Mind the gap

On a mother-son trip to NYC, the torch
is passed on the definition of cool

Madison Square Garden slowly fills up: Brits with shaved heads in girth-forgiving sportswear; fortysomethings with their befuddled tween children in tow; college-aged hipsters with fabulous haircuts on dates; packs of amiable-looking guys in T-shirts, sipping beer from plastic cups.

I think we must look like any of the other parent-and-child duos, the aging hipsters handing down their music to the next generation.

But this concert is my 14-year-old son Addison’s idea. I missed Blur when they first rolled around in the ’90s. I was into alternative college radio standards like R.E.M., Love and Rockets, The Cure, Elvis Costello. I somehow blinked for the whole Blur-vs.-Oasis Britpop media juggernaut.

Madison Square Garden is more like Carnegie Hall than the sticky floor and clove cigarette-redolent college venues I remember, the dank, sweaty places with black walls where the Lemonheads, the Smithereens, Screaming Trees, 10,000 Maniacs and Crowded House played. At the Garden there are ushers wearing navy polyester suits showing people to their seats, uniformed attendants in the restrooms and subdued lighting in the well-appointed lobby. But when the lights go out and the clouds of pot smoke rise like comic thought bubbles, I remember this is a concert after all.

Damon Albarn, Blur’s art-school-cool lead singer prone to cheeky political commentary and a man-of-the-people attitude, compels the sell-out crowd to their feet. The cute Lena Dunham type in librarian glasses and red lipstick one row ahead jumps up at the first strains of “Go Out” and leaves her seat unoccupied, like the rest of us, for the remainder of the band’s epic 21-song set. Rolling Stone magazine would call it “a hit-filled victory lap.”

We’ve flown in from Atlanta for a weekend in New York City for Addison’s first arena concert. Earlier in the day, on the way to our hotel in Hell’s Kitchen, the newly gentrified neighborhood where I met my husband, I wheel my Samsonite past a Port Authority far different from the predator-thick purgatory I remember from my days living in the city.

A robot in the hotel’s pink neon-lit lobby stores our luggage. Our room is kitted out like an IKEA showroom display with immaculate white bunk beds and a wall of glass separating the bedroom from the shower. At a vegan restaurant in the West Village we watch a revolving door of beautiful undergrads from nearby NYU scarf down kale ice cream and tempeh burgers before the show.

On our last night in town, we take in a production of “Spring Awakening,” where my son endures the excruciating reality of watching a musical about sexual coming-of-age, crammed shoulder to shoulder beside his mother.

The trip is a rite of passage, one more in a long line of them since that surreal moment a nurse laid Addison’s wailing 8-pound body on my chest. Like the first time he said “Mama.” Or the day I dropped him off at kindergarten and choked up at the sight of him, tiny and tow-headed in a miniature navy Polo shirt and pleated khaki shorts, looking like an investment banker on a golf vacation. His first full day away from me. The first of many.

Film is integral to family life in the Wood-Feaster home. A typical Sunday afternoon finds Bret Wood (left) and Feaster watching a movie with their son, Addison, at their home in College Park. Contributed by Branden Camp.

Photo: Addison is often enlisted to help out on friends’ film sets. Here he works with filmmaker Alex Lukens. Contributed by Adam K. Thompson

My husband Bret and I spent the first 14 years of Addison’s life trying to get him to appreciate our pop culture passions. Bret is a filmmaker and producer. Much of my writing career has been spent working as an art and film critic. Movies, art, music, travel and pop culture are important to us. So we exposed Addison to what we loved: Blondie, E.L.O., Devo, James Brown and the Beatles. When he was little we begged him to watch just one silent film: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, anything, it didn’t matter.

Occasionally a carrot we would dangle before Addison’s eyes would capture his interest. When he is 4, we give him a boxed set of the hyper-weird 1960s British marionette television show “Thunderbirds.” He spent hours watching the adventures of Brains, Lady Penelope, Tin Tin and Kyrano, and just as much time obsessively arranging the DVDs like mahjongg tiles on the living room floor. I imagined him creating storylines in his head.

We were thrilled when at age 5 he developed an obsession with the ’30s-era cartoon, Betty Boop.

Unconsciously or consciously, we force-fed Addison our tastes, hoping something would stick. I would take Addison with me when I reviewed gallery shows or attended edgy art events. Flux 2010 made a particularly memorable impression.

“There was a woman who sat in an antique tub and it was filled with gravel,” Addison likes to recall. “She sat there in the tub and there were lit candles around her.”
“That’s all she did: Just. Sat. There.”

Everyone’s a critic.

Addison’s father toted him along to film shoots and cast him in public service commercials, independent films and music videos. We seemed to be the only members of the Atlanta film community with a child on hand when a narrative need opened up.

When Addison was 8, he sat through Stanley Kubrick’s two-hour-and-40-minute science fiction epic “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 70mm at the Fox Theatre. Grown men, strangers, came up to him afterward, congratulating him on sticking with it, as if he’d just crossed the New York City Marathon finish line. When he watched my favorite movie, “Rosemary’s Baby,” for the first time and made a shrewd observation about director Roman Polanski’s jaded view of organized religion, I glowed with maternal pride. Atta boy.
Now the tide has turned.

I feel like an overeager student these days as Addison schools me. On the latest YouTube sensation, on the Iranian film I’ve never heard of that I need to see, why Jean-Luc Godard may be overrated and how John Schlesinger’s “The Day of the Locust,” while good, could probably use a little trimming.

He educates me on what “watching a movie with a friend” means in 21st century terms. They both push “play” on their individual computers in their separate homes at the exact same time. While watching the movie simultaneously, they Face-Time each other so they can talk about it and offer commentary in real time.

“It’s a thing,” Addison tells me when I marvel at the idea. “People do it all the time.”

He goes on weekend-long movie binges facilitated by Atlanta’s last video store standing, Videodrome, renting Jean-Pierre Melville, Nicholas Ray, Abbas Kiarostami and Costa-Gavras films. I embarrass him by asking the clerk for the Iranian film “Close-Up.”

“Please, don’t ask...” Addison shudders, as I shatter his cool. Again.

I mention the film “Trainspotting.”

“We should watch this together,” I offer.

“I’ve seen it.”

He’s memorized every Best Picture winner since the dawn of the Academy Awards in 1928, and I, possessed of a sieve-like memory, marvel at the feat.

In an oddly serious moment about a year ago, Addison looked at me with a pained expression when I told him I didn’t know what “dubstep” is.

He gave me a tutorial and played examples on his iPhone. I came away pretty sure I could recognize it, if anyone ever tests me.

My “how not to embarrass yourself” CliffsNotes are composed of binge viewings of YouTube star Miranda Sings, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Key & Peele” and a commute playlist of Missy Elliott, Blur and Gorillaz.

Addison and I are like dueling banjos: “I’ll see your M.I.A. and raise you four Pixies,” lobbing pop culture references back and forth.

But the truth is, I’m no longer driving the pop culture bus.
Now it’s my son turning me on to all of the pop culture I have somehow missed by being cocooned in my fortysomething skin, calcified and impenetrable to cool.

On a family vacation, Feaster, Wood and Addison compare wrist stamps from their visit to the Crocodile nightclub in Seattle, where grunge bands got their start. Contributed by Felicia Feaster.

Photo: Addison grew up watching “Thunderbirds,” Betty Boop and silent films. Now he’s exposing his parents to Blur, dubstep and YouTube stars. Contributed by Branden Camp.

When you attend a concert with your teenage son, certain things will not happen. You will not drink to excess. (Tequila Sunrises, nauseating fruit cocktails in a glass, were my teenage poison.) You will not scan the crowd for cute boys or crowd the bathroom mirror with your girlfriends to refresh your makeup at regular intervals. I don’t even have a glass of wine at dinner. I want to experience his first concert stone sober, just like him, nothing foggy or diminished.

It turns out to be the best live music experience of my life: I’ve never felt such a connection to a disparate crowd of people, all enraptured by the same music. Addison and I stand next to each other, but absorb the experience separately. I steal a glimpse at him, rapt but stoic, his 6’1” frame dwarfing mine. At regular intervals I hand him my cellphone to get a shot of the stage, and he politely obliges. Only later when it’s over do we start to talk about it. It occurs to me we’ve experienced the concert the way we do a film, in polite silence, until the moment we can compare notes.

“Thank you so much Mom,” he tells me, over and over as we giddily dissect every moment.

The energy of the show follows us out of the Garden as we walk in a river of Blur acolytes down Seventh Avenue. Spying the crowd, a street musician picks out the first bars of an acoustic version of “Song 2” and we laugh in communal recognition.

The high carries us down the neon-lit street, blazing into the black night.

What I have learned as a Generation X parent is, I do not question. I do not say to my son, “When I was a kid, that’s not how I watched a movie with a friend.”

Who am I to talk? When I was 14, I was dreaming of ways to meet Mick Jagger, smoking Dunhill cigarettes with my best friend Debbie Reed and thinking “Seventeen” magazine was the height of sophistication.

At some point, when you reach a certain age, you see the pop culture you once loved rotting like an apple that’s fallen to the ground, turning brown and pocked with worm holes.

Our cutting edge — alt comics, CBGBs, revival art house theaters, the Lower East Side, alternative rock, vintage clothes, MTV, zines, Tower Records, Kurt Cobain, Jim Jarmusch, the holy trinity of Kims (Deal, Gordon, Video & Music) — is now as dull as the butter knife I use for home repairs when I can’t find the screwdriver.

You have to be OK with this. You have to not say things like, “The Replacements were the greatest band of all time,” and cling to your pathetic vinyl. You have to do the same thing with your youth. Give up on it, because it is also brown and pocked now. That comes with some sadness. But you have to pass the mantle to your child.

Part of being a parent, any parent, is watching a scrim descend, between your world and the world of your child. How you handle that divide seems pretty critical to me. Do you do what previous generations did and curse that change? Do you mock skinny jeans, selfies, YouTube and Snapchat the same way parents of the ’50s rolled their eyes at their flower children’s flowing locks and endless happy face stickers?

Or do you think back to how, when you were a kid, the music and the movies and the horrendous ’90s combo of vintage dresses and combat boots were fundamental to how people thought of themselves and constructed their view of the world? Do you remember, and allow that no matter how weird or scary the way your child interacts with culture and the world, that is how they will define themselves?

In the immortal words of Paul McCartney, do you step aside, cool your jets and “Let it be?”

Wood (from left), Addison and Feaster pose for a family portrait for their annual Christmas card several years ago. Contributed by Jason Travis.

In three years Addison will go away to college. I try to laugh it off.

“I’m going to start hoarding dogs and cats to fill the emotional void,” I tell my husband.

I’m only half-joking. I’ve been checking in more frequently than is probably healthy at PugRescue, looking for orphans to save.

It will be a huge loss for us in more ways than one, because when Addison goes so does my connection to the world he’s opened up to me: the music references, the viral videos, the books I need to read, the films I have to check out, a million little things my middle-aged sensibility wouldn’t register as significant if Addison weren’t there to catch them in his generational butterfly net and hold them up to the light so I can see.

Although I foot the bill for our trip to New York, I am the one being indulged. Addison has let me tag along on this journey where we gaze over the precipice of the rest of his life: the first of many concerts, the first of many nights prowling city streets, eating Thai food in lively restaurants. A life outside of mine.

I spend the night of the concert and the rest of the weekend visualizing Addison walking away from me, joining the threesome carrying their yoga mats through Washington Square Park, sprinting like the aspiring actor with a black apron tossed over one shoulder to catch the subway at Union Square.

Those will be his people.

I’ll be back at home, lost without my pop culture guide, the guy who parses the details, who explains vlogging and “bae” and “on fleek” to me, the person who lets me know about the world just beyond my fingertips.

Behind the

Wood, left, sits while his son, Addison plays a video game at their home in College Park. Photo contributed by Branden Camp.

Felicia Feaster has been reviewing visual arts for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2012, but our history together goes back to Creative Loafing when I was associate editor and she was the film and art critic. I remember the day she told me she was pregnant with Addison. She said that seeing me raise two kids and manage a career gave her faith she could do the same. I was flattered but also worried I’d downplayed the hard parts, making it look too easy. It’s hard to believe Addison is 14 now. My own sons are grown and gone, but reading this piece about a young boy stretching his wings is a bittersweet reminder of what it felt like when they started that gradual march away from me.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Felicia Feaster is the editor in chief at HGTVGardens and an editor at HGTV. She received her B.A. in film studies from the University of Florida and her M.A. in film studies from Emory University. In addition to writing regular art reviews and features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she has written for Travel & Leisure, The Economist, Elle, Art in America and Atlanta magazine and has curated exhibitions for the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, TEW Galleries and Fe Gallery in Pittsburgh. She has received multiple Green Eyeshade Awards for criticism and feature reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Garden Writers Association, and she is the co-author with her husband Bret Wood of “Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film.”

Photo contributed by Branden Camp.