Her Eyes All Swimming Pool Blue

January 28th, 2009

Miami, FloridaThe second Corona is better than the first, even if it is from a can; it’s colder, sweeter, and flush with lime.

The Florida sun is playing hide-and-seek with the billowing cumulonimbus clouds. When it breaks through, the air grows hot and thick like steam. I watch the great, white clouds race across the piercing blue, drifting away from itself and evaporating before my eyes.

The constant roar of surf makes a fine white noise, punctuated solely by the occasional gust of wind, seagull’s cry, and child’s laughter.

I pull my cap over my eyes and fall gently into the sounds, unsure of the intersection between sleeping and waking life.

Finally, I rise slowly from my chair, peel of my sunglasses and hat, and tread lightly into the surf.

The water is cold at first. I push steadily deeper, then dive in. I swim slowly to a sand bar, then walk across it into deeper, larger waves.

I lay there floating on my back, staring out to sea as the waves crest, turn to foam, and roar overhead. I relish the feeling of turbulence as it rolls over me.

As I turn towards shore, I think (as I often do in these moments) of the life I’ve left behind: concrete, cubicles, and cabs. I remember (as I often do in these moments) that this place — the beautiful, warm, relaxing places — are always here, even when I’m not.

I imagine myself in a crowded, windowless conference room, rejoin myself here in the ocean, then wonder all over again why it is that we do what we do: toil endless hours in exchange for these precious few moments.

Abbi waves me in from the shore. I step awkwardly from the waves, wiping water from my eyes and knocking it from my ears. She hands my a pink drink with a cherry on top.

“It’s a Rum Runner,” she says smiling behind her great, white beach hat. “I figured you should have at least one umbrella drink before you leave.”

Miami, Florida (Winter 2009)

January 28th, 2009

2009 Miami Marathon (Or, Pull The Sunlight Through Me)

January 27th, 2009

Miami MarathonThe last time I was on Miami’s Brickell Avenue Bridge, it was midnight.

Hurricane Katrina was lashing the city with crushing wind and stinging rain. Nonetheless, my Video Music Award colleagues and I thought it a lark to stand defiantly mid-span, leaning into the gale drunk like teenagers.

Some five years later, I was mid-span again. This time, though, a different sort of storm raged: a twenty-fifth mile, endorphin-fueled battle between running and stopping, accelerating and collapsing, laughing and weeping.

My road back to downtown Miami began innocently enough. Some months ago, around Thanksgiving, Abbi and her sisters decided to run the Miami Half Marathon together. When at least one significant other signed on for the previously ladies-only trip, I was afforded the option of crashing as well.

“I don’t travel for a half,” I responded half in jest. “But I’ll run the full marathon.”

My ninth New York City Marathon in November had been a breeze. I finished in 4:30:00 with minimal pain and energy to spare. Surely, I figured, I was in sufficient shape to best that time in less than three months time.

Only after registering did I begin to consider the context. I would be training in cold and dry New York City, but running in hot and humid Miami. What with recovering from New York City and ramping up for Miami, I’d be hard pressed for a 20+ mile training run.

Then came the New Year. My new responsibilities at work had me working twelve-hour days, six days a week. Then came Inauguration: eighteen-hour days in bitter cold. I wedged in some great runs through Washington, DC, returned to New York City on Wednesday night, and left for Miami thirty-six hours later.

What the hell was I thinking?

Miami, like Las Vegas, is one of those cities I never expected to visit once, let alone often enough to know my way around. I can only assume Abbi wishes I’d not been there either once as every landmark, it seemed, called for a story.

“See those LED marquees on the arena? We took them over for the VMAs. All MTV News all the time.”

Chalk that non-sequitur up to nervous prattle. It was, after all, five o’clock in the morning. And there we were standing in the dark with 15,000 other runners. Braced for the heat, I was wearing the shortest shorts and skimpiest singlet — both gray — that I could find. Not much to look at to be sure. But then, as I always say, it’s not a fashion show.

