Tag Archives: television

The First of a Billion Steps Toward Eternity and the Enlightenment that Comes from Being Thankful for the Color of Plums

Photograph by Jose Padua
For everyone who has ever contemplated self-destruction,
self-immolation, or such anger
as to perpetuate century upon century
of war and strife,
consider the prospects that arrive
with the changing of seasons.
A stretching of daylight
into what of late had been
under the providence of dusk;
or a mist of sea scent filling one’s breath
the way rest soothes the air
that surrounds a person
running away from whatever can’t run
quite as fast.
And although every day someone dies,
each of us dies on only one day,
which means there will be days
when you come out
smelling like a large room
housing a single tiny rose.
And as the world disappears
beneath the noise of stupid television shows,
electronic conversations conducted by idiots,
and dull information sent
from city to city masquerading
as truth and deep thought,
remember that he who dies
with the most toys
doesn’t win,
but instead becomes another product
that has achieved the long, slow crawl
to its expiration date,
and that eternal happiness,
like the ripening of plums,
is best approached
with small, steady steps.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Lesson that Would Soon Be Made More Clear to Me by Gil Scott-Heron

Photograph by Jose Padua
In 1971 I’m
thirteen years old
watching a big
Vietnam war protest
on television when
the bearded guy
speaking to the
crowd starts chanting
Fuck Richard Nixon!
Fuck Richard Nixon!

and the instant
the TV station
cuts the sound
is when I
realize that if
I want to
witness the revolution
I will eventually
have to turn
the TV off.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Heavy Load We Carry with Every Act of Subversion

Photograph by Jose Padua
The title of the episode of Thomas the Train
is James Works It Out and because my mind
is half fried half the time and my ideas half
baked because it’s only noon I’m wondering
if this is an episode my four-year old son
really should be watching. What, indeed,
is James working out? Is it a male problem
my son is years away from needing to know
about and what exactly does James do to work
it all out? I’ve never been one to believe that
every single problem has a solution, nor have I
lived my life expecting more than individual
moments of contentment, yet even I never
expected that sudden disturbances in my
progression of thought would be the direct
consequence of my pondering the dilemmas
and predicaments of anthropomorphic cartoon
trains. As for the work, the labor it takes for
James to take that “it” and work it, change it,
turn it this way then out and into this story is
what worries me the way a room I’m about to
walk into begins to worry me when the power
suddenly goes out and all the light is gone and
the only thing that’s left is the sound of my feet,
my voice, my breathing—sounds I should have
learned to trust by now but don’t, in that I don’t
trust that they’re not going to leave me without
any kind of warning, which isn’t to say that
sort of thing doesn’t happen because it does.
But aside from the immediate subject matter
of the episode at hand, there are other things
regarding the Thomas the Train show that give
me pause. First is that the island where it takes
place, Sodor, is one letter away from being
Sodom, and second, that the guy who runs the
place and all the trains, Sir Topham Hatt, is
a lot like Snoop Dogg in that his mind is on his
money and his money is on his mind, but that’s
actually what’s sort of cool about him, because
what isn’t so cool is that Sir Topham Hatt is
probably the whitest character in all of children’s
programming, and represents, to me, capitalism’s
obsessive, inflexible drive toward obscene levels
of profit—any variation from that path and you’re
at the receiving end of the wrath of Sir Topham
Hatt, his rants, his tirades, and ultimately his
withholding of a train’s rightly earned wages.
Or at any rate that’s what I see. And with the
episode being called James Works It Out,
you know that whatever happens, it’s being
worked out not in James’s favor but for the
benefit of that fat, white capitalist, Sir Topham
Hatt. Though my son stands by the side of the
television watching and listening to the dialog
among the trains, he is still too young to grasp
the message of cooperation and the suppression
of the individual for the purpose of exalting
the corporate entity. Sir Topham Hatt is stern
or at best scary to him and he has no idea of
what he represents. But when he’s older, he’ll know,
that just as morning approaches afternoon and the
vestiges of slumber are cast off that the continuing
light of day warms both concrete and soil, and that
as the temperature in the air rises and we breathe in
the fumes, we begin to ask for something more
than bread and water in exchange for our allegiance.
When the television goes off, the room is quiet
with our thoughts, and the clear cool air seems
as still as an early morning’s mist; we straighten
our legs, lift our arms from our chairs, and clear
our throats as if to speak because it will soon be
time to move ahead and pick up our heavy books.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

What the Fuck Are You Looking At? A Guide to Surviving Children’s Parties in the Middle of Nowhere

