Author Archives: Hal Stern

Season’s End

For the first time since Labor Day weekend, my car does not have a bag of pucks, coach’s whiteboard, hockey stick and some collection of gloves, jackets, helmets and skate repair kits clanging around the rear hatch. Today ended another season of Mites hockey, my third as a team coach and fifth as a development squad coach, and perhaps for the first time I understand what university professors must feel as a stellar class of students leaves for the real world.

I started coaching travel hockey three years ago, when about half of this team were U6 Mites. They were wobbly, funny, and sometimes more concerned about whose birthday party was after the game, or if they had an itch under their helmet. Today I saw them passing, shooting, supporting each other and showing every aspect of a game that’s ready for full ice, full sized nets, and full score keeping. It was a pleasure to see these kids grow up with hockey as part of their lives.

I got to coach my first tournament – and took a silver medal. I’ve been there as a manager, and as a parent, but never with the responsibility for ensuring the team had a wonderful tournament experience. Despite losing the medal game, it was the type of bonding and mildly exhausting trip that will be etched into hockey memories.

I got to be Coach Santa and Coach Leprechaun. My repertoire is expanding, and the kids seem to love taking pictures and hamming it up with whatever alter ego is calendar-appropriate.

I had the pleasure of sharing the bench with two men who played at a high level, versus the beer league and education-through-sports casting training I’ve had. They brought an amazing mix of humility, humor and knowledge to each game.

At the end of today’s game, concluding our in-house tournament, amidst handing out medals and cupcakes, I took 30 seconds to talk about each player. It was the easiest public speaking I’ve ever had to do, and it happened without notes, because I just had to say what each player made me think.

It was a mixed year outside of Devils Youth hockey – a full season (so far) without Saint Patrik Elias, the patron saint of dangle pie in our house; a horrendous season for the NHL Devils yet one in which I still follow every game; a year in which I got to see playoff hockey in Prague and see my Princeton Tigers return to the ECAC playoffs (and win a series for the first time in nearly a decade); the first year in which I didn’t play in a single adult beer league game due to work, travel and injury schedules. But when you see 11 small players throw their gloves in the air, pile on their goalie and celebrate like they’d just won the Stanley Cup, it’s a good year of hockey.

Bradys, Partridges and “This Is Us”

For weeks I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I adore NBC’s “This Is Us” so much. It’s not just the Ken Olin reflection of “thirtysomething” of twenty-something years ago; it’s a deep visceral feeling that it’s TV that we truly need right now. Two simultaneous conversations refocused my thinking – one was a Facebook comment thread in which friend Jenni commented that “This Is Us” is a show about adoption, and the other was a long phone call with my sister, happily recalling the small screen families with whom we grew up: The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. The plate of shrimp turned all the way around when I remembered an early first season Partridge Family episode in which Danny believes he was adopted (and yes, I checked the air date — March 12, 1971, precisely 46 years earlier).

“This Is Us” works because it echoes the same risks, themes and family situations, recast forty years later, as the shows we loved the most as tweens.

Shirley Partridge was a widow. The Brady Bunch were the original blended family. Danny thought he was adopted. The Patridge Family, especially in its last season, dealt with women’s liberation, religion, the precursor to Title IX sports equality, gender roles, aging, subtle racial bias (when the Patridge Family and the Temptations bookings are switched) and the strong nuclear bond of the non-nuclear family. The Brady Bunch dealt in simpler fare: sibling rivalry, respect, dignity in failure. Put this television into the context of the early 1970s: a country reeling from racial tension and social schism around Vietnam, the collected after images of Woodstock, JFK, MLK, Nixon, Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. Like “thirtysomething” which was essentially a comedy with serious family and professional relationship undertones, our 1970s family comedies stepped up to present difficult (for the time) themes. We were just slightly younger than the lead characters of each series, looking up to them as fictional older siblings and idealized role models.

When we watch “This Is Us”, then, we are transposed twice in time – we are older than the Pearson kids in the 1970s timeline equivalent of our TV days, and older than their current ages in the forward timeline. We are now the slightly older, perhaps wiser siblings to our TV characters. Having navigated teenage and adult years we see “This Is Us” as validation that our issues with parents, family structure, rivalry, pressure, perfection, friends and extended family are universal, and maybe just maybe we successfully navigated them and the “Us” refers to the characters as it reflects the audience.

Suny B Psycho Squad, Assemble

I nearly missed my ride to Newark Airport screaming at my Princeton Tigers in the semifinal of the first Ivy League Men’s Basketball Tournament (seems like it needs a name, and a championship trophy name). The game went into overtime, with Princeton’s ability to tie it in the waning seconds presenting a kick-save opportunity for a game in which they never led. Along the way, I channeled every single strange event memory I could dredge up, from Carril era nicknames for players who made poor shot selections to performing my own, best-viewed-privately version of the Suny B Psycho Squad cheer while wearing this shirt.

No manner of weirdness, no talisman, no historical reference, no alliterative profanity is too far when you are on the doorstep of the big dance, wishing for a ticket to get in, to relive your salad days and remember great friends for two weeks. If the Olympics are an international house guest that makes you feign interest in strange sports in the name of national pride, then March Madness is a mini college reunion of friends with whom you cheered until your throat and head hurt equally.

Here’s what I remember from various Princeton basketball games between 1982 and 1984:

My friend Ed had a rubber chicken that we brought to most games our senior year. The Columbia game that winter was 11-10 at halftime (no shot clock, and verrrryyy long possessions) and ended with Princeton losing 33-31. I said some mean things that night and we did a few visual puns with the chicken that would be unacceptable on the Monmouth bench (or anywhere else with respectable adults present).

Princeton clinched an Ivy Title, and an automatic tourney bid, in the last game of the year versus Penn, which I listened to on my Walkman (!!) in the EQuad terminal room (think about it: you could take cassettes with you, but you still had to go to where the computers were). My friend Lemon knew I was working on my thesis, and brought me a stromboli from Victor’s about an hour after the game. There were no cell phones, no email, no texting, she just knew where I would be and what would make that evening perfect. It was one of the finest acts of friendship during my four years as a Tiger.

Princeton had an alt-cheering force known as the Suny B Psycho Squad, of which friend Ed and a number of other arm’s length friends were members. Their cheers featured animal onomatopoeia, hand-lettered poster board signs to goad us into joining them, and in later incarnations, the rubber chicken providing aerial support. It was fun and goofy and nearly impossible to explain, but the people who “got it” can still trigger a tight network effort on Facebook with a mere “E I E I E I O”, the clarion call, shofar-like, of the assembly of the Suny B team.

Ed’s rubber chicken disintegrated somewhere along the travels of married life with kids. I bought him a new one a few weeks ago, in the middle of Princeton’s run to a 14-0 Ivy season. It seemed the right thing to do.

Slowly march, forward, thirty-three years and Princeton finds itself in the Ivy Tournament finals, an invitation to dance forty minutes away. Penn has been defeated, at the Palestra, again, and in the course of yammering online I heard from Ed, Lemon, and a host of other friends who recognized the animal sounds and requirement to cheer in non-obvious ways.

For one shining moment, we were all on the bleachers again, rubber chicken in hand, despite a few thousand miles of geography and three decades of life.

The International Bank of Stern

I honestly forget who introduced me to Kiva — maybe my former co-worker Dr Jim, definitely one of the more socially minded people at Sun Microsystems in the pre-Oracle days. I just made my 140th Kiva loan, bringing my total notional amount to just shy of $4,000. With a 2017 resolution to do more social good and build bridges, I made a small donation to Kiva and topped off my account so that I was able to fund seven new loans today, primarily using the balance from previous repayments over the last six months.

Some interesting statistics, most taken from my private page, a few from my public lender profile:

  • Loans made: 140. Under 2% of them have run into payment delinquency, and less than 0.7% have defaulted.
  • Total amount loaned: $3,990 (this includes re-loaning funds that have been repaid). I’ve benefitted from six different promotions, and over the course of eight years as Kiva lender I’ve re-loaned each dollar about twelve times. That is a remarkably efficient velocity of money given the frequently retrograde payment, disbursement and records keeping mechanisms in play.
  • I’ve invited 26 people to Kiva and they have made an aggregate of 199 loans. More than half of the total I’ve invested in Kiva ($475 of the $770) has been in the form of gift cards – one of my favorite gifts to give for someone who has everything including elegance in giving their time and energy.
  • Of the $295 out of pocket I’ve invested in Kiva, about $25 has gone to currency loss and $25 to default. At about 0.7% each, those rates are less tha one-third of what you pay in credit card currency translation or the national average credit card default rate. In short, banking the unbanked is better business.
  • Demographics: 35 countries, 16 sectors, 64 field partners and 68% of loans to women. That’s what empowerment looks like – helping women start and grow their own businesses, with local partners interested in job creation and economic expansion rather than fees and interest rates.
  • If you’re wondering about that “International Bank” bit, it’s liberated from The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time which is an amazing introduction to the world of unbanked populations, microloans, and social impact.

    In this last batch of loans, I made sure I included a country in which I’d never made a loan before (Congo and Peru), and a segment I hadn’t funded (arts). Of course, I also made a few new loans in Rwanda, where I’ve seen excellent performance of the portfolio and have had a personal interest since our daughter spent a month in the hills teaching English. My investment strategy is simple: I am for loans that are under 12 months in duration (because it allows me to turn the funds over, and because I believe that limits the dynamic range of delinquency events). Look for field partners who have experience, low default rates, low currency risk, and make an about-market return on their funds (so they aren’t taking advantage of their local customers, but aren’t in the money losing business).

    High notional volume, low return, multi-party mutual funding — it’s the model that grew the American insurance businesses through the 1950s, and now it can grow small scale business opportunity. If you grew up in the Tri-State Area and remember Phil Rizzuto pitching for the Money Store, it’s that idea taken globally.

    Always Play The Over

    I have told my kids, half-jokingly, to always play the over in life. Most sporting events have a sports book line on the total score, with even money bets offered on the total being over or under the established line. An NHL game might have an over/under of 5.5 goals; Super Bowl LI’s over/under was 58 points (a record high); a boxing match over/under may involve the number of rounds before a knockout.

    Always play the over. If wager on the under, you’re betting on something not happening. You’re hedging against faith, spirit, confidence, and good luck. Those bets may pay off sometimes, but against a large cross section of people, over time, they lose. Jodi Picoult, a favorite author, wrote that sometimes a miracle isn’t what happened but what didn’t; that case is the strong exception. The Patriots coming back from 25 points down to tie, then win the game? You don’t bet against that. A Super Bowl that had a scoreless first quarter ending in 62 total points? The only thing that was freaking out Vegas odds makers was the Super Bowl ending with a sack in the end zone for a safety, New England by 2 and only 58 total points. But that’s a bet on a miracle; a bet on motivated teams produced a favorite covering, the over covered, and somehow, another Super Bowl title for New England. Like the Voldemort lookalike on their helmets: you count them out and they come return in some weird configuration to take the day, again.

    Always play the over in life. Don’t bet against yourself, your peers, your friends, your like-minded but unknown teammates. Doing so is a lack of confidence and hope, both of which are in short supply in some quarters.

    Living Through The Narrative Arcs

    We are all more exposed and more immersed in celebrity deaths with the advances in social media because we get to gauge the reactions of our friends and family to events that may have only been tangential to our lives. Yes, I was saddened by the death of David Bowie, but immediately thought of college friends who idolized him in each of his musical phases; of friends’ bands who learned “Rebel, Rebel” and “Suffragette City” and not much else; of my fellow Phish fans who can generate a grin simply by saying his name with appropriate cadence. Prior to our ability to broadcast our feelings, I’m not sure I would have stepped backwards quite as far with his passing.

    Carrie Fisher threw me for a short non-infinite loop, and the timing having just finished “Princess Diarist” and the theatrical release of “Rogue One” was eerie.

    When the celebrities have loomed larger in our childhood hagiographies, when the heroines and stars and swashbucklers of the stories we idolized in our formative years die in real life, we are, suddenly, trying to see the next chapter in the story no matter how long it’s been relegated to the recesses of happy memory. Billy Crystal wrote that Mickey Mantle’s death forced him into adulthood; when we are faced with the narrative arcs in real life taking the dramatic turn where the hero, the inspiration, the leader dies, we are immersed in that story not as a character but as a contemporary.

    This is why Facebook amplifies these feelings — clearly, Facebook has become the narrative channel of the late boomers, while our kids use Snapchat and Instagram and more image based tools, we cling to the notion that we’re writing our own great American stories, all of the time. Facebook just lets us do it simply and immediately, incorporating real world events into the narrative arcs in a way that would make EL Doctorow or Jo Walton proud.

    We can argue that statistically 2016 was a rough year for celebrities, but it’s more likely that our longer term view of celebrity has been amplified by improved average life span, more media coverage, and franchise reboots that remind us of the earlier, simpler parts of our own stories.

    Do take events as turning points in the story line: What happens next is up to us, and that’s the thought I’m riding into 2017.

    A Snowy Hockey Morning

    We’re in the last weekend of youth hockey games before the Christmas break, the last few practices before the true winter stretch of tournaments and games bracketed by short days and weekends absent football. I woke up to a few inches of fresh snow yesterday, noticing the deer and rabbit tracks across the front porch, just enjoying the feeling of a true hockey morning.


    I’ve been slowly reading bits and pieces of former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti’s A Great and Glorious Game and stumbled upon his perfect summation of the nation’s pastime: It’s about going home. The scoring, the imagery, even the neighborhood love we sprinkle on the grass of our city’s ball fields are all about home: home runs, stealing home, pitch reaching home plate, home team batting last.

    Football, on the other hand (and not to channel too much George Carlin here) is about defense. Protect the quarterback, block for the ball carrier, defend the end zone, tough pass defense, defend our house. It is indeed a game of inches, as that’s how turf is defended, a lineman’s step at a time.

    Hockey, especially on a snowy winter morning, is about going places. It’s about going to the net, going to the puck, going out when most would prefer to stay indoors in the warmth of bed and the light of a morning read. My favorite memories as a hockey parent and manager were about going places, whether it was a ride to a rink in which we lost a muffin in the luggage rack (don’t ask), or the long gentle drive to a weekend in Lake Placid. Hockey, like baseball and football, has boundaries of play, but you can play off the boundaries; even the boards take you someplace unexpected (ideally behind a unsuspecting defender).

    As parents, coaches, managers and spectators, we watch as the young hockey players are forever skating away from us, coming back a little older, a little more certain, a bit more self confident and hopefully grateful for the journey.

    30 Days of Giving 6 7 8 9 10: Giving Voices

    So much for the daily updates on this topic — I didn’t forget, I just got buried with work projects and post-Thanksgiving turkey recovery. Here’s a quick catch up to get us to the 1/3 point: I’m trying to fund voices that need to be heard.

    Day 6: CaringBridge. When my friends Kevin and Sari’s son was critically injured in a late season ski accident, we were able to his treatment, recovery and progress via CaringBridge. When you want to communicate with a large audience but don’t have the emotional or physical strength to be on email or the phone, CaringBridge provides a mediated, modulated voice to inform those who want to know, and to receive their good words without further taxing your mental reserves.

    Day 7: The Electronic Frontier Foundation. You have a safe voice online because of the work of the EFF, who have been fighting since 1990 to protect encryption, privacy and individual rights. I’ll admit to spluring on this one, going for the $65 funding level so I can get a cool encryption t-shirt.

    Day 8: Immigration Equality, through my friend Alan’s fundraiser. What if you came to the United States seeking safety and asylum, knowing that giving voice to your true identity as LGBQT or HIV+ would effectively be a death sentence in your home country? Immigration Equality provides legal assistance to those people who need it the most.

    Day 9: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ. Not just once voice but hundreds, carefully restored and playable in what is now the Macys in Center City Philadelphia. I’ve been fascinated with pipe organs since discovering that the late Chris Squire (Yes bassist) made his musical debut on the church organ, and some of the most complex polyphonic classical pieces were written for organ (Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, long before it was adapted by Jaco Pastorius for bass):

    The former Wanamaker store holds something of a place of honor in various parts of my family, and the organ is cranked up for a fairly regular holiday concert schedule starting about now.

    Day 10: Wikimedia Foundation. The voice of reason in online content, Wikimedia Foundation are the people who bring you Wikipedia, and do so without a single display ad or sponsorship. Wikipedia represents one view of democratic voices: crowdsourcing content such that the truth slowly converges not to what one person or one writer thinks, but to what the most people find the most reputable, corroborated and reliable over time. Imagine if all of life had “citation needed” or “This article needs improvement” overlays: we’d cut down on a lot of misinformation and encourage people to discover facts, figures and forces for themselves.

    30 Days of Giving 5: Heinlein Society

    I was introduced to science fiction by the Laura Donovan Elementary School librarian, who picked out a Robert Silverberg book for me to read. I’m pretty sure I read it at least three times, given the rather narrow selection of the genre in 1969 — but then I was introduced to the Monmouth County Library system, where Robert Heinlein, Silverberg, Isaac Asimov and others awaited. Science fiction has continued to be a staple of my life, with John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, and a host of others filling my head with visions of what is possible, impacts of the future on current policy and politics, and how we might bridge the present and the near present.

    I discovered the Heinlein Society through a posting on John Scalzi’s annual holiday postings, where he allows readers to represent their artistic and charitable works to a wider audience. The Heinlein Society attempts to pay forward the legacy of one of the greats of the genre, and my donation supports its educational efforts. Hat tip to both Scalzi for networking good works, and to friend Marc for renewing my interest in my first sci-fi literary crush over a series of breakfasts.

    Day 5: Support the Heinlein Society with a one-time, one year membership.

    30 Days of Giving 4: Movember

    I’ve been supporting Movember for three of the past five years. Movember exists to raise awareness and funding for men’s health issues, in particular testicular cancer, prostate cancer, and mental health. The Movember motto is simple: stop men dying young. I’m reminded of Billy Tucker, guitarist of Regressive Aid (for those of you in the Princeton/New York area in the early 80s), and guitar teach to Michael Melchiondo (a/k/a Dean Ween) who committed suicide after a prolonged illness for which he could never find sustained pain relief. More recently, keyboard and prog rock pioneer Keith Emerson also took his own life rather than face diminishment of his virtuosity.

    I’ve supported my own campaign (I’m committed to doing 50% more physical activity this month than usual; rather than growing some gnarly facial hair that scares small children at the onset of the holiday season). But if you want the true experience of supporting someone with a great ‘stache, who does good work in addition to being a good role model, hit up Devils forward Adam Henrique (yes, I supported his campaign too, because I find it weird I’m out pacing him in anything in life — until he chips in his contributions for his work on the ice).