The starting gun was a pair of pink fireworks. A cheer went up. Techno began thumping from the PA. And we were off.

The first miles of the race led eastward across MacArthur Causeway, past dozens of massive cruise ships moored at the Port to South Beach. The ten-story ships were parked end-over-end and looked like sets against the inky-black sky. Soon, though, the high rises of South Beach were back lit by the rising sun.

As we turned northward along the coast, the sun broke the waves. It was a welcome but disturbing sight; I was already sweating less than 10k in. Which was roughly when I remembered that I’d forgotten my secret weapon: salt packets.

Sky sky was a fierce blue. The vistas broad, sea-swept and staggering. Still, I spent the first thirteen miles through South Beach and San Marco Island feeling cautiously optimistic, pacing roughly alongside my wife (her sisters long since disappeared). I relished the moment when we marathoners would break free of the half marathoners whose frivolous, chit chat belied the severity of my goal. The real challenge, I knew, would begin somewhere after the eighteenth mile.

Abbi dropped away with a mid-stride kiss at thirteen. I retreated into my thoughts, steeling myself for the fatigue to come. Downtown Miami was boarded up save for a few late-night revelers spilling from an otherwise-sketchy ally.

The remaining runners — the field had been diminished 75% at the half-way mark — ran southward along Bayshore Drive where, the morning after Katrina, I dodged downed trees and power lines. The streets turned quiet past the Miami Zoo and into a neighborhood called Coconut Grove. A few residents had pulled beach chairs along the course, and quietly offering their support. The neighborhood around the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, by contrast, was flush with a dancing gaggle of apparently-gay men in sailor uniforms and brunching locals who stared apathetically.

I was still running strong, turning in solid nine minute miles. One last surprise remained, though, one I’d relished years prior, but feared as it approached now: The Rickenbacker Causeway.

On that same fateful VMA Weekend back in September 2005, The Rickenbacker Causeway was a concrete miracle connecting my pre-show anxieties with a refreshing, early-morning duathlon. I’ll never forget slipping into Biscayne Bay, floating on my back in the clear, cool aquamarine, and forgetting a moment the gathering network television storm.

This day, in contrast, found the place less forgiving. Twenty-three miles in, my quads had been pounded into something approaching muscle nausea. The mid-morning sun beat down relentlessly, and the black pavement radiated it back. Traffic was stopped up both ways, some honking, some cheering, most ignoring, and all throwing off heat like a furnace. My arms were riddled with goose bumps, a sure sign of dehydration. Worse, I was nearly out of tricks. I’d already taken my trust Mile 20 Advil. But I’d forgotten salt packets and gum. And was down to just four jelly beans.

Hilarious, right? Like, who considers this fun? Who considers this vacation?

Downtown Miami is littered with modern, mirrored skyscrapers, many with odd shapes and some with holes in the middle (better aerodynamics for hurricanes?). Today, they were lined with spectators — finally, spectators — raucously encouraging us on. Despite my dehydration, muscle exhaustion, and a few prime hot spots (read: blisters) on my feet, I was accelerating still, passing souls more-spent. I dumped a cup of water over my head (“That’ll get you across the finish!” a woman shouted), and calculated my best possible time. Sub-four was out of reach, and so I imagined Abbi cheering at the finish, and set my sites on getting in below 4:10.

Which is when I spotted the Brickell Avenue Bridge ahead in the distance. It’s iron-grated span — no more than 100 yards across and 15 degrees in slope — mocked me like an urban Everest. I leaned into it, spread my toes against the wide grate, and remembered myself there all those years ago: beer in hand, shirt open to the gale, laughing in the face of the storm.

Turning right along Biscayne Boulevard, the crowd grew more dense. I dug in deeper still, biting my tongue and slicing at the air like Rocky. The finish was just around the corner. A racer just before me waved his arms to prompt cheers from the stands. I pushed harder yet, past him, past others, past the point where I wasn’t sure whether I’d vomit, collapse, or lose my heart right out of my chest. I crossed the finish line beneath a blistering, white-hot Miami sun in 4:08:04.

