Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Indestructible Manliness of the Stay-at-Home Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jose Padua

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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