The Shape I’m In

Photo by Jose Padua
As is my habit before going up for the night, I peeked out the front door. On bad nights I may see the neighbors across the street (the ones we don’t get along with) out on their front porch having an argument. On calmer nights it’s just the guy, talking on his cell phone to someone and having a conversation where every other word is “fuck” or “fuckin.’” Lately, it’s been quiet, though, and after I peeked through the front door window, I immediately turned away. Then I did a double take and looked back because I thought I saw something, and when I did there it was—a beat up looking Playmate cooler. What the hell is that doing there? I thought. Being tired, I was about to just leave it for the morning, but my curiosity wouldn’t let me. I opened the door to check it out.

After fiddling with the handle a bit, I got it open, and at the top was a big bag of potato chips. When I pulled that out, I saw a plastic mug from a convenience store, some crackers, and then, below that, a banana. At the bottom were a couple of blue ice packs. I thought that maybe Linda, our next door neighbor, had given it to us. Now and then she’ll drop off miscellaneous treats or sometimes hand-me-downs for Julien. But then I saw a pack of Marlboro Menthols. Linda knows we don’t smoke and would just keep a spare pack of cigarettes for herself, since she does smoke.

Knowing that the neighbors right across the street from us would never leave us anything—and that it was unlikely that any of our other neighbors would leave this for us, I figured out that someone just had the wrong house, and these chips, crackers, banana, drinking mug, and Marlboro Menthols were meant for someone other than us.

I pushed the cooler to the side of the porch and was about to go back in again when I noticed a plastic paint bucket next to the Dutch gnome that guards the front door of our house. The gnome, a gift from our friends Bart and Nina in the Netherlands, has been guarding the front door of the various apartments and houses where Heather and I have lived ever since we were married. The gnome used to have a fishing pole, but that broke off a number of years ago. Tonight, though, with the bucket placed right in front of him, the gnome had something new to behold, because inside the bucket, under a now melted bag of ice, were several loose cans of Bud Light.

I know, Bud Light could hardly be the gnome’s beer of choice. But, after going for years without his fishing pole, even the bucket of Bud Light must have looked good to him. It was late, and I was tired, but I could have sworn that there was a look of delight on the gnome’s face—a look that hadn’t been there for years. So I went in, got my camera, and took this picture of it.

Then I went back inside. I’d had some coffee late this evening to wake me up enough so I could get some work done, so although I was tired I wasn’t anywhere near being ready to sleep. So I sat down at my desk and thought about the chips, the crackers, the cigarettes, and those cans of Bud Light.

And now I’m wondering if when I wake up in the morning, I’ll open the front door to see an empty bag of chips, cracker crumbs, cigarette butts, and several empty cans of Bud Light. Evidence of the gnome having had a little party. And then it occurs to me that maybe these things weren’t left at the wrong house at all. That, indeed, they were left here, on purpose, for the gnome.

And after I walk up the stairs and go to bed, that’s what I’ll be listening for. The sound of the gnome pulling open a bag of potato chips, munching on some crackers, cracking open a can of beer, and then lighting up a cigarette or two. I’ll also be waiting to see if I catch a whiff of the cigarette smoke. Maybe I’ll catch it right before I finally drift off to sleep—that scent of cigarettes, cheap beer, and cheap food. Just like in the old days, when I was young and hungry. Hungry not for the better things in life, but just for life, in whatever shape it came in.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

Toward a Philosophy of Tight Pants

Photo by Jose Padua
On one of my first mornings
at our new hundred year old
house in a small town
with my wife at work in the city
and me at home getting our four-year old
daughter ready for school
I walk our daughter
to her dresser to pick out
a pair of pants. After she
puts on a pair of jeans
she pauses, looks up
at me and says “too tight”
then pauses again and says—
her eyebrows raised
and slightly satisfied—
“but it looks good!”
Pausing yet again and taking
the time to consider
a day at her new school wearing
skin tight pants,
she decides on her own
to wear something else.
Fast forward a few years
later my wife and I
have our now two-year old son
and while my wife’s
at work again in the city
and our daughter’s at school
I play Iggy and the Stooges
doing a song
called “Tight Pants” which is
an early version of the
song that will eventually
become “Shake Appeal”
on the Raw Power
album and as soon as the song starts
my son starts yelping
bouncing on his hips
and waving his arms in the air
as I imagine Iggy Pop
himself may have done
when he was a toddler.
And though I’ve looked at
women wearing tight pants
and enjoyed seeing
Iggy Pop dance around the stage
like a wild-eyed hyperactive
salesman of tight slacks,
I’m glad that my daughter
opted for looser pants
and that my son
eventually calmed down and stopped dancing
not because I’m older now,
though I am older,
and not because I’m
more reserved now,
though I’m certainly
no longer the crazed person
I was in my youth,
but because I sometimes
feel besieged by the speed of life,
by how the trees behind our house
grow taller and taller
creating more shade, more shadow,
by the way a lemon stings my fingers
when I squeeze its juice
into my morning cup of tea.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

On These Days Driving

Photo by Jose Padua
Perfection is all those horrible old love affairs
they tell their latest lover about in bed as they smoke
cigarettes, together and laughing in the darkness.
Perfection is all those bad years spent starving,
mad, aimless, before finally finding a way, through
chance or struggle, to make it.
Perfection is the moment when the worst
is behind you and the best slowly reveals itself
like a song from decades ago that only now
is becoming a hit.

I confess that I’ve got it all
ass-backwards, that perfection is beyond me
and my best was long ago
with the worst now revealing itself
like the dream you can’t remember,
the dream that leaves you gasping for air
as you sit up,
scared and alone,
staring out into the infinite darkness.

I never liked perfection,
I never tried to make the pieces
fit neatly, cleanly, exactly.

I always like the team that worked
the hardest, yet blew it in the end
and came in second,
the movie star who grew old and crazy,
forgot her lines and faded away…
it was something about the blemish on her cheek,
the hint of insanity,
the look on the players’ faces,
which whether out of lame stupidity
or brave wisdom, seemed to say
that things just weren’t right.

And though there hasn’t been
a day in the last twenty or so years
when I haven’t at least
considered the possibilities
of jumping out a fifth floor window
or throwing myself into the middle
of rush hour traffic
on the interstate,

I don’t.

So if you see me
in the late evening
or early morning
walking the streets, looking up
for shadows in the facades of buildings,
or on the road driving past
The International House Of Pancakes,
The Food Lion, and The Best Western
by the airport
ready to swerve,
just keep in mind that as far as I know
I’m on the right highway
and moving in the right direction,
with the grey and white signs
leading me westward
into the deep, imperfect blue
of heaven on
earth.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On the Significance of Real Words Trumping All My Usual Obsessions

Photo by Jose Padua
More than anything else, I’m obsessed with the endings of things. So while this week marked the beginning of Julien’s school year (Maggie’s began last week), what was more significant for me was that this marked the end of summer. Most parents, I imagine, welcome the beginning of the school year. With the kids at school, the problem of keeping them occupied with useful activities during the day is solved—they’re at school, learning at various levels. Which is a good thing.

But for me, with my obsessive compulsive mind, having them at school—where I can’t see them and where they’re in the hands of someone other than me or Heather—creates a certain amount of stress, either at a conscious or subconscious level. So while there are periods when they’re at school during which I can get a lot of work done, there are other stretches of time when—due to irrational fears and my mind’s tendency to imagine all sorts of chaos and mayhem happening wherever I’m not—I can hardly get anything done at all.

One good thing, though, about having these periods when I’m unable to focus on my work is that they’ve motivated me to walk in the morning. Even though exercise is an activity that I’m sure lifts my spirits even during those times when the only difference I can feel is the ache in my muscles, it’s something I never make enough time for.

My preferred method for lifting my spirits is to write a poem. Even when it’s a sad poem, the mental exercise is invigorating. Finishing a poem compares quite well to that sixth or seventh shot of bourbon—or whatever it took to get a decent buzz during my drinking days. The problem, of course, is that the high fades. As just as I would go through the process of drinking, sleeping it off, waking up hungover, and then doing it all over again, I go through the process of writing a poem, sleeping it off, waking up with some sort of poetry hangover, then wanting to get up to do the whole thing over again.

