Saturday, July 29, 2006

What's It Gonna Be?

I'm a bit of a trailer junkie. I tend to spend a minute or two every day checking Yahoo, Apple, Ain't It Cool -- the usual suspects -- for new movie trailers. Yesterday I saw the trailer for Russell Crowe's next film, "A Good Year."

Crowe plays Max Skinner, a ruthless, heartless Master of The Universe. His uncle, though -- a warm and meaningful man -- leaves Crowe his Italian villa, and all of the substantive, deep and simple childhood memories that come with it. In the closing scene, Crowe's uncle (played by Albert Finney) says, "So what it going to be? Your money or your life?"

No one asked Bo Lozoff's grandfather what he did for a living. He painted houses. What of it? How he earned money, Bo explained, didn't define him.

I was reading Wired Magazine's "How To" guide on the subway last week, and bumbled across this interesting passage:

    Once people have food, shelter, and clothing, their happiness curve flattens out. The extra effort to earn a six- or seven-figure salary has a low ROI.

You've probably noticed that Starbuck's sells CDs these days. I was there on Saturday morning, and noticed a display called, "The Essentials." They were promoting The Beatles "Rubber Soul," which is arguable essential. But it was the displays ad copy that really got my attention.

"Even the most comprehensive collection is incomplete without this one."

And that's it in a nutshell, isn't it? Culture does not discern who you are, how whole you are, or what you're worth by any substantive criteria. Instead, it's about what you do, what you consume, and what you own.

Are you counter-culture? You're Volkswagen says so. Are you a upwardly mobile? You must be; you're driving a Range Rover. Are you irreverent? Drink Zima! Are you traditional? Jack and Coke! Abercrombie and Fitch, Gray Goose, Talbots, Oldsmobile, Dell, Patron, Gap, Canon, Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Anheuser Bush, USAir, American Express, Victoria's Secret, Guinness, Ralph Lauren, Wonder, Exxon...

You are what you consume.

Abbi and I were floating on a diving platform in the middle of Leapord Lake, a tiny little lake down the street from my mom's house, earlier this afternoon. Locusts were droning in the trees. Birds were chirping in the branches. Dragonflies were skimming the shoreline. The water was still, flat like glass. We sat and sat, quietly tracing the miniscule changes in color and shape from moment to moment...

'Now this is it,' I thought.

Not brought to you by anyone, not sponsored, co-branded, co-signed, or co-opted. Neither virtual, nor simulated, nor fabricated. Not sold, bought, or processed. It just was what it was: a genuine, beautiful moment unique from all of the moments that have come prior, or will ever come again. All of the money in the world couldn't buy it, and all of the planning in the world couldn't schedule it. The moment just was: quiet, calm, tranquil, mysterious... and then gone.

So what it going to be? Your money or your life?

Thursday, July 27, 2006


You'll recall that Mr. Rogers and I discussed the shortage of "deep and simple" in popular culture on the very first day we met. He asked me about working for MTV News. "I love what I do," I told him. "I love talking about music, and serving information to fans, but it's not rocket science. It's not PBS." His response was measured, uncalculated, and spot on. It wasn't an indictment. It was an observation that became a challenge.

"So much television is shallow and complex," he said. "I feel so strongly that deep and simple are far, far more essential than shallow and complex."

The following summer, I told him that I thought about our "deep and simple" conversation nearly every day. He leaned in towards me and whispered, "Spread the message, Benjamin. Spread the message."

Even in that moment, I couldn't imagine why he would ask me to spread the message. He's the one with the longest running show on public television!

For almost two years, I told Chris, "We'll just shoot a bunch of interviews and cut them together." But the project has rapidly evolved from a lofty, ambitious abstraction to tangiable reality in the last few weeks. Our budget (anticipated budget, that is; we're still paying for it out of our pockets) has ballooned. We're meeting with lawyers, submitting location applications (and paying location fees) and grant forms. More importantly, though, the gravitas of the project has really begun to hit home. This is not an easy assignment. This is Big Stuff: God, Love, Peace. Frankly, the story touches on some of the 21st Century's greatest minds: Fred Rogers, Henri Nouwen, Bo Lozoff, The Dalai Lama. So still I wonder, why he would ask me to spread the message?

