Wake Up, Maggie (I Think I Have Something To Say To You)

June 27th, 2010

wakeupmaggie.jpgLoving music led to playing music led to writing music led to performing music led to recording music. Still, I wouldn’t have bet on this.

Tony, Chris, Ryan and I started recording “Forever Young” in February. The record is due in October, and benefits The Fred Rogers Center. The conceit is simple: record a bunch of classic songs that kids and parents alike love with a bunch of friends and release it for charity. Said conceit came with a perk too: throughout Abbi’s pregnancy, I placed headphones on her belly and played little Maggie these works in progress.

Moments after she was born, I sang one of those tracks, “Golden Slumbers,” to her. She calmed immediately. I was psyched.

In the intervening three weeks, though, I’ve discovered a simple truth: Maggie is far to young to respond to complex melody, let alone multiple instruments, percussion and harmony. Soon enough, but not yet. For now, her interests are simple: sustained notes, and white noise.

Now, as you, Dear Reader, know, I’m a big fan of the home studio. I’ve recorded multiple albums and numerous unreleased tracks on ProTools. The new digs, the imperative to make space for Maggie and my relative lack of songwriting inspiration (bliss doesn’t do much for the creative impetus; who wants to hear a happy song?), though, mean that the bulk of my equipment is stashed away in the closet. Until last week.

Our first days home from the hospital were brutal: feed, poop, feed, poop, feed, poop. No one was getting any sleep. Worst of all, we couldn’t sooth Maggie. Somewhere in the wee hours of our second, sleepless night, I fell back into bed exasperated. Which is when it dawned on me: the shower! Abbi’s womb, comfortable as I’m sure it was for Maggie, was a pretty loud place: Abbi’s heart was nearby, to say nothing of her gurgling stomach and whooshing veins. The white noise of water falling onto the shower curtain replicated those sounds. The moment Maggie crossed the thresh hold into the bathroom, she fell asleep. It was our go-to move. Baby can’t sleep? Shower curtain white noise!

After a few nights, though, I began to worry about our impact on the environment. Sure, Maggie was sleeping, but how much water were we wasting. Which is when I turned to Abbi and said, “Wait, I’ve been making recordings for years. Why don’t I just record the water falling onto the shower curtain!”

Which is why last Wednesday found me setting up my ProTools rig in the bathroom to knock out a seven-minute, 44kHz stereo recording which I then mixed, mastered, ripped as an mp3 and put on Maggie’s iPod.

Voila! Environmentally-friendly white noise!

Abbi loves it, Maggie loves it, and New York City’s reservoir system is none the worse for our wear. I even did a five-minute remix with less high end!

For months now I’ve wondered and worried how fatherhood would affect my recording career.

Now I know.

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Mister Rogers, Jeff Tweedy & Me

June 25th, 2010

ackgit.jpgIt’s been quite the few weeks around here. As more than one person has said, “You delivered two babies in two weeks!” Of course, while I couldn’t be much prouder of “Mister Rogers & Me,” the film doesn’t hold a candle to Maggie.

Nonetheless, the film’s premiere has played a roll in my three-week paternity leave. I snuck away to the Nantucket Film Festival last week where the film was met with a wonderfully warm response. One viewer commented, “Within minutes of the film starting, my goose bumps (not to mention tears) suggested that I was going to walk out of the auditorium forever changed by what I saw and heard.”

The film is, not surprisingly, loaded with my music alongside a score by Rich Sancho and Chris LoPresto, and two songs by Casey Shea. The primary reason I used my songs (“Hollywood Arms,” “Dark Blue,” “The Last Time” and “Breathe In,” among others) is cost; I knew I could afford my songs. But as more than viewer has suggested, there’s a deeper musical connection between Mister Rogers and me.

I recently spoke to Museum Views’ Homa Nasab who tapped more deeply into that music connection.

Homa Nasab – Mister Rogers and you both studied music. Did that help you to connect with him at a deeper level than if you hadn’t shared that passion and discipline?

Benjamin Wagner – Definitely. We played songs for each other the day we met, and I sent him my CDs as they were released. In fact, the day we met, I played him a song called “Summer’s Gone” which I love, and am really proud of, but is laced with sadness. I think he picked up on that sadness, and that it provided him insight into me that led him to ask about my parent’s divorce. Time and again, the folks we interviewed said that Mister Rogers was particularly adept at listening closely, identifying what was broken in us, and helping us heal. For both Mister Rogers and me, I think, music provided both shorthand for that communication, and a process for healing what was hurt.

HN – The rhythm of the film is consciously and defiantly measured…somewhat like your own music which sounds inconspicuously organic (can we say that about music… you know: the man, his lyrics and guitar with minimal production?). Can you talk about your choice to adapt this (slow) rhythm…?

BW – We absolutely set out to make the film concertedly slow. It opens in New York City with quick cuts, lots of motion and noise, and then moves to Nantucket where it slows down and the sounds become natural: waves, wind, birds. And while I love uptempo rock, my music definitely tends towards acoustic, the midtempo, and minimally-produced. In fact, I credit Mister Rogers (along with Jeff Wilco’s Tweedy) with giving me the courage to perform to my strengths as a musician. When I first moved to New York, I tried on all kinds of rock costumes: leather pants, fingernail polish, gold lame. But jeans and a t-shirt, earnest, contemplative and melancholy, come naturally. Just as “I like you just the way you are” helped me own the fact that I’m not cool (or more importantly that it’s superfluous whether anyone thinks I am or not) that same set of values – feelings are ok, that which is mentionable is manageable, etc – gave me the confidence to wear my heart on my sleeve as a musician. So there’s a chicken/egg component to it. My music (which you hear in the film) developed with the film.

HN – Musically and philosophically speaking…the film has a very Zen quality to it. Somewhat like your “Breathe In” from the 2008 album The Invention of Everything Else…

BW – “Breathe In” was very much written in a post-Mister Rogers mindset. That is, I was set free from concerns about commercialism, trends, and any other expectations by the time I’d written it – thanks in no small part to Mister Rogers (and in no small part to growing up in general). In fact, “Breathe In” was going to be the credit music until I heard my pal gorgeous “Love Is Here To Stay” which had something of a “Hey Jude” rally cry to it. Casey’s track makes the end of “Mister Rogers & Me” feel like a movement, or the beginning of one, not the end of something else. It makes you want to be a part of something bigger.

For the rest of the conversation (including my answer to how “The Lady Gaga Generation” will relate to “Mister Rogers & Me”), visit Museum Views. For more on the documentary, visit “Mister Rogers & Me.”

Maggie At Ten (Days)

June 16th, 2010

10.jpgMaggie slept through her one week birthday (the nerve!), so I decided to celebrate ten days; seemed like a good round number. Anyway, these first few days of Maggie’s life have disabused me of measurements; seconds, minutes, hours all seem to stretch and bend in this haze of feed, burp, change, repeat.

And so tonight, I made Maggie’s favorite dinner, tacos, guacamole and red velvet cupcakes (ok, not really), and celebrated with my girls. As I slaved in the kitchen (ha ha), I reflected on how much I’ve learned in the past ten days. Take meconium, for example. I mean, who knew? Here are ten more, in no particular order:

1- We’re not in control. This became increasingly clear to me over the course of Abbi’s pregnancy, but even more so now. First, Maggie wouldn’t show her face. Then she wouldn’t flip. Now? Sweet like candy one minute, fiesty like a hurricane the next. Kicking, cooing, sleeping, cuddling, crying… one just never knows.

2- I’m ok with poop. Maggie literally projectile pooped on her changing table today. Abbi and I just laughed, and cleaned it up. I mean, by hand. As in poop on my hands. No big deal. In fact, it’s kinda’ cute.

3- Express is a verb.

4- Watching Maggie is better than watching TV. I think I’ve watched ten minutes in the last ten days. Her ever-changing facial expressions are far-more compelling than anything Hollywood or Madison Avenue has to offer.

5- White noise works. We hit a wall on our second night home. Mags wouldn’t relax. Nothing worked: swaddling, shushing, bouncing, rocking. We were at wit’s end as five a.m. approached. I collapsed on the bed in frustration, and it dawned on me in a flash: water on the shower curtain! She was out the second she crossed the bathroom threshold.

6- Not sleeping isn’t so bad. We’ve been up for 3-5 hours in the middle of the night every night for the past ten days. I close my eyes one second, then am shuddered awake by crying the next. There are moments that are exasperating, to be sure. Usually, though, Abbi and I are having a good time. And in the morning (after a few cups of coffee), we forget all about it.

7- My wife is even more beautiful as a mother. I can’t say enough about how radiant Abbi has looked throughout her pregnancy and into motherhood. Lit from within. And not just in terms of how she looks. She is made for motherhood. Her warmth, patience, and joy is boundless — even when fatigue has made it impossible for her to determine the day, date or time. She is completely inspiring.

8- Life doesn’t end. I’ve watched “She’s Having A Baby” too many times. I always worried I was going to wake up in Kevin Bacon’s shoes, retrieving the paper alongside a dozen other same-looking husbands in some generic suburban neighborhood. Truth is, life has just begun. I don’t care where I am or what I’m doing so long as the girls are nearby.

9- Crying’s not personal. It’s been helpful to remind myself when Maggie’s screaming in my face that wales are her sole means of communication. Generally, her cries indicate just one of four issues: temperature, gas, poop, pee, or feed.

10- The world is more beautiful with Maggie in it. It just is.

I’m a late bloomer. Many friends and family have been parents for years. Suddenly, I feel silly for understating my enthusiasm for the gig. But hey: you can’t know what you can’t know. I have some inkling now, and it feels like someone just turned on the lights; I can see a whole new world new, one far-richer with the love my new family creates.

Meeting Maggie

June 13th, 2010

babywagner.jpgThe East River isn’t really a river at all, but a tidal strait between Manhattan and Long Island that, because of tides, appears to flow like one.

New York Presbyterian Hospital soars like a great, white sail over the East River. This great, granite sheet spans several blocks of Midtown East, swallowing the FDR highway whole. Looking southeast, the river below races just below, fast past Roosevelt Island and the Queensboro Bridge beyond. From inside, it’s as if one is floating above the city itself, rolling along in the waves, to and fro with the tide.

Abbi called me in tears. “The baby is breech,” she said. It was mid-May, some four weeks from her due date. “They want to schedule a c-section.”

It took weeks to work through our disappointment at not being able to deliver as we’d imagined. We exhausted every possible recourse to make our stubborn, little bugger flip in utero, from chiropracty to inversions to Chinese moxa sticks. Our low point came just two weeks from Abbi’s due date when a saintly doctor performed a brutally-painful external cephalic version to no avail. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This baby just won’t budge.”

We nudged at the uncertainty, gingerly wondering aloud why our baby was in the five percent of babies who don’t turn in preparation for labor. “The baby’s resting its head near your heart,” I said. “There’s no better, more-peaceful place to be.” Quietly, though, I worried, pushing aside the terrifying possibility that something was wrong.

By the time we signed into New York Presbyterian’s seventh floor labor and delivery ward at precisely noon on Monday, then, we’d made an unsteady peace with it all. We spent over nearly hours talking nervously in the crowded waiting room. I snuck away to the hospital chapel just long enough to eek out a brief prayer, a highly-inarticulate invocation consisting mostly of “please, please, please.” When I returned to the waiting room, Abbi had been admitted.

Once inside, everything moved quickly. Our attending nurse, Wendy, walked us through the procedure, entertaining all of our wishes to make this sterile, industrialized procedure as organic and natural as possible: music in the operating room, and as much “golden hour,” skin-to-skin time as possible. Then, Abbi walked into the OR for her spinal block while I pulled on my scrubs, paced impatiently in place and took deep, slow breaths. Finally, Wendy returned. “Ok, dad,” she said. “We’re ready for you.”

The OR was flooded with cold, fluorescent light. Doctors and nurses were already bustling about. Abbi was on her back, draped in a blue gown with a curtain over her chest and oxygen in her nose. I kissed her on the forehead, stared into her eyes, and began distracting her with remembrances of our first trip together to Honduras. “Keep talking,” she said as our story approached our first, long walk on the beach.

From behind the curtain, Dr. Waterstone said, “You have a beautiful little girl here.”

Abbi and I looked at each other in disbelief.

“What!?!” she said through a huge, tear-soaked smile. “A girl!?!”

For months, every street corner prognosticator from Puerta Plata to Paoli, Pennsylvania, had diagnosed her low-carry as an imminent sign that we were having a boy.

“It’s a girl!” Dr. Waterstone repeated.

Wendy said, “Go meet her dad!”

Those first seconds are — even now, less than one week later — like a flood-lit dream; crystal-clear, but surreal, like looking at a diamond under a microscope covered in cheese cloth. Here was this beautiful, perfectly-formed, pink creature with beautiful long arms and legs akimbo, fingers splayed, crying and struggling and teaming with life. Here was our little bundle, this nine-month mystery, this collection of hopes and dreams and wishes. Here was our beautiful daughter! I looked towards Abbi and fumbled through tears to say, “She’s fine! She’s beautiful! She’s perfect!”

They weighed her, swaddled her, and handed her to me.

“Introduce her to her mommy!” Wendy said.

I tiptoed to Abbi, and placed our daughter’s cheek at her mother’s lips. Like so many evenings prior, I sang “Golden Slumbers” to sooth her, and she settled quietly into my arms. We smiled through tears in a room so white, so bright, it may well have been Heaven.

For the next few hours, we eschewed the usual battery of medical industrial procedures, and kept our precious, little bundle as close as possible. I held her to my chest as Abbi’s surgery was completed, then handed her over to her mother who immediately began nursing. Our daughter was wide-eyed and alert, her eyes scanning our awe-struck faces. Family came and went, and we were ushered to our room.

Sometime in the wee hours of Monday night, Abbi said, “I think she’s our Maggie.”

We struggled through the night to feed, swaddle and sooth our little Maggie, every passing moment filled with new wonder, awe, anxiety and exhaustion. We watched her tiny lips purse, her perfect brow furrow. We watched her tiny eyelids squint into the light, her dark pupils scanning her new world. And we looked at each other and laughed through tears, more awake, more alive, and more in love than ever before.

As morning broke, we sat by the window with our little wonder watching the sky turn from dawn to day. Maggie yawned and stretched and struggled against the new day, finally collapsing, exhausted, into her mother’s arms.

Past the flowers in the window, seven stories below our granite sailboat, the East River was changing course. The water frothed, rumbled and boiled, then turned and headed out to sea held sway by the moon and lit by the sunshine of a brand-new life.

Margaret Burton Wagner

June 13th, 2010