I have slowed down a bit in the past couple of weeks. I’m not knocking myself to write a new poem every night as I sometimes do. Instead, when I get a little tired, I stop whatever new project I’m working on and go back to revise or proofread something I’d previously written. One other thing I must do is get back to compiling what looks like the hundreds and hundreds of poems and essays/stories I’ve written over the past few years.

But I think that before I get immersed in that process I should take the time to open the front door of the house every day after I’ve dropped Maggie and Julien off at school. And walk. It doesn’t have to be a long walk. Indeed, I can’t walk for very long here in Front Royal. It’s not like when I lived in New York or even in DC where I could walk for hours and feel this energy in my blood and bones from being in the city. Here, you can only walk for so far before you get out into the country, and in the country you don’t walk—you hike. I don’t fucking hike.

Which means I’ll be sticking to those whatever smaller doses of walking are available to me here. It will, as those who have no choice but to resign to minor inconveniences say, have to do.

As for school, Julien’s first week went pretty well in contrast to those weeks this past summer when he went to the school’s camp in the morning. And today, at the school’s beginning-of-the-year picnic, his teacher told us she had it figured out. During the camp, she said, she had more time to deal with him one on one. That, she figured out, was why he had so much trouble with camp this summer—he didn’t like that attention. Indeed, if Julien’s anything like me, what he wants from most people most of the time is for them to back the fuck off. The rest he’ll make his family or else embrace them as such.

This afternoon, on the way back from the school picnic, Julien was talking to Maggie. He said, “My Max, my Max. He’s not Maggie’s Max, he’s my Max.” Max is his classmate. He’s not Maggie’s classmate.

Tomorrow we’re off to Roanoke for a memorial service for one of Heather’s favorite teachers from college, the poet Eric Trethewey, who died this past week. A tremendous poet, his daughter is Natasha Trethewey who served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States. Poetry, certainly, was among the gifts he passed on to her.

And this is where I start to focus. Where, in a shift from my usual tendencies, I am obsessed with the beginning of things. And what obsesses me here is not so much that I may have passed on my obsessive-compulsive mind or any number of disorders to my children. No, what obsesses me here is that both Heather and I are in the early stages of passing poetry on to our children. Yeah, poetry. It’s not going to feed you very well. It’s going be a lot of work at times, and a lot of the time it may seem like all it does is make you think about all the things that are goddamn hard to think about.

But much more than money, it’s the sort of thing that makes you rich inside. Because once you know poetry—real poetry—you know that everything else is just the cheap shit. And all that talk about bombs and war and terror and enemy combatants is coming from people who, despite their money, are the poorest motherfuckers on earth.

-Jose Padua

The photo of the Wells Fargo building in Roanoke, Virginia was taken this Sunday.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Irving Berlin

Photo by Jose Padua
Tonight, Julien was up late, lying back on the sofa in the living room watching Hayao Miyazaki’s film, My Neighbor Totoro; Maggie was upstairs, looking up information about bunny rabbits on the computer upstairs; Heather was sitting next to Julien, typing on her laptop at work on her novel; and I was lying back on the love seat across from Heather and Julien, reading a passage from Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, when I remembered a time nearly fifty years ago.

My brother Tony and I were with my parents at Sears or maybe it was the old Hecht Co. in downtown DC, and they were buying either a major appliance or a large piece of furniture. Whatever it was, it was something big and important. The transaction was done, and arrangements had been made for delivery of the appliance or piece of furniture, and my Mom or Dad, in saying goodbye to the salesman, asked him what his name was. The salesman, I remember, was a balding, pudgy, middle-aged man, who suddenly stood up a little straighter, a little taller, and gave his head a proud tilt as he announced to my Mom and Dad his wonderful name—“Irving Berlin.”

“Really?” they asked?

“Yes, yes,” he replied, then said it again with pride. “My name is Irving Berlin.”

They were impressed. I was impressed, too, though I was only vaguely aware of Irving Berlin as a renowned songwriter and composer, the man responsible for songs like “White Christmas” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” I also thought that this wasn’t simply a man who shared a name with the famous songwriter, but that this actually was the famous songwriter, and that this was what, as a grown up, he did—write songs, and sell furniture.

And maybe it was furniture, and not a major appliance that my parents were buying. Because what triggered this memory was my reading a passage from one of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters in which the narrator talks about sofas—specifically, how “you can tell a lot about a person’s character from his choice of sofa.” And, “there are people who drive luxury cars, but have only second- or third-rate sofas in their homes. I put little trust in such people.” Although the narrator from the novel is an oddball, it was a passage I could really feel. Or maybe that’s exactly why I could feel it—because the narrator is an oddball.

And then I remembered last week, before we moved the television from the parlor to the living room. Julien was, again, watching My Neighbor Totoro, and the movie was just getting up to the part where the Dad and his two daughters are bathing when they hear the resident ghosts in their new house—the soot sprites—making noise upstairs. While watching this, Julien became alarmed. He walked over to the parlor door and tried to open it.

“Wait, wait,” I told him, knowing that things are soon all right again in the movie. At this point in the movie, the Dad starts laughing, and making funny faces; his daughters, who were at first scared, follow his example. With the Dad and his daughters laughing and making funny faces, the ghosts gather and, in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, float up and away from the house. Watching this, Julien let his hand down from the parlor door, then started smiling.

“See, it’s OK,” I told him, and he moved back toward the middle of the room.

A couple of nights ago, I sat upstairs with Maggie until she finally fell asleep. She was worried. One of the teachers at her acting camp had told her how the theater is haunted, and sometimes they’ll hear a giggling ghost girl there late at night. Tonight, though, she’s focused on the possibility of having a bunny rabbit for a pet. I could tell Maggie the story about Harvey, the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film in which “Harvey,” the title character, is some sort of six foot tall ghost rabbit, but I’m not.

This photo shows a framed flyer, hanging in the parlor of our house, of an event I did over twenty years ago called, Smut Fest. The line at the bottom says, “We Are Not Performance Artists. We Are Show People.” And tonight I’m thinking that yes—like my childhood vision of an Irving Berlin who wrote his songs and also sold furniture—we are, indeed, show people.

-Jose Padua

Guns and Cleavage

Photo by Jose Padua
These past two weeks
whenever I walk by the magazine rack
at the supermarket down
the street I’ve noticed that there’s
always a magazine that’s been flipped over
so the ad on the back is displayed
and not the cover,
on which when
I first turned it around,
was a photograph of model Kate Upton
revealing a generous amount of cleavage
on the cover of the October issue
of Vanity Fair,
and I gathered that the person or persons
who keep turning the magazine
over face down are
one of the many folks
in this small, conservative
town who are probably
scandalized by so much exposed flesh.
Me, I’m not bothered
by it at all,
because to me flesh
is something divine and
mystical and whatever reminds me of
this is never offensive and never indecent,
and even if you do think it immodest
there are other things I think
should be considered
much more disturbing,
so last night,
after turning the magazine over,
cleavage side up,
I walked down to the next
rack of magazines to
where the stack
of Guns & Ammo
“The World’s Most Widely Read Firearms Magazine”
was displayed, and
I turned the magazine over
only to find that on the back cover,
unlike Vanity Fair where
there was an ad for perfume,
was an ad featuring
more pictures of guns and rifles
and automatic weapons,
so I found a nearby copy
of Field and Stream,
which just had a picture
of a moose on the cover,
and I put that on top
of the pile of Guns & Ammo
only to see that next to it
was a stack of Guns Magazine
(just guns, no ammo),
and next to that a stack
of Handguns magazine,
and figuring that the moose
on the cover of Field & Stream
was probably shot right
after the photo was taken,
I decided to just
give up on this sad protest.
And I got in line
to pay for my baby wipes
and brown rice
and yogurt
in a world where
too many people believe
in the divinity of guns
and the indignity of cleavage
and breasts and flesh
and all the other things
that keep us alive
without killing
something else first.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

Grinderman

Photo by Jose Padua
Taking my wife to her pre-natal appointment this morning
I wonder what it would be like if I weren’t me
but were Nick Cave instead.
“How are you today?” the doctor will ask my wife.
“Good,” my wife will say.
“And how are you?” the doctor will ask me
and I’ll say, “Doctor there’s death out on the plains,
and in the cities are men and women walking who are thinner than shadows,
their souls are lost like flies.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” the doctor will say
as he turns back to my wife, rubs jelly on her stomach,
then places the sensor on the left side
to listen for the baby’s heartbeat.
“Sounds good,” he’ll say.
I’ll brush my pitch black hair away
from my eyes
and stand straight and tall
like the devil’s pitchfork.
“Doctor,” I’ll say, “I am a shell of a man
in this world, which is not of me,
which hovers above me like a bird of prey
at the end of time. Yet I, alone,
am the one who will not abandon you.”
“Thanks,” he’ll answer.
“Doctor, I once knew a woman who got snake eyes
every time she rolled the dice
down on the bayou.
Every time she picked them up it was
Pow Pow POW!”
“That’s a great story, Nick. It’ll make a great motherfucking song,”
he’ll say—that is, if he’s one of those doctors who uses
the word “motherfucker” with his patients
(there aren’t many, and for that I blame society).
Later, when we’re home, my wife will say,
“Nick, could you pick up some pre-natal vitamins at the store?
I just noticed that I’m all out.”
“Sure, babe,” I’ll say,
and I’ll step out of the house wearing the stubble
on my cheeks, black jeans
and a pink Hello Kitty tee shirt,
and I’ll drive down to the store in a ’64 Cadillac convertible,
staring down everyone who looks my way
as I wait for the light to change.

-Jose Padua

“Grinderman,” read by the author at the 2012 Split This Rock poetry festival:


Photo by Jose Padua

Earth Shattering News and Catastrophes Considered While Listening to The Genius of Love

Photo by Jose Padua
I think of us and how my mind
puts us so easily in peril.
It’s like we’re in some
silly horror film, an old-fashioned
cinematic showcase for intense
three-act disasters.
I tell myself these are the things
that are likely to happen
and these are the things
that are not,
yet my mind rides its fast car
toward a faint sunset filled
with evil maniacs and hideous demons.
Their servings of menace and mayhem
are epic when what I desire
is something smaller in scale,
generous when what I wish for
is a more fortunate ounce of greed.
I stop and park the car in a dark garage
that may swiftly collapse
after I cough into my fist,
very likely a sign of something gone awry,
because I am held together so delicately
like a dandelion held in a child’s hand
or a clean house on a stormy day
when everyone walks in at once
from the rain.
And I am a genius of angst
and trepidation, a man growing slightly older
who would rather be a genius of love,
singing softly, sweetly,
to everyone I adore
who stands tall or sits,
or lies down with
shallow breath on this spinning earth–
pressing the keys, plucking strings
made of steel or gut,
banging the drum
the way lovers dance on warm, bare skin.

-Jose Padua

Green Card

MomKaloramaPark
Once she made
her way
to the States
in the early 50s,
my mother
never made it
back to the
country where she
was born,
which in the eyes
of some
didn’t make
her an American,
but which to us,
her children,
made her
as American
as she needed
to be.

-Jose Padua

Notes on the Forty Year Anniversary of My Being Set Adrift Ignominiously upon an Ocean of Doubt

Photo by Jose Padua
Heather and I had no idea that our trip with the kids to Ocean City this weekend would coincide with The Dew Tour. We, of course, had no idea what The Dew Tour was. At first I thought it was spelled D-O as in the “Do Tour,” with the “Do” carrying some sort of message of affirmation and empowerment. But no, it was The Dew Tour, as in it’s sponsored at least in part by The Dew—Mountain Dew.

Yeah, when I was a kid I’d drink it from time to time. Maybe when I was a little older, too, in college, when I found out it was yet another way to get a dose of caffeine into me when needed. The last few times I’d had a Mountain Dew, though, I found it to be one of the most noxious concoctions imaginable.