Amy Hollingsworth (who has become an excellent pen pal) and I have discussed it quite a bit. She has repeatedly assured me that Mr. Rogers "knew what he was doing." Still, I've wondered...

I got Tim Madigan's "I'm Proud Of You" on Tuesday afternoon, and finished it this morning. For some reason, it finally occurred to me why Mr. Rogers asked me to "spread the message."

    The authentic spiritual life finds its basis in the human condition, which all people -- whether they are Christian or not -- have in common," [Mr. Rogers' friend, priest/author Henri] Nouwen wrote once. In another of his books, The Wounded Healer, Nouwen wrote that a minister's service "will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks... The great illusion of leadership is to think that others can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.

It occurred to me that the most effective ministering has a ripple affect. The most effective minister inspires devotes, like Jesus and the Apostles, or Moses and the Israelites. Amy Hollingsworth, Tim Madigan, Jeff Erlanger, Bill Isler (and hundreds of others, to be sure): we are all devotees. We are all Apostles. We are all Israelites. We each minister to our own audiences, our own devotees, through the lens of our own personal (and hence, universal) suffering. Mr. Rogers knew this. He knew we were wounded. (We all are.) He knew that goodness beget goodness. He knew that we were up for the challenge. (Now I just hope he was right.)

Monday, July 24, 2006


I wrote about a guy named Tim Madigan a few days ago. He's a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He befriended Mr. Rogers after interviewing him some years ago. He has a book coming out next month called, "I'm Proud of You." I read the first chapter (you can too right here) and was dazzled. I can't wait to read the whole book.

So I emailed his publicist this morning. She just wrote back:

    It is a mighty small world, isn't it. I immediately recognized your name after I read the first sentence of your email. My sister (Miriam Parker) was included in a collection of essays called "2 Do Before I Die" - which I believe you were included in, as well. I was at the reading in NYC last summer where you read. And I was absolutely touched by your story. (It was one of the factors that lead me to want to work on this book when I found out it was being published at my imprint -- and I found your essay online and passed it along to the editor of the book as well).

Crazy, huh? I mean, like, really crazy!?!

"2 Do" is a great little book compiled and edited by Michael Ogden and Chris Day . I hosted the New York book release party on my roof deck last June. Mike and Chris (and Ron Lieber, who suggested I submit) were the first non-familial audience to really respond to the essay I wrote when Mr. Rogers died (which constitutes the first act of the documentary). Their interest deepened my confidence. Their inclusion of my essay (which you can read here) emboldened this project. (Plus their edit rocked.)

So it ends up Tim will be in New York promoting his book next month. He'll be doing a reading at the Barnes & Noble on Broadway and 82d, exactly halfway between my brother and my apartment. Whether we interview Tim then or not, the wheels are in motion for another solid contribution to the film.

Mighty small, crazy world indeed.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Throwing Pies

I had a rough night on Thursday. I went to see an advance screening of a film my company produced. The narrative of consists solely of a series of comedic vignettes. I laughed heartily through the first twenty minutes. And then one of the characters took a bowel movement into a funnel connected to a tube that was connected to a respirator through which another character breathing. And then I heard a voice...

"I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other's faces and that, to me, was such demeaning behavior. And if ther's anything that bothers me, it's one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad.'"

In the next scene, one of the characters threatened to splash horse semen into another's face. And then I heard a voice...

"What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become."

I sank further and further into my seat as the rest of the film unspooled, then raced to the elevator banks before any of the executives could grab me and ask, "Sooooo? What did you think?"

