Tag Archives: tea party

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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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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