I was soaked, panting violently, and deathly-serious as a volunteer slipped my medal over my head.

4:08:04.

I ran a negative split, cruising through the second half in 1:47:16. I crushed the last mile in just 7:48.

Which may explain why, less than twenty-four hours after swearing I’d only run one more marathon — November will mark my tenth New York City Marathon in a row — I’m already plotting my twelfth.

Miami Marathon

Miami Marathon

Inaugural Snapshot, Part II

January 22nd, 2009

Washington, DC Union StationUnion Station, Washington, DC. Amtrak Gate K.

Passengers on Northeast Regional 178 are packed together struggling to board. Everyone is exhausted, weary of long lines, hung over, and eager to get home from the Inauguration.

A quiet voice squeaks above the fray.

“Ellen McQuarry? Ellen McQuarry?”

Seconds later, further down the queue, another rings out, “Ellen McQuarry? Ellen McQuarry? This man is looking for his wife.”

Finally a third chimes in further back still.

“Is there an Ellen McQuarry in line?”

Then finally, she’s found.

“Yes?”

A passenger jokes, “Your husband left you for another woman.”

The crowd laughs. Her husband speaks up. “I love you, honey.”

“Then why did you leave me,” she jokes.

More laughter.

A stranger speaks up, “Come through, Ellen. We’ll get you back together!”

The crowd parts. The couple reunites. The crowd swoons, and begins chanting, “Yes we can!”

Inaugural Snapshot, Part I

January 22nd, 2009

attheball.jpgI am wedged between a mass of angry, frustrated and anxious Presidential Youth Ball attendees and a phalanx of Police and Secret Service in the Washington, DC, Hilton.

With the ballroom at capacity, and POTUS on his way, the men in black are immovable. I reluctantly pull out every item I possess in my defense, but neither my name, title, business card nor MTV ID have a bearing.

I text a colleague, Ryan, who’s producing MTV’s Youth Ball inside. “Dude, you gotta pull me in.”

“I’ll grab you when we move Rosario from the Lounge to the Ballroom.”

Minutes pass. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see Ryan, Rosario Dawson streaking across an empty patch of mustard-colored carpet. I tap him on the shoulder, and lock arms with him.

“Drag me in as if I’m talent too,” I suggest.

We logjam behind a gaggle of angry, sobbing kids. “Oh sure,” they yell at the authorities, “Let THEM in.” Shouting ensues. The authorities refuse us admittance. The kids refuse the budge. An MTV producer pokes out from behind the door, pointing at Rosario.

“We need her on NOW!” he yells, reaching out to her.

He takes her hand and pulls her through the crowd as Secret Service yells, “Only her!” The floor producer yells, “Ryan too,” and pulls him through.

I struggle to follow, pulled forward by Ryan while restrained by the crestfallen, angry kids. Ryan looks back. The Floor Producer yells, “Him!” And I break through the bodies into the wide-open, soft-blue ballroom. I follow Ryan to our home base, where Rosario greets Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. My colleague, Garth, repeats what he’s heard on his headset.

“POTUS is here.”

Moments later, President Barack Obama and The First Lady emerge to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” Ashton, Demi, Tobey McGuire, Kid Rock, Usher and Sway hoist their iPhones in the air like the hundreds of screaming kids on the floor.

The President smiles. Michelle waves. And he speaks.

“I’ve been looking forward to this ball for quite some time,” our new president says. “What started out as an improbable journey when nobody gave us a chance was carried forward, was inspired by, was energized by young people all across America,”

I choke up, grinning, and grateful.

Our Better History

January 22nd, 2009

Barack Obama Inauguration WeekendLet other people write about yesterday’s other big first; without diminishing the historical significance of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first-ever African-American president, race wasn’t what reduced me to a sobbing mess.

President Barack Obama’s inaugural address was the first time in my life I felt like a politician was speaking to me. It was the first time in my life I heard a politician talk about real values. It was the first time I felt like I really wanted to be part of this grand experiment we call The United States of America.

