I’m Alive and Life Sounds Like This Sometimes

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Almost six years ago, the man with the short white hair in the portable folding chair in the foreground of this photograph—the one turning to his right perhaps to discuss with his friend some matter regarding the monster truck Nite Stalker—installed the security system in our house here in Front Royal. Three years before that, in 2004, he also installed the security system in our house in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County, Virginia, back when I thought we couldn’t move any farther from the city. Back when we still had to travel some distance to partake of the dust, roar, and fumes of a monster truck competition.

I remember on that day in 2004 I was waiting at our new house for the technician from Brinks Security Systems to come, and I looked out the window. Already parked in our driveway, to my surprise, was a big pickup truck from Brinks, and inside was the guy in the photograph here, his mouth wide open and about to take a bite out of his sandwich. When he saw me he paused—he was startled and surprised to be caught mid-bite—then proceeded to finish chomping down on his sandwich. He looked like the sort of kid you’d see sitting in the back of the classroom back in when you were a freshman in high school—the skinny little kid who never talked but had just seen Clint Eastwood in something like Outlaw Josey Wales and now had a face to go along with his dreams of one day being some kind of badass. But instead of becoming a badass he grew up to be a technician installing security systems. It wasn’t bad, no, but it sure as hell wasn’t the same as being someone Clint Eastwood would play.

It had turned out that Clint/Josey/The Brinks Guy had gotten to our house early, and so decided to have his lunch in our driveway. I watched a few moments more as he kept on eating, chewing down on his sandwich and looking at me and looking all around himself as if at any moment he might have to defend his possession of that sandwich. I couldn’t quite relate to that shit, and that he was looking at me like I was a sandwich thief, but I backed off anyway.

When he finally got out of the truck and walked toward our house, I could tell he wasn’t a city person. I could also tell he was still damn angry about being caught mid-lunch, mid-bite. Maybe in addition to the possibility that I might steal his sandwich, he also thought that whatever impression as a professional he was trying to make was obliterated by being caught in the act of eating, and the only thing worse he could have imagined would have been to be caught picking his nose. Well, maybe there were worse things, but I wasn’t going there, because people like him, I thought, were likely to talk about all the craziest shit—the shit I just didn’t want to hear about when all I wanted was to get our security system installed.

It was a while before the scowl came off of his face, but finally it did. Eventually, he talked, and he talked about how long it took him to become a master technician. I was genuinely impressed—the job he was doing was one I would be sure to fuck up big time (I can’t put together a simple bookcase from fucking Ikea without screaming at some point how pain-in-the-ass difficult it is).

Three years later, when I got laid off from my job, we left that house and moved to this one out in the land of monster trucks where life, we thought, might be cheap. Our first night in this house, we slept on blankets we’d laid down on the floor. The next day was when the movers came with our furniture, and the guy from the cable company came to set up our television and internet connections, and then the guy from Brinks security came back to set up the security system in our new house that was away from the big city and actually near his neck of the woods.

As soon as he stepped in the door I recognized him, but he didn’t remember me at all. When I told him that he’d installed our security system back when we lived close to the city, he had to jog his memory to recall that, “Oh yeah, I used to work closer to DC.” It was a busy day, and the only other words I remember from that day were spoken by Clint/Josey/The Brinks Guy who said, in response to something I asked or maybe Heather asked, “I live on the side of a mountain.” He said it somewhat defiantly and putting proud emphasis on the word ‘mountain’—as if, if he weren’t in polite company and on the job, he’d follow those words with “you got a fuckin’ problem with that?”

For some reason I remember shit like this. Just like I remember the salesman named Irving Berlin from back in the 60s. And a sales clerk named Kirsten Mortimer who sold me some socks at Hecht Co. in 1983. And Dave Grohl, before he became famous, being a snotty clerk when I bought a couple of LPs at Tower Records one afternoon also in the 80s. There are some memories from the 90s and when I lived in New York—when I did my heaviest, most heroic drinking—that are gone. Still, I’m surprised by how much I can remember and how much other people can forget.

I see the Brinks Guy around from time to time. Of course, Brinks, which became Broadview Security, has now been taken over by the ADT corporation. Which means the Brinks name doesn’t work for him anymore—so maybe I’ll just call him Outlaw Josey Wales. Anyway, Outlaw Josey Wales doesn’t remember me or recognize me. One time I saw him on Main Street here in Front Royal and I nodded at him, and he just shot back this look of bewilderment, as if he were thinking, ‘Why the hell is this weird motherfucker looking at me?’ So now, when I see him, I don’t nod and I don’t try to say “Hi” and I know for sure that if I see him in the window of a restaurant, and he’s eating, that I’d better look the hell away.

This morning, for this first time in over twenty years, I listened to Vin Scelsa’s radio show. I used to listen to him on Sunday Nights on WXRK, sitting alone in my apartment when I lived on Avenue B in New York, and so often his show would introduce me to some song or some singer or some band I’d never listened to before and would end up loving. He’d also play a lot of stuff where my reaction would be ‘what is this shit’ and I’d end up changing the station back to WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station which played mostly jazz—jazz was something which, in New York, I could always rely on.

Today, when I found out Vin Scelsa was still doing his show, and that I could get it on WFUV’s website, I went to my computer and pulled up the latest show. He started out with a fabulously happy song by Michael Franti & Spearhead called “I’m Alive (And Life Sounds Like).” It was a new song, and I’d never heard it before—a song I’ll remember to play for Maggie and Julien and Heather. After half an hour, though, he began playing some stuff that sounded like total crap to me, and I turned it off. Tomorrow, though, is another day, and because of the songs I end up loving—and all the songs I never knew before and all the things I need to remember—I’ll keep listening.

-Jose Padua

The Search for My Name As Told in a Story That Begins and Ends with the Taste of Metal

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I don’t remember the last time, while eating, that I left the spoon or fork in my mouth just a little too long so that I got that metallic taste on my tongue, that odd sensation that seems to automatically negate the pleasant sensation of whatever it was you were eating and replace it with something I imagine feels similar to what you’d feel if you were to dump half a cup of salt on your tongue, then close your mouth and attempt to smile. It would be a salty smile, of course, amusing to watch but not so pleasant to make.

Though I suppose there are stages in one’s life when one might actually enjoy that taste and others on the more extreme side. My two year old son, Julien, for instance, would, if we let him, eat butter straight from the its container, digging in with his fingers and happily shoving it into his mouth. He’s tried this a number of times, and to stop him in the middle of this act is the sort of thing that makes him incredibly unhappy. It’s at moments like these when I try to distract him with music, and the other night the song I distracted him with a song called “Point of View” by a group called DB Boulevard.

I first heard this song in 2002, the year it came out, while watching television with Heather at my brother-in-law’s apartment in State College, Pennsylvania. As it was, he wasn’t in his apartment at the time–he was, rather, in the hospital, suffering from a serious flare up of a chronic intestinal condition. His hospital stay was what brought us there to visit, and it was on the way while toward State College that my brother Tony called my cell phone to say that our Dad had just had a colonoscopy during which they found some serious, blockage in his intestine, so much so that they were unable to perform a complete colonoscopy.

I am, at times, astounded by the connections between the most insignificant details. In this instance, however, I was too distressed by the news to note the coincidence of my brother-in-law and my father undergoing comparable medicals issues at the same time; and the obsessive tendency of my mind to take almost any situation and imagine it through to its most horrible conclusion led me to think immediately–even though we didn’t know for sure if cancerous growths or something less serious was causing the blockage–that my father was now in the process of dying. All of which seems to show that, for me, pessimism trumps any pleasure I may get in trying to connect the dots and surmising the relationship between things, and that when given the opportunity to make a shrewd observation or dive headfirst into despair, my mind–gladly, if you will–chooses to do the latter.

Much of that trip to State College, then, was spent worrying about my dad, as well as my brother-in-law. Plus, on top of that, I started worrying about the possibility–though at the time my mind considered it more a likelihood than simple possibility–that my father would never get to meet his grandchildren.

That night, after getting that call on the way into town, we went to the hospital to visit Heather’s brother, then, after stopping at some dreary restaurant to eat, went to his apartment which was where we would be staying while we were there. We turned on the television, and after flipping through the stations, we settled on some station that was showing videos. That was when I saw, for the first time, the video for Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”–a song which I rather enjoy even though I always associate it with sickness. And it was after the Kylie Minogue song that I saw the video for the DB Boulevard song, in which we see a cardboard figure of a young woman driving about some modern city, which is also constructed with cardboard. Heather and I immediately liked the song and the video. Then, one evening, some ten years later while I was looking for something to calm Julien down from some tantrum and–wanting to try something other than the usual sure-fire calming songs, like Sade’s “Your Love Is King” and The Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town”–I remembered DB Boulevard’s “Point of View.” I looked it up on YouTube, put it on for Julien, and it immediately caught his attention.

Right away, I added “Point of View” to the list of songs I could use to sooth Julien whenever something in the real world annoyed him to the point of him having a meltdown. Then, one night, since I knew nothing about DB Boulevard, I looked them up and found out, to my surprise, that they were a pop band that was formed in Padua, Italy. Yes, Padua–just like my last name.

I don’t come upon the name Padua very often. I only have a handful of relatives here in the United States, with the majority of those who actually share the last name of Padua with me being in the Philippines, where the name is fairly common. It’s certainly a different situation from Heather’s–having the rather common surname of Davis, running into another Davis isn’t something she would consider all that worthy of note. For me, on the other hand, it’s always a surprise when I come upon the name Padua during the course of a day.

I remember one time when we were kids, my brother Tony and I looked through the DC phone book and found one other Padua listed–a certain gentleman by the name of Napoleon Padua. He wasn’t anyone we knew, much less were related to. Still, Napoleon Padua was, to us, a sign that there could be more of us out there–a sign which, if we ever got close enough, could also be totally wrong.

As it was, what I came across the name Padua it almost never had anything to do with the Philippines, the country my mother and father left in the early 1950s, but rather with Padua, the city in Italy. For me, that had to do. But even then, it doesn’t happen that often, and prior to finding out that DB Boulevard came from Padua, Italy, I discovered that about twenty miles south of our home here in Front Royal, there’s a small stretch of road in Sperryville, Virginia that goes by the name of Padua Lane.

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And before that, the last time I came across the name in the course of a day–other than the occasional crossing of paths with a reference to Saint Anthony of Padua–was almost twenty-five years ago at the Horseshoe Bar (aka Vazac’s) on Tompkin’s Square Park in Manhattan. I was there with my friend Michael Randall, a few years before I moved to New York, and at some point in the evening we ended up talking with a young woman who was standing near us at the bar. She had some kind of accent and way of gazing about her which showed that she was a person in transit. Soon, we found out that she was working for the time being as an aupair uptown, that her name was Vanna, and that she was from Italy–Padua, Italy.

About a month later, when I was back in DC, I got a call from Vanna saying she was in town. I met her downtown and had lunch with her, then showed her around. I took her to the East Wing of the National Gallery, then moved on to the West Building before making our way to the Museum of Natural History. It was an enjoyable day, although there was no great connection–and that’s what I was looking for, here, some connection whether it was romantic or not. Some strong, or perhaps even profound connection with that name, Padua. Because even though it’s my family name, there was always something about it that name that just made me feel lost. Because to me it was a name that seemed to exist in some kind of limbo. It wasn’t an American name, so it didn’t make me feel more connected to the country where I was born and grew up. What’s more, to me it didn’t sound like a Filipino name either, so it didn’t seem to connect me with the Philippines, the country where my parents came from but which I’d never visited. Still, it was my name, and the name of a small number of us living in Washington, DC. But the thing was, I wanted to feel it was mine–feel that in that name, that word, was a key to my identity. And the thing was, I didn’t really feel that way, and never had.

Vanna didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to stay in the U.S. Her father had been sick, she said, and she thought that at the very latest she’d be going back by the end of summer–to Padua, Italy. And I remember how she looked down, and–in some sort of sad but still hopeful Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz moment–seemed to imagine that she was already there. Back in her version of Kansas.

At the end of the evening, Vanna had me take a picture of her with her camera. We were somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown, and she stood with her back to the street as the lights from the cars and buses flashed behind her; suddenly, she raised her right arm in a gesture of triumph, then smiled as she looked up to the nighttime sky. I pressed the button on the camera, the flash went on, and I heard the shutter open and close. That was the last time I ever saw her.

And so the years went on, with my name in some existential limbo–a limbo that was of my own making, I suppose. A limbo that was the result of the many things I didn’t and, perhaps, could never know.

As for my father, he lived on. Although my mother did not, and it was ultimately her illness that brought me back to DC after I’d moved up to New York, a city that had come to feel more like a real home to me than DC, the city where I grew up. After my mother died, I toyed with the idea of going back to New York, but I never did. With my father and brothers there, DC, much more than before I left for New York, felt like the place I needed to be.

And it was after that trip to State College, and after my father had survived having a good portion of his intestines removed as well a diagnosis of cancer–for which he declined chemotherapy and subsequently went on to live another ten years–I ended up with a steady job at the office where Heather had been working for a couple of years. Then one morning in early November, while I was sitting at a computer with another person on the staff going over some spreadsheets, Heather peeked in and asked if I wanted to slip out and get lunch in a little bit.

It was at lunch that I learned about that taste you sometimes get in your mouth. Heather had been getting it these last couple of days–that distinctly metallic taste women often get when they’re pregnant. And just that morning, Heather had taken a pregnancy test–and she had looked at it closely to make sure she was seeing it correctly–and the test read positive. Which meant we were about to become parents.

And it was sometime around when Margarita Mei Padua, my daughter was born, that the feeling I had about the name “Padua” being in some kind of limbo began to vanish. I don’t know if it was overnight–maybe it was–but the lack of connection with my own family name was gone. Margarita–named after my later mother–and Padua, the name my father brought here with him from the Philippines. And then when my son, Julien Tuazon was born–with Tuazon, being my father’s middle name–that limbo I lived with for so long now seemed so far in the past.

And it was somewhere around then that I remembered, how when I was young, I was astounded by how little I knew about life. And by the feeling I had deep in my bones that there was still so much more I wanted to know. It’s a feeling I hope I never lose.

-Jose Padua

Going Up the Country

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Standing outside the church in Orange, Virginia, where the funeral for his first wife was just held, my godfather advised me that, “Life. You can never be sure about life. But death. You can be sure about death.” Even though I was only about twelve years old at the time—and even though he spoke them in the most solemn tones imaginable, pausing at all the right places for maximum dramatic effect—I knew that these words of his were far from the most profound I’d ever hear in my life. In fact, I knew that what he’d just said was as useless as a pile of horseshit to a city boy.

Which was what I was, a city boy. A city boy, who for the first time had gone out to where his friends would go whenever they said they were going “to the country” for the weekend. That “the country” had an actual name—Orange, Virginia—I didn’t know until that day. But what I did already know, or at any rate what I felt, was that my godfather, even though he was some sort of respected figure in our corner of the Philippine community in DC, was as far as I could tell something of a flake, at best. And at worst, maybe even a phony.

What did I know? I was twelve years old. But what I saw didn’t impress me. He was maybe sixty years old, a Filipino man in possession of a certain measure of elegance, a man whose attention to each detail of his movements seemed to clash with the rough demeanor of his white, American wife. She was loud, he was soft-spoken. She was fat, he was thin. She was from the country, he was from another country. All that was beside the point, because what I noticed above all and what bothered me was his apparent lack of affection for her.

She was a drunk. I’d hear stories from my parents about how she’d be gone at night for hours, then would come back beaten and bruised from wherever it was she went. It was after one of these episodes when she came home and passed out, and by the time my godfather finally checked on her she was cold and still. Hers was the first funeral I ever attended. Hers was the first dead body I ever saw. And going out to Orange, Virginia for the funeral with my Dad was the first time I ever went out into the country—or at least it the first time I remember going out like that, far from the big city, to the sort of place where, forty years later, I’m now living.

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And the thing was, I kind of liked her. Her name was Tammie. She was a coarse, unrefined, double-wide sort of woman with a big raspy laugh who never failed to look you in the eyes, while my godfather always seemed to be looking somewhere else and wishing he were somewhere else and with someone else. I certainly liked Tammie more than I liked my godfather, who was never the sort of person I’d turn to for advice, guidance, and all those other tools for living a godfather was supposed to be able to provide. And even though Tammie was no beauty at that point, I could tell by her eyes, by her cheeks, and by those stray moments when she’d hold her chin up high as if everyone looked like shit next to her, that she was once stunning.

And I could tell because the daughter Tammie and my godfather had, the daughter who was the mother of the earliest friends I remember, had the most beautiful eyes. Small, shy, and quiet, she was framed more like her father than her mother, but one thing she got from Tammie were those eyes, eyes that even when they were looking off into the distance made you think she was actually looking at you. That daughter’s marriage also broke up, and I wondered if the fifties, when my friends and I were born, was just some hot and heavy time when everything was loose up until that moment when someone got pregnant, after which it was time to get down to the business of raising the child. A business some of them weren’t prepared or were reluctant to get into. Of course, then, their choices were more limited, in a lot of ways. Or at any rate, a choice was a lot harder to come by.

Then, one night last summer, as Heather, Maggie, Julien and I were heading down to Main Street where Maggie’s voice and piano teacher would be performing outdoors at the Gazebo, Maggie noticed something on the side of the front porch steps. And what she saw were two big leopard slugs, and the leopard slugs were doing it. Seeing two creatures in the act isn’t all that unusual a thing, but leopard slugs are a different matter altogether. These slugs are all hermaphrodites, and when two slugs get together they lick each other for awhile, after which these two long and slimy white penises emerge from each slug and begin to intertwine; after sperm is exchanged, each slug can go off and lay its eggs. That’s when things are going nicely. Sometimes, though, they have difficulty separating. That’s when one or sometimes both slugs will chew off the other’s penis.

As Heather, Maggie, and I were watching this take place of the side of our front steps, Maggie kept saying, “Oh my God!” She was grossed out and didn’t understand what the slugs were doing, but at the same time she couldn’t stop watching them.

When the slugs were done, we finally started moving down the sidewalk. Maggie kept asking, “What were they doing? What were they doing?”

I briefly considered saying, “Life. You can never be sure about life…,” except I’d adapt it to the situation at hand: “But making babies. You can be sure about making babies.” That, I realized almost immediately, would be just as lame as what I’d been told forty years earlier. Because after a life lived together, even if it didn’t turn out the way he’d wanted it to, there had to be something better to say. Something to say to me, his godchild. Something to pass on to the younger generation.

As it was, neither Heather nor I were quite ready to explain to Maggie what the slugs were doing. To say that sometimes, whether it’s people or animals, things get kind of weird and messy and unpleasant. “It’s kind of a grown up thing,” Heather finally explained. Then we continued walking down the street.

As we got closer, we wondered why we still couldn’t hear the music from the Gazebo, then wondered if the show had been cancelled, or brought indoors because of the possibility of thunderstorms. But we kept on walking.

This photograph shows Maggie, in silhouette, standing on the corner at the point where we started to hear the music.

-Jose Padua

Brief Moments at the Oasis

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On the way to pick Maggie up from her weaving class, I slowed down on Chester St as the car ahead of me suddenly slowed down as if the driver were about to turn—though he didn’t use his signal—onto the parking lot behind the Gazebo. But instead of turning he drove past the entrance to the parking lot and toward the curb. Thinking he was just going to double park, I started moving around him when he suddenly started pulling out into the middle of the street. Again, I stopped my car. When, after a moment, he didn’t move, I started moving ahead. That was when he suddenly started backing up into the entrance to the parking lot, then stopped again. I drove all the way to the left to get around him and looked out the passenger side window. He was this grimy, forty or so year old guy with a bushy moustache who to me looked like a strung-out, small town version of Freebo, the bushy haired, bushy mustached session musician who played bass for Bonnie Raitt for much of the 70s.

I’d always thought Freebo was cool. He looked like the fun guy in the band, the guy who knew how to party and get wild without being scary. That he was also one of the musicians in the band during the “Black Death” skit Richard Pryor did during the brief run of his 1977 TV show made Freebo seem even cooler to me. This was the skit where Pryor, dressed in a P-Funk inspired costume, fronts a heavy metal band which brings the crowd to a frenzy before actually gunning them down. It was the skit that I watched with my mother who, when it was over, said approvingly that it “was far out.” It was also a skit that would be hard to pull off nowadays.

As for the small town Freebo I encountered, he wasn’t cool. I don’t know if he was drunk or just inconsiderate, but when I looked over to him he didn’t say something like “Sorry, couldn’t make up my mind where I wanted to go” or even “Go ahead around me.” No, what he said, drawn out by his pancake-tongued, southern drawl, was “Fuuuuuuckkkk Yooooooouuuuu.”

That wasn’t surprising. Small towns do have a lot of warm, pleasant people, but they’ve also got more than their share of people who, whether they’re racists or just small-minded clowns who think they’re protecting their small town turf by being belligerent to anyone they think is an “outsider,” are total assholes. Anyone painting some pleasant picture of small town America as some quaint, beautiful, totally welcoming world is tripping like the Summer of Love never ended.

But what was surprising was what I did after my small town Freebo said, “Fuck you” to me. Or rather, what was surprising was what I didn’t do. And what I didn’t do was answer him with my own barrage of Fuck Yous or Go To Hells. No, I didn’t reply at all—I just looked at him the way I’d look at something that was far in the distance even though his car was just a foot away from mine. I just looked at him and drove off.

Now, it wasn’t because I had Julien in his car seat behind me that kept me quiet. Time after time on the road, I’ve let loose with fabulous angry curses, even with Maggie and Julien in the car, and just a couple of weeks ago, I remember, I was freaking out about nearly everything. And the fact is, I don’t really know what kept me calm. But what I began to wonder was that if somehow a sense of contentment was something that could blindside you just like all the bad things. That a sense of distance from whatever disturbs you can sneak up on you like a breeze from off the ocean, and that wisdom and the sense of perspective it brings move toward you in subtle, and beautiful ways.

Or maybe I just wasn’t fucking awake enough to yell back at that country motherfucker. I’d woken up half an hour earlier from taking a nap with Julien (my insomnia the previous night had allowed only about two hours of sleep) and I was still moving kind of slow. My brain was probably moving pretty damn slow, too.

This photograph of Maggie and Heather was taken a few years ago on the sand outside the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach, Delaware. This spot, distant enough from the noise coming from the bar and back deck of the Rusty Rudder, always seems to fill me with a sense of contentment. And it fills me with this in ways that are subtle and beautiful.

-Jose Padua

History as Written on a Dining Room Wall, or Notes on an Old Photograph from Home

A group of about 30 people, ranging in age from very young to very old, pose outside a church behind a casket adorned with wreaths and candles. Inside the casket lies the recently deceased, an old man. It’s probably right before the funeral, though it’s hard to say—in those days the period of mourning could last a long time, with family and friends gathered for days and days at the home of the deceased. I imagine that back then time probably stood still with a little more frequency than today, and that when it was time to pose for the photograph, the silence was welcome: it gave you the opportunity to pause, to catch your breath. To turn away from other faces with all their words and worries and just look through the comfort of stillness at the cool, clear lens of a camera.

This photo of a gathering of mourners was sent from the Philippines to my father in Washington, DC nearly sixty years ago—several years before I was born here in the states. Written on the back in blue fountain pen ink are the words, “This photo was taken during the funeral of our grandfather Enoy in front of the Agat Church last Jan. 23, 1953, with the family.” Enoy, dressed in white with what was probably his favorite hat lying at his feet, is not one of my relatives as far as I know. But the man to the right of the coffin—crouched down, his hair combed back, and looking away from the camera—is one of my father’s brothers, my uncle.

Right away I can see the family resemblance—the high forehead, like my father and I have; the high cheeks; the straight, half plaintive, half stoic line of the mouth. Or is it a mouth that’s about to break out into the festive sneer of some island version of Elvis Presley? I have scores and scores of relatives in the Philippines whom I’ve never met—or even more, what I imagine to be a baseball field full of uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, and nieces.

Here in the states the only people I ever called “Uncle” or “Aunt,” and whom I saw regularly and who knew us well enough to come to our door anytime unannounced, were actually only cousins—cousins once or twice removed (and here I must say that the whole system of designating cousins as first or second, or once or twice removed, etc., etc, baffles me like the higher forms of mathematics I used to understand in my younger years). Cousin—the word even by itself, without all the modifiers, never fails to bring a confused expression to my face. It may as well be a word in Tagalog or any of the other languages of the Philippines that I never got around to learning when I was growing up. Indeed, it’s one of those words that gives me the feeling of being lost.

In the photo, the expression on my uncle’s face speaks of sadness, certainly, but the far away look in his eyes seems to indicate something other than grief. Others in the photo look like they’re trying to hold their heads high in an admirable show of strength; they’re not afraid of the reality of a deceased loved one lying so close to them that all they have to do is lift an arm and extend a finger to touch his cold, stiff body. Unabashed grief I see clearly only in a few of those in the photo, such as the woman in the center, behind the coffin, whose eyes look at the camera with something approaching abandonment. Fear I see in the young girl standing behind the coffin to the right. It’s a look of a child understanding for the first time that thing she doesn’t want to understand.

All this, of course, is simply my interpretation. I could be way off. The little girl may simply have a stomach ache, while those who are standing strong and tall may be the ones most filled with fear. My uncle may be the one most overcome by grief for his older friend, or he may be looking away simply because he needs to catch his breath on a hot day in this tropical country. It could be this or it could be that, and it sometimes occurs to me that the interpretation of the past is something akin to the interpretation of dreams—which is to say that despite whatever facts one may have, one’s past can only be recalled through the subjective filter of years and distance.

My  96 year old father, recently interviewed by my 8-year old daughter Maggie for a school project, remembers that back in the barrio of San Carlos, Pangasinan Province, The Philippines, “life was good. We had plenty to eat—fish, rice, fruits. We had lots of friends—everyone in the barrio was your friend. We played baseball.” I imagine that in the photograph are a number of those my father counts among his friends from those days. And even though I’ve never met a single person in the photo, I feel that somehow I’m connected to it.

Yes, connected rather than lost in face of it; and even though each is a complete stranger to me, they are my people. People: family and friends who shared simple meals along with big feasts and a love of baseball, the bats swung and bases run during what I imagine were warm, humid days. Playing until the tropical day turned dark in a remote part of my past. All this in a photo taken so many decades ago, in a country I’ve never visited. Such is the connection that comes from our common bloodlines.

But the funny thing is, if I were suddenly transported to the Philippines right now through some science fiction portal, or swept away by a great wind like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to the Never Never Land of the Philippines, I would have no idea where to go, no idea who I should contact, and, above all, no idea how to survive.

Although I often feel like some sort of alien being here, in the Shenandoah Valley, beamed down from the mothership—or was I kicked off of the mothership for my bad attitude or just for drawing the short stick?—to a part of the country that will always feel a little strange to me, I have to say that I know more about surviving here than I do about surviving in the land of my ancestors. And ancestry and origin and blood connection be damned, I’ll never know more about there than I do about here. Any romantic notion about being able to go back to the homeland, to my roots—well, that’s all it is, a notion dreamt up by some out-of-touch inner travel agent who in truth has no idea how to be anyplace other than America. Because if I ever go there, I’ll be going as a tourist, and, like it or not, that’s really all I can ever be there (or at least for a very, very long time).

A week ago, at the Martin’s grocery store on Rte. 55, in town, where the John Marshall Highway becomes South Street, I saw a group of about eight or nine Filipino men and women, wearing ATF caps and shirts, who were speaking Tagalog as they walked up and down the aisles. They didn’t, however, appear to be ATF agents, and were probably people whose duties were administrative. Or at any rate, they lacked that slow, deliberate strut you often see from various paramilitary types,who, aside from being utterly humorless, also look like they’re just itching for someone to make a false move so they have the excuse to fuck someone up. No, this group seemed relaxed, casual. And, by no means is this meant as an insult, normal. But again, I could be wrong, and maybe any one of them could have seen me display one of my weirder Tourette’s tics, gotten alarmed, and had me face down on the ground in a full nelson in two seconds.

Still, whenever I can, if I see people in these parts whose blood origins are close to mine, I try to acknowledge them somehow. I try to at least welcome them to this place with a nod and a grin of recognition—it feels like something I’m obliged to do. I want to tell them that yes, even though we’re vastly outnumbered, there are people like them who live here. And, I want to show solidarity with them against the people here in the valley who see people like us and immediately wonder if we’re illegal aliens or if we’re taking jobs away from them or if we’re primitive brutes.

When I went to the checkout to pay for my groceries, I found myself in line right behind them. I smiled and nodded to a few of them, and they smiled and nodded back, but I didn’t try to talk to them. Even though they likely would have understood and spoken English very well, it seems so lame that that’s the only language I have in common with them. So I just flashed a smile and gave them a swift nod of recognition so as not to reveal that any sense of affinity I have with them is perhaps superficial at best—and, at worst, imaginary.

My grandfather was a farmer of sugar cane, rice, and peanuts. My father and his brothers helped him cut the sugar cane, and they plowed the fields using two carabaos. Carabaos are a kind of water buffalo that are crucial to farming in the Philippines and are considered one of the country’s national symbols. Me, I’ve never seen a live carabao—my acquaintance with them is only through the wood carvings of them we had around the house when I was growing up. Carabaos are all part of a world far removed from anything I’ve experienced myself. A world I easily recognize but have never been a part of.

