Mister Rogers & Me

February 27th, 2003

Mister Rogers & Me - September 4, 2001 It was the weekend of my 30th birthday, and just a few hours after disembarking the Hyannis Ferry. My cell phone was still chattering with MTV business as I stood on the back porch. The last rays of light were spilling over the horizon. New York City was slipping away from me as I settled into the quiet island night.

Suddenly a familiar voice from the edge of the dune asked, “Is the birthday boy here?” I turned to see Mister Rogers — more slight, perhaps, than I remembered from television, but smiling more broadly than ever — reaching out to shake my hand.

I grew up with him, to be sure. His cardigan and sneakers, though, were mythic abstractions. Like Elvis, or John Lennon, Mister Rogers was an abstraction. Until that late summer evening. See, Mister Rogers was my neighbor in Madaket, Nantucket. He and his wife Joanne summered there in a beautiful clapboard home — The Crooked House, they called it — on Smith’s Point. Meeting him that night would change the course of things for me and small but meaningful ways.

The next day, I walked to The Crooked House for lemonade. I was giddy like a little kid as I trudged with my guitar slung over my shoulder through the sandy street towards his home. He answered the back door wearing glasses, a white golf shirt with a sailboat on it, a pair of slacks and slippers. He was smiling, his eyes like slivers of the brightest, most star-strewn sky you’ve ever seen. We sat in the living room, there in the back overlooking the sea. It was wood paneled, and strewn with photos and artwork: there was Lady Elaine, King Friday, and Trolley.

I sat, mouth agape, and talked a while about New York — he has an apartment one block from mine — my job, plans, and dreams. And then I sang for him. “Summer’s Gone.” I was awfully nervous. Playing for half a dozen people is always more difficult than a hundred. And one of them was a concert pianist, the other was Mister Rogers (an accomplished musician in his own right). I finished, they clapped, we drank lemonade, and smiled. Because Mister Rogers was our neighbor.

That could have been enough. The Rogers had certainly extended their hospitality. But Mister Rogers asked me if I’d like a tour of the house, which of course I did. And so there I was being led around The Crooked House, his magical, intimate little home. There are doorways one must duck through, narrow staircases, and surprise little rooms around each turn. While there was evidence of many summers spent there — fishing rods, foul weather gear, boots and hats — it was a sparse, almost ascetic house. In one small room, next to a twin cot where he snuck the occasional catnap, was a pair of blue Keds resting as if they had just fallen from his feet as he slipped off into Mister Rogers dreams.

Perhaps the most magical part of my tour occurred in his study, out back behind the garage. There was a desk, a computer, and a small piano, all with a view over the pale green grassy dunes to the silverblue sea. He asked me something no one ever asks. “Tell me about your father,” he said. “Your mother doesn’t speak about him.” And I tell him about them divorcing when I was ten, and how it was pretty ugly, and feel like crying right there on the spot.

That’s Mister Rogers. He asked the hard that questions nobody asks. But with more heart than most. Scratch that, with more heart than all. And then says something perfectly appropriate, and real, and substantive, and simple.

“That must have been very difficult for you, Benjamin.”

Then he rolled his chair over to the piano and began playing. First, he played the theme from his show: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” he sang with a little more swing than on television, smiling. And then he sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Years later, it still seems like a dream.

Outside, Mister Rogers and I stood on the back porch in the Indian summer sun staring out at the water. He asked me about my job at MTV. He said he was concerned about modern pop culture. “You know, Benjamin,” he said, “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.”

Deep and simple.

The phrase stuck with me. It’s what he stood for, who he was. “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” like Mister Roger’s himself, was pure, unadulterated goodness unfettered by extra language, bright colors, or complicated drama. He spoke straight, told the truth, and didn’t worry about being cool or contemporary. He just was. Deep and simple.

The World Trade Center fell just few days after I got back to New York. I was about to release a new CD,”Crash Site,” but — inspired in no small part by his ethos — I repaired to the studio to record a benefit CD instead. I sent him a copy prior to the September 25th release, and invited him to come to the show. He didn’t make it, but when I got home, there was a message on my answering machine from him saying that he’d tried to reach me at the Mercury Lounge, but I was already on stage.

Deep and simple.

When I returned to Nantucket the following September, I invited Mister Rogers over for birthday cake. Despite a torrential downpour, and two other commitments elsewhere on the island, he came. He was dressed in a navy blue Carhart jumpsuit, and seemed slower and a bit more frail, but he lit up the room nonetheless. All of us, aged 31 to 56, were transformed into smiling, fawning children. He sat next to me on the couch, and watched me open a few gifts: a bright yellow t-shirt with King Friday on the front that read “TGIF,” and a tiny book with a mirror on the front and a ribbon bookmark with Trolley on the end of it entitled, “You Are Special.” Inside he had written “Happy Birthday Benjamin! From your neighbor Fred Rogers.”

Sitting there with him in the firelight, the storm raging just outside the window, I told him how often I thought about our “deep and simple” conversation, and how often I told others the story. “Spread the message,” he said. “Spread the message.”

Weeks later I was still trying to figure out how to effectively spread the message. What do I know? What can I do? Who would listen?

Since then, I have endeavored to write deep and simple song lyrics. I could not — and would not — have written a song as earnest or as direct as “Stay” (“I love you / I need you / I want you / To stay”) before I met Mister Rogers. And last fall I began a series of paintings of perhaps the deepest and most simple icon there is: the heart. I had set one of the four panel paintings aside to send to him for Christmas, and then Valentine’s Day.

I’d hoped someday soon to shoot documentary on Mister Rogers. I’d envisioned him showing my brother and I around The Crooked House, playing us a song or two in the study, and talking a little bit about love and courage, faith and truth. Chris and I would edit together a documentary as our first feature film. It would be a Good Work, something we both could be proud of. For weeks I’d been carrying the idea around. It would basically tell the about how Mister Rogers changed my life. Like Michael Moore’s participatory documentary before it, I’d call it “Mister Rogers & Me.” I’d I scribbled “Write Mister Rogers” on my To Do List just two days before NPR delivered the news that Mister Rogers had died.

Eulogies are both hurried and artless. And this is surely both. But it is well intentioned, full of love, and full of gratitude. Gratitude that I had just a moment in the life of one of our time’s greatest men. Gratitude that forever more, I have a role model that stood for all that is good, honest, sincere, and kind. Now, all I have left to do before dying is my absolute best to live a deep and simple life, and spread the message far and wide.

Easy enough, right?

On Working The Grammys When You Want To Win A Grammy

February 25th, 2003

Dishes are stacked in the sink, dirty closed piled by the closet, the bed needs making, the rug needs shaking, garbage needs taking out. It’s not such a pretty scene here at 447 West 56th, 4E. But it’s home, and it feels good to be here after what feels like weeks of work. Which is, of course, hyperbole.

I mean, of course I’ve been working for weeks. Years even. But the big Grammy push is over, I’ve made it through the other side. Now I just need to get MTV News up to speed on this Iraq stuff — which we mostly are — so I can get my ass out of town with my dad and brother.

So, the Grammys. When I was 22, and soliciting contributions to record my first CD, “Bloom,” I sent out a letter to friends and family saying something about “And maybe someday I can thank you from the Grammy podium.” That was once my dream. My plan, even. I found the show in general kinda’ boring (despite being on the spot at work for 14 hours).

Our red carpet preshow was a little painful, in part because everyone had already been on E! the hour before, and also because I know how it’s supposed to go (I have the script), plus I was Johnny on the spot with live polling and stuff. We had our first true commercial within the preshow which I co-produced with a terrific producer named Jane Mun and some folks over at Sony. It looked great, like a real web site, which was nice.

Once the show started, it was great to see Simon and Garfunkel together, even if they had zero repoire. The Joe Strummer tribute was good. But most everything else was by the numbers, and kinda’ listless. Of course, I’m used to the absurdist pyrotechnics of the Video Music Awards, I was happy to see earnest, well crafted singer-songwriterism prevail: John Mayer, Norah Jones, Michelle Branch.

As always, though, it was a little heartbreaking — maybe it always will be? — to feel so close, so far. And there was an extra little twist of the knife: John Mayer thanked a guy named Rashon Blumberg as he accepted his Best Male Vocal for “Your Body Is a Wonderland” (not the best song on that album, but a good one). Rashon is a friend of a friend who I lobbied unsuccessfully to manage me years ago when I first moved to New York.

So, I worked until about 3AM; Ken and I were the last ones out. Then went to the bar we always go to on 46th after awards shows to get bombed. But everyone else was leaving. So I had a few (three beers in an hour), and dragged my sorry ass home for a few hours sleep, before doing it again.

Now some 36 hours later, the MTVNews.com audience is gobbling up out coverage, which is rewarding, and bodes well for my career as a dot com middle manager, but… well, you know.

My “Evening With Kevin Smith”

February 23rd, 2003

New York is shrouded in fog this morning. It is cloud city. The buildings have all but disappeared. The Hudson ends midchannel. New Jersey is a curtain of white. Still, for all its appearences of floating in space, I couldn’t help but feel grounded in cement as my running shoes carried me over the rain-puddled and snow-choaked terra firma. What I witness when I run along the edges of New York is more “French Connection” than “Breakfast at Tiffanys.”

This morning especially, the sidewalks are strewn with debris scattered by snow plows, garbage bags piled six deep in the absence of pick up, and deep piled of slate grey snow strewn with vomite and urine. Yet somehow it remains enchanting. So real. So viceral. So mine. And to survive, nay, thrive despite it all is somehow empowering, and exciting.

So what am I doing with myself? Lots of thinking and reading, mostly, resting up for tonight’s big Grammy push at the MTV. I spent Friday night — the hour between getting home from work and going to bed — reading Rolling Stone and Billboard, eating pizza and drinking three Pacifica beers. I ran Saturday morning. Then idled away the afternoon in the diner and at Starbuck’s, lazily reading the New York Times and watching the city hustle by beneath the relentless icey rain. My super spent the afternoon in my bathroom remedying eight years of neglect.

Then last I watched the hilarious and insightful “Evening With Kevin Smith” two dvd set, during which the director of “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy” touched on everything from lesbianism to Cathlolicism to his High Times magazine cover. I was laughing out loud, alone, in my apartment. That, coupled with re-screening some of the clips from last fall’s “Summer’s Gone” tour got me missionized again to get on with my filmmaking ambitions.

I have at least three projects in mind: a tourfilm based on last fall’s road trip, “Mo Hart,” my oft-discussed coming of age screenplay, and a Mister Rogers documentary (“Mister Rogers & Me”). And with my brand newG4 laptop (thanks MTV) and the rise of DV and non-linear editing technology (not to mention a brother who edits television shows, commercials and film for a living), seems like time’s awastin’.

I’ve also been giving lots of thought to my next musical release. I registered for two triathlons yesterday, the NYC triathlon (which I’ve done twice) in August, and the Nautica Malibu triathlon in September, which I’ve long wanted to do. So I’m endeavoring to coincide my ambition to release the new CD — invested, as it is with a most bi-coastal JFK/LAX theme — in New York and L.A. on subsequent nights that week in September. Which is always my favorite, busiest, and most productive month. Being that I was born in September. And it’s got that whole Indian Summer, Back To School vibe and all.

So there’s no shortage of time in my head. Not that there usually is. I oft endeavor for less, as I think too hard (as the dBs sang in the 80s). Hence my 1996 CD “Out of Your Head.” My heart’s still here too. Just a little tired. Focussed on pumping blood, keeping my running, and keeping the terra firma beneath my feet.

George Bush Ruined My Weekend

February 21st, 2003

Just found out I may have to stay on call in New York next weekend in case the war breaks. Since I work in News and all. I’m supposed to be going away with my father and brother on Friday for our once-every-two-year trips to Myrtle Beach to drink beer and eat shrimp. So I’m feeling a little sorry for myself, if not a bit pissed off, primarily at Bush, or Sadam, or whomever exactly is responsible for the possible war.

I know, I know, things could be worse. I could be one of the 95 (and counting) victims of the club fire at that Great White show in Rhode Island. Or any of a host of calamaties elsewhere in the world.

But you know how it is: sometimes it’s tough to see past your own woe. Which currently includes being overworked, underslept, and looking at Grammy Sunday in less than 24 hours. That said, I’m outa’ here. Hope you’re well. G’night.

In Case Of Nuclear Blast

February 19th, 2003

My new favorite web site? Ready Dot Gov.

I especially enjoy the “Nuclear Blast” Acrobat file. Not only because of the bitchin’ graphics, but also because of the sheer absurdity of it.

“Consider if you can get out of the area; Or if it would be better to go inside a building.”


Here on the 29th floor at 43d and Broadway, I think I’m fucked.

A Little Snow

February 18th, 2003

Maybe you heard we got a little snow here in NYC?

Did we ever. Like, 24 inches. And it was so beautiful, so quiet in the city. It was falling as we filed out of ‘Daredevil’ Sunday night (yes, I went to see ‘Daredevil.’ And yes, it was just ok. But sometimes I like that sorta’ thing.) and kept falling well into this morning.

The streets were empty, everything was closed, people were out walking and skiing and smiling. Parked cars were completely buried. Best of all, it’s been about as warm as it’s been in weeks, what with all these clouds and such. So it’s been nice. Kinda’ festive. Real lazy. But now, as I finish up my Tuesday here at the MTV, the work has begun in earnest.

The Grammys are Sunday, so we’ll be working through the weekend, and straight through the week. I’m supposed to go golfing with my father and brother next weekend in Myrtle Beach, which this proposterous war in Iraq may interupt. Who knows.

Random thoughts: have you ever seen RealTV?

Prepping For War In Times Square

February 11th, 2003

Just hit the 12-hour mark here at the MTV. Which isn’t so bad.

When I started back in 1996 and we were literally building the first iteration of daily news online, we worked 60 hour weeks every week, easy. And the on air team is still in the newsroom working away. So I’m not alone.

Basically, we’re all about prepping for what could turn out to be war in the Middle East. And what with headlines like about Paris, Berlin, Moscow dissenting with U.S. push to war (with good reason), and Osama (reportedly) calling for more terror attacks, I gotta’ say, it’s an unnerving time to be in Times Square. We’ve kind of been laughing nervously about it, but I’ll tell ya’ the last place I wanted to be on September 11th (or any day thereafter) was in the office.

It makes things like Gwen Stefani fashion polls seem absurd.

So, as you might guess, I’ve kind of decided to put music — questions like when will I record again, with whom, where will I perform — on hold for the moment. At least until March, after the Grammys (2/23). And then time will tell about this whole war thing. Hope it turns out o.k.

Headlines From The End Of The World

February 6th, 2003

It’s the end of the world.

At least that’s what I thought last night. I was walking back to work from rehearsal on 30th Street, through the cold, past the drunk frat boys pouring out of the Knicks game at Madison Square garden, past a half dozen panhandlers, each more desperate looking than the last. As I approached the neon glare of Times Square, I read the famous NY Times news zipper, one apocalyptic headline after another:

“Powell Addresses UN.”

“China, France, Germany Reject US Unilateralism.”

“North Korea Threatens Full-Scale War.”

“NASA Says Debris Not Root Cause Of Explosion.”

And the clincher, “Texans Arrested For Selling Shuttle Parts On EBay.”

And I was like, ‘That’s it. I’ve heard it all.’

It’s a little creepy, right now, I think. There’s all this chaos swirling around the world, while “Joe Millionaire” and “Kangaroo Jack” play to huge audiences. It doesn’t make much sense. And I’m not sure where it’s headed.

But today’s another day, and it was a busy one spent planning for what appears to be an imminent attack on Iraq, and for the Grammys (seems absurd to mention in the same breath, but there it is). I worked until 11 last night, and was back in at 9. It’s 8:30 now, and I gotta’ roll, ‘cuz I’ll be back here in a flash. G’night.

God help us.