Category Archives: 3. Literature

My Shenandoah Breakdowns

Breaking down has become a regular occurrence here in the Valley. And it happens even when I’m just staying here in town—or maybe because I’m just staying here in town. Unlike Heather, I don’t get that regular dose of the city by commuting into DC, but that doesn’t prevent me from breaking down anyway. Strangely enough, I don’t need to get behind the wheel—or even ride on that old glue-factory ready horse of a bus Heather has to ride—to break down. Sometimes I don’t even need to leave the house.

But most often it’s a day when, walking down to Main Street, I can barely deal with that person looking at me like an unarmed paparazzi who sees Brad Pitt standing at the urinal next to him. That in itself wouldn’t be so bad. But the problem is that he also sees me as the flesh and foreign blood manifestation of one the many social ills he’s heard about on Glenn Beck’s nightly Hour for Ignorant Assholes Show. To him, or her, I’m either an illegal alien, a terrorist, a socialist, or any number of other frightening sub-human/ Untermensch (Beck is obsessed with Nazis) beings. And that’s just because of the way I look.

What makes things even harder, though, is that I also have to deal with what my Tourette Syndrome urges me to do. Whether it’s a quick grimace on one side of my face, or one of those odd movements where I’ll clench my fist and bang my elbow into my side, my odd movements are yet another thing that bring me the sort of attention I don’t often feel like dealing with. Some of my movements could even be interpreted as threatening (which is one—only one—of the reasons why I’m always uncomfortable around cops).

Over the years there have been so many variations that if I knew anything about choreography I could create an entire ballet around my tics and twitches, with the odd noises and nonsense syllables that sometimes come out of my mouth providing the avant garde music that drives and inspires this bizarre dance. Of course, I imagine it’s possible that some rabid fundamentalist Christian type might think I’m speaking in tongues—at least until I, in a sudden break from my involuntary movements, quite voluntarily give him the finger.

Sometimes I think that what fucks me up the most are the urges I don’t give in to—the middle finger I resist lifting as a means of expressing myself to the daily dickhead who stares at me; my silence when the cashier puts my change or debit card down on the counter rather than dropping it into my outstretched hand; not shouting out, “The Confederacy lost,” to the guy driving down Main Street with a Confederate flag flying from the back of his pickup truck. Although not doing these things saves my ass in this redneck town, I still can’t help but think of these as missed opportunities.

Since I quit smoking some ten years ago, my Tourette’s has steadily worsened—or maybe it just seems that way to me. Medications I’ve tried either didn’t do much or else made me feel like I was having a bad acid trip (bad because I felt unfit to drive or operate heavy machinery yet wasn’t experiencing any revelatory hallucinations). It seems that those days when I was drinking and smoking the most were when my Tourette’s bothered me the least. That time included my years in New York, where no one seemed to take much notice of any tics I had. But eccentricity, after all, is nothing unusual with artists of any kind—and in my circle of downtown literary types, I probably would have been looked at suspiciously if there were nothing odd about me. Hell, back then I looked suspiciously at anyone I thought was too clean-cut, too normal, too friendly—as far as I was concerned, they were the ones you had to watch out for. They were the ones who always seemed to end up trying to screw you over. And they were just one among the many bad things I had to focus on.

Because even then, when my tics weren’t that bad, I still had my basic obsessive-compulsive personality to keep me as tense as the suspension wires on the Brooklyn Bridge. (As if the uncontrollable tics aren’t enough of a pain in the ass, obsessive-compulsive disorder often comes along with Tourette’s.) Drinking helped, and cigarettes helped—I have no doubt about their role in getting me through these years—but what probably helped me most of all was the motion.

For most people who live in New York, whether they’ve got a steady job or are unemployed (as I was for about half the time I lived there), they’re constantly in motion. For a lot of the New Yorkers I knew then, that was a simple fact of life there—and the only way to go about living there. I remember that with one writer friend of mine, Stephen Ciacciarelli, just about the only times I got to see him we were moving—walking down Park Avenue eating slices of pizza or drinking from cans of Budweiser in paper bags as he headed south to catch his downtown train into Brooklyn and I slowly made my way back to Avenue B in the East Village.

My routine, when I had a steady day job there, took me in the morning from Avenue B to midtown across from Madison Square Park. In the evening I’d walk home, though that walk often involved a detour to the Upper West Side, Soho, or some other neighborhood to meet friends or just to take in the city. In New York, walking was often the most efficient way to get where I needed to be—but it was also a way to relax, a way to wind down. And the best thing was that there was none of that shit where you had to drive any time you needed to get something.

In the midst of all that walking I was always running into people I knew—but the odd thing about it was that the people I ran into there were nearly always people I wanted to see—poets and other writer friends of mine, musicians, painters; and people who weren’t artists of any kind but who weren’t (obviously, being New Yorkers) living in a cultural void.

And, sometimes, I saw people I didn’t know personally but knew because they were famous. In New York I drank with Matt Dillon, smiled at Sade, and one evening I came home to see Harvey Keitel hanging around outside my building (he was shooting a scene from a film I would later know as Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant). In my mind I was going, Holy Shit, it’s Harvey Fucking Keitel. But I was cool about it—there’s something about living in New York that teaches you how to be cool. You can be totally freaking out and ready to scream on the inside, but from the outside you can look like you’re ready to nod off from boredom. And me, I slowly looked over at Harvey Keitel, slowly looked away, and slowly walked up the steps to my apartment. And not once did my feet ever stop moving.

The motion I was constantly in when I lived in New York suited me well. Because for me, motion—the getting to or moving away from somewhere—has always been one of the great joys in life. And whenever I’ve taken a trip to some distant city—whether it was for vacation or for whatever sort of work I was doing—the getting there was always the best part of the trip. Or at least the part where I felt the most calm, and the most contented. Certainly, motion is what most often keeps me from freaking out.

Stepping out the door, down the steps, and into the crowd was always the best way to motivate me. When I left New York and came back to Washington DC, I spent two years mostly unemployed, aside from some freelance assignments now and then for the Washington City Paper. During that time I worked on my novel, wrote poems, drank, and walked. Everyday I walked from DC’s Mt. Pleasant area, past the pleasantly run down and grimy buildings, and headed south, always going at least as far as Georgetown, which was, of course a much cleaner and wealthier neighborhood. But even then, it was still an interesting place to be—not some antiseptic suburban business hub built by assholes in button down suits. And even though I saw Mt. Pleasant and Georgetown every day during my walk—and often kept going across Key Bridge into Virginia—there was always something going on, faces I’d never seen before, people speaking different languages. There was always something new for me.

Small towns aren’t like that, of course. And if you like the small town life, I’m willing to bet that you’re not much into seeing anything new or different—at least not everyday—and that you like seeing the same faces. And, I’m willing to bet, there are a fair number of people who like small towns because they’re also going to see the same kind of faces. Which is why when the dickhead of the day spots me on the street here, he’s surprised, shocked, concerned, or angry—because, hell, this ain’t New York or even DC, so what the fuck is a person like me doing here?

That’s the question I ask myself everyday. I ask it even though I know, by now, the long, involved, sorry-ass answer. As for the brief, to-the-point answer, what I’m doing here is being still. Still, like the statue commemorating the Confederacy that stands in front of the courthouse on Main Street. Still, like the gazebo on Main Street when that guy plays music there in the middle of the afternoon and no one comes to listen. Still, when I’m sitting at the Daily Grind and am able—for a little while—to suppress those goddamn Tourette’s tics. Being still is something I have to learn to do—and I suppose that breaking down on occasion as I learn to do this is something to be expected.

As for the breakdowns themselves, they have various lengths, tones, and tempos. Sometimes it’s like someone has put a quarter in a jukebox—a decent jukebox—to play something dark, loud and noisy, like the Stooges “Search and Destroy.” Other times what comes out is “Winter” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons—those chilly strings that keep building up until they let loose into some kind of late Renaissance frenzy. And as the music plays on in my head, what I’m feeling is that stillness. And until the music stops playing, I’m not about to move.

Though sometimes the music during my breakdowns isn’t just in my head. Once what I was hearing was “Seasons of Love” from Rent, when the kids at one of Maggie’s summer camps put on a show:

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

Mind you, Maggie wasn’t singing in this number. Nevertheless, I found myself getting teary eyed. I mean, Christ, I’m supposed to be way too streetwise and cynical—in a real, not Broadway manner—to be moved by that shit. And besides, it’s from Rent—which I (and just about all of the writers and other artists I knew from the Lower East Side of New York that this musical portrays) consider an absurdly romanticized and whitewashed view of what was happening then. Rent pretty much does to the struggling artists of that scene what The Waltons did to growing up in rural Virginia during the Depression.

Which isn’t to say that, like The Waltons, Rent can’t be enjoyable on a certain level. But Christ, actual tears were coming down my face because of this shit. I was actually feeling the song—and feeling like I was just another sucker falling for three-card Monte in Times Square, some schmuck who laughs hysterically at the oldest joke in the world and cries when he hears about a kid losing his puppy.

This happens to me a lot nowadays—or at any rate a lot more than it used to. And just last week—when I had taken Maggie to a matinee while Heather was at work in DC— what does it is Toy Story 3. Really. When it was that song from Rent I was like, Oh, it’s cool—because I do look back fondly on my days in New York. I’m not above allowing myself to indulge in a sentimental moment now and then. But Toy Story 3? Are you fucking kidding me? I’m actually falling for that shit, now? Twenty years ago when I was living in New York, I would have watched something like that and yelled, Kiss my fucking ass at the screen by the end of the movie. Yeah, Kiss my fucking ass. And, Go fuck yourself, Disney. And, Do you think I give a fuck about this tripe you put out? And now here I am with fucking tears in my eyes at the end of this goddamn movie. Has it come to this? This sure as hell isn’t where I was some twenty years ago in New York and it sure as hell isn’t what I’m used to.

Yeah, “Seasons of Love,” and Toy Story 3. That and being still—or trying to be still and trying not to break down. Being in a place that, compared to what I’m used to feels like nowhere. Sitting still in some theater, or at my desk at home while I’m writing, or when I’m on our front porch watching some jacked-up pickup truck drive by—and getting teary eyed or else breaking down in some other way. These are the hard days for me—when being still is something I do not as an exercise and not as a mechanism for learning how to live here in the valley, but because there’s nothing else I can do.

I walk out of the theater with Maggie after Toy Story 3. She wants something to eat so we walk down to the Daily Grind and order Maggie’s favorite ham, egg, and cheese sandwich and a smoothie. As usual, when I wait, I’m trying not to shake too much, trying not to do that thing where I jab my elbow into my side and grimace. Maggie is used to this weirdness as, of course, is Heather—and they’re the only ones who get to see uncensored and unrestrained performances of my tics—because it’s only when I’m home with them that I truly relax, when I can give in to those urges that I usually have to beat down. Any other time and anywhere else, even if I’m just sitting in a movie theater, I’m just a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit tense.

And so it is that everyday here in the Valley brings about one or another kind of breakdown or freakout (or whatever the hell you want to call it) in my head. Sometimes we’re just at the town pool—one of the other places here that I hate. Sometimes it’s just me, pushing a cart in the supermarket and looking for something like a decent package of strawberries or a carton of milk with an expiration date that’s at least two weeks away. I can be feeling good at first when I’m doing these things—but then it’s that sucker punch again, and everything that seemed so well constructed in my mind falls apart. Some stray thought that annoys me or sometimes even frightens me. It’s an epiphany that brings along with it a definite measure of pain. It’s like going from the idea that the Earth is flat to the reality that it’s a big ball spinning its way through space. To the reality that we evolved from lesser life forms into the magnificent and fucked up creatures we are today.

This is what goes on everyday. These are the tiny but persistent breakdowns I live through everyday. And at this point, I’m pretty goddamn tired of them. On some nights I can hardly sleep. But now I’m starting to focus on other things. And everywhere here I see them—those lovers of war, those borrowers of hate, and, hiding amongst them, all those people who were just never given a clue. I’m in the middle of this, feeling like a guy from another planet, standing still but still standing.

And something I realize is that, yeah, in a weird way—and against all my expectations—this shit gives me strength.

-Jose Padua

Just a Country White Girl

It’s more than embarrassing but I have to admit that I’ve had a long-time obsession with that icon of squeaky-clean Hollywood-style Appalachia, John Boy Walton. Growing up in my large, sometimes poverty-stricken family, I latched onto John Boy like a sinner in need of a saint, making sure in my pre-teens to never miss an episode. In John and Olivia, I saw my hard-working parents and in John Boy, the oldest son and a writer, I saw myself, leader of the pack, typing late into the night in that modest room. Both John Boy and I knew that someday we’d leave “the mountain” for the wider world.

Somehow I got sucked into every melodramatic and ridiculously wholesome episode. The Waltons were the good kind of mountain people—salt of the earth, honest, thoughtful, and compassionate. The Confederate flag never darkened their porch, nor did they turn away people who were different. Somehow they always tried to do the right thing. In their grittiness, they reminded me of my mother’s extended family, farm folk in south Jersey.

Little did I know I’d end up living in Front Royal, only two hours from the Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, VA. When I found out, I almost peed my pants. Oh my gosh, I thought when I realized we could actually go see the place where Hamner/John Boy lived and wrote—we need to pack our bags—let’s go!

But we’ve been in Front Royal for almost three years now and haven’t yet made the journey to Walton’s Mountain. The truth is I’m afraid to drag all of us there. What if the museum and Mr. Hamner’s house don’t measure up? What if seeing the real home of the real John Boy destroys my childhood fantasy? What if the thrill is gone? It’s not like I’ve read Hamner’s actual writing. Maybe John Boy was nothing more than a piece of Tinsel Town fluff.

Living in Front Royal, I really need to hold onto my country-writer-boy dream as long as possible. It makes me believe that living in the rural south means living around simple, decent people like the Waltons. In fact, it makes me think every now and then about just how much country I carry inside of me, how in the very center of my being and despite my love of the big nasty city, I am—please don’t tell anyone—just a country white girl at heart.

I certainly can’t deny that my roots on both my mother’s and father’s sides stretch deeply into rural culture. I can remember visiting my Great Aunt E.’s turkey farm in New Jersey and sitting in her 1940s-style kitchen. She and her husband ran the place along with their two sons, growing tomatoes, as well as raising turkeys and hogs. I can still see the boys in their denim overalls lumbering about the place, layers and layers of dirt under their nails.

Several of my maternal grandmother’s six siblings farmed, although she married a factory worker, my Pop-Pop R., who spent most of his working life at the big Dupont chemical plant in Deepwater, NJ. When she was growing up, my Mom-Mom R. lived every summer at the beach—literally just squatting in tents on the Jersey shore. The family loved it, living cheaply with only the bare necessities during those months.

On my Dad’s side, my Pop-Pop Davis grew up on a farm in Michigan only to run away when he was 15. He rode the rails around the country doing odd jobs and working as a farm hand until he earned an electrician’s license and began working at that same Dupont plant in Deepwater. He was a tough guy with a quick temper who later owned his own small farm in southwestern Virginia. There’s a photo of me when I was a year old sitting on the back of a pony at his farm.
Some of my fondest memories are of visiting places like the Cowtown Rodeo in rural Salem County, NJ, where dust swirls in every direction and cowboy boots are haute couture. Later I spent many Fridays at the Green Dragon Farmer’s Market in Ephrata, PA, a massive collection of merchants selling everything from cold cuts to handmade furniture. Pop-Pop R. ran a stall there selling his duck carvings and various odds and ends right next to some Amish folks.

None of my grandparents attended college. They were working class people, not writers, not artists, or people with degrees. They were creative though, always making something beautiful and functional—cabinets, quilts, houses, clothes.

Being with the older generations of my family, I always had this sense of their ability to survive and thrive with whatever was at hand. They knew how to do things like fish and camp and hunt. They went visiting for entertainment, sat on porches, gathered at church picnics. They cherished old houses, weathered furniture, and being outdoors.

My mother spent a substantial amount of time as a teen pulling the guts out of turkeys and eating fresh pork cracklins and scrapple. She also contracted hepatitis from a possum someone shot and brought home for dinner.

So sometimes, when I look around Front Royal, I feel a certain familiarity. The town is not unlike Quinton, NJ, where my mother grew up and where we stayed with Mom-Mom while my mother worked as a nurse. When I open my front door for the nearly toothless old farmer who comes and mows our lawn and whose accent is almost impossible to understand, I feel like he could be my Great Uncle T. When I see the pastel ladies with their Bibles shuffling to the local diner on Sunday afternoon, I know one of them could be my Aunt B. The skinny blonde guy in the dirty pick-up hauling god knows what from this yard to that sure looks like my cousin C.

My city-boy husband has no idea just how much redneck I’ve got in me. Not that he hasn’t met my more colorful country relatives, but I don’t think he knows what a huge impact Salem, NJ had on me as a child. I just don’t feel as immediately repulsed by the seeming ignorance of rural folks as he is. The funny thing is that Jose’s own 94-year old father lived his youth farming not with a tractor but with a carabao and an old-fashioned wooden plow in the Philippines. A carabao is a kind of water buffalo—it’s the national animal of the Philippines and still used today for all kinds of tasks. Lolo went from leading that animal around the fields outside Manila to managing the maintenance of the Philippine Embassy in DC and serving dignitaries during his night job as a waiter for several DC caterers. There is a photo of Lolo with General Carlos P. Romulo—a famous Filipino diplomat, politician, soldier, journalist and author—and a photo of Ferdinand Marcos with Lolo in the background.

Lolo worked the land the same way his family had been doing for hundreds of years and now his middle son has no idea how to grow even a tomato. In fact, if the flowers on our front porch need to be watered or the hedges need to be clipped, you won’t catch Jose out there. It’s me and Maggie every time. Of course, I like to work in the yard and wish I had more time to learn about gardening. I do what I can but I really don’t know a forsythia from a frog. Jose’s horrific seasonal allergies probably also have something to do with his lack of interest in foliage but sometimes I just want him to be a little more hardy, to get his hands in the dirt.

Of course, when I examine my redneck heritage more carefully, I can’t ignore the less pretty side. My Pop-Pop R. suffered from that strange variety of prejudice that allowed him to treat an individual of color well while complaining about “those people” as a whole. Then again, he was none too happy when his youngest daughter dated a Hispanic guy—that one didn’t last long. And I hate to say it but I’ve heard one of the most beloved elders in my family complain about the Blacks and Hispanics who’ve moved into the neighborhood where she grew up. I know she doesn’t mean to imply that the decline of that area has anything to do with race but that’s how it comes out—“Ever since ‘they’ moved in, the place is in shambles.” And there are a few young members of my extended family (on the more conservative side) who never have seemed to warm up to Jose and who won’t really look him in the eye. You get the feeling they don’t quite know what to make of him and that they listen to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh a little too often.

With this kind of history in my own family, how can I be surprised at Jose’s discomfort with a lot of public spaces in Front Royal. I can feel at home almost anywhere and have never been made self-conscious because of my skin color. The flea market, a campground, the county fair, the town pool—I can blend in and chat comfortably with almost anyone. I just reach back to my country white girl roots and play the part. It also seems that women can always find something to talk about with each other across all kind of dividing lines—race, class, age, religion, etc.

For Jose, the public pool is a horror show. Maybe it’s all those almost naked, mole-rat pale tattooed bodies, the literal and psychic nakedness of the rabble. Maybe it’s the experience of being barred from a white beach on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake as a child, or the fact that he never learned to swim. Whatever the cause, he performs his fatherly duty in taking Maggie to swimming lessons and coming with us when she and I want to take a dip, but he does not enjoy it. When the three of us are alone in a hotel pool, it’s a different story—Jose can relax a bit. Except for when some snooty mother refuses to let her family in the water with us as happened at a hotel in Rehoboth Beach this summer.
Moving to Front Royal has brought into sharp relief how radically different Jose’s background, experiences, and coping mechanisms are from mine. The city may have brought us together but we come from galaxies light years apart. I know it drives him crazy when I play down the nasty looks he sometimes gets around here. I always have a hard time accepting that anyone can treat another person with suspicion because of his/her race. It’s my natural inclination to say, “But wait, are you sure—maybe that person is just having a bad day, maybe it has nothing to do with you.”

Or maybe I am just naïve. Still, I am usually looking to make connections and build bridges where Jose is always on guard, not wanting but expecting positive attitudes about him to disintegrate at any moment. I didn’t really understand this dynamic when we lived in the city because Jose is much more accepted there, so much more at ease. In DC we were just another couple of struggling poet-types. In three-quarters of “chocolate city,” the areas where tourists seldom stray, being white isn’t necessarily an asset and being brown is not a liability.

Of course there are urban people who are bigots and northern people and educated people who harbor prejudice (and usually hide it very well), but there tend to be many fewer racists in these categories than in insular places where folks don’t get exposed to “the other.” So life for both of us was a little less bumpy in the city. And when Jose encounters some negative shit in the Shenandoah Valley, that nasty stuff rubs off on me too. I’ll never really know what it’s like to live in his skin and see through his eyes but what happens to him and how he feels about it have a huge impact on both Maggie and me. If he bumps up against ignorant attitudes, so do we. If he carries around a certain amount of rage, we feel that heat too.

It’s truly exhausting sometimes. But I can always retreat into my country white girl self and my John Boy delusions. On Walton’s Mountain, every conflict is worked out amicably and small town bigots can be won over with reason and compassion. The family’s harmony always uplifts the troubled drifters and strangers who wander into its midst—that’s why so many people watched the show. It wasn’t about real poverty in rural Appalachia or about the huge political and social changes of the era. Like the faux southern Cracker Barrel restaurants that sell DVDs of selected Walton’s episodes, the show existed to create a non-threatening romanticized American past full of homey goodness like a soft old quilt. No wonder Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition has held exclusive syndication rights for the series since 1991.

Having just learned that last factoid from the Internet, I feel a bit closer to letting go of my John Boy fantasy. How can I love anything owned by Pat Robertson? Or maybe there’s a redeeming lost episode where John Boy drives in a blinding rage to Richmond, drinks himself silly, and pukes all over the dance floor of a strip joint? No…not possible. That sounds more like some of Front Royal’s less upstanding residents—throw in a little crystal meth or oxycontin and you’ve captured them brilliantly.

I think I do need a visit to that museum in Schuyler after all.

-Heather Davis

Fear and Loathing in Front Royal

Don’t take my word for it, but I’m an incredibly funny guy. I was once described by writer John Strausbaugh in the NYPress as a “stand-up poet” in a preview he wrote for a reading I did in New York—which was Strausbaugh’s way of saying that I’m the sort of poet who won’t bore you and will actually make you laugh. Of course, it also put the focus for some people solely on the comic side of my work—which, although it’s certainly there, is balanced by a dark side. This side I present in a much more subtle way than the comedy—though you don’t need to be goddamn Oprah Winfrey to fucking see it. Still, whenever someone comes up to me after a reading and says, “You’re funny,” I feel like smacking him.

Before I go any further, let me point out that I felt like this way before Joe Pesci ever said “What do you mean funny? Like a clown? Like I’m here to amuse you?” in Goodfellas. And it’s the less perceptive among us who seem think that comedy is always something that lacks depth, that great art has to involve tragedy, like when almost the entire cast dies in King Lear. Sometimes great art can go something like this Frank O’Hara poem:


Wouldn’t it be funny
if The Finger had designed us
to shit just once a week?

all week long we’d get fatter
and fatter and then on Sunday morning
while everyone’s in church


When I wrote my own poem about shit, I laughed aloud. Laughed even though I’d been in a really bad I-don’t-want-to-see-talk-to-or-hear-anyone kind of mood. But that’s what my work could do for me sometimes. Not the work I could get paid decently for, but the work I did that often didn’t pay anything at all—namely, my own writing. It had happened time and time again when I was depressed. I’d start writing and, whether it was a poem or a new passage in my still unfinished novel, I’d start to feel better. Sometimes I’d crack myself up with what I wrote. Other times, when it wasn’t something that was funny, I’d just feel this sense of intensity, a feeling that I’d stripped away all the bullshit to see what was really there. And the sense of clarity I’d get wasn’t always because I was beginning to sober up from a night of drinking.