Here, in the Shenandoah valley, it’s nearly summer—that is, if you’re old school like me and mark the beginning of the season with the summer solstice. But  it’s been feeling like summer for nearly a month now. Out here I often find myself on roads with names like the John Marshall Highway, the Zachary Taylor Highway, and Jubal Early Drive. A few days ago I was on Lee Highway,  just outside of Washington, Virginia in Rappahannock County. I find myself in Rappahannock County pretty frequently nowadays, and sometimes in Page and Clarke Counties. Most often I’m in Warren County, where I live. These were counties I used to hear about on the weather report when they’d talk about a storm making its way to DC, areas that were so far away that sometimes a storm would dissipate before it got to DC, places that as far as I was concerned might as well be as distant as the Philippines.

And maybe that’s why, despite Tagalog being spoken in my home when I was a child, that I never learned the language. The way I saw it back then, the Philippines was a storm that might not make its way to me and maybe I was betting that it wouldn’t—that when I became an adult I would somehow not be a Filipino (or an Asian-American as we were eventually called) but simply an American. Because even when I was a small child living in a fairly diverse city, one thing I understood was that looking like the people who were in the majority would be so much easier. So much easier than being the kid a lot of adults described as a “foreigner” or as an “oriental.” So much easier than being asked “Where are you from?” so often that my answer to that question became angrier and angrier. And of course it would be so much easier if people looked at me, wherever I was in America, and immediately assumed that I belonged. And that, no I’m not lost. I’m home.

As it was, my youthful reluctance to embrace my heritage left me ill-prepared to embrace it as an adult. And even though I embrace it now, there’s still a part of me that like a frightened child wonders what would it have been like to disappear into the majority. To live in the less cosmopolitan, less diverse part of the country I live in now and still at least look like I could belong.

Yesterday heavy rains brought flooding from here, the northern Shenandoah Valley, all the way to east of DC. On the television Jim Vance, from DC’s Channel 4, saw the name Happy Creek on the far western edge of the weather map, and said something like, “Happy Creek? Where’s Happy Creek. I want to go there!”

Me, I can walk out of the house, go maybe two hundred yards, and I’m there at Happy Creek. I used to be like Jim Vance—the man who has anchored the newscast I’ve watched for most of the last forty years—seeing these names on the far edges of the weather map and being intrigued. All sorts of odd things would go through my head. I’d wonder what I’d see, who I’d see. I’d wonder what life was like and what possibilities were created by the state of being “out there”—at the edge of the map.

And now I’m living those possibilities, driving down that part of the map, going down Rte. 522 in the late evening when the sun approaches the horizon. It’s a time when I seem to be more aware of how we live in an actual valley. That time when the dimming light makes the mountains surrounding us seem more solid, and less distant, against the Shenandoah sky. It’s during moments like these when I feel less like an unwanted tourist and more like someone who, though he may not exactly belong here, has somehow found a home here.

Earlier tonight I dropped off Heather and Maggie at Dancin’ Downtown, the Front Royal event where they close the intersection of Main and Chester streets on a Saturday night and have a band play for several hours. We could have all gone, but Julien had been recovering from an ear infection, so we thought it best not to keep him out too late.

When we got there we saw that they hadn’t closed down the intersection after all, and that the event was a lot smaller than in past years. Maggie looked at the crowd and was incredibly disappointed.

“Look at them, they’re just standing there,” she cried. “Nobody’s dancing!”

Still, she wanted to go, and we assured her that even though it was a much smaller event this year, things would get a little more lively later in the evening.

After I dropped them off I made a quick stop with Julien at the Martin’s for milk and diapers. Inside, I ran into George, the man who lived across the street from us for a year and who thirty or so years ago lived in the house we live in now. In fact, he was the person who built the back porch and kitchen for our house. The first time I saw him he looked, to me, like a country version of film director Nicholas Ray—especially the way Ray looked when he played a cameo in Wim Wenders’s film, The American Friend. George was shopping with an elderly woman I’ve never seen before and introduced me to her by saying I was one of people now living in house they used to live in.

“Oh, I love that house,” she said. “I wish I were still there.” George nodded in agreement.

“I live up the hill by the hospital, now,” he said. “I hate it there.”

I asked why he had to move from across the street, and he explained how the woman who owns the house wanted to move her daughter into it. I then told him how the daughter and her boyfriend are pretty nasty people and how they bombard the neighborhood with noise from their home stereo and their car stereos, and are always blocking other people’s driveways with the five different cars they seem to own.

“Oh yeah,” George said, “She’s a nasty one. But she ain’t worth a hill of cotton.”

Then he laughed and patted me on the shoulder sympathetically, even though I was the person living in the house where he used to live—the house which, if things had gone differently for him, would still be his.

When we moved to this small town and bought this house nearly five years ago, we had no idea that we’d regularly be running into people who were part of its history. Any other place I’ve lived, the only sign of the people who used to live there would come in the form of mail—those envelopes on which I’d write “No longer at this address” and leave for the postman to pick up again. Now, in this small town, I’ve found that history could be right across the street, or at the grocery store, or even closer: George’s family name is painted on one of the walls in the basement, while a wall in one of the closets upstairs has a message—from one of George’s young daughters, now grown up, of course—that’s addressed to whomever may live in the house in the future. The message: Greetings.

Maggie, too, has written quite a bit—not in one of the closets, however, but on the dining room wall. There, underneath the penciled in lines showing how much she’s grown, is the brief story of how we came here when she was four, nearly five years ago. It’s a story about this house, about what she does here, about the friends she’s made here. It’s a story that’s intended for future residents of this house. And she’s determined that the future residents of this house will be her own children or grandchildren.

Maggie doesn’t remember much of the other places we used to live. Indeed, the most vivid memories of her childhood, the ones that she’s most likely to take into adulthood, will be from here. And even on bad days—days of heavy rains, days of horrible noise, days when there’s no dancing—Maggie feels it. And whenever we ask her, she says she never wants to move away from here.

Because even though I don’t always feel it, this town feels like home to her.

-Jose Padua

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Title  photo courtesy of Pat Padua.

A Slightly Sentimental Journey from the Country to the City—and Back Again

I don’t know. I say that a lot these days—though maybe I don’t actually say it and instead just think it. And, when I’m in a particularly bad mood, it’s, “I don’t fucking know.” On these winter days in Front Royal, my musings on what I know or don’t know are, more often than not, accompanied by that expletive. It’s cold and dreary and desolate—and, while I used to wonder how we got here, I must say that I’m over that. I know how we got here. As for how we’re going to get out of here, well, I don’t fucking know.

Even though I’m still working to find a way out of here, I have to say that this winter, for a lot of reasons, I feel better than I did during my previous two winters here (I suppose that during my very first winter here I was in too much of a state of culture shock to feel much of anything). That, unfortunately, makes it harder to get back to the work I have to do.

So we turn the temperature on the thermostat down in an effort to make one tank of oil last the whole winter. There’s nothing like freezing your ass off in your own home to make you move, to make you get back to work. And as I get up from my computer, put on a sweater, a hat, and a scarf, and walk around in circles in an effort to feel a certain measure of warmth, I find myself looking back to the past. Yeah, I become, even though I hate the idea, nostalgic. Nostalgia—remember Happy Days, and Sha-Na-Na, which looked back at the 50s? Well, fuck all that shit. But that’s not as bad as what to me seems like a fair number of people here who actually look back fondly on the Confederacy. And while nostalgia, for some people, leads them to memories of what they see as warm, happy, uncomplicated times, for me nostalgia usually leads to memories of times that weren’t so great, times when I fucked things up, or—in this particular case—a time when I was pretty much being an asshole.

And what I remembered was a winter twenty years ago in New York. My friend Ron Kolm had put out the word that Rick Peabody, editor of the esteemed lit mag out of Washington, DC, Gargoyle, was looking for poems or stories on the subject of Barbie. Not former Playboy model Barbi Benton or Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, with whom I had at least some passing familiarity, but “Barbie”—the doll manufactured by that toy manufacturing behemoth and corporate bully, Matell, Inc. Beyond that, I knew nothing about Barbie. I had no idea of the effect it had had on girls, how it had warped their minds, planted in them an unrealistic role model whose ideals were impossible to attain. All I knew was that Rick Peabody, from Washington DC, my hometown, had landed a major book contract to edit an entire anthology devoted to the subject and that getting a piece in Mondo Barbie was something I needed to do.

I had never gotten much recognition as a writer when I lived in DC. In DC all that seemed to count was my job (my paying job as an employee with the federal government), how much money I made, and how far up I’d risen on the GS scale. That I was a writer, too, was of no significance, and it wasn’t until 1990 when I moved to New York—the heart of American Capitalism—that how much money I made ceased to matter. Being in a book edited by a well known DC lit figure, then, seemed to me a way of showing DC that my work as a writer did matter.

Besides, it was also something Ron was recommending, and if Ron was telling me there was something I should do, then by God, I’d better do it. Not that Ron had ever told me there was something I needed to do. Indeed, all he ever did was throw out ideas and encourage me. But, in the drunken state of mind I was often in during my New York days, things could get twisted around. Ron, in the beer and bourbon soaked cavities in my brain, was no longer just Ron Kolm—poet, writer, essayist—but “L. Ron Kolm,” my guru, whom I’d better try to please; and the loose assemblage of writers I drank with, the Unbearables, were my cult whose services took place in various dive bars on the Lower East Side or up near Times Square.

It’s not that I was always drunk in those days. But I did drink frequently enough that there was never time between my drunken binges for my mind to recover enough so that some sense of clarity returned. It was always either a drunken haze or the painfully exquisite disconnect with reality known as the extreme hangover, when the physical discomfort you feel while recovering from an extreme drinking session clouds your mind nearly as much as the alcohol did. That and the intoxication of being in New York in those days before everything seemed to completely fall apart ensured that the miles between my mind and real sobriety were a distance too great to cross.

I wrote my best poems like that, while I was recovering from a serious drunk during which I wouldn’t have been able to sit up straight at my electric typewriter for more than five minutes—recovering, while my mind was still wired and crazy, but with a measure of steadiness returning to my hands with which I could transcribe the profound madness that was oozing from my brain. And the poems brought me a certain amount of notoriety within the downtown poetry scene.

But this time the given subject was Barbie, a subject on which, no matter how drunk I got, I had nothing to say. I pondered the subject long and hard, saying the name “Barbie” aloud over and over until my voice started sounding like that of a half insane character from an Ingmar Bergman film. I tried repeating the name silently in my mind, but silence morphed it into the name of a fast food chain—Arby Arby Arby Arby—making me hungry and distracting me with the thought that all I needed to get going with this project was a cheap but filling meal. But food wasn’t the answer.

Next, I resorted to parody, taking famous poems and slipping in “Barbie” at clever and strategic points:

I placed Barbie in Tennessee,
And round she was, upon a hill.
She made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

It was about as clever as, well—I don’t know—as clever as… shit. My powers of language seemed to be slipping further and further away from me. I tried another parody—

The apparition of Barbie in the toy store;
A big titted doll on a plain, gray shelf—

which turned out even worse. I went on and on like this, channeling poets from John Donne to Ted Berrigan to Wanda Coleman. Nothing worked.

Finally I had a stunning revelation: for my Barbie poem, I should rip myself off; and rip myself off in the most blatant, convenient and—this was the key word here—effortless way. I’d recently done a couple of poems for Michael Gorelick—better known as “Sparrow”—who had put out a special issue of his magazine, Big Fish. Titled “The Council of All Beings,” this issue featured a variety of poems and stories, all told from the point of view of an animal. For this, I wrote two poems, the first of which was the following:

Meatballs

We are meatballs.
We used to be part of a cow
but now we are part
of your spaghetti sauce.

Show us your tits.

The second was this:

Guppy

I am a guppy.
I live in your aquarium.
You feed me every day.

If I could get out
of here I would
kill you all.

“Meatballs” posed some problems. To say that

We are meatballs
We used to be part of Barbie
but now we are part
of your spaghetti sauce.

Show us your tits

would take the poem in—what I thought at the time—would be an unfortunate direction. I was wrong, of course, but only because “Guppy” seemed to lend itself to adaptation as a Barbie poem much more easily and logically. Thus, I came up with this:

Barbie

I am Barbie.
I live in your dollhouse.
You change my clothes every day.

If I could get out
of here I would
kill you all.

It seemed to work—at least on a superficial level. But was Barbie—the doll, the character, the icon—somehow filled with homicidal rage? If it were true, I had no idea, and to create this poem I simply ripped myself off—a task which took all of 30 seconds to complete. Still, the poem seemed to work somehow, so I left it at that and sent it and a couple of even lesser efforts to Rick Peabody. Naturally, he chose homicidal Barbie.

Soon after that, I got a check for fifty bucks in the mail, and then, maybe a year later, the actual book—which was when I started to feel funny about the whole thing. First, the cover featured what looked like a photo of a bored, drag queen version of Barbie rolling her eyes on top of some graphic displaying various Barbie accessories on top of an upside down cartoon version of Barbie. It all seemed a little too busy to me, a little too self conscious. Back then, that sort of “wink wink nudge nudge” self conscious hipness was probably what I hated the most about anything. I liked my irony and sarcasm to have a dose of subtlety and was always aghast at things that seemed too obvious in their efforts at being clever or edgy. So, when I lifted the cover of Mondo Barbie to make a horrible discovery, the precise words that went through my mind and were eventually said aloud so that my upstairs and downstairs and across the street neighbors could hear, were, “THESE PAGES ARE FUCKING PINK. OH MY FUCKING GOD! OH! OH! OHHHH!”

I flipped through the book, page after page after page, all of them a sickening shade of pink. I took a deep breath, lit a cigarette, reached for the bottle of Jack Daniel’s on my desk and took a swig.

“Christ,” I said to myself after I’d calmed down a little, “this might be the worst fucking book ever. And I’m in it.”

Luckily, I thought, my poem in it was short. Indeed, it was the shortest piece in the whole book—at least I had that going for me. I shut Mondo Barbie and put it up on a bookshelf, hoping I could forget about it.

But I couldn’t, and what first brought it back to mind was when David Ulin—a writer from the Unbearables crowd who had moved out to Los Angeles—sent me a clipping from the LA Times. It was by their fashion columnist, and at the top of the page were photos of designer Richard Tyler, Mark Wahlberg (in those days he was known more by his rap moniker, “Marky Mark”), and Barbie. Under Barbie’s photo, the caption read, “A killer instinct?” At the end of the column, presented as a “closing thought,” was my poem from Mondo Barbie.

I was amused, but at the same time I felt uncomfortable—which isn’t to say that I didn’t appreciate that having a poem printed in a major newspaper had just given me the biggest audience I’d ever had with a poem. What I didn’t appreciate was that the poem was “Barbie,” which had taken me less than a minute to write and wasn’t so much created as sloughed off from the outer layer of my soul in a cheap act of self-parody. At any rate, that’s how I—through my perverse, or perhaps just youthful, earnestness—had come to feel about its creation. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn about the way the world worked.

The next thing to remind me about what had become my Barbie was a phone call I received one afternoon. I hadn’t been awake for very long—I was unemployed at the time and, after spending my nights writing and drinking, would usually awake around one in the afternoon—when I picked up the phone and the man at the other end asked, “Are you Jose Padua?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“The Jose Padua who wrote the poem in Mondo Barbie?”

His voice had a sense of urgency to it. At first, it sounded more accusatory than anything else, and if I were more alert I probably would have hung up on him immediately. But my mind was moving slowly and the words—even though I wasn’t at all sure that it would be prudent to continue speaking to this person—started coming out of my mouth at an even slower pace.

“Yes. That’s. Me.”

“Well,” the man said, and suddenly he sounded enthusiastic. “I just had tell you that this poem really shows what’s going on in this country today.”

He went on to explain that he was calling from Florida, where he was at work, and that after reading my poem he was so moved he had to call all his friends and recite it. He then felt compelled to look up my number—my bio in Mondo Barbie mentioned that I lived in New York—to tell me the effect the poem had on him and to thank me for my work. It was the sort of conversation where I normally would have said, at some point, “You’re kidding” or “You can’t be serious.” But whether I was driven by vanity or rendered inert from being in a state of shock—after realizing that it wasn’t some friend of mine playing a joke on me—I never gave away that I thought my Barbie was simply a poetic scam. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, for me, it was hack work, that I had no concept of Barbie’s significance in the world of commerce, the world of culture, or the world of art. That, for me, Barbie was nothing more than a name added to a piece of junk mail to make it seem more personal and more real—when it was anything but real.

But what was really odd was when a couple of months later I got a note from Lucinda Ebersole—who was the co-editor of Mondo Barbie with Rick Peabody—
saying that they were coming to New York for a reading celebrating the book and asking if I would participate. What was odd was that despite my feelings about the book, I felt obligated to take part in the reading.

It was like I was working again for the direct mail marketing firm that had laid me off about a year earlier. They sold costume jewelry and were responsible for a large share of the junk mail that middle aged and elderly women completely ignore and throw straight into the trash. The thing is, they knew what most women did to their letters and brochures, but they didn’t let that stop them. They believed that by continuing to send their materials through the mail that they could eventually create, through repetition and their stubborn refusal to stop sending their material, a sense of obligation in these women. After all, if they cared enough and believed enough in their product to keep sending information about it, then by God there must be something worth having there.

During the fifteen months that I worked there I believed in their product, too. But of course I had to—they were my only source of income at the time. So, when they had a company picnic, I had to attend—had to play softball with the company president, had to laugh at the dull jokes the founder of the company told between bites of his gourmet potato salad—lest I put my standing with the company in jeopardy. That I eventually lost this job just meant that I didn’t play the game as well as I could have.

Now, I had a new job, and my new company was Barbie. It wasn’t the job I wanted, but it was the only job I had (after all, I did get paid for it). So, I wrote Lucinda back saying that, yes, I’d do the New York Mondo Barbie reading

Still, I was afraid. And even though there would be at least one person I knew there—Sparrow, who was also in the book—I couldn’t go alone. I recruited two friends to accompany me—Betsey, who was a dancer in Penny Arcade’s Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! show, and Heather (another Heather, not the Heather I married), who ran a reading series at a gallery in SoHo.

The reading was going to be at 8:00 pm at a theater on Second Ave. Betsey and Heather met me at my apartment on Avenue B to down a few bourbons, and then a few more, before heading off to the reading. By then I was in a good mood, sufficiently detached from reality and from my fear of the company party that lay before me. But when we were greeted at the door by a guy dressed in a Tuxedo and moving very slowly and stiffly as he did his impersonation of Barbie’s sometime boyfriend/partner/male accoutrement, Ken, I started to sober up.

Next to greet us were Rick Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole, each with their personal copies of Mondo Barbie for the authors to sign. I looked up my poem in each copy of the book, crossed out “Barbie” and wrote in “Rick” and then “Lucinda” and gave the books with the newly edited poem back to them. I thought I was starting to sober up by now, but Rick and Lucinda just stood there in silence while they gave me this look that seemed to say, “Man, you are really fucked up.”

And maybe I was, though I felt that I was simply being charming. Betsey, Heather, and I walked off and found seats near the back of the theater.

The proceedings were to begin with a performance piece, followed by a brief intermission after which a reading of the pieces in the book would take place. In a few minutes the lights went down and onto the stage came a plump woman wearing a blonde wig and a brightly colored party dress. She was supposed to be “Barbie.” As the performance went on I found myself sinking lower and lower into my seat. The woman smiled constantly as she went on, in a voice that seemed to slide out of her throat like Elmer’s Glue out of a plastic bottle, about how hard it was being a “living doll” or how strange it was being plastic in a flesh and blood world.

The audience was laughing, a little too politely it seemed to me, while me and my friends just sat there. Of course, we were more in tune with performance pieces like Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! and this Barbie performance was too far on the polite side and perhaps a little bit too subtle for our tastes. And besides, we were starting to sober up to an absurdly dangerous level. When the performance piece was over, it was time for intermission. We stood up, headed for the door and then the nearest bar; and even though I was supposed to read after the intermission, I never went back.

When I woke up the next morning I was still drunk and my head was pounding. Sometime much later that day, I finally got the energy to go outside and get something to eat. I was walking up to a bodega on Avenue A when I ran into Sparrow.

“Hey, what happened to you last night?” he asked, surprised. Sparrow wasn’t someone who seemed surprised very often. “It was your turn to read, but you were gone!”

I didn’t quite know what to say.

“Well,” I finally answered. “I guess I just got lost.”

I got lost. That was what happened—though other people might call what I did fucking up. But whatever one chooses to call it, it was what I tended to do; and, back then, I like to think that it was what I needed to do.

Naturally, I lost my job with Barbie that night; then, after mentioning Mondo Barbie in a rather disparaging way in pieces I wrote over the next two years, I tried to just forget about it. Nevertheless, I crossed paths with Barbie from time to time, even after I left New York. The first was when I somehow ended up doing the National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These were, obviously, desperate times. I’d gotten involved with the poetry scene in DC, where I moved back after leaving New York. I was drinking even more now, and oddly enough, poetry was the only thing that anyone would hire me for at the time. So, when DC poet Jeff McDaniel asked me to go to Ann Arbor as part of the DC slam team—and made sure to remind me of the possibility that we could actually win and make money—I said OK.

It was in Ann Arbor, during the opening party where hundreds of poets had gathered—a number which frightened me considerably—that the team from Worcester, Massachusetts sought me out after hearing that I was there with the DC team.

“Are you Jose Padua?” one of them asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

He then recited my poem from Mondo Barbie, after which he and two other poets from Worcester got down on their knees, raised their hands above their heads, and bowed before me several times. That they were fans because of my Barbie poem didn’t bother me the way it would have a few years earlier; and I was, in fact, amused, charmed, and perhaps even slightly proud of the compliment they’d paid to me. I’d begun to realize that, sometimes, it’s your lesser efforts that pay off the most; and that there’s nothing you can do about it, nothing you can do or perhaps even should do differently.

My next encounter with Barbie was when I discovered my poem, translated into Italian, printed in a column by an Italian journalist named Claudio Rossi Marcelli:

Barbie

Sono la Barbie
Vivo nella vostra casa di bambole
Ogni giorno mi cambiate i vestiti.
Se ce la faccio a uscire di qua
Vi ammazzo tutti.

This I liked immediately, imagining the words as spoken by an aimless, disconnected character from a Michelangelo Antonioni film. Sono la Barbie. I could hear a character repeat these words over and over, by herself, in a empty room in a silent city where there’s no one to respond to her. Then, going back to the poem in English, I found that I was actually beginning to like it. It surprised me, that now, somehow, I was ready for it; ready, finally, to accept the poem I’d written in half a minute nearly ten years ago.

But one thing I wasn’t quite prepared for was to run into Rick Peabody.

Heather and I had gotten married by then, and after an event where she read—I’d stopped writing for a while, but Heather was still active—I saw him, standing several feet away from me talking to someone else. I turned my face away, hoping he wouldn’t notice me, but then I heard someone call my name. I turned around to finally face, after some ten years, Rick Peabody.

“Jose,” he said. “I thought I recognized you. How are you doing?”

Rick greeted me warmly and cheerfully, never mentioning the reading I walked out on or the bad things I’d said about Mondo Barbie. I’d expected that if I ever ran into him again he’d be cold, snobbish, and bitter, but he was incredibly nice, which made me feel like even more of an asshole. I then had a revelation, and that was that I was the person who, for whatever unfounded reasons, had often been cold, snobbish, and bitter. And then I had yet another perhaps even more important revelation—and the revelation was that in the years I’d spent trying to forget about Mondo Barbie, one crucial thing I also forgot about was that I never actually read Mondo Barbie. Other than my poem, and the brief story Sparrow wrote, I didn’t read a single word of it. I had simply judged the book by its cover—and the color of its pages.

I continued to run into Rick Peabody from time to time. He was always friendly and gracious and never once brought up my Mondo Barbie era behavior. Maybe he’d forgotten all about it, effortlessly, while I, although doing my best to forget it, never could forget it. I’ve never asked him, and I never will, because now, finally, it seems so long ago.

Sometime after our daughter, Maggie, was born, I started writing again—just a little bit, one or two poems, a couple of music reviews. Then, after I got laid off from my day job, we sold our house in a rather affluent area of Alexandria, Virginia where we’d lived for the past few years and moved here to Front Royal, this small town about seventy miles west of DC and at least seventy years behind DC. Leaving the comfort of the suburbs, I started writing more. I even began to do readings, at first just in DC, where we’d spend the night at my Dad’s house, welcoming the time spent in a real city, then going back to our small town in the morning.

At the end of one reading where we brought Maggie, she asked, “Why did you take me to this place? I hate these poems.”

I laughed and was pleased to see that she’d inherited at least some of my attitude.

“I hate them, too,” I explained. “But this is what we have to do.”

Later, for the first reading we ever did in Front Royal, Heather used my Barbie poem on the flyer she made for the event. By then, I had no more reservations about the poem. It was, as far as I was concerned, a nice quick introduction to my work.

Looking back at everything, I saw that fucking up was my way of achieving everything I wanted—whether it was the comfort of those days when nothing was happening and nothing was possible, or that testing of fate where you tried to see just how much you could get away with and still come out on top. There were times when I found myself getting close to some kind of prize, however great or small that prize was; but if getting that prize was too easy, if getting that prize was something any asshole could do just by following some easy, well worn path, then the prize just wasn’t worth it for me. If, however, I could find some new, totally absurd path to it. Then, maybe, just maybe, it was worth pursuing.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some things I could have done differently. Certainly, I know more now and understand more about the way things work. But to go back to those days with the knowledge I have now would be cheating myself out of the adventure; it would be a taking away of the maze, the very puzzle that, for me, is the entire point of everything.

A couple of months later, Heather and I were sitting at the dining room table, after having just gotten home from dropping Maggie off at school, when the phone rang. Heather picked it up, and after a moment said, “Oh, hi, how are you?” in that tone of voice that said it was someone neither she nor I had heard from in a while. After hearing her end of the conversation for a minute, I could tell that it was Ron on the phone.

Heather had met Ron a couple of times, the last time being nearly ten years ago, which was the last time I made a trip to New York. He had called to remind us that the deadline for the Unbearables’ Worst Book I Ever Read anthology was coming up and wanted to see if we had anything we could send in for it. Then Ron gave her all the news about my old crowd, let her know how he was doing, how his kids were—in other words, answers to all the questions that would come to mind whenever the thought “I wonder how Ron is doing?” ran through my head.

After about twenty minutes Heather said, “Well great! Do you want to talk to Jose now?” I could faintly hear his voice now, saying, “No, I gotta run.” Heather said goodbye, hung up the phone, then told me everything Ron had told her. It had been maybe three years since I last had Ron on the phone, but what mattered to Ron was not that he actually spoke to you. It was the message. The news. The word. It didn’t matter how you stayed in touch, just that you did.

Heather stood up and, before heading out to do some errands, took a big gulp from a glass of water. I kissed her goodbye, then went upstairs and began to work.

-Jose Padua
————————————-
This originally appeared, in a slightly different version, as “My Last Day Job in the Unreal City,” in the anthology, The Worst Book I Ever Read, edited by Ron Kolm, Carol Wierzbicki, Alfred Vitale, Shalom Neuman, and Jim Feast; Autonomedia, 2009.

Birthing to Restore Sanity: How Jon Stewart Helped Deliver My Baby

“Your reasonableness is poisoning my fear.”

-Stephen Colbert

Hooked up to an I.V. and crisply beeping monitors, I close my eyes with each contraction so I can focus on panting and blowing. I need to get through the pain as quickly as possible without losing my cool so I can watch Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity flashing across the widescreen in front of me. Even in childbirth, I have certain priorities.

Jose, Maggie, and I are camped out at the Winchester Medical Center where I’ve been admitted to deliver my second child, a boy whom we’ve decided to name Julien. That this is really happening after all the years of infertility, the IVF treatments, and a miscarriage, is astonishing to me. It feels like we’re completing the world’s longest marathon, coming up on a finish line I thought we might never see. I am infinitely grateful.

In some ways, this birth is the culmination of our transition from DC to Front Royal and “God’s country.” It wasn’t the highly qualified specialist right outside of DC who helped us get pregnant but the reproductive endocrinologist in a tiny one-man practice in the Shenandoah Valley who gave us this gift. While the nurse checks the baby’s heart rate, I wonder if maybe we were meant to move out here after all.

In the next moment a terrifying thought occurs to me—what if Julien grows up thinking he needs to drive a monster truck to be a real man or own a collection of rifles because it is his right as an American citizen? What if he starts to believe Jesus favors the U.S. above all other nations and that the south should have won the Civil War? My motherly hackles bristle at the thought. It’s like someone just told me his pre-school teacher will be Sarah Palin.

I look at Jose, who is sitting on a doctor’s stool watching the rally and reading the New Yorker at the same time. No, I sigh with relief, that will never happen. Jose will bombard the poor kid with enough avant garde jazz, outsider music, and obscure foreign cinema to disable the neural pathways necessary for simplemindedness.

I feel another contraction coming on. Just as I close my eyes to Stewart and Colbert, Maggie lightly caresses my arm. She’s an amazing caregiver—I don’t know where she learned how to be so empathetic. Jose, thank god, is not trying to be the in-your-face spouse-coach. Instead, he wields his usual dry humor to keep me on an even keel. I can tell he’s a little tense when neither a doctor or nurse is in the room but he hides his nervousness incredibly well, keeping his cool.

While a giant vice clamps down on my uterus, I imagine taking Julien into DC as we do with Maggie, surrounding him with folks of every color, background, and persuasion as a counterpoint to the lily-white rah rah nationalism that suffuses the Valley. Maybe Julien and Maggie will change Front Royal someday, helping drag it toward a more diverse, tolerant, and worldly place, redefining “country charm.”

Or maybe they’ll run screaming to the metropolis as soon as they hit 18, cursing Jose and me the whole way for raising them in the middle of bleeping nowhere. As the contraction ends, I blow out a long breath and squeeze Maggie’s hand. If I hadn’t been about to give birth, we probably would have been cheering with a bunch of other lefties on the National Mall, waiting to see Stewart and Colbert flip the divisive language of Beck and other right wing wackos inside out, enjoying the kind of crowd we’ll never find near home. It would have been a treat.

As Colbert struts around the stage in his ridiculous puffy red, white, and blue pants, it occurs to me that raising our kids outside the left-leaning big city might be the best way to teach them about tolerance, social justice, human rights, and the dangers of consumer culture. Every Confederate flag hoisted proudly above a local restaurant is a teaching opportunity. Likewise the shop that sells Maggie’s favorite ice cream (cotton candy) but treats her Daddy like he’s an illegal. It makes Maggie mad that we won’t patronize that shop but Jose no longer has any patience for people who fear difference or are outright bigots.

We’ve taken to calling this establishment the “evil ice cream shop” just as we call the right-wing bookstore here the “evil book store.” We might say to one another, “Hey, have you seen that big display for Beck’s book at the evil bookstore?” Or “Let’s go order all of Chris Hedges’ books through the evil bookstore.” Maybe evil is a bit strong but when it comes to life in a small town, it’s pretty easy to tell where your neighbors stand and why.

Jose and I laugh at Colbert as he puts on a look even dumber than his usual dumb guy expression. Maggie has seen his TV show only once but the slapstick and exaggeration, the ridiculousness of Colbert’s character, cracked her up. Right now, 15 hours into this labor, I’m so grateful for his silly humor. I’m also wondering how much longer the pain is going to go on and if we’ll need a c-section to get this kid out into the world. Like any mother, I just want him to be delivered safely. I’ve spent far too many hours in the last nine months worrying about miscarriage and stillbirth, only half-convinced we could have another healthy child. Now we’re down to the wire and I need it to be over.

Maggie watches the rally along with us without even asking for Teen Nick or the Disney channel. We’ve explained why the rally is supposed to be an answer to Beck, Limbaugh, and the Tea Party, the bad guys she calls “big stinky poops.” Since our arrival in Front Royal three years ago, the stinky poops and their racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic attitudes have gotten more and more popular. If I had a dollar for every nasty anti-Obama bumper sticker I see here, I’d fall neatly into the top tax bracket (and we thought things would get better after Obama was elected).

As Stewart introduces the musical guests, the contractions start to get worse. It’s taking all of my concentration to get through them. I’m panting and blowing like a carnival sideshow. I’ve made sure the doctor and nurses know I want an epidural because at 43 years of age I’m completely over any notion of natural childbirth. The nurse comes in and tells me that my platelet count is high enough for an epidural and that the angel of anesthesia is coming but has not made it up to this floor yet. I’m ecstatic and can’t wait to meet him.

Until he waltzes into my room, I’ll have to keep breathing and visualizing. To get through the contractions, which are utterly merciless but not very productive, I imagine one of two things—skiing down a long cool snowy slope or watching my cervix unfold like a flower while it emits some kind of powerful magic light. That last one is a bit Deepak Chopra but I don’t really have the time or energy to screen the positive visualizations that pop into my head.

Unfortunately, imagining my cervix opening does not help my cervix open in reality. It’s been stuck at five centimeters for hours. The contractions I’ve been blowing through so carefully are completely useless. All the women I talked to who said second births go quickly were lying and I hate them. Not that I thought for a minute this time around would be easy—I had a feeling Julien would take his time.

Maybe I could speed things along if I visualized European countries opening their arms wide to immigrants rather than growing increasingly anti-immigrant. Or perhaps I should imagine an Arizona where Jose and his family wouldn’t need to carry passports to prove their citizenship. I could meditate on a Democratic party that has some teeth or on a national culture unchained from corporate interests. Maybe I should try really hard to envision world peace.

My mind bumps up against these big ideas but the only image I can really focus on is that goofy light-filled flower—I must have watched too many pre-natal yoga DVDs. I have heard that some women in labor just grit their teeth and hold on for dear life like my Aunt Rose from New Jersey. “Just grab something and squeeze,” she said. But that’s too straightforward for me—I need to create something in my head.

As I am realizing this, Jon Stewart announces the arrival of Yusef Islam, better known as Cat Stevens. I let out a little yelp of glee. I adore his voice. When he starts to sing “Peace Train,” I lose it and start blubbering, although as quietly as possible. I don’t even want Jose to see me. Mr. Islam is weirdly in tune with me and this birth: isn’t peace what every parent wants for his or her child, no matter what country they’re in or what religion they practice? Why is it so hard to attain? What kind of world is Julien entering? How can Mr. Islam’s words seem so profound when I haven’t smoked pot in years?

I’m rescued from further embarrassing myself by the arrival of Ozzy Osbourne on the stage. He is called out by Colbert and a musical battle begins, all very tongue in cheek. “Wow, Ozzy looks great,” I say to Jose. I’m saved a second time when the anesthesiologist arrives with his happy cart. He’s wearing a badge with a photo of three kids on it. He tells me his wife is pregnant with number four. I’m too shy to ask him if she gets epidurals.

In about 15 minutes, those sweet sweet drugs are flowing and I start to relax just in time for the arrival of Jose’s 94 year-old father and two bachelor brothers. They’ve driven from DC to support us and I can’t wait for Lolo (Tagalog for grandfather) to meet his grandson. Lolo was very happy to hear we were having a boy.

When my blood pressure suddenly drops and I start to feel woozy, the nurse has me breathe into an oxygen mask and gives me a shot of ephedrine. Next up, my beautiful and perky ob/gyn, who looks like Ashley Green from the Twilight movies, comes in to break my water—that might help get things moving. She’ll be back in an hour to check on me.

Until then I read the novel I’ve brought—and am hooked on—about a dystopian future where the government grows clones for their organs. The clones are regular human beings but are treated like property and denied any rights. What’s creepy about the scenario is how easily society accepts this arrangement. It makes me think about the poor in this country, people without healthcare, who might actually be willing to sell their organs to make ends meet. The Tea Party would probably back that policy as good old Main Street entrepreneurism.

After an hour, my cervix is still not dilating so my ob/gyn puts me on pitocin. I’ve heard so many horror stories about this drug. The only time through all of her eight deliveries that my mother screamed was during the one that involved pitocin. I cross my fingers and hope that the epidural will buffer any unwelcome sensations.

The Rally is over and we’re back to iCarly, which I have to admit I kind of enjoy. Maggie’s starting to look a little bored now that she is over the fright of seeing my face covered by an oxygen mask. Jose’s brothers and Dad leave to go have dinner. I sleep on and off until a nasty ache in the right side of my behind drags me into full consciousness. Hmm. Interesting. I’ve read about epidurals wearing off on one side or another and this has got to be what is happening to me.

I try to relieve the intense pressure by adjusting my position, but it hurts to move. As soon as the nurse comes in, I tell her what’s going on and she explains that I can boost the epidural every 15 minutes by pushing a little button. I’m on that thing with dedication, watching the clock like a fanatic.

A few hours later, around 8 pm, just as I am wondering if I will need a c-section, the doc says my cervix is finally starting to open. Jose’s relatives have gone back to our house and the sky is dark. Maggie lies curled up on the pull out bed. I’m still pushing my button but now am also gripping the bed rail. Jose touches my arm every now and then. He does this very carefully in case I react badly and try to punch him. So far he’s avoided any bruises—he’s a brave and wise man.

I can feel the contractions as they roll through me like sentient waves bent on bringing new life into the room. I’m so glad for them but the pressure of the baby’s head moving down the birth canal is tremendous, like a bulldozer—I can’t imagine what it would feel like without an epidural.

This time my coping mechanism is a rap song—“Peace Train” ain’t cuttin’ it. The song is one I’ve made up and repeat in my head, chanting as the pressure increases. The words are simple but the rhythm gives me something to hold onto—it goes, “I’m gonna push, push, push you out. I’m gonna pushpushpush you out.” It’s definitely not a Grammy winner but works for me. In my mind I’m also doing a little hip-hop dance with each chorus.

When I finally get to nine centimeters just after midnight, I tell Jose to wake up Maggie so she doesn’t miss anything. I know she wants to see her little brother arrive. I can feel a boulder right down there amidst the private parts and the plumbing—and it really really needs to come out now. As soon as Ashley Green/my doc pops into the room, I tell her as politely as I can, “I think I need to push.”

She checks and before I know it she and the nurses have my legs up in the leg rests. Maneuvering is incredibly difficult and I don’t know how I manage to assume the position. I understand all that stuff about the advantages of being vertical and squatting in a field somewhere to give birth but it’s too late for that. I’m just thrilled that this is really happening and Julien is ready for his debut.

I’m a little worried about how long I may need to push but everything is moving so quickly now, I don’t have time to be anxious. I realize I’m making some sort of half-squeal/half-whine as I push—it really helps to be loud. In fact, as I open my legs wider and push and squeeze with everything I’ve got, I feel completely open to the world, like I can take on anything and Julien can too. The doc says I’m pushing great and just need one more. I bear down as hard as I can and see his body slide out into the doc’s hands—he has beautiful, thick dark hair. Jose is there at my side and Maggie is watching from a safe distance. I’m aware of them but totally focused on the baby, feeling the adrenaline and an amazing, electric euphoria.

They whisk Julien away to suction out the meconium and get him checked—his cries sound like perfect music. I can’t wait to hold him and for Jose and Maggie to hold him. This new child belongs to all of us. He is the most sane thing we could have done in crazy times—I can see that now.

I’m so grateful to the fantastic doctors and nurses who have helped us, so grateful that Jose and I have jobs and healthcare. I wish that for everyone. I also want to write a thank you note to Stewart and Colbert for the rockin’ labor entertainment and their message.

For the moment, I’m not worried about this world and where it’s going, about the ugly Fox News pundits, the greedy corporate leaders, the blood-thirsty hawks, the small-minded small town bigots. The left may not be as vocal or as visible as it should be but it is out there, using reason, seeking equilibrium and fairness, and it has just grown by one. Somehow, together, we’ll find a path away from fear.

-Heather Davis

A Life of Uncontrollable Urges (or Tourette’s and the Writing Life)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, as I pushed a cart in the aisle between the checkout counters and the racks of men’s shirts at Walmart, the song that went though my head was Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets.” Even though I was in Walmart—a store that Heather and I usually try to avoid at all costs (i.e., despite whatever savings may be available there)—that moment of rolling the shopping cart through the gauntlet of cashiers and racks of men’s casual wear was nothing short of beautiful. That I would feel so calm at the Front Royal Walmart—which to me normally felt like some strange planet where at any moment I might find myself surrounded by hideous lizard-like creatures who want to eat me (or, worse, mate with me)—was, somehow, moving. And as I calmly pushed the cart through the store while trying to find where Heather and Maggie had gone—a task which would usually make me quite tense and agitated—I felt what can only be described as a sense of triumph. The song, of course, had a lot to do with it.

Something I’ve discovered is that some of the most annoying, unpleasant, and sometimes even horrible moments of one’s life—or at any rate, my life—can be transformed by the soundtrack I have playing in my head. Just a day earlier I was driving on Commerce Avenue, on the way home after dropping Maggie and Heather off at a birthday party at the city pool. In the distance I noticed a crowd of people had gathered outside the town’s government center, a dreary box of a building around which I never seemed to see much of anything going on. As I drove closer I saw that it was a demonstration by the Front Royal Tea Party. Reading their signs—with messages like No Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants and, simply, Stop Illegals, I found myself, all of a sudden, surprised. And what surprised me was that, when I was close enough to read their signs and for them to see me, I did not give them the finger.

I am not the most polite person in the world—I gladly give in to the urge to say things that are overly blunt, inappropriate or which simply cross the line from tongue-biting politeness into overt hostility. What’s more, I enjoy it. This time, upon seeing the Tea Party in person after having only seen them on television or on clips from YouTube, I was very much in the midst of a situation where my gut reaction would have been to give them the finger. But at that moment I was playing Parliament’s “Bop Gun (Endangered Species)”—a song which always makes me feel empowered, alert, and less vulnerable:

Turn me loose
We shall overcome
Where did you get that funk from, huh?

With P-Funk playing in my car I also felt, despite the presence of the Tea Party goons, as if I were somewhere other than Front Royal. And, whenever I’m somewhere other than Front Royal, I usually feel pretty good.

But music, for me, isn’t just something that heightens my mood. Music is also something that, when it engages me to a sufficient degree, keeps away those urges that are part of my Tourette’s syndrome—the urge to grimace as if I’m about to scream, to make grunting or squealing noises with my throat, or to hit my leg with my hand or with my elbow. It’s a way of existing that might be described as dreamlike—in particular, those dreams where you’re trying to get away from some bad guy, or trying to lock the door, but you can’t, because your movement has been slowed down and your legs and arms, even though they’re moving, aren’t moving you ahead or pushing the door shut. With Tourette’s, what slows you down is that there are so many movements that you feel compelled or forced to make before you’re able to make the movement you want to make. And with me, it’s always the more mundane activities that get interrupted by a series of Tourette’s tics—brushing my teeth, washing the dishes after dinner, and cleaning the cat’s litter box are invariably interrupted by the urge to bang my elbow against my side or to grunt several times in a row or to look up at the ceiling and make the face of someone screaming at the absurdity of the cosmos. Sometimes even walking up the stairs gets interrupted by Tourette’s, with me having to repeat those first few steps—until it feels right, until I’ve got the right thoughts in my head—before I can proceed all the way to the top of the stairs.

Compared to some people with Tourette’s, though, my tics are nothing spectacular. Certainly I’m not in the league of a surgeon Oliver Sacks wrote about in the New Yorker a number of years ago whose Tourette’s drove him to, among other things, regularly lunge at the ground or touch people with the heel of his foot. When the surgeon was overcome by moments of rage (another common symptom of Tourette’s) he’d throw pots and pans in his kitchen or throw punches—the many dents in his refrigerator and holes in the walls of his house were reminders of those episodes. Luckily, for me, those moments of rage don’t carry with them the urge to fling objects or hit walls, and are expressed in a relatively polite fashion by simply screaming FUCK so loudly it feels like my throat is being ripped apart.

As for other common vocal manifestations of Tourette’s, I don’t exhibit echolalia (the automatic repeating of another person’s words) or coprolalia (the frequent and involuntary use of swear words or other obscene language) which are perhaps the most well known symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. Or, at any rate, they happen with me very rarely. In the last five years the only thing I remember doing is when a man at the subway station in Alexandria was carrying several bags of groceries as he rushed to catch his connecting bus. When he said, “Excuse me,” as he tried to get around me to make a path to his bus I said in response, without anger or irritation—and, certainly, without any reason—“Fuck you.”

He was, as one might expect, furious, and began screaming at me. If he hadn’t been in a hurry with his groceries, he may very well have tried to punch me. (It always amuses me to consider that if something like this had happened in my wilder days, when I had been, say, incredibly drunk or tripping on acid, I probably would have thought, “Oh, wow, he’s got Tourette’s too.”) This sort of thing happens rarely with me—I’m just about always able to keep the inappropriate words that pop into my head in my head, without them being spoken. Still, I am disturbed that one day, here in the valley, that control may slip, however briefly, and I may find myself crossing paths with a man getting out of his pickup truck on which he proudly displays the Confederate flag and a half dozen pro-gun bumper stickers. Invariably, on seeing one of these gun-loving supporters of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, one obscenity or another will be going through my head (though in cases like this it isn’t necessarily Tourette’s that’s bringing these words to mind). And though the chances are small, there still is a chance, that one day my control will slip at exactly the wrong moment and, as I’m passing by this man I’ll declare, “The Confederacy lost, bitch” or “I fucked your mother yesterday” or “Nice tits!”

And it could happen, because since moving here to the Valley, away from the city in a place where the pace of life is slower, my Tourette’s symptoms have gotten markedly worse.

As with most Touretters, my symptoms first started when I was around nine or ten. What was probably my first real Tourette’s incident of note—of course I didn’t realize this until decades later—occurred when I was sitting with my mother outside church one pleasant autumn evening as we waited for my older brother, Tony, who was at choir practice. My mother had been speaking to one of the other parents—an older woman, Mrs. Blaine—whose son was also at choir practice. She was a nice woman, but also perhaps one of the parents I saw as being vulnerable or weak. Mrs. Blaine and my mother were casually making small talk when I suddenly, for no apparent reason, spat on Mrs. Blaine.

Needless to say, I was in trouble, and in those days when spanking was still the norm, spitting on another parent in your mother’s presence was definitely the sort of transgression that would get you spanked. My mother and father had no idea what was going on with me—and, of course, neither did I. Mrs. Blaine was an unassuming, unthreatening person who, as far as I knew, had never done anything that would make her worthy of being on the receiving end of my apparent expression of contempt. I wondered if, maybe, I was just a little bit nuts—“nuts” being the sort of word I used back then, whereas, if I were going through this for the first time today, the words that would be going through my head would be, “Man, I must be fucked up.”

That what was going on with me was either a disease or a disorder was beyond me—and pretty much everyone else as well. Back then, in the sixties and seventies, there weren’t even many doctors who knew anything about it. At home, my parents and my brothers just thought of it as my generic nerve disorder—and, luckily, spitting on people didn’t become a regular tic (or at any rate, it was a tic I was able to control).

When my Tourette’s first developed, the tics I exhibited most often were a widening of my eyes (the sort of expression one makes when one is incredulous or thinking what the fuck?), frequent blinking, and the incessant shrugging of my shoulders. Up until seventh grade, my tics didn’t really create any problems for me in school. One friend of mine simply wondered, “Why are you doing that with your eyes? It makes you look like a retard.” But when the school I’d been attending closed and I had to switch to another one for eighth grade, it was a different story. Because at my old school my symptoms appeared gradually, getting slightly more pronounced over the course of a few years, they weren’t shocked or surprised by them. At my new school, with me being the weird new kid who’d just transferred there, I soon found myself being mocked by about half of class. Whenever Sister Conrad had her back to the class while she wrote on the blackboard, one or another of my classmates would look at me and start blinking and rapidly shrugging their shoulders. Not surprisingly, I was a lot different then from the way I am now, and instead of smacking them or telling them to fuck off as I would today in response to some sort of affront, I just remained quiet or looked away, feeling pretty much helpless.

What helped me get through this was that it didn’t take me long to demonstrate that I was smarter than any of the goons who were making fun of me. And back then—or, at any rate, in that particular classroom—you could still gain the respect of the goons when you showed them that you knew your shit (I’m not so sure that this is still the case in many places in America today). Which meant that knowing all the answers to the questions my teacher would ask in class and subsequently winning an academic scholarship to high school helped. But still, in those days, I wouldn’t have minded being just a normal fucking kid. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have minded if I were just a regular fucking goon, because when you’re a kid perhaps the most realistic dream you can have is for things to become just a little bit easier. And, as is usually the case with these things, it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned to appreciate being a misfit weirdo.

So I moved ahead, with my Tourette’s, shrugging my shoulders and blinking my way through the first few years of high school. Then, after my junior year, I won a National Science Foundation grant for a summer program studying chemistry at the University of Georgia. It was there in Athens, Georgia, where one night the girl I’d started hanging out with introduced me—after we’d gone to a showing of Citizen Kane on campus (she was obsessed with Orson Welles)—to cigarettes.

For me, at least for a little while, smoking was good. Because for people with Tourette’s, one thing that often seems to help (and doesn’t turn you into a zombie like the drugs doctors prescribe) are cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes, I felt pretty fucking good—and not because I suddenly felt I was cool. I didn’t know it at the time, but smoking helped me feel a little more stable, like someone who could get shit done.

Even though I don’t smoke anymore and can’t stand to be around them now, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without cigarettes. Obviously, I’d be healthier now than if I’d never smoked, but there was something about cigarettes—about nicotine, about breathing smoke in and out and watching it disappear like a ghost into the far corners of a room—that helped me focus and give shape to what was going on in my head.

Indeed, when I had my first cigarette was when, for all purposes, I became a writer. Up until then everything I was studying was leading me toward some sort of career in the sciences. Well, okay, there was also time spent reading, on my own, everything from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But until my first cigarette, working in the sciences was the only thing that seemed practical—which isn’t to say that I thought becoming a writer was practical. Still, during my senior year in high school I applied to go to college at Cal Tech, which accepted me and offered me a full scholarship. But, since I had resolved to pursue the less practical course, I turned Cal Tech—and the full scholarship—down.

As if it weren’t enough to turn down Cal Tech—and the power a degree from there might have to make my resume rise like smoke to the top of a pile—the kind of writer I wanted to be was the kind that had the least potential for making money. Yeah, I wanted to write poetry. “Christ,” I thought after writing Cal Tech to turn down their offer, “I must be crazy. Or an asshole.”

Since I didn’t want to teach, being a poet meant that I’d have to find another way to make a living. I didn’t have too hard a time finding a job, and eventually ended up at the Library of Congress, where one supervisor admitted that when he interviewed me, he noticed my tics, and thought I was fucked up. Somehow, I still ended up with the job.

And so I wrote my poems. And eventually started to get my work published. And eventually started doing readings. And eventually came to be known—because of the way I presented my poems at a reading—as a performer. And all it took for me to be labeled a “performance poet” was to be totally drunk when I read. So, while some poets memorized their poems, rehearsed, and experimented with different ways of reading their lines, I wasn’t about to do any of that shit. Instead, before any reading, I saw to it that I had more than a decent number of drinks in me. And, for me, it worked.

And all that time, through the rest of the 80s and all through the 90s, I continued to smoke. And drink, which, very conveniently, also seemed to help with my Tourette’s. I smoked and drank at a pretty high level for a little over a quarter of a century. But when it was time for Heather and me to start getting ready to have kids, smoking seemed like something that I had to, at last, be done with, and in October of 2000 I went cold turkey and quit. As for the heavy drinking and hanging out at bars and all that, I just slowly lost interest in it.

Heather and I had moved to Old Town Alexandria by then and, after several years without steady work, I now had a full time job. By then, I’d also pretty much stopped writing poetry, as I was now mostly working on a novel I’d started when I was living in New York (and which I still haven’t finished). I was living, more or less, a pretty typical existence.

It didn’t happen right away—I must have had spare nicotine stored away somewhere in my body—but my Tourette’s tics gradually became harder for me to control again. For twenty-five years I didn’t really have to think about it much. But now it was starting to bother me again. I was finding it harder and harder to be in public and control my tics. Just sitting down at a goddamn Starbucks, I’d look like someone who’d had way too much coffee even before I’d had my first sip; and going to the movies while trying but failing to completely suppress my tics just wasn’t the most relaxing way to spend a Friday evening anymore.

So, for the second time in my life, I went to see a neurologist about my Tourette’s. The first time had been some twenty years ago. My symptoms weren’t that bad at that point, but I was curious about what was going on with me. This first doctor was young—he was also, I thought, kind of a pompous dick. He performed a number of expensive tests on me, after which he said, sitting smugly on the other side of his massive desk, “I don’t see anything wrong with you.” When I asked for him to consider that I may have Tourette’s, he simply said that there were “other symptoms.” As it turned out, I knew more about Tourette’s than he did, that the battery of tics and twitches varies from person to person, that not all Tourette’s suffers present coprolalia or echolalia.

The second time I saw a doctor about my Tourette’s went much better. This doctor was an expert on Tourette’s—plus, he suffered from it himself. He was kind of blunt and when he spoke he mumbled; now and then he’d simply grunt in response to something I was saying. But he really knew his shit—and right away, he was able to confirm that, yes, I did indeed have Tourette’s. And, since my symptoms had become much more pronounced again, I was ready to try whatever he could prescribe that might help suppress my tics. But the first thing he prescribed didn’t seem to have any affect at all and the second medicine he tried almost made me feel like I was tripping, and, after trying to drive one time while on this medication, I decided that this wasn’t going to work either. When I asked him what else might work, he said that unfortunately that was it. There was one group of medications that was usually more effective, but I would probably feel even more whacked out on them. Then the other group of meds he could try would be dangerous to use because of my heart condition. Which meant that, like a lot of other Tourette’s patients, I would just have to live with it.

So I did, and as it got worse since moving here to the valley, I stopped fighting it to a certain extent. Because although I prefer making a spectacle of myself by reading my work to an audience rather than by sitting at a coffee shop and making weird jerking movements and odd noises, there was one good thing about Tourette’s—and that’s what it does to my mind. I’m not talking about those moments of rage, of course—those aren’t pleasant for me or for anyone else. That Heather and Maggie are able to live with it—early on Maggie discovered, as she put it, that “Daddy is noisy”—is something for which I’m infinitely thankful.

No, what I’m positive Tourette’s has done for my mind is to free it. Because since it’s gotten worse, I’ve found it easier for me to write, and one of the reasons that it’s become easier to write is that there really isn’t much stopping my thoughts from going in any number of directions. And a lot of times the thoughts that come to mind are completely inappropriate for the situation or else are totally unrelated to whatever I’m doing at the time. For me, as a writer and as a poet, that’s a good thing.

An example of this occurred when Heather, Maggie, and I made our first trip up the valley to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. I was middle of my first big bout of depression here, and making trips out of Front Royal, I discovered, helped immeasurably in lifting myself out of my depression. After walking around Berkeley Springs for a bit we found the Ice House arts center there, and, while looking at an exhibit of some beautifully handcrafted papers, these words popped into my head:

“When I moved to New York I got a job with Nice Titties/Show Us Your Cock magazine.”

I had, of course, lived in New York, and I did actually have a few paying jobs there. But, there never was—as far as I know—a magazine called Nice Titties/Show Your Cock, and I certainly never worked for such a magazine.

But that’s the way my mind works at times, and I’ve always taken this to be some kind of internalized coprolalia—which is to say that while the inappropriate, obscene words do unexpectedly go through my mind, they aren’t often accompanied by the uncontrollable urge to say them out loud. I may, at the very least, have what one might describe as a coprolaic mind. And, if this is indeed part of my Tourette’s, it’s the part I wouldn’t want to do without.

So, as we walked through the exhibit, and looked at the post cards and trinkets at the Ice House gift shop, I continued to go with my odd thoughts to compose a poem in my head. Except for an actual quote that I dug up later from the New York Times, I composed the entire poem in my head in about ten minutes:

Flesh and Memory

When I moved to New York I got a job with Nice Titties/Show
Us Your Cock
magazine. We were the competition and I wrote
the captions. Whenever the Village Voice used the phrase “post-
modern urban griot deconstruction” I added the words “Nice titties!”

beneath the photo of a b-movie actress wearing a low-cut blouse.
Whenever the New York Times said “Mr. Pynchon improvises
like a jazz musician” I typed in “Show us your cock!” beneath the
shot of a man wearing tight boxer briefs. Life was good. But when

the 21st Century arrived things changed. “Dick” was the new “cock”
and “titties” could never be referred to by the same word twice in an
issue. It was too much to take, so I left the magazine, which folded
three years later, and finally I left town. Whenever someone asks

me what it was like I tell them that it’s something I’ll never forget.
And whenever they show me photographs of their kids I just nod.

But it’s not always dirty words that pop into my head. Another time Heather and I were putting Maggie to bed when the words “When I was a kiss and the world was an elephant I didn’t want to touch because if it didn’t like me it might crush me, I’d bend over forwards or backwards and twist as if I were dancing but I wasn’t dancing.”

After Maggie fell asleep I walked down the hall to our office and finished the poem in another ten minutes:

When I Was a Kiss

When I was a kiss and the world was an
elephant I didn’t want to touch because
if it didn’t like me it might crush me,
I’d bend over forwards or backwards and

twist as if I were dancing but I wasn’t
dancing: I was stepping away from the
flames and jumping over sinkholes that
opened in the street or just listening to

Side B of a 45 before Side A because
one way to do battle when I was young
was to know what other people didn’t know
was right under their noses. Sometimes that

meant knowing something they’d never know,
which was sort of like tying the elephant’s trunk
in a knot and laughing, then walking away
until the elephant starts to miss you.

When I lived in the city, usurped by the
dulled sheen of a road that’s been stepped
upon too many times, I still knew which way
to go, and I went there to follow, only, you.

Since coming to the valley I’ve written enough to fill three books of poetry. I’ve been sending out two of the manuscripts I’ve compiled and have been a finalist or runner-up for several decent poetry awards. I suppose there are things I could do to my work to up my chances, to make my work a little less idiosyncratic so that it will appeal to a wider range of judges, but I’m not about to do that. I’m not interested in widening my audience. I don’t want to be liked by everyone. Growing up with Tourette’s, you get over the desire to please everyone pretty fucking early in life.

And so in the course of three years here in the valley I’ve followed these odd paths my thoughts have taken. And between the episodes of rage and those moments when my mind is overcome with irrational terror—those times when I’m sure some horrible thing can or will happen to me or my family—between those times I find some odd sort of coherence or wisdom, even. It’s not easy, because it feels, sometimes, like I’m repeatedly having to tear down then rebuild my concept of the world and how it works and where I fit into all of it.

But then, since I was very young, I’ve felt that life and existence were Sisyphean in nature, that you could never actually be something. And so, as far as being normal or stable or even just calm goes, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that those are things I can only approach, because once I think I’ve gotten there I have to start all over again.

As for those moments of rage, it’s hard to know how much is simply disposition or attitude, or where actual anger ends and physical disorder begins. There are times, as far as I’m concerned, where it is appropriate to insult someone. There are a lot of people who need to have the words Fuck You directed toward them on a regular basis. In fact, there seem to be more and more of them every day. And I see them, in the distance, as I approach them, unable to do anything but approach them as my mind fills with words I can’t control. Because, in the end, I really have no say in the matter—and I have no choice. It’s what I have to do.

-Jose Padua

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Why Drunken Poets Need to Procreate

If it were somehow obligatory that I sum up my existence with a single sentence—or perhaps with just a phrase and a simple image—I’d be at a loss. I would, in fact, feel quite helpless, as if I were trapped in some horrible, unending game. Either that or incredibly annoyed and angry. I remember one time when, through a job I had, I was given the opportunity to take the Myers-Briggs psychometric questionnaire to determine exactly which of sixteen personality types I had. I, without a second thought, opted out of that opportunity. In other words, my attitude toward the whole undertaking was, Myers-Briggs? Fuck that shit.

I suppose that one can do worse than the Myers-Briggs test, but how people can voluntarily reduce themselves to simple slogans is beyond me, which is why I refuse to wear a tee-shirt that has any kind of message on it, even if it’s something I basically agree with. But one thing even worse than that—something I’d never seen much of before we’d moved to Front Royal—was the use of the rear windshield of one’s car or truck as a means of conveying some cheap tee shirt sized message. Unlike the bumper of a car, the rear windshield, like one’s chest, is a much more prominent place for a message. Until Front Royal, the only thing I’d seen on a back window with any frequency were decals indicating a driver’s alumni status or allegiance with a particular university or high school. But in Front Royal I started seeing decals of a lot of other things, one of which is a drawing of a boy peeing. At the receiving end of the pronounced arc of the boy’s urine is whatever the car’s owner wants you to know he hates. If the decal is on the back of a Ford pickup truck, you’ll find the word “Chevy” or “Toyota” at the end of the rainbow of piss. Some drivers, of course, want to express something more than brand loyalty, in which case you’ll see words like “Liberals” or “Bin Laden.”

It was a while before I discovered that the boy in the decals is an appropriated image of “Calvin” from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (aside from the work of people like Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, and the late Harvey Pekar, I don’t know much about comics). So far, I’ve yet to see the peeing Calvin used to express any progressive ideas, which certainly doesn’t mean that I’m the only progressive “type” who thinks in these piss-on-you terms. It’s just that if you’re being tailgated by some asshole driving a massive pickup truck with a confederate flag painted on the roof of the cab and a gun rack behind him, you don’t want to have a decal of the peeing Calvin on your rear windshield and the letters “NRA” at the receiving end of his piss stream.

But what I see even more often than the peeing Calvin is something a little different—the rear windshield memorial. The message always begins “In Loving Memory of…” followed by the loved one’s name: “Bob S____,” “Judy R____,” “Jimmy F___.” Accompanying the text is usually an image indicating something that was a passion of the deceased: a baseball, a fishing rod, a deer, a motorcycle—though I imagine that a motorcycle could also indicate that a particular person died in a motorcycle accident. Other times, the text is just accompanied by a simple heart shape.

Time and again these displays will catch my eye when I’m waiting at a light here. And, upon reading these mobile epitaphs, I start to wonder what the whole story was. But then they go, the drivers of these vehicles, stepping on the gas, taking the memory of their deceased loved ones further down the road—to the supermarket, up the mountain, to work, toward their favorite vacation spots.

Granted, the rear windshield decal is aiming at the sort of thing I do when I write a poem, a story, an essay, but because what I do is displayed on a page or computer monitor, I have room to present some very important details—and present an actual argument and some background. And, of course, I can write for the purpose of keeping someone’s memory alive, or to create my own legacy. Although the means to create some lasting record of my life and my loved ones lives was not what made me become a writer, that is one of the benefits. Another benefit is that—regardless of your belief or lack thereof in some sort of afterlife or anything of that nature—it’s a means of achieving some sort of immortality in that part of you remains in the world so that your presence here continues. That’s also one reason why some people are driven to have children—that through one’s offspring one’s presence in the world continues.

Somehow, even during my drinking days, people knew that my long-term plans included having children. I don’t know how they knew—I doubt that anyone could have come to that conclusion by considering the way I was living at the time, drinking most days from happy hour until two in the morning or later, then writing until an hour or two past dawn—and I don’t remember ever specifically saying that I wanted to have kids. Though of course it may have slipped during some drunken conversation at five in the morning, on the way back to my apartment after hanging out as some bar well after last call—at the end of one of those nights when I never did get around to writing—with me saying something like, “Christ, I can hardly walk.” And my friend advising, “Maybe you better just get a cab.” And me answering with, “Yeah, maybe I better. Because, you know, I’d like to have kids one day.”

It could have happened that way. Even now that I hardly drink, I am a firm believer that with heavy drinking, anything is possible. Of course what’s possible aren’t always good things, but when I was a drinker I was never one of those the-glass-is-half-empty kinds of drinkers—for me, my thirst was a positive thing—and it was usually during a good drinking session that I’d dream my version of the American Dream, a big part of which was procreating and foisting my brilliant, wise-ass children on an unsuspecting public.

Anyone whom I was really close to understood this—whether or not they agreed with the idea of me (or sometimes anyone) having children—and knew that these crazy days in New York were, for me, just a way to make the time until then pass more quickly. Even when I was sitting in one or another smoke-filled barroom, drinking beer after beer and bourbon after bourbon, or doing one drunken poetry reading after another, with every sip I took between drags from a cigarette I was trying to walk away from that scene. And find someone who wanted to walk away from it with me. Because I have always been, like many a hardened cynic—for better or for worse—a fucking romantic.

Being a romantic, those loud voices out on the street below me at seven or eight in the morning when I’d finally be getting to sleep, were never some horrible noise. They were atmosphere, a manifestation of the authenticity of the whole experience. Sometimes there were surprises, like once when I thought I’d heard an angry mob approaching, it was just two guys talking loudly—probably while coked up—about some boxing match. The rest of the time it was just the people leaving Save the Robots, the after hours club that was just down the block, or someone shouting from the street (my apartment building had no buzzer) to the couple who lived in the apartment below me: “Shamir? Shamir! SHAMIR! LINDA? SHAAAMIIIIIIIIR!”

In the apartment next to mine was Anna, a woman in her fifties who lived in a tiny apartment the size of mine with, at various times, two or three or four of her children and grandchildren. She complained regularly about all the “junkie people” in the building and wished more of her neighbors were like me, because the worst I would do would be to have the stereo on too loud once in a while—no selling drugs, no shooting up in the hallway, no peeing in the foyer (well, anyway I don’t remember having ever peed in the foyer).

I didn’t have many visitors. Usually I would go my friends’ apartments, because mine was pretty small. Plus, most of the time, when you wanted to hang out, you didn’t do it at someone’s home—you went somewhere. Home was usually just a place for sleep and other private activities. For anything else there was the city, New York, where whatever you were and whatever you wanted, there was a place for you—depending on what you could afford, with some pastimes, of course, being more expensive than others.

My landlord, Bob, probably thought I was some kind of hermit. Being out in the world and being with people was, somehow, something he was concerned with—or at any rate he knew that in finding prospective tenants, it was good to be able to tell them all the great things that were practically around the corner. So, when I first met him to look at the apartment, he went on about all the nightclubs, bars, or performance spaces that were nearby.

“You got The World, you got your Save the Robots, you got The Gas Station…” His list, which he presented between drags of his cigarette, went on and on. “And then just up the road you got your King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, your Downtown Beirut, your Dan’s…” Bob, of course, wasn’t the sort of person you’d see in any of these hip (and sometimes annoyingly hip) places. He even had a recommendation on where to go for that coming back home at eight in the morning from partying breakfast. “You need your breakfast, you got Lily’s! You can get your eggs, your sausage, your hash browns, your toast…”

One time, he was standing outside the flower shop he ran on the ground floor of his building, when he saw my friend Raquel, who had come by to drop off a book for me. After finding out she was there to see me in apartment 4A, he let her in the building. Later, when I saw him he said, “Hey, I see you had a visitor.” He paused for a moment, as if he were waiting for me to start with some details “That’s good,” he proclaimed. “You know, companionship.” He seemed surprised and even happy that I had a visitor—or maybe he was just pleased that it wasn’t someone entering his building for some sort of drug deal. Nevertheless, I don’t imagine that he was one of the people in New York who had figured out that having children was in my future.

New York isn’t everyone’s idea of the ideal place to raise your kids, but for me it was exactly that. Not too many of my friends in New York had kids, but for those who did, living in New York seemed to suit them just fine. One of my friends even regularly brought his infant daughter with him to readings and even to some of the gatherings we had at various dive bars.

Although I didn’t picture myself bringing my infant child to dive bars, New York was definitely where I imagined I’d be raising my kids when the time came for me to start a family. Trying to put an infant to bed while outside someone starts yelling, “Shamir? Shamir? SHAMIR? LINDA? SHAMIIIIIRRRR?” did not, to me, seem like a problem. But, after a few years, with me having gone broke and my mother being ill back in DC, staying in New York didn’t seem possible anymore. The day before I moved my things out of my apartment in New York, with help with my friend Eddie Dean who’d come up from DC, I told Bob that I was leaving. I owed him a couple of months rent, but said he could keep my security deposit—and that was all fine with him. He even said that if I ever came back to New York to come back to see if he had any apartments available again.

I never did make it back. And on my last night as a New York City resident, I got drunk with Eddie at a going-away party at my friend Michael Randall’s apartment. The next day, hung-over, I rode shot-gun in a rented U-Haul truck as Eddie, squinting one eye shut because he’d lost a contact lens, drove us back to DC. After being in New York for several years and never driving there I felt a little rusty, and even though he was using just one eye to guide us out of Manhattan, I thought it would be safer if Eddie drove. Surprisingly enough, we made it home without any problems.

About a year later, in DC, Eddie’s daughter was born. I, however, wasn’t even close to reaching that point in my own life. I was still in DC—and I still thought that New York was where I’d be starting my own family with either someone I already knew there or with someone I’d meet when I returned. I wouldn’t be quite the same person I was when I left, of course—after all, my head wasn’t totally in the clouds when it came to having children—which meant that at some point, I would, once again, need a way to make some real money. In other words, I would need a gig that gave me a regular income—what was often referred to disparagingly in the circles I now frequented as a straight job.

Again, I never did make it back to New York. And I repeat that because it was even hard for me to believe. Because although I liked DC, it nevertheless seemed—especially after my New York years—like a small town to me. I had every intention of moving back to New York once I could afford it—and the strange thing was that pretty soon after going back to DC, I actually came upon the means to go back to New York.

It wasn’t because I got that decent job and saved a lot of money by living at home—Christ, this ain’t no Horatio Alger kind of crap going on here—it was because I didn’t get a job. In saying that I didn’t get a job, I’m not trying to make the case that sitting on one’s ass will get you a butt load of cash. It won’t—well, not all the time. Because I actually did try to get a job in DC. After being in New York and working for a direct mail marketing firm and temping for that financial goon, Goldman Sachs, I had some recent experience in being something other than a drunken poet. Add to that my ten years at the Congressional Reference and Economics divisions of the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, and one might actually say that I had a decent resume to present to the sober world that existed outside of poetry and writing. Which was why a number of places called me in for interviews soon after I’d sent them my resume.

The first interview I had was one of those instances when you take one look at someone and know immediately that that person does not want to deal with you for some reason. And right off the bat, the plump middle-aged man interviewing me tried to discourage me about the job. “You know, you’ll only get paid monthly,” he said practically before I’d even taken a seat on the chair in front of his desk. “And a lot of times there will cases when you’ll be the only one here and you’ll just have to stay as long as it takes to get it done.”

I also tried getting a job again at the Library of Congress. One man I had an interview with there seemed to be deliberately trying to confuse me during the interview by asking questions as rapidly as an auctioneer. “We have a complicatedcuttingedgesystem here that requires alotoffocus do you thinkthatyoucanperformwell underthatkindofpressure?”

“I’m very good with detailsandcomplextasks,” I said. “I enjoy a fastpacedworkenvironment and I thrivelikeamotherfuckerunderpressure, why pressureactuallykeepsmybloodpressure in check. I think that after this interview I’m goingtogotolunchandorderabigfuckingsteak.”

Yeah, there didn’t seem to be much point in giving real answers to his questions—I could tell by his attitude that there was no way he was going to hire me—and I imagined that he called me in just so he could say he had interviewed all the qualified candidates. And that, after he’d interviewed me, I didn’t seem like quite the right fit for the job.

Not getting these jobs, though, was, in an indirect way, what gave me the means to go back to New York. And the specific thing that gave me the means was when a woman at a job I interviewed for refused to consider me for the position because I wasn’t white. She, Ms. Red, would have gotten away with it if one of her coworkers, Ms. Blue, who was in on the hiring process, hadn’t blown the whistle on her. Ms. Red, Ms. Blue explained later, had been summarily tossing aside resumes with foreign sounding names, names that sounded Jewish, names that she couldn’t pronounce. That I got called in for an interview at all was only because Ms. Blue was able to retrieve my resume and declare that, since my resume demonstrated that I was highly qualified for the job, I should be brought in to the office to discuss the position.

I suppose I could sum up my feelings about Ms. Red’s view of me—and of the world—with a decal that would fit on the back of a windshield. But a simple decal doesn’t tell much of a story. Besides, there are too many details, too many subtle, nuanced shades of meaning that need to be presented—precisely the sorts of things people like her refuse to acknowledge. I imagine that, fifty or so years ago, if she or someone else like her were hiring for a job, and my father or mother were applying for it, that they wouldn’t have gotten it either.

After Ms. Blue blew the whistle, I sued Ms. Red’s organization and settled out of court. The amount of money I got would have easily me set up again with an apartment in New York’s East Village, close to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, the Horseshoe Bar, the International Bar; across the street from Leshko’s diner where for breakfast I could order my pierogis, my toast, my coffee; around the corner from St. Mark’s Bookstore where I could buy my Ted Berrigan, my Isabelle Eberhardt, my Donald Goines (the authors I was obsessed with at the time). I could have done that, but by then I’d met Heather, who, when I met her, helped me put New York behind me. And though I still think and write about it, New York was firmly established as part of my past.

That the future, for Heather, Maggie and me, became Front Royal is something I could never have imagined, no matter how many bourbons I downed. And, in keeping with the sober sort of planning I never would have done during my New York years, parenthood waited until Heather and I felt sure that we had the means to provide for a child. Until I finally got that straight job—the straight job where I opted out of the Myers-Briggs test. The straight job where I was actually working for a program that was doing some good in the world.

Pretty soon after I started working there, Heather got pregnant. It had been nearly ten years since my mother had died, so when we started to think about names for the baby (which we knew would be a girl), it didn’t take long before we found our way to my mother’s name, Margarita, and the nickname our daughter goes by, Maggie. My mother, of course, would have been proud. And though she didn’t live long enough to see her first grandchild, she lives on—through those sounds we make, that combination of breath and tongue and teeth and lips and motion that we call a name. So that every time we call our daughter by name, it’s also an act of remembrance. Because, for me, this is how someone and some thing can be made to live forever—through words. And though words can keep the good things alive, they can also be used to keep the bad things alive. But I’m trying as much as I can, everyday—with every word I write—to reveal the bad things that live on this way as gibberish.

We keep meaning to take Maggie on a trip to New York City. To show her that part of my past. She understands that I was a little bit crazier in those days (and that there are many ways in which I am still crazy). But despite all the apparent sloppiness of action and digression of thought I demonstrated back then, I never—during my days as an indefatigable drinker—fell completely into incoherence. There was always a direction, no matter how hidden it may have seemed, and no matter how round about my way of getting there, there was always a point.

But one thing that worries me about finally going back to visit is that I wonder how shocked I’ll be to see how much New York has changed to keep the rich assholes happy. I’m not talking about 9/11 and how the World Trade Center is now gone, because those are the changes everyone—even the goons who hate New York—already know about. I’m talking about things like my old neighborhood. I recently saw a listing for an apartment, in my old building on Avenue B, that was renting for nearly $3,000 a month. I mean, are you fucking kidding me? It’s not, obviously, the same neighborhood I once lived in.

Of course, the downtown New York I once lived in doesn’t really exist anymore, because I lived there in those days right before everything became so self-conscious, before so many kids were chained to their X-Boxes and led to believe that Guitar Hero had anything to do with making music; before corporations perfected the quantification of every aspect of culture, transforming everything that was once fully human to product, and reducing life itself to that horrible simulation that goes by the deceptively pleasant term, “lifestyle.”

Lifestyle is bullshit. To be reduced to the equivalent of a slogan in an ad campaign, a clichéd image—whether it’s someone cheering from the crowd at a ball game or some guy drinking a certain kind of beer and feeling cool/happy/whatever—is nothing short of a nightmare to me.

One nightmare that I seem to be seeing a lot of lately, when I briefly turn on the TV at night before writing for a few hours, is “The Most Interesting Man in the World”—the guy in the Dos Equis beer commercials. They often begin with a clip of him doing something outlandish—emerging from the ocean carrying a treasure chest, rescuing the fox at a fox hunt—and close with a scene where he’s surrounded by beautiful women while holding court at a fancy restaurant. The first part of the commercial usually tries to be funny, but when it’s time to point out the product they’re selling, it turns serious in the most obnoxious way possible, with the actor looking at the camera and solemnly declaring, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” After a shot of a bottle of Dos Equis, the man appears again to offer this closing thought, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

Stay thirsty? My answer to “Stay thirsty” is the same as my answer to “Drill, Baby, Drill”: Fuck you. It’s a cheap, bullshit vision of sophistication. And though for Dos Equis it’s been an incredibly successful ad campaign, with U.S. sales increasing every year since it began, The Most Interesting Man in the World isn’t my friend. And he sure as hell isn’t what I want to be. And even though I actually like it, I’m no longer going to drink Dos Equis—which means, I guess, that I’m just not that thirsty anymore.

A little less than two months from now, Heather will be giving birth to our second child, a son. Having a child, for us, is life not lifestyle. Within that life, there are battles, one of which separates what is real from what isn’t. With this in mind, we let Maggie watch television, but we make sure she knows that much of what goes on there has little to do with real life. As for video games—well, Maggie knows that those are completely out. Also out is the idea that life is a battle against non-believers, the unsaved, enemy combatants, illegal aliens, etc., etc. Rather, the battle is against everything that is bullshit and attempts to take over what’s left of real human thought and emotion.

And, we teach her that it’s not all about being the kid who has the most toys. For a lot of people the American Dream has come to mean identifying with the rich and powerful—with the Dos Equis guy, as unbelievable as he may be—and acting like the poor are a class of beings that is beneath you. Or are going to try to rip you off. Or take over your safe, clean neighborhood.

So we teach Maggie to look for complexity, irony—or that the lack thereof—in what she sees on TV and what she reads. She’s not going to grasp everything all at once, of course, but we’re laying the foundation for her to become a critical thinker. We teach her about poetry—language that, unlike what you might find on a bumper sticker or on the rear window of a car, has depth and makes you think rather than just pats you on the back. Because, actually, you don’t have to be a drunken poet to get where poetry can lead you—you just need to learn to make all those strange and beautiful connections that, at first, don’t seem to make sense. And then they do.

-Jose Padua

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The Indestructible Manliness of the Stay-at-Home Dad

On those days when Heather goes into the office, I’m not awake when I get out of bed. I’m standing, yes, and making my way down the hall into the office where I know I’ll find Maggie (who usually wakes up about a half hour before me) watching some movie she’s put on the DVD player or working furiously on a drawing or one of several books she’s trying to complete. I’ll greet Maggie, turn on the fan, then lie down on the black futon for a few more minutes—or, if Maggie isn’t hungry yet for breakfast, another half hour. Twenty or so years ago, I’d often wake up feeling pretty much the same way—except it would often be because I was hung over. And, at one in the afternoon, I’d need a lot longer than half an hour to get myself together. Luckily, those days are behind me.

I remember when I was young, sometimes my Dad would come in to wake me up. Then, sometimes, he’d sit down on the bed, lean back, and fall back asleep again while lying on top of my feet. I’d lie there, awake, trapped by my feet, lost in my thoughts. Thoughts which, I suspect, were a lot less complex than the thoughts Maggie has now (I’m a guy, and I’m a firm believer that for a lot of guys, complex thought doesn’t begin until much later in life). So, on those days when I do just go right back to sleep, slipping momentarily from the complex thoughts of my neurotic state of mind, I’m just keeping with tradition—even though, in most ways, I suppose, I’m anything but a traditional sort of father. And it’s not just because I’m a stay-at-home dad.

First of all, I’m not really into all that usual guy kind of stuff—you know, the kinds of things it’s assumed that men enjoy doing. Take, for instance, hunting. To me, taking a rifle and shooting at wild animals in the woods isn’t exactly my idea of a fair fight. If a deer were able to shoot back at you and yell, “I’m gonna get you, you fucker”, then maybe you’d have something. Maybe then I’d even consider calling it—as many often do—sport. But until a deer or other animal is able to shoot back at you and transform you into cuts of meat, it’s still pretty much on the same level as picking wild strawberries as far as I’m concerned. Which is to say, I don’t think hunting is all that fucking macho.

Not that there isn’t skill involved in hunting, because of course there is (and, yes, hunting can be one way of putting food on the table). But we have highly developed brains and our prey doesn’t—hell, a deer, as we all know, doesn’t have enough brains to get out of the way when a Hummer is heading its way down I66 at 70 mph. And we have the technology in the form of high powered hunting rifles (I could list the names of several different kinds of guns here, but I don’t know the names of different kinds of fucking guns). Now, I’m not a vegetarian nor am I a person for whom animal rights is a big priority, but still, shooting an animal with a gun doesn’t seem like sufficient reason to go patting ourselves on the back.

As for cars, another classic obsession of the macho state of mind, I can only respond a la Homer Simpson by saying, “BOR-ing.” Sure, here and there, usually during some dreadful parade, I’ll see some antique car that will get my attention for a couple of seconds, but no longer than that. It’s like when someone shows you the scar from an appendectomy—you go, “Wow,” and then, after an incredibly brief moment of fascination with the grotesque slit in the flesh that’s held together by stitches, you turn away. Maybe that’s just me—but most of the time I care less about cars than I do about Glenn Beck’s hemorrhoids. (Wait, I do care about his hemorrhoids—I hope they get worse.)

But whatever the case, I tend to find most cars kind of ugly, in fact, especially any car that has one of those spoilers in back or is blasting some Toby Keith song as it zooms past me going twenty miles per hour over the speed limit. Cars don’t move me—well, not that way. All I want in a car is a vehicle that will get me from one place to another with a decent amount of comfort and a minimum amount of difficulty. And the less gas it takes to run it the better. So, in response to a vanity license plate—on an SUV I often see in my neighborhood—which begs the question UJEALOUS, I must answer, in a word, NO. Hell, I drive a mini-van, and people like me who drive mini-vans obviously do not give a fuck.

As for the big spectator sports, well, when I was younger I regularly watched baseball, basketball, and especially football on TV. I was, for a long time, an actual fan of Washington’s unfortunately named football team. But one thing I rarely did was attend a game in person. In fact, when I was in college, I didn’t attend a single one of my school’s sporting events, and in high school I only saw a few—and that was only when I knew that one girl or another I was interested in would be there.

In my drinking days, there was nothing worse than being somewhere where the only place to drink was a sports bar. And that’s because, to be blunt about it, I pretty much hate sports fans. I don’t like being around them, and even when I did watch sports, I didn’t like to talk about them. For me, once a game is over, it’s over. When I was in high school, a game wasn’t like, for instance, James Joyce’s “The Dead.” That I wanted to think about more (and no matter what one may think of Joyce’s later, almost impossibly difficult works, his stories in Dubliners, I think, hold up as masterpieces of short fiction). As for those games, they were the quick and easy entertainment. Yeah, I could appreciate a great catch, an impossible jump shot at the buzzer, but after it was over I saw no point in thinking about them any further. The ball was back on the ground, the points were scored, one team won and one team lost and it wasn’t such a big fucking deal anymore. Or at least—even when I did dwell on such things, it didn’t seem like these things were worth dwelling upon. Unlike “The Dead,” I thought it was a waste of time to think about them any further. Which was why things like these were called games—when they’re over, it’s times to move on to the important shit.

Now a lot of friends of mine, including a lot of the poets I know (my falling out with sports has nothing to do with my artistic “sensibilities”), are big on sports. I am now confessing to them that, at least in more recent years, when I’ve said something like “Oh yeah” or a mild “Wow” when the talk turned to sports I was just being polite. I will still watch DC’s terribly named football team on occasion, but it’s not at all like when I was young and screaming when some unknown Dallas Cowboys rookie was leading an absurd comeback over the Skins on Thanksgiving. Yeah, I was into it then, and right now I’m at the point when don’t even care about football anymore.

And what I wonder is if, for me, fatherhood has anything to do with that. I know a lot of other fathers who are still are rabid sports fans, and I’m not saying that you can’t be a big sports fan and still be a dedicated father—but for me my entry into fatherhood seemed like the point when sports really started to lose whatever importance they still had for me.

My daughter Maggie was born mid-summer—training camp time for American footballers. This was a time of year when I used to think, without a trace of sadness, that summer would soon be over. And the absence of sadness at summer’s approaching end was because I knew that football season would soon be here (again, as I said, I was actually into it) along with the crisp cool air, fall foliage, and all that other wonderful crap.

But, since moving out to the valley and becoming a stay-at-home dad, whatever interest I still had in sports pretty must got obliterated like a rabid squirrel run over by a monster truck.

It’s not because I work from home, writing and editing. For some people the problem with working from home is that home and work are no longer separate. That’s not the problem for me. My routine of taking Maggie to school, going to the grocery store on the way back, then going home, walking upstairs to our home office suits me fine. I can work in our office, I can read there, I can even fall asleep there. I can easily switch from formatting an article on greener supply chains for a website to writing a poem about Thelonius Monk. When I’m done or need to take a break, I can readily banish the work I’m getting paid for from my mind and switch to doing laundry, fixing a screen door (OK, trying to fix a screen door), or cooking dinner—there’s always something that needs to be done. And here, in the valley, spending time as a fan, as a spectator watching some game, seems like a luxury I can’t afford anymore.

But it’s not simply a matter of time. There’s also the reality that here there are so many people who are looking at me. Me being, to them, that strange, unfathomable being—or a sign of what they think has gone wrong with this country, with what they see as their country. After all, I’m one of those minorities who Glenn Beck maintains is ready to start the next race war in this country—which means that Beck and his followers are watching my every move. Spending time as a spectator, even if it’s only some sporting event on television—seems risky to me now that I’m the one who so much of the time is being watched.

But it’s not that I don’t watch anything anymore—it’s just that I’m not watching the game. Now I watch the parents of the kids Maggie befriends when I take her to the Fantasyland Playground—those parents who refuse to look me in the eye even though our kids are playing together happily. Those parents at kids birthday parties who stare at me and suddenly look away like frightened schoolchildren when I turn towards them and who, clearly, do not want to be in the same room with me—or, rather, don’t want me to be in the same room with them. Those people in their monster trucks who drive past me, and look at me boldly, because in their monster trucks they feel like they’re at home watching a game in which I’m one of the competitors. And some of them, I gather, are rooting for me to lose, to go back where I came from, so America can once again, be “the America of our founding fathers.” Yeah, it’s that game where their goal is to take America back, to Glenn Beck’s vision of what America should be. And my goal is to stop these ignorant fucks.

Becoming a father, rather than making me weak and sentimental for some distant past, has actually made me stronger and angrier. It’s made me focus on the future. Of course, it has filled me with love, for my daughter, and reinforced my love for my wife. But it’s also filled me with hate for the racism and idiocy out there—because these I see as the real threats to the world that Maggie’s going to live in, not some invasion of illegal aliens.

My Dad became an American citizen around 15 years ago, when he was eighty, after having already been living here for nearly fifty years. He’d lived through a real invasion of his country during World War II when Japan invaded the Philippines—how many of Glenn Beck’s goons actually know what that’s like?

My Dad is 94 now. If I were to take him to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon, he could easily be stopped on suspicion of being an illegal alien. He has never been here illegally, but now, because of the legislation about to take effect in Arizona, he can be treated like an illegal alien just because of the way he looks—meaning that he and I and Maggie can be considered under suspicion simply because we aren’t white.

My Dad worked hard all his life to give his kids a better, easier life that he had. I, in turn, along with Heather, am working damn hard to give Maggie an even better life than we’ve had. I’ll be damned if some goons in Arizona and any other places that want to enact similar laws are going to fuck that up. And I say this sincerely, as a father, to anyone who supports the law in Arizona: Go fuck yourself. I have nothing but contempt for you. I, with neither shame nor regret, piss on you.

And one day, maybe, I will be able to watch the game again. To just sit back with a drink—just one drink to help me keep my strength—and cheer my team on. But now, because I’m not a spectator anymore, I feel—whether rightly or wrongly—like I’m in control. It may just be another fantasy, another in an endless series of incarnations of the so-called American Dream, but despite everything that’s out there, I can still see it. Because, as a father, I have a tradition I’m trying to uphold. I may not be upholding it in quite the same way as my father, but I am, nevertheless, determined. And I don’t have to wait until between innings, between plays, between shots from the floor, to move towards it.

-Jose Padua

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