Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Three Simple Ideas

I was discussing the installation of lipstick, keyhole, and robotic cameras at yet another entertainment awards show when a colleague looked down at his Blackberry and said, "I think the fact that the number of dead just rose from two to twenty-two warrants our coverage."

Barely twenty-four hours later, we have a crew of ten on site, a live show in edit, and a slew of online reportage. And while I have told my colleagues more than once that it is in these difficult moments that our efforts to demonstrate empathy and build community make me most proud, I can't help but feel conflicted. Why is it that networks pull most of their advertising at times like these? Because most of their advertising messages the very action inflicted upon unwitting Virginia Tech students yesterday.

Moreover, I feel a deep sense of deja vu. Last June, Chris and I interviewed author and mystic Bo Lozoff who put it thusly:

    We're a society who, rather than sitting down with some Walter Cronkite or Mister Rogers figure and saying "We gotta take stock of the fact that our children are the angriest, most violent children who have ever been born, we’re the most depressed adults, and our life goes so fast every day and everything is so rushed and hurried that we're labeling a lot of people as ADD and ADHD and maybe, maybe it's not them..."

    What do we need to do instead of that? We throw our children into that system. We drug them. We sacrifice our children at this alter of consumerism.

    I was sitting with my wife in Fred Rodger's office talking with the staff of Mister Roger's Neighborhood about children and violence on a Tuesday -- the very moment that the shootings at Columbine were happening. We went out to our car, we turned on the radio, and we heard about this thing that had just happened in Columbine, Colorado. And it's exactly what we were just talking about: children seem to be losing all hope. And what I had said was, "You know, there’s three simple ideas that you could apply to a rich life: there's something beautiful, something noble, and something sacred."

    Something beautiful: the sun set, if we allow it to touch us. Do you and I take time in our daily lives -- I'm talking about seconds, to consciously be moved or touched by something we consider beautiful?

    All I have to do is pick up my guitar and I'm in beauty. The Arts, to me, are a link between the temporal, the mundane world, and the eternal, the mystical. The arts get us a little bit out of our mind, whether that's music or performing arts or visual art. Something beautiful is something that touches us. Something you say, "Oh, my. Oh, my."

    Something noble. By that I mean, like that second principle of all the great spiritual traditions, something we believe in is larger than us, something we look up to. A cause, an idea, a person, an elder, a bird nature. But something that we consider is worth sacrificing for, or worth taking a risk for, worth getting something out for.

    Something sacred. Do we have those moments when our heads are truly bowed in humility at the grandeur, the greatness and the vastness, the incompressibility of what this human life is everyday.

    And when I said it on that Tuesday, the day of Columbine was, "If either of those two kids thought there was a single thing in the world -- a word, an idea, a song, a rock group, a movie, a bird, a person, a religion -- if there was a single thing in the world that either of those kids thought was beautiful, noble or sacred, they never could have done what they did."

    And then I just realized with a shudder, "Oh my God. Not everybody is out killing their schoolmates, but is it possible that tens of millions of Americans don't feel they have any time for beautiful, noble or sacred?"

    I the vicious crushing pace of this life about wanting stuff and getting stuff and having stuff and using stuff and buying stuff and then of course replacing stuff, repairing stuff, protecting stuff defending stuff, you know? It's so vicious. It's anti-life.

I think that's what Mister Rogers meant when he told me, "I feel so strongly that deep and simple are far, far more essential than shallow and complex." I think that's what Mister Rogers was talking about when he talked with Amy Hollingsworth about Madaket sunsets.

The whole thing makes me feel sad, and makes me miss him.

Monday, April 09, 2007

One Of Us

I've listened to Joan Osborne's "One Of Us" nine times in the last hour. I'm not sure I can completely explain why.

I called Chris this morning.

"I didn't make any progress this weekend," I said.

"Me neither!" he laughed. "Don't worry about it!"

I do, of course, worry about it. We cut a three minute trailer last week, but it needs new VO (voice over), and a new audio edit (we're transitioning from acoustic to electric versions of "Summer's Gone"). But I've been "merging," building a new life here with Abbi. So I haven't writtern a new script, and my guitar's remained in the closet.
I worry about the film. I worry that, at this pace, I'll be forty before it's done. But, on days like today, I settle into the realization that it will work out as it should, when it should.

Because Fred may be gone, but his spirit is here. He's still bringing people together. Like cab driver Antoine Ilione and me.

    I was at wits end by the time I hailed a cab at the corner of 80th & Columbus.

    Moving has been death by a million paper cuts. Merging thirty plus years of material acquisition and two diverse aesthetics into one 750 square foot apartment requires some sacrifice. Whole bunches of stuff's been left behind: chairs, desks, futon frames, air conditioners. The five flights between my old apartment and the street haven't done much by way of motivating the move, but time is running out; the lease ends on Friday. And so tonight found me riding the Broadway line back to the Upper West one last time.

    I stepped onto the deck just as the sun fell behind the hills of New Jersey. I paused to take it in one last time: the broad, blue sky brushed with wisps of cloud, the burnt red brick buildings glowing in the evening light. Intellectually, it struck me as an important moment, something meaningful and nostalgic. Emotionally, though, I was scarcely present. There was work to be done.

    I have been hauling boxes up and down those five flights -- seventy stairs per trip -- for weeks now. Each time I drag a chair, or crate full of dishes, I wonder, 'Just how many times have you endured this torture?' Today I calculated. I lived at West 80th from November, 2004, through March, 2007. Twenty-eight months. Thirty days a month. At least 140 steps a day...

    117,600 steps.

    Let's imagine that each step is good for one foot (or twelve inches). That's roughly 24 miles. That's almost a marathon. That's nearly 1/3 of the way to outer space.

    Couple the sad sight of my big, empty, dusty living room -- the place where I hosted parties, played shows, and spent at least a few of the last 720 days of my bachelorhood -- add in a fair shake of day job exhaustion, and the general melancholy that dusk brings, and, well...

    I was at wits end by the time I hailed a cab at the corner of 80th & Columbus.

    I've grabbed a hundred cabs there before. And tonight was no different. I strode out into the street just as the signal changed, waved down the nearest white light, and opened the door even as the vehicle came to a stop.

    "56th & Ninth, please."

    "Straight down, huh?"

    "Yessir. Thank you."

    I paused to decide whether to engage...

    "How are you tonight, sir?" I asked.

    My cabby --a gray haired, dark skinned, sixty-year-old man -- paused.

    "Eh," he said. "So-so."

    "Fair enough," I replied. "That's how you distinguish the good days."

    "That's right," he said, laughing.

    We could have left it there. Some days, a few minutes of quiet in the back of a cab is all you get. Other days, you need more.

    "So how was you Easter?" he asked.

    "Pizza and beer," I said callously leaving my melancholy to linger in the silence between us.

    I looked out the window at Lincoln Center. Juliard was under construction. Well above it, the North Star shone like a beacon.

    "Are you listening to WNYC?" I asked.

    Cab driver Antoine Ilione and I spent just twenty-four blocks together. In that time -- seven or eight minutes, tops -- we transitioned from WNYC to NPR to Fred Rogers.

    "He was good man," Antoine said in his thick, Senegalese accent. "No more like him now," he said earnestly.

    In that seven or eight minutes, I felt deep inside of me the difference a random act of kindness can make.

    On a day when everything seemed heavy, when the distance between things seemed greater than ever before, Antoine somehow reminded me the value of simple, human connection.

    Stepping onto 56th and Ninth as I'd done so many times so many years before, I felt tears pooling in my eyes. Was it the cold wind blowing off the river? Or something else?

    I've been listening to Joan Osborne's "One Of Us" a ton lately. I'm not sure why. It seems to fit my mood as I walk through the city, and as I ride the subways. Tonight, though, as I passed my old apartment and stepped towards the new, I wondered...

    What if God is all of us?

    And what if it takes 117,600 steps to even begin to reach the atmosphere, and Beyond?

Just like that, I begin to believe again.