Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Announcing"A Family Records Holiday"

I'm not sure I've told this story here.

I met Mister Rogers on my 30th birthday: September 4, 2001. The World Trade Center fell exactly one week later. I was just about to release a new CD,"Crash Site," but -- inspired in no small part by his ethos -- I repaired to the studio to record a benefit CD instead. I sent him a copy prior to the September 25th release, and invited him to come to the show. He didn't make it, but when I got home, there was a message on my answering machine from him saying that he'd tried to reach me at the Mercury Lounge, but I was already on stage.

Seven years later, I'm at it again. And once again, Mister Rogers is the inspiration.

I just sent a dozen emails to some of New York City's finest singer/songwriters and bands. It read (in part)

    I first met Mister Rogers in 2001. It's a long story. In short, he encouraged me to make the world the better place any way I knew how. Now, I don't have a ton of skills: I sing, I write, and I make records. Which is why I'm emailing you now.

    I'm gathering a group of NYC singer/songwriters and rock bands to put together a holiday benefit CD. My pal, Wes Verhoeve, will release the album on his Family Records imprint. "A Family Records Holiday" will collect a dozen holiday songs, and culminate with a cover of "Do They Know It's Christmas."

    Which is where you come in. We want you to record your favorite holiday song -- or write and record a new one -- and then donate the recording to this cause. Then, on September 22-23, we'll gather at Travis Harrison's Serious Business Studios in Brooklyn to record our own version of "Do They Know It's Christmas." We'll shoot and edit a video, and perform together at a righteous release party in December under the guidance of Mr. Verhoeve plus the assistance of our pal, Hot Rocks' Jenny Piston.

    The entire project will benefit New York Cares.

Until this morning, I had two weekends free between now and the New York City Marathon (November 4). Now I have one: the one before I get married. Which is just fine with me.

Like I just said to Wes: It feels good to do good.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Revenge Of The Bookeaters

826NYC's benefit, Revenge Of The Bookeaters, was Sunday night at The Beacon Theater.

I came to the event via Jen Snow who, in addition to having one of the great names of all time, is 826NYC's publicist. We've connected over email (in fact, she's one of the articulate supporters excerpted here) and, as I've mentioned, plan to work together on the doc.

It was a star-studded affair, in a literary, Brooklyn-esque kinda' way: Demitri Martin hosted; Broken Social Scene, Spoon's Britt Daniel, New Pornographer AC Newman, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and Feist performed.

The entire night was kind of scrappy and lo-fi in an endearing way. The performances were mostly uneven, but well-intentioned, and well worth it. 826, founded in 2002 by memoirist David Eggers, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.

As a creative writing major and thus-far failed writer, applaud their efforts vigorously. Moreover, I hope to amplify those efforts in some small way.

Jim James, as it ends up, was terrific and inspiring. I've been listening to "Gideon" on repeat ever since.

The whole thing was pretty excellent, pretty impressive, and super inspiring.

One our way out, I turned to my buddy Wes and said, "I want our project to be this big."

More on that later...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Today's Man" (Or, "Thank God For Mister Rogers")

Holy moly! I totally forgot to tell you this story, didn't I?

You'll recall that Davy Rothbart invited me to join him, David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely) and Mister Rogers' uber-fan (and subject of the documentary, "Today's Man") Nicky Gottlieb in Pittsburgh in November. Well, the plot thickens.

Well, my buddy Ron emailed me last week, and he CC'd his college dorm mate, "Today's Man" director Lizzie Gottlieb.

    Lizzie, meet my friend-made-on-the-internet, singer/songwriter, MTV-News-Online-executive, documentary-about-Mister Rogers-filmmaker, fellow Midwesterner, triathlete, about-to-be-newlywed, all around Renaissance Man, nicest man in NYC, Benjamin Wagner.

I'll tell you what, Mister Rogers is smiling down on this whole connected thing, huh?

Anyway, I ordered Lizzie's documentary just as soon as Davy emailed me about it, and it arrived tonight. I just finished watching it.

It's a terrific film: compassionate, intelligent, and empathic.

    Nicky Gottlieb is a young man struggling to leave the comfort and safety of his parents' home and find his place in the world. While he can calculate the square root of any number in the blink of an eye, he has trouble reading the simplest of facial expressions, making social interaction difficult. At the age of 21, he is diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. This loving portrait by his filmmaker sister is both a personal exploration of one family's journey and a broader effort to understand this mysterious disorder.

There's a point in the film when Nicky, who loves television and adores Mister Rogers, says, "The world would be a much crazier place without Mister Rogers." In fact, Lizzie told me she considered calling the doc, "Thank God For Mister Rogers."

The more I've learned about the whole thing, the more it feels fated. The film, as it ends up, premiered at the Nantucket Film Festival -- as Christofer and I hope to.

More than our connections, though, the film moved me because it's well done, and it's done with heart. It's a very personal story, one that sets the bar pretty high on our little project.

Summer's Gone: A Quick Story About Disappointment And Empathy

I was searching for a Mister Rogers quote just now when I traipsed across this one:

    When I was in college, I went to New York to talk to a songwriter I admired very much. I took him four or five songs I'd written and thought he'd introduce me to Tin Pan Alley and it would be the beginning of my career. After I played him my songs, he said, "You have very nice songs. Come back when you have a barrelfull."
    A barrelfull of songs! That would mean hundreds of songs. I can still remember the disappointment I felt as I traveled all that way back to college. Nevertheless, that man's counsel was more inspired than I'd realized. It took me years to understand that. And so, after the initial disappointment, I got to work; and through the years, one by one, I have written a barrelfull.

    In fact, the barrel's overflowing now, and I can tell you, the more I wrote, the better the songs became, and the more those songs revealed what was in me.
First, I love the image of Fred Rogers in college. It is often difficult to imagine him as anything less than fully-formed, or fully self-actualized.

Second, I never knew he dreamt of being an honest-to-goodness songwriter. I love that. I mean, I obviously know we shared music in common. That's why, on that first afternoon we spent together in Nantucket, I brought my guitar (which is in my hands in my favorite photo of us).

I played him "Summer's Gone," which was a new song of mine then, and is kind of a sad thing to play ("Summer's gone away / Everything left to decay / There is nothing you can say / To make it last") on Labor Day Weekend for a man who'd recently retired and (as it would end up) would be gone (physically, anyway) in a year and a half.

Later, in his study overlooking Madaket Sound, he played "It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood," then sang "Happy Birthday" to me.

Still, I never knew Mister Rogers aspired to Tin Pan Alley, much as I moved to New York dreaming of a record deal. And I never knew he'd suffered any sort of disappointment (of course he did, but you know what I mean). I love that -- in retrospect -- his life's work seemed charted in advance. In the moment, though, he suffered the same uncertainty and discovery as we all do.

Moreover, though, I appreciate the empathy inherent to his story. Empathy -- the capacity to understand, be aware, and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another person without having the feelings, thoughts -- isn't in easy to come by in our culture. Nor is it easy to learn. Mister Rogers had it in spades. By sharing his own disappointment here, he demonstrates that he understands ours. I admire that. And aspire to it.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Trouble In "The Neighborhood"

A reader, Kris Jensen-Van Heste, emailed me recently with some pretty bad news: Philadelphia's WHYY-TV is relegating "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" from Monday – Friday at 1pm to Sundays at 6am.

It's not a terribly surprising decision, but it is alarming.

In the absence of new shows (Mister Rogers taped his last show in 2001), or Mister Rogers himself (Mister Rogers passed away on February 27, 2003), I can understand (but not endorse) how the network might think they need to evolve with the times.

In the era of Teletubbies (sponsored by Langers Juice), Clifford (sponsored by Chuck E. Cheese), and Curious George (sponsored by Universal Studios), I imagine the honest-to-goodness non-profit Family Communications doesn't stand much of a chance. Likewise, all those bright colors, quick cuts, and nonsensical songs.

Of course, I don't agree with the decision. In fact, I'm afraid that the program's marginalization is just a step towards complete cancellation, which would be a huge loss for us all.

I've encouraged Kris to start her own website, and a petition. And I'd encourage you to send a letter, and email, or make a call to the station's program director. In fact, I've written it for you; just click here to download it, then sign it, stamp it, and send it. Or you can contact WHYY yourself:

Mr. Paul Rubinsohn
Program Director WHYY-TV
Independence Mall West
150 N. 6th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Tel: (215) 351-1200
Fax: (215) 351-0398

Whether we save the show from extinction or not, we raise or voices together in defense of our values: substance over form, patience over pace, and intimacy over anonymity.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Davy & My "Mister Rogers Day"

I'm so excited.

I just got off the phone with Davy Rothbart. I'm going to Chicago this weekend to cover Lollapalooza for MTV News, and wanted to see if -- by some long-shot -- he'd be there too. See, Davy lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To guys like me (read: Easter-oriented corporate types sitting at a desk twenty-nine stories above Times Square), Ann Arbor and Chicago are close. They're actually 240 miles apart.

That Davy would be at Lollapalooza, though, isn't such a stretch. He started Found Magazine, a cool, boutique collection of, well, found objects: photographs, love notes, doodles. Somehow, the aesthetic of the magazine seems to fit with Lollapalooza.

Moreover, though, Davy is a contributor to "This American Life," which -- as you know -- is hands-down the best radio out there. In fact, the show is how I came about Davy. "This American Life" is produced by Chicago Public Radio. So -- yeah, you got it! -- I thought maybe Davy'd be in town.

Short answer: no, he won't be in Chicago this weekend.

Still, we had a great conversation. I really relate to this guy. In fact, I'd kinda' like to be in his shoes: author, magazine publisher, documentary filmmaker...

First, though, allow me to explain Davy's connection to Mister Rogers. It's a classic, one he recounts in his New York Times' remembrance shortly after Mister Rogers' death).

    When I was 3 years old and my older brother was 6, he wrote a letter to Mr. Rogers. Thrillingly, Mr. Rogers wrote back. They began a little correspondence, and the next summer, when my brother told Mr. Rogers that our family was headed to Massachusetts for a week's vacation, Mr. Rogers invited all of us to chill with him for a day at his summer home on Nantucket.

    We had a glorious time. Mr. Rogers sang songs to us, played with us in the sand and told us stories about our friends from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. It was a day I have never stopped glowing about.

Sounds kinda' familiar, right? I especially like how he says that he's "never stopped glowing." I totally feel the same way. This city beats me up almost every day. All I have to do, though, is pause a moment and listen for Mister Rogers voice. He always has the perfect advise. And I always end up glowing.

Pretty lucky.

So Davy's not going to in Chicago, but -- as it ends up -- my timing was (as is often the case when Bigger Things are at play) impecabble.

"Wow," he said. "It's so funny you call. I just emailed Mr. McFeely!"

Here's where the plot thickens.

Davy was emailing Mr. McFeely -- whose real name is David Newell, and who functions as Family Communications Director of Public Relations -- on behalf of his friend Lizzie Gottlieb. Lizzie is a documentary filmmaker whose 2006 film, Today's Man, chronicles her brother Nicky's diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. In the film, Nicky speaks of his life-long ambition to meet Mister Rogers. Cut back to Davy Rothbart, and David Newell's email.

Are you beginning to see why I'm excited!?!

So Davy's going to be in New York in September. And he's invited Chris and I along to Pittsburgh in November.

Now, I'm obviously excited for the film's sake, and our mission of "spreading the message." But I'm also excited that Davy and I spent twenty minutes on the phone talking about growing up, growing old, depth and simplicity, art and commerce, how we each suffer from what Bono calls "the tyranny of ideas" (Davy's in the middle of booking at 65-city book tour, while wrapping production on his documentary, "My Heart Is An Idiot"), and all of the things with which we both wrestle with and aspire to. It was, in short, inspiring, and energizing.

As we hung up, I was reminded of when Tim Madigan told me, "Fred loved bringing people together."

And I was reminded of Chuck Close. He's the artist who paints huge portraits comprised of tiny rectangles and squares. If "Mister Rogers & Me" is anything, it's an attempt to sew together a few portraits -- Davy's, Nikki's, Tim's, Chris', mine -- that, taken together, begin to take the shape of The Man himself.