Stepping back into what I humorously call The Death Star on Friday morning was difficult. I didn't know whether I could tell my boss how I really fely about the film (morally bunkrupt, shallow and complex), and didn't know that I could keep quiet at a marketting meeting for said film late in the day. I decided to reach out To Amy and Bo in Fred's absence. Both were hugely empathic and helpful.

Amy, too, was wrestling with the remifications of being true to (what Mr. Rogers would call) her "honest self" in regards her forthcoming book. Bo understood the struggle as well.

    There does come a time when one questions whether he's compatible enough with his job and employer, and sometimes the answer is "no." That's why Josh (my son) left Hollywood after seven years of increasing success and fulltime work that was the envy of all his friends (like playing Karla's son on "Cheers" for the last four seasons of the show). He was in a "Jackass"-type movie called "Clueless" and it did him in. He said "If this is what I'm contributing to after seven years, I don't want to be doing it after twenty." And yet, there are many great people in Hollywood who figure out how to hang in there. And no doubt at MTV as well. It's a personal issue, not a categorical one. An honorable struggle.

An honorable struggle both Fred, Amy and Bo must have known would become increasingly challenging.

I love my job, and the people with whom I work. But I'm sure the executives at Smith & Wesson or Altria would say the same thing. So, for the moment, I'm not going anywhere. It would be financial suicide to just up and quit. And would reduce the value of the binary inherent to "Mr. Rogers & Me." But the time will come.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


Bo Lozoff and I have been exchanging emails. Ends up he's a singer/songwriter like me, which Mr. Rogers surely know when he set me on my "deep and simple" quest. (I'm firmly of the belief -- and the evidence is overwhelming -- that he knew exactly what he was doing when he leaned in and whispered, "Spread the message, Benjamin.")

Bo just finished recording his third CD last week. So we've been talking about recording, and songwriting, and sharing music. I gave him "Heartland," and suggested he listen to "Cry," which is a song I credit Mr. Rogers (and The Nadas) with giving me the courage to write. Bo performed a song on camera for Chris and I, one called "The Best Things In Life Are Free" (which has obvious overlap with the tenants of a "deep and simple" life). In fact, I turned to Chris as we were packing up and said, "Sweet! Bo's gonna be on the soundtrack!" He reminds me (and many, to be sure) of Johnny Cash. His voice is deep and raspy. His songs are straight forward, deep and (surprise) simple.

He emailed that he found "Cry" very "beautiful and haunting," which is probably apt for most of my songs. Many of them are haunting, because they're (I'm?) haunted by distant, painful memories (as we all are). And while I think that my songs reflect that (including, to be sure, the song I played for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, "Summer's Gone"), I think they are all lined with hope.

I wrote back and told him -- again -- just how profound an experience Chris and I had at The Human Kindness Foundation.

    I must tell you that, perhaps not surprisingly, Chris and my time with you at The Foundation was nothing short of life changing. Words (to your point) don't begin to express just how meaningful the intensity, and substance of your sharing meant to me. Likewise, "Deep & Simple" has become a constant companion, a guidebook, if you will, on this great quest of ours. Thank you.

His response was pretty cool.
    Regarding your very sweet e-mail, Benjamin, what we're all shooting for is for EVERY event and day to be life-changing, so I'm happy for us to be good "practice" for you and Chris. I can't tell you how much we thoroughly enjoyed our time with you and especially to see two adult brothers with so much love and... well, brotherhood! What a refreshing thing for this day and age. Thank you both for visiting. We certainly hope to see you again. And next time we have to do some music together!

Like I said before, I feel like Mr. Rogers knew what he was doing in sending a young MTV executive on a quest to discover deeper and simpler meaning, and share his discoveries with the world. The connections I'm making -- Chris, Amy, Bo, Jonathan -- reinforce to me just how connected we all are. Even when I'm crowding myself on the subway, or stuck there beneath the concrete for a few hours, I can't help but feel that connection with everyone around me. Nothing could be deeper, or simpler.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Chris and I met at the 79th Street Station at 7:30. The sun was just cresting over Central Park. It was already 84º.

We had an 8:30 appointment with Kenyon & Kenyon partner Jonathan Reichman. This home grown little documentary of ours was suddenly getting kinda' serious.

My original thinking for this film was simple: we'll interview a bunch of people and cut it together. There was no budget as I figured all we'd have to pay for is travel to interviews; Chris and my time was "free." But it became immediately apparent to me that, at the minimum, we'd need to form a company (henceforth known as Wagner Bros., LLC), we'd need help with any contract negotiations (licensing, distribution, etc), and we'd need to work out media rights (clips from award shows, still photos, etc). All of a sudden our little project is into six digits.

Kenyon & Kenyon is a 125-year-old firm specializing in litigation, prosecution, licensing and counseling services relating to patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and related matters. They're big, like Capital B Big. Which is kind of a mixed blessing. Chris and I love the independent nature of this project. But we also want it to be done right, and seen by as many people as possible. I'll do whatever it takes to make that happen, even if it means working with The Man.

Kenyon & Kenyon's New York offices are located at One Broadway. This is appealing to my symbolic sensibilities. Where better to start the long road to completion than at the beginning?

We were early, so we grabbed coffee and a muffin across the street at the Bowling Green green Market, and discussed our strategy. Now, Chris and I are creatives. We're not businessmen. Which we decided to own outright. We don't know much about the law, or retainers, or any of the stuff. So we decided to say so.

Jonathan ushered us into a massive, well-appointed conference room ten stories above Battery Park. The view was sweeping: from City Hall to the Statue of Liberty. It was impressive (as, Chris noted later, it should be).

The meeting began with my re-telling of the "Mr. Rogers & Me" story. Jonathan caught on quickly.

"So it's like a quest," he said. "You're looking for deep and simple."

The best part of the meeting was reading the enthusiasm on his face. It's been one of the best parts of this project. People relax and engage when they're talking about Mr. Rogers. They know that they're safe. Its pretty cool.

Chris and I plan on interviewing other potential attorneys. And expect to lean heavily on our cousin Bill, who's a partner at Lewis, Rice in St. Louis. We'd like to keep it home grown. But we also want it to be big. It's a big message, deep and simple. It deserves to be heard, whatever the cost.

Either way, it was fun to start at One. It's a pretty good place to start.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Unashamed Insistence

"Someone else's action should not determine your response."

That's The Dalai Lama speaking. Mr. Rogers was a big fan of his. He quoted him in his posthumous book, "Life's Journeys According To Mister Rogers," which I began reading this morning.

It's a ridiculously excellent quote if you stop to think about it. That said, it may well be easier said than done. But, then, the best things in life are probably easier said than done.

I went back to work at MTV News today after a week-long vacation that fell fast on the heels of Independence Day which followed almost immediately after Chris and my trip to Amy's and Bo's. Which is to say, for the first time since I took the first life-altering step into a deeper and more simple life, I was forced to wade through Big Media knowing that a) I'm not a rocket scientist b) I'm selling sugar water and c) I'm not going anywhere anytime soon.

I read most of Bo's book, "Deep & Simple" -- the one that started it all -- while on vacation in Bonaire. It's pretty easy to imagine a life of a) fiscal modesty b) community orientation and c) daily reflection while floating in the Caribbean. In the ninety degree subway at nine o'clock in the morning? Not so.

That was the challenge today, and will be in the coming weeks and months. How do I integrate these lessons from the epicenter of what I've taken to calling The Fast Food Culture? Abbi and I weren't in New York five minutes when I said (half in jest), "I feel like buying something already."

Fortunately, Mr. Rogers came to the rescue almost immediately.

Amongst the (I kid you not) 1633 emails in my inbox was one from my mother.

"Saw this on a blog," she wrote. "Don't know if you've read this or not."