For years I’d lived this mildly bi-polar existence, moving from a Hunter Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas state of mind—which to me meant a search for the truth through various states of inebriation—to these dead spots where all motion seemed to stop. But even though these dead spots could put me in a funk that would last for maybe two or three days, I was always able to lift myself out of them.

This time, though—after having been in Front Royal for a little over a year—it was different. I had spent almost an entire week during which the only thing I could do that felt right was to sleep. Lying on the sofa in our home office, every now and then I’d try to turn on the TV, but even just that seemed to make me feel worse. Reading the paper, a magazine, a novel—there wasn’t anything I could do. And eating—for Christ’s sake, eating was something I usually couldn’t stop myself from doing—felt like hard fucking labor.

Even Heather’s miscarriage six months earlier hadn’t done me in like this. Although I was down for a couple of weeks, I wasn’t feeling like a catatonic zombie from Night of the Living Dead the way I was now. And, although I was now also going through a period where all the freelance work I depended on had dried up, that wasn’t what had brought me down like this either.

No, what had happened to me—and the source of my problems—was clear: it was Front Royal. Front Royal had fucked me up. Big time. Front Royal fucked me up more than I’ve ever been fucked up before, more than any number of nights spent chain smoking and chain drinking Maker’s Mark. Even when I was in New York, drinking bourbon like a demon drunkard hell bent on destroying his and everyone else’s livers, being a total, sloppy, sometimes drooling but always charming mess, it was nothing like what Front Royal had done to me.

You always hear about country people having trouble adjusting to being in the city, but you hardly ever hear about city people who have trouble adjusting to life in the country, to that change in the speed of life, the lack of anonymity. To that place where there’s no one who can understand what the fuck your screaming means.

Plus, when I was living in a city, I always had things that could distract me from whatever was bringing me to my non-praying knees. In New York, for example, there was falafel. Yes, falafel. When I was down, there were always those hole-in-the-wall joints where I could get a falafel sandwich, for just a little over a buck, whenever a break from my existence as a carnivore was called for.

Another thing that could distract me was a bookstore with a decent selection of contemporary poetry. Here in Front Royal, whenever I had a craving for Frederick Seidel or even Lucille Clifton (whose work is usually pretty easy to find), the only book of contemporary poetry I could find would be Jewel’s A Night Without Armor. Yeah, considering what I was in the mood for, seeing nothing but Jewel on the shelf was like getting punched in the gut by Mike Tyson when he was in his I’m-going-to-make-you-my-girlfriend phase.

And, in the city, there was always that wonderful possibility that I could just get lost for a while. Lost in a ocean of beings on whose movements I could mentally surf or else just sit back and regard the spectacle. Because you can say what you will about the beauty and majesty of nature—for me, nothing beats the spectacle of masses of humans going about their daily lives in a real city.

When we moved out here, I never thought about the possibility of seeing people that I knew everyday and everywhere. Although there are people here whom I like seeing, they’re not the ones I end up seeing everyday and everywhere. Being able to disappear into a crowd—that was something I always liked about the city. Even though there wasn’t a lot of physical space between you and everyone else, there was that wide open ethereal space that being in a city creates.

Here, there’s nowhere to hide—which may be one of the things people who like living in small towns actually like about small towns. Me, it’s one of the things I hate the most. I don’t find comfort in most people and to frequently run into people I’m merely acquainted with is something I find disturbing.

What I appreciate more than anything is the kind of psychological space that living in a city creates, and I completely agree with what Henry Miller wrote at the end of Tropic of Cancer. Although it’s been years since I’ve read that book, these words have stayed with me and comforted me the way dwelling on God’s power to destroy comforts others: “Human beings make strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; up close they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded by sufficient space—space even more than time.”

Oddly enough, it was in the less densely populated Shenandoah Valley where I felt I was missing that space. Rather than feeling a sense of freedom or release from being out here surrounded by country, I felt more like I was now in some kind of enclosed space. Instead of me being the one going out and exploring the landscape, the landscape was exploring me and, after taking my strange case under consideration, deciding that I did not belong. It was, for me, very much like the quintessential bad acid trip—when you think that things are bad and that they are going to be that way forever.

Since there was no space—the kind of space I needed—I relied on time to help me get through this period. That and weekly visits with a therapist Heather had found for me.

The first thing I let the therapist know was that I had no intention of transforming myself into some happy, easy-going person. That, undoubtedly, would kill me quicker than a drone attack because I—and I say this at the risk of sounding insufferably new agey—would no longer be me.

Yeah, I said it. And Fuck You if you rolled your eyes, but that’s my crisis here. I refuse to let this wilderness transform me into something I see as horrible, something less connected with the real world, something provincial. One of the biggest fears I have about being here is the possibility that being here may cause me to one day lose my edge. That one day, when we finally get around to visiting New York and showing Maggie my old stomping grounds, I’ll actually be afraid—afraid of all that motion, afraid of that incredible human spectacle.

I know, there are lot of things wrong with New York. But to hate it precisely for what makes it great—its endless, swirling mix of people and ideas and cultures—that’s fucked up. For me, living in Front Royal is way too far on the opposite side of living in New York. And maybe living there isn’t everyone’s idea of the good life, but if you can’t appreciate it at least in part, as far as I’m concerned you’re pretty much an asshole.

To my surprise, my therapist was completely cool with my attitude. She even seemed to appreciate it. She also understood that my condition had nothing to do with any kind of self-loathing. That it was, more than anything else, a condition sparked by my loathing of so many of the things that surrounded me here—the backwardness, the intolerance, the people I came across everyday who would immediately make it clear that I did not belong here. As if I didn’t already know that.

I’m not sure exactly what my therapist did, but somehow she taught me to relax now and then. To breathe deeply. To focus, sometimes, on just one thing instead of everything—and not just on the bad things. Then, when I’d regained my strength, she maintained, I could return to the spectacle. What she had me do was, in a way, incredibly simple—but it worked. After a couple of months I returned to what, for me, is normal, and I no longer needed my weekly visit.

Of course, I haven’t strictly followed all her recommendations. Although I don’t drink the way I used to, I still load up on caffeine. I don’t get as much exercise as she said I need, and, perhaps more importantly, I don’t get the amount of sleep she says I need. Maybe that’s why I still have these periods when, once again, it almost gets too hard for me to deal with.

Just this past month, I hit another rough spot. This time we were on vacation, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware—one of our favorite places on the East Coast—but much of the time I was feeling irritable and markedly sad. Then, after a couple of days, I became afraid. And what I was afraid of was that when we got back to Front Royal I’d immediately feel better again. That Front Royal was now where I needed to be. That Front Royal was, for better or worse, my real home.

But as we got close, late in the evening, driving up and down the hills of John Marshall Highway on the way into town, I still had it—that sense of dread. We parked in our driveway and unloaded the van. Heather and Maggie were worn out and went to bed right away. I went into our office and sat down, still feeling miserable.

This, I thought, was a good sign. This, I thought, was a sign that, pretty soon, I’d again feel more loathing than fear.

-Jose Padua

How I Learned to Stop Worrying about God, the Bomb (and Waterhead Disease)

It’s hard, real hard. But sometimes, I’m nearly overcome by Front Royal.

Living here, I get these urges. Urges that aren’t good for my health. Urges that have nothing to do with trying to make the world a better place. Urges that could easily get me stomped or transformed from a socialist into a flattened slab of roadkill. Urges for what would be the equivalent of pissing into a black hole.

Sometimes I realize, afterward, that giving in to the urge would have been the right thing to do—in those cases when the person on the receiving end isn’t in control of anything that could be used as a lethal weapon. One such time was when I took Heather for an acupuncture appointment at an office in town. When we got there we saw that the acupuncturist didn’t use the traditional needles, but some wand that used electricity to zap the acupuncture points. After a procedure that cost seventy dollars and took just a couple of minutes, he went on how Heather—and me, as well—should come back for weekly treatments. That was when I noticed, on the wall behind him, a document stating that his medical training came from a place called Life University. It was one of those instances when I should have given in to my urges and said to him, “Life University? Your training came from a place named after a fucking cereal. And you’re saying we should come back here? Are you out of your fucking mind?

Other times, it’s definitely in my best interest that I practice some measure of self control. That’s why when I see one of those jacked-up pickup trucks with a Confederate Flag flying from the back stopped at a red light, I don’t walk up to the driver, point to the flag, and—using my best approximation of a Southern accent—declare, “That’s a real good thing you did. That’s a real good thing.”

Despite the fact that many people who flaunt their support for the lost cause of the South would completely miss my sarcasm, it would still be an incredibly risky thing to try. And besides, what would be the point? It’s not like I’m going to enlighten anyone just like that. Enlightenment, as I’ve learned over the years, is a process that takes time. Nevertheless, I get these urges, and these urges are what remind me of Peaksville, Ohio.

I’ve never been to Peaksville. In fact, Peaksville is an entirely made up place. But in a lot of ways, Peaksville reminds me of Front Royal.

Peaksville, one may recall, was the name of a town in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Titled “It’s a Good Life,” the episode featured Billy Mumy—who, a few years later, would play Will Robinson in Lost in Space, the role for which he is most famous—as Anthony Fremont, a boy living in a small country town. The odd thing with Anthony, though, was that if you didn’t praise him lavishly for every single thing he did, made, or said, he would kill you instantly just using his will power. And, whether Anthony had just killed a group of dogs who were annoyed him with their barking or decapitated his neighbor by turning him into a jack-in-the-box, the proper response was to say, “It’s a good thing you did, Anthony. It’s a real good thing.”

I must have been only seven or eight when I first saw this episode of the Twilight Zone. Anthony was, certainly, a very frightening character—but what also struck me about him was how much he seemed like God—or at least the way God was often presented by the Catholic church and Catholic grade school I attended. I imagine that my making the connection between God and Anthony Fremont was what planted the seeds that led to my becoming what is sometimes referred to as “a fallen Catholic.”

Now, there are at least a hundred different ways to fall. Whether you’re falling for a ruse, falling in love, falling from grace, falling into money or falling in some other way, you’re experiencing a change in elevation, a change in status for good or bad that should be leaving you breathless or dizzy or devastated. Falling in love is the good kind of fall. When I fell from the Catholic church it was, for me, that good kind of fall. In fact, it didn’t feel like a fall at all. On the contrary, it felt like I had been lifted up, freed from a heavy burden I’d carried with me since I was a child.

Similarly, moving to the Shenandoah Valley, away from any big city, seemed like that good kind of fall. It seemed like a nice, new beginning—which it was, at first. But now I look on it as the other kind of fall. The kind of fall that takes you by surprise and finds you mumbling to yourself, Man, I really fucked up.

As for my fall from Catholicism, I always knew it would happen. In fact, I looked forward to it. I knew that when I was no longer a child who had to go to church, that I wouldn’t. It didn’t necessarily mean that I would no longer be a believer of some sort—although, now, after my fall, there is quite a lot having to do with the church that I don’t believe in, as well as a lot that I no longer fear.

For example, I’m no longer afraid that in not going to church I’m committing what’s known as a mortal sin. Which isn’t to say that I’m not committing a mortal sin in the eyes of the church—the sort of sin which, if you die without going to confession to be absolved of it, will send you straight to fucking hell—it’s just that I’m no longer afraid of it.

It seems strange to me how going to hell used to be among my biggest fears when I was a child growing up during the cold war—but that wasn’t the first thing I came to be afraid of. The first thing to catch my attention was the bomb—the possibility that those pale, godless people in Russia would drop a bomb on us all was never far from my mind. It was a fear that found its way to me before I even went to school and which was reinforced there when one of the nuns told my class that if the Russians were to enter our classroom they’d ask us if we believed in God. Our answer to them, she said, would have to be Yes—because we had to stand up for our faith—even though saying Yes meant that the Russians would then kill us. (Yeah, there’s nothing like using fear as a learning tool with a first grader.)

Next was “waterhead disease,” a condition that inspired a fear I had for a number of my childhood years after my brother had shown me a photo in a medical book of a boy with an enlarged head. We just looked at the picture, without attempting to decipher its difficult (for us) medical terminology. Somehow we got the idea that what happened with “waterhead disease” was that when you got it, the water you drank, instead of going into your stomach, would rise through the back of your neck and go straight into your skull, resulting in that frighteningly enlarged head. Finally, there was my fear of mortal sin—and even though it was last in my trio of fear, that didn’t mean it was a lesser fear. That just meant that it was third in my batting order of fears.

So, when I prayed (and, like a lot of Catholic children, I really did pray) it went something like, “God please don’t let them drop the bomb. And don’t let me get that waterhead disease. And please don’t let me die with a mortal sin.”

It seemed to work. Because throughout those cold war years, no one ever dropped a bomb on us. And, I never got waterhead disease—when I drank water, it travelled through my body in the right direction. As for not dying with a mortal sin on my soul, well, I survived the 60s—although I was too young to get into much of the sometimes delightful trouble that decade had to offer—and by the time the 70s came along I’d stopped going to church, which meant that every Sunday I was doing something horrible: I was committing a mortal sin.

Most of my young life, I had been around Catholics. These were the people I knew well and with whom I was the most comfortable. As for the idea that Catholics were the only people who were going to go to heaven—well, I always suspected that that was a crock of shit.

It’s not that all the Catholics I knew felt this way—most of the Catholics I knew well accepted their faith as being just one approach toward the concept of God. But there were others whom I suspected may have had more a radical set of beliefs, such as the woman at the church rectory where I worked during high school who always had to append any statement with the words, “God willing.” If I were to say, “See you tomorrow, Miss S____,” she’d promptly reply, “Yes, God willing.” Even if I were to just idly comment, “The weather’s supposed to be nice, tomorrow,” she’d add, “Yes, God willing.”

I’m no cheerleading, positive psychology type, but I’d always wondered is this really the best way to go about your fucking life? It was attitudes like hers that made me think that an unwavering focus on God’s powers—especially his ability to, on a whim, zap you into oblivion like an electroacupuncturist on meth—wasn’t the healthiest way to live. Of course, she didn’t believe that oblivion was what waited for her on the other side, but for me it was something I was never quite sure about. Even before I was in grade school, the idea of life after death—especially when it involved pearly gates, stately palaces in the sky, and these weird creatures who were half human-half bird (angels always creeped me out)—seemed a little too convenient for me.

It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized if God is the sort of being who’s going to zap me for not praising him or her—in other words, for not feeding his or her black hole of an ego—then maybe God isn’t the sort of being I should be praising. Maybe God is precisely the sort of being I should be rebelling against, as one would some sort of tyrant.

Oddly enough, it seems that the further one moves away from the city, the prevailing vision of God becomes less that of a peaceful being and more that of a warrior—God as soldier driving back the enemy, casting out the non-believers. You see evidence of this attitude on bumper stickers, in church advertisements, and in the display of Left Behind videos at the local Cracker Barrel. It’s a fundamentalist vision that , not surprisingly, leads some Christians to the practice of imprecatory prayer, where they pray, for example, that God will kill President Obama, who they believe is either a Muslim, an illegal alien, or any number of other things. For those assholes who couldn’t be quite as open about their vile hatred, there is the Facebook group whose position is “DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN.”

Now, there are Christians and people of other faiths here who are conscientious—and who realize that when you are truly confident in your faith you don’t need to thrust it upon anyone else like some slimy used car dealer. These are also the people who understand what compassion is and that faith is an area where a diversity of approaches is a good thing.

Unfortunately, here, most of the time it’s the idiotic vision of God as tyrant that seems most visible and conservative, right-wing churches that attract the most followers—the kind of follower whose truck sports a bumper sticker proclaiming, “This is My Peace Symbol” next to an image of a rifle scope. This guy believes in a God who won’t save your soul unless you bow down before him and declare him to be the biggest of all deals. A God who’ll zap you if you don’t applaud him for his role in the horrible tragedies that occur around the world—after all, God works in mysterious ways. A God who acts like Anthony Fremont in that episode of the Twilight Zone.

It’s not everyone, but there are a lot of people here who, on seeing that you’re new to town, assume that you’re looking for a church like theirs. I’m hopeful—and perhaps this is an indication that I still do have some kind of faith—that it’s a minority who believe in using imprecatory prayer. Still, more often than not—whether it’s conservative Catholic or some other Christian denomination—the church where they want invite you is a church where you can participate in the prayer that goes, “It’s a good thing you did. A real good thing.”

As for me, what I most often feel like saying here is something along the lines of “Danger, Will Robinson.”

Except that in this case I’m Will Robinson, here with my family in some strange,
unknown part of the universe. And I’m telling myself, every time I go anywhere, every time I step out the door, “Be careful.”

Because there’s something about Front Royal that reminds me of Peaksville. Because for me, living here, I’m well aware that at any moment I may do or say precisely the wrong thing. And one day, as in Arizona, I may not even have to do or say anything before they ask me for my papers. Before they ask me if I believe in God.

And when they ask I’ll say, confidently, “Yes.” But I doubt that at this point I’ll have the self control to refrain from saying, “Yes, I do believe in God. I just don’t believe in your God.”

-Jose Padua

Revelation at the Cracker Barrel

It’s a sunny cool day in March, a time every year when Front Royal starts to show some promise. With the skies clear, you can look up from the dilapidated houses and empty storefronts, the tattoo parlors and grungy strip motels, to the blue-green mountains so close you’d swear they were your back yard.

Even Jose is up early today because we’ve got a date with some “radicals” at the Starbucks in the shiny new shopping area on the edge of town. There is almost nothing that can drag that man out of bed before 10 am on the weekend but I hear only minor grunts and groans this morning.

We’re founding members of the Coffee Party chapter here and the idea of hanging out with other concerned citizens who understand the folly of the Tea Party movement is like an all-expenses-paid trip to San Francisco or New York City for us.

We’ll be able to drink city-strong coffee, eat decadent pastries, and chat with people who agree that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are dangerous clowns with an ugly, manipulative agenda. What could be more fun? It’s about as good as it gets.

Even though Jose is more motivated than usual, we arrive late, a bag of crafts in tow to keep Maggie occupied. The place is busy and they’ve gotten a good turn out for the meeting. About 12 people are huddled in the back around a few tables. Don’t laugh—it’s an impressive number of progressives for these parts.

We have to scrounge around for chairs and some of the other patrons seem annoyed that we’re monopolizing the place. Maggie finds a friend whose mom has come for the meeting also and they plop into big cushiony arm chairs where they can draw pictures of princesses and drink smoothies.

The assembled Coffee Party members are obviously a bunch of out-of-control leftists, probably socialists, maybe even communists. They’re cleverly dressed to fool the average Shenandoah Valley resident—one man wears a bill cap, a blue plaid flannel shirt, t-shirt, jeans, and work boots. A younger man also wears a baseball cap, jeans, and t-shirt.

The women are even more slick. Several older ladies look like mild-mannered grandmothers, but clearly, they’re out to destroy this country and every traditional value we hold sacred. Everyone should watch out, especially, for the woman disguised as a soccer mom. Her blonde bob may be cute, perky, and familiar but she’s all for a complete government take over.

This is how the local Tea Party members would see us. Even though, except for Jose, everyone here for the meeting is white. Once we manage to attract some people of color, we’ll really freak those constitutionalists out. If we can bring some folks to meetings who were active in the civil rights movement or are gay, maybe we’ll even get spit on. One can dream.

Our group includes an 85-year old ex-CIA operative, a young woman who studies endangered frogs at the Conservation Research Center here in Front Royal, a musician who plays traditional string instruments, a graphic designer, a librarian, a Spanish teacher, the chairperson of the local Democratic committee, and some others I don’t know.

In typical committee fashion, we talk in circles for a while about what we see as the key issues for our group. Some say let’s focus on bringing civility back to public discourse, some say we need to take action on health care, some are more concerned with finance reform. After everyone has their say, we actually come up with a plan and next steps.

Coffee Party chapters all across the country—over 400 of them—will be engaging in a day of congressional action in April or May. We’ve decided to try and meet with our congressman Frank Wolfe. We take a photo of ourselves outside holding a sign that says “Coffee and Frank Talk.” We hope it’ll do the trick and he’ll take notice.

Either way, none of us can sit by any longer and let anyone think the hysteria of the Tea Party represents us. It’s time for a more thoughtful majority to speak.

With the meeting over, we’re supposed to drive over to a winery in Fauquier County to help set up a fundraising auction for Maggie’s school but Maggie and her friend have other ideas. Since Maggie is an only child, I’m particularly susceptible to her need to spend time with other kids. It’s good for her and so we relent. We decide to ditch the auction set up and have lunch at that unavoidable local food establishment, that icon of old time country living—Cracker Barrel.

I must admit that Cracker Barrel has never been on my list of Places to Visit Before I Die. I was only vaguely aware of its existence back in our city days, so very very long ago. I used to think of it as the southern equivalent of Hoss’s Buffet, a mid-Atlantic chain with a vague and disturbing connection to Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.

In reality, Cracker Barrel is the highest grossing chain restaurant in the country with over 400 locations, most near an interstate highway. It’s the place to go if you’re looking for a creepy dose of 1940s small town nostalgia, spit-polished and tied up with a big red, white, and blue ribbon.

As we arrive, I notice the “military rockers” for sale on the long front porch. What a great idea—a rocking chair emblazoned with the seal of any branch of the armed forces you choose. Because when you are old and creaky and settin’ on the porch, you want to remember your glory days blowing the heads off of your enemies or maybe you want to be reminded of the American men and women currently blowing the heads off of Iraqis and Afghanis or having their own limbs severed by roadside bombs.

Come to think of it, I’m sure our soldiers would love to come and rock a spell, even if it’s at the Cracker Barrel. I wish I could just pull them out of the current conflicts and plop them down right here.

We get a seat quickly at a round table near the door. I’ve been at this table more times than I can count and have a habit of gazing up at the portraits of Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King on the wall above. I wonder if the Justice Department required those portraits as part of the 2006 settlement against Cracker Barrel for racial discrimination.

The company has a long history of allowing discrimination against people of color in its stores. It took numerous lawsuits before they agreed to adopt strict anti-discrimination policies. And it’s not just blacks who’ve struggled with the chain. In the early 90s, Cracker Barrel instituted a policy requiring employees to display “normal heterosexual values.” They’ve since removed that policy but in 2008 were given the lowest possible rating by the Human Rights Campaign‘s for their lack of workplace equity for gays and lesbians. (

The irony of all this hits me as I’m digging into a fantastically yummy slice of French toast. From where I’m sitting, I can almost bathe in the glow of glittery old fashioned candy and southern treats artfully displayed in the store area. They’ve taken on a sinister sheen somehow—maybe because they celebrate a time when America was a land of opportunity and justice only if you happened to be white, straight, and Christian.

I have to admit that like millions of other suckers I’m strangely drawn to the doo-dads and baubles displayed all over the store—the lotions, candles, toys, clothes, CDs, DVDs and hokey memorabilia. It’s bright and neatly arranged. It’s seasonal and always on sale.

So far, the Cracker Barrel in Front Royal seems to have bypassed the company’s ugly history. We’ve never had any trouble eating there with Jose’s obviously Asian family. In fact, the wait staff have been unfailingly cheerful and solicitous. Perhaps we are benefitting from all those law suits brought by brave and angry souls against Cracker Barrels in numerous other states.

To them, I take off my hat and say thank you.

I hate to admit it but I’m afraid it’s true that we actually like coming here, sitting near the fireplace, playing checkers, and browsing in the scary country store. With our busy schedules, eating at a chain restaurant with a corny theme is now the norm. It doesn’t hurt that the food is plentiful and inexpensive.

Maggie and her friend have barely finished eating before they are begging to go look around the store. We pay the bill, wrap up our leftovers, and head on over. Immediately, the girls grab those stiff leashes that have a collar with no animal in it so they can pretend to be walking an invisible dog or cat.

One of our friends spots a wall hanging that displays the ten commandments and assumes it is a list of joke commandments until she looks closer and realizes that it is the real ten commandments. The incredulity on her face makes my day. I’m really laughing at her—is she a Cracker Barrel Country Store virgin? I point out to her that she is gazing at the patriotic/inspirational Christian display. I show her my favorite plaque—an image of American flag in a field of flowers with a stiffly painted cardinal in the foreground facing the flag and seeming to salute it. The caption reads, ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.’ Sadly, the plaque is missing something. Maybe it needs this phrase to be added: “and will smite your ass if you even think about the separation of church and state.” Yes, then it would be perfect.

Jose spends a good 15 or 20 minutes talking at a toy parrot that records your voice and spits it back at you in at a ridiculously high pitch. “I listen to Sun Ra,” he makes it say over and over. Maggie makes it say, “I love Mama”—she’s getting bonus points for that.

We have a grand time making fun of the cheesier paraphernalia for sale. I almost buy a copy of a Left Behind movie because it would be both enlightening and terrifying to watch, like peering directly into the mind of the right-wing evangelical, the-apocalypse-is-coming-any-day movement. But I just can’t do it. Life is too short and my time to valuable to squander it that way.

Because Maggie and her friend are having such a good time together, we decide to let her go play at her friend’s house for the afternoon. She runs off and we chase after her for a hug. Then we get into the car and start to head home. As we pull out of the parking lot, I’m shocked to realize that I’m actually starting to feel grounded here in this strange little town. It hits me like a truck-load of chicken-fried steak that we have more friends and more of a purpose here than we ever had in our last neighborhood just outside DC, where we were too complacent and life seemed almost too easy.

Jose still misses the anonymity of the big city but I have always liked to feel connected in every which way—the twisted effect of growing up in a large family. We both agree, however, that with liberal progressive types such a minority here, you tend to appreciate each other more. And stick together.

As much as I’d like to never eat at a fast food or chain restaurant again, I know it’s going to happen. And as much as I want Front Royal to suddenly morph into a hip leftie college town, I know that also is not in the cards. So I’ll have to work with whatever humors and beauties make themselves known to me. We are not unlucky to find ourselves here in this time and place.

Later that day we run into the Coffee Party leader at the grocery store and then see another friend from that morning’s meeting at the fundraiser for Maggie’s school. She’s playing with the band as the sun sets behind those ancient blue-green mountains. At the break we laugh about what a small town it is.

Maybe, just maybe—in some sick and unexpected but steadily growing way—that’s fine with me. Even Jose, still dreaming of late-night city streets, seems to cringe less often at the Mayberry insularity that is so unavoidable here. It’s like we’re all characters in a Thorton Wilder play, only stranger and more real.

-Heather Davis

In the Valley of the Shadow of Glenn Beck’s Hemorrhoids

For me, life is a series of obsessions. Some I take on only to discard at some point. Others I keep while, like a polygamist of obsessions, I find more—of different shapes and sizes—to add to the group. So, in addition to my actual family, I have, in my mind, a parallel family of obsessions. It was one of these obsessions—my obsession with the name “Front Royal”—that brought us to this town and took us away from the city life that suited us so well for so many years. It was a move that took a lot of effort and, above all, energy. And what gave me the energy to come here and drag Heather and Maggie along was that obsession. For a number of years now—with my days of heavy drinking behind me—alcohol has been replaced by obsession as my primary fuel. Indeed, obsessions aren’t just something I have: for me, obsessions are everything.

Lately, what I’ve been obsessed with is America—the country and the concept. I’ve been writing poem after poem about America, about what I see in it and what I don’t see, what I love about it and what I hate about it. I’m obsessed with its long stretches of highway that take you from city to suburb to country, then on into mountains and desert and, finally, out to the ocean on the other side of the continent. And, I’m obsessed with being on that road—I’d be perfectly happy spending years going from town to town, and hotel to hotel, with Heather and Maggie. I love being on the road and, I must say, I love being on the road even more now since we moved to the valley.

I can’t say that I’ve never had a sad moment on the road, but there’s something about that motion, that sensation that you’re floating over the asphalt like some entity that’s half flesh and blood and half ghost—that helps make the bad things seem, if not insignificant, then at least small enough so that hiding them in the back of your mind is a lot easier. As for those ugly Hummers you see or cars with bumper stickers like “I’ll Keep My Freedom, My Guns, and My Money, and You Can Keep the Change”—well, I can slow down, or speed up so that I stay a comfortable and safe distance from them. A distance that will decrease the chances of me giving in to another of my obsessions: giving people the finger.

Getting away from these things that make me want to stretch my arm, make a tight fist, then extend my middle finger isn’t easy to do when I’m home—home being not my house where I feel fine, but the town I live in. A town which, because I live here, I’m supposed to call home.

That’s another reason why I’m obsessed with being on the road now. When I’m on the road, I’m a tourist: I don’t need to feel at home. Or, at any rate, when I’m on the road, I’m not missing anything if I don’t feel like I belong. Because when I’m home I think, for some strange, fucked up reason, that I’m supposed to feel like I belong there.

I have felt at home before, such as in my old Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in DC—but that was where I grew up. The things that annoyed people who were new to the neighborhood like the drunks peeing in the alley behind the house—shit, even I did that myself sometimes—never bothered me. I also felt at home when I lived in New York City. Home, even when I’d walk in the door of my apartment building on Avenue B to see some junkie shooting up in the foyer in front of the mailboxes. Home, even when the middle-aged couple down the hall would have an argument and yell at each other for half an hour, after which he would finally stomp off and she would sing that old Olivia Newton-John song, “Come On Over.” She’d sing it, in Spanish, while sitting in the hallway all forlorn, her voice getting louder and louder as she cleared the smoker’s phlegm from her lungs. Then she’d pace back and forth, still singing, her voice going even more horribly off key than when she started.

I hated that song when it was sung pitch perfect, by Olivia herself, and I hated it even more after hearing my neighbor sing it. But, despite her horrible voice, and the actual physical pain it caused, I still felt that I was home. And that I belonged there.

After being here in Front Royal for over two years, I still don’t feel that way. I know, I seem to keep saying that over and over, but that’s another one of my obsessions—my obsession with the concept of home and that moment of revelation when, after being in some new place for a little while, you nod and say to yourself Yeah, this is where I belong. It sure as hell hasn’t happened to me yet here in the valley.

Of course it’s hard to get that homey feeling when not a day goes by when I don’t get that look from someone. And I don’t even mean that gawking where-the-fuck-are-you-from stare I get from time to time from people to whom I seem like a lizard being who just fell to earth from another planet. I mean that quick look that takes an extra split second more than just a casual glance. It’s that glance I get from people who all of sudden seem to think they’ve got a job with Homeland Security and are excited that, with me, they may have just spotted one of those evil-doing invaders—or some illegal alien who’s going to take his job away from him and move next door and spoil the complexion of his neighborhood.

Then there are those looks that aren’t quite as long, but still last longer than they should. Sometimes it’s a person behind the counter of some business here—a person who will look at me and, believing that I’m some kind of outsider who doesn’t belong here (or maybe anywhere else in America), never look at me in the eye again throughout the entire transaction. Usually that person will ask me for my ID, even though he or she hasn’t bothered asking for the ID of the people in line before me who used a bank card to pay. But the thing they don’t realize when they ask for my ID is that, after they look at my ID, they have to look at me again to see if there’s a match. And, if their intent is just to avoid looking at me—to avoid seeing invaders like me—then they’ve lost. So when they look up from my ID and back at me is when I give them my scary make-them-pee-in-their-pants face. It is, in certain ways, more effective than saying “Go fuck yourself”—except that I never know for sure if I’ve made someone pee in his or her pants, whereas when I say “Go fuck yourself” I get that warm and fuzzy but palpable feeling that goes along with that phrase.

When they’re not afraid or suspicious of me, then they want to laugh or belittle me—or, at any rate, make me something so far removed from reality that I can’t possibly pose a threat anymore. Recently, during a ghost tour of downtown Front Royal, one of the tour guides told me that I reminded him of the mystical amulet seller in The Golden Child, an Eddie Murphy vehicle from more than twenty years ago. I wasn’t that offended—my first unspoken reaction being Of all the movies of the last twenty years , you remember that fucking movie?—but again, I was being singled out as the other, the alien, the exotic being.

Still, I would have to say that reminding him of the amulet seller was better than reminding him, for example, of Mickey Rooney’s idiotic bucktoothed portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Or Gedde Watanabe’s portrayal of the clueless, just-off-the-boat Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. (Looking back on that role years later, Watanabe admitted that he was a bit naïve in gleefully presenting this offensively stereotypical character.) And, if the tour guide had said I reminded him not of the amulet seller, but of the actor who played that role, Victor Wong, that would have been a different thing altogether.

Before he started acting, Victor Wong was a painter, a poet, a photographer, a journalist. He’d studied painting under Mark Rothko, was portrayed as “Arthur Ma” in Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, was a part of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters crowd, and was even a TV reporter. Far from being some exotic other, Victor Wong was an American. Born in San Francisco in 1927, he died in 2001, the day after attacks on September 11th.

For some people, though, that’s not enough to give him consideration as a real American—after all, his last name was Wong. As Glenn Beck recently commented about Barack Obama, “You don’t take the name Barack to identify with America.” For Beck and other like-minded goons, American names have a European, preferably Anglo-Saxon origin. Obviously, with my name being Jose Padua, I could never be a real American, at least not in Beck’s world.

Which brings me to another obsession—my obsession with how there’s no difference between what comes out of Glenn Beck’s mouth and the gas that escapes to the free world through his hemorrhoid-besieged anus. (“I had surgery on my ass,” Beck explained while talking about the procedure performed on his hemorrhoids during his old show on Headline News back in 2008.) I think about Glenn Beck’s ass a lot—even more than I think about the hate-filled drivel he tries to pass off as social commentary.

You know how they say that when you’re speaking in front of a crowd of people, it helps calm your nerves if you imagine that the entire audience is naked? Well, back in 2008 I did the first full poetry reading I’d done in years. I felt rusty and I was, I admit, a little bit nervous. But as soon as I got up before that crowd of people at the bookstore in Winchester, I started thinking about Glenn Beck, and the fact that he has this history of horribly painful hemorrhoids. Pretty soon I had the audience in the palm of my hand.

Yeah, sometimes my obsessions work for me—sometimes they don’t.

And what it always comes back to is this: my obsessions clash with theirs. Their obsessions are guns, god, taxes, illegal immigrants—a set of obsessions that goes along with a vision of America as homogenous Homeland. My great obsession is that I’m an American, too, but here, in the valley, I don’t really feel like it—and I worry that this valley isn’t shrinking but expanding. Just like Glenn Beck’s hemorrhoids.

-Jose Padua

Waiting for Jesus at the Daily Grind

“I threw my crutches in the river of a shadow of doubt”
—East Jesus Nowhere, Green Day

I’m sitting at The Daily Grind in Front Royal feeling really really bad. A few weeks before Christmas, I flamed one of my family members, a beloved aunt whose gumption I’ve admired since I was little. I just snapped, bursting out of the humanist closet to her entire evangelical Christian email list.

Oh, God, I thought. There go all those warm, fuzzy family reunions where we ignore all of our political and religious differences and pretend we have anything in common.

Now she knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that I don’t buy into heaven or hell. Now she knows the real me with all my lumpy, bumpy progressive liberal imperfections. But, if honesty is a good thing, why do I feel like a heel? Maybe because I’m a wuss who hates confrontation and the tearing down of childhood idols.

Or maybe because the truth ain’t easy.

Now I’m sitting in our local coffee shop surrounded, ironically, by Christian home-schoolers and Catholic college students, writing my aunt a note of apology—not for my beliefs, but for the flaming.

My aunt has survived poverty, drug addiction, physical abuse, and divorce to raise two of her own kids and three step-kids. She’s also a mean cook and drives like she belongs at Indy. I dig that kind of toughness.

But I just couldn’t take it any more—the emails crammed with rhetoric about fiery darts, enemies at the gate, and helping God fight Satanic forces. Sometimes I just wanted to know the bottom line—had my cousin recovered from her post-partum infection? When would they (my aunt and uncle) be traveling to India on their missionary trip? I had to scroll through a hell of lot of “hallelujahs” to get any real news.

This was kind of fun for a while, like observing a foreign and exotic culture. Oh, wow, I said to myself, look at those wacky born-agains—they sure are enthusiastic. In Front Royal, we are surrounded by them, so why did my aunt’s propaganda get under my skin?

This is the line in her email that pushed me over the edge: “We are going again to teach and to encourage the hundreds of Indian pastors there who work around the clock to preach the Word in a dark part of the world.”

Oh my, is it me or does that sound a lot like old-fashioned white Protestant colonial arrogance? To call a whole country “dark” because it isn’t Christian is to deny the legitimacy of every other faith tradition in the world. Of course, that is what radical right-wing Christians do. Her unfortunate choice of the adjective “dark” also calls to mind the long history of racism and oppression perpetuated by the West.

How could I not shoot something back? Could I respect myself if I didn’t? I know it was almost Christmas, and her email was an easy target, but what better time to stand up for religious pluralism? My inner-Unitarian Universalist had her hemp knickers in a twist and was dying to speak.

My aunt’s email also included a sparkly Christmas postcard with this message:

WE will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas this year…Our way of saying that I am celebrating the birth Of Jesus Christ. So, I am asking my email buddies, if you agree with me, to please do the same. And if you’ll pass this on to your email buddies, and so on…maybe we can prevent one more American tradition from being lost in the sea of “Political Correctness.”

I love the phrase, “making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.” Can’t you just see a world where rabid believers accost the unsuspecting by violently screaming Merry Christmas at them, terrifying old atheist ladies, small children, and pets.

“Don’t you say Happy Holidays to me, you fuckin mother-fucker!”

If I know you’re Christian, or even agnostic, I’ll probably say Merry Christmas to you; but if you’re Jewish, I’m likely to say Happy Hannukah. If I don’t know what the heck you are, it’s gonna be Happy Holidays. So arrest me!

I didn’t use rough language in my response to her—I was polite, respectful, and even-toned but that didn’t seem to matter—I’d hit a pretty big nerve.

My aunt wanted to know how I could live with the “consequences” of my decision to not join her club.

Lesson 1: There is no way to rationally argue with someone who has seen Jesus and whose life was saved by him. So don’t try!

Let me explain.

Two years ago my husband Jose and I moved with our young daughter to the land of Jazzercise for Jesus and Xtreme Youth Ministries. We knew it was a gamble but our options were limited. Life here is a heck of a lot cheaper than in the big bad city.

One of the first questions you get out here is, “What church do you go to?” But folks don’t mean which mosque, synagogue, temple, or church—they mean which Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic church do you attend.

When you don’t immediately toss out a familiar sounding place of worship, they start looking at you real funny then slowly back away.

I’m not kidding. Even candidates for local office, coming door to door, would invite us to their churches. The casual way they assumed we were Christian told me more than I wanted to know.

After a few of these encounters, I started to wonder if I smelled funny. Of course, Jose and I expected some of this behavior when we left the city—we weren’t totally naïve. But after being here for just a few months, we wondered if maybe we had been drugged and taken to a cult compound in the middle of the mountains, walled off from reasoning people, the kind who think the scientific method is a good thing.

The signs were ominous—no matter where we turned, we found secret Christian messages. I’d look in the paper and see an ad for a kids’ theatre program that might be good for our daughter. Then I’d read the fine print about how all activities will be used to Praise the Lord. Or we’d buy a personal pizza at the town pool and notice, while we munched away, that the company has pledged on the back of the box to “Place God First In All We Do.”

We’d look at each other as if to say, “Even the freakin’ pizza boxes are in on it!”

Sometimes you think you’ve escaped. You go to your daughter’s ballet recital to appreciate an art form for its own sake, for the beauty of the music and the dancing. Then the dance teacher and her assistant perform an impassioned pas de deaux for Christ. They’re twisting and emoting and praising all over the stage. It’s just so desperate somehow. Good grief, you wonder, is this what I signed up for?

Other times, when driving around the Valley, you play a game where you see who can spot the most Jesus-inspired business signs. This is a game you can’t lose. Two of my favorites sightings are “Rising Son Insurance” and “Trinity Express Lube.” I’ve never asked God to bless my lube jobs before but maybe I’ve been missing out.

Before you brand us Jose and I as utterly bereft of spirituality, I should say that we neither confirm nor deny the existence of a higher power—we are open to all possibilities. Maybe we even like to honor the mystery of not knowing. What matters most to us is the belief that no one has the right to tell another person his or her spiritual traditions and practices are invalid, or that their souls are condemned.

An Episcopal priest at a church I once attended explained it this way. He said that Christianity is not the only gateway to the divine, it’s just the one that works best for him.

In Front Royal and for the growing ranks of the Christian Right, this is a deeply radical idea. Without it, my aunt’s rhetoric becomes a lot less laughable and a lot more disturbing. Does she really believe that the unsaved deserve hell, that they are in thrall to the devil?

Apparently, yes. And that is what her church teaches to the poor in India who come to them for free food, medical care, and education. It’s all free—which is a wonderful thing—except for that little part about burning in hell, if you remain a Hindu. It’s the same kind of half-assed “love” that gays get from this kind of church. As several of my family members know, it’s love with a big catch, and never real acceptance.

On a warm spring day about a year ago, all my aunt’s kids, the cousins I’d grown up with, came to visit their mom and dad not far from us in Virginia. We drove down to see them and had a good day hanging out, catching up on what everyone had been doing in various parts of the world.

It all seemed fairly normal until my aunt started telling us about the trip they took to Israel for their anniversary. We were sitting outside on the patio, digging into fried chicken and potato salad, watching the kids play under the trees, when my aunt explained how they had toured the valley where the “last battle will take place.”

I tried not to look at Jose but was worried he might choke. He was heavily focused on his drum stick but managed to sneak a wide-eyed WTF look my way. What could I say back to that—something reasonable like “Oh, and was it nice there, where millions will be slaughtered in the end times?”

I think I switched the topic and made a mental note to avoid any banter that might touch upon the apocalypse. Note to self: NO APOCALYPSE CHAT.

The scary thing is that even my mother buys into this stuff—the end times, the second coming, people being sucked into the clouds—and believes that she will not see me in the afterlife because of my non-traditional views.

It’s not something we usually talk about and it doesn’t change my love for her but it is a little depressing to think that your own mother has written off the future of your soul because you don’t take the Bible literally.

Her life, like my aunt’s has not been easy, and I don’t deny the peace their faith gives them. I also understand that evangelical Christians see proselytizing as something the New Testament asks them to do. What worries me is the divisiveness of any kind of radical religion, which is, by its nature, violent. If you embrace the dogma they espouse, you are welcomed; if not, it’s separation, suffering, fire, and pain for you.

According to author Chris Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, “there are at least 75 million evangelicals in the United States, about 25% of the population.” A 2004 study by political scientist John Green estimates that roughly half of these (12.6 percent) make up the “religious right,” a group characterized by a belief in Biblical literalism, hostility to pluralism, a refusal to extend civil rights to homosexuals, and the desire to move the U.S toward a Christian theocracy.

Though other polls place the number of Christian extremists at only 7 percent of the population, Hedges points out that their movement is extremely potent. In the theocracy they desire, schools, government, and other public institutions would adhere strictly to Biblical teachings. It sounds crazy and it seems impossible but out here, in the Shenandoah Valley, you start to believe it could happen. And you have to wonder how many regular folks understand the critical importance of the separation of church and state—why and how it protects us all.

Every December here a nativity scene appears on the lawn of the Warren County Courthouse and no one bats an eye. Recently a town council member used his official town email to invite other conservative Christians to prayer lunches. He said it was an accident.

If you’re a yoga instructor in Front Royal, you know not to approach the public schools about offering classes because they are convinced that yoga is a religious cult. A book in the local CVS for young Christian women advises strongly against trying a single downward-facing dog or sun salutation. To flirt with Eastern practices like yoga is to risk losing your soul.

One yoga teacher I know has watched a local evangelical woman remove his yoga flyers from the coffee shop on Main Street. He calls her “the bonnet lady.”

There’s another woman like her who works at the McDonald’s up the street from our house and who refuses to look Jose in the eye. She’s clearly not comfortable with something—could it be otherness, swarthy skin, or maybe his vaguely pagan aura?

The bonnet ladies are why I had to write back to my aunt—they made me do it. They are what scare the crap out of me about conservative Christian America.

That and the giant vanilla cross cakes we see at bake sales. I’d like to say they come topped with a life-like candy Christ and strawberry flavored blood but no one’s gone that far, at least not yet.

I’m sure our new governor Bob McDonnell would buy those cakes in a heartbeat. Recently, at his inaugural prayer breakfast for 900 people, including the hate-monger Pat Robertson, he is reported by the Associated Press (AP) to have said that he, “looks at public service as a form of ministry.”

Also, according to the AP, a neighbor of the McDonnel’s attending the inaugural commented, “God is shining down on Bob and Maureen because he said this is the way it’s supposed to be because he’s a man of God and he deserves this.”

I thought we broke from England and it’s divinely appointed monarchs over 200 years ago? Thinking your political leaders need to be chosen or approved by any kind of greater power is asking for trouble. It destroys the ability of the people to hold their leaders accountable and is the first step toward fascism. Do we really want to go there?

As I’m finishing up the note of apology to my aunt, a woman in what I call a “frontier dress” walks into the coffee shop. I don’t mean to be narrow-minded but I can’t help thinking about the prairie, outhouses, and birthing babies by candlelight when I see my neighbors in long home-made dresses that are the American equivalent of the burqa.

I was used to this sort of outfit back in Pennsylvania near Amish country. Both Amish and Mennonite women wear hand-made dresses, never pants. For some reason it didn’t seem strange in the least, maybe because the Amish don’t involve themselves in politics or culture wars. They do their own thing and let the English live as they will.

I can respect that. Here the frontier dresses make my skin crawl. They signal submission to male authority and nostalgia for a time when women could not vote or hold office. I assume the women who wear them here are not total sheep but clearly they are a part of a religious right that pines for the good old days when everyone had a shotgun, gay men and women hid their sexuality out of sheer terror, and white Protestants could wield their moral superiority without challenge.

One family in my neighborhood whose female members wear only dresses and skirts placed Constitution Party yard signs in front of their house during the presidential election. The seven principles of the Constitution Party include both xenophobic and homophobic language. It’s a party that wants to live in an idealized version of America…one set in 1776.

This crowd we live with in the northern Shenandoah Valley is a far cry from the teeming multi-colored masses of inner-city D.C., where white Constitutionalists wouldn’t dare reveal their true selves, backward and paranoid as they are.

Somehow we failed to realize before we moved to Front Royal that it is home to one of the few evangelical Catholic colleges in the country, Christendom College. In our dreams, we move to a funky, liberal college town like Northampton, Amherst, Berkeley, or Chapel Hill. In reality we pass by Faithful and True, the Catholic gift shop on Main Street where you can read flyers decrying government conspiracies and warning against the flu vaccine.

We stepped into Faithful and True this past “holiday season” to buy gifts for Jose’s devout Catholic father. We admired the rosary beads, looked through the Virgin Mary key chains, and actually bought a book about the Christmas story for Maggie and a huge portrait of the Pope for Jose’s Dad. We were respectful but the lady at the counter knew we were faking it. When I wanted to run out and use the restroom at the coffee shop down the street, Jose refused to be left alone by himself among the Bibles and crucifixes. Wimp!

Jose was raised Catholic and went to a private Catholic boys school and Catholic University. The priest-educators he encountered at those institutions seemed like hippy freaks compared to the rabid conservatives that populate Christendom, which every year requires the entire student body to attend the March for Life.

Oddly enough, it’s always the person with the Christendom bumper sticker who we notice has a toddler in the front seat of their car or way in back without a child safety seat. And we’ve been told by friends who’ve lived in town all their lives that Christendom students party their holy asses off. The beer bottles and cigarette butts in a field behind her house are testimony.

When we noticed recently that the Royal Cinemas movie theatre would be showing some independent films produced by a local team of young filmmakers, we were intrigued—until we looked up their website. They are graduates of Christendom—so much for art, independence, and free thinking. Our idea of a good movie is not one with a thinly-veiled conversion agenda.

In a funny twist of fate, we were heckled last fall by the man we were told runs the bookstore at Christendom. We were walking with the Warren County Democrats (WCD) in the Festival of Leaves parade. We had just passed the center of town when someone shouted out, “The unborn have rights too!” I looked over to see who it was. “Oh, that’s Mr. C,” said the chairman of the WCD.

“Mr. C—really?” I said, happy I had not screamed back at him. For 12 years, Mr. C. and his wife and six kids had rented the house we bought and now live in. Small towns—what can you do?

I think we’ll just kick back and enjoy the prayer meetings at the gazebo downtown and marvel at the crude wooden crosses believers carry in the direction of the four winds, blessing Front Royal north, south, east, and west.

Finally finished with my “sorry” note, I slip it into the envelope and walk it down to the mailbox near Faithful and True. On my way, I look up at the yoga studio where I had a fantastic Thai yoga massage months ago. That studio had to shut down but another has opened up as the alternative health scene here continues to grow.

Maybe I’ll take a laughing yoga class soon, even though I’ll be tempting the devil.

As I drop the letter into the box, I realize that I’m starting to feel a bit better. Maybe it’s the blessing one of the baristas gave me when I told her about a medical procedure I need to have, or maybe it’s just the coffee kicking in.

Either way, I don’t mind her blessing. I never said Jesus isn’t real—just don’t tell me Buddha isn’t too.

-Heather Davis

What the F*** Are You Looking At? A Guide to Surviving Children’s Parties in the Middle of Nowhere

For better or worse, I see myself as Lisa Douglas, Eva Gabor’s character in Green Acres. The Hungarian bride of Oliver Wendell Douglas—the New York City attorney, played by Eddie Albert, who decides he needs to follow his dream to be a farmer—Lisa is having a hard time adjusting to life in the country. Like her, I love New York. Like her, I feel a bit helpless away from the city. Like her, I have no idea how to make living things rise up from the dirt. But unlike her, it was my idea to come out here. That I, and not Heather, am the one who now feels completely ill equipped for life here in Front Royal is where reality has diverged from this particular piece of TV fiction from the 60s.

And never have I felt so ill equipped and out of place than at a birthday party Maggie was invited to at Loch Linden just outside of town. This time, though, it wasn’t so much my Lisa Douglas syndrome that had me on the verge of freaking out—and yes, I have a tendency to freak out over things other people don’t even think twice about, or even once, or at all. And what had me on edge was that this was the first birthday party that I’d be taking Maggie to alone.

Usually, both Heather and I take Maggie whenever she’s invited to a birthday party here. Even though the parties are never far away, they’re usually at these homes that are halfway up some mountain. Finding them means you’ll have to make a series of hairpin turns while keeping an eye out for some gravel—or, worse, dirt road—that’s supposed to suddenly be visible when you get to a clearing in the woods. I’ve found that it helps to have Heather navigate while Maggie looks out for those spots where the vegetation looks like it’s thinning out, because that means we may be getting close to whatever hidden road we’re supposed to take.

This time, though, Heather had a meeting with her writers’ group in Winchester at the same time as the party, which meant that, after dropping Heather off with her group, just Maggie and I would be going. Still, getting to the party wasn’t what I thought would be the hardest thing I had to do this afternoon. The hardest part, I thought, was my being at the party. Even after six years of being a parent, children’s birthday parties are still something that fall way outside my so-called comfort zone. But it’s not the kids that I find difficult to be around—in fact, I’m actually pretty good at doing those goofy sorts of things that kids find entertaining. Indeed, what I find difficult, if not frightening, about children’s birthday’s parties are the parents.

Invariably—and this was true even when we were still close to DC—there would be some parent, usually another dad, who will either look at me in a funny way, or else be blatantly hostile toward me. It’s not that I’m unaccustomed to people being wary of me, either because of my long, unruly hair or because I don’t look like a proper American. After being and feeling like an outsider in the country I was born in, I’ve learned how to deal with that kind of shit. The problem with being at a kids’ party, though, is that I can’t sneer back at whoever is giving me the evil eye, and I certainly can’t give him the finger or else tell him to go fuck himself. After all, I’m trying to set some kind of example for Maggie—and, perhaps, any other kids who may be there.

At this particular party, I knew the parents who were hosting it—one of them has been to our house several times—so I knew that they were cool. But I had no idea who else would be there. So, after finally making it to Loch Linden—after making it over one of those frightening low-water bridges and following one of those winding dirt roads up some mountain I don’t know the name of—we found that comforting clearing in the woods that meant (surprise) we’d actually made it. And we were pretty much on time.

As usually happens at these parties, Maggie immediately ran off to be with her friends. That I’m used to—but usually I have Heather to talk to once Maggie starts hanging out with her friends. This time, though, I was on my own. Fortunately, there weren’t too many people there yet, just the birthday girl’s parents and a few other parents from Maggie’s school with whom I at least had a nodding acquaintance. So far, so good. After a few minutes I started to think, “shit, I can do this.”

That’s when I heard the first gunshot in the distance. In the city, the sound of gunshots is usually good reason to take cover, because you have no idea exactly where the shots are coming from, who they’re intended for, and where the bullets are eventually going to end up. In the country, you still have no idea of exactly where the shots are, who they’re intended for, and where they’ll eventually end up—because in the country, you assume the shots came from a hunter, and that the hunter knows what he or she is doing. But to me, even if it is a hunter, I still don’t see why I should trust a guy dressed in orange who has a loaded gun any more than I should trust a guy wearing a ski mask who’s got a gun.

So, there were some questions I wanted to ask. Questions like, Just because we’re in the country, how do I know that these gun shots aren’t the sound of someone who’s out hunting humans? And Is orange one of those calming colors? And, finally, Why isn’t everyone panicking right now?

The next thing I heard was something that was completely new to me, something which—at least as far as I could tell—had no equivalent in the city. And what it was was one of the most unworldly sounds I’d ever heard. Wounded and forlorn, it sounded like some insane banshee to me at first, until I realized the sound wasn’t human in any way—it was animal. That’s when I heard one of the parents refer to the sound as that of “mountain dogs.”

Yeah, mountain dogs. That, to me, sounded like some clever rural euphemism. I wondered if a more accurate term would have been “wild dog” or “coyote” or “wolf”? After hearing that sound, all I could think of was that old short story by Saki, “The Interlopers,” where the two main characters, trapped in the woods by a fallen tree, think they hear the sound of their men approaching to come to their aid. But, as the sound gets closer and closer and they can finally see what’s approaching, they see it’s not men, but wolves.

It had been decades since I’d thought about that short story, but now it was all coming back to me, along with the fear I felt at the end of it. Of course, no one else at the party seemed to react in the slightest way to either the sound of gunfire or to the wolves which I knew, in the back of my mind, were about to set upon us.

It was, certainly, a Lisa Douglas/Green Acres moment for me, and where Lisa Douglas would have said in her thick Hungarian accent, “Oliver, perhaps we should get back in our car immediately,” I was ready to ask “Am I the only one who hears this shit?”

As it turned out, the party at Loch Linden wasn’t too bad once I got used to the sound of gunfire and the howls of the wild dogs. A few other parents from Maggie’s school arrived—parents with whom I’d chatted before at school events and who were quite pleasant to be with—though, as usual at gatherings like these, there was one parent who for whatever reason decided that I wasn’t the sort of person he should be socializing with. And, when I looked over to him, nodded, and said hello, he looked at me blankly before turning away without even a perfunctory “hello” or begrudged nod in return.

When I was a kid I always felt bad when this sort of thing happened—when people ignored me because I was different or else told me to go back to my own country. I’d wish that I weren’t such a freak, or weirdo. I’d wish that I weren’t born an outsider. That somehow I could fit in. That I could feel, for once, like an American.

But that wasn’t going to happen, and I’m not that same quiet kid I was then. Later—it probably wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties—when someone would stare at me with that where-the-fuck-are-you-from look, instead of just feeling bad, I’d stare right back. Stare as I think, What the fuck are you looking at you dumb-ass goon? And, in those cases where they would turn away before I could give the look back at them, I’d go ahead and speak.

This is where my skills as a poet came in handy. What the fuck are you looking at? I’d say. Or Go fuck yourself! Well, OK, maybe it’s hard to wax poetic when someone’s been sneering at you like you’re some savage unworthy of sharing the same restaurant, grocery store, or park with him. For me, the poetry always came later. While these incidents were occurring, I behaved more like Lisa Douglas would behave if Green Acres were being produced today on some cable network—and directed by some asshole Quentin Tarrantino wannabe.

Of course, now that I’m a parent, I can’t say the things I used to say to people—not even a simple Fuck you, then to that one parent at the Loch Linden party. But maybe that’s OK. Now, that I’m older, I need to pick my fights better, and accept those occasions when communication of any kind is futile.

After a few hours at Loch Linden, I got Maggie, said goodbye to our gracious hosts, and headed out to pick up Heather. Carefully trying to follow the directions in reverse order down the mountain, I found the low-water bridge again. But somewhere along the way we got lost, and when I finally got to a place I recognized, we were twenty miles east of Winchester. I phoned Heather to tell her we were going to be a little late picking her up.

My being a little late is fine with her. I think she’s just glad that, after over two years here in the Valley, I’m not getting into worse trouble.

-Jose Padua

Just Say No to Small Town Beauty Queens

Strolling around Front Royal, you can’t help but notice the profusion of hair salons and beauty parlors. On a side street near my house you can walk by these buildings in quick succession: Sheriff’s office, gun shop, beauty barn. Every commercial building here sits near a salon.

Do the cops stop in for a hair chop every now and then along with the purchasers of handguns and rifles? Will those weapons someday be used in crimes that land their owners in the clink? Let’s face it, whether we are good guys or bad guys, we all want to look attractive.

Yesterday I saw a woman at Martin’s grocery sporting a classic 1960s country grandma bouffant. It really was impressive—good height, evenly teased and shaped, hair-sprayed into a solid but delicate blonde-gray mass. It reminded me of a wasp’s nest. Her lady’s leisure suit and high-heeled sandals clinched the look. I must admit that I admire that kind of sassy style, even if it is 40 years old—this ma-maw was stepping out with pride.

Senior citizens probably make up a huge portion of salon devotees in Front Royal. But there also seem to be a lot of customers at the other end of the age spectrum, too many perhaps. What is it about small towns that keeps so many cosmetologists busy?

I first noticed this phenomenon at the Festival of Leaves parade, where fire trucks, pickups, and convertibles were decorated with more beauty queens than any one town should be able to produce.

Even though I could never condone the crowning of any beauty queen, from Miss Universe on down, I’m willing to accept the usual one or two per small town civic event. Certainly, Winchester would implode without its Miss Apple Blossom Festival.

I tend to combat the unwanted influence of adult beauty queens on my psyche by meditating on images of Carrie at the high school prom. Or I read my husband’s poem about Barbie, which I quote here in its entirety:

          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.

I believe that inside every beauty queen, every Miss Universe, a homicidal Barbie bides her time, waiting to make herself known and take her revenge for all the reductions to which she is subjected daily.

Fighting these reductions (person reduced to object, complex sentient being reduced to a pretty shell), becomes more complicated when the beauty queens are not adults but teens, kids, or even babies.

Though this year’s oddly quiet Festival of Leaves parade needed something—more marching bands and floats, maybe some bagpipes, trick motorcyclists, or Shriners in their funny little cars—what it didn’t lack were beauty queens: big ones, small ones, and really small ones.

As one friend put it, “It’s like they multiply and divide every year. First it was Little Miss Whatever—now it’s little Little Little Miss and Little Little Little Miss.”

Seeing grown-up women graft their beauty obsessions and insecurities onto young girls makes me almost physically ill. I watched those girls in the parade with their curls, in their crowns and frilly dresses, make-up applied artfully to their young skin. What were they trying to be? What did their mothers want them to be? Some kind of living fairy tale, a strange kind of lie.

For some reason, this kind of pimped up kid makes me think of that wonderful horror movie from 1960, Village of the Damned, in which evil-eyed, outwardly perfect, tow-headed children attempt to take over the world. They are truly creepy.

I can almost hear the beauty pageant mothers shouting back at me.

“Lighten up!” they say. “What’s wrong with being pretty?”

Nothing, of course, as long as being pretty is not the goal, or even a goal. Physical beauty is a mirage manufactured for us by culture and commercialism. I’m not immune to it and neither is my six year old daughter. Sometimes I succumb (hair dye) and sometimes I fight it. But I never forget it.

How can I? In America, the emphasis on looks pervades everything. Just when you think you’ve been clever enough to lead your child away from socially proscribed standards of beauty, she comes out with this statement:

“Mommy, I want don’t want to be brown. I want to be white. I want blue eyes and blonde hair.”

Is there no escaping the Aryan ideal? Does my child have to feel inferior because she is brown haired, brown eyed, and not lily white?

In some ways I think she is lucky because she will never come close to the Barbie stereotype. She has to find a more legitimate source of personal power. And if we tell her over and over again that she is beautiful because of who she is and not what she looks like, and that all colors of skin are beautiful, I know it will sink in—eventually.

But it can be a fine line to walk between celebrating femininity and not placing too much emphasis on the physical. One friend has undergone two rounds of liposuction and plastic surgery in her quest to be “hot.” I’m of two minds about this—she has worked hard to lose weight, tone her muscles, and be healthy. She is confident and happy. That’s all good.

But she’s also spent a lot of time and money on surgery and personal trainers—this has been a major focus of her existence and is critical to her role as a wife. When I hear that there’s a new beauty pageant solely for women who have undergone plastic surgery, I think about this friend and wonder how far she will go to try to reach some ad executive’s idea of perfection. I don’t begrudge her her beauty but I’d like to see her focus on it less.

I try not to get too wrapped up in how I look—what clothes I wear, what make-up I have on, how heavy I am—but I’d be lying if I said I never thought about it. I don’t usually wear make-up but sometimes, for a night out on the town, it’s fun to put on. My daughter loves to play dress-up and to shop for clothes. We don’t shop often—who can afford it?—but I can see she cares deeply about what she wears. I’ll have to carefully steer her away from equating clothes and fashion with self-esteem.

Like the funky, stylin granny at Martins, I want my daughter to feel confident but without placing too much value on looks. There’s a big difference between the two.

In 2004, Dove began something it calls the “Campaign for Real Beauty.” This marketing strategy is ingenious because it addresses image head on, defusing any criticism of Dove as a perpetuator of beauty stereotypes. Dove has positioned its products as tools to improve confidence and self-esteem outside narrow definitions of what constitutes pretty.

The campaign is impressive. It makes a point to use images of real women and girls of all colors, shapes, and sizes. It also claims that the images are not altered. They’ve developed workshops and guides for girls and parents on how to develop self-esteem that is not dependent on outward appearance.

But it’s crazy that we need such guides in the first place. Someday I’d like to see all the small town beauty queens throw away their crowns and the mothers of pageant babies give the finger to pageant promoters. Wouldn’t that rock?

Recently, my daughter picked out a brown Barbie at the toy store of her own accord. Jose and I were astounded. Granted, it’s still Barbie, with her insane waist, torpedo breasts, and stiletto-ready feet but at least Maggie didn’t gravitate immediately toward the Nordic-looking doll, like she usually does. Her world is starting to expand.

Jose and I can’t let up though. It’s our job to keep reminding her that every ad she sees has been airbrushed, touched up, and rendered false, that TV and movies construct a beauty ideal that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. Together, I hope she and I can learn to create our own authentic beauty from the inside out with less than perfect hands.

-Heather Lynne Davis


Desegregation Blues: How the Warren County School Board Left 20 Black Children Out in the Cold

I’m strolling down Luray Avenue, walking with other Warren County Democrats in the Festival of Leaves parade, when my friend Kelli points it out.

“That’s it?” I say, “that little bitty street?”

“Yup,” she says. “Right across from where that first group of kids walked up to the school.”

“There’s like one house on that street,” I observe, looking down the street and then at the sign that says “James W. Kilby Lane.”

“Uh, huh,” she says without looking, “it’s actually just part of a street.” Holding my Deeds sign and trying not to lag behind the group, I’m dumbfounded—that tiny strip of asphalt is how we honor one of Front Royal’s most important civil rights heroes?

A few feet ahead, we stroll by the spot where, in 1959, 20 black students, including Mr. Kilby’s children, soldiered up a long curving driveway past a crowd of hecklers to integrate what was then Warren County High School.

On this crisp and bright fall day, how many Front Royal residents will glide past that spot without pause, surrounded by floats, horses, pick-up trucks, kids, bands, and beauty queens, throwing candy to the crowd and waving at friends, not noticing Mr. Kilby’s street?

I try to picture the scene on that day in 1959—the cars are different, the clothes are different but everything else is pretty much the same—the sloping front lawn, the towering trees, the blue-tinged mountains in the distance, and the influence of citizens who don’t like change.

The black students I picture walking up the hill are just ordinary kids. No supporters or bands cheer them on even though what they do is deeply American and completely extraordinary.

I can only begin to imagine the emotions they felt 50 years ago as they asserted their right to attend the same school as white students—were they angry, scared, proud, sad, or all of that?

Mr. Kilby is the reason those children were able to integrate the school. A local janitor and farmer, he filed a law suit that forced the high school to admit black students at a time when Warren County was at the vanguard of the “Massive Resistance” movement, a movement that urged Virginia schools to close rather than integrate.

This past June, the Warren County School Board received a proposal to name the school—soon to be re-opened as a middle school—for Mr. Kilby, who passed away in 2003. In other words, they were handed a wonderful chance to ensure that a critical period of Virginia history is not forgotten. The proposal was submitted by Mr. Kilby’s son, James M. Kilby, who has been trying since 1995 to have the school named for his father. After much debate by the entire Front Royal community, the proposal failed when the school board voted no.

As the parade progresses from Luray Avenue onto Royal, I think about the members of the school board who voted against the proposal. Clearly, they have less courage in their entire bodies than in a single pinky toe of one of those original 20 students.

The Warren County School Board chose to keep the name Warren County Middle School because it was the safe thing to do. According to a Washington Post article of June 11, one school board member said that “choosing one name over another…just leads to too much bad taste.” The folks in his district, “prefer something that will just go with the flow better.”

In other words, they didn’t want to upset any constituents by reminding them about an ugly part of their own past. God forbid we disturb our citizens’ delicate sensibilities.

That’s the same attitude copped by several county school principals who decided not to show President Obama’s education speech to their students. Rather than respect the man we elected to lead us by having our children listen to his words, these administrators chose to avoid the wrath of a few overly vocal conservative parents. I can’t help thinking that if Obama were white, the decision would have been different. I don’t remember the Bushes ever being dissed like that. No one would have dared.

I wish the school board had dared to permanently link Mr. Kilby’s name to the new middle school. I wish they had had the guts. That connection would have served many purposes in our mostly homogenous little town.

In the most constructive way possible, it would have helped keep racial equality and justice at the forefront of our consciousness, where it needs to be. It also would have served as the perfect opening to a lesson about civil rights by teachers within the school. To the students it would have given a sense of pride in what their predecessors accomplished and a sense of what they too can accomplish. But, perhaps most importantly, it would have provided a reminder about the fallibility of our own government and public institutions.

These are lessons I want my daughter to hear about and hear about often because we, as individuals and as a country, are always in danger of repeating our mistakes.

Just a few weeks after the Festival of Leaves, a new and shocking story about race popped up in Louisiana. Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple because he believes the children of such unions have awful lives and that such marriages can’t last.

When the story broke, Bardwell claimed he is not a racist but defended his beliefs just the same. I’d love to have seen the expression on President Obama’s face as he heard about this one. Our bi-racial president is 1,000 times better adjusted than this guy, and sadly, I’m sure he’s encountered Bardwell’s attitude before.

At first hearing, the Bardwell story seems unbelievable. In 2009, how could anyone believe what Bardwell believes? But then you start to wonder how many other Americans, especially those in positions of power, harbor similar feelings.

Oddly enough, the news out of Louisiana made me think of a poem, one written by my first college English professor, Eric Trethewey.

In 1965, he and his fiancé traveled from Mississippi to Ohio to marry. He was white and she was black. Such a marriage was illegal in Mississippi then, just as it was in Virginia. Soon after, they had a daughter. In an excerpt from a poem called “Her Swing,” the father describes his “crossbreed” daughter:

             At my child’s “Daddy, help me fix it,”
             I recall what is buried in these hours,
             and broach another lesson in her special art,
             the dance of the dialectic, which she has begun
             to practice everywhere in public:
             I show her how to set the board
             to slice a clean arc in the air
             dead-center between the supports
             and half-expect to see my rhetoric of balance
             settle down in her blood, in her flesh.

             And later still, as she pumps up high
             on the edge of a perfect arc,
             a brave girl learning how to use
             what ties her to earth,
             her mother comes silently from the house
             to stand at the swing’s other side,
             watching this lithe child slung in chains
             wheel fiercely under the crossbar
             and out into space, into time,
             into longing halfway between us.

             —from the book Dreaming of Rivers

I’m tempted to send this poem to Keith Bardwell, along with the latest book of poems written by Natasha Trethewey, the girl portrayed in “Her Swing,” who grew up to win the Pulitzer Prize for her own delicate and powerful poems.

Wouldn’t Bardwell see how the girl, “crossbreed” that she is, “pumps up high/on the edge of a perfect arc,” how she is a “brave girl” who wheels “fiercely under the crossbar.” This is a girl whose swinging between one light and one dark parent slices “a clean arc in the air.” She is not a victim; the swinging is her art and a source of strength.

Keith Bardwell and others like him are just one more reason Warren County Middle School should be renamed for Mr. Kilby—we cannot be complacent when it comes to our racist past or to the bigotry that festers right here and now.

I’d really like to think that my bi-racial daughter might someday attend a school where Mr. Kilby’s name appears above the front door, or where a portrait of him hangs in the hallway for every student to contemplate.

Even if the school board never sees fit to do the right thing and honor this hero, my husband and I will make sure our daughter knows what happened just a few generations ago on a pretty stretch of road in a pretty little town called Front Royal, and why it matters.

-Heather Davis