My Better Half

July 31st, 2007

I told Abbi that my suede bucks, seersucker pants, white oxford, pink and blue striped tie and blue blazer were so over-the-top Preppy that they were rock ‘n roll. Then I looked in the mirror.

I have a new t-shirt that I love. It’s a thin, soft, dark blueberry American Apparel with banana lettering that reads, “Des Moines: The Greatest City In The World.”

I love it because it’s soft, and comfortable, and clings just enough to make me look semi-fit without looking fat. And I love it because of the message it sends my big city bretheren: your streets and skyscraper and sirens and sarcasm and such don’t impress me. Give me open spaces. Give me authenticity. Give me calm, conscientious community.

And, like Jack Kerouac said, “The prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”

Though on Saturday night, I would have vehemently disagreed. The prettiest girl in the world lives in New York City. And she’s going to be my wife. The thought occurred to me numerous times Saturday night, there in the Osbun’s living room (where I was pinned against the fireplace by a constant onslaught of gracious well-wishers), watching Abbi glide across the room.

The interesting thing about finally committing to someone is that it’s really a committment to yourself. It’s a committment to being the best that you can be. And you don’t shed your favorite t-shirt and step up — into suede bucks, seersucker pants, white oxford, pink and blue striped tie and blue blazer, for example — because someone else wants you to. You do it because you want to. And because, yunno’ what? Rock ‘n roll or not, shit looks pretty fly.

The great thing about Abbi, of course, is that she wears both: the favorite t (her’s is jade green), and the gold linen, empire waisted Shoshana dress. And she looks stunning in either. Which is how I know…

Of course, fashion is a red herring. This is not about fashion at all. This is about the rest of my life. And for the first time ever, I think it’s beginning to fit.

P.S. Happy Birthday Edward!

Half The Story

July 30th, 2007

I guess the most suprising thing about meeting seventy-five of your fiance’s closest friends and family in one three-hour period is that it was pretty darn fun.

Now, I won’t front: I was anxious.

Fortunately, they day started easy. Well, easy-ish. Abbi, her sister Pembry and I set out on our first of many marathon training long runs along the Brandywine River through Alapocas Woods (“Lemme guess,” I asked, “The Alapocas were the indiginous people’s ya’ll displaced here, right?” Right.).

We passed Abbi’s high school — and grade school, and junior high, all the same place — en route. (I, in contrast, attended three different grammar schools, plus junior high and high school, which may explain why a) I rarely feel like I belong b) I don’t really consider anywhere “home” and, consequently, c) I ended up with someone who’d reply affirmative to a and b).

Anyway, the run was beautiful — epic, even: sheer, gneiss cliffs, hazy blue skies, falling water. And trecherous. My back was strewn with bites, my ankles gnawed by brambles, and we spotted at least one spider the size of a gold ball.

Back home, Abbi had some bride stuff to do. So her dad and I did what a coupla’ of meathead husbands (well, husband and husband-to-be) should do while the ladies are getting their hair done: we went to “Live Free Or Die Hard.” Perfect, right? Brainless, distracting, masculine, kind of absurd? Yup, all of those things. And pretty entertaining. I’m gonna’ call it the second-best of the series. (Nothing can top the original, which is a classic, and is on my top ten movies of all time list.)

Still, nothing could distract me from the fact that in just a few short hours, I’d be facing down seventy-five of my fiance’s closest friends and family. And as well-intentioned as the whole thing would be, I had a grilling in store. Or, moreover, seventy-five grillings.


Technicolor Dreamcoats

July 26th, 2007

Saturday marks t-minus ten weeks until Abbi and my wedding.

Tomorrow evening, we drive back to Abbi’s hometown for the second of three engagement parties. I still need to pick up a shirt and tie to go with my seersucker pants, blue blazer, and suede bucks. I’m thinking white oxford and pink tie. Pretty rockin’, huh?

One of my oldest, dearest friends swung by the office yesterday. I met Matt when I was fifteen-years-old. He helped me with chemistry. I helped him get a homecoming date. (Hey, we all have our skill sets.) Matt was a star student and athlete. In high school, he was most-likely-to-bail-because-he’s-doing-homework. He was All-American in lacrosse, and went on to Harvard where he majored in… art history.

If you’d asked me at eighteen-years-old who of my four closest friends — Sibby (“Sib”), James (“Deegs”), Jon (“Larks”), and Matt (“Tous”) — would go on to wealth and fame and blue blazers, I would have bet on Sib (U Penn) and Tous (Harvard). They were the guys who killed the SATs on two hours sleep. They were the guys in the Ivies.

Funny thing happened, though. Deegs and I are the guys in the blazers. Larkin’s in a lab coat. Sib and Tous are rockin’ cargo shorts and Tevas.

What’s in a man’s clothes?

In June ’05, Jon and I met in San Francisco and drove to Matt’s in Sonoma Valley wedding. It was a fantastic time, there in the mist-strewn, rolling hills of Northern California. Everyone was there but James. We had a lot of laughs, but we also stole a few moments of substantive conversation. Which is what I love about these four guys. Sure, I’ve seen them toss crab innards across a beach house kitchen. Yeah, we’ve cut school, turfed lawns, and ripped beer bongs. But at thirtyfive-years-old — just as fifteen — what I love most is our ability to let down our guards, put down our arms, and speak openly.

Matt and I did so for the first time in two years yesterday. We talked about life. We talked about wanting to be better men for our better halves. And we talked about compromise.

When he left, I was left wishing for my old pals to crowd around a table, knock back a few drinks, and talk a while. In a few weeks, many of us will do just that as we gather for my bachelor party in Breckenridge, Colorado — nearly 10,000 in the sky. But not for long. Soon enough, we’ll return to our disparate worlds — soccer coaches, agents, biologists, masseurs, and media executives — and slip back into our disparate lives, and disparate clothes.

Some days, I wear a blue blazer. Others, I wear a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Someday, I’d like to rock cargo shorts and Tevas.


July 24th, 2007

There’s a smile on my face in almost every photo of me competing in Sunday’s New York City Triathlon. Which is kind of miraculous, as the race was neither painless, nor easy.

In the moments just after my finish, there beneath a canopy of leaves just above Central Park’s Sheep’s Meadow, I said to Chris, “Man, imagine what we could do if we trained!”

Years ago, the founder of the uber-grass roots Stone Harbor Triathlon casually and innocently characterized me as “a weekend warrior.” He meant no harm, but the phrase kinda’ hurt. Upon further reflection, though, it may be a fair characterization.

During peak marathon training (July-October), I run anywhere from 3-18 miles 4-6 days a week. I occassionally ride my bike anywhere from 10-50 miles, and sometimes get in a good lake or ocean swim. Lately, I’ve even learned to use the gym. (I always avoided them as they’re too enclosed, too impersonal, and full of too many weird contraptions. Abbi’s helped me get over all that.)

With the exception of running, though, I don’t do anything on the regular. So the fact that Sunday’s tri didn’t plum kick my ass is something of a miracle. The fact that I was smiling much of the time, though, has more to do with the fact that Chris, Abbi, and Ethan were there at every turn.

The best moment was when I spotted them somewhere along 72d Street. The race literally shuts down that little sliver of the Upper West, which is pretty cool. It’s a busy street, lined with bars, bagel shops, shoe stores, and apartment buildings. It’s nice to own it, if only for few minutes.

72d Street comes just a few hundred yards into the run, though. One’s legs haven’t really adjusted. Moreover, you’ve just climbed your way up from the river. It’s probably less than fifty or sixty feet in elevation, but it’s a steep climb.

So spotting Chris, Abbi, and E was a real boost. Ethan had commandeered the camera, so immediately lifted it to his face. Of course, our Canon Rebel XT is bigger than his face, and it’s pretty heavy. So watching him try and lift the camera to his face and wobbily point it in my direction was good for a few laughs all the way into Central Park. Looking over and seeing Abbi smiling didn’t hurt either.

Once in Central Park, though, it was another story. My boosters had to drop off. The course is a hilly one, leading runners north along the west side, up (and down and up again) Great Hill on the norther edge of the park, then down the east side. And the park — despite all the usual summer activity — was pretty darned quiet. Worse yet, I got goosebumps — a sure sign of dehydration — as I passed mile three.

I have a few strategies in the moments of doubt and pain. For starters, I remind myself that I’ve done seven marathons and a dozen triathlons. I take deep breaths — in through my nose, out through my mouth — and imagaine the pain leaving my body. And I bite my tongue just as hard as I possibly can; endorphines and distraction.

The east side was bathed in late-morning sunshine, so it was extra hot. I poured water over my head, and rubbed it into my arms. I reminded myself that I’d done this many times before. I breathed. And I bit my tongue. Soon enough, I was descending Cat Hill towards the finish. At Cherry Hill, I spotted Chris, Abbi, and Ethan, and smiled.

As it ends up, my finish this year was just under two minute off of my PR (2:42:01 in 2004). I was in the top 30% of my age group. More importantly, though, I found Chris, Abbi, and Ethan at the finish, and we all smiled.

Oh, and those margaritas weren’t bad either.

So… I dunno. Weekend warrior, part-time athlete — whatever. Maybe some day I’ll train in ernest. For now, it’s a great way to spend a Sunday morning. And a great way to remember what I’m capable of.

Do, Or Do Not

July 22nd, 2007

“Hello this is an automated message from the Accenture Triathlon Alerting System. Your athlete Benjamin Wagner has finished the race at 2 hours 43 minutes 27 seconds.”


July 20th, 2007

In exactly forty-eight hours, I’m diving into the Hudson River, and paddling like hell.

Sunday morning is my sixth Nautica New York City Triathlon. My wave — the most sizeable demographic, 35-40 males, and hence the last — begins the 1500 meter (about one mile) swim at 98th Street at 8:15.

From the transition on 79th, we ride a 40k (twentyfour mile) out-and-back bike course along the (very hilly) Henry Hudson Parkway.

The 10k (six mile) run takes us from transition at 79th, across 72d Street (my favorite part because it’s closed and you feel like a rock star), into and around Central Park.

In past years, I’ve completed the race in anywhere from 2:42:00 to 2:52:00. Given that I haven’t riden my bike since the fall, and have only swam one mile in the last six months, and am nursing a strange respiratory issue, I’m expecting the latter.

Still, my confidence is high. So high that I’ve added a fourth leg.

The margarita chug commences at 5pm.

Rising Like A Discotheque

July 18th, 2007

Rolling Stone Editor Sid Holt broke my heart.

I was twenty-four-years-old.

I’d moved to New York City just a few months prior with two goals: to snag a record deal, and write for Rolling Stone magazine.

I wasn’t much for networking. Still, I knew well enough to canvas the Syracuse University Alumni Center for names. They hooked me up with Peter Wilkinson, ’83.

I called Peter and arranged to meet him at The White Horse Tavern (“Where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death,” he told me) a week later on April 21, 1995 — just two days after the Oklahoma bombing.

Pete — a contributing writer (“They give me all the death stories,” he told me) to this day — offered to hook me up with the intern coordinator. ‘Intern coordinator!?!’ I thought. ‘I have a newspaper column with my picture and everything!!!’

My wounded pride notwithstanding, I took the name, and made the call.

Rolling Stone, it ends up, was all set on interns. Men’s Journal, though, could use my help.

Bam! I was in the door.

By now, the story about how a young editor told me, “Hey, I hear Rolling Stone need freelance writers for their online service,” and I walked down the hall with a folder full of clips, stuck out my hand, and introduced myself is a well worn legend. The story you don’t know is about Sid Holt.

So I’m seated at a big, rectangular table in a conference room in 1290 Avenue of the Americas high above (well five stories above) Sixth Avenue (which is actually Avenue of the Americas — go figure) with all of the Wenner Media interns. There are kids from Rolling Stone (Doc Martins and flannel), Us (fluorescent sweatshirts and matching knit socks), and Men’s Journal (just me in my tattered khakis and a blue cable knit sweater).

Sid Holt walks in, sits at the head of the table and says, “Just so you know: I’m in my mid-thirties, I’m married, I have two kids, I live in Connecticut, and I don’t go to concerts or movies anymore.”

Cue the sound of a rapidly deflating balloon.

‘Don’t go to concerts anymore!?!’ I thought. ‘And you work for Rolling Stone!?!’

Deep breath.

‘Don’t go to movies anymore!?!’ I thought. ‘And you work for Rolling Stone!?!’

Fast forward. Present day. Jeans, t-shirt, sport coat, Chuck’s. I’m seated at my generic, off-white desk twenty-nine stories above Times Square. It’s seven o’clock. Abbi’s in Nashville on business. A water main has blown up across town. I tuck my headphones into my ears, dial up a tune, and head for the elevator.

The doorman greets me as I stride through the summer humidity towards my 27-story glass, concrete and stone apartment building. I wait for the elevator, and then ride to the fifth floor. Inside, I turn on the air conditioning, grab a beer from the fridge, slip a DVD into the player, and collapse onto the couch.

There was absolutely nothing rock ‘n roll about my Wednesday night, save — maybe — for the sliver moon rising like a discotheque through the cloud-streaked sky.

Still, it totally rocked.

Charles In Charge

July 16th, 2007

My first pair was purple.

I purchased my first pair of Converse All Stars for twenty bucks at Connelly’s Discount Clothes in Wayne, Pennsylvania. I was fifteen-years-old, and had recently formed my first band, Neoteric Youth.

The fact that my father had played three years of high school basketball in the exact same archless, black canvas sneakers — allbeit black ones — had no bearing in my decision to purchase ’em.

In fact, I’m not sure what motivated the purchase. The skaters were wearin’ Vans. The burners were wearin’ Nikes. And the hip-hoppers (fledgling as they were in 1986) were wearin’ Adidas.

As a fifteen-years-old sophomore in a high school full of sameness (“I wanna’ be different just like my friends”), high-top purple Chucks made me feel unique, and maybe just a little bit rockin’.

I’ve blown through a dozen or so pair since then: baby blue, navy, black. Anything but red or white. And though the brand has jumped the shark more than once — remember those extra-tall ones that folded down? or the red, white and blue ones? or gold lame? (wait, those were cool.) — twenty years later, my black Chucks reflect the same values.

Today, beneath a pair of frayed jeans, a gray t-shirt, and a navy blue sport coat, my Chucks gave me a shred of swagger that my whitewashed corporate office would otherwise have neutered. They’re perfect, torn and tattered in all the right places to reveal a hint of funky, mismatched argyles.

Of course, I’ve spotted MTVN’s CEO, Judy McGrath, wearing the same black, low-tops beneath her smart, blue business suit. They’re as regular as Buster Browns these days.

Still, they may be pervasive, and they may not be much, but they’re just right, and just enough to get me through.

Summer Song

July 15th, 2007

Amtrak 2295 is running fifteen minutes late.

Outside, the sun is dipping behind a bank of billowing storm clouds.

Inside, the air is cool and dry. I lean back in my seat, rapping my arms around my t-shirted chest to keep warm.

All around me, passengers prattle into their cell phones, revealing slivers of their lives.

“She doesn’t want the side affects of the medication,” one woman says.

“All the women in law school are either married or ugly,” some (jerky) guy says.

Abbi and I are on our way home from Boston where we spent our far-too-fast weekend with dear friends Jenny and Luke in Brookline, and Rob and Claudine in Westford.

Jogging through Central Park Thursday morning, I told Abbi that I couldnÕt wait to get out of New York. The city had turned to its sweaty, stinky alter-ego.

It was a pleasure, then, to sit at the bar at Jenny and Luke’s favorite neighborhood Italian place surrounded by votive candles, wine and laughter.

And it was a pleasure — silly and pure like childhood — to dive into Rob and Claudine’s cool lake, laugh on the inner tube behind their ski boat, and bang on drums with my old Smokey Junglefrog pal, Fish.

Summer comes in fits and starts, these days. It doesn’t seems quite right that we squirrel ourselves away in our chilly corporate towers unaware of the heat, humidity or storms outside save for the rare glimpse out the window, or the brief walk to the subway.

It doesn’t seem quite right that we disappear into work for five days, only to escape for two. Or that we work fifty weeks only to “vacation” for two. Or that we work forty years only to rapidly deteriorate in the last… two.

It’s in moments like these, when the sun is setting on warm memories of water skiing and hiking and singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” at the top of our lungs, that the balance of things seems out of whack.

Everything moves quicker now. I’m afraid that, in the end, I’ll have wasted every day.

Most of ’em, anyway. That last two were fine examples of the way it should be. Like when we were seven-years-old, running and jumping and laughing outside from dusk til dawn, wringing every last drop of joy from the daylight.

Sugar, Baby

July 12th, 2007

Authenticity and enthusiasm comes at a premium in New York City. It figures, then, that I had to go to Brooklyn to see a brand-new Philly band to get my dose of both.

I was pretty short on moxie on Sunday afternoon. My fifteen hour Saturday in East Rutherford was punctuated by a three hour beer pong game at Chris and Meg’s. I went to bed many beers later at four a.m.

The Willie Mae Rock Camp For Girls is a summer day camp that offers 8-18 year old girls the chance to learn how to play musical instruments, write songs, perform, learn about different types of music, and generally “rock out.”

The non-profit organization is named after Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, the original singer to record the hit song “Hound Dog” in 1953.

Every summer, this camp for girls opens itself up to women, which is where my high school friends Amie, Kirsten, Liz, Candace, and Lisa come in.

Now, these ladies always rocked. In my experience, they were the first to the party, and the last to leave. They were comfortable with a beer bong. And they were never afraid to play a little air guitar on their legs, or bust out the ABBA for some serious late night dancing.

Moreover — at least as far as I was concerned on this particularly hung over Sunday afternoon — they were always there for me. Somewhere, on some grainy VHS tape in someone’s dusty drawer, there’s me on stage at Conestoga High School’s annual “Lunch Munch” (an annual outdoor gig) and Kir, Aim, and the ladies are stage right bobbin’ and weavin’ and rockin’ out.

And let’s not forget that Amie taught me my first four chords: G, C, D, and Em. Not to mention my teaching philosophy: learn something you love. ( I learned REM’s “The One I Love,” which I later went on to record for my “February 25, 2005” CD.)

And so Abbi and I hailed a cab (one of those nice, spacious, air conditioned minivans, really) and set out for Studio B in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Amie, Kirsten, Liz, Candace, and Lisa — better known as Black Judy — were participating in the big rock show that is the culmination of The Willie Mae Rock Camp For Ladies weekend.

Studio B is a big, empty warehouse amidst a bunch of big, empty warehouses on the predominantly Polish northern edge of Brooklyn. Liz and Lisa were out front hacking buts in the sunset as Abbi and I approached. Liz raised her drumsticks over her head. “Ben-jammin’! What’s uuuuuup!?!” She had her part down.

The four Excedrin I’d popped over the course of the afternoon were in full affect when Black Judy finally took the stage around 7:30. Amie had a heart shaped electric slung over her shoulder. Kir was rockin’ a white Strat, Candace black (upon which she ably rocked her solo). Lisa held down bass. They wore their instruments — and their ear-to-ear smiles — well.

Black Judy’s three minute debut — a sophisticated, hooky little pop number called (something like) “Sugar, Baby” — was, above all, authentic and enthusiastic. Which is hard to come by in New York City. So I was thrilled to shake off my soul-crushing hangover, head out to Brooklyn, and dance amongst eight-year-olds and hipster dads. Cuz we need more of that shit around here.