And so, as he spoke, a smile spread across my face, tears rumbled down my cheeks, and I felt a cold, hard lump of cynicism melt inside me.

I was standing with my back just feet from The Washington Monument. The sound of the flags flapping at its base rose and fell with the breeze, mixing with amplified strains of the Army band, idle chatter from every nationality, helicopters and jets.

Through the dusty distance, I could see the gleaming white steps of the Capitol draped in its red, white and blue bunting. I could just make out the podium.

The crowd was dense, so much so that I was warm despite the twenty degree weather. Were I to stumble, I’d never have hit the ground. (Which somehow seems the whole point of America.)

Great, sweeping jet contrails drifted frozen overhead, as if fighters had been circling. A pair of silhouettes stood atop the American History Museum.

A phalynx of towering JumboTrons cycled through images: wide shots of the mall, Ted Kennedy, Steven Spielbergh, Al Sharpton. Colin Powell drew the first applause. Diddy drew disbelief.

A long shot tracked the then president elect’s motorcade, and I felt tears rise from somewhere deep within.

I hype my Iowa roots, but the truth is that my family moved just east of Washington, DC, to Waldorf, Maryland, when I was just three weeks old. Some of my earliest memories took place on The National Mall: the red-brick Smithsonian tower, the Air & Space Museum, the reflecting pool. I’ve always had a sense of awe and scale there, though years of government mismanagement and malaise and my own institutional distrust led me to be highly suspect of the place, and the people who aspired to be there. Still, I was raised with a healthy respect for (tempered by my more recent suspicion of) our fair republic.

As for race, my parents raised us to be as understand our nation’s history and challenge, but endeavored at every turn to expose us to and encourage us towards diversity. Moreover, they were civically minded: joining movements, marching on The Capitol. And when we moved to Chicago in 1978, they chose the suburb of Oak Park specifically for its sense of diversity and inclusion. Not bad for a couple of kids from Iowa. So I’m no more perfect than the rest of the country, but race never factored into my judgements or relationships any more than gender or sexual persuasion.

And so, as my support of candidate Barack Obama increased, and as the groundswell of consensus behind this apparently reasoned and dignified man grew, I didn’t consider race. I was impressed by the man: his intelligence, temperament, and warmth.

And when he seized the nomination, and then the Presidency, I celebrated the man, his vision and his values. I celebrated his dignity. I celebrated his reason.

Today, neither the chill, the absurdity of the chants, nor the populace of the cheap seats could temped my enthusiasm. Standing there amidst the partisan boos and jeers of the sophomoric great unwashed (“Nah nah nah nah” when George Bush appeared? Really), I was moved.

Because for me, the historical moment was only partially about race. That President Barack Obama looks like my multihued America is a crucial point (and one he acknowledged eloquently: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”) But it’s not the only point.

That President Obama used words like humility, restraint, principles, and cooperation is the point. That President Obama championed “hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” is the point.

He began damage control for the last eight years of global bullying when he said, “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity,” and assured the world “We are ready to lead once more.”

He signaled a new religious tolerance, stating, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Non-believers! Awesome.

What made President Barack Obama’s inaugural address feel like an true American Moment, though, was its insistence on citizenship. “The time has come to set aside childish things,” he said. Grow up, take responsibility for our institutions and actions. We must “choose our better history.”

In the end, what made President Barack Obama’s inaugural address so moving was no just its hope, but its tenacious optimism. There is an ownership to it. The President did not promise single-handed solutions. The message was not “Consume,” it was “Do something!”

“America,” he said. “In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

I didn’t know it until I felt it, but something inside had frozen in me: the student council vice-president, the volunteer, the faithful believer.

These few days Washington, DC, and today’s rousing speech, though, stirred in me something essential: optimism, enthusiasm, confidence. There are risks in those feelings; I could be disappointed all over again. For now, though, it feels good to feel this way. It feels good to believe in my potential to choose my better history.

It feels even better to believe in all of ours.

Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend

Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend

Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend

MTV News Crew

Shepard Fairey Brings ‘Hope’ To Barack Obama Inauguration

January 21st, 2009

shep281x211.jpgShepard Fairey’s Barack Obama posters were the defining image of the presidential campaign.

The high-contrast red, white and blue portrait went viral overnight, appearing on everything from posters to T-shirts to the cover of Time magazine, and catapulting the Los Angeles-based graphic designer and street artist from subversive propagandist to mainstream icon.

On Saturday, in a gala reception featuring senators, congressmen and governors, the underground artist’s iconic portrait was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., alongside more traditional paintings of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

So what happens when a punk rock, culture-crashing artist with an anti-establishment streak and a healthy arrest record gets invited to the party? Maybe he mellows … just a bit.

“The whole idea that ‘underground is good and government is bad’ is a very one-dimensional idea,” Fairey said, standing in front of a brand-new, 16-by-6 painting of the soon-to-be-president at his traveling “Manifest Hope: DC Gallery” in Georgetown.

“It’s really about taking the opportunity to make the system what we can make it — as progressive, forward-thinking people — and raising the bar for everyone.

“Still, to think that I was standing there with a piece of art that was created as illegal street art to support a campaign no one even thought really had a chance at the time seemed like a real coup to me.”

Ultimately, Fairey said, the ubiquity of his “Hope” poster campaign demonstrates the power of individual inspiration.

“This is a perfect example of how an individual can inspire other individuals and, the next thing you know, something that came from a real, pure place without any secondary motivations that were monetary or based on power can actually influence things.

“I think a lot of people think that the people who hold the strings have it all sewn up, and there’s no point in acting. So the thing that inspires me the most about this validation in the National Portrait Gallery is that it’s proof that it doesn’t have to be this way.”

This article first appeared on MTV News.

Obey Shepard Fairey

January 20th, 2009

manifesthope.jpgI violated the cardinal rule of journalism on Sunday. I began an interview by squealing like a schoolgirl, “I’m a huge fan!”

Oh well; I am.

I’ve been huge fan of Shepard Fairey for years. I noticed his Obey Giant stencils and posters almost immediately upon moving to New York City in 1995. And I dug ’em. Clean lines. Bold contrast. Bright colors. Like Russian propaganda but with a punk-rock, counter-consumer attitude.

Cooler still, his art was the original viral mash-up. He encouraged participation. I ran my first batch of “Benjamin Wagner Has A Posse” stickers in the late Nineties. You could probably find one in the bathroom of The Mercury Lounge or CBGBs (were it not a John Varvatos store).

I’ve come to own four signed, matted and framed posters over the years. My favorites — Obey Air and Obey Industries — hang in my office. The other two wait for the eventual and inevitable construction of my new recording studio.

Anyway, Shepard’s blown up in the last year. His grassroots Hope Campaign on behalf of Barack Obama’s candidacy caught lightning in a bottle. His high-contrast, red, white and blue portrait became the

As I asked in my MTV News article, “What happens when a punk rock, culture-crashing artist with an anti-establishment streak and a healthy arrest record gets invited to the party?”

I went to find out Sunday morning, just a few hours after his portrait of the president-elect (t-minus eight hours!) was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. The answer is, well, not much.

The Manifest Hope: DC Gallery in Georgetown (just a few blocks from where my mom lived in the ’80s) was throbbing with hip-hop beats and progressive, enthused artist types when we walked in. I was still sweating from my ten-mile run around DC. That or the nerves.

Shepard was working on a new Obama canvas while talking on his cell phone as we approached. I was anxious to speak with him. We’re nearly the same age, and seem to share some politics — though he’s been far more aggressive in his assertion.

And though I was fawning, it was a solid conversation. We discussed DC’s monuments, many of which he’s skewered in his art. We talked about the power of iconic imagery, and the danger of cult of personality. And he told me about meeting Obama.

He was sweet. Shy. A tiny bit skeptical, maybe. But bright, and articulate, and quick with a healthy laugh. Left to our own devices, I imagine we could have an interesting conversation. But, alas, time was short. ABC World News Tonight was next in line. And we had Opening Ceremonies to cover.

He handed me a fistful of stickers. I handed him my card, told him that “Hope is the best message there is, man.” And that was that. We walked out onto M Street, hailed a cab, and drove back into the machine.

Conscience Asks The Question

January 19th, 2009

painting.jpgI haven’t stepped foot in a high school in years. And for good reason; they’re large, generic, often sterile and sometimes impenetrable institutions — to say nothing of their inordinately soul-crushing social pressures.

Fitting, then, that I should return to high school today — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — for a general civics lesson and refresher course on inspiration.

The school was Ballou Senior High School in Washington, DC’s southernmost neighborhoods. The event was ServiceNation’s “New Era of Service” breakfast. The morning kicked off a day of service culminating a volunteer efforts at Simon Elementary School down the street.

California First Lady Maria Shriver and celebrities Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Tobey Maguire and Brandon Routh were on hand. The real stars, though, were Martin Luther King III, and civil-rights advocate Congressman John Lewis.

Lewis, who first came to DC in 1961 the year Barack Obama was born to participate in the Freedom Ride, encouraged us in soaring, Baptist tones to “Find a way to get in the way.”

“Do what you can,” he said, “To make our country what it should be.”

King reminded us that “the Constitution and Declaration are promissory notes.”

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”

The marching band played. The mayor spoke. The first grade sang “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” And then people got down to work renovating the library and painting the hallways.

The cynic in me blanched at the corporate sponsorship (including ours), the celebrity photo ops, and the saccharine, election-cycle sloganeering. But as we drove back towards The Capitol, the student council-oriented optimist prevailed. I shook off years of skepticism, and — for the moment, anyway — chose the converse.

Because, where I come from, optimism is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular.

But it is right.

Run (Into The Arms Of America)

January 19th, 2009

runningdc.jpgI love this country, though I wouldn’t call myself patriotic.

I remember first appreciating the massive scope of the American landscape as I drove from Philadelphia to San Diego in college.

The four-week, 8553-mile road trip saw me traverse the Mississippi, Ohio, Colorado, and Rio Grande rivers. I camped in the Buffalo Wilderness, the Badlands, and the Virgin River Valley. I climbed Mount Ajax, and swam off Coronado. I spent hours on the road passing less people in two hours than I see in two blocks in New York City.

The very next year, though, I celebrated the birth of our nation by pointing my rental north towards International Falls, Canada; I just didn’t want to spent another muggy, summer night inhaling cordite. Explosions — metaphorically salient as they are — never struck me as the best way to mark a milestone.

And so it was with some surprise that I found myself awed and inspired as I jogged a ten-mile loop around Washington, DC, this morning. From the Supreme Court to The Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, the scale is epic. The vast, granite facades tower and stretch for miles streaked with red, white and blue bunting and framed by massive, flickering JumboTrons.

I circled The Capitol, pausing a moment to survey Barack Obama’s inaugural vista. From his podium on Tuesday, he will survey his kingdom for a voice: thousands of citizens dotting The National Mall, Tidal Basin, and Reflecting Pool. In dozens of museums, the nation’s intellectual property is backed by it’s mightiest institutions: The FBI, FDIC, IRS, Bureau of Engraving. And across the river, the price of those treasured institutions: Arlington Cemetery.

I stopped to snap a photo in front of The Capitol Reflecting pool as The Edge ripped into his incendiary “Bullet The Blue Sky” solo. I looked up at the House and Senate, and considered the havoc those great chambers of debate have wrought from San Salvador to Vietnam to Iraq. As the last note of the solo decayed into the final verse, though, I turned to the great promise that these great buildings were build to deliver: that all men are created equal; that every voice counts; and that we’re all in this together.

I was torn (as always) but buoyed, perhaps, by the opportunity tomorrow brings. And as I turned for home, Bono encouraged me further still.

“Run,” he whispered, “Into the arms of America.”

Barack Obama Inaugural Weekend

Barack Obama Inaugural Weekend

Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend

Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend

Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend

Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend

Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend