Run This Town

October 30th, 2009

me1.jpgIf I could run the marathon right this second, I would.

Sunday marks my tenth New York City Marathon in a row (and my eleventh overall). For the last four years, I’ve run with Abbi. I love running with her (though I’m not sure she’d always say the same about me). Our pace is governed by the collective; if she’s wiped, I slow down and vice versa (and trust me, it’s gone both ways).

This year, though, I’m running solo. I’m racing myself. My goal is to beat my 2002 personal best of 3:56:24. That means running 9:00 miles. Not impossible, though I am 38-years-old and 185 pounds bone dry and hungry.

In January, I ran the Miami Marathon in 4:08:04 with nearly no preparation just two months after last year’s New York City Marathon.

In the intervening months, I’ve endured twice-weekly physical therapy where I learned about my L4 and piriformis, and even begun lifting some weights. I’ve run some 600 miles, peaking in August at roughly 30 miles-a-week. I ran to Coney Island, I ran to Rockaway Beach, and I’ve traversed four of the five boroughs in one fell-swoop three times, including one four-hour, twenty-four mile Sunday morning.

In addition to exploring entire swaths of New York City unknown to me prior, and witnessing dozens of breathtaking urban sunrises, this year’s long runs have kept me sane and focused amidst constant pressure and change.

This morning, I turned from the river towards home and thought, “I wish I could keep running.”

I am rarely happier than when I’m out in the city, finding my way to its edges, bounding over its bridges, taking it in at the perfect pace. I think I’m at my best in those moments: imagining a distant route, then pushing farther still, always forward, never stopping…

This Is It (This Is Really Happening)

October 28th, 2009

tv.jpgAll the way from JFK to LAX (the part I was awake, anyway), all I could hear was the voice of Ryan Adams screaming in my ears.

“Don’t waste my time; this is it! This is really happening!!! This is really happening!!!”

My brain was on the right lyric, but the alt-country singer/songwriter’s seminal 2003 single, “This Is It,” was the wrong track. This week, anyway, Michael Jackson owns the phrase. Hence my 5,922-mile, 34-hour trip to the red carpet premiere of “Michael Jackson: This Is It.”

You’ve read my musings on life within (behind, really) the fish-eyed lens before. The deeper (or higher, I guess) I get into my job, though, the more challenging the assignment; the more I know, the more I know I’m responsible for.

Landing in Los Angeles, then, was unsettling feeling, like a bullet staring down the barrel of a gun waiting for the hammer to fall. Worse (perhaps) still, I knew it would slam down at exactly 5:30 Pacific Time when MTV’s air yielded to our tiny little production truck perched high atop the Staples Center parking lot.

I arrived in time for a tour of the carpet, and elaborate, u-shaped dance floor with a limo drop at one end, a massive stage at the other, and fan risers, chandeliers and suspended dancer in-between. The wind whipped through the glass, concrete and stone courtyard, blowing leaves, toppling signage, and rattling the chandeliers.

“Michael’s spirit is unsettled,” someone said.

Our job was to produce a thirty-minute (twenty-two with commercials) red carpet special. In other words, to fill four segments of live television with compelling interviews, packages (pre-edited, v.o.-driven stories), and visual context (wide shots, etc). More specifically, our job is to retain (or grow) the rating of the lead-in show, and keep (or grow) that audience through that half-hour.

Live television is a terrific abstraction. It’s like constructing a three-dimensional, non-linear, puzzle atop a relentlessly forward-moving, pitch-black train — with a few million people watching. Like some space-aged bug, you have a dozens of eyes on the action, but you’re completely removed.

The variables are numerous, especially when we we’re guests on the carpet (unlike the Movie Awards or VMAs). Will celebrities show up? A-list? B-list? Worse? Which will agree to be interviewed? Who will we slot where? How will our segments play?

Then there’s timing and bugging everything and identifying everyone in real-time. Complicating matters, this carpet opened at 4:15PT, though we didn’t go live until 5:30PT. So we taped interviews for an hour, then rolled them back. In other words, the producers and directors were forced to not only monitor numerous live cameras and elements (chyron, audio, package playback), but taped as well.

Little wonder, then, my stomach was in knots there in the back row of our production truck as the A.D. counted down 3.. 2… 1…

The stars came out: Jennifer Lopez, Ashlee Tisdale, Neil Patrick Harris, Katy Perry, Adam Lambert, Paris Hilton (and, literally the instant our show wrapped, Will Smith). The truck was a madhouse with ten of us packed into twenty-square feet: producers conferring with one another to re-arrange segments then bark those changes to floor producers on the carpet who communicate to talent — all while the director calls the shots for camera men, audio, playback. It’s organized chaos.

MTV News’ “Michael Jackson: This Is It” Premiere Special” went off with just a few hitches, though: no live bug in the A segment, no jib or crane shots, some longish interviews, and some rogue audio. Sway and Tim were terrific. Our segments were well-paced and insightful (especially the moving story of Michael’s Last 24 Hours). We ran long in the top three segments, so were forced to slam out (“Brace yourself,” I emailed my boss, “This is going to be a hard out.”) on the fourth. And it was.

But the upside to live television is that, no matter how unsettling, nausea-inducing, and uncomfortable, it eventually ends. And you clap, and you hug, and maybe share a stiff drink, and then spill back into the night to catch your breath and remind yourself, ‘That really happened.’

C’Mon C’Mon, Gather Round

October 24th, 2009

singout.jpgI won’t front; I was nervous.

Thursday was a difficult enough right from the start. Rapper Lil Wayne pleaded guilty to gun possession less than an hour after I stepped into the office. For the bulk of the afternoon, then, the news team piled on the story and began crashing a half-hour show.

All day long, though, all I could think was that fifteen musicians would descending on Williamsburgh for our all-star “A Holiday Benefit Album, Vol. III” recording, and — as the guy who put out the call (email, really) — I had to be there.

Compilation albums are a dime a dozen. It doesn’t take much for an artist to donate a b-side or left-over track for some cause. That was impetus behind bringing a dozen singer/songwriters together to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas” for our original “A Holiday Benefit” collaboration.

It takes commitment to show up, hang out, and blend your voice into the chorus. It builds community. And it takes some courage to record with an audience of one’s peers. But if you’re lucky, you have a good time, and end up with something pretty special.

Still, it’s a lot to juggle. There are the technical considerations of setting up instruments and mics, then the production considerations of arrangements and parts, to say nothing of making sure everyone’s comfortable and having a good time. Oh, plus shooting photos and video; if it’s not on Facebook and You Tube, it didn’t happen, right?

I managed to slip out of the office just before six o’clock, hop the NR to the L and race down Lorimer (with a stop for a few six packs at Broadway Deli) to Galuminum Foil Studios. I was just a few minutes late. Emily Easterly, Andy Mac, and Crystal Ponzio (aka Ruby Rivers) were already on hand. Chris Cubeta’s was setting up mics. Casey Shea showed up shortly thereafter.

In no time at all, the five of us were crowded around the piano, cracking wise, sipping beers, and learning the song. Before we knew it, it was time to track individual vocals. Now, “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” is a tough vocal; Billy Squier’s got some pipes. Everyone was uncomfortable with the high news, even the ladies. And no one was eager to track forst. I volunteered, and knocked it out in two passes with only one quickly-remedied clunker note. (My embarrassment would come later in confusing Bimni, Bahamans with Bemidji, Minnesota, though I recovered). Crystal, Emily and Andy went next, each treating a verse (individual lines will be parsed out later) with their own special style.

The rest of the gang (except Bess Rogers, who was on tour, and Bryan Dunn, who was on his honeymoon) straggled in: first Amber Rubarth (just prior to her two CMJ shows), then Paula Valstein and Chris Abad, and finally Martin Rivas.

Everyone got a crack at a solo vocal, and everyone nailed it. Casey and I shot every second on a handful of cameras — some of which you can watch below, and the rest of which will be doled out in the coming weeks and edited into a music video once we wrap the mix.

We never got everyone in the same room at the same time, but did manage to track numerous group vocals, laughing, slurring and clapping our way through (the original track as a hugely-casual party-like performance). Everyone got along, pitched in, and had fun.

The real mayhem, though, broke out well after we’d wrapped “Christmas.” Andy, Casey, Chris, Martin, Paula and I were still standing around sharing beers and laughs when I remembered my bonus track idea. I cajoled engineer Gary into opening the mics and hitting record, then walked back into the big room. Andy grabbed a banjo, I grabbed a shaker (and a camera), Martin and Chris grabbed guitars, Casey and Paula grabbed drum sticks, Gary jumped on piano and we were off, tearing through the oddest, most-raucous, hilarious, long-jam version of “Old Lang Syne” ever committed to tape.

When we finally stumbled into Brooklyn night, we were hooping, hollering and hugging, free from worry, light from joy, and short on memories of anything but laughter, song, and the things we made together.

Times Are Hard (But No One Seems To Care)

October 22nd, 2009

holiday.jpgChristmas can demand a lot of a man, even in October.

I swore up and down to Chris, Jamie and Tony that I’d meet them at Galuminum Foil Studios at exactly nine o’clock. At 8:34, I hailed a cab from West 86th Street to 14th and First. At 8:47, I hopped the L to Lorimer Street. At 9:01, I emerged in Brooklyn and began speed walking south.

Somewhere around Stagg Street (just seconds after picking up two six packs at Velez Grocery), my cell phone lit up with a text message from producer Chris Cubeta.

“Where you at, man? We’re half-done with the track!?!”

When I finally strode up to the place — a huge, industrial, single-story brick building on a deserted block — I could hear the guys banging out “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You.” I wasn’t late after all.

Inside Chris’ massive, wood-panelled space, “A Holiday Benefit, Vol. III” was coming together before my ears. I cracked an El Presidente and joined in.

On our first “Holiday Benefit,”, we tackled my generation’s seminal all-star Christmas jam: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” For “A Holiday benefit, Vol. II,” we took a stab the generation prior’s: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

We spent weeks debating which song we’d do together this time. The criteria was simple. It has to have verses we can divvy up amongst a dozen singers, and a chorus we can all sing. Ideally, it’s non-denominational, and non-cheesy. All of which rules out most holiday songs. For a second there, we considered tossing out the all-star collaboration altogether.

I clung tightly to the vision, though. Nothing beats the community a dozen musicians into one room. It makes the whole project more meaningful, and requires deeper engagement from the participants.

So I was psyched when I traipsed across Billy Squire’s “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” on YouTube. The song dates to 1981, the year rock ‘n roll really took hold of me. Of course, the video features the original lineup of MTV VJs, connecting me even more deeply to the tune.

I began recording an annual holiday single in 2004 in an effort to distract myself during an otherwise bleak and often depressing season. I launched this whole “A Holiday Benefit” series based on that premise (and the Mister Rogers-inspired urge to help others) two years ago. It creates its own light now. And anyway, the season seems much brighter these days.

Still, these are trying times: two wars, economic turmoil, social inequity, rampant commercialism, and on and on and on. So I had to smile when I sang these lyrics last night.

On the corner carolers are singing
There’s a touch of magic in the air
From grownup to minor no one could be finer
Times are hard but no one seems to care

Nothing breaks the chill of the season like the sound of a dozen voices singing together. Except maybe that sound backed by an iron-clad rhythm section and smokin’ electric guitar.

Tomorrow night, Chris Abad, Casey Shea, Bryan Dunn, Chris Cubeta, Emily Easterly, Andy Mac, Martin Rivas, Ruby Rivers, Bess Rogers, Amber Rubarth, Paula Valstein and I will rub the chill out of the air. Times may be hard, but we don’t care.

Rockwood Music Hall (New York, New York)

October 17th, 2009 - 5:00 pm

Giving Up The Ghost (2)
St. Anne
The Last Time
The Rest Of My Life
Live Forever
Dear Elizabeth
Heroes
Boys Of Summer
No Myth
Girlfriend In A Coma
Love Is Here To Stay
The Weight

Double-bill with Chris Abad, featuring special guests Casey Shea, Jamie Alegre, and Matt Basile.

The Wild Rumpus

October 16th, 2009

wt.jpgFor me, Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” is mixed up with the wild rumpus of my parent’s divorce.

I don’t remember when Sendak’s creatures first appeared in my life; his fifteen-page book was always present.

I do remember wandering the wide, book-strewn aisles of the Oak Park Mall’s Kracht & Brentano’s with my family (when we were one), pawing at books like “Scruffy” and “Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing.” And I remember spotting a Wild Thing there, high on an off-white, corrugated-steel shelf. And I remember that I absolutely had to have him.

He was gray-bearded, bare-footed, floppy-eared and horned. His fur was bright blue, matted and rough, his beard more so. He was a hefty thing, round and solid with big, jointed legs and big, white-felt claws. He appeared beneath the Christmas tree that year, the year of my parent’s divorce. I named him W.T.

That year was especially punctuated by quickly and frequently-shifting emotions: anger, sadness, confusion, joy and hope. I was ten-years-old, somewhere between stuffed animals and too cool. I clung to W.T. like ballast, lugging him everywhere, and tucking him beneath my right arm every night.

W.T., to be clear, was a gift from my mother. The only human characters in the book are, after all, Max and his mother.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another, his mother called him Wild Thing. And Max said, “I’ll eat you up!” So he was sent to be without eating anything. That very night in Max’s room a forest grew, and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and his walls became the world all around. And an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max. And he sailed off through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

Once there, of course, Max tames the wild things “with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking.” He is made king, and commands, “Let the wild rumpus start!” Afterwards, he sends the wild things to bed without supper, finds himself lonely, and wishes “to be where someone loved him best of all.” When Max sails back over the ocean and “into the night of his very own room,” his supper is waiting for him. And it is still hot.

The scant, wildly-illustrated book was just a text then, but it’s loaded with subtext now: run away, be wild; you will always be loved, and supper will always be hot. It was invested with permission to feel excited, scared, angry, confused and brave all at once. Powerful stuff, especially in a house where the walls often rumbled and the floor sometime shook.

Nearly thirty years later, I avoided the itinerant hype of Spike Jonze’s approaching film adaptation for months, endeavoring to see it as a fresh text (albeit invested in nothing less than the emotional chaos of my parent’s divorce). Wednesday night, I sat in the back of an 826NYC benefit screening at The Paris Theater on 58th Street and Fifth Avenue (there in the shadow of Eloise’s Plaza Hotel, a place invested with nothing less than the big city enthusiasm of my mother’s childhood) pregnant with anticipation.

The screenplay (a collaboration between Jonze and 826-founder, author Dave Eggers) immerses us immediately in the latch-key world of Max’s imaginary play. He wrestles his scruffy, gray puppy, then stomps outside to build a snow fort and command an imaginary army. He playfully tosses snowballs at his sister’s boyfriend, who crushes Max’s fort, leaving him a teary, snotty, crumpled mess.

For me, those opening moments — well before we meet his mother (played by Catherine Keener) or the Wild Things — set the narrative tone. Jonze and Eggers have crafted a world, like Sendak before them, that swings wildly between emotions: one minute jubilant, one frightened, the next heartbroken.

As adults, we endeavor to capture childhood in a bottle, frozen forever like some museum diorama where nothing gets broken, and no one gets hurt. Sendak, Jonze and Eggers, though, have the courage to stare into the yellow of our eyes and remind us otherwise. Through the gnashing claws, frenzied dancing and wild rumpus of the dark night, they show us our true selves: messy, complex kids in wolf’s clothing escaping into the oceans of our own imagination, longing for a home where we’re loved most of all.

Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You

October 12th, 2009

winter.jpgThere’s barely a nip in the air, but once again, we’re getting the holidays started early.

In two years, “A Holiday Benefit” and “A Holiday Benefit, Vol. II” have raised nearly $5000 for 826NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills.

This year, veterans Chris Abad, Casey Shea, Bryan Dunn and I will be joined by an absolutely amazing lineup of singer/songwriters: Chris Cubeta, Emily Easterly, Andy Mac, Martin Rivas, Ruby Rivers, Bess Rogers, Amber Rubarth, and Paula Valstein.

Next week, we’re getting everyone together at Chris Cubeta’s Galuminum Foil Studios track our cover of Billy Squier’s “Christmas Is A Time To Say I Love You.”

Then, everyone will repair to their respective corners to record an individual contribution. And once again, come December, we’ll get the gang together for a big album release and silent auction.

Last year’s “A Holiday Benefit, Vol. II” featured Derek James, Kelley McRae, Ian Axel, Rosey Golan, Brent Shuttleworth, Deena Goodman and more in an all-star cover of John Lennon’s “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over).”

The Gift

October 6th, 2009

absandme.jpgTwo years ago today, Abbi and I received many thoughtful wedding gifts, not the least of which being the presence of so many family and friends who trekked all the way to South Carolina’s Low Country where Blackberry service is scarce, and the mosquitoes are as big as hummingbirds.

Ours had been a fairly drama-free courtship, one marked by long runs and quiet nights. Sure, we disagreed on some stuff from time to time. And we had wild night, making out on the jam-packed dance floor at Automatic Slims. In general, though, the beauty of our courtship was how naturally it evolved. It just was. We just were.

Of course, marriage isn’t all sunshine, lollipops and roses. I witnessed plenty of discord (and, to be fair, some harmony) growing up. So it was hugely prescient and remarkably meaningful when our officiant, author and mystic Bo Lozoff, began to speak in the section of our ceremony we called his “freestyle” (Christians, I suppose, would call it a “Homily”).

My brother, Christofer, and I met Bo just a few years prior. Mister Rogers had introduced us indirectly; the day that he and I met in Nantucket, he mentioned that his friend Bo was beginning a year-long vow of silence. He told me about Bo’s book, “Deep & Simple.” So when we set out to make “Mister Rogers & Me,” Bo was one of our first stops.

Bo treated Chris and I like we were the only two people on Earth, dispensing hours of wisdom pulling from every major Good Book in the hours upon hours we wandered his 75-acre ashram. One of the poets he quoted was the 14th Century Sufi poet, Hafez. A little over two years later, there beneath a mighty Spanish Oak tree on the banks of the Pocotaligo River, he recited Hafez again.

“Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,” he said, “break all our teacup talk of God.”

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room by your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,
Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.

It has been a terrific first two years of marriage, hands down the best two years of my life. I am the luckiest s.o.b. on the planet to have a woman so strong, beautiful, thoughtful and fun tap me on the shoulder and introduce herself.

Still, as time has passed, and as Abbi and I reflect here in the crisp morning light, it is so apparent to me that Bo has given us perhaps the most valuable, thoughtful gift of all: the permission to be imperfect, to flail about uncertainly and understand that, through the challenges and suffering, there will be great favor.

On our bookshelf, right next to a photo of sealing our hand-written vows with a kiss, is a collection of Hafiz poems called simply, “The Gift.” In the front of the book Bo inscribed, “May this ancient, ever timely poetry help to remind you to live love, laugh and care deeply, as is your true nature.”

Actual Email, Vol. II

October 4th, 2009

email.jpgLast year, my department was slashed in half. We responded by setting a new strategy and impossibly steap but completely attainable goals. Keeping on target called for daily vigilance, and more than one speech invoking Presidents Obama and Kennedy (not all at once!), Bob Dylan, Bono and even Internet visionary Clay Shirky.

We’d done a terrific job reaching our lofty goals until August when a lack of news and an absence of kids at their computers created something of a drought. We need something new to push us over the edge: a kick-ass speech, a mascot or metaphor. While running one morning, it dawned on me what.

On long runs, I pack a few PowerGels into my pockets. They’re basically foil packs of a pudding-like substance intended to provide quick burst of slow-burning energy. Which is precisely what our department needed. They needed to feel that this was a long run, and endurance event, one that calls for digging deeper for periodic burst of energy. So I asked my assistant, Nicole, to buy fifty of them for our bi-weekly departmental meeting.

I’m pretty sure the team thought I lost my mind, but I don’t care. The metaphor worked. And, as it ends up, we hit our August goal. When Nicole submitted my T&E Report, though, the expense was rejected.

What follows, then, is not just Nicole’s actual email exchange with the approvals team, but also a great and (too me anyway) funny micro-lesson in corporate justification.

_____________________________________________

From: T&E Info
To: Wagner, Benjamin
Subject: T&E report number TEA000113798

Hi Benjamin,

There is an expense claimed under the category; Other/Miscellaneous for $46.74 dated 08/07/09, please explain the kind of expense and provide a detailed business reason for the same.

Currently your report is on hold. For any assistance please e-mail.

Thanks and Regards.
_____________________________________________

From: T&E Info
To: Wagner, Benjamin
Subject: T&E report number TEA000113798

Hello there,

My name is Nicole Guanlao and I’m Benjamin Wagner’s assistant. The expense you are referring to below was a demonstrational item Benjamin purchased for our large departmental meeting. They consisted of Power Gel packs, which he gave out to all of our staff members as a visual reference. He was making a presentation and needed the items so that the staff could further understand the demonstration. Please let me know if you need anything else.

Can you please approve this expense?

Thank you!

_____________________________________________

From: T&E Info
To: Wagner, Benjamin
Subject: T&E report number TEA000113798

Hi Nicole,

It would be helpful if you can explain/describe the items (Power Gel Packs) to have a better understanding of the kind of expense.

Thanks.

_____________________________________________

From: T&E Info
To: Wagner, Benjamin
Subject: T&E report number TEA000113798

Our staff had been working really late and Benjamin bought energy meal supplements (PowerGels) to demonstrate how our hard work enables us to meet our goals.

______________________________________________

From: T&E Info
To: Wagner, Benjamin
Subject: T&E report number TEA000113798

Hi Nicole,

Thanks for the details. Your report is been approved and sent for payment.

Thanks.

Ends up Nicole’s explanation wasn’t spot on, but it worked. Which is really the only measure of success.