I followed the link ( to Chapter One of author (and Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter) Tim Madigan's book, "I'm Proud of You." Tim and Mr. Rogers were friends.

    The heart of his greatness... was his unique capacity for relationship, what Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod once called "a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy." That was true with almost every person he met, be it television's Katie Couric or a New York City cabdriver; the Dalai Lama or the fellow handing out towels at the health club where Fred went to swim. Fred wanted to know the truth of your life, the nature of your insides, and had room enough in his own spirit to embrace without judgment whatever that truth might be.

Tim's description of Mr. Rogers' ease with intimacy ("Your wounded heart is a very beautiful heart") and compassion ("Anything mentionable is manageable") was as eloquent and moving as any I'd read. I smiled and choked back tears right there on the 2/3 Express.

All day long I'd been holding Mr. Rogers, Bo Lozoff, Amy Hollingsworth, and The Dalai lama in my heart. All day long I tried to find the joy in every situation, no matter how bleak. All day long, I sought to turn other sadness, frustration and exhaustion into hope. The City can be brutal and inhospitable. People can be cruel.

I stepped out of the subway at 72d Street. The air was heavy and hot. Traffic was clogged. People were rushing. As I crossed Broadway, I caught a glimpse of the sun setting over the Hudson, before scurrying on towards home. A block later, though, I turned around to watch it slip beneath the waves. I was a little bit embarrassed to be standing on the street corner staring into the sun. But I'm working on it. I'm shooting for unashamed insistence.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Silence & Song

This morning was beautiful. The sky was clear blue. The air was cool and crisp. Chris and Ethan joined Abbi and me for our morning run in Central Park. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth mile, there beneath a deep green canopy of leaves on the bridal path east of The Reservoir, Ethan began singing.

He was reclining in the jogging stroller, looking up at the sky through the trees. The stroller was bumping along the gravel path. He was singing softly to himself. I could only scarcely make out the words over our collective footfalls, only his sweet, soft voice warbling with every bump.

At the end of last week's shoot, Amy read me a letter Mr. Rogers had sent her from Nantucket. I'm sure it will make the documentary. He wrote about quietly observing the sunset over Madaket Bay, and how deeply he was moved by it. I can't quote the letter verbatim (the interviews are being transcribed by our brand-new, most-capable Associate Producer, Katia Maguire, who produces for PBS' "American Masters" by day), but in essence, Mr. Rogers told Amy that the deep and simple beauty of the moment inspired him to sing songs of praise (Amy calls them "doxology").

"There's something very mystical and wonderful about how music can touch us," he told the Academy of Television & Radio. "You know, it's elemental."

It struck me this morning that, without any prompting, or learning, Ethan knows how to respond to beauty and grace: with song. Of course, Mr. Rogers knew all about the power of song.

"The music is a huge part of my work. It was always a way of expressing who I was and how I felt."

Music was definitely a shorthand for Mr. Rogers and me. The day after I met him, I played "Summer's Gone" in his living room. I think he intuited a lot from that song choice ("summer's gone away/everything left to decay/there is nothing you can say/to make it last"). I think he felt the sense of loss and hope in me. Later, he played "Happy Birthday" and "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" for me. I didn't need to intuit much; his openness, love and light spilled from his eyes and radiated from his fingertips.

There was a lot of silence and song between Mr. Rogers and me. When the horror of September 11th derailed the long-planned release of my CD, "Crash Site," I asked myself what he would do. Two weeks later, Mr. Rogers called the venue at which I performed a Red Cross benefit and sold copies of a newly-recorded benefit single just to wish me good luck.

Silence and song.

The sun was setting as Chris and I wrapped up our interview with Bo in Mebane, NC, last week. Chris was picking up some final shots from the deck of The Human Kindness Foundations Meditation Center. I stood next to him, quietly taking in the cool, tranquil, and beautiful moment. Just over our shoulder, a morning dove sang softly, "Whooo, whoooo, whooooo..." I often think of God when I hear morning doves. I know He/She was with us then. I didn't say a word to Chris. But last night, as I quickly screened the tapes, I found that Chris had pointed the camera towards that beautiful bird and its song, and lingered there a while.

