Sunday, January 18, 2009

Smooth Balkan Jams

It's late, Sunday night. The Brooklyn Baby sleeps peacefully, thank god, in her crib. The Brooklyn Baby Momma sleeps, also peacefully in our bed. My upstairs neighbor continues to make frequent and loud noises, punctuated by what sounds like a vacuum going on and off. Randi and I also love to make fun of his musical taste. You see we live in a building that is very Eastern European. For the most part this is great, they are kind, sweet people. But my neighbor loves to blast his loud Euro-disco party music at all hours, and, for some reason, plays it right over Stella's bedroom. I don't think it's woken her up yet, but we feel this is only inevitable. We've developed a nickname for his music, when it annoys us: "Smooth Balkan Jams." But you have to say it with the flat, humour-less inflection of a member of the KGB, or a really cheesy Middle-European radio announcer. Or Vladimir Putin.

I've already gone upstairs twice to ask him to keep it down, a little. Each time he's taken a long time to answer the door, and hid behind the open door, instead of opening it wide. It was dark inside his apartment, and my neighbor--a middle aged Eastern European man with white hair and a sparse beard on his face, sans moustache--seemed to be without clothing. He was certainly shirtless, judging from what I saw peeking out.

"I'm sorry, I have a little daughter and your music is keeping her awake, may I please ask you to turn it down just a little? Again, I'm really sorry." I only asked when the noise became obvious and too loud. And late. He blasts the Smooth Balkan Jams up to and past 11:00 p.m. at night.

The first time he looked at me with total shock, and then did it. The second time he argued with me.

"This is not house," he said. "If you want no noise you must live in house. This is apartment, you have to deal with noise. I can make noise until 11:00. "

His aggressiveness really cheesed me off. And I don't really GET cheesed off. But for him I made an exception.

"Look," I said. "I am trying to ask you NICELY if you could please turn it down. Get it? I am asking you NICELY." I guess I must have been more aggressive about it all than I intended, because he kind of stepped back in, I think, fear. After it was over I walked away, shocked by his reaction.

I would like to say that this solved the problem. And it seemed to, at least for a couple of weeks, but he's back to making a crap load of late-night noise. Often it sounds like he's moving the same piece of furniture across his floor, multiple times. Something big, heavy and that causes a lot of noise. Like an antique bureau, made out of chrome, or plutonium. "Let me see," I imagine him saying. "Do I like here?" As he moves his plutonium dresser across the floor, noisily dragging it every inch of the way. "Nah." This process goes on for hours. Then he vacuums.

I realize this is all part of big city living. And 99% of the time I suck it up. The irony is I've never asked a neighbor to be quiet in my life until I moved to what is basically the sticks of Brooklyn. Another irony is I'm the guy with six guitars, but I've never received even one complaint about noise from my neighbors.

I guess the noise cop, in my case, is my darling daughter, whom we are ALWAYS, it seems, trying to get down for a nap. And if she's not napping she's wanting to feed. The few times I've jammed out while she's on Boob Mountain she cocks one arched brow in my direction, as I'm mindlessly, but joyfully, noodling out to some kind of Grateful Allmans thing. Her look really says it all: "Is this really necessary?" She also seems to be asking me if this is all I've brought to the party: endless guitar wankery. And for the most part, she's right. It's not necessary and it's a lot of wankery. But it's fun. I can't wait till she gets older and I can teach her how to play the guitar, and then teach her, even better, the bass, so we can play together. I won't bother with the drums. Too noisy.


Well, the Brooklyn Baby is sleeping a lot better since the last entry. I think the culprit was that we had stopped giving her baby Zantac. She's nine months old now and we had thought her digestive system was up to it, but after she went off it she began to stay awake, and cry as has already been exhaustively documented elsewhere in this blog.

Now she's just starting to crawl, but she hates to crawl forward. She can move backwards pretty efficiently, and that's all well and good, but most of us don't go through life walking backwards. Even crabs move sideways.

She's trying to do it, but it's scary to her. In fact last week I walked into her bedroom as, for the very first time, she tried to do it. Randi, the Brooklyn Baby Momma was behind her and Stella Rae was on her hands and knees. She had what can only be described as a determined look on her face. This is when I entered the room.

"C'mon, you can do it!" Randi cheered. "C'mon. Crawl!"

Stella, and this is no lie, steadied herself and--honest to blog--made the decision that she was going to crawl forward. It was an amazing thing to see. Her eyes got focused, her face assumed a mask of defiance, and she set her body to do it. This was a revelation. Right then and there I learned something about human nature. We DECIDE to crawl. We don't just do it because of some nameless instinct that covers our bases evolutionarily. It's a choice made by babies, and it's fraught with risk and reward like all human endeavors. The reward, as we all know, is obvious. But the risks? Not so much so.