For better or worse, I see myself as Lisa Douglas, Eva Gabor’s character in Green Acres. The Hungarian bride of Oliver Wendell Douglas (a New York City attorney, played by Eddie Albert, who decides he needs to follow his dream to be a farmer), Lisa is having a hard time adjusting to life in the country. Like her, I love New York. Like her, I feel a bit helpless away from the city. Like her, I have no idea how to make living things rise up from the dirt. But unlike her, it was my idea to come out here from our last place just minutes from Washington DC, with DC being the last big city we lived in. That I and not my wife Heather am the one who now feels completely ill equipped for life here in Front Royal is one area where reality has diverged from this particular piece of TV fiction from the 60s. And though I’m not sure what Lisa may have done for a living, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a poet. Which is what I am. And, mind you, I’m not saying I’m making a living as a poet. I have to do other things for that. But just like the waiter serving you your meal at a restaurant in New York City might be a formidable actor, when I upload a document to some website, add a new acronym to a list of a hundred other acronyms, or perform some clerical task too mundane to even mention, I am a poet. And, I like to think, a formidable one at that.

Now I’m not going to lie. Poetry doesn’t prepare me for much of what goes on in the real world—or at any rate it’s not what most people consider preparation. And one of the first instances since moving out to my personal Hooterville where I found myself so ill-prepared and out of place was at a birthday party my then five-year old daughter Maggie was invited to at Loch Linden just outside of town. This time, though, it wasn’t so much my Lisa Douglas syndrome that had me on the verge of freaking out—and yes, my particular affliction means I have a tendency to freak out over things other people don’t even think twice about, or even once, or at all. And what had me on edge was that this was the first birthday party that I’d be taking Maggie to alone.

Usually, both my wife Heather and I take Maggie whenever she’s invited to a birthday party here. Even though the parties are never far away, they’re usually at these homes that are halfway up some mountain. Finding them means you’ll have to make a series of hairpin turns while keeping an eye out for some gravel—or, worse, dirt road—that’s suddenly supposed to be visible when you get to a clearing in the woods. I’ve found that it helps to have Heather navigate while Maggie looks out for those spots where the vegetation looks like it’s thinning out, because that means we may be getting close to whatever hidden road we’re supposed to take.

This time, though, Heather had a meeting with her writers’ group in Winchester at the same time as the party, which meant that, after dropping Heather off with her group, just Maggie and I would be going. Still, getting to the party wasn’t what I thought would be the hardest thing I had to do that afternoon. The hardest part, I thought, was my being at the party. Even after five years of being a parent, children’s birthday parties are still something that fall way outside my so-called comfort zone. But it’s not the kids that I find difficult to be around—in fact, I’m actually pretty good at doing those goofy sorts of things that kids find entertaining. Indeed, what I find difficult, if not frightening, about children’s birthday’s parties are the parents.

Invariably—and this was true even when we were still close to DC—there will be some parent, usually another dad, who will either look at me in a funny way, or else be blatantly hostile toward me. It’s not that I’m unaccustomed to people being wary of me, either because of my long, unruly hair or because I don’t look like a proper American. After being and feeling like an outsider in the country I was born in, I’ve learned how to deal with that kind of shit. The problem with being at a kids’ party, though, is that I can’t sneer back at whoever is giving me the evil eye, and I certainly can’t give him the finger or else tell him to go fuck himself. After all, I’m trying to set some kind of example for Maggie—and, perhaps, any other kids who may be there.

At this party, I knew the parents who were hosting it—one of them had even been to our house several times—so I knew that they were cool. But I had no idea who else would be there. So, after finally making it to Loch Linden—after making it over one of those frightening low-water bridges and following one of those winding dirt roads up some mountain I don’t know the name of—we found that comforting clearing in the woods that meant (surprise) we’d actually made it. And we were pretty much on time.

As usually happens at these parties, Maggie immediately ran off to be with her friends. That I’m used to, but usually I have Heather to talk to once that happens. This time, though, I was on my own. Fortunately, there weren’t too many people there yet, just the birthday girl’s parents and a few other parents from Maggie’s school with whom I at least had a nodding acquaintance. So far, so good. After a few minutes I started to think, “shit, I can do this.”

That’s when I heard the first gunshot in the distance. In the city, the sound of gunshots is usually good reason to take cover, because you have no idea exactly where the shots are coming from, who they’re intended for, and where the bullets are eventually going to end up. In the country, you actually have some idea of where the shots are, who they’re intended for, and where they’ll eventually end up because you assume the shots came from a hunter, and that the hunter knows what he or she is doing. At least that’s what you’re supposed to assume. But to me, even if it is a hunter, I still don’t see why I should trust a guy dressed in orange who has a loaded gun on his shoulder any more than I should trust a guy wearing a ski mask who’s got a gun hanging inside his belt.

So, there were some questions I wanted to ask. Questions like, Just because we’re in the country, how do I know that these gun shots aren’t the sound of someone who’s out hunting humans? And Is orange one of those calming colors? I don’t believe it is. And, finally, Why isn’t everyone panicking right now?

The next thing I heard was something that was completely new to me, something which—at least as far as I could tell—had no equivalent in the city. It was one of the most unworldly sounds I’d ever heard. Wounded and forlorn, it sounded like some insane banshee to me at first, until I realized the sound wasn’t human in any way—it was animal. That’s when I heard one of the parents refer to the sound as that of “mountain dogs.”

Yeah, mountain dogs. That, to me, sounded like some clever rural euphemism. I wondered if a more accurate term would have been “wild dog” or “coyote” or “wolf.” After hearing that sound, all I could think of was that old short story by Saki, “The Interlopers,” where rival landowners Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym, who are trapped in the woods by a fallen tree, talk things over and actually reconcile. That’s when they think they hear the sound of their men approaching to come to their aid. But, as the sound gets closer and closer, and they can finally see what’s approaching, they see it’s not men, but wolves. That’s where the story ends, with the horrible assumption being that when the wolves get to them, Ulrich and Georg get their landowning asses eaten up.

It had been decades since I’d thought about that short story, but now it was all coming back to me, along with the fear I felt at the end of it. Of course, no one else at the party seemed to react at all to either the sound of gunfire or to the wolves which I knew, in the back of my mind, were about to set upon us.

It was, certainly, a Lisa Douglas/Green Acres moment for me, and where Lisa Douglas would have said in her thick Hungarian accent, “Oliver, perhaps we should get back in our car immediately,” I was ready to ask “Am I the only one who hears this shit?”

As it turned out, the party at Loch Linden wasn’t too bad once I got used to the sound of gunfire and the howls of the wild dogs. A few other parents from Maggie’s school arrived—parents with whom I’d chatted before at school events and who were quite pleasant—though, as usual at gatherings like these, there was one parent who for whatever reason decided that I wasn’t the sort of person he should be socializing with. And, when I looked over to him, nodded, and said hello, he looked at me blankly before turning away without even a perfunctory “hello” or begrudged nod in return.

When I was a kid I always felt bad when this sort of thing happened—when people ignored me because I was different or else told me to go back to my own country. I’d wish that I weren’t such a freak, or weirdo. I’d wish that I weren’t born an outsider. That somehow I could fit in. That I could feel, for once, like an American.

But that wasn’t going to happen, and I’m not that same quiet kid I was then. Later—it probably wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties—when someone would stare at me with that where-the-fuck-are-you-from look, instead of just feeling bad, I’d stare right back. Stare as I think, What the fuck are you looking at you dumb-ass goon? And, in those cases where they would turn away before I could give the look back at them, I’d go ahead and speak.

This is where my skills as a poet came in handy. What the fuck are you looking at? I’d say. Or Go fuck yourself! Well, OK, maybe it’s hard to wax poetic when someone’s been sneering at you like you’re some savage unworthy of sharing the same restaurant, grocery store, or park with him. For me, the poetry always came later. When these things happened, I behaved more like Lisa Douglas would behave if Green Acres were being produced today on some cable network—and directed by some asshole Quentin Tarrantino wannabe.

Of course, now that I’m a parent, I can’t say the things I used to say to people—not even a simple Fuck you, then to that one parent at the Loch Linden party. But maybe that’s OK. Now, that I’m older, I need to pick my fights better, and accept those occasions when communication of any kind is futile.

After a few hours at Loch Linden, I got Maggie, said goodbye to our hosts, and headed out to pick up Heather. Carefully trying to follow the directions in reverse order down the mountain, I found the low-water bridge again. But somewhere along the way we got lost, and when I finally got to a place I recognized, we were twenty miles east of Winchester. I phoned Heather to tell her we were going to be a little late picking her up.

“Oh that’s fine,” she said. “I’m just sitting here with my coffee, so I’m good.” What she didn’t say—and what she’d hadn’t said in a while—was that she was just glad I wasn’t getting into worse trouble. And something I realized soon after moving to Front Royal—something I wasn’t expecting after leaving the much more densely populated confines of the city—was that trouble was always a possibility here and that sometimes it was a possibility that involved me, while other times it was just around me. But either way, it was always there. lingering on these slow, small town streets and carried aloft in the fresh country air.

-Jose Padua

Breeders’ Ball

BreedersBallIt’s dusk. Illuminated by a street lamp, she leans against the side of a building on Main, dragging on a cigarette. I spot her kid first though—a tiny girl maybe two years old toddling off toward the curb. The mom, 19 or 20, wears a tank top and short shorts. Her blonde hair hangs in a messy ponytail. She calls the kid back and leans again, waiting for something or somebody.

We drive by, our six-year old in the back with me, sucking happily on a wildberry smoothie.

An ocean stretches between me and the other mom, the young one. I could make assumptions about her: she didn’t expect the kid, she works as a check-out clerk at Kmart or Wal-Mart or Target, she attends the Baptist church on the corner, she and her boyfriend watch Glen Beck religiously.

These assumptions could be wrong. Maybe it’s more like this: she was dreaming of college on the day the condom broke. Now she works at a winery and takes classes toward a degree in nursing at the local community college. She attends the Unitarian Church. Her boyfriend picks produce at an organic farm. They live on the mountain and refuse to buy a TV.

Or maybe it’s a mix of both. Or maybe neither.

Whatever the specifics of her life, she is a very young mother and there are many many like her here. Poppin’ em out while young seems to be a lynchpin of Shenandoah Valley culture. For some it’s unintentional and for others it’s very much part of the long-term plan.

Noting these sisters around town, I’m tempted to laugh—not at them but at myself. I’m the butt of the joke here, one hour west of D.C. in this breathtaking slice of rural America.

In the city, I’m just another forty-something career mom who worked her ass off to avoid pregnancy until the very last minute. In the city, six-year olds expect to see mommy dying her gray roots red or brown or blonde.

Here, I should have grandkids and 40 more years to watch them grow. The irony is killing me.

Growing up in a large, poor family, I swore like Scarlett O’Hara that I’d never breed until I was good and ready. It worked—I wasn’t “ready” until I hit 35. Now, I am riveted by these young mothers. I study them with an unsettling mix of envy and surprise, even though I know their lots are not perfect, even though some might jump to trade places with me.

It’s been six long years since we had our first child—we haven’t been able to conceive a second. What seems to come so easily for the Shenandoah girls—brand-spanking new life—eludes us, fading into the blue-green distance whenever we think we might reach our goal.

Tonight, though, I have an idea.

After we get home, I tell my husband I’m going for a walk, then amble down Main until I see one of them. This one’s not drinking or smoking, so I pounce. With promises of easy money and a genuine plea for help, I lure her into an alley to make the offer. I’ve got a good feeling about this—I’m gonna score.

She takes the bait: three and a half Gs for however many eggs she has on hand—fresh, young, fertile. She must have been waiting for a junkie like me.

She eyes me up and down, looks around carefully, then pulls out a clear pipette, holds it up for my inspection. It glints like a diamond in the lamplight.

I pull the cash from my pocket not bothering to count out the bills. Shifting from foot to foot, she grabs the stack from my left hand and plops the thin elegant tube in my right.

I gaze down at it, barely breathing.

The glass seems so fragile, so full of the future that I’m afraid it might break under its own weight or with the too-loud thumping of my heart.

“Just don’t waste them,” the girl whispers nervously and looks me in the eye before slipping away.

Watching her go, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve committed an unspeakably perverse crime but I don’t care. I’ve got my fix…

As we pull into the driveway, I come to my senses.

I won’t really walk downtown tonight to purchase human ova from an illegal dealer—that would be too easy. The legitimate route requires a reproductive endocrinologist and unending office visits.

What I really do is watch Hannah Montana with my daughter, trying to enjoy our short evening together.

We cuddle up, eat mint chocolate chip ice cream, plan the coming weekend, and make funny of Daddy.

Then, during a commercial, she says brightly, “Mom, I know how to make you look younger, like a teenager.”

I sigh.

“Do I need to?” I ask, knowing her answer. She wants me to look like the young moms of her friends at school.

For a moment, I imagine how wonderful it would be, what a relief, if pink body glitter and Hello Kitty lip gloss could turn back the clock—not just for my face—but for every delicate curving part of me, inside and out.

-Heather Davis