WFB said, in that unique lilt, "Of course, you can ascertain I'm taking a chance on a Williams man."

He took the chance, I did the project, which later became a book -- "Right Minds: A Sourcebook of American Conservative Thought," polished and completed by a much abler mind than mine belonging to Gregory Wolfe. In one of the WFB reflections, Bill McGurn, presidential speechwriter, chief editorial writer of the Wall Street Journal, noted that he had been edited by both WFB and George Bush. That got me thinking – hey, your’s truly, a political lifer, many miles removed from a talent like McGurn, can say that I was one of the lucky ones to have my work edited by WFB. The fact is, I’ve saved every piece of copy of mine he commented upon in the margins.

Following the project, WFB's ensuing letter of recommendation was solid gold in my gaining two newspaper jobs as an editorial writer at daily newspapers (at the young age of 26, no less), and later when I sought work on Capitol Hill. In fact, the imprimatur of NR and of WFB has never left my career -- it is the post of which I am most proud, and which entertains the most interest from my fellow drones.

As then as now: I didn't have the guns to succeed in the literary arena, unlike the battalions of superb conservative writers that emerged from National Review. Instead of being a thought leader in the conservative movement, I became a sort of shop foreman: A journeyman journalist at two conservative papers and NR, a political appointee in two Republican administrations, and aide to two senior, conservative Republicans in Congress. Hey, the mountaintop thought leaders like the Buckleys and George Wills and Peggy Noonans and Bill McGurns of the world need mechanics like me to run the machinery.

Many people have recounted their memories of the man -- I was lucky to see him a lot the year I worked at the magazine -- I even dined along with him once as he discussed ideas about the Young Americans for Freedom.

And everyone talks about his kindness. As a junior magazine staffer, I was invited and went to his very tony Christmas party. A man brought his mentally disabled son to the event, a son who was mad about Bill. Standing close by in a living room (and I recall this all vividly), I saw the son come to the side of WFB, touch his sleeve, and interrupt a conversation WFB was having with a collection of men and women. WFB turned, instantly recognized the boy’s condition, smiled, said “Ah, hello, my friend,” and proceeded to talk to the boy for about 10 minutes, a very difficult conversation given the boys earnest, stumbling speech. I gazed at this in utter awe. I was only 24 at the time and kind of a rough-and-tumble guy, but the scene was so touching that then as now, I start to choke up.

The soaring testimonials are rolling in from people of huge stature and deal with WFB's monumental mind, deeds, power, and impact. Beyond those, I like to think that WFB’s life was all those and something a lot simpler -- a testament to a graciousness and kindness granted to everyone he met – which is, as McGurn wrote, “all in all, not a bad ticket to carry into eternity.”

Friday, February 22, 2008

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Going, Going....Arrived

“A week is a year in politics.” It’s a trite catch phrase often uttered condescendingly by smarmy, insincere political types to anyone who’ll listen. I know. I say it all the time.

Well, 24 years is a couple lifetimes then, and the time in which I’ve known David Carmen, once a young, cheery organizer, now Washington uber-lobbyist. And, one of my oldest political friends.

I met Carmen in New York in the fall of ’83 – I was a young staff assistant at National Review Magazine, he was younger guy already in politics as an organizer. We had mutual friends at the magazine and he bought me breakfast in a New York deli on a quiet Sunday morning, at which we talked politics and journalism and Where We Were Going. To this day, as perhaps goofy as it sounds, it remains one of the key conversations I have had about the career I set out on.

Flash forward more than two decades and you have a dang good sense of where I was going and where I ended up – the cubicle farm in the Office of Whatever, Department of Redundancy. David? Well, I saw him recently at a monster blowout in downtown DC. This mega-bash was held in a former public library turned party mansion, the building awash in ghostly green lights on all sides, valet parking, a Beatles cover band, lavish trinkets, imported food served by fashion models, and 600 beautiful people.

It was David’s party – for his lobbying firm.

Carmen's rise is emblematic of how fortunes occur in politics. Now, ours is not a friendship where we’re slapping backs or chatting on about this and that seeing each other every two weeks. Rather, it’s two guys who’ve stayed in touch over a long, long time, never losing sight of one another.

Carmen’s made it in town the old-fashioned way -- on dint of personality, connections, good fortune, and oh yeah, innate talent. Navigating and hustling, sure. But what's most important? Producing. Getting clients what they want. It's as simple as that.

In New York, Carmen was an aide-de-camp for a guy named Lew Lehrman, who never won a political office, but who got attention galore, mainly because of Carmen. Lehrman ran against Mario Cuomo for governor of New York and lost, but he managed to stay in the GOP limelight and ran a grassroots group, Citizens for America, that continued to get him ink long after he should have.

Carmen left Lehrman and came to DC, armed with a self-described “nuclear rolodex” to build a government affairs business. At least that’s what he told the Washington Post Magazine, which put him on the cover as a as a guy who, yes, “came to town with a nuclear rolodex to build a government affairs business.”

Conversely, I leave New York, go to work on the Hill, go to Bush 41, go back to the Hill, come back to Bush 43 – I’m just marking time. Carmen, however, with this crazy ‘dex, is building a behemoth. Today, his firm has dozens and dozens of large clients in every field imaginable.

We meet for lunch occasionally – just to check in – and goodness knows we’ve changed since the deli in New York. It’s light conversation – sometimes I ask advice on stuff, sometimes he does the same. We could be Rotarians in Toledo, given our banter.

Then in the mail one day comes this invite from ole Carmen – whom I might add, has included me every year, in every party he’s had, even when I’ve been unemployed, or have not caught up with him in a while.

But life reaches these neat culminations in this town of towns, and so there I am on a Thursday night, outside this old marble library, the massive “Carmen Group” logo in eerie green searchlights, reflecting off the entire surrounding neighborhood.

Like all folks here, I’ve known hundreds of people in politics in Washington at various stages of ascent, stasis, and descent -- a week is a year is a life, remember? Rarely, however, do you get to see one individual go from the starting line and then break out of the pack. Carmen’s not at the finish line, either. But as to our conversation 24 years ago on where we were going, it’s obvious he knew where he was going – and has arrived.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It's Only A Game...

Yes, we all know it’s a momentous time in sports – Super Bowl in less than two weeks, college hoops are five weeks out from March Madness, and pitchers and catchers report in 26 days. But let’s pause a moment, glance toward the hallowed gym at Potomac Community Center and focus on what’s really important. The time has come for Nellie to strap on his canvas high tops, hitch up his sequined trunks, grip his trusted whistle and become: Assistant 3rd grade Basketball Coach of the Bethesda Knicks.

“Gentlemen, I don’t want you to get tired and play like geeks. I want you to make those other little devils get tired and play like geeks.”

Thus begins my first pep talk to ten earnest 8-year olds, one of whom is son Darby. He and the other nine are excited to endure the harsh yet firm tutelage of the hardwood legend who scored two points in the last second of the California - San Francisco State game on December 8th, 1977, in Hearst Gym, Berkeley, CA. And if you don’t believe me, look it up.

I’ve managed to assemble a lot of hoop wisdom during my many years of mastering the ole peach and thus now I find a subtle perfection in my role as Assistant Coach. The Head Coach, also named Jeff, is a neighbor, a great guy, a student of the game, and the kind of adult all the kids like. We’ll call him “Good Jeff.” But enough about him.

There are certain themes I live by in life, and in hoops. Famed UCLA coach John Wooden had his multifaceted “Pyramid of Success.” I call my 8-point method the “Cycle of Fear.”

1. “When all else fails, make ‘em cry.”

My personal belief, honed from years of coaching 2nd and 3rd graders at the highest levels, is that that the keys to basketball are dribbling, shooting, passing, and frightening your opponents. And while I don’t have specific drills to deal with that last category, I do tell my boys that if you get under the skin of your opponents and upset them, their defense will fall apart and you can score easily

2. “Boys, let me emphasize: There is no `I` in Team. But there is a `Me.' So if you’re like me, just shoot the dang ball and everyone else just do what you have to do to get the rebound.”

As a famed ball handler, I’m a believer in individualism. It’s not who you are, it’s how much you score.

3. “Practice dribbling the ball 500 times in increments of twenty-five, rotating usage of your left hand and right hand, running in place for 75 steps leading with your right foot then switching on concurrent sequences.”

Folks, you have to break it down and keep it simple for 8-year olds, many of whom are so dazed by their overuse of video games and other foul modern appliances, that they can’t focus on what’s really important to me.

4. “Boys, since I was your age, I’ve been a leading proponent of the West Coast Flex Offense, emphasizing ball control, perimeter shooting, and double-post, pick n’ roll bounce-backs. It’s a hoop stratagem that will serve you well long after you enter 4th grade.”

You play today, you dream of tomorrow. Who knows? I could be nurturing a future star 5th grader.

5. “Rebounding. Is. Essential. That’s because none of you shoots very well and thus there will be a lot of missed shots and loose balls.”

If we can’t be honest with ourselves, who can we be honest with? I could give these children some sugarcoated fairy tale about the Game of Giants, but that wouldn’t be fair to them.

6. “It didn’t happen if the ref wasn’t looking.”

In preparing these young idealists not just for hoops, but for Life itself, the imparting of wisdom takes many forms and occurs at the most opportune times. Like getting in some cheap shots when you’re down four points in a game and you need a turnover.

7. “Pay close attention to what Darby does on the court because he understands the game. I know. I’m his dad.”

There are ten dads and ten moms supporting each team but it’s only Good Jeff and yours truly out there shaping these kids. Is it any wonder our kids never get it wrong?

8. “If you lose this game, I’ll come to your house tonight and steal all your toys.”

Discipline will be the signature of this season. We’ve already won our first game, and thank goodness Darby scored eight points to validate his Dad. Nine more slugfests to go on our way to an undefeated season and the 3nd grade Championship and probably -- jeez, I don’t know -- a profile piece on your’s truly in the Bethesda Gazette.

As I tell the boys at the end of every practice before making them run a dozen full-court sprints, “Gentlemen, in the end, it’s only a game. As far as you know.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Nellie and Steve Case: "The piano man, man!"

You probably remember that classic scene in “Wayne’s World” where Wayne and Garth get back stage passes to the Alice Cooper concert and when confronted with the legend himself, a nervous Wayne, utterly overwhelmed squeaks out, “You big, me small.”

Yeah, a scene in the American cinematic grain right up there with Rhett Butler giving Scarlet the what-for in “Gone With the Wind.” But as contemporary sociologist, Wayne had it right. The world is divided into two parts – those who are big and those who are not so big, i.e. small.

I was reminded of this when I saw Steve Case peering out at me from the Wall Street Journal recently. Case is now pushing some phenomenally successful, money-printing venture called Revolution Health. You probably recall him as the head of AOL, as in this from a business admirer: “Few people have had the kind of impact on business and culture that Steve Case has. As co-founder of AOL, Steve Case led the charge to make the Internet an essential part of everyday life.” Frankly, that’s not too far off the mark. Sure, there was some bad juju with the monster Time Warner AOL merger in 2000. But the fact is, he’s a major entrepreneurial figure in modern times.

You see, I knew Steve Case when. When? I'll get to that. Let's set the scene for the last time King Webmeister saw your’s truly.

It's a hot, spring Saturday in spring at the Washington Freedom women's soccer game at RFK stadium The pre-game warm-up is going on and my sons and I are lounging back in our mid-field seats. Suddenly, I notice a tall thin guy, dressed expensively, who is making himself conspicuous because he’s standing on a chair in a nearby section, taking photos of the team warm-ups with a zoom lens that's about 3 feet long.

Why, look at ... I say to myself. It’s Steve Case, my old college buddy!

I'm in a jolly mood, but alas, looking a bit rough. This is just a crazy soccer game so I'm in a white, Art Carney-style undershirt and an old pair of my Army camouflage fatigues with paint specks on them. My three sons and myself wear newspapers on our heads, folded like a pirate hats to keep the sun off our faces.

I spring to my feet when I see Case lower the camera and shout out, "Yo, Steve!"

But let's talk about the past.

1978. Williams College. Nellie is in a big dorm called Mission Park and Case is on the same floor

Our paths cross during the next two years on a causal basis in the dining hall and also because we each are in campus bands.

Mine is a jazz combo called Hangin' 4 in which I play mediocre piano. Case is a singer in a rock band called "The The." Figure that one out. He’s a pleasant enough guy and he's savvy about music so we talk about that and our bands. He was also from Hawaii and so sometimes we shoot the breeze about surfing and beaches.

We eventually graduate and go our ways. I hear through the grapevine that Case is a salesman for a big corporation, hawking pizza sauce or ketchup or something like that. I, in turn, am hop-scotching around the nation, unemployed half the time, the other half working various low-paying, meaningless jobs.

Next thing I know, it's the late 1980s and Case has started some firm called America On Line, which deals in the "world wide web" and "e-mail." Since I am still randomly affixing stamps to envelopes and mailing out my resume to disinterested suitors, I cannot even comprehend what Case's business is all about.

I am told by a fellow dorm mate that Case had the email idea come to him because while selling the taco flavoring, or whatever, he traveled a lot and got bored sitting in hotel rooms. After a night in Toledo spent staring at the phone, he wondered that if you could send voices through that little wire, why couldn't you get text through there?

Suddenly, it's the late 1990s and AOL and Case are everywhere kicking tail and taking names. He's got some hot blond wife and an estate in Virginia that's bigger than the old dorm we lived in. Meanwhile, bouncing from hack job to hack job, I have, no kidding, a 922-square foot house.

2000 comes along and Case takes a dive with the AOL Time Warner merger, the then largest media deal in the history of mankind.

Then, several years later, on a hot spring day, suddenly here's some homeless-looking whacko in the stands, wearing a folded newspaper on his head, a half eaten hot dog in one hand, yelling out: "Yo, Steve! How's it going, guy?"

Well, Case looked over at me and immediately smiled uneasily. I'm of course expecting him to recognize me so as he continues to stare with this kind of worried, anxious look, I shout out, "Nelligan from Mission Park! The piano man, man!"

He looks almost frightened by now. He gives a faint wave of his hand and lowers his head and scuttles in the opposite direction from where I’m sitting, leaving me there standing as the folks seated around fall silent and just stare at me, almost sympathetically.

A smile is frozen on my face as the newspaper hat slowly slides off my head onto my seat. I sit down and mumble abstractedly to no one and everyone, "Heh, heh ... used to know Case in college ... same dorm and all ... probably a busy guy ... meets a lot of folks ... Jeez, is this game ever gonna start?" I take a disconsolate chomp out of my hot dog.

Of course, the whole game I silently ruminated on how things had worked out in this world without end, amen. Designer clothes Case, multimillionaire master of the Internet; Nellie and 3 urchins in pirate hats. Yep, me small. Hell, me tiny.

After the game, the sons and I are walking toward the parking lot and the eldest, Devlin, says, "Dad, who was that man you were yelling at?"

"Oh, just an old pal from college who was part of the Internet revolution and is worth about 250 million bucks."

"But he didn't say hi to you," Dev persisted.

"Well, young man," I said matter-of-factly, "he didn’t recognize me in this t-shirt."