But here was the risk. To crawl forward Stella Rae rocked back and forth a few times and then, like a sprinter exploding from the starting blocks, she kicked her back legs out, and her little body SPRUNG forward. So much so that her little arms and hand weren't ready for it, and she did a complete and total face plant on her play mat. She, in effect, did the motion we do for leap-frog, without the part where you land it. Instead she just fell flat.

And then, oh, the tears. You can imagine, I'm sure.

But Randi and I were so proud. In fact I kind of laughed as she cried, which maybe sounds horrible, but you have to understand how amazing it was for me to see this. My little girl decided to do something and she did it. She didn't succeed at it, and she's been kind of guy shy about crawling ever since, but I feel so lucky that I got to see this in person. It would have been so easy to miss. Timing truly is everything.

Now she's, I think, decided that maybe she's not so crazy about this whole crawling thing anyway, and is trying to leap-frog (sorry Stella for the callback!) to standing and then, presumably, walking. She's holding herself aloft with admirable posture, even though her muscle control and balance isn't quite there yet and might not be for some time. But she's an independent lass, and will do things, as best as she can, her way.


I just escaped a massive round of layoffs at my firm, a well-known media company that shall go un-named here. It is a strange thing, scary and invigorating at the same time, kind of like a near death experience, at least as far as our money goes.

The magazine era truly is over. Most of the cuts were from the print side, and this is a great tragedy. I still think magazine are the most efficient way of telling a detailed, but still current, story. The web is fantastic for current news, but people generally won't read anything of length, or even that is more than one page. As I've found out on my job that's not an opinion, that's just a fact.

But it is what it is. And as much admiration and love as I have for magazines, and I do, I can't say I was sorry at all to move to the web side of where I work. It had a faster pace, the newsroom had a much flatter hierarchy (the magazine always had an institutionalized pecking order that you had to pay heed to) and it's more of a writer's medium.

The latter point might seem counter-intuitive to some reading this. Aren't magazines the ultimate medium for a writer short of novels? Well, no. At least not where I worked. The magazine, you see, was an EDITOR's medium, not a writer's. We would report the story and write a draft but the editors made it into what you saw on the page. If that meant pretty much re-writing it from scratch, so be it. In my years at the magazine I saw very few stories that didn't get any changes in tone or voice somewhere to reflect the editorial point of view and institutionalized biases of the top editors. And, worse--at least for me--after a while I realized that if I wrote in that voice I had a better chance of getting a story in the mag with a minimum of drama. I can't say I did this a lot, but there were times I would be surprised to find myself writing in the crotchety, older-guy voice that I heard in my head at all times. It didn't happen often, but I was aware of it, and had to be on guard against it.

Of course I would also write things that, I thought, were very much in my voice, and were good, too. And they would still come out on the page as if they were written by a crotchety, smarty-pants, old guy. I guess they couldn't help themselves.

So, compared to that the web is very much a writer's medium. Mainly because so much copy has to move so fast that there is no time for re-writing everything. And also because it's just not the nature of the beast. You can have a perfectly enclosed world view in a magazine. In fact it's a goal. Playboy attempts to basically have the essence of Hef in every page for good or bad. Esquire is for the wanna-be poon hound and "man's man" who thinks he should dress better. GQ is for that same guy, only with more money. Those are correlating examples, and all for men's magazines, but I think you get the idea.

But the web doesn't allow for this kind of unity. It's far too messy, far too sprawling and thanks to the global nature of the web itself reaches far too many places. Add in user comments and you have a whole new can of worms. Our top editor keeps the machine rolling, and edits things when he needs to but he doesn't have the same need for control that I had seen elsewhere. But he still has control. It's kind of a paradox. The more loosy-goosey nature of editing a big website requires a less monopolistic editing style in order to stay in business. So that it can grow. Meanwhile every iron-handed print editor has seen his or her empire crumble.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Nothing Is Forever

So, I sit at the computer, it's nearly 9:00 p.m. on a snowy Brooklyn night. The rest of our non-neighborhood is mostly tucked in, for now. It's quiet here, people are nice, and the pickles are good. Ocean Parkway is under-rated, and it's good to live in an area where people don't either resent you for having a child--like Park Slope--or look down on you for not having an expensive enough stroller--ALSO like Park Slope!

For now Stella Rae, the incomparable Brooklyn Baby Baby, sleeps. If I make it to the end of this posting without her waking up, it will be the true Festivus miracle.

Randi also sleeps, god bless her exhausted heart.

It's a been a week of reversions around here, sleep wise. It seems so trivial, sleep, and I can't believe, sometimes, the amount of bytes I've spilled musing about our lack of it. But sleep, like water and food, is only something you really notice in its absence. You can't store it, and you can't take it with you, it's a constant need. And one that we haven't been able to see fulfilled recently.

Stella was, of course, a horrible sleeper for the first three months, or so, of her life. At one point she stayed awake, crying no less, for about three days. And on the fourth day she slept for eight hours in a row. This, by the way, is the ONLY time she's slept that much in one fell swoop. And I think it's still the only time she's slept through the night.

But things gradually were headed in a better direction as of two to three weeks ago. She'd wake up once, maybe twice, a night, nurse and then generally go back to bed. She wouldn't stay awake all that long, and was relatively easy to coax back into Sleepytown. I'd put her in her crib, in her room, and she would roll to the side, cuddle with her lovie (aka a stuffed animal) and slide back into dreams. I started to feel like we had gone through some tough times, but had come out the other end. But the gods didn't see it that way.

As of about a week ago Stella started to wake up at 11:00 p.m. or so, and wake up screaming. I would go into the room, and get her. Then Randi would nurse her, but she wouldn't go back to sleep. She would then get on her hands and knees and start to crawl, but only backwards, down to the foot of our bed. We would then grab her back, over and over again. She would whine and moan while doing this. But wait, it gets better.

She's also developed a pinching habit, but it's even worse than it sounds. With the Brooklyn Baby Momma she goes right for the nipple, clamps down on it with her taloned little baby hands, and rips backwards! She has done this at LEAST a dozen times. If Randi is drifting off, as sensible people start to do around midnight, she is then awakened by the worst alarm clock ever invented by God or man. Often this will set the BBM into a terrible grouchy mood, but by lord, can you blame her?

I, of course, also get pinched. I thought I was smart, I started wearing a T-shirt to bed. No matter. Two nights ago she reached over, under the sleeve of my shirt, grabbed my underarm hair and tried to rip it out of my body. I don't care who you are, or how bizarre this sounds, that hurt! Other times, when I pick her up, she grabs a birthmark that is on my neck, right on my Adam's apple, and tries to peel it back from the rest of my skin. Holy crap! Can I tell you? She somehow manages to find it no matter how dark the room is, or how much I twist my head away. It's like she learned freakin' ninjitsu in the womb, or is Dalton from "Roadhouse!"

The worst part of all is how often our hopes are dashed. Eventually, over the past week, we've found that after hours of coaxing Stella will, indeed, finally drift off in our bed; from a combination of nursing and endless rounds of our own homemade lullabys. So, now that she's asleep I'll gently pick her up. Oh, my precious one, I'll say, as she rests her head on my shoulder, the picture of a little angel. I'll open our creaky bedroom door--holding my breath--and she'll stay asleep. Phew.

Then I'll open her creaky bedroom door--holding my breath--and she'll stay asleep. Double phew! Finally, I will gently, gently walk to her crib, and start lowering her onto her comfy, lovely little mattress. Before her back even hits the sheet her eyes spring open, and her body stiffens. Oh no. Then, to complete the masquerade, I will put her in the crib anyway, hoping against hope that somehow she will see fit to roll to her side, grab her lovie and take one for the team.

No freakin' dice. Now is when the crying starts, all over again, only worse because she had been asleep and is frustrated. She won't roll to her side, or if she does she will quickly roll back. And no matter how much I sing to her, or try to sooth her, she ain't having it. This kid is, once again, crying her little heart out. And I have no choice, we have to start over from scratch. I pick her up again, as my compressed back groans in complaint. It's a nightly crushing, and as you can imagine, it's starting to wear down your faithfull correspondent, just a little. Okay, a lot.

Needless to say, it's all getting a little bit old. People are denied sleep during brainwashing, you know, to break down their resistance. I think they do it to the Marines in basic, and to prisoners of war in, uh, war. Sleep is that important for functioning in a normal, cool-headed way. Without it all kinds of stuff comes loose.

Last night was a perfect example of stuff coming loose. We put Stella to bed at 7:00 p.m. Randi, exhausted, went to sleep at 8:30 p.m. I stayed up a little, but not too much, and was ready for bed at 11:00 p.m. This is when Stella woke up. From there we played out every no-sleep nightmare scenario you can imagine, including all those listed above, until 2:30 a.m.

We were desperate. We got incredibly frustrated. I started to say stupid stuff like "This is such BULLSHIT!" and I really started to resent Stella, like she was doing this on purpose. At one point I took her lovie and started to furiously hit her crib with it, the very picture of impotence: a man slapping wood with a stuffed animal. (Don't worry, Stella wasn't in the crib at the time.)

Randi resented me for resenting Stella. This I found utterly perplexing, because if there is one thing that can be said about our home it's this: we've all gotten irritated at each other for the lack of sleep. This goes for Stella too. I will pick her up, and she will pinch my throat. I will put her down and she will cry until I pick her up again. You get the picture. I can tell, sometimes, that she's not too keen on me.

At 1:30 a.m. I had even tried something desperate. I inflated our air mattress in Stella's room, so that we could sleep there and try to get her back in bed. Randi and I were so fed up we even argued about who would sleep on the air mattress: she won. Well, if you insist ...

But I couldn't stay in bed, and listen to Randi over our always-activated baby monitor as she desperately tried to soothe this squalling child. I kept on coming back in, over and over, probably making all of it worse. The door creaking each and every time.

"You go back to bed," Randi said, "don't worry. I've GOT it."

I probably answered with something smooth like, no YOU go back to bed. Only with more cursing.

Somehow, I don't know why, ultimately what happened was I took Stella, who was still crying, and put her back in the crib. Then I turned my back on her, and for reasons unknown, this immediately knocked her out cold and she slept until 6:30 a.m. What the HELL was that all about? I wish I knew. Turning your back as a signal for sleep? If only it worked like that with adults you can't stand.

Very, very quietly we tip-toed out of the bedroom, the BBB now at one with her dreams, happy at last. Then we got into bed, wiped out. And Randi stayed awake the rest of the night with insomnia.

Stella? She had a fabulous morning.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Meaning Of Life

This month Esquire magazine has noteworthy stalwarts from all walks of life pontificate upon what they have learned so far. I have always fantasized about being featured in just such a profile. But no one's called yet, so I figured I would simply do it myself. They have Clint Eastwood, you have me. I have tried to not think about these answers too much:

  • Don't think about things too much.
  • If you're going on a date a bar is typically the best place. The girl doesn't drink? That's a problem.
  • We got the best baby in the baby factory.
  • No matter how much Randi and I argue, few argument are so bad that some love and, uh, romance won't make it better. Typically more of the latter leads to less of the former.
  • The one thing I've written that makes me the most proud? I wrote a piece for NPR's "Marketplace" in 2000 about the problem of people flaring natural gas in Nigeria. I hadn't even been there, but I interviewed a journalist, Greg Campbell, who had. It was his story, but I told a few more people about it. How the burning gas destroys lives and the oil companies don't do anything about it. I also interviewed a native villager in Alaska, Rosemary, who talked about how the same thing happens in Prudhoe Bay, despite the fact that it's illegal. I don't know if it changed anything, and I didn't do all that much original reporting for it, but I feel this story did more to make the world better than anything else I ever wrote. And I am comfortable with that.
  • Comedy happens when you get normal people to see things as fucked up as you do.
  • When I start to worry about other people the writing goes straight into the crapper.
  • Want to become decent at guitar? Play every day for 15 minutes. After a year, or so, you'll have it.
  • Greatest thrill with my clothes on? Birth of my daughter. Second? Playing music live.
  • Greatest challenges left: standup comedy.
  • What else to do: more sketch comedy.
  • Experience is the process of recognizing a mistake as you make it again.
  • I may not always be the best husband or worker, but every day I get a new chance to be the best dad I can be. That means a lot.
  • The best gift I could ever give Stella Rae: self confidence.
  • The one trait I wish I had more of: self confidence.
  • There was only one Hunter S. Thompson and he committed suicide.
  • Everyone in America should be a waiter or waitress for one month. We live in a service based society. These people work hard. Tip them well.
  • The greatest job any journalist can have, besides journalism, is doing sales. Being sympathetic, earning people's trust, making sure that trust is justified, listening, ensuring that every transaction is a win-win, these are the salesman's tools. They are also a journalist's tools. Of them all the ability to listen and make every interaction worthy of the other person's time is the greatest thing a journalist can do to develop sources. Always give the other person something, even if it's simply a good conversation.
  • Taking improv classes helped make me who I am today. If I am in a high pressure situation I simply relax, and remember that I have been here before, and I perform. It comes in handy in countless ways. When I am on TV or video I simply fall back on my improv training. I relax, I listen to the other person and I speak with confidence. I also create a character: The Smart Guy Who Knows What He's Talking About. I may not always feel like that guy, but they don't have to know that.
  • I would rather be engaged than be happy.
  • Having said that, the greatest thing we can do to be happy is use the talents god gave us, as much as possible.
  • I tell those I love that I love them, also, as much as possible.
  • But I am extra careful to let my wife, daughter and mother know it all the time.
  • When I'm in a hole the best thing I can do is to stop digging.
  • I believe in forgive and forget. Short memories equal long relationships.
  • The older I get the more confident I feel. Why? Because I no longer care.
  • Never write anything online that you don't want exactly the wrong person to see. Because somehow they will see it.
  • It's easy to forgive others, harder to forgive yourself. But it's just as important.
  • Ever wonder why there are so many noteworthy Jewish writers, comedians, artists, critics, scientists and thinkers? Two reasons. One is that we, as a people, believe deeply in education. That's well known. The other may not be as well known. It's because we're permanent outsiders in every culture we have ever been in. It salts the way you view things.