Diver Down

February 28th, 2006

My mom worked across the street from NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., when I was a little kid. She would periodically bring me photos, posters, and patches from the Space Shuttle program’s infancy because she knew that, like most kids my age, I wanted to be an astronaut.

Despite being born in Iowa, I grew up near the ocean. We spent long, hot summer weekends in Chincoteague, MD, Rehoboth Beach, DE, and Avalon, NJ. In the winter, mom would take us to Florida, or the British Virgin Islands, or Mexico, or Belize. I always loved the ocean.

Finally, at 34-years-old, scuba diving has satisfied both my desire to fly, to be weightless, and to explore the sea.

I dove seven times over five days in Honduras last week. Again, there’s no way I’ll be able to find words to take you there with me. It is beyond words. It really is. It’s terrifying, and exhilarating, and completely calming. It’s beautiful in every way: in what one sees, and in what feels. It is a silence and a freedom like nothing else I’ve ever experiences.

I’m hooked.

On Wednesday afternoon, Abbi and I set out with my dive instructor, Anne. Anne was about our age, from Sweden, and wore blonde pigtails. Her eyes were constantly wide, in and out of the water. But the widest I saw them was Wednesday afternoon.

We’d been at about fifty feet for maybe twenty minutes. We’d begun the dive exploring the outer edge of the reef to nearly eighty feet, though it fell deeper still into an inky, aqua-blue darkness. We were moving slowly, gliding patiently along walls of coral, sea fans and strange formations that can only be described a Suessian. I was steady, and assured, and confident, despite only a few days’ dive experience. I liked to look up at the surface of the waves way overhead.

Diving is all about breath control. One’s depth is governed almost entirely by the volume of air in one’s lungs. Exhale, and you sing. Inhale, and you rise. It’s like being a lunar lander, except your lungs are your retro rockets. It’s amazing.

Abbi, Anne and I were slightly scattered, maybe fifteen feet apart from one another, rising and descending slowly over great and oddly-shaped formations and peaking into dark spots, when Anne signaled to us (she carried a small metallic rattle which she shook whenever she wanted our attention). She placed her right hand perpendicular to her forehead, the universal signal for shark. And then she held up two fingers: two sharks.

I exhaled to descend to her, careful not to land on her there peaking around an outcropping of coral. As my knees settled into the sand at seventy feet, I spotted two tails resting on the sea floor before me. I craned me neck to see two nurse sharks, maybe sixteen feet a piece, napping in the sand.

It was like sneaking into a lion’s den and seeing a lion and lioness sleeping. Or tiptoeing past a beehive. But while my eyes were as wide as saucers, my heart was beating steadily, and, were it not for the regulator in my mouth, I would have been smiling widely.

We knelt there a few minutes just watching them, when the one nearest to us began to stir. It turned towards us, fixing it coal-black eyes on us for just a second, then looped around and swam off in the other direction. After a few more minutes, we rose, and calmly, quietly swam off.

One is attracted to diving, I think, by epic visions of great whites and manta rays informed by years of Joques Cousteau films and Discovery Shark Week reruns. But while our shark spotting was exciting, and beautiful, and awe inspiring, there were a hundred smaller, more intimate moments beneath the waves that proved just as meaningful: following the long tail of a tiny, fragile jellyfish, spotting a nudibranch, or watching a bone-white sea fan tremble in the surge.

Above all, my time underwater reminded me just how fragile the planet is, each delicate creature relying on the next. And it reminded me just how deep life can be, despite our shallow grasp of it all.

Salva Vida

February 27th, 2006

What a difference a day makes.

This morning I was lying on a floating dock beneath a blazing sun in just swim trunks. Tonight, I am sitting in my bedroom waiting for my space heater to kick in.

This morning, it was 85°. Tonight, it is 8°.

This morning I was wearing shorts and flip flops. Tonight, I am wearing a sweater, grey hoodie, fleece jacket and stocking cap.

This morning, I was subsisting on rice, beans, fresh fish and Salva Vida (La Cerveza Nacional de Honduras). Tonight, I’m eating Rold Gold pretzels and drinking a Sam Adams.

This morning I was in Roatan, Honduras. Tonight, I am home in New York City.

Roatan, Honduras. For a week. Wow. What can I tell you? Where to begin?

I can’t possibly do the trip justice in one post, and especially not at one o’clock in the morning after ten hours of air travel.

Suffice, for now, to say that the last eight days and seven nights were the most restful, exciting, and beautiful of recent memory, if not all times. I slipped quickly from the relentless cycles of the city to the patient rhythm of nature. I woke to a symphony birds and breeze, rose with the sun, swam with fish, then turned in as the moon peeked over the mountains.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think it had all been a dream. But I have photographic evidence, so I’m pretty sure it all really happened. And I’m pretty sure I’ll have it with me now forever and ever.


Continental Drift

February 18th, 2006

I am woefully unprepared, but I will soldier on.

In just over twelve hours, a car service will pick Abbi and me up and whisk us away to JFK Airport. We will board Continental flight #311 to Houston, where we will connect with Continental flight #10 to Roatan, Honduras. We expect to be on the beach by two o’clock.

We’ve rented a villa in an “eco resort” near the west end of the island. The surrounding forest is “preserved to explore with beautifully maintained mountain trails.” The beach is nearly deserted.

I have packed very little. My swim trunks, flip flops, mask, snorkel, fins and passport are laid out on my bed. The rest of my clothes — three bags full — are still at the landromat.

I am taking my guitar, but leaving my computer. I am taking two books, Jen Trynin’s “All That I’m Cracked Up To Be,” and “Cash” by Johnny Cash, plus an empty notebook for scribblings and songs. I am taking my running shoes. And little else.

I’ll be gone ’til Sunday. I won’t be blogging. But I’ll be thinking about you…

See you next week.

Flirting With Disaster

February 16th, 2006

I walked out of my apartment building today in a navy sport coat, navy sweater, purple shirt, army pants and sneakers. Two dudes dressed head to toe in Carhart work clothes were drinking coffee and smoking on the corner. They looked at me like, ‘You’re gonna wear that!?!’

It was one of those days. I knew I looked mis-matched: all business up top, all play down below. But the day was all business, and relentlessly so. It’s 9:30, and I just got home, if that tells ya anything.

I dreampt last night that I was in Nantucket. There were high rise hotels everywhere, aweful Cancun-type things. But I wasmoving too fast. I was in the back of a car, and all of this beautiful scenery was passing by me.

My suit bag made it upstairs this morning, though I haven’t unpacked it yet. Which is unfortunate as I have to pack it again. I’m flying to Honduras on Sunday. Not that I need to pack much more than my scuba stuff and some swim trunks.

I ran the dishwasher this morning with Tide instead of Cascade. Seems to have worked ok. I mean, beer tastes the same in the pint glasses (though there are some strange water marks).

Gotta go. Sushi’s here.


February 15th, 2006

I woke up this morning with crushing pain just above my heart.

My first thought was heart attack. My second thought was pulled muscle. My third thought was pleurisy.

I’ve been checking out quite a few podcasts of late, primarily because MTV News is charging into new platforms, but secondarily because I’ve always been a PBS mind in an MTV world, and I like to listen. MTV News launched last week (and is already in the top ten). PBS’ “On The Media” is great (I’ve listened to it on air for years; now I can listen whenever I want). And I love Elvis Mitchell’s “The Treatment.”

This morning I listened to Elvis’ interview with “Walk The Line” writer/director James Mangold. I haven’t seen the film, but I know a little something about Johnny Cash. Mangold does too.

“John was always someone fascinated by honesty,” he said. “We almost get dulled in our work in a haze of bullshit, especially in show business… And someone like John was always attracted to the real word.”

Me too. And right now, my heart hurts. Honestly. That’s the real word.

Roatan, Honduras

February 15th, 2006

After The Fall

February 12th, 2006

There’s something about a fresh blanket of snow that turns even the most jaded New Yorker into a kid again. It stands to reason, then, that 26.9 inches of powder turns us all into toddlers.

Abbi and I loafed around all afternoon, reading the Sunday Times, watching bad wedding shows on Oxygen, and eating waffles. We were completely contented in our cabin fever.

But we were on call. Chris, Jen, and Ethan were going to the park. So when the call came, we bundled up, and headed to out.

The park was teaming with giggling, snow-covered New Yorkers of every stripe. There were cross country skiers, toboganists, snow footballers, dog walkers, canoodlers, and tourists, and every one was smiling and chatting like they’d never seen snow before.

Hanging out with a toddler makes the aforementioned truism doubly so. His dad taught him how to sled, and I taught him how to fall into snowdrifts. I kept running and diving, sure to laugh and throw lots of snow into the air every time. Once he discovered how fun it was to fall over in the snow (it was up to his waist in most spots), he did it over and over again, walking just a few feet before throwing himself into another pile of powder. And until one of us acknowledged his tomfoolery, he wouldn’t get up. Then he’d do it again.

It occurred to me that learning to fall and stand back up again is a pretty valuable life lesson for a two and a half year old, or a thirty-four year old. So, for that matter, is laughing the whole thing off. If only I’d learned that one earlier.

Anyway, I learned it today, with Ethan, and the rest of the City of New York, all of us frolicking beneath a blanket a pure white snow. Which I guess is better late than never.

The Heart Is

February 10th, 2006

Philosophically, I’m a strong advocate of the red eye. Practically, I’m losing faith.

I was in Santa Monica for sunset last night. And I was in Queens for sunrise this morning. I love that that’s even possible.

Growing up, my family took its fair share of road trips. No matter where we were — The Great Plains, The Great Lakes, The Badlands — my father would say, “Just imagine crossing this country in a covered wagon.” And so I still do, especially every time I fly 3000 miles in four hours. Going to sleep in California and waking up in New York still amazes me. It’s a modern miracle.

Eight hours of sleep over three days, however, tends to lead one to rethink that miracle.

It didn’t start so bad. I had a beer in the Expedia Travel Cafe (relishing the intersection of Microsoft and Sam Adams), then waltzed straight onto the plane. Most everyone was in place, and my seat was waiting for me. Better yet, there’s was enough room in the overhead bin for both of two laptops and my sport coat.

But then I noticed something at my feet. The woman in front of me had put her purse beneath her, no doubt to spare herself some legroom. I snapped, like road rage or something. I yanked off my headphone, leaned forward and said, “Um, ma’am? Would you mind not storing your purse where my legs go?” And she was all like, “Oh, sorry.” As if it hadn’t even occurred to her. As if she isn’t the type of person who is happy to inconvenience others to convenience herself.

There was also a really annoying Latino dude who had kind of a wheezy laugh. He was with some buddies and didn’t seem to understand the concept of what my mother always called an “inside voice.”

Despite it all, I fell asleep just a few minutes after takeoff, and slept most of the way across the country. I imagine we were somewhere over western Pennsylvania when I came to. My contacts were all gummy, so I couldn’t see so well. And my back was killing me. And my neck. And my head (see previous paragraph’s reference to beer). The plane landed somewhere around 6:15 this morning.

I love touching down in New York. I love the city bathed in sunrise, all glass, concrete and stone. It’s so ambitious. It’s so bold and crazy, loud and impolite. Somehow, it’s grounding. I mean, it is, after all, my home.

Make no mistake, I love Los Angeles. I love the balmy weather, the Santa Ana winds, the palm trees, the flowers constantly in bloom, the spicey air, the great, blue sky, and the Sig Alerts. I love the desert, the mountains, and the sea. I don’t even mind the whole Hollywood hullabaloo. It’s a great place to visit.

Stepping off the subway, and climbing up into the bustle of Times Square this morning, I wanted to sing out with David Gray, “You’re the one I love!” You are. I still love you, New York: noise, filth, frenzy and all.

Calling All Angels

February 9th, 2006

Another year, another award show… another award show I missed almost entirely.

I was fifteen feet from the Grammy red carpet (Heineken green, technically), but I didn’t see one celebrity. I was one hundred feet from the big show, but I didn’t see U2, Kanye, Kelly Clarkson — nobody.

But I did work alongside some of the finest, most motivated and enthused young people in the business. Many of whom are working with me now, fifteen miles from the Staples center at MTV’s Santa Monica offices.

Did I mention that it’s two o’clock in the morning?

One of my colleagues is boarding a flight to JFK in five hours. Once safely in New York, he is meeting his wife at the airport, then boarding another flight to Paris.

Me? I’m on the red eye in twenty short hours. I arrive back in New York Friday morning at 6:30. Then head into the office. What the heck, right? Another cup of coffee and I’ll be fine.

So while I didn’t catch any of the Grammy action real time, I have poured over tons of photos and video tape. And I do have some reactions.

First of all, that Gorillaz/Madonna thing? Lame. Paul McCartney performing with Jay-Z and Linkin Park? I appreciate his taking a shot at being (semi) hip, but John’s gotta be looking down goin’, “Huh!?!” I thought Mary J sounded a bit flat.

I dug Kanye’s high school band shtick. Sly Stone was bad ass. And anyone who can hold a room with just a guitar gets mad props from me. I guess that’s why they call him The Boss. (And I love that he said, “Bring ’em home!” at the end of his performance.)

The awards? Well, I thought they reflected how middle-of-the-road The Academy is. I mean, I love U2. Big time. I think they’re accomplishments are unparalleled in the history of rocknroll. They’re the best rock band ever, hands down. Ok, the Beatles were great, but they really are a special case. And sure, The Rolling Stones continue to record and perform, but their personnel has changed dozens of times, and they haven’t written a good song since the early Seventies. But five Gramophones? For “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb?” It’s good and all, but it’s no “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” It’s no “Joshua Tree.”

But whatever. There was a ton of great music to celebrate, even if the whole celebration is just a marketing tool.

U2 was rehearsing “Vertigo” as the MTV News team was doing its “walk through” on Tuesday. Bono had yet to arrive, so it was just an instrumental. A few people said to me, “Benjamin, you should storm the stage.” And of course I’d love to have done so.

I released my first CD, “Bloom,” in the spring of 1994. As I was recording it the winter prior, I sent a letter (this is pre-email, pre-internet, people) to family and friends asking for their financial support. I don’t exactly remember what I wrote, but I know I said something like, “I promise I’ll thank you all when I win the Best New Artist Grammy.”

Ah, youth.

Working these award shows — especially The Grammys — never fails to remind me of that promise. And that failure. And the fact that standing on the Grammy stage to accept an award is diminishing rapidly.

Oddly enough, I think I’m ok with it. I mean, it would be cool. But I’m pretty sure I’d be just as happy as I am right now. Which is pretty happy. Happy enough, anyway.

Touch The Sky

February 7th, 2006

Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica in nine minutes, all for Kanye West.

8:13 – Six blocks from the hotel, my cell phone rings. It’s Angela in New York. “We need you to feed the Kanye video again. The audio was messed up.”

This is a big deal. We’re premiering a snippet Kanye West’s video, “Touch The Sky,” on our Grammy pre-show, the tossing to Overdrive for the whole thing. So the whole thing’s gotta be there. That’s my job.

8:14 – I call Ocean. No answer. I call Jim. No answer. I call Robert. No answer.

8:16 – Ocean calls. “The tape is in the truck.” The truck is ten miles behind me. The truck is where I just came from: The Staples Center, home of the 48th Annual Grammy Awards (airing Wednesday, February 8 on CBS).

8:17 – I make a u-turn on Olympic.

8:18 – I call Craig. “Anyone on site?” Craig says yeah, Bill Sloyer’s on site. I call Bill.

8:19 – I call Bill. “Bill, can you check the truck for me? I’m looking for the new Kanye West video. It’s on Beta SP. It should be in the production truck.” Bill says he’ll check and call me back.

8:23 – Bill calls. The tape is not in the production truck.

8:24 – I call Jim. Jim tells me to call Jane. I call Jane. Jane tells me it’s in the TV truck. I call Bill back.

8:28 – Bill calls back. The TV truck (aka Denali) is locked.

8:31 – I pull back into Lot 2, and find Bill in the production management trailer. “The Denali engineers were almost home. They’re into double overtime.”

8:46 – The Denali engineer shows up. We poke around the TV production truck with a flashlight. I find the tape.

8:48 – I find my way to The Ten. I drive eighty miles per hour in the far-left lane. All of the windows are down in my Ford Taurus. And the sunroof. U2’s “In The Name Of Love” blares from the CD player. I feel the temperature drop as I approach the coast. Way out over the Pacific, a line of jets approach LAX.

8:57 – I pull off The Ten, and speed towards MTV’s Santa Monica office. I reach the tape out the window, Matt runs into the middle of Colorado, and rushes into the edit.

9:01 – The video features Kanye as “Evil Kanyevil,” and stars Pam Anderson. It’s cute, and smart, and timely, and funny.

9:09 – The video is digitized and transferred to New York.

Kanye’s video premiere for “Touch The Sky” is just one of a thousand planes on my radar. Until the Overdrive show is built, and live on the site, and the toss comes from TV, it’s still in the air, but it’s nearer its destination.

MTV News’ “All Up In The Grammys” airs tonight at 7:00 ET on MTV. The Grammys follow immediately after. I’ll be working straight through the night, publishing news articles, photos, and broadband video (including the Kanye video) to MTV News Online, straight through to the time I climb onboard the red eye and head home.

I’ve been listening to a Tom Petty song quite a bit in the car. It’s got this lyric, “She wore faded jeans and soft black leather / She had eyes so blue they looked like weather.” That just kills me. But the part of the song that’s really been doin’ it for me is the chorus: “That’s the way it goes / It’ll all work out.” Not quite as poetic, perhaps, but in the chaos of the moment, it’s a well-appreciated, and well-timed sentiment.