Sunday, July 16, 2017

Birth Wisdom

Until one experiences natural childbirth firsthand, there’s really no way to anticipate what it entails.  You can do all the reading, all the watching, and all the listening to those who previously went through the gauntlet, but none of it truly captures the one-of-a-kind nature that is untamed birth.  You have to simply go through it to really understand it.

Just shy of 3 years ago, my daughter Scarlet was born.  It was a planned unmedicated home birth, which ended up in a hospital transport due to maternal exhaustion.  Upon much reflection, there were a variety of lessons we drew from Scarlet’s birth (see here) - lessons we fully intended to implement when it came time to have our second child.  So when we conceived back in October of 2016, we felt like fighters training for a rematch.  It would be entirely different this time around, and we would be ready to go the distance and then some, if necessary.

As before, Heather was focused on “preparing her vessel” prior to conception.  This entailed optimal nutrition, exercise, sleep, etc, which continued throughout the entire pregnancy.  Her diet was clean the first time around, but it was cleaner this time.  She swam and aggressively walked while pregnant with Scarlet, but now she mixed in yoga and a whole lot of floor sitting, in order to maintain her hip flexibility and pelvic range of motion, which she knew would be critical during labor.  Once more, she continued regularly seeing an acupuncturist, but this time she also consistently saw an osteopath, who was vital in maintaining a robust musculoskeletal structure and tendon / joint health all throughout the pregnancy - this in turn allowed Heather to maintain a higher level of activity than she would otherwise have been able to, evidenced by her attending yoga classes all the way into her 41st week of pregnancy.

Of course, having to take care of a toddler during pregnancy makes physical and mental preparation of any kind considerably more difficult to accomplish.  But she did everything she could given the circumstances, which is all one can ever do.  Funnily enough, in contrast to our first pregnancy, where we read everything we could get our hands on, with the second pregnancy we read little to almost nothing, because ultimately there is no better preparation than having actually lived through birth before.  Plus, reading becomes untenable once tiny humans are running around and screeching all day long.

So we were ready to go, and on July 7th, 2017, four days past her “due date”, the time was upon us.  After days of intermittent mild contractions, 9 AM brought a new variety.  These required focus.  Active labor had begun.

Thankfully, we had both slept for 7-8 hours, and that morning Heather ate like a champ while she had the capacity to do so.  Both of these paid dividends down the line.

For the first 2-3 hours, we were on our own.  Heather had opened up the windows and patio door, allowing a cool breeze to flow through the house along with the sound of the morning rain, which she found soothing as she labored on the floor of our dining room.  During a contraction, I’d put extreme pressure on her sacrum which aided her ability to navigate the discomfort, while she vocalized and focused on her breathing.  

Labor vocalization is definitely a distinct sound - it’s somewhere between a Tibetan chant and a dying animal - and it’s a little strange when one’s exposure to this sound inevitably ceases to be odd.

Eventually our doula and midwives arrived, joined shortly thereafter by Heather’s osteopath.  Birth team fully assembled, the hard work continued.  Any time her vocalizations started to creep up in tone, she was hit with constant reminders: “keep it low Heather”, “don’t tense up”, “stay relaxed”, “let it resonate downwards”, “let it in”, etc.  

I moved the dining room table into the corner, and we set up a birthing pool in its place, allowing Heather to knock out the next couple of hours immersed in warm water, while the osteopath worked on Heather’s back and legs.

Then the party moved into our bedroom.  Squatting on a small birth stool, Heather’s vocalizations reached a new level of intensity, and she started saying affirmations at the onset of each new wave of contractions - “my body and baby know how to birth” - after which she would lean backwards into my arms and go limp, while I massaged her lower back.

Time has a habit of skewing in labor (even for birth partners), so I don’t really know how long it was before the midwife explained that she was almost fully dilated at 9 cm.  The caveat was that there was a small patch of cervix stubbornly hanging on, preventing the baby from moving downwards.  Feeling wiped out, Heather opted to move to the bed for a momentary reprieve.