Silence and song.

There will be plenty of both in this film.

For Mr. Rogers. And me. And Ethan.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Deep & Simple Gold Mine

I stumbled (ok, Googled) upon an absolute gold mine this weekend. The Archive of American Television has posted a nine-part interview with Mr. Rogers from July, 1999. I'm only one hour into it, but already I'm thrilled, and moved, and so excited. And already I'm emailing Christofer saying, "We need to raise funds so we can license all of this great footage!"

I have two computers on my desk here at the MTV, a Apple and a Dell. I tend to do the bulk of my work on the MacBook, while watching broadband on the Dell (while, of course, CNN plays on the TV -- not so intentional, to be sure). So I was working and listening and I heard Mr. Rogers says, "Yunno what? Before we do that, can I say one more thing?"

I paused what I was doing, and watched...

"How many clothes can you wear? How many cars can you drive? How big of a shelter do you really need? Some people get so caught up in the trappings of life. At least I feel that they lose what is real. And so my desire is to help children realize that deep and simple are far, far more important than shallow and complicated and fancy."

I clapped and whooped out loud. Here he was saying almost exactly what he said to me that day in Nantucket! It's the thesis of the whole thing! And it completely hooks into what Bo and I discussed last week about consumerism's tendency to distract from spirituality! So cool.

But don't take my word for it. Set down what you're doing, and watch for yourself.

Archive of American Television Interview With Fred Rogers

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The End Is The Beginning Is The End

Considering that Chris and I have barely begun shooting, Mr. Rogers & Me," it might sound ridiculous to tell you that I think I know how the film should end.

(Of course, if you don't want to know how it's going to end, you probably shouldn't read any more of this post.)

I haven't tracked down the actual tape yet, and I only vaguely recall having seen it myself, so I would say that the story of Mr. Rogers at the Emmy Awards was an apocryphal one -- if both Bo and Amy hadn't corroborated my memory.

Here's the scene. Mr. Rogers is accepting his lifetime achievement award. He's standing at the podium in front of television luminaries (I remember seeing Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols). He asks everyone to stand and says, "All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Ten seconds of silence." Then he lifted his wrist, looked at his watch, and said softly, "I'll watch the time."

Above all, I think, Mr. Rogers was an advocated for quiet reflection. Because in reflection, in turning inward, we find ourselves, and The Divine. It is the essence of deep and simple.

Mr. Rogers had a saying on a plaque in his office that read, "What is essential is invisible to the eye." What is essential is inside. The way to get at what is essential is to be still, be in the moment, and listen.

In May of 1997, during a Charlie Rose broadcast from Pittsburgh, Mr. Rogers asked Charlie, "What do you think we can do, those of us who are purveyors of this television medium, what can we do to encourage people to have more quiet in their lives, more silence? Because real revelation comes through silence." (Charlie answered with another question.)

So... imagine that ninety minutes of film have passed. We've established my relationship to Mr. Rogers, his challenge to me to "spread the message" of deep and simple. We've spoken with Bo and Amy, Mrs. Rogers, Michael Keaton, LeVar Burton, Katie Couric, Bill Moyers and who knows who else. We've visited his birthplace in Latrobe, his children's center at St. Vincent's, the set at WQED, and his red sweater in the Smithsonian. We've seen clips from his show, and his speeches, in interviews, on camera and off. We've addressed spirituality, culture, consumerism, advertising, violence, and television. And you, there in the audience, have a few things to think about. What does deep and simple mean to me? What really matters? How can I make a difference?

In voice over, then, as the camera settles on a shot of the sunset on Madaket Bay (where Mr. Rogers swam daily, and where my mother first met him), I'll say, "Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds of silence." And I'll pause long enough to hear the wind and the waves then softly say, "I'll watch the time."