Generic: Alicia Keys (2008)

Generic: Alicia Keys (2008)

I spent quite a bit of time on the set of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s poignant adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best selling novel, “The Secret Life of Boys.” Given the task to produce the behind the scenes footage and content for this high profile project was both enviable and fulfilling. Impeccably cast with such luminaries as Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning, I sat down with all of these formidable talents on set on some cold and rainy days in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2007, later following up with them at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.

I’ll never forget that beautifully designed pink house, the centerpiece of Monk Kidd’s historical novel chronicling the life of a young white girl on the cusp of womanhood and the effect her housekeeper, and especially, a family of three beekeeping sisters have on her life. Projected against the canvas of the Civil Rights era in the Amercian South, the layers on which the narrative is told still resonate today, perhaps even more so. 

The interviews with the cast had to encompass a dialogue on racial and gender equality, a conversation that has lost none of its power or importance today. At the time of principal photography, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were both seeking the Democratic Nomination for president. It was a time of great hope and wonder, at seeing history happen before our very eyes. It was an inspiring force, particularly for the cast who were essaying roles set in an era of great pain and suffering in a war for societal change. 

Grammy winner Alicia Keys was at the peak of her popularity when she signed on to star in “The Secret Life of Bees” in 2007. Still a vocal activist and philanthropist today, I chose this interview as the second installment of “Generic” as a means to bridge our conversation in 2008 with today’s dialogue on fighting to protect and promote gender and racial equality. Keys has not given up the fight in 2017, as heard through her artistry and public appearances. Neither should any of you.

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Alicia Keys as featured on Season 12 of the NBC music competition series, “The Voice.”

The Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto
September 8, 2008

Few recording artists today have the incredible staying – and selling — power like that of Alicia Keys.

Instantly setting herself apart from her rump-shaking contemporaries upon her 2001 debut, Keys’ smooth blend of old school soul and rhythm & blues continues to court global favor. With 11 Grammy awards on her shelf, as well as more than 20 million albums sold worldwide, the musical life of Ms. Keys is without compare. So, why the eagerness to extend her artistic reach into acting where so many others have been met with deaf ears? The answers were direct and simple.

Performance for Keys comes from the same place and she is more than up for the challenge of voicing new words without music. However, what matters for this artistic hyphenate – which continues to extend with new titles – is that what she is saying is something of worth. And in 2008, Keys proved she had quite a bit to say through several mediums, beginning with her most challenging motion picture effort to date, an acclaimed role in the hit screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.”

Citing the novel as one of her favorite books, Keys was eager to portray “June Boatwright,” the strong protector of a trio of beekeeping sisters living in 1960s era rural American south. What drew Keys to the project was that the character of “June” more than understands the racial strife of the outside world and its threat to the idyllic Eden of her family home. It is no coincidence that the character’s ability to express a softer emotion is through playing the cello, something Keys, already trained musician in her own right, sought to learn to give realism to the role. It is a scene-stealing performance, in spite of formidable work from co-stars Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Hudson. Yet, it was the experience of making her third film, in advance of the most historic moment in African-American history that offered Keys the most gratifying and educational experience of her career.

In discussing this latest chapter in her life, the 27-year-old native New Yorker proved as passionate and focused as she sounds in such hits as “No One” and “Fallin’.” Those smoky tones are no studio-enhanced trick, something I commented to her during our chat at the Toronto Film Festival for “The Secret Life of Bees” earlier in September. Shamelessly, I said it was a “drop-drawers” kind of voice. I got a flash of that amazing smile and a husky laugh.

It is encouraging to know that film will continue a role in her life, whether on screen or by contributing music. In addition to “Doncha Know (Sky is Blue), the end credits song from “The Secret Life of Bees,” Keys can also be heard with Jack White (of The White Stripes) tearing through “Another Way to Die,” the theme to the new James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” Even with just being nominated for a few more Grammy Awards for several tracks off her recent “As I Am” album, art will have to share space with her most serious endeavor, working tirelessly as a global ambassador for Keep A Child Alive, a non-profit organization that provides life-saving AIDS medicines directly to children and families living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Yes, this Julliard-trained hyphenate knows no bounds this year, one of the 2008’s most important personalities.

Without further delay, a confession that is truly in the key of Alicia.

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(L-R) Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Tristan Wilds, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, producer Lauren Shuler Donner and Nate Parker from the film “The Secret Life Of Bees”, pose for a portrait during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival at The Sutton Place Hotel on September 6, 2008 in Toronto, Canada.

JORGE CARREON: It can be said that each of the woman in “The Secret Life of Bees” represents a different facet of what it is to be a woman. Would you agree with that?

ALICIA KEYS: I would. I really do see the many variations of beautiful women in this film. They come in all styles, shapes, sizes, colors and all types of pasts; things that we’re recovering from and going through and embracing. So I do agree.

CARREON: Regardless of the film’s time frame and issues, is it really hard to be a woman?

KEYS: I think it is. It’s the most beautiful thing to be on the planet, so that’s first. But secondly, it is difficult to be a woman because we carry a lot on our shoulders and we are very, very strong. Sometimes we make it look really easy, but it’s not always easy. I think another thing we do as women is we hold things inside of us because we have to keep on pushing and keep going. Keep going for our family, our kids, for the ones that we love, you know? Sometimes that does weigh heavily on us. But I think that we are the most resilient and we are definitely just beautiful creatures. I love being a woman. I love it very much.

CARREON: Do you think such gender driven a story like “The Secret Life of Bees” has a place in contemporary entertainment that