FYI, this was not just any bed - it was an organic bed that sat atop a hi tech frame, capable of independently moving the head and feet sections upwards.  Put differently, it was a bed tailored for labor!  And that is exactly what went through our minds when bed shopping the previous year - all things being equal, always go with the bed that will best facilitate a birth!

After a few rounds of contractions lying down, the midwife explained she could attempt to manually push back that last bit of cervix during the next contraction, if Heather wanted; otherwise, Heather should get back to being upright so as to let gravity better assist with the remaining inch of dilation.  Unsure of how to proceed, and since she was already on the bed, Heather instructed the midwife to take a shot at the manual adjustment.  And then she let out a blood curdling scream when that adjustment was attempted.  Having failed to accomplish the goal, and feeling the sensation was entirely unnatural, Heather opted for plan B - back on the feet we would go, but not before her water finally broke in the midst of another contraction, an explosion that took everyone by surprise (as I suspect it probably often does).

Now on her feet, we made our way into the bathroom, where Heather sat on the toilet.  The toilet may strike some as an odd birthing location, but it’s where people habitually go to relax their sphincter, and actually makes for a good labor site.  At this point, Heather was beyond fatigued, and she was sort of swaying in front of me like a drunken sailor from utter exhaustion.  She kept repeating, “I don’t think I can do this” … and we kept repeating, “yes you can - you’re already doing it”.

Sensing we were at a crucial precipice, where her focus and willpower could potentially get carried away from her, I asked the doula to trade places with me.  Then I ran into the kitchen and grabbed an iPod off the counter that contained a playlist of music we had curated specifically for if / when we reached a point like this.  Ear buds secure, I hit play - then she went totally silent for the next 10-15 minutes, breathing through the contractions without vocalizing.  I could see her energy recharging, catching a second wind.  It was fascinating to watch.

The midwives and doula then suggested that she get into the shower.  After some initial protest, Heather begrudgingly relented.  Ear buds removed, I assisted her into the shower.  As soon as the water hit her body, she said it felt good and asked that we make it colder, which we obliged.  And cold it got … like really fucking cold … like the kind of water polar bears approve of cold … like a shower that could offset climate change cold.

I was standing directly in front of her, as a leaning post, and when she had a contraction she would drop into a squat while I supported her underneath her arms.  Cleverly, the midwives’ assistant gave me a towel to put around my neck for Heather to grab onto, and with which I could more efficiently support her.

After some amount of time in the shower, one of the midwives attempted to check her progress but was unable to get an accurate assessment, due to the confined space of the shower stall.  So ironically, now to Heather’s great dismay, she begrudgingly got out of the shower and back into the open space of our bedroom.

The towel remained around my neck and shoulders, and we kept the same stand-squat routine going.  As if in anticipation, the sun had by now reared its head outside, casting a beautiful shimmer over the trees, and it wasn’t long before the midwife proclaimed the cervix had fully receded and the head was descending.  On we went.  I suddenly realized that the midwife was directly behind me, on her hands and knees, in between my legs, checking the baby’s progress between Heather’s legs.  It was like a game of Birth Twister.

Midwife:  “Zack, please don’t sit on me”

Me:  ”Susan, I would never sit on you”.

Heather:  “Is that the head out?”  

Midwife:  “Yes it is!”

Heather:  “Ok, is everyone ready?”

Birth Team:  “Yes!”

The fog of labor was instantaneously lifted as the baby was birthed, preceded only by the warmest gush of fluid across my legs I have ever felt … like wonderfully warm … like water befitting a tropical desert paradise warm … like the kind of water those Japanese snow monkeys submerge themselves in to escape a merciless winter warm.  Yes, I felt like a Japanese snow monkey on holiday.  

As the baby was caught by the midwife between my legs, and handed upward between myself and Heather, I was jolted back to reality as the baby screeched, and I was perplexed at the extreme pale white appearance.  “My God, she’s birthed a White Walker!” I thought to myself.  As it turns out, it was just the vernix (which apparently was unusually plentiful for a full term baby).  Soon thereafter, with vernix rubbed into the skin, the baby pinked up just fine.

And so it is with great delight that I introduce you to Willow Sky Hemsey:

In the aftermath of our first birth, I was surprised at some of the confusion (and borderline outrage) I received in response to what happened.  Some felt our attempted home birth was irresponsible and dangerous, despite no one actually being in danger of anything at any point.  Some felt it was masochistic to have an unmedicated birth and/or that we were trying to prove something (it wasn’t and we weren’t).  Some felt we were exhibiting an unnecessary disdain or disregard for western medicine and/or technology (again, we weren’t).  And some expressed incredulity that we would attempt another home birth after what had happened the first time, as if our birth with Scarlet was physically or mentally traumatic in nature (it wasn’t … it was crushing psychologically to not get the birth we had wanted, but it remained a positive experience on the whole, for both of us).

I found it bizarre (and still do) that so many completely miss the spirit of our actions.  The desire to birth at home stems from a desire to birth naturally, unmedicated, in a familiar, comfortable, and safe environment.  For us, that’s home.  For you, it may be a hospital.  In turn, the desire to birth naturally without medication stems from the physiological benefits of doing so, for both baby and mother (the reader can take it upon themselves to research this, or reference my response to the initial comment on Birth Lessons where I go into greater depth).  Importantly, being unmedicated prevents the natural birth process from being inadvertently undermined and short-circuited, for it maximizes the mother’s ability to coherently and effectively navigate birth, which then minimizes the potential need for interventions (and the domino effect of complications and further interventions that can often ensue as a result).

But there is an additional component to unmedicated natural childbirth that goes beyond the physiology, and it has nothing to do with pain or suffering.  It’s about embracing the enormity of what the human body is designed to do, completely unfiltered and raw.  It’s about surrendering to a process that evades our comprehension, without fear or anxiety.  And it’s about feeling the connection between mother, baby, and body, and tapping into the extraordinary potential of the human psyche.  It is uniquely transformative, capable of changing even those merely in proximity to it.

Of course, birth is not the only one-of-a-kind experience that exists.  I imagine there’s probably nothing like free falling through the sky after jumping off a plane or mountaintop, or being in outer space, or climbing Mt Everest, etc.  There is a diverse tapestry of rich and immensely powerful experiences humans are capable of encountering.  But birth in its purest form may very well be the most challenging and exhilarating human event there is.  It is riding a tidal wave toward the brink of your capacity, and then miraculously going beyond it.  And it is a rite of passage for anyone wishing to come into direct contact with the essence of life itself.

When it was all over and done, Heather said the birth was the single greatest experience of her life.  

My enduring thanks to the birth team: midwives Susan Schmidt and Cathy Gallagher; midwife assistant Nancy McDaid; doula Jen Pifer; and osteopath Karin Lipensky.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The YouTube Red Checkmate

I’ve had many issues with YouTube’s Content ID System and the revenue (or lack thereof) that YouTube pays to content owners.  Without rehashing all the details (which you can find here, here, and here), the short story is that I was strong-armed into utilizing Content ID to monetize user-generated uploads containing my music, under what I perceive to be deplorably substandard deal terms (i.e. 55% of net revenue, with no clear understanding of what “net” constitutes).  

While this compromise was necessary to combat unauthorized uploads of my music (and their illegal monetization of my content), when it came to my personal YouTube channel I elected not to monetize my own uploads with ads, in protest of the revenue splits that I find so distasteful (and in defiance of the emerging ad culture).  So I wasn’t making money on my personal uploads, but neither was YouTube.

Then around the end of 2015, YouTube began unrolling something called YouTube Red.  This was a new subscription based service that would allow subscribers to watch unlimited YouTube content without any accompanying or intrusive advertisements, in exchange for a flat monthly fee.  It was touted as a new revenue stream for creators, who would be paid according to how much their content was watched by YouTube Red subscribers each month.  Sounds good … you know, apart from receiving only 55% of net earnings within this new revenue stream.

Fast forward, YouTube Red is fully up and running in all territories, and Red income begins being collected on my behalf within the Content ID System.  Then a realization eventually ensues.  Shouldn’t I be receiving YouTube Red income for my personal uploads?  After all, my YouTube channel is set up and approved for monetization (I simply disabled the ad option on all my videos).  Let’s go take a look.  Huh, I see there are YouTube Red views, but no YouTube Red money.  What gives?

Well, it turns out that in order to receive my share of Red income for any given video, I am required to enable ads on that video.  Even though these are two completely independent and unrelated revenue streams, YouTube holds Red earnings hostage until you agree to play the ad game.  Of course, YouTube has not volunteered or acknowledged this fact, but it has been unequivocally established in practice (at least in my case).  Basically, YouTube has designed an all or nothing monetization scheme - opt in and collect both ad and subscription revenue, or opt out and collect nothing.

Naturally, this introduces a new variable into the analysis.  While foregoing ad revenue results in a lose-lose scenario, foregoing Red revenue results in a win-lose scenario, whereby YouTube pockets their share of Red revenue regardless of the fact that I have not received mine - my share of Red income just gets distributed to other content owners.  So essentially, not participating in Red income equates to literally giving my money away to other people.  

Thus, I now find myself in a situation where, in order to receive my share of YouTube Red earnings, I must monetize my YouTube channel with ads.  Game, set, match.  Well played YouTube.  Well played.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Misunderstood Art Of Artistry

The term “artist” gets thrown around quite a lot.  Nowadays, every creator seems to be a self-proclaimed artist, or is otherwise referred to as such by others.  Well, appearances to the contrary, everyone is not an artist.  Some are.  Many aren’t.  Moreover, a sizable portion of us don’t even seem to have an accurate conception of what artistry entails.

The dictionary would have you believe that an artist is one who creates or performs art, or is habitually engaged or skilled in a creative practice.  This is complete nonsense.  I don’t know any genuine artist that would agree with this definition.  While there is a logical simplicity to concluding that anyone who makes art is an artist, in actuality, the term “artist" is reserved for a specific type of individual that creates art.  They are not simply writers, musicians, painters, dancers, etc…they are something that goes beyond the underlying mechanics involved, and beyond mere entertainment.

One of my pet peeves is when a judge on a show like American Idol asks a contestant, "What kind of artist do you want to be?”  To ask this question, and to answer it, is to fundamentally misunderstand the term in question.  You cannot choose what kind of artist you want to be.  You simply are an artist, or you're not.  This is to say, to be an artist is to have a specific mindset and psychology.  The real question being asked here is “what kind of entertainer do you want to be?”  This is an intelligible question, and one that can be answered.

The misunderstanding of what an artist is, and the routine conflation between an artist and an entertainer, is now ubiquitous throughout the music industry and the general public.  From a listener’s perspective, the distinction may be inconsequential, and using the terms synonymously provides a convenience within casual conversation.  However, there is a danger in allowing the boundary between these classes to remain blurred, for in so doing we risk forgetting that they actually are two separate things, the substance of which matters.  This is more than just semantics - because the motivation for why someone creates art influences the resulting art.  As a creator, it is important to know who you are, and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

An artist creates that which they are compelled to create.  Their creation may or may not resonate with you.  You may or may not enjoy it.  It may or may not be what you would like to hear or see.  But such is of no creative consequence to the artist.  They are seeking to capture a vision; to express something that demands expression; to translate feelings or ideas in a way that is inherently self-satisfying.

An entertainer, on the other hand, creates that which they think you will like.  They are creatively concerned with the opinions of others, and seek to mold their creation in accordance with outside expectations and/or predicted reactions.  This type of individual is often popularly referred to as a "commercial artist”, though this is an inadequate characterization, as will become clear.

Artists are human beings of course, and few enjoy having their work (or themselves) criticized or ridiculed.  But while an artist may hope their work resonates with you, and be intensely disappointed if it doesn’t, ultimately outside praise or lack thereof has no impact on the merits of their efforts.  The opposite holds true with entertainers, as their legitimacy lives or dies based on outside opinion - if the audience is not engaged, their efforts have been in vain.

One might be tempted to conclude from these descriptions that I am insinuating artists are superior to entertainers.  This is not so!  They serve different functions and the world benefits from both.  

One might also confuse a discussion about creators with that of their resulting creations.  To be clear, we’re discussing the former, not the latter.  So we don’t need to debate whether the byproduct of a creator is or isn’t art, or if it’s good or bad, etc.  Those are subjective determinations that will vary from person to person.  But whether the creator is an artist is not subjective.  That is a fact.  It may be a fact we are not privy to, or one that we suspect but can’t be certain of, but there is no debating that every creator has a set of intentions and motivations, whatever they may be.  And I contend there is merit to unpacking these, both as consumers and creators - for it fosters clearer conceptions of what artistry entails, which ultimately serves to enhance both the creation of art and our appreciation for it.

With all of that said, there is some additional nuance and confusion to the artist / entertainer analysis, which I will now address.

Let’s start with money.  Both artists and entertainers can seek to make money from their art.  However, money will not factor into the artistic process of the artist - if it is considered at all, it will be an afterthought, with no actual creative influence.  In contrast, the entertainer can be (and often is) motivated to create art specifically in order to make money, wherein creative decisions are designed to ensure and/or maximize appeal and profitability.  So the monetization of art in and of itself is not sufficiently revealing - it’s whether monetization plays a causal role within the art’s creation.  There is nothing wrong with creating art for the purpose of financial gain, but such a person is not an artist.

With respect to a “commercial artist”, this is an acceptable and coherent designation only if a genuine artist is making a living off of their art.  Culturally, it often involves a pejorative connotation, in which a commercial artist is not seen as a true artist, or one that has "sold out", etc.  But this connotation is really a misplaced reaction to the common merging of artists and entertainers as being one and the same - once you parse out that confusion, there is a perfectly respectable place for a commercial artist to exist.  On the flip-side, it makes absolutely no sense to ever refer to an entertainer as a commercial artist - they are certainly commercial, but certainly not artists.

Next up, fans.  Artists and entertainers can both perform their music for fans, and take sincere pleasure, fulfillment, and inspiration from the impact their music has on other people.  However, if you’re making music for your fans, then you are not an artist…you’re an entertainer.  The same applies if you make creative decisions based on what your fans want to hear (or what you think they want to hear).  There is nothing wrong with catering one's art to meet with outside expectations…but such disqualifies you as being an artist.

Sometimes performers or musicians get referred to as artists (e.g. “he is a true artist with that violin”), but this is a different usage of the term.  While there certainly is an awe-inspiring mastery involved in compelling musicianship and performing, this is not the same thing as being an artist.  As breathtakingly skilled and uniquely expressive as they may be, performers and musicians are interpreting art; not creating it.  The world needs these people, without question - it’s simply inaccurate to label them artists.

Being an artist doesn’t mean you can’t be influenced by the art of others.  We live in an interconnected world, and nothing (including you) exists in pure isolation.  But an artist does not attempt to be or sound like anything other than who they are.  Artists take inspiration from others; entertainers imitate others.  While some say imitation is the greatest from of flattery, to an artist, such is a wasted opportunity for authentic self-expression.  Celebrate and revere your idols and influences…but if you’re trying to become them, you are not an artist.

Being an artist also doesn’t prevent you from taking the advice of others, or implementing outside suggestions…so long as you genuinely find such suggestions artistically compelling.  Of course, many an artist work in isolation, but plenty have sought input from others which they have taken into creative consideration.  Now, if you make changes based on the opinions of others, despite not artistically agreeing with them, well then you have quite obviously compromised your artistry.  This doesn’t make you a bad person, it’s just the fact of the matter.

Furthermore, being an artist doesn’t prevent you from enlisting the assistance of others (e.g. utilizing skilled experts, such as musicians, mixing or mastering engineers, etc)…so long as you remain in creative control and tied to the process.  That being said, if you’re outsourcing all of the composing and songwriting, there’s obviously nothing left in which your artistry can subsist - in that case, you are a performer, or possibly even an entertainment brand.  You might be popularly referred to as a “recording artist”, but as with “commercial artist” discussed above, such a designation can only be applied to an actual artist that records their own music - if you’re recording the music of others, you’re clearly not an artist.

Is being a true artist mutually exclusive with collaboration?  The answer depends on what the motivation is for collaborating.  If you’re doing it to gain new fans via cross-promotion, maintain relevancy, etc, then you’re functioning as a promoter and entertainer.  If you share a creative vision with someone, or are compelled to explore where a collaboration will lead, then you are functioning as an artist (despite potentially having to compromise on various creative decisions / executions therein).

In addition, an artist can experiment with methods, styles, instrumentation, collaboration, etc that might not deeply appeal to them, for the purposes of learning and discovery; but an artist would never release anything that was not truly representative of them.  So exploration in and of itself is not a disqualification of artistry.  I might be curious about jazz music and begin experimenting with the genre.  It might prove interesting in various ways; I might learn a lot; I might be creative in how I navigate the tonal landscape; but if my efforts to make a jazz album are not based on an authentic connection to the music, then I am not being an artist.  Having said that, I might ultimately stumble upon something that keeps me glued to the process; some aspect of jazz that surprisingly won’t let go, and which compels me to go further - in that case, such will have become an artistic endeavor.  

Then there is the matter of work-for-hire composers and writers.  Are these individuals artists?  If you are creating, modifying, or tempering your work in order to satisfy someone else (e.g. director, producer, etc), or for the benefit of your resume, or to expand your network, or for the paycheck, etc, then obviously you are not an artist (you’re essentially a craftsman).  However, to the extent that a work-for-hire creator is genuinely collaborating with their employer(s), or is given free reign to do as they see fit, and the nature of the content truly resonates with them, then they are absolutely functioning as an artist.  Even though many work-for-hire endeavors are in response to someone else’s vision (e.g. a brief, film, screenplay, etc), such doesn’t automatically negate legitimate artistry, for it is really no different than responding to any other outside stimulus, event, or experience in one’s life, and it doesn’t matter where artistic inspiration originates.  That being said, if you’re working on something that you honestly don’t give a shit about, then regardless of how creative you may be, your efforts have nothing to do with artistry.

Lastly, there is the question of whether it’s possible to be both an artist and an entertainer.  With respect to the creation of art, the answer is NO!  Having said that, an artist can certainly parallel the behavior of an entertainer after the creative process concludes (e.g. touring / performing for fans and money, engaging in promotion, etc).  An artist might also consciously step into the role of an entertainer or craftsman, in order to make ends meet financially.  Similarly, an entertainer might stumble upon a song that really speaks to them, and which they pursue artistically, in contrast to their normal affairs.  In other words, a person might travel back and forth between both domains, but at any given creative point, you can only exist in one or the other.  There is no artist-entertainer continuum, and there are no degrees of artistry - you’re all in, or all out.

In summary, one’s identity as an artist fundamentally turns on the nature of their creative process - what are they seeking to accomplish, and why?  If you are creating art as a means to an end, you are not an artist.  If you are creating art because you are compelled to do so, solely as an end unto itself, then you are.  This principle can be broadly applied to any activity or enterprise.  It is what separates a chef from a cook; a martial artist from a prizefighter; etc.  It’s also worth reiterating that every facet of the arts has its place.  Artists, entertainers, craftsman, musicians, performers - they all play a role in enriching the human experience.  Being an artist doesn’t make you more important - but the importance of artistry cannot be overstated.  So if you happen to be among those infused with artistic spirit, I implore you to stay true to that spirit.  You can’t choose to be an artist - artistry chooses you - but you can choose whether or not to honor it.  For those in the position to do so, I sincerely hope you will.