Letterman and New York

I was babysitting some old neighbor kids in the summer of 2008. That summer I was also going to New York with my family.

One afternoon, probably a week before our New York trip, I took the kids to a free summer concert or show or something at Bridgeport Village, an outdoor shopping center in suburban Portland. I remember my dad calling me to say he’d won tickets to a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman for one night during our New York visit. I freaked out. I had an iPod touch at the time, and remember furiously trying to connect to whatever Wi-Fi network Bridgeport might have in order to research who the guests might be.

I would go with my dad to the taping. I turned 18 a few weeks before so I was just barely old enough to even attend; plus, my mom and sister, Hope, had plans to see some Broadway shows together when we were in town, so my dad and I would do this.

I remember how excited I was at the prospect of seeing Letterman live. The excitement stemmed from multiple sources: The fact that I was just barely making the age cutoff made it seem especially thrilling, like I was really getting to do an adult thing. I loved New York even then, and the idea of going to a Big Cool Event like that in the city seemed incredible. And, there was the guarantee of seeing at least one or two celebrities in person.

And then there was Letterman. I know at 18 I didn’t fully appreciate Letterman’s greatness, but I knew he was a big deal, and I knew he was hilarious. My parents did not religiously watch late-night TV, but they certainly had Letterman on every now and then. Never Leno or anyone else.

Letterman always made me laugh, even when I was little and didn’t get the joke. I knew enough to know I wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) get the joke. I have a very clear memory of being in a hotel room with my parents and sister when I was little, pretending like I was asleep but actually laughing at whatever Letterman was saying on TV. I vaguely remember it being about the 2000 Presidential election, but that could be wrong. Even when I’d watch it with my eyes open, it became the show that I maybe wasn’t supposed to watch, but that I loved being part of.

I may be overstating this, as I didn’t sneak away to watch Letterman every day of my childhood; nor do I have very clear memories of specific guests or segments (besides “Will it Float,” which I loved). But I think that sense of this is for adults but I’m in on it stuck with me and contributed to my excitement about getting to see the show in 2008. It released some pent-up reminder of how subtly influential Letterman had been in my life, up to that point.

The guests that night were Donald Trump and a comedian whose name I do not remember. There may have been a guest between Trump and the comedian, but I do not remember him/her, either. Our show was being taped to air the night of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies, so I know there were some broad jokes in the monologue about that. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had just died and there was also some gag about inappropriate Solzhenitsyn book titles. I can’t remember the theme of the whole thing, but one of the fake titles was “Slut Beach,” and I’m not really sure why that’s the only specific thing I remember from this episode.

Actually, I remember one other thing: The song playing over the loudspeakers as they loaded the audience. It was Maroon 5’s “Won’t Go Home Without You,” a song which ever since has made me think of New York.

The Letterman taping was something of a seminal moment for me. It made Letterman more real (as I imagine anyone who sees a show or celebrity in person may feel). A year later, Paul McCartney appeared on the show and I loved being able to imagine where I had stood in relation to where Paul stood atop the Ed Sullivan marquee.

Since moving to New York after college, my Letterman appreciation has deepened – partly because my understanding of the TV landscape and Letterman’s place in it is deeper, and partly because it feels pretty cool to turn on the Late Show and know it’s all unfolding 40 blocks away from me rather than from the opposite side of the country.

Superstorm Sandy happened four months after I moved to New York City and while I suffered no personal damage or discomfort from the storm, it hit the city hard, disrupting a routine I was just getting used to. I was alone in my apartment watching Letterman the night he played to an empty audience.

It was a weird end to a weird day at a weird transitional time in my life, but Letterman was a comforting presence. I’ll always associate that show with the storm and my early days in the city.

When Letterman announced last year that he was retiring, I was devastated, primarily because he was the last tie to childhood I had on late night TV. He wouldn’t be around for me to feel cool about watching. It was all changing.

The only major upside to his departure is the natural opportunity it’s created for people to share their best memories and stories of Letterman.

I, for one, had no idea Norm Macdonald had been such a fixture on the show. He re-entered my consciousness thanks to his Twitter poetry after the SNL 40th anniversary special, and his final interview appearance on Letterman not long after was equally brilliant. (He asked Ken Tucker of Yahoo! to live-tweet the appearance and his reflection on the whole endeavor was a great reminder for me of what is unique and necessary about Letterman.)

As far as reflections go, it doesn’t get better than this Times interview, which features too many good Letterman lines to count (“You don’t find yourself filled with some kind of emotional longing? Are we emotionally stable?”).

And while written too early to be a tribute, this short story by David Foster Wallace, recently reposted by Vulture after originally appearing in Playboy in 1988, is my favorite Letterman reflection. I love stories like this that put fantasy characters into reality situations, and this story, imagining an actress’ appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, proves Letterman’s importance and channels his persona (I think the imagined Letterman-Paul Shaffer banter is especially spot-on).

I stayed up to watch tonight’s show, with Bill Murray as Dave’s final guest. It was a typical wild and weird Bill Murray appearance (favorite line, when Letterman asked how he’d been: “I’ve been all kinds of ways. Which ones would you like to hear about?”) but it was also a sad reminder. Only one show left.

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Friday Night at “The King and I”

A couple months after I first moved to New York City, I saw “Nice Work if You Can Get It” on Broadway. I was by myself, still didn’t really know anyone in the city, and thought a musical starring Matthew Broderick sounded like a good way to kill a Sunday afternoon.

I went to the box office maybe an hour before the show to see if I could buy a rush ticket. They warned me Kelli O’Hara, the star, would have her understudy perform that afternoon. If I remember right, someone else in line for tickets actually left when they heard this news. But I was dumb and didn’t know the difference so I took my ticket gladly, figuring I wouldn’t know the difference.

The show was enjoyable. I wasn’t blown away, but it did end up bing a nice way to spend a few hours. I don’t remember who the understudy was, but as I’ve started paying a little more attention to theater over the past few years, all I can think of when I hear Kelli O’Hara’s name is how I missed my chance to see her that September afternoon in 2012.

All this is a long way of explaining how last night, seeing “The King and I” at Lincoln Center Theater, I finally had my first taste of Kelli O’Hara onstage. And it was unlike anything I’d seen before.

Even though I may pay a little more attention to theater than I did a few years ago, I didn’t hear about this “King and I” revival until a few months ago, when a couple friends at work (true theater buffs) told me how excited they were. I decided I wanted to go, in no small part because I really did want to see Kelli O’Hara onstage. But the whole idea of a classic musical getting an elaborate Broadway treatment – at Lincoln Center, no less, which I can say with conviction is my favorite place in New York City – was compelling.

I can’t write eloquently about theater, so I’ll spare trying to explain all the particulars of what I enjoyed. Putting words to everything would ruin it, anyway. I, notorious non-cryer, started tearing up as Kelli O’Hara and the kids sang “Getting to Know You.” During “Shall We Dance,” as Anna and the King (played by Ken Watanabe) were gliding around the huge Vivan Beaumont stage, there was a distinct moment in which I thought, I’ve never seen anything like this with my own eyes, happening right in front of me, before. Where did these feelings come from? I do not know. Go see this show and feel it for yourself.

Read Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times if you want a critic’s opinion. It will only make you more eager to see the show. I loved what he said when stating that Kelli O’Hara plays Anna: “You lucky theatergoers.” We are lucky, indeed.

On Broadway: “It’s Only a Play”

Truly my favorite thing about New York is being able to wake up, decide you want to see a Broadway show, and go.

That’s what I did Saturday when I saw a matinee of “It’s Only a Play.” I’ve been wanting to see it since it opened in the fall, and I think cold January Saturdays where you have nothing planned are the perfect days to do things like that – stuff you don’t prioritize in the warmer months or around the holidays.

The play was hilarious, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t partially want to go because so many actors I enjoy are in it. Like Martin Short, Stockard Channing, Matthew Broderick and my newest favorite, F. Murray Abraham. Plus, Jonathan from 30 Rock!

The dialogue drips with cultural references and there’s a high name-drops-per-minute ratio. The cast worked really well together, and it’s just a lot of fun. Martin Short has the stage to himself for many of the play’s first minutes, and he did one of the funniest, most engaging bits I’ve witnessed live. Like he was just telling the audience, enjoy this. Watch what I can do. 

But perhaps my favorite part of the whole experience was reading F. Murray Abraham’s credits in the Playbill.

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The man has won an Academy Award for Best Actor and lists his first credit as “Macy’s Santa.” That’s why he’s great.

And why I’m scheming ways to spend more of my winter days at Broadway shows.

What Home Is

I’m sitting on my bed in New York, snacking from a bag of homemade Chex mix that traveled with me this morning on a plane from Portland, Oregon. This is bringing me great joy.

For the first time since I moved to New York over two years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving. I’d been home other times, of course, but this was the first time in a few years that I spent Thanksgiving in Portland. I was lucky to get a good chunk of time there, too – flew out Tuesday morning and came back Sunday afternoon.

One thing that’s surprised me about living in New York is how infrequently I get homesick. Or rather, how infrequently I get Portland-sick. I miss my family, but we talk all the time, and since my sister is also in the area for school, they come to New York at least a couple times a year. We’ve also gotten together in “neutral” places, like a trip to Florida last summer. So while I miss a lot of things about Portland – friends from college who live there, extended family, Fred MeyerPowell’s – I find myself able to go a long time without physically being there, because so much of what represents “home” to me can be found elsewhere.

This was my first trip to Portland since last Christmas, and I think I was wearing my almost-a-year-away-from-home badge with some degree of pride. I secretly wanted to see if I could make it a year. And I know I could have done it, but what’s the point? The opportunity to go home was there, and I wouldn’t have jumped at it if there hadn’t been some part of me that longed to be in the actual place.

These little thoughts about home have been bouncing in my mind since Tuesday. What is home, really? A place? The people in the place? A combination of the two and several other elements? When I landed at PDX on Tuesday, my first stop was my old high school, where my mom is still a teacher. A landmark for me in Portland – but the school changed locations in January. I loved chatting with my favorite teacher and cross-country coach, but we weren’t in any of the classrooms I used to sit in. It didn’t matter, of course. But it was different.

And about a year after I moved to New York, my parents moved within the Portland area. They’re not far from the old house at all – my sister who’s still at home didn’t change schools – but there’s not the same sense of nostalgia. I’m not going to Portland so I can sleep in my old room, you know? My whole frame of reference for driving has changed, too. Again – none of this really matters. Home is still home. Portland is still Portland. But I was reminded this week of how things are always in flux.

It’s the physical places that are in flux, though. Not the people I spend time with. My parents and little sister are the same people, as are my best friends from college. It was a joy to see those girls. I think there’s a relaxed air to the Thanksgiving holiday that doesn’t exist at Christmastime, where there are more events to attend, gifts to buy, places to be. At Thanksgiving, we can just hang out.

I know there isn’t a formula calculating the perfect number of times one should visit home. There are so many factors. But I know this visit was perfect, and perfectly timed. I saw so many amazing people, made two trips to Powell’s (scored a gloriously retro used copy of this for $2), tried new (to me) restaurants and sang at the top of my lungs while driving up and down I-5 (though I discovered that in two years of basically never driving, I’ve lost my parallel parking prowess).

There’s something I love about landing at JFK and knowing I’m home. Not home in the “this is where I was born” sense, but in the “this is where I am supposed to be right now” sense. So here I am. Eating snacks from home and thinking about what home really is. I think the last few days have given me a pretty good idea.

Moving in New York is the Worst and the Best

Moving in New York draws it all out of you. It drains your bank account. It tires your muscles. It confronts you with old memories and fills you with doubt. It forces you in to a new routine.

I moved this past weekend and I am exhausted. First, there was packing and wrapping things up at my old place. Now, I feel like I’ve been unpacking for days but haven’t made any progress. I’m ready for it to be over. I’m ready to feel settled.

But while moving in New York draws it all out of you, the effects of this move are already starting to refuel me. Even the moving process itself was refreshing – well, maybe not refreshing, but encouraging. My dad flew in to help me move, which relieved some of the stress of hiring movers (knowing I could leave some items out of boxes, make an extra trip to the old place if need be, etc.), and gave me the chance to spend a whole weekend with him. I knew one of my roommates would be moving at the same time, and one of our friends was helping her, so I figured the four of us would tag-team.

We did, but we had even more help from some friends who all work at our church. They get Fridays off and chose to spend part of it lugging our boxes and chairs and suitcases and side tables. That was incredible to me. I feel like, in church circles, it’s easy to talk about doing good things for other people or lightening the load for your friends. To be in a community where people walk that talk…that’s why I love Redeemer.

I’m trying to look on the bright side of unpacking. It’s a chance to purge even more stuff than I did when I packed it the first time. It’s an excuse to watch my favorite old movies (because it’s too hard to multitask and concentrate on following a new movie while you unpack) and peruse Pinterest for decor ideas (I’m looking for a great print to hang on my empty wall…currently leaning to something that involves Bill Murray and/or The Royal Tenenbaums).

Another bright side of moving was having my dad in town. I hadn’t seen him since March, so it was great to catch up, introduce him to my friends and show him my side of the city. We also took one history nerd adventure, to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which was really awesome. I always thought it sounded interesting – tons of famous and famous-in-New-York people are buried there – but never went since it was too far away or too confusing to navigate or whatever. It’s a doable trip by subway, and my dad bought a cheap app that told stories about notable people and graves. Sounds morbid, but it was super interesting, and added an element we wouldn’t have had if we’d wandered mindlessly.

So for now I may be sitting amidst a maze of half-opened boxes and my brain might be a little fried from the adjustment, but the process of getting here was worth all the exhaustion. Until everything finds its place, I will savor life on the Upper West Side, a killer view of Central Park and the east side from my bedroom window, and a breezy commute to work on the 2/3 express trains. Here’s to seeing life in New York from a different angle.

Live it Like a Song

Anyone who knew me in high school could tell you I had an over-the-top obsession with the band Switchfoot. I loved them. I had a picture of them in my locker. I needed both hands to count how many of their concerts I’d been to. I watched their video podcast. This is all a little embarrassing in hindsight, but they impacted my life in a practical way more than any other band ever did, or will. Everyone has that band, right? The one that inspires you, carries you through awful days and shapes a very important slice of your worldview.

Even after my obsession cooled, I still listened to Switchfoot a lot. They released a couple new albums while I was in college, and their lead singer/songwriter/philosopher/general genius Jon Foreman worked on a side project I loved called Fiction Family.

Last night, I saw Switchfoot play Terminal 5 in NYC. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Honestly, I was a little nervous the show would be a letdown. Maybe they weren’t as energetic as they had been. Maybe their new album (Fading West, released in January) was lame. Maybe it would seem like they were trying too hard. Maybe my high school obsession would be spoiled.

It turned out to be amazing. They rocked even harder last night than I remember them rocking at any of the concerts I went to in high school. Jon Foreman connects with an audience in such a special way. Seeing him onstage last night, running through the audience, climbing to the balcony, screaming, singing, I remembered what made him so incredible to me in high school.

One of the reasons I came to love Switchfoot was for the way they maintained a strong Christian faith without being preachy. Bands that just shouted “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” seemed cheesy and out of touch. Simply singing about Jesus didn’t mean you were living like him. I grew up going to Christian schools and maintain my faith today, though I’m not as public about it as I probably should be (I know for sure this is the most I’ve ever written about it here). By the time I got to high school, I’d heard a lot of talk. I was starting to feel an urge to live out my faith and do some good in the world. Switchfoot was the first group of Christian artists I encountered who didn’t care as much about talking the talk. They knew walking the walk sent a much deeper message.

Last night, as I listened to their music with fresh ears, the songs that first drew me to the band sunk in with new meaning. I left the concert wanting to love people more deeply, give so much more of myself to others, and live with an eternal perspective. The last song they played before the encore was Where I Belong. It’s about the final breath we take in this life, and even though it’s one of my favorites from their album Vice Verses, it had never taken such weight in my mind until last night. The lyric that got me envisions someone meeting God face to face for the first time: “…I want to tell you that I tried to live it like a song.”

Am I living my life like a song? Am I even trying to? Sometimes I don’t know. I use the excuses of busyness or tiredness or confusion, when it’s really just apathy. Today is all I have for sure. How much more productive to use that time loving others than wallowing in my own questions about what I’m supposed to do with my life! Showing compassion. Living life like a song.

I am grateful to have been reminded of that last night.

And on a lighter concert note…it also reminded me how much catching up I have to do with their music. They only played a few songs that were out during my obsession phase. Most of the others were from Fading West, which I promptly downloaded and dig so far. Love Alone Is Worth the Fight is my current favorite.

Last thing. In the midst of rediscovering my love for Switchfoot, I also rediscovered Jon Foreman’s brilliance. He’s the heart of the band (at least from my perspective) and has the kind of grasp on how to live out faith and connect with people from all walks of life that I hope to have someday. You know those questions like, “If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead?” Jon Foreman’s always at my table. His music has meant so much to me, and I am so glad he’s still making it. Here’s one of his solo songs for the road.

A Weekend in DC

Despite living in New York City, a lot of my obsessions – namely the West Wing and the Watergate scandal – are Washington, DC-based. Before this weekend, I hadn’t seriously been to DC in five years, but I’d been mentally planning a trip ever since I finished the West Wing pilot. Kind of on a whim, my friend Brooke and I decided to go on Friday, and the trip was so fun. One of my favorite things about New York is how quickly you can get away from it to spend the weekend in other amazing cities.

I watched All the President’s Men on the bus ride down, partly because it’s the perfect preparation for a DC trip, but mostly because I never remember to update the media on my iPad and the movie has been sitting there for years. I hadn’t watched it all the way through in awhile and had forgotten that it’s perfect. What I had really forgotten is how fabulous Hal Holbrook is as Deep Throat. He is perfection in this scene.

Speaking of Watergate, I got to see the actual Watergate complex this weekend, which was cool but a little anticlimactic. Besides a “National Register of Historic Places” plaque, there is nothing commemorating that building’s place in American history. I know only a small moment of the scandal that took its name happened at the actual Watergate, but there could at least be a little sign honoring it as the birthplace of the suffix we now use for naming scandals in this country.

I promise this trip wasn’t a weird Watergate pilgrimage for me, but I did find one other fascinating item related to it in the American Presidents wing of the National Portrait Gallery. The hall is filled with portraits of all the presidents, but the most intriguing was this Norman Rockwell painting of Richard Nixon. Norman Rockwell! The man whose paintings generally depicted jolly, happy scenes of innocent American life painted the president who would seem to least embody that innocence.

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The painting was done in 1968, before Nixon’s presidency, but even then, Rockwell had to “intentionally flatter” his appearance because regular Nixon wouldn’t look so good in a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell did other paintings of Nixon during his political career, but I was fascinated to see one included among majestic paintings of American heroes. I’m fascinated that these paintings even exist, because with the benefit of hindsight I can’t imagine a starker contrast between the way the public perceives an artist and the way it perceives his subject. 

Watergate obsession aside, the Portrait Gallery was amazing. I loved examining all the presidential portraits, but those of FDR and Bill Clinton were my favorite. I could easily go back and spend an entire day looking at other wings of the gallery and exploring other Smithsonian museums. I’ll just have to make another trip – I could stand to watch All the President’s Men again, anyway.