Penny Rene: September 2015 Archives

Babylon is Every Town

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When I was 12 I became a Christian. For the next 14 years I attended so many Christian concerts that I have lost count. I stood in the crowds os teenage masses singing along, hands held high. I didn't like church. I barely liked to say the name Jesus among my friends. But I did love that unity, that sound of everyone in agreement about love, singing, the sound so loud that my skull vibrated with the beat. 

I'm going to date myself here, but I have a memory of Rick Florian, the lead singer for a band called White Heart, strutting through the audience, his eyes wide, sweat flying. He takes the mic away from his face and just stares at the crowd in disbelief. What a life! For a second, he looks right at me and nods his head. We are all part of something incredible at that moment. He knows it. I know it. 

That's what my life was for several years. A series of incredible musical moments that I just happened upon. It helped that I became a DJ and a photographer. It helped that I dated guys in bands. I graduated from Christian concerts to mainstream ones. I've been in studios while tracks were laid down. I've chatted while CDs were mixed. I've been in writing sessions, providing my two cents. Behind the scenes, before, during and after; nearly every thing I did had some connection to the music.

I never did drugs. I never had a problem with alcohol. When my kids have asked me about this, I have said that I guess I just didn't have those addictive genetics. That may be true. But my drug was music. It was live music; those emotional highs that come with the unity that is created at concerts and intimate shows at little clubs. It doesn't happen every time. Not everyone gets it. But I remember well every time it did. No drug can match that.

When I was younger, I worried that I felt too much, was too awake. Now, at 44, I feel more awake than ever. Religion isn't a part of my life. Meaning, I don't participate in prayer or church, don't feel the same about Christianity as Christians do. But that doesn't mean I have forgotten those moments of great unity that singing songs of love and peace created. I don't believe in much these days, but I believe in that. 

Music can communicate something that speaking and writing can't. 

One of my favorite shows that I ever saw was the band Live and Counting Crows at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, AL. Sloss is a really intimate venue because you basically walk down into a pit, with cement walls on both sides and no seating. I was maybe 30 years old, feeling much older and self conscious about being surrounded by college kids guzzling beer. I got a place on the wall to sit and standing next to me were these muscle head frat boys wearing trendy T's and drinking cheap beer. I was thinking Why are you here? How can you even know and appreciate these bands??? 

A recent show at Sloss

The show started and, though hesitant in the beginning, I finally loosened up enough to get into it. Something in me knew there wouldn't be many more shows like this.  And that magical  phenomenon that I know to be true, began happening. The familiar guitar starts and Ed Kowalczyk starts singing Lightning Crashes. All borders go to hell. Lighters go up. These two college guys turn to me and we sing at the top of our lungs. 

"Oh now feel it, coming' back again
Like a rollin' thunder chasing the wind
Forces pulling' from the center of the earth again
I can feel it"

And we sang:

"Love will lead us, alright
Love will lead us, she will lead us
Can you hear the dolphin's cry
See the road rise up to meet us
It's in the air we breathe tonight
Love will lead us, she will lead us"

And we sang:

"In a dream I had
You were standing all alone
With a dying World below
And a microphone
Singing hallelujah
I finally broke their mould"

The entire crowd was with us. Unified like some Southern Baptist choir on the last day of the revival. Better than that, because I felt no guilt, no confusion about what it meant to any of us. If that's not Love, I don't know what is. 

I think about these moments a lot lately. As much, I think about these songs. In an election year, I guess most of us are looking for some peace, some unity. We are also looking for someone to stand up and lead us. Preferably someone who spends more energy inspiring the masses rather than picking apart the other party and dividing us further. 

I don't care that I'm 44 and that more than half the people who knew me way back when think I am some sort of tree hugging liberal with no love for the conservatives views of my former home state. I think, if we were in the presence of a melody that moved us, we would see that  common ground. We'd be family again, for a minute. We'd find our better selves.

The night at Sloss, Live left the stage and people started to go home. In fact, more than 3/4 were gone when Ed walked out onstage and sat down at the piano and started to play. My friends and I walked all the way down front and received this precious gift, this intimate solo of Ed singing Overcome. We were in the middle of a war and I felt every note. I was Overcome. 

I feel that way during this election. I think we could all use a bit of love. Maybe a lot. So, this is my offering to you today. Here is my go-to fix for hope. I hope you will also share yours. 

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We've begun our third year here in Novato. Two years we've been living the Dream. Because so many of you, through the all dancing - all singing- all revealing-power of the internet,  followed us on the journey here, I felt it only fair (and probably therapeutic for me) to give you an update. 

Turns out, even when you live in a great place with great people, great weather and great schools, there are still shitty days. Who knew? Well, we did, of course. Because I have had the pleasure of moving 30 times or so in my life prior to this move, I knew that time would reveal new challenges. Things that we had never considered would take away the skip in our steps, do. 

If I'm honest, and you know I am, I have to say that most days are good. That's something I wouldn't have said three years ago. I almost feel guilty about some of my Facebook posts. I fear appearing like the exact kind of person I wouldn't want to talk to - all smiles and perfect portraits, overusing words like "epic" and "awesome". We've hit some bumps and even a brick wall or two in the last two years and I know you have too. For what it's worth, here's what it is truly like to "Move across the country and take a chance on the West Coast"

These "great schools" require a hell of a lot of time and money. School started one month after we moved and the requests for money and time began rolling in immediately and never stopped. California, like a lot of states, has robbed it's schools of the resources they need to produce intelligent, happy, prepared kids. Parents pick up the slack. I, who used to break into a cold sweat when I even thought about my old classrooms, am now the PTA Parliamentarian. Last year I volunteered in my kids classrooms for a minimum of two hours per week, worked special events & fundraisers, donated funds monthly and have purchased triple my weight in kleenex and antibacterial wipes. This year I added to that- re-designing and editing the school websites, attending Board Meetings, General PTA meetings, Technology Committee for the school, Technology Advisory Committee for the District, School Spirit Wear, Essay Contest and Variety Show. I'm not bragging here; I'm admitting to the craziness rules my days. I basically work for a non-profit - again- only now I don't get a paycheck. The craziest part? I'm one of the mediocre volunteers. There are moms and dads here who make my contribution look like tokens in a fountain.

Clash, living his dream on the very dry Novato hills
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IT DOES NOT RAIN.  The drought that you hear about on the news and give a little frown about before you go water your tomatoes; that drought is a damn crisis here. The only time I have walked on green grass since we moved here was the patch we found just outside a resort we stayed in two weeks ago. The reservoir near our house looks pretty full, but watering your lawn is a big no no. Garden? LOL!  What garden? We have learned to conserve and re-use in ways I never considered. Remember that episode of Six Feet Under when Nate and Claire visit Lisa at her Berkley home and Claire is repulsed by the bathroom sign? "If it's yellow...."  Yeah. That's for real. Rain cleanses - not just your soul when you are like me, but also the sidewalks, streets, tennis courts, skate parks, the air. Think about that. Imagine your town without rain.

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This is that town where Jesus turned all the water into wine. This might be happening all over the country but every time I turn round someone is offering me a drink. It makes sense since we are literally a jog away from Sonoma and Napa. Novato was formerly known as The Gateway to Wine Country and I think it now might be where all the professional wine drinkers live. I know many of you are like, packing your moving boxes as you read this, but as someone who has an , eh hem, alcohol intolerance (Read: Cannot handle my liquor) this can be tricky. I feel like such a killjoy. Everyone's all, "Did you taste this bottle of chardonnay?" And I'm like, "HOW ARE YOU STILL STANDING? I'm so dehydrated my eyeballs feel like raisins!"

Speaking of Jesus, he's Catholic around here. Yes. You Okie and southerner friends hear that? Not Jewish; not Christian. Catholic. Catholics on my left, Catholics on my right. Don't get your preachy fingers going on that imaginary comment yet, though. No one here has tried to sell me a Jesus and Mary story or even given me a self righteous glance, which is really refreshing. There is nary an evangelical to be seen. But as a family who is Jewish by title and holiday ritual only, finagling a get together for the high holidays has been like re-invening the wheel. Our community has a handful of half Jewish families and we've managed to pull it together a few times to celebrate but finding a good challa loaf has not been easy. Our daughter has done presentations for her classes on the Jewish holidays - twice. I sometimes worry that my kids feel a little too unique. And the questions? Sign me up to negotiate peace in the Middle East because I am perfecting my skills as a religious diplomat.

Everbody's a scholar. I was going to type Everybody's smarter than me, but I don't think I can go that far, after all, they haven't solved that drought problem, have they? I will say that I don't bother asking anyone what their qualifications are around here because when our PTA Board did opening introductions at our first, unofficial, meeting, I felt like I was on the set of The Weakest Link. I don't even think I did my usual shpiel about being a "jane-of-all-trades" because, really, who cares when the person sitting next to you has a Masters in Strategic Marketing and the Marine Biologist in front of you is as humble as the Pope? I kind of wanted to stand up and scream "I can tape all your butt cheeks together!" and throw my wine glass in the fireplace of the trendy restaurant we were dining in. (Of course) If there is an Over-Achievers Anonymous meeting here, they will have to hold it at the Giants Stadium and I will not be attending. These people are smart!

This home below is on the market in Novato. Bids start at a mere $600,000.
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That might explain why even a starter house will cost well over a half million dollars. A little backstory: You may not be aware of this, depending on where you live, but 2007 was a very bad year to buy a home. We had a new baby; we had just arrived in NJ and were living with my in-laws and, well, I could explain it all, but I think you know. Home prices took a dive, then they went deeper than a dive. A lot pf people walked away from their homes in those days. A lot of marriages were stressed to the breaking point. At our worst moment, don't think it didn't cross our minds to abandon our little home on Jackson Street. Then, Sandy hit. It has to be said that recovery from Hurricane Sandy is not like recovery in Oklahoma from tornados. It's just not that quick. Housing prices simply were not rising. When we finally called our realtor, she delivered the news that our home would not likely get close to what we paid for it, for another 13 years. That was 10 years too long. Our will to stay evaporated. We decided to accept our financial loss and go.

It was a big loss, by the way. It took all our savings, zeroed out our hope of having a downpayment toward another home and emptied us of pride. We became renters again. But here's the thing about moving to such a "desirable area" like Novato. The prices just go up, up, UP! And even though Mike's income has gone up, Up, UP too, looking at home prices with our realtor last week was a real kick in the teeth. I'm not sure it's going to happen, people. And renting? Renting sucks. While we are extremely fortunate to be renting a wonderful home right now, we are not the renting type of family. We are the roots down, build a proper deck, plant the vegetables kind of family. We are a family who hates moving boxes. 

The Grans. My Family. This is the suckiest sucky part. My kids live far away from all five grandparents and all nine aunts and uncles. Do not ask me to count the cousins. For six years I dealt with the sadness of being a new mom, but living far away from my family. Because Mike's parents and grandparents were nearby, I knew my kids had them and it was good. Very good. Baby sitters can't replace family, but even our babysitter was pretty much family. (We still miss you, MaryBeth) 

Now we are here, no family around. I think, (and I type this this with caution) that living this far away from both our families has given Mike and I some autonomy that we didn't have before and that has been good. I feel very sad and guilty about it, though, when I see how much my kids miss their grandparents. And, frankly, I miss my own parents and brother and sister even more than I did before this move. I don't know why that is, other than the fact that my kids are getting older and I see those inherited characteristics that are so very Russell. That, and it sure would be nice to have someone to yell at who is used to my bullshit. I mean, there is not a lot that I could say these days that my mom or my sister hasn't already heard from me. And they know just when to say that it will all be OK. 

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Living the Dream, we are. In the first year that we were here, I had several people tell me that I seem different. They said I seem happy. No one had told me that in several years. I think part of that is certainly due to us taking a chance and moving here, even with the cost, even considering the emotional and social adjustment. Even if it means I am no longer the smartest girl in the room. Ha. But I also think part of that happiness is due to me getting older, and seeing the negatives as part of the deal. There truly is shit to deal with EVERYWHERE. 
Here, I feel less like a fish out of water. I enjoy more sunshine. But I always feel a little strange advertising the best parts of this life when I know that there are drawbacks that I don't think everyone can handle. 

So, I hope reading about some of my California life makes you have warm fuzzies about the crap I deal with that doesn't apply to you. :) Am I right? If you are contemplating a move, I hope you count the cost and deem it payable. Or, maybe now you see it's simply a stupid thing for you and your family to do. That's cool too. So long as we are all keeping it real.

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Every year on this day a flood of memories return. But today I want to share with you this one.

It's about 3 weeks after the towers have been hit. (I'm guessing, those days are blurry) I'm sitting with my boss, Dave Hoerman at Moran's Ale House on Washington Street. We were surprised and pleased to find Moran's open that night. The facade is dusty and the bar is flanked by WTC recovery workers of every organization. 

Dave and I have just surveyed what was starting to be called Ground Zero, using a bandana and a jacket to filter the stench that still filled the air. We are shaken and feeling pretty off balance from everything we have seen and felt that day. I'm wearing a suit skirt and heels - something you will never find me wearing now. I'm carrying a laptop in my bag along with my Deutsche Bank ID and several credit cards.

As we sit and place our orders for food we are not sure we can eat, these hollowed out workers come in and out. Some of them have dinner and some have a drink. No one is asked to pay. It's quiet, though there must be a dozen other men at the bar. Some drink with heads bowed. No words. Moran's had become a sanctuary for those who continued to work in the midst of the crisis.This bar, which had once been a Syrian church was then a place of refuge.

It's interesting that this memory comes back to me now while the news of Syrian refugees looking for a place to find peace fills the airwaves today.

As tragic as that day was for me, I remember those open doors for those workers who shouldered so much more of the pain of 9/11 than most of us have ever dreamt about. It was a little bit of solace in a horrendous time. For free. No credentials had to be shown, no proof submitted. The owners of Moran's saw a desperate need and filled it. Because they could. Because it was the right thing to do.

Moran's closed down in 2011, about ten years after that night. 9/11 changed the course of the financial district and as nearby construction created traffic problems, business took a dive. Does that mean that the Moran family regrets all those free dinners and beers? I doubt it.

My mother used to tell me about WWII - "It changed people." I do understand that now. The Penny who carried that briefcase and traveled to NYC in business class and black car service was long gone by 2002. But instead of having it close me down to every future thing that may hurt as bad, I hope it has opened me up to offer more compassion and given me the ability to spot opportunities to provide refuge rather than deny that basic human need to anyone; regardless of who they are, where they are from. To me, that is what being a real Patriot is about.
Here's to all those who went before us on that day.