Category Archives: Memoir

From the Belly to the Head

Photograph by Jose Padua
In my twenties when I was still living
with my mother and father and brothers
in the house I grew up in, I would always
hear from certain friends, “Why are you
still living at home?” The short answer
was that they wanted me there; the long one
that we ate rice for breakfast, eggs with
marinated pork for dinner; had paintings
of tiny houses on stilts with thatched roofs
that let in a lot of air, a plaque displaying
The Weapons of Moroland that reminded
my mother and father of the islands
they came from; displayed on the living room table
wooden carvings of caribaos pulling heavy carts,
headhunters carrying their enemies’ heads;
if you came into our house you ate in our house;
those of you who wouldn’t eat, how could you
expect us to trust you? In my immigrant culture
the custom was for children to live at home with
the family, to contribute to that home, and continue
to do so until they had families of their own,
but I never said that, never explained, never
wanted to say my people do things differently
because there’s nothing like having to state
the obvious for breaking already tenuous bonds
and at the time I wasn’t quite ready to be on my
own. Because being my friend was like going to
one of those stores where nothing has a price tag:
if you had to ask how much it was you couldn’t
afford it, and if you had to ask why I lived where
I lived, you couldn’t be my friend for very long.
And although I wanted to be American like
everyone else, I understood what it meant to stay
in touch with ground that wasn’t right beneath me,
a home that was on the other side of the earth,
teaching me, molding me, giving me strength.
Today I live in my own house with my own
family; if you know the right questions to ask
and what not to ask, I welcome you to come in,
rest your feet, have a drink and a bite to eat;
I welcome you to come in and look around
so you can see the world from here, so you’ll
know and feel, from your belly to your head,
what’s going on now.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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A Brief Reflection on Joy and Alacrity for the New Year

Photograph by Jose Padua
Every now and then I think
about the times I’ve been
a total snot with people.
Sometimes it’s because
I’m really very shy,
other times it’s because
I’m really an arrogant snot.
It’s that simple. And though
the only one who needs
to know this is me I’m
telling it to you anyway,
because I am a magnanimous
snot, full of joy and alacrity,
and I am happy to be
your friend.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Story for the Mist and the Fog and the Rain, but Most of All, a Story for Us

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were somewhere around Frederick, Maryland when Abdullah Ibrahim’s “African Sun” came on the car stereo. It had been raining mightily since we left Front Royal, and now, near Frederick, it was raining so heavily that if I were so inclined I might say it was raining in biblical proportions. But, as I am not so inclined, I prefer to say that it was raining like a motherfucker. And that the song “African Sun” then started playing on the stereo.

Whenever I hear “African Sun” and the rolling notes of Abdullah Ibrahim’s piano, I swear I can see the sun coming up, swear that my skin is warming from the arrival of the sun’s bright heat. Abdullah Ibrahim’s “African Sun,” I thought, was going to clear out the rain. Was going to make the sun shine. I sped up slightly, certain that in another minute we’d be under clear blue skies and the soothing yellow of late-in-the-day sunlight. I turned the music up a notch. Sat up a little taller in my seat, the better to see the light. I waited, and I waited.

And it kept fucking raining. Kept raining on into the early dark of night. Raining and I was getting tired of driving, tired of the rain, and most of all, tired of driving in the fucking rain.

So I tried to think of the sort of things that would give me energy. I thought about when we left Front Royal, and my wife Heather was in the convenience store getting coffees for us. Thought about earlier in the afternoon when our daughter Maggie announced that she wanted to learn French, the reason being that she had just watched Truffaut’s The 400 Blows again.

I first saw Truffaut’s The 400 Blows when I was around fourteen, and it changed the way I looked at the world, changed the way I thought about film and art in general. I’d first shown Maggie this classic film of the French Nouvelle Vague about five years earlier. Back then, she liked it, but this time, she said, she absolutely loved it, and, what’s more, because of it, she now wanted to learn French. That, as far as I was concerned, was a big deal, and gave me a big lift for the start of this trip. But then there was this rain.

Still, it was beautiful going through Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia—we always take this longer but slower route whenever we go to see Heather’s family in central Pennsylvania for the holidays. That late afternoon/early evening, the whole town and the entire river there was covered in a thick white mist. It didn’t feel like Virginia or West Virginia or anything so every-day for us, and it didn’t feel like winter turned either miraculously or horribly into spring anymore, it felt like… I don’t know, but it felt like something—something I couldn’t quite name.

Just when we’d left our house that day, our neighbor Mary brought over some presents for Maggie and our son Julien. For Maggie, it was a nice angel doll (Maggie wasn’t so much in to dolls anymore and she’d never been into angels, but she liked it anyway), and for Julien she got a little brown teddy bear, and he liked his bears back then. Mary looked at Julien, saw how he was smiling as he looked at the brown teddy bear and asked him, “What are you going to name him?” That’s when silence fell upon us all. Fell upon us like… something.

Julien looked at the teddy bear for a moment, then said, “Nobody.”

“Oh?” Mary said.

“Yes,” Julien said again, “Nobody”—the name of his new brown teddy bear was Nobody. It wasn’t what Mary was expecting, but she thought it was cool anyway. As for Heather, Maggie, and I, we remembered back when Maggie was around three and declined to give her big rag doll a name. This led to the big rag doll’s being called The Doll Who Cannot Be Named. That Julien called his new bear “Nobody” warmed Heather’s and Maggie’s and my own heart. I mean, even now, a couple of years later, when I’m thinking of the word nobody I’m thinking of something that warms my heart, thinking of something that fills my sometimes congested lungs with crisp, fresh air. It doesn’t work for everyone, I know, but for us it’s a word that helps make us feel even more like family.

When we finally made it through the dark and the rain to our hotel in Central Pennsylvania, Maggie got out of the car and asked me, “Did you remember to bring my black Punk bag?” Maggie has a shiny black bag that says PUNK on one side and nothing, I think, on the other side (though maybe it says PUNK on the other side as well, I’ll have to check.)

“What?” I asked, and I remembered that I hadn’t remembered, which led me to ask once again, “What?”—with the word what meaning that Maggie had no clothes for the trip, other than what she was wearing.

So, first we ate dinner at the Hotel Hershey. I had the Chianti Braised Oxtail with Spinach and Crispy Carrots—I probably hadn’t eaten oxtail since the last time some thirty or so years ago when my Mom made the Filipino dish kare-kare. And after dinner we found a K-Mart on Jonestown Road (“Take a left on Kool-Aid Lane,” I said, and nobody laughed, except for me, which more often than not is enough. I’m happy even when I’m the only one who likes my bad joke.)

While Heather and Maggie were inside the K-Mart looking for clothes, I took a photograph of Julien as he and I waited outside the K-Mart. Of course, it wasn’t long before he wanted to go in as well. We hadn’t been in a K-Mart in a long time—not since the one we had in Front Royal closed down several years ago. This photograph of me was taken two years later. I was trying to take a photograph of the road outside the hotel where we’re staying this year, but there was an extra layer of plexiglass covering the window for some reason, and this layer of plexiglass picked up my reflection, making this photograph a self-portrait.

This year, the big song was Doug Hream Blunt’s “Fly Guy.” Julien kept insisted we play it again and again and again. And we did, quite a few times. The landscape we were driving past—the river at Harper’s Ferry, the hills that hide the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg from view on the highway—went by more swiftly listening to Doug Hream Blunt. And they went by even more swiftly when my friend Casey Scott’s song “True North” rose up from the random mix on the car stereo. Maybe it’s because we were travelling north. Or maybe it’s because it’s such a beautiful song. Or maybe it’s because the world is moving in ways we ultimately fail to understand until we see it through our art, because in addition to the facts there is an essence that requires we approach it in order to truly live.

Two years ago, as Julien and I walked through the aisles of the K-Mart, I thought how there are, in the world, people who—though they be few in number—envy us our style and taste in clothing. People, even fewer still, who begrudge us our advantage in perspicacity as well as our precision and skill in sometimes employing metaphor to sometimes great effect. Which is to say, sometimes we get there and sometimes we don’t. Or maybe I’m just speaking of myself.

Walking through the aisles with Julien, I saw that they had their Adam Levine line of cool, sophisticated men’s clothes, and a Nicki Minaj collection of hot styles for women, and this collection, and that collection. It all looked so strange and horrible to me.

When Julien and I found where Heather and Maggie were, I said to Heather, “I don’t want any names on my clothes. Hell, I don’t even like wearing things with words like Fruit of the Loom on them. If I wanted there to be words on my clothes, I’d use my words. My Words.” And Heather nodded, meaning that she understood. Meaning that, yes, this is why we are who we are. This is why we are family.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

To My Father on What According to Evidence-Based Assumptions Would Have Been His 102nd Birthday

Cosme Padua
You’re not here to see this.
A president you would
have called a son of a gun,
not knowing the harsher, more
colorful, more beautifully
profane curses we have
in the English language.
You discovered the way
people speak here when
you came to America
from the Philippines
on the boat.
You learned how
to speak in America
while standing up
every day and walking,
lifting, getting, doing
the hundreds of things
they call work.
And when you spoke English
you spoke it
with an accent,
of course,
because unlike what
any all-American,
born-and-bred
sons of guns thought,
this is exactly
what made
the language
yours.

