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A Slightly Uncomfortable Seat at the Edge of the World

RoyalCinemas

I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies alone. This, I suppose, is a sign of how normal my life is now. Indeed, if you were to see a man my age at the movies by himself, you might wonder What is the deal with that guy? Because going to the movies, especially in a small town like Front Royal, is usually considered something of a social event; and to go to the movies alone begs the question, What, exactly, is wrong with you? Or Are you violating your parole by being here?

Since I was around fourteen years old, going to the movies by myself was a regular and quite normal thing—for me, unlike a lot of other teenagers, going to the movies was not a social event. Or at least I didn’t see any need for it to be one. It wasn’t that I never went to movies with my friends. But, more often than not, I went alone, because if there was a film I really wanted to see back then, I knew that among my friends there wouldn’t be a single one who’d want to see it too. After all, when you’re a freshman in high school, how do you get someone to go the theater with you to watch all 363 minutes of Louis Malle’s documentary, L’ Inde fantome (Phantom India). Or attend a showing of Joseph Strick’s film of James Joyce’s Ulysses to see how it compares with the book? Well, I guess there are other misfits out there who, at that age, had friends they could connect with that way, but I wasn’t so fortunate.

Still, I never felt that I was missing out on anything. It was with friends that I’d see things like The Exorcist or American Graffiti, films that were entertaining but didn’t exactly move me. But it was when I was by myself that I saw what I really wanted to see. And, sitting alone in the old Circle Theater in Washington DC—a theater notorious for its stiff, uncomfortable seats—seeing for the first time the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, or Robert Downey Sr. (a prince), I was having a great time. Alone with my thoughts and a cinematic masterpiece or two at a bargain price (admittance during the day was only a dollar), there really wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather be. Or, anyone I wanted to be with.

The first time I set foot in the Royal Cinemas on Main Street in Front Royal brought back that feeling of going to the movies alone—even though I was with Heather and Maggie. Because even though I wasn’t alone, we were alone. It happens from time to time that when we go there to see a movie at the Royal Cinemas—a new movie—we find that we’re the only ones in the theater.

KingsOfTheRoad

Call me anti-social, but I like it when we’re the only ones there. Plus, I like going to the movies at the Royal Cinemas anyway, because when you’re there you’re not at one of those slick, new multiplexes with stadium seating and a concession stand that sells cappuccino, flavored water, and appetizers like bruschetta with cherry tomato and avocado. No, the Royal Cinemas is one of those older, slightly decaying movie houses. Yes, the smell of fresh popcorn is in the air, but so is the smell of popcorn from several years ago. And, at the end of a movie, you’re more than happy to be getting up from your rock hard seat.

Every time we go there to see some popular film (and that’s all they show there—this is certainly not an “art house” theater), I’m reminded of what is probably my favorite film of all time, Kings of the Road. A film Wim Wenders made in 1974—its German title, Im Lauf der Zeit, translates as “In the Course of Time”—Kings of the Road is one of those films that a lot of people find unbearably boring, and when I first saw it at an afternoon showing at the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, less than half the audience that was there at the beginning of the film remained at the completion of its three hour running time. But for me, it was the most compelling film I’d seen since Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (yeah, another film that leaves a lot of people utterly bored or baffled) and it accomplished this without any special effects. And without much action or even plot.

Maybe that’s precisely why I find it so engrossing. Me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what effects CGI or Industrial Light and Magic or Pixar can produce—the cinematic spectacles so many people rave about (e.g., The Lord of the Rings trilogy) put me to sleep. And so what I remember about the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that I slept through about a third of Fellowship of the Ring, over half of The Two Towers, and by the time The Return of the King came out Heather figured that maybe I should just take my nap at home while she went with her brother to see it.

Because, and I guess here I am going against the grain again, I don’t go to the movies to escape the real world or even to see the real world disguised to look like some happy acid trip. I actually hate that shit. As for Kings of the Road, this is the kind of trip I like. On the surface it may look like there’s little going on: Bruno, whose job maintaining and repairing film projectors takes him to run-down movie theaters in West Germany, close to the East-German border, travels for a while with Robert, a man who has just split up with his wife—and then they go their separate ways again. But the revelation comes from seeing how they interact with each other, with the people they meet during their travels, and with the sometimes beautiful, sometimes desolate landscape through which they move. It’s a landscape and a speed of life (or, rather, a lack of speed) that reminds me a lot of Front Royal. And the Royal Cinemas feels exactly like the sort of theater where Bruno would work on a projector.

Since the first time I saw it, Kings of the Road has always been at least somewhere close to the back of my mind. So it’s not surprising that, soon after Heather and I first got together in the mid 90s, I felt compelled to show this film to her. I found it on a VHS double cassette (Kings of the Road still hadn’t come out on DVD in the U.S.) at Potomac Video on Connecticut Avenue in DC, a store that, like all the other video stores, has since gone out of business.

Showing her the film wasn’t quite a litmus test for seeing how compatible we were, but seeing that she appreciated the film was, for me, a very good thing. We watched it in our apartment across from the Zoo. And although it was as compelling as ever for me, watching it at home on a television, I now realize that the perfect place to see this film would be the Royal Cinemas on Main Street. That, of course, will never happen. But just as seeing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive at the decaying Foxchase theater in Alexandria back in the early summer of 2001 added to our experience of that film—a triplex, the Foxchase showed mainstream and indie films in two theaters and porn in the third—seeing Im Lauf der Zeit at the Royal Cinemas would add immeasurably to our experience of this film.

Landscape

Because there’s something about the Royal Cinemas, and Front Royal as a whole, that makes me feel like I’m actually living in an early Wim Wenders film. The wide open landscape, the silence, the way everything one does here feels like it’s taking place at the edge of the known world: it’s like if you take one more step—or perhaps the wrong step—you’ll be leaving the civilized world completely and be entering into Lord of the Flies territory.

Oddly enough, this is something I actually like about Front Royal. I like that living here feels like we’re living in some sort of limbo, that—especially in the dead of winter when all the bright fall colors are gone and all the tourists are safely back in civilization—it feels like a bit of a ghost town. Or a place where they forgot to tell the residents that, “Oh, by the way, the world has ended.”

If anything, Front Royal is a place on the edge of something. To simply call it a small, conservative, and rather backward town is to miss the point—even though Front Royal is, without a doubt, all of those things—and what it’s on the edge of, I’m not quite sure. Sometimes I think it may be taking a turn for the better, even though most of the time I’m prepared for it to do the opposite.

All I know for sure is that feeling I get from being here. That feeling I got the first time we drove on one of those low-water bridges that cross the Shenandoah. Looking at it, this rough concrete strip that’s barely above the water, we weren’t sure that it was actually passable. We stopped to think about it for a while. We waited, hoping the answer would come to us like some strange revelation from the woods. Finally, we went ahead, slowly, over the muddy brown water of the Shenandoah River. Then, when we got to the other side, it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere—the trees on both sides of the road bore signs saying POSTED. NO TRESPASSING.

It was hard to tell where we were—were we on someone’s private property now? Someone who believes in shooting first and asking questions later? And had we, in fact, gone past the city limits? Sometimes I get the feeling that Front Royal never ends, that it continues simply because it doesn’t know how to go forward to some sort of conclusion.

We turned around and went back over the low-water bridge. We kept going—quietly, as if we were being followed— until we reached a place where we recognized our surroundings. We kept going, away from the river which, as it winds through the valley, always looks like it’s chasing us. Away from the low-water bridge, which always looks like it could collapse at any moment.

Yes, we kept going, as one must do in these parts, until we were sure, once again, that we weren’t about to fall off the edge of the world.

-Jose Padua

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A Bridge or Two into the Exquisite Distance

Photograph by Jose Padua
Seven years ago on the first day of October, we closed on our house here in Front Royal. It was late in the afternoon. Out in the waiting area at the MBH Settlement Group office were Maggie, my Dad, and my brothers, Tony and Pat. Julien was three years and one month away from being born. Back in the office conference room, Heather and I were seated at a long table with Lisa, our realtor from our old neighborhood in Alexandria, and opposite us was Lilian (the James Madison University anthropology professor whose house we were buying) and her realtor, while at the head of the table was the dark-haired, somewhat daunting woman from MBH who was conducting the closing.

Sitting there, signing page after page of one ridiculously named document after another, I expected her at any minute to say, “OK, let’s speed this shit up so we can get the hell out of here.” Or maybe that was just me thinking that. Maybe it was me, having finally started to feel nervous about this move away from the city and to this small town in the Shenandoah Valley. Yeah, me–having second thoughts at a point when it’s a little too late to do anything about it, because whether I liked it or not, we were about to become part of small town America.

The Front Royal branch of the MBH Settlement Group is no longer where it was back then, when it was on North Shenandoah Avenue, just down from the old bridge that spans the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. This is the bridge that provides my favorite view in town. Going north on it, you’re high over the river; looking east, the river disappears quickly into some dense woods, but looking west you can follow it for a while toward the horizon until it squeezes between the mountains.

As for the bridge itself, it feels, to me, like a structure that would have served well as the backdrop for a few scenes from an old film noir; and whenever I’m going south on it, into town, I imagine that I’m leaving the present time and going back into the past. Of course, the bridge’s significance goes back to the civil war, when Union Colonel John Reese Kenly gave the order to take it–and the bridge several hundred yards north going over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River–and “burn those motherfuckers down.” Well, maybe those weren’t his exact words–but putting out the flames and saving these strategic bridges for the Confederates were men under the command of General Richard Taylor, son of Zachary Taylor.

Zachary Taylor, who himself was a general and, of course, the twelfth president of the United States, has an eight mile stretch of highway south of town named after him. These bridges, though–as far as I know–aren’t named after anyone, not even Richard Taylor. The bridge over South Fork of the Shenandoah River is called, simply, the South Fork Bridge, and the bridge over the North Fork is called the North Fork Bridge. That they’re not named after any confederate general is fine with me. Though perhaps there’s an unofficial name for it, just like back in DC, where I grew up, we started calling the park on 16th Street between W and Euclid streets Malcolm X. Park. Its official name is still Meridian Hill Park, but for us, since the late 60s, it’s been Malcolm X Park.

I suppose there may be some people here who have their own names for these bridges, but no one’s tried to make it official. And with that in mind, I propose, on the occasion of our seven year anniversary of living here in the Shenandoah Valley, renaming the South Fork Bridge the General John Reese Kenly Memorial Bridge (yeah, he was bumped up to general during the course of the war). I know, he was the one who tried to burn these bridges down, but to me, the cause of the Confederates isn’t what we want to commemorate here, or anywhere. We want a name that commemorates the attempt to move into the future, even if that future meant going, for a while, without any bridges directly north of town. As for the bridge over the North Fork of the Shenandoah, I’ll propose we name that the Cosme Tuazon Padua Memorial Bridge, after my father.

I know. Not many people here are going to go for these names. But just like back in DC we call that park Malcolm X Park, I’m going to call these bridges, whenever I talk about them and whenever I write about them, the General John Reese Kenly Memorial Bridge and the Cosme Tuazon Padua Memorial Bridge. Because for me this general’s efforts at taking us toward a better future is worth celebrating–and sometimes burning a bridge is what it takes to do that. And also because my Dad’s gone now and whenever he was visiting here and we’d be driving up north to Winchester or maybe to Shepherdstown or any of those other places I liked to show him, I’d always look over to him, sitting in the passenger seat as we drove over the bridges. Every time we passed that way, I wanted to know what he was seeing–if he was looking at the river, at the dense green of the forest, or at the mountains.

Because sometimes I see the most beautiful things when I imagine what someone else is seeing. When I see that gleam in someone’s eyes, that look of surprise or revelation, that look that says about a thousand ideas and images are coming together in that person’s mind and forming some kind of truth. That look that gets passed on to each generation. That look that sees a certain amount of distance in front of it—a distance that seems too far to travel—and then moves on ahead. Right into it.

-Jose Padua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jose Padua

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Title  photo courtesy of Pat Padua.

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

“Your reasonableness is poisoning my fear.”

-Stephen Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Heather Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flesh and Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I Was a Kiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jose Padua

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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:

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

ploop!

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

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 must day, a little 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 his hemorrhoids and how difficult it must have been for him sometimes to sit and do a show when his ass was in so much pain. Then I began to read a poem—the first poem I’d read in public in a long time—and when I was done I looked up at the audience to see them looking at me and applauding, waiting on my next words.

Sometimes my obsessions make it hard for me. Sometimes, they get things done.

And what it always comes back to is this: my obsessions clash with theirs. Their obsessions include 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 as the years go by this valley isn’t shrinking but expanding.

-Jose Padua