The Miracle of Showing Up, Part II

August 28th, 2008

ack1.jpgSometimes, when I’m traveling somewhere distinct from my normal routine — say, Nantucket, or Bray’s Island — I find it difficult to imagine anywhere else.

I think I even remember when it started. I was sixteen-years-old snapping a photo from the double-yellow lines of a traffic-strewn Champs Elysées when I thought, “I can’t believe this was here all along!”

And it gets weirder: in a little corner of my brain somewhere, I still — 21 years later — find it unfathomable that all of those places exist when I’m not there to see them myself, especially wildly exotic places like The Maldives or Roatan.

I suppose there’s a reasonable explanation for this, something to do with the developing mind’s ability to understand that which it can’t see, that tangible evidence of a place isn’t requisite for our understanding of its existence.

Or something.

Either way, there’s an oddly similar dynamic at play with you, Dear Reader. I don’t really know who most of you are. That is, I imagine you’re my friends and family, but with some exception, I don’t really know who reads this blog on the regular, or when you’re reading it. It’s more like whispering into a gaping void. Or shouting to the traffic-strewn Champs Elysées from the double-yellow lines. Who knows who hears?

Which is what makes your comments and emails all the more appreciated, like this one from a sometimes-reader in Texas:

Hi. I check your blog occasionally to see your view what’s going on in your part of the world and your fabulous photos.

I am a former Kindergarten teacher and have moved into a position in which I will impact many more children than I would in the classroom. I have several projects going and one is a textbook for 2nd graders. When I read your “The Miracle of Showing Up” post and saw the pictures showing the changes in the sky I knew I had to ask if you would share your pictures with the second graders of Texas.

So, I’m asking. Would you be willing to allow me to use your pictures in my book? I can’t pay you, but can give you credit and will make sure you get a copy of the book for you or your precious nephews.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and talent of photography and music with the world! I look forward to hearing from you.

Of course I said yes, am grateful the inquiry, and love that the boys — who thought I was crazy for taking the same photo over and over — will see my little exercise manifest somewhere more “official” than my blog (which I don’t know whether they see or not anyway).

So… keep those comments, cards and letters comin’. Sometimes, it’s the only way I know any of this even exists.

At Least We’ll Leave Before We Have To Go

August 26th, 2008

Me & Abbi On The Roof“New York is all about what could be,” says David Cloyd, a 34-year-old musician who moved to the city from Austin ten years ago. “You know: The potential. The possibilities.”

New York Magazine is the source of Mr. Cloyd’s quote, at least partially responsible for my sense of urban, upwardly-mobile aspiration. The Intelligencer’s cocktail party talking points, “Party Lines'” glossy pics of soirees I’ll never attend, and the pages-upon-pages of million-dollar, high-rise, smoked-glass condos I’ll never be able to afford.

It’s the degrees of separation that make everything so tantalizing. One might share a venue with Ingrid Michaelson, or meet Jared Kushner at a party. Plum Sykes could be a friend-of-a-friend.

Moreover, the next rung is always just brushing the edge of one’s fingertips.

Reluctantly admitted example: I said to Abbi just this Saturday as we ran down Park Avenue, “If I could just get to SVP, I’d get to fly business class.”

Periodically, though, that same addled pusher of aspiration that once foisted its champagne dreams and caviar nights on me makes good with the flipside, as it did with a recent article, “Where the Urban Dream Life Is Going Cheap,” in which the relative merits of Buffalo, New York (or Anytown, USA), are explored in opposition to New York City’s oppressively limitless opportunity

[Cloyd is] echoing, of course, the aspirational mantra that’s lured a million hopeful dreamers to New York before him. And in exchange for this promise of limitless possibility, this tantalizing what-could-be, New York requires of these dreamers that they pursue two simultaneous lives: the romantic, invigorating, spectacular life you imagine for yourself, and the expensive, often dispiriting, intermittently grueling day-to-day life you have to lead in order to keep that dream life alive. This is exhilarating. This is exhausting. This is what New York is all about.

Even within the narrow category of work (ok, it’s a pretty wide category), I find myself saying it all the time, “There’s so much opportunity here!”

And there is. I’m constantly unsatisfied with what I’ve accomplished, and looking ahead towards what could be.

But when does reaching towards that limitless void of possibility approach diminishing returns? When do the parties to which I’m not invited, restaurants at which I don’t dine, and museums I don’t frequent lose their allure?

As Abbi and I look towards what’s next, these questions and more are the subtext of every conversation.

Only time will tell…

Eighteen (More) Reasons To Love Her

August 25th, 2008

NYC MapI figure it takes a special kind of someone to wake up at 5:30 on a perfectly good Saturday morning, lace up the Asics, and run around the city for three hours. The really special someone, though, is the teammate who runs it with you.

Yup, that was Abbi and me this weekend.

Increasingly bored with endless loops around Central Park, I was itching to get off the island. I studied Google Maps and Map My Run, and drafted a suitably ambitious foray into Brooklyn. Not too far into Brooklyn, mind you; my intended course to and around Prospect Park and back would have racked up too many miles.

And so the plan was simple: up and around the Central Park Reservoir, south on Park Avenue (conveniently closed to vehicular traffic thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s “Summer Streets” initiative), east across Canal to the Manhattan Bridge, back over the Brooklyn Bridge, then north along the West Side Highway.

Eighteen miles. Santa Monica to Long Beach. Cedar Rapids to North Liberty. Cleveland to Akron (well, half that, anyway).

It’s a long way, trust me. But requisite, given that the New York City Marathon is little more than three months away.

Luckily, it was a beautiful morning: low seventies, blue skies, low humidity.

Central Park was routine: trees, ponds and puppies. A long line of tourists queuing up for Shakespeare In The Park.

Park Avenue was a blast: bicyclists, roller bladers and joggers gazing up wide-eyed at the empty street and skyscrapers as if it was their first time in New York.

These, Abbi and I are doing 3-5 miles four days a week, a long run on weekends, plus one morning in the gym. We spend a lot of time running. So much so that its possible that a few miles can pass in total silence. These days, though, there’s plenty to talk about: jobs, homes, babies, families, friends. Not surprisingly, I’m often the one in monologue; I’m pretty talkative. So much so that I tends towards the apologetic.

By the Manhattan Bridge, though, I’d grown fairly quiet. My legs were running me; like some perpetual motion machine. Which didn’t mean I wasn’t hurting, or bored, or fantasizing about a big stack of buckwheat pancakes.

The pedestrian path on the Brooklyn Bridge is narrow and busy, and — by the time we crossed — pounded by the sun. Abbi and I ran single-file, dodging bikes, running groups, tourists, dogs, and the occasional homeless person sprawled across a bench.

Neither of us were terribly happy as we strode out of Battery Park City, least of all Abbi. She’s ramped up her training pretty quickly this year. Eighteen was ambitious; her season best is 13.1. That ambition, though, is one of the reasons why I love her, which I remind her when we run.

“Babe, you’re a badass,” I say. “A three-time national champion! Three-time marathoner! All-time greatest!”

She scarcely cracked a smile, staring straight ahead “Terminator” like in her sunglasses.

By Chelsea Piers — beautiful as the sun on the water and the leaves on the trees and the public art were — that sort of talk was increasingly necessary. I checked my GPS every few feet, updating Abbi on our progress.

Finally, she said, “Just tell me when we’re at eighteen, ok”?

And soon enough, we were, my champion and me.

Remembering The Crash Site

August 24th, 2008

Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About Divorce“Mister Rogers Talks To Parents About Divorce” premiered on Sunday February 15, 1981, just as my parents’ marriage was falling apart.

Unfortunately, it took twenty-five years to learn of the show’s existence, and until this afternoon to see it myself for the very first time.

All I knew of Susan Stamberg’s relationship to Fred Rogers when I walked into NPR’s Washington, DC, studios way back in November, 2006, was that the two had taped some television specials together in the ’80s. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered the topic of the specials was divorce, something my family had endured, and about which Mister Rogers and I had conversed.

When our copy of the show was finally shipped from FCI last week, my sense of serendipity was heightened still when Chris told me the original air date.

Please visit “Making ‘Mister Rogers & Me'” for the rest of this blog post.

Fall On Me (Or, Q4 In A Nutshell)

August 22nd, 2008

Benjamin WagnerDespite these challenging economic, political and existential times, the first three quarters of 2008 found Benjamin Wagner Deluxe, LLC, on solid ground thanks to a technological innovation, new product development, and the recent merger will Keller Industries.

Q4 looks to be similarly stable and rewarding for shareholders. Here’s a preview from Chairman and CEO, Benjamin Wagner’s, keynote speech this morning:

August 29 – September 1: Seattle
Abbi’s high school pal, Carmen, is getting married. I’ll be wearing plenty of flannel, and drinking nothing but Starbuck’s espresso.

September 1 – 8: MTV Video Music Awards
It’s that time of year again/already. This year’s show will come to you live from Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California. And if recent meeting discussions are any indication (My favorite: “That’s one argument against strapping GPS on the elephant.), it should be quite the ratings-shattering, integrated-marketing, brand-extending affair.

September 4: My 37th Birthday
I’ll be in Los Angeles, but still plan to celebrate with friends there. As I told one, “I’m thinking the opposite of velvet rope, bottle service, valet and reservations. You know: show up, order a pint, and talk a while, and roll. Does that exist in LA?” We’ll see.

September 11-13: Chris Abad’s 30th Birthday Extravaganza
The gang’s haulin’ ass to Vermont (location of the once-abandoned “Magic Mountain” project) to celebrate the esteemed singer/songwriter. With Chris, Tony, Ryan, Jamie Alegre (and possibly his band, Rich Girls) on hand,musical meyhem is sure to ensue. Also: Beer Pong.

September 20: All-Ages Show @ Rockwood Music Hall
The older I, and — ergo — my audience gets, the more jobs, spouses, and kids (and, presumably, exhaustion) make late-night, mid-week rock shows impossible. So the guys and I are playing an acoustic, all-ages show at Rockwood Music Hall at (get this) 5pm. The idea is to play a hushed, seated, relaxed, participatory affair featuring my songs and a few kid-oriented surprises. In other words, the idea is to seed a whole new generation of Benjamin Wagner Fans. Just kidding. Kind of.

September 25: Late-Night, Mid-Week Show @ Rockwood Music Hall
What’s better than all-ages? A double-bill with my pal, Chris Abad. Same as above, though without the hushed, seated, relaxed, and kid-oriented components.

October 4 – 11: The Anniversary
It’s been the quickest, best 365 days of my life thus far thanks to Ms. Keller (actually, Mrs. Wagner). We’re spending seven night on Nevis at this amazing villa appropriately named “Amazing Grace.”

October 21-25: CMJ Festival
Looks like Chris and I will be bringing our double-bill magic to Alphabet Lounge during the College Music Journal’s annual confab. I’m also talking with my pal, CMJ Panel Director Jimmy Landry, about sitting on a panel. So it could be a two-for-one.

November 2: New York City Marathon
Yup, #9.

November 12: “Live At Rockwood Music Hall” EP Release
You knew I couldn’t go six months without releasing a new record, right? This one will be a brief collection of the best performances from the last three shows, and is likely to be an iTunes-only release. Stay tuned.

December: Second Annual Holiday Benefit CD Release
We put together a great collection of songs and raised nearly $5000 for 826NYC with our “A Family Holiday Benefit”, and it looks like we’re gonna’ do it again. This year, I’m partnering with Rebel Spirit Music. The record will likely be all-acoustic, and the release party will likely be at The Canal Room. Stay tuned.

And then it’ll be Christmas, and then it’ll be New Year’s, and we’ll start the whole thing over again.

Frankly, I’m tired just thinkin’ about it.

The Thrill Of Victory (And The Agony Of Defeat)

August 19th, 2008

OlympicsListen, I’m the guy who tears up during Gatorade commercials. Still, I gotta’ say, I don’t remember ever being moved by the Olympics.

Until now.

Sure, that the opening ceremonies were lip-synched and CGI-enhanced is weird, telling, and a bummer. And that NBC’s coverage is chocked-full of hyped-drama, political softballs and integrated marketing.

Still, it doesn’t matter what I know of a specific event (usually very little); watching these athletes compete bearing in mind that they’ve trained their entire lives for just a few moments is nothing short of inspiring.

Now, I never really knew competition until my late-20s. I played baseball in grammar school, soccer in junior high, and ran the 400M in ninth grade (my 1:04 was a solid fifteen seconds off semi-finalist Jeremy Wariner’s 00:49:15). And then nothing until I moved to New York City and began running NYRRC races and NYC Triathlons. And while I run 3-5 miles most weekday mornings, a long run on weekends, periodic visits to the gym and occasional bike rides and swims, I don’t train much at all. Still, I’m always racing myself, always gauging how a certain pace feels, how a given distance feels,

I’ll never win it, but I’ve stood at the start of the New York City Marathon, ten months of early morning slogs through Central Park under my belt, a torn quadricep burning above my patella, and thought, “This is it.’

And so I watch the faces of these competitors, and I feel like I have just an iota of a sense of where they’re coming from.

Like Sunday night, as Abbi and I found ourselves rooting for Romania’s Constantina Tomescu Dita as she pulled away from the pack, and won the women’s marathon.

Or earlier tonight, I made one audible gasp after another as Chinese gymnast Li Xiaopeng flipped and flew his way to gold on the parallel bars.

And just now, I watched Lolo Jones — who was crushing her competitors in thee 100M hurdles — stumble on her ninth of ten, lose, and collapse on the track. Seconds later, she fed the media beast with class.

“You hit a hurdle about twice a year where it affects your race,” she said. “It just sucks that it was on the most important race of my life.”

Seconds later, a telephoto lens spied her weeping beneath the bleachers.

Now, if that doesn’t force you to tackle your Wednesday just a little bit differently than the day before, well…

Benjamin Wagner’s Photoshop 101

August 18th, 2008

Benjamin WagnerEvery few weeks or so, I get an email asking about what type of digital camera I use, what sort of settings I employ, and/or how, in general I take such nice photos.

Which is sweet, and appreciated, and inspired me to (humbly and tongue-in-cheek) offer you, Dear Reader, a crash-course in Benjamin Wagner Dot Com Photoshop 101.

For starters, let me say that I don’t have any formal training in anything related to photography (save, perhaps, for a summer art course I took in third grade) or actual accolades (excepting that blue ribbon in the 1982 Valley Forge Photo Contest). That said, by virtue of working in multimedia, and considering it a hobby, I think I’ve managed to develop something of an eye, and maybe even something of a look.

In fact, my screen saver on this here MacBook Pro is comprised of my favorite shots. In watching them scroll by, and considering what they have in common, I’ve gleaned the following of my own work:

1- I like the sun and the ocean, seconded by flowers and trees. Either (or all) together is a bonus.
2- I tend towards uber-close ups, especially when the context is blurred in the background.
3- I seek depth of field, low angles, and stark contrast.

I don’t know a thing about the settings on my cameras, except that I take the largest, highest-resolution images possible, and sometimes I use the self timer and macro lens. So, what are my secrets then?

1- Shoot Tons. For every photo that I post here (or print), I take at least twenty that nobody sees.
2- Vary The Angle & Elevation.
3- Use Photoshop.

Once I’m home, and have sorted through iPhoto for the best, I take them into Photoshop. I’m pretty sure that’s my competitive advantage.

Typically, I reframe what I’ve shot for balance and composition. I usually straighten the horizon line, and crop bearing in mind the rule-of-thirds, and a 16:9 aspect ratio (to make them feel more cinematic). Sometimes, when I’m really feeling obsessive and I want to pull out the fore, mid, and background, I create layers and add blur to force depth of field. And sometimes (despite the ongoing journalistic debate about the merits and liabilities of doing so), I remove objects from the photo to clean up the composition.

I always adjust levels, saturation, and sometimes contrast and sharpness so that the blacks are deep, the colors are rich, and the lines are clean (digital compression has a tendency to undo all of that, so I overdue it).

Here are a few before/afters. See if you can spot the subtle differences.

Nantucket, Massachusetts

Nantucket, Massachusetts



Nantucket, Massachusetts (Summer 2008)

August 16th, 2008

The Miracle Of Showing Up

August 15th, 2008

Madaket Bay, NantucketWe rarely do much of anything in Nantucket, and I like it that way.

A typical day might involve a good run, a real breakfast (eggs, pancakes, etc), a trip to the beach, magazines, books, puzzles, and the ever-essential mid-day nap.

We rarely leave our little corner of the island save for trip to Cisco Brewers (for pints of Whale’s Tale Pale Ale), Bartlett Farms (for fresh corn, tomatoes, and blueberry pie), and 167 (aka East Coast Seafood, for whatever Bill’s caught that day).

Whatever we do, and wherever we go, the one constant is my camera (two, actually: a Rebel XT SLR and PowerShot).

For ten years now, I’ve endeavored to capture the spirit, beauty and tranquility of the place, if for no other reason than to bring a little piece of it home with me. This year was no different. I traipsed around the yard, crouching and straining for a new vista. I jogged with my camera in hand, and kayaked with one Ziplocked for safety.

After all these years, though, I’m subject to a number of increasingly cliched images: the macro shot of dune grass and sky, the wide-angle, open-aperture sunset.

And so, as I sat and pruned my images on those first nights there, I wondered, ‘What can I do differently?’

I’m not sure if the inspiration struck at that moment, but something reminded me of one of the last thing’s Bo Lozoff told Chris and I when we interviewed him for “Mister Rogers & Me.”

When I was fasting, I would take [short walks] to keep my legs stretched during my forty-day retreats. I was coming back from one of those walking down here and as soon as I got to about where Chris right in front of me and him and the cabin was a long, black snake about six feet long and it had just begun to shed its skin. And I got to stand there and watch the snake shed it’s skin. It was one of the great natural thrills of my life. Just watched it crawl out of its skin and leave it behind. Those are the kinds of things, yunno, unless you’re somewhere like forty days in the woods by yourself you never — there are just things you can’t schedule. But if you show up every day, you’re going to see miraculous things.

Our view across Hither Creek into Madaket Bay and beyond was constantly changing. Moment to moment, the tide, clouds, sun, and elements conspired like a kaleidoscope: here the water is still like glass, then tipped with white caps; here the clouds a flat and gray, then glowing orange, red and blue.

It dawned on me then that our time there — heck, our time here — is to appreciate those subtle shifts.

That’s it.

That’s life.

And so, at random moments every day, I stepped out on the porch, positioned the camera just so, and snapped a few shots.

So this is it.

This is life.

This is the miracle of showing up every day.

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay

Lightning In A Bottle

August 14th, 2008

Lightening over Nantucket’s Madaket BayIf life is a collection of moments, all strung together and played back in contrast and context to one another, then the defining moment from last summer’s trip to Nantucket was that of a lone cottage against a wide, evening sky.

The photo was taken from a narrow, wooden bridge on the western edge of Madaket’s Hither Creek. The shutter of my Canon Rebel XT’s lens was flung wide to capture dusk’s fleeting light. The sky was clear. The water was still. And while the clapboard house, framed by open water and empty sky, was splendid in its isolation, it doesn’t feel lonely; a warm light shines from within.

This year’s sojourn to our quiet little spot in the Atlantic was full of moments, too many to catalog as I regain my feel for dry land, and my taste for the pace of things.

One image, though, speaks volumes.

The week was punctuated by ever-changing weather. Days were long and lazy, broken by low fog, light drizzle, slate-gray skies, then fierce blue and blinding sun in equal turn. Most evenings involved distant — and often not so — lightning, thunder, and rain.

Our northwest-facing, second-floor porch there above Madaket Harbor was the ideal roost to take it all in.

Monday night, then, found the island locked down again as storms brewed along the eastern seaboard. Flights were canceled. The usual periodic buzz off twin-engine, Cessna 402s had quieted. Ethan and Edward scrambled around the table as my mother, Christofer, Jennifer, Abbi and I finished our family dinner with the doors opened wide.

Just over my shoulder, there above the bride, a burnt-orange sunset was interrupted by a dramatically low and fast moving cold front that seemed to touch the tops of the trees. We moved to the porch one-by-one. The clouds passed quickly, turning the still water to a simmer, twisting the boats on the moorings, and bringing a chill to the air.

On the edge of the horizon, way to the south — past Tuckernuck Island, past Martha’s Vineyard, below Cape Cod — a dense wall of thick, dark-blue clouds began flashing. Ethan, wrapped in a blanket on Abbi’s lap, grew restless.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” my mom asked him.

“I don’t like lightning,” he said in his most-vulnerable, heart-breaking, five-year-old voice. “And I’m afraid of thunder.”

We took turns trying to explaining the phenomena of lightning and thunder as Ethan swung from exhileration (“That was a big one!”) to anxiety (“Oh no! What about the fishermen out there in the boats!?!”), as I tried in vain to snap one good photo (“Did you get that one, Uncle Benjamin?”).

We sat there — all seven of us huddled in blankets, jackets and caps — for over an hour as the storm moved slowly up the coast, confident that together, we were safe from the din.

Nantucket’s Madaket Bay