Baby, Light My Way

January 25th, 2010

baby.jpgThe twenty-week ultrasound is the big one; organs are measured, digits are counted, gender is determined (if you’re interested in that sort of information).

Our appointment at New York-Presbyterian (the neonatal unit is located in the historic Lying-In Hospital dating back to 1799) loomed large on our calendar for weeks. That it marked the edge of our long-planned “Babymoon” — one week in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic booked long before that island shook in sympathy with Haiti — only added to its heft.

My brother encouraged us to video tape the affair. My boss suggested the same. I’m a fan of the YouTubes, and TMI, but felt cautious. While Abbi is obviously pregnant (bystanders now inquire), and we’ve already seen the little bugger in his (or her) twelve week ultrasound, he (or she) hasn’t kicked or karate chopped or otherwise made him (or her) self known. I didn’t want cameras rolling if there was bad news to deliver.

The waiting room was crowded with couples of all shapes and stripes: LES hipsters in ripped jeans and piercings, Upper East Siders in blue blazers and Pulitzer prints, Abbi and me somewhere in-between. I banged on my Blackberry, endeavoring in vain to knock out incoming emails Missile Command-style.

“Abbigail Wagner?”

We walked quietly to our examining room, all viewless windows and humming air conditioner. The technician introduced herself to Abbi. Vestigial, apparently, I introduced myself, then took my spot in the “Daddy Seat” next to my wife. The lights dimmed. Abbi lifted her shirt, and lowered her waistband.

“The gel’s a little cool.”

The monitor above my left shoulder flickers to life. A cone-shaped, blue-and-white picture morphs and shifts, and I see him (or her) there. The ultrasound moves through layer of skin and bone revealing puzzling, chilling, inspiring, miraculous glimpses. One minute, the baby looks like a cherub, the next, and alien, the next, a skeleton. It’s unnerving, beautiful, and unbelievable all at once.

The technician zeros in on our baby’s heart, all four chambers beating in double-time. She cans the femur, then humerus. She finds the left hand, all five fingers splayed wide. We gasp.

Peering into Abbi is a miracle. A thousand possibilities flash before my eyes: a runner, a ballerina, an academic. It’s impossible not to project my hopes, anxieties and dreams on this unborn child.

Sitting there in the dark holding Abbi’s hand, I think of all of the roads, decisions, missteps, and mistakes that led me here. And, for the first time, I can imagine how this child will lead me there, wherever there is.

“Hope For Haiti Now” Behind The Scenes

January 23rd, 2010

hope.jpgSome twenty-four hours after its original airing, and some 150 miles from the earthquake’s actual epicenter, I finally watched the “Hope For Haiti Now” telethon.

Like most of these sorts of live productions, it’s rare that I actually see the event itself.

Friday night, I was at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, one of four locations for this ambitious, last-minute, charitable broadcast. MTV News was conducting interviews in New York, Los Angeles and London, then serving them unbugged, unflagged and unbranded to the world’s press.

From Madonna’s arrival, to her on-stage, off-camera conversation with Bruce Springsteen, and from Wyclef’s rehearsal to Sting’s backstage interview, I saw and heard the action around me through doorways, monitors, and out of the corner of my eye. With one notable exception.

My boss (creator of MTV’s Choose Or Lose) ushered President Bill Clinton into our awed and instantly-silent backstage an hour prior to showtime. There were easily fifteen of us — cameramen, audio technicians, production management, producers, writers — jammed into a 10×15 foot canary-yellow office-turned-studio. I was tucked into a small anteroom monitoring our Twitter Map. I snuck a peek, then focussed on my work as President Clinton eloquently dashed off a half-dozen questions.

Afterwards, my boss suggested a photo. As a small group of three or four of my colleagues assembled around The President, he called my name. Shocked, I dashed off my headset and strode on set. Seconds after the camera flashed, President Clinton patted me on the back and said, “Thanks for what you’re doin’ here.” I stuck out my hand, shook his and said, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

It took me nearly an hour to regain my composure.

Regain my composure I did, though; I had to. MTV News was live after the telethon, recapping highlights, proffering live interviews, backstage reports and (this is where I came in) global micromedia analysis. Once again (like the 2009 VMAs), MTV teamed with Twitter to avail a real-time snapshot of activity around a specific topic. For three hours, then, I watched the map ripple with Twitter activity. Darker colors indicated greater activity. Brazil, for example, was Tweeting about Haiti at a rate of some 3000 Tweets a minute. Yellow dots indicated specific Tweets my colleagues in Los Angeles had pre-vetted. The editorial conceit was that from Australia to Zimbabwe, international sentiment was with the Haitian people.

On-camera.

Seconds prior to air, I had a set of inspiring international Tweets in place. From Uraguay, EllenFader said, “Haiti, we pray for you.” On the other side of the world in the Phillipines, AnnaSofia Tweeted, “Haiti needs our help. Haiti needs our hope.” I spotted MTV News’ Tim Kash approaching in my monitor, then heard him down the hall. Deep breath. Another. He’s in the room now when the Twitter map goes blank, my perfect examples of world peace disappeared.

I improvised.

Quickly.

I woke up on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic this morning, barely fifteen hours later.

I’m lying in Suite Six (“Doña Rosa”) at Casa Colonial just east of Puerto Plata, and well north of Port-au-Prince. Abbi is asleep next to me, relishing a vacation — a “Babymoon,” if you will — booked some three months prior to Hispaniola’s great and terrible shudder.

Lying here in the glow of the television, it’s easy to feel cynical about these sorts of benefits: millionaire celebrities speechificating, rock stars pontificating. I’m reminded again watching tonight, though, that these sorts of humanitarian, fundraising efforts are what America does best. Forget manufacturing, our primary export is hope. Sure, its cast and scripted and made-up and shot. It’s imperfect, but it works. In just 24-hours, hopeforhaitinow.org has raised nearly $60M, and the resulting recording has already shot to the top of iTunes.

Tonight, I looked out of the window and thought, “That’s the same moon.”

Sounds simple, right? But that’s it, really. We share the same Heavens. And that’s enough.

Little Monsters

January 21st, 2010

gaga.jpgMust’ve been nearly fifteen years ago now that I was wearing green lame and pleather pants, painting my nails cobalt blue, and playing Lower East Side venues like Hotel Galvez, Cafe Sin-e, and Sidewalk Cafe when I first bagged a booking at the coveted Mercury Lounge.

I distinctly recall my first, early-evening slot there is the then-nacent (now defunct) Intel New Music Festival. The sun was low over Houston Street, casting a warm, orange glow on the collection of Lincoln Towncars there. Inside, the room was packed with suits taking in the previous act.

“This is my big break!” I thought.

The second he finished, the room cleared, and the Towncars raced back towards Midtown.

Tonight, I sat in a row full of suits at Lady Gaga’s Radio City Music Hall performance. Of course, there were no actual suits. In fact, I was the only one in a sport coat. Still, Barbara Walters was tapping her toes six seats to my left.

Gaga (né Stefani Germanotta) isn’t really my ball of wax, but I won’t lie: she killed it. I’m not sure I’ve evert seen a more thoroughly-contemporary, 2.0 performance. I can’t imagine her disco-fueled, S&M-inspired, Danceteria-meets-Metropolitan Opera rock show storming any other era. She mashes everything up: Madonna (obvs), Rue Paul, Jerry Lee Lewis, Victoria’s Secret, Rocky Horror, Betty Page, Robert Mapplethorpe, Hermann Rorschach, German SS. You just don’t know what she’s going to do next, and you can’t wait to find out.

She spent inordinate amounts of time talking, at one point lying on the stage begging for applause. “I’m like Tinkerbell,” she said. “I’ll die if you don’t clap.”

Just prior to her strobe-lit, Jumbotron performance of “The Fame,” she reminisced about her early performances on the Lower East Side. “I used to play these small clubs on that smelled like urine,” she growled. “I miss it every day.” The audience cheered, though I doubt anyone in the historic music hall believed her; it may just be a matter of a few blocks, but Radio City is light years away from Mercury Lounge.

As I surveyed Radio City’s throbbing, mobile phone-lit audience somewhere in the middle of her closing trifecta of “Poker Face,” “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance,” it dawned on me: Gaga doesn’t just harness the power of her fans (her “Little Monsters”). She thrives on the gaze: theirs, ours, and everyone else’s. Where other’s have suffered from the “They’re Just Like Us” nature of modern paparazzi culture (“The Gaze,” as we called it in college), Gaga seeks it, she’s turned it around, seizes its power. She is desperately needy and fiercely independent in equal turn.

“I’m your biggest fan,” she sings. “I’ll follow you until you love me.”

I flashed back to that empty room in the Lower East Side. And I thought about the next 72 hours: Springsteen’s “Hope For Haiti Now” rehearsals tomorrow; Abbi and my ultrasound, the telethon, MTV News’ after-show (during which — get this — I’m slated to appear) on Friday; and Babymooning with my beautiful wife on Saturday afternoon.

I slipped out between the suits, and walked home past the pay phone from which I called my mother years ago to tell her I’d just gotten a job interview (but not, as you know now, the job) at Rolling Stone listening to Rufus Wainwright’s “Beautiful Child” full-tilt on my iPod and… and… and I thought about those Towncars, and those gigs, and those cameras, and I though, “Wow.”

These days are a mash up for me too: Broadway, Houston and Hollywood; fatherhood, faith and terror; sport coats, jeans and Converse All-Stars.

Those pleather pants never did suit me anyway.

Manhood For Amateurs

January 15th, 2010

bbwdad.jpgIt says something about who we are and how we manage transitions, I think, that, while Abbi patiently and methodically reads “The Girlfriend’s Guide To Pregnancy,” I am preparing for fatherhood with Michael Chabon’s “Manhood For Amateurs.”

Though the book is lean on the science of what’s to come, it ably address the psychology and philosophy. Chabon recounts with levity and sensitivity the inevitable sense of loss, and failure inherent to the gig. And not a moment too soon.

I often recount standing there with Abbi on Flatbush Avenue as we debated moving to Brooklyn, staring back at Lower Manhattan like a distant Oz, and saying, “It’s just too far.” Later, racing back to Hell’s Kitchen in the subway, we discussed the merits of a second bedroom, a consideration I insisted we address not because I was planning ahead for baby, but because I feared that dismantling my recording apparatus would plunge me into a creative black hole.

We didn’t move to Brooklyn (at least we haven’t yet), though our humble Hell’s Kitchen one bedroom has forced the dismantling of my recording apparatus. And I may not be in a creative black hole, but it does look awfully gray sometimes. I played just eight shows last year, and released a meager two singles. Moreover, there’s no more waking up in on the subway in Harlem, ten stops from home, hungover at three o’clock in the morning. No more Camel Lights, Graphix Bongs or PBR. Sounds like fatherhood, huh?

There is no way to draw the line, to recreate that boundary, without engaging in hypocrisy, without condemning, questioning, or diminishing the importance of the things, from ultra-sugary bubble gum to transfatty snacks to Humboldt County sensimilla, that once stood at the center of my loving world. That’s what sucks about being an adult. Adulthood has always carried a burden of self-denial, or surrendering pleasures, of leaving childish things behind.

That ought to be some pretty valuable learning, this from the guy once accustomed hailing gypsy cabs to the tune of waking birds. Thing is, and what the 29-year-old version of me never considered, is just how much marriage offers. Abbi is my best friend. I’ve never had more fun with someone more consistently, male or female. I’ve never had a better partner in crime (though, rest assured, there are no criminal activities originating from our 700 square foot apartment). Put simply, I’ve never been happier. Bars are overrated next to sushi night. And I’m sure sushi night pales next to going to the zoo with a couple of toddlers.

Still, Chabon warns, fatherhood is fraught with inherent, impossible-to-avoid failure.

A father is a man who fails every day. Sometimes things work out: Your flashed message is received and read, your song is recorded by another band and goes straight to No. 1, your son blesses the memory of the day you helped him arrange the empty chairs of his foredoomed dream, your act of last-ditch desperation sends your comic book company to the top of the industry. Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you always knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club.

The good news is that, where growing up in general has provided significant ballast against the rolling wives of external opinion and validation, fatherhood apparently leads to a near-total absence of self-consciousness.

“I seem every day to give a little bit less of a fuck what people think or say about me,” Chabon explain.

This is not the result of my undertaking to exercise a moral program or of increased wisdom or any kind of willed act on my part. It just seems to be a process, a time-directed shedding, like the loss of hair or illusions. I am a husband, a father, and a son, whether I think, ponder, or worry about gender, sexuality, my life as a man; and maybe there’s a kind of pleasure to be taken in simple unconsciousness, an automatic way of moving and being and acting in the world.

So ready the murse, and pour me another O’Doul’s, people. Fatherhood, here I come.

Heart Shining Forward

January 10th, 2010

sky.jpgThese days, it doesn’t take much to make me cry.

I’m not talking full-bore, crocodile tears, or the hyperventilated, cheek-puffing sobs of childhood. I’m talking about those moments when the beauty of life becomes so temporarily overwhelming, so impossibly moving, that you have to pause, recognize, and absorb. It’s a good thing, a warm feeling, a sense of connectedness, gratitude and wonder.

The latest and most-profound of these moments began (as is increasingly the case) Saturday morning during yoga. The class was packed with first-timer and the newly-resolved. Abbi and I tucked ourselves in the corner. We began, as always, with a series of Oms. The vibrations cleared my cluttered mind like freshly-shaken Etcha-a-Sketch.

Our instructor, Kirtan, cognizant of new students, took special pains with the language around and philosophies behind each pose. I focused on my breathing, struggled through my clumsy, and occasionally found myself untethered from my life and all its anxieties.

Toward the end of class, somewhere between Warrior I and II, Kirtan encouraged us to set our shoulders back and chests forward. “Heart shining forward,” he said. Even as I wobbled there in the half-lit studio, the phrase struck me immediately. Sure, the pose itself made sense. But the phrase. The Phrase! If there is a clearer, simpler set of words to live by, I don’t know them.

Heart shining forward.

Yoga has reconnected me with someone I lost long ago, The Alter Boy, The Vision Quester, The College Student who took classes like Reading Dreams, and spent summers roaming America’s back roads with nothing but a beat up Nissan, cheap acoustic guitar, and a string of Native American beads around his neck.

Afterwards, as Abbi babysat our niece, Ella, I walked way some forty blocks in the dazzling winter sunlight. At home, I immediately picked up my guitar. Hours later, when the sun had finally slipped beneath the frozen hills of New Jersey, she found me in my makeshift recording studio. I told her everything, then began to sing.

The day is still young
And the night is still a long way off
And the sky’s filled with angels singing Heaven from above
Let you heart shine on

There, on the third line, I felt it rising up in me like a warm tide. Abbi smiled, then reached out to touch my cheek.

“Oh honey, are you getting choked up again!?!”

Even there in the chilly, cluttered, windowless closet, my heart was shining forward.

The Future Needs A Big Kiss

January 4th, 2010

ball.jpgI woke up at 4:36 this morning, then spent an hour and a half tossing, turning and rolling a thousand work-related worries over in my head.

We ended the year on a strong note, delivering success metrics well above our ambitious goals. But media and technology are changing quickly (so much so, it occurred to me, “Mister Rogers & Me” risks looking quaint by the time it finally premieres). In the final days of the year, I ran the department through an outline of our 2010 strategy. Last year, it was “More, Shorter, Faster, Smarter.” This year, it’s “First, Best, Must.” And then we took a ten-day break. And now we’re back.

Two quick indications today that 2010 is already moving too fast within the first ten hours of the new (work) year:

1) We were asked to cover a shoot on behalf of one of the channel’s shows and a forthcoming film. Before we even made it to the location, though, one of the characters posted a snapshot to her Facebook profile that was immediately posted on a notable media blog. Scooped by the source. (And in the end, no interview.)

2) On the way home, I passed my local video store (Video Cafe on Ninth Avenue, never been inside, frankly) and spotted a hand-drawn sign (markers on poster board) reading:

VHS For Sale
3 For $10
Action, Drama, Comedy, More

I met Abbi at the grocery store, pulling something of a meet cute in the dairy aisle. At home, we settled into a terrific two-hour PBS special, “This Emotional Life.” We’ve been discussing (not surprisingly, and like every other major brand) the value of harnessing “social” — ie: Facebook, Twitter, etc — at work. But this two-hour, well-considered, beautifully-rendered documentary was the real thing, digging into bona fide human interaction — empathy, engagement, understanding — not kilobyte connections.

At the end of a long, anxious day (and what is sure to be a long, anxious year), it was reassuring to remember that at the heart is still the heart of it all.

So This Is The New Year

January 1st, 2010

nye.jpgWell, this is a first.

After a quick circuit in the gym (my wife, orthopedist and physical therapist all tell me I need to a) build muscle while b) allowing my body to recover from last year’s two marathons), I went for a short run through the city.

It was, not surprisingly (if you know me), a themed run. And the theme was (not surprisingly), New Year’s Day. My playlist was programmed accordingly (Ian Axel’s “This Is The New Year,” Semisonic’s “This’ll Be My Year,” U2’s “New Year’s Day (USA Remix),” etc etc), as was my route (south along Broadway through Times Square back through time to the Flatiron Building, etc).

Last night’s revelry (a handful of fon youngsters at Abbi’s sister’s apartment) was festive enough, but ended early on account of Abbi’s (reasonable) exhaustion. We stepped out of our cab just as the fireworks began exploding over Midtown. Abbi retired immediately, while I watched Fergie, Justin Bieber et all ring on the new year. It was underwhelming.

As I ran on through the quiet city streets this morning, I still felt underwhelmed. “So this is the new year,” I thought. “But I feel exactly the same.”

There’s always something disappointing about New Year’s Day. Nothing’s every any different. It’s cold, and dark, and one tends to be hung over. Worse, the holidays are over, and you’re staring down the icy-cold, gunmetal barrel of winter.

Somewhere between Times and Herald Squares, a few lyrics popped into my head:

The ball has dropped
The lights are out
Confetti’s on the floor

Most of my songs were born of such moments, so I took notice, turning the words over in my head so I’d remember them. Back home five miles later (I ran just over seven miles in about fifty-eight minutes), I picked up my guitar, and found a few chords.

I tossed off dozens of songs like this in the old days, mid-tempo, minor-chord letdowns. After just a few minutes of songwriting, though, I thought better of it; the world doesn’t need another mid-tempo, minor-chord letdown. Today’s no different, except that it’s a new one. And, like tomorrow, and the day after that, one full of opportunity.

Now that’s a song worth writing.