Tag Archives: Glenn Beck

Notes on the New Cold War

Photograph by Jose Padua
Unlike a lot of other men who are now parents, I don’t consider the first time I changed a diaper to be the point at which I stopped being cool. And no, it wasn’t when there were no longer any bars where I was a friend of the bartender. It wasn’t even when we moved here to Front Royal and ate, for the first time, at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

No, I stopped being cool well before I ever set foot in Front Royal. It happened after Heather and I left DC for that townhouse in Alexandria when I, for the first time in my life, mowed a lawn. Having been a city kid, and having lived in either apartments or a narrow row house that had no grass anywhere near it (not even in the back, because that was where you parked your car), mowing the lawn was something I’d never done. Indeed, it was the act which, for me, embodied the abject horrors that were the everyday chores, and—dare I say—duties, of living in the suburbs.

After all, cool is really all in your head. And though there are people who mow lawns and live in the suburbs who are cool, for me, mowing a lawn for the first time was what made me lose it. Gone was that feeling that I was on top on things, that I had a certain kind of presence and charisma, that I could do things with style. And when I first pushed that lawnmower through the overgrown grass behind our townhouse in Alexandria—when the words “wow, the grass is starting to look nice now” went through my head—was when I officially became a suburbanite. No big deal if you’ve lived in suburbs all your life, but dammit, I was a city person.

Growing up in DC, and going to a Catholic grade school in downtown DC, I wasn’t acquainted with anyone from the suburbs. The suburbs, to me, were a big, incomprehensible, and perhaps even cruel place. We’d pass through the suburbs from time to time, and rather than being impressed by the sight of less congested streets with buildings that were spread apart instead of crammed all together like people on a crowded bus, I was appalled and frightened.

But because I grew up during the cold war sixties, one thing the suburbs had going for them was that they were outside the center of the city—which isn’t to say this was something I liked about them. Still, these were the days when seeing when seeing a fallout shelter sign on a building was supposed to make you feel safer—or, at any rate, prepared. If the Russians (who, as we were told, were these scary, godless people on the other side of the world) ever dropped the bomb, Washington would be the primary target and us Washingtonians would be first to go. This sort of made us dare devils or thrill seekers even. And, although we lived in the center of town—our Dupont Circle apartment building was only a mile from the White House—we were, in a way, living on the edge. In other words, this (at least to me) made us kind of cool.

falloutshelter

Yet, among the things I prayed for—yes, I did pray in those days before I blossomed into a fallen Catholic—was that the Russians wouldn’t drop the atomic bomb on us. That, and that I’d never get the “waterhead” disease my brother once showed me a picture of in a medical book. And, last but not least, that we’d never move to the suburbs.

My family nearly moved there when we’d outgrown our apartment. I shudder to think what would have become of me had we moved to Beltsville—or whatever suburb it was that had the house, with the lawn surrounded by a white picket fence, which we almost decided to buy. Surely, if we hadn’t just moved a little bit further out from Dupont Circle to DC’s Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, I’d never have made it past my depressing, disconnected teen years. Those years when I could easily walk to a bookstore (those days before you could find things “online”) and buy Naked Lunch or On The Road or Invisible Man; a record store where I could easily find Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice and Sun Ra’s Magic City; and the old Circle Theater, where for just a dollar I could see L’Avventura, The Seven Samurai, Black Orpheus, or Murmur of the Heart.

Back then, there was nowhere else where I could easily find these things. Certainly there was nowhere else where I could have come in contact with so many different cultures. From the Filipino barber we went to in Chinatown to the Salvadoran grocer on Mt. Pleasant Street to Ben’s Chili Bowl down on U Street, I saw people who didn’t look like most of the people I saw on TV. And, I saw a lot of them—people who I felt had some concept of my experience with America.

And during these cold war years, nothing happened. Sure, we had the riots in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated—riots which left 14th Street, just two blocks away from our house, looking like a war zone. But, unlike some people, we stayed—and I doubt that the possibility of leaving even entered our minds. We stayed even though we now had an eight-month old child in our house (my brother, Pat). We stayed because this was home. And, we stayed because being afraid of the riots or the bomb or anything else wasn’t going to do us any good.

So my family survived the cold war without a Russian bomb being dropped on Washington or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. And we survived the riots, though it took a while before 14th Street was built up again. Nowadays, with a Target department store, new restaurants, and even upscale businesses, 14th Street is a place we hardly recognize. And, if my parents were moving into DC now, there’s not a chance in hell that they’d be able to afford that house off of Mt. Pleasant Street.

As for Heather and me, we weren’t in DC anymore. The apartment we had on Connecticut Avenue across from the National Zoo (when we first moved in together this was our neighborhood) seemed far in the past. Now, we weren’t even in the suburbs—we were in Front Royal, Virginia, in the wilds of the Shenandoah Valley, where it felt as if we there were a new cold war going on.

I’m not sure when it finally dawned on us what we were in the middle of. Maybe it was in 2008, when during election season the Obama signs in our front yard kept getting stolen or destroyed. Maybe it was when it we noticed that the cars around us whenever we drove through town had bumper stickers saying things like “Where Guns Are Outlawed, Terrorists Need Only Boxcutters,” “Rebel Pride,” or “Welcome to America, Now Speak English.” Or maybe it was that time, after Obama had already become president, when I was waiting in the car while Heather ran into the post office. That time when, flipping through the dial on the a.m. radio, I discovered that in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, the place we now called home, there were eight different stations that carried the Rush Limbaugh show. That, I thought, was pretty fucking scary.

All this, of course, was when Donald Trump’s most visible achievement had been to become the asshole businessman in residence on a reality TV show. Back when the number one racist goon in American media—or at any rate the one who was running neck and neck with Rush Limbaugh for that title—was Glenn Beck. It was something of a war, with the battles going like this: Limbaugh, in response to President Obama’s idea that 9-11 should perhaps be a day dedicated to community service, proclaiming “Community service is one of the baby steps toward fascism”; followed by Beck topping that by declaring his certainty that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people.”

The message during this new cold war, as with the first, was “Be Afraid.” But this time we weren’t focusing on Russia but on other countries and other people. It was be afraid of these Mexicans, be afraid of these Muslims, hell, it was pretty much be afraid of anyone a little darker than white. Plus, be afraid of this president who, oh-my-God-look-at-him, he’s black! It was a fear that seemed more prevalent the farther you got from the city. It was a call on conservatives, right-wingers, and anyone who just didn’t know what to think to take things one step further and join the 21st Century-hating, illegal-alien-hating, oh-no-we’re-moving-toward-socialism, Tea Party Protest state of mind.

In an attempt to seize the racist moment, Glenn Beck, in his infinite lack of wisdom, came up with what he called his “9-12 Project,” the premise of which was to “take back the control of our country” by returning it to the state of mind it was in on September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks.

hiroshima2

And while I agreed that September 11 was a dark day in American history—which, like December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, would live in infamy—shouldn’t August 6, 1945, when the U.S. dropped that quaintly named nuclear bomb, “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima, have similar status? Why wasn’t the day when America immediately snuffed out some 70,000 lives in less than a minute (with as many as another 70,000 deaths to come by the end of the year through radiation related illnesses) commemorated more often on bumper stickers? And why didn’t anyone think like Glenn Beck and call for us to return to the state of mind we were in on August 7, 1945, the day after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Oh wait, that’s because we followed Hiroshima with another nuclear weapon, detonated over Nagasaki, on August 9. (Hey, Glenn! Hey, Tea Partiers! What about The August 10 Project? It would, you know, make things fair and balanced?)

It was bad enough that adults were falling for this idiocy, but surely there will be, as they say, a special place in hell, for Beck and Limbaugh and others like them for whatever children may have fallen under their spell. For those kids who, because of what they saw from their Tea Party parents or from Fox News, came to believe that it was all right to fear those who were different. That there wasn’t anything wrong with hating them.

And it was back then, somewhere toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. When I was walking down Main Street here in Front Royal and getting one of those sideways glances from some kid, or sitting on my front porch to see some twenty-year old in a pick-up truck sneer at me as he drives by, or paying for something at a store and being the only one who gets asked for ID when he uses a credit card. It was then that I realized there was a party going on and a war. I wasn’t invited to the party, and war, for some Americans, is something that isn’t always fought overseas.

And, as the twenty-first century lurched ahead and Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project fizzled out like a bad sparkler and Rush Limbaugh lost more and more of his sponsors and found fewer and fewer stations willing to air his radio show, there was an opportunity waiting to be taken. That’s where Donald Trump slipped through—or pried open the door, or found the back entrance. Whatever the case, he’s here now, speaking loudly, his eyes bulging out from their sockets as he makes gestures of terrible significance with his small hands.

-Jose Padua

Top photograph by Jose Padua

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The Indestructible Manliness of the Stay-at-Home Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jose Padua

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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

Crashing the Tea Party with My Wife and My Half-Breed Girl

bluemountains2Having grown up in the flatland swamp of Washington, D.C., living in a totally lush green valley surrounded by even greener mountains is something entirely new to me.

Did I say that the mountains were green, including that great range by which many people identify this region, the Blue Ridge Mountains? Well, I’m slightly color blind, so if there’s some blue in that range, I don’t see it. All I know is that I don’t understand which mountain is which, can’t follow these roads that snake madly through the hills, and never know if the body of water I’m trying not to drive into is the North Fork or the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

Most of my life was spent heading the other way—to the beach, to where, after crossing the Chesapeake, the land was as flat as that high note in the Star Spangled Banner when sung by a guy who’s drunk before the game has started: “Oe’r the land of the free.” (A lot of people don’t get the free part right, or else they think that most important part of being free is the right to be an idiot.)

The first time I intentionally headed out over the mountains to a valley was around ten years ago, when Heather and I went for a vacation in West Virginia’s Canaan Valley. We didn’t quite know how to get there, so what we did was instead of going east on Route 50, which was the way to the beach, we went west. Following 50 through Arlington, Fairfax, Chantilly.

Chantilly—back then we thought that was so far from the city that the only words we could use to give us a sense of where we were was to say that it was “fucking nowhere.” Route 50 also brought us, for the first time, through Winchester. Little did we know that ten years later we’d be visiting Winchester at least once a week, and that we’d adopt one of those alien territories south of that little town as our own.

But then we kept going and going for what seemed like an entire day but was actually only about four hours. And as we continued driving west on 50, over the Blue Ridge Mountains, curving up and down on winding roads that had us cursing as we held onto the seats of our rented car, we headed through the Allegheny Mountains and down into Canaan Valley. It was here, in the town of Davis, West Virginia, which is the closest town to the Canaan Valley Resort and Conference Center, where I had one of the most memorable meals of my life.

We’d already checked into to our room at the resort but then went back to Davis to have dinner and explore the town. It was a quiet place—which was what we expected—and exploring the tiny business district took only around five minutes. That was something new for us, a business district you could traverse in about the amount of time it took to smoke a cigarette (I was still smoking then). So, since our evening of sightseeing took a lot less than an evening, we decided we may as well eat.

There weren’t many choices for restaurants, but what we found looked promising—a restaurant and brew pub right on William Street, Davis’s main drag. It was one of those clean, well-lit pubs, not one of those dark smoky caverns where everything looks like it’s covered in ten year old grease. I ordered the chicken cordon bleu with salad and a side of rice pilaf while Heather ordered chicken parmesan.

We each drank a beer as we waited, looking around the still mostly empty restaurant (it was only around five o’clock). When the waiter returned with our food, I immediately picked up a forkful of the rice pilaf. Soon my mouth was overcome with the sour rancid taste of spoiled food, something that had either been left out for a couple of days or else fished back out of the garbage. I grimaced and spit it right back out into my napkin as Heather probably wondered if I were having some kind of seizure.

I leaned over to smell the rice, and it reeked. I called the waiter over and exclaimed, “This is spoiled!”

The waiter looked at me coldly, and simply asked, without a hint of emotion in his voice, “Well, would you like something else?” as if there were nothing wrong with having just served rotten food to me. I had traveled four hours for this. Of course, some people have traveled a lot farther for worse, and some people don’t need to go anywhere at all for this kind of treatment.

It was at this point where I should have jumped up from the table and pounced on him. But, although I was angry, what I was overcome by was disbelief. Disbelief that they would serve this to me and then pretend that there was nothing wrong. Heather and I were both so stunned that we just sat there.

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Again, it was one of those times, like ten years later when the policeman stopped me, when I couldn’t do what I wanted, perhaps even needed to do. Or that time in DC (and, no, this sort of thing doesn’t just happen in small towns) a few years before our trip to Canaan Valley when I sat at a hotel bar downtown. It was happy hour, and the news was on TV. When an Asian meteorologist came on with the weather report, the bartender immediately started make fun of her name and began to speak with a mock Chinese accent. A few minutes later, when I asked him where the restroom was (I’d never been to this bar before), he pointed to the other end of the room. “You see that door there?” he went on. “Well, you go out that door, walk down to the corner, and there you’ll see a tree.”

And that was it. Not even a “Sorry, I was just kidding.” He simply turned away to serve another customer.

Sometimes the game is played against you in such a way that you can’t defend yourself and you can’t speak up without making things worse for yourself. Yeah, I could have smacked that waiter in West Virginia, then gone into the kitchen and smacked the cook, too. And I could have thrown my empty beer bottle into the mirror behind the bar at the hotel and told the bartender to go fuck himself, and I would have felt a lot better inside. A hell of a lot better. I also would have been arrested, with me looking like the guy who took the first shot. Still, how can one deny the power of what the waiter did and that it was, in effect, an assault? And, the power of the bartender’s words, were also a kind of assault. The kind of assault guys like them can easily get away with.

More often than not, that’s the way it’s done nowadays. They can’t deny you entry into their establishments, but they can damn well make it uncomfortable for you so that you won’t want to come back. Usually they’re a little more subtle about it, but sometimes they’re not.

Nowadays, with things like the insane Tea Party protests (the participants of which are so clearly driven by something other than their professed outrage at “wasteful government spending”) and the popularity of goons like Glenn Beck spouting hate disguised as junk food for the intellectually bulimic, I’m getting scared. And, I’m a little bit warier again when I travel, except when I go back to my old Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in DC, where I went this past weekend.

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There, me, Heather, Maggie and my brother Tony walked down to the park at the end of Mt. Pleasant Street where a small Latino festival was being held. There was good music and, unfortunately for us, an incredibly long line of people waiting in line for the steaks, Chorizos, and other incredibly delicious smelling foods that were being prepared on the spot. Heather, Maggie, and I had to go back to Front Royal soon, so we couldn’t wait. On the way out, I saw an elderly lady looking at me, saying something in Spanish, which I don’t understand. After a moment I realized she was telling me to join in on the line, have some food, have some fun. I expressed my regrets, as best as I could, in English and through my awkward hand gestures.

I was, certainly, a long way from Canaan Valley. And from that downtown bar.

In a way, I was still a child back then, before Maggie was born, before I felt so compelled to take action. Indeed, there’s something about being a parent that actually keeps me angry about things. And keeps me dreaming. I want an America where she learns compassion, generosity, and complexity, not hate, greed, and stereotypes. I want an America where she can walk anywhere—anywhere—and not have some ignorant dickwad look at her and treat her like she’s some alien being. And although she’s a mix—I don’t want her to pass as white. I want the color in her to be recognized and respected.

But soon, we were on our way back. To the Shenandoah Valley. To our Valley. To my Valley. Because, yes, it’s my Valley, too. And as we drove back, going west on I-66 past Manassas, past Gainesville through those rolling hills and into those lush green mountains (or whatever color they are), I started thinking that, hell, I don’t know. Maybe I will go back to that ice cream shop here in Front Royal where they seemed to think I was some kind of “illegal alien” or terrorist or socialist. Maybe I’ll go back there every goddamn day.

-Jose Padua