Luckily, up where we were, we didn’t seem to cross paths with anything associated with the Dew Tour. We were probably too far uptown, which was fine with us. Because if the Dew Tour was strictly a downtown thing here in Ocean City, then we were strict Ocean City Uptowners. At least for this trip.

It was on our way uptown and out of Ocean City to a book release party in Rehoboth today when I realized that this summer marks the fortieth anniversary of the first time I ever saw the ocean. That was in 1974 when I went with a group of friends from high school to stay at a house on Olive Avenue in Rehoboth. Before then, I’d only gone as far as the Chesapeake Bay for a trip to the beach. We were, growing up, strictly city people, and the Atlantic coast of North America was just a little too far to travel for something as frivolous at a day on the beach.

This summer also marks the fortieth anniversary of my summer spent at the University of Georgia in Athens for a program funded by the National Science Foundation. It was the summer I mixed a lot of chemicals in the lab at the pharmacy school there, and managed not to blow anything up—though the older research scientists there seemed to blow things up pretty regularly. Which, I gathered, was one way to tell that what they were doing was serious research. As for me, my professor/advisor told me the compounds I was creating in the lab would be used in cancer research. Whether they would be used to actually fight the disease, or to help give the researchers who were fighting the disease a fresh new high, I never found out. Which, I think, also marks the beginning of my not knowing whether the work I do is curing people or simply getting them high.

On this trip to the shore, Julien added a fourth element to his set of precepts for an enjoyable vacation. On the last trip, it was just three: “Mommy stay, no school, no tiger.” This meant that a good vacation required these basic elements: Heather not having to leave to go into the office in town, no school, and no sign of the tiger from the Jungle Book. This trip, though, Julien added a fourth precept—“No mini-golf.” Julien tried mini-golf on our last trip, and, apparently, this is clearly not among the things in this world he considers pleasant.

Then tonight, towards the end of dinner in Rehoboth (when Heather had taken Julien to look at the aquarium display at the restaurant), Maggie asked me for advice on what she should do in the case that we’re all out somewhere and both Heather and I had had too much to drink and couldn’t drive.

“Well,” I told Maggie, “all you need to do is call a cab to take us all home.”

“But what will the cab driver do with Julien’s stroller?” she asked.

“That’s no problem,” I said. “The cab driver will know how to fold the stroller and put it in the trunk of the taxi.”

Heather and I had been drinking at dinner tonight. But all we had between us was one glass of wine, which Heather drank the most of while I just had a few sips. Nevertheless, I imagine it was enough to start Maggie worrying about what she might have to do in case of that dreaded emergency of both mom and dad being too trashed to drive everyone home.

“Of course,” I reassured Maggie, “That’s not going to happen. Neither mommy nor I ever even come close to getting drunk anymore.”

Maggie seemed comforted by this. Then she had to admit that she just imagined that, at the end of the cab ride, she’d have to say to either me or Heather, “OK, now give the nice taxi driver his money.” What she didn’t admit, I think, was that she enjoyed the idea of speaking to her parents that way. As if she were the one in charge.

After dinner, we went to one the arcades on the boardwalk. By the end of the night, Maggie had a receipt worth about fifteen hundred points from the games she’d played. She looked at the display case filled with the different prizes she could choose from, and then she looked some more. Heather, Julien, and I were getting tired, but Maggie still couldn’t decide on anything she wanted. Finally, Maggie saw a family with little kids standing by the counter, and gave them her receipt. They thanked Maggie, who then walked back to us, happy that this one dilemma had been resolved. Then we all headed back to Ocean City.

In this photograph taken earlier today at the beach in Ocean City, Heather, Maggie, and Julien seem to be the only ones looking up to the airplane carrying the banner for Geico insurance. Are they (and I) the only ones who find the sight of an airplane flying along the shore for the purpose of advertising a little bit disconcerting? And maybe even slightly horrible. I know, there are worse things down in the ignominious depths of human nature and its perverse insistence that nothing exists unless it exists in abundance, but still—sometimes all I want to look at, and think about, is the sky. And it doesn’t even have to be blue for me to love and adore it.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua