Monthly Archives: March 2013

Living High on Alt-J

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I love music more than just about anything in the world. It can transport me, or stop me in my tracks, send my spirit soaring in directions I hadn’t figured on just a moment earlier. It is visceral, primal, deeply meaningful to me. So of course, when I connect with a band the way I have with the music of Alt-J, it’s only logical I’m going to share it with my son, Josiah.

On Sunday night, I took him to NYC’s Terminal 5 to see this English indie group, one of my fave new bands of the last year. He’s kind of young to bring to a show like this, but I knew how much he’d get into it. He’s almost 10 and has grown to love their album, An Awesome Wave (winner of the 2012 British Mercury Prize), almost as much as I do, particularly the song Fitzpleasure, which was the first track either of us heard. If you don’t know this recording yet, just go listen to it. Google it. Their stuff is purely creative, hard to define, at turns mathematically precise, filled with literary allusion and primal rhythm and incredibly moving. I’m a total fan.

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A word or two about the group. It’s obvious they are well trained musicians, great songwriters and singers, and they bring a deep concentration to their deft blend of art rock, funk, trip hop, rich harmonies, eclectic instrumentation… It’s hard to categorize their sound. It’s wholly original. I will tell you that they engage people in a way that goes beyond commercialism, and I did hear plenty of people singing along to the lyrics. And they are gaining confidence as performers, inhabiting the stage with more authority than the last time I saw them in NYC, at the considerably smaller Bowery Ballroom. Their hair is changing, too… a new haircut on Joe, moustache on Gus…

I was nervous about bringing my little guy – wondered if “all ages show” really meant just that, or if they’d stop me at the door for trying to bring in such an extreme minor. In a last minute panic moment, I even suggested that if anyone who works there asks his age he should say 13… that is, until he looked at me, wide-eyed and said, “Mom, I can’t believe you. What a hypocrite,” for asking him to lie. “Never mind, I was just kidding,” I replied, instantly sorry I had even said something. “Forget it, don’t worry, let’s just go have a good time…”

In the end, I needn’t have worried. At the door, the guy checking ID’s greeted him warmly with a “Hey buddy!” and proceeded to draw giant black X’s on his hands in magic marker, so that he couldn’t buy a beer even if he wanted to…

Once we got inside, we made our way quickly to the front of the house, where people had already started to assemble in front of the stage, easily working our way up to the front row, as I had this totally short kid with me, and clearly that’s the only way he was going to see anything. We landed a spot directly in the center of the house, surrounded by teenage girls, in what would have certainly been a rowdy mosh pit has this been a different sort of show.

I don’t know how to write about this without sounding like a proud parent creating one of those detailed holiday letters. I’m not sure how to convey the mix of emotions I felt bringing my kid into this uncertain environment where people get too drunk, and the smell of weed floats around from time to time (second time that night I was glad that he is short) and random hostilities can surface in a second… yet the thrill of sharing one of the all time best experiences modern life has to offer – seeing a rock band perform live, and feeling the pulse of the music move through your body… I’m pretty sure it was worth it.

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“It was making my chest vibrate and then it shocked my bladder.”

Good thing we went to the bathroom towards the end of the warm-up band’s set (a fine job by Hundred Waters). A mother knows when there’s no way you can ignore a request to go. It was a bit harrowing, making our way out of the crowd, which by that point had expanded to at least five times as deep as it was when we first arrived. Leaving out the side was tough, but not nearly as bad as trying to get back into the pack, past some surly drunk guys who mocked me when I said, “We’re just trying to get back to where we already were.” People get so cranky. Fortunately, we squeezed our way back to safe territory unscathed and put down roots until our band was ready to take the stage.

I’m not sure which I enjoyed more, the music or my son’s pleasure. It was the sweetest mix of personal and vicarious thrill. Once Alt-J started playing, any feelings of doubt I had about bringing my kid into this decidedly adult situation disappeared, and all I could think was that he was having an experience that would fundamentally shape his perspective going forward. This was the kind of music that absolutely cemented itself into my soul the first time I heard it, back in my teen years. He’s getting a jump on it, being barely a pre-teen himself. By the time he’s a teenager, he’ll be a seasoned music veteran.

We’ve been to the NY Philharmonic in the park. We’ve seen Dan Zanes outdoors, too. We saw Father & Son perform in a college auditorium, we’ve played west African drums on the banks of the Hudson River and his uncle has taken him to see Wynton Marsalis perform Duke Ellington. At home, we listen to everything from jazz and hip hop to heavy metal, power pop, bluesy funk and classical piano concertos. We groove on gospel and Motown, Nirvana and Stevie Wonder, moody singer songwriters and the Beatles. I can’t wait to bring him to more live music shows. It’s my responsibility to make sure that my son has as broad a musical background as possible. At least, that’s how I see it…

When some women behind us screamed exceptionally loud after one song, Josiah looked up at me and said, “Is that even legal? They should have their own permit…”

And then they played our favorite song, Fitzpleasure. Amazing.

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Yeah, Gwil, I dug the smile you flashed at me and my boy. Not your usual size fan, I’m sure. I hope you know how awesome it was for him to be that close to you guys while you played. And Joe, at the end of the encore, when you looked down and pointed directly at us, to give the set list specifically to my son, well that was the coolest thing in the world you could have done. Afterwards, a couple of people asked if they could take a picture of the paper, but then I told my kid to put it into his pocket until we got to the car. I figured that would be the safest bet…

altj sayin goodbye final

Later on, after we left the venue, he asked me, “How do I get this ringing sound out of my ear?” I told him not to worry, that it would fade…

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Pictures above by Deborah Oster Pannell.

Check out more cool concert pics from Amanda Hatfield here (scroll down a little to see one very short concertgoer in the front row)…

Get Ignorant

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Sometimes what is called for is a big leap. It’s not necessarily something you plan for, or think a lot about beforehand. In fact, too much thinking may be exactly the wrong thing. I’ve interviewed so many young entrepreneurs and visionaries who have repeated the same story – if I’d known what I was getting into, I might not have done it… being young and ignorant really served me in this situation… sometimes you just have to close your eyes and dive in…

I am often more comfortable backing into situations than walking into them with my eyes fully open. I prefer a kind of heavy-lidded soft focus, a few steps past smearing vaseline on the lens, or seeing the world through rose colored glasses. Sometimes it feels like bravado… probably because I often make a big public stink out of it. But other times I just quietly move into something unfamiliar and well, terrifying. It never gets any less scary, but I have become way more comfortable with the discomfort of the fear.

I like a good paradox. I’m at home in backwards world. I love sarcasm and hyperbole and good old exaggeration. I also love it when something is so awful that it flips over into the sublime. Grief, anger, terror… you keep going deep into the heart of those things and you find elation. Like if you keep turning right for long enough, you end up facing left.

I think I’m just an intensity junkie. I love to feel. It almost (almost) doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s deep. Something I can grab onto. Honestly, I find vagueness much more unsettling than out and out hostility. Hostility I know I can’t stand. It’s straight up awful. But vagueness leaves you guessing and of course I’m always ready to jump in and take responsibility because it just might be my fault… (sigh)

Before I think too much about it, I’m going to share some of my other writing with you. I may regret it later, when I’m feeling exposed and raw. But I’d be kidding myself if I thought that 1) you couldn’t easily find any of this stuff online yourself, 2) I really took the whole notion of boundaries seriously (I don’t) or 3) it’s not important for me to be present in all of my dimensions.

http://fictionaut.com/stories/deborah-oster-pannell/boring

Isn’t that the most mind blowing thing of all, when you think about it? That all of this crazy stuff we do, all of the subterfuge of dressing and making ourselves up, and crafting these elaborate identities, and compartmentalizing our lives, our relationships, our activities, the different parts of ourselves so that we can function in so many strictly codified and regulated situations – none of it really matters in the end.

When I look into the eyes of my lover, and it’s just the two of us being, touching, trying to discern what we are feeling in that moment and trying to make it connect and allow us to feel safe enough to experience some pleasure… it’s just me. At that moment it doesn’t matter if what I wrote the day before was a poem or a review or a memoir or a piece of fiction or a press release or a piece of marketing text. I am just me. It doesn’t matter.

The more I write, the more I think it’s just about connecting. Whether I’m having a conversation or telling a story (and I think they are most of the times one and the same), I hope I can just be me. And I hope you will be here in this moment with me and not worry about what I wrote before or what I will do tomorrow.

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The Exquisite Paradox of Disciplining a Child

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disciplining a child blog post by michael 1952

There is nothing in my experience capable of giving me that gut twisting mix of fear and despair more than the thought that I’m not being a good mother. Those of you out there with children know what I mean. When our kids act up at school, or don’t do as well as they can on tests, or get into fights with their friends, if we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that core of terror that we’ll be judged harshly for our own failures, exhibited through our children’s behavior.

Maybe that’s one reason we get so angry at them. We expect so much of these little mirrors of ourselves, and they reflect back to us the reality of our shortcomings in such accurate detail. It’s scary. My son is becoming so much like me that I often don’t know if I should hug him or hit him. Fortunately for us both, I’m not the hitting type, because it’s shocking to me the depth of the well of fury I dip into on a regular basis.

In my household, we’re about to take the leap into double digits. We’re just weeks away from the transition into what I know will be a slippery slope to adolescence, hormones, driving tests, safe sex, drugs, alcohol… oh, it’s all waiting out there, ready to embroil us in the mud and muck of young adulthood. I’m not just scared. I’m totally freaked out.

I can see the rebellious young man in my little boy. He is filled with confidence and a swaggering bravado that is fueled as much by the characters he sees on those infernal Disney tween shows as his own inner sense of strength and resilience. At the tender age of 9 (yes, I’m still saying it), he’s already lived a full life, complete with delightful adventures and shattering losses, and they have produced in him a complex and richly layered personality.

But his personal experience notwithstanding, this is a time, as I understand it, of relentless pushback and testing. Kids at his age are doing their job, testing the boundaries of their identities and the limits of what they can get away with in every area of their lives.

Oh, did I mention that boundaries are not my strong suit? Never have been. Neither are discipline, structure or housecleaning. That’s not to say I can’t be very accomplished in these areas when I want to, but it can take an extraordinary effort. So yes, I am sometimes less than consistent in enforcing these very same things in my son…

Aaah, as you sow, so shall you reap. It’s more true than I ever imagined. Children are like this little incubator of all your bad habits. They learn EVERYTHING. Don’t for a second think that they aren’t paying attention. They are. And they will come back at you with all of your worst qualities in a heartbeat, feeling completely justified in everything they say and do, because they learned it from YOU.

Here’s where it gets particularly complicated for me. On the one hand, I am teaching my son the core values of respect and manners. On the other hand, I want him to learn to trust his gut, to be on guard for injustice, dishonesty and personal violation, and to stand up for himself when he feels that his sovereignty is being threatened. I wish it were true, that all of the grownups in positions of authority over him would be kind and fair and consistent, that they wouldn’t be taking out their personal frustrations on him, or expressing their resentment at their own sense of powerlessness or unrealized dreams that his little badass attitude contradicts. But he will run into all kinds of adults as he makes his way through his years.

You know the kind of beat down you get from someone who can’t stand the fact that you are happy and filled with boundless love and exhilaration? The kind of cruelty that comes from someone who is thinking, you little shit, if I couldn’t get that feeling, I’m certainly not going to sit by and watch you enjoying yourself like that. Well, the world is filled with people exerting their power to inflict these punishing cruelties, large and small, some as subtle as a withering glance instead of a nod of approval. I, as a parent, have the awful task of teaching my son that at his age, it’s not OK to tell those people where to go, especially if one ends up being one of his teachers, or someone he encounters who is wearing a uniform of authority, in which case he’s going to have to swallow his objections and just do as he’s told.

Although there are cases of out and out abuse, and even more situations that exist in a kind of gray area, I know it’s not that way most of the time, and I have to teach him to show respect, even if he doesn’t like it. And yeah, he does have a smart mouth on him. Too smart for his own good sometimes. If I think about how angry I can get with him, and mind you, I love him to pieces, then I know that he’s going to piss off the people he’s talking back to who don’t have the same kind of emotional attachment to him than I do… and I’m not sure I can protect him from the kinds of consequences he’ll face from them!

I’m not interested in teaching my child to be docile and passive, and I certainly don’t want to break his spirit. But I am invested in him surviving into adulthood, so I’m also realistic. My son’s dad was African American, and he’s a little caramel colored boy. I understand the deeply ingrained effects of the kind of quiet racism that’s been in the news lately, and while I wouldn’t use it as a reason to excuse any bad behavior on my son’s part, I don’t rule it out as a factor in how he’s perceived by adults in his life.

When I was around his age, I used to attend Hebrew school. There was one particularly sadistic rabbi who taught the Hebrew language class. Any time a child did anything in the least disruptive, he made them stand in front of the class, whereupon he proceeded to grill them, in excruciating detail, about what their parents might do to them if he called them up. “Would they punish you? Would they yell at you? Would they stick your head in the toilet bowl?” I hated that guy, and I hated how he made kids cry with his cruel, frightening litanies. So when I got summoned to the front of the room for giggling with my girlfriend about the way a Hebrew word sounded as an English word, I was defiant.

“Would you like it if I called your parents?”
“I don’t care.”
“What will they do to you if I call them?”
“Nothing.”
“OK, you can go call your mother to pick you up right now.”
“OK, I will.”

I did call my mother, and she did come and pick me up. I felt so vindicated. Until the next morning, after my parents had discussed it, and they insisted that I write a letter of apology to the rabbi. I remember feeling so let down and betrayed by them. It was a seminal moment.

Tonight I’ll be helping my son to write his own apology letters. He was disruptive in a music workshop last week, part of a specially-funded program. In order to show responsibility for his behavior and avoid being asked to permanently leave the program, I’ve asked him to show his respect for the instructor as well as the school principal and guidance counselor, who had to deal with the incident, by writing apology letters to all three of them to express his thoughts and feelings on the matter. It won’t be fun, but it’s his job to do it, and mine to make sure that it gets done.

The ironic echoes of my past are not lost on me. I will be parsing these situations for as long as I can foresee. I hope I get the balance right, but I wonder, when my son is grown up and he’s looking back on the time his mom made him write those apology letters to the teachers at school, what he’ll be thinking…

Photo by Michael 1952

Transitions

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Change is hard – the small changes as well as the big ones. Lately, there are moments when I think, I can’t believe the things I have been through, and where I’m headed – not in a “poor me,” kind of way. No, I rarely feel sorry for myself – I’m far too aware of how many people have it worse than me, and I’m grateful for my relative good fortune. But still, there are those moments when the transitions feel as though they are getting the better of me.

I like to know what to expect as I head into a day, a week, a month. I plan some of my activities seasons ahead, and as my schedule gets busier, I’m getting more of a sense of the overall shape of my year. So when curveballs get thrown my way, I tend to get a little anxious.

There’s the major life curve balls – the death of a loved one, losing a home. Even the good ones can throw your life into disarray – birth of a child, or a new job. With every significant change in our life circumstances comes a revisioning of who we are and what’s expected of us. It can be as extraordinarily unsettling to come into good fortune as it is to weather a tragedy. Just think of all those people who win the lottery, only to find their lives in tatters a year later…

I have lots of experience dealing with illness and death. They’ve been a part of my life and my family for decades now, and though it was never my intention, I’ve become quite adept at dealing with both the large impacts and the daily intrusions wrought by unpredictable health circumstances.

My husband, friend and life partner of 22 years passed away about three and a half years ago, from complications due to a lifelong chronic illness, sickle cell anemia. He left me a single mother to our son, and the owner of our two-family home. Now, my son is almost 10 years old, and I’m preparing to sell the house I can no longer afford to keep. At the same time, I’m busy launching my own business and digging into a new romantic relationship.

My changes are unique to me, and matter most to me and my family. In other words, I’m pretty sure they are not keeping other people awake at night. However, the way in which I deal with them does affect other people in my life. As they are all dealing with their own issues, my anxiety has the potential to rub off on them, just as my relative calm may actually reflect back to them another alternative.

This is the motivation behind my desire to share my experiences with you. I’m not in the business of identifying myself by my trauma. Sure, I could, but I choose not to orient myself around my losses. Instead, I like to think of my life as a series of stories – some more harrowing than others, each with a beginning, middle and end that when combined, have become an amazing blending of lessons and challenges, one informing the next.

And I guess this brings me back around to the topic at hand. Transitions. For me, each day is a series of transitions. Every time I wake up in the morning, I have to negotiate my way out of bed. Moving from one task to another requires a shifting of focus. Getting my son prepared and off to school is but the first phase of the day. From there, I have to put on my professional hat, my creative hat, or my domestic goddess hat (that’s the one I wear when I have to do the dishes, or fold the laundry). Sometimes moving from one small thing to the next can be as difficult as managing a major trauma.

I’m not sure why this is… I only know that fear and anger can rise up, ready to dismantle us, at any given moment. I’m not a psychologist. I don’t have the patience to examine the reasons, and I certainly don’t have any advice as to how to prevent those feelings from occurring in the first place. Just be different? Ha ha.. I think not. We are who we are, much as we’d like to pretend otherwise.

What I do know for certain, is that in every moment of our lives, we have choices. We can act on our feelings impulsively, reflexively, in ways that we may even know to be destructive, but somehow feel helpless to change. Or, we can endeavor to take just a few extra seconds, enough for one good breath, long enough to give ourselves a chance to calm down a little, consider a different path, even wait on a response.

In all the complexity that comprises the many layers of our lives, there is one thing we all have in common. As long as we are alive, each of us continues to breathe. In that one mundane yet somehow miraculous act, we are, every single human being, connected. There has got to be some potential in that – some way to drill down from the biggest, most dramatic and complicated circumstances to the myriad of small moments in a day, each of which gives us the opportunity to pave the way for a smooth transition to the next…

Photo courtesy of LaserGuided