-Jose Padua

Picture Yourself in a Boat on a River

Photograph by Jose Padua
On a Saturday morning with the
TV off and all the usual means of
communicating with the outside
world down, my five-year-old son
declares, “If I close my eyes I can
see Godzilla,” which is yet another
observation and message from today’s
youth which rather than giving me
pause lifts me and through fluid logic
gives me concrete reason to believe
that in the future I will still be wearing
dark shades.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

How Does It Feel to Be Loved and All the Other Questions I’ve Ever Wanted to Ask the Armed Cheerleaders of the Corporate State as an Act of Defiance


That night one year ago, after dinner, I was in the dining room talking to my wife Heather when our thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie came in to ask me for help with the stereo. I followed her to the parlor, which for the last few years is where I keep my home office, and which, for simply practical purposes, is where our full stereo system is. What Maggie specifically needed assistance with was the turntable, the cover of which was tilted open. I bent down and pressed a few buttons on the receiver and made sure it was set to “phono,” then stood back up to lift the tonearm over an LP she’d already placed down on the platter. I hadn’t brought my reading glasses with me to the parlor, so I couldn’t tell what record she’d been trying to play; and I carefully laid the tonearm down on the black vinyl, anxious to find out.

I heard a split second of guitar, then the voice of Lou Reed going, “Well, I’m beginning to see the light,” which meant that what Maggie had been trying to play was the second side of the Velvet Underground’s third album.

“OK, thanks, Dad,” Maggie said quickly. She was obviously trying to get me to move along so she could be alone with the music of the Velvet Underground and before I could express any overly-gushing approval of her listening choices. She’d heard all that before and she knew—yeah, how cool I thought it was that she was listening to music like the Velvet Underground instead of the usual crap that’s marketed to teenagers (and I also saw that she’d pulled Big Star’s Radio City off the shelf to play next). So I went back to the dining room, where Heather and I had mostly likely been discussing the coming horrors of the United States of Trump.

The following afternoon, while waiting in the car with my six-year old son Julien for Maggie’s school bus to get back to town, I had the stereo on. Julien had been looking at a book he’d brought home from his school’s library when he stopped to listen to the music that was playing.

“Who’s that?” he asked. “Is that someone who died?”

Ever since hearing a few weeks earlier that Leonard Cohen died, Julien had been obsessed with the people who are no longer with us.

“No,” I said, “This person is still alive.”

“Play something by someone who died,” Julien said. I clicked the tab to play the next song on the random mix.

“Oh,” I said. “This person singing now is someone who died.”

“Who is it?”

“Her name was Lizzy Mercier Descloux.”

He’d heard Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s music before, but it had been a while. Also, I imagined that the last time Julien had heard “Mais où Sont Passées Les Gazelles?”, it didn’t matter to him whether or not Lizzy Mercier Descloux was still with us. Knowing she was gone, Julien must have sensed something in addition to the beauty of the song. I know, even now, a year later he’s probably still too young to really understand; but on that afternoon I gathered that what he was sensing for perhaps the first time was history. And that the main thing separating the present from the historical past was death.

I don’t recall the exact moment when I found out about death, but I’m pretty sure that when I found out I was around Julien’s age—and that when I found out I was obsessed with it. What’s more, with my OCD, it’s an obsession that never diminishes. As it is, not a day goes by when I don’t think about it. What’s more, with my sixtieth birthday coming in a few weeks—and, with a few of my friends having died in the last couple of years—the days seem to be going by rather quickly. But maybe that’s because of all the energy I spend trying not to think about it—making up poems and stories in my head to distract me, to stand as works of defiance and rebellion. And then I think about it anyway.

Nevertheless, it’s an obsession I manage to live with. That I’m also able to think what are sometimes incredibly beautiful thoughts is a gift that, I think, is made possible by all the darker places my mind travels.

It was five years ago on this day that my father died. Julien still asks about it every now and then, and about my mother as well, who he never got to meet.

“Did your Mom and Dad die?” he’ll ask.

“Yes,” I’ll say, sorrowfully. “Do you remember Lolo, though?” (Lolo being the Filipino term for grandfather.)

“Yes,” he’ll say. “I was small.” And then he’ll ask, “Who else died?”

If Julien is anything like me, which I gather he is, the question of who else died should soon evolve into something like, Who else was once alive and shone upon us with their bright light? Or something along those lines—both he and Maggie, I’m sure, will develop their own ways of expressing their defiance against everything that is banal and malevolent. They may use words, or they may use sound or sight more, or perhaps a combination of things. But whatever the case, I see them making works of beauty.

With every passing year, I think less of my father as being gone and more for what he was when he was alive, a man of many years and miles, an immigrant of color to this country, a worker who worked in small but steady ways to build a world.

This day is for him, and all of those like him who take more pleasure in creating rather than in destroying, who create a path through restlessness and confusion, making space where there once was none, who shine upon their surroundings with a great but subtle gleaming. And woe unto anyone who attempts to diminish that shine.

-Jose Padua

The photograph of Cosme Padua was taken somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley around 1950.

Those Years That Went Down

Photograph by Jose Padua
Sometimes when
I’m walking
in the old neighborhood with
my wife, my daughter, my son
and we pass by
all the sharp corners
and tight spaces
where daytime drunks
still gather,
no longer hidden by
the ornament
of night,
I remember
those years that
went down
like whiskey
and the beauty
of the B-side of
a hit single,
played over and over
on the juke box
in my favorite dive bar
until everyone
gets really annoyed,
lays down their mugs
their tumblers
their heavy shot glassess—
those sacred, precise
instruments of drinking–
as the smoky air
begins to feel liquid.
So glad
I made it out
into the open air,
so grateful
for solid blue
sky.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

With the Morning Moon Shining Down Upon Me through These Thick Walls

Photograph by Jose Padua
This morning I pounded
a nail into the wall
using a book
by Franz Kafka.
The nail went in easily
but like a bad translation
of German into English
the sound of book
hitting nail
created a tone
somewhat different from
that of hammer hitting nail.
I sat down,
glanced at the calender
hanging halfway up
the dining room wall,
and decided it wasn’t
high enough
as I slowly drank my
morning coffee
and felt a considerable
but insignificant ache
in my bones.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Notes on the Crepuscular Effects of the Music of Thelonious Monk on the Noise of White Supremacy

Photgraph by Jose Padua
This afternoon waiting
for his big sister
to get out
from school
my six year old son
asks me to play
“Ruby, My Dear”
over and over again
and because it’s
the music of Thelonious Monk
I don’t hesitate or try
to persuade him
that it’s time to listen
to something else.
Sometimes it takes
the revelatory light
of an entire summer’s
day to sustain you.
Other times even
the little glimmers
of late autumn light
are more than
enough to take you
where you need
to go.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On the Possibility of Creating More Beauty and Less Trash

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was the music of Franz Liszt that had me turning to my daughter Maggie in Armstrong Concert Hall at Shenandoah University that day and mouthing the words, “Holy Fuck!” She mouthed back an exasperated, “Dad!” then we turned back toward the stage, where Nikolay Khozyainov, the Russian pianist, was playing Liszt’s Transcendental Étude, S. 139, No. 4 as if someone were squeezing his balls and wasn’t going to let go until he was done creating the best performance ever of this difficult piece.

Khozyainov had started off the concert with Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob.XVI:49, and both Maggie and I were going “Wow,” but as well as he played Haydn, nothing prepared us for the way he took the music of Franz Liszt and, as good as it already was, made it seem like the best shit ever written. I mean Jesus! Khozyainov went on to do Liszt’s Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata from Années de pèlerinage II, S . 161, then on to close his main program with Schumann’s Arabesque, op. 18 and Fantasy in C Major, op. 17. Whether the music was loud or soft, fast or slow, Khozyainov played it all like he was the most insane motherfucker in the universe.

Of course, when he was done everyone in the audience applauded until it seemed like our hands would start to bleed. He came back out, and then again and again, doing three encores, the last of which was a punked up medley of tunes from Bizet’s Carmen during which he ran his fast fingers sick as fuck up and down the piano. I’d been hoping that maybe he’d pull Chopin’s Etude in C major, Op. 10 No. 1 out of his hat for a final encore, but his punk rock Bizet made me forget about that.

And I must say, that even though I love jazz, from Sidney Bechet to Sun Ra, and beautiful raw rock and roll shit like the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, and then everything from P-Funk to throat singers like Tanya Tagaq to the did-the-record-get-stuck modern symphonic music of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, there’s nothing like classical music from the Romantic era to make me think, Fuck Donald Trump. Fuck everything he believes, fuck everything he thinks he knows. I mean, there’s so much in the world that’s beautiful and we have to deal with his ugly shit and the massive stench he keeps building up with it and then be civil and polite and respectful about it? Fuck that.

That evening, when Maggie and I got home, I looked up some of the music Nikolay Khozyainov performed and played it for my wife Heather and our five-year old, Julien. They didn’t quite put it this way, but they looked at me and nodded as if to say, “Yeah, this shit is fucking good, motherfucker.” Then we ate dinner.

Late that night, when everyone was asleep, I looked to see if there was any footage of Nikolay Khozyainov playing Chopin’s Etude in C major, Op. 10 No. 1, and there was–after all, it’s one of those incredibly challenging and beautiful pieces which any badass classical pianist has to try at some point and Khozyainov is definitely a badass. So I listened to it, and Jesus, his Chopin was the fucking shit.

Still, I think the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich’s take on Chopin was a little better. But then again, is there anything anyone can do that Martha Argerich can’t do better? Hell, back when she smoked cigarettes she smoked cigarettes better than anyone else. There are pictures of her doing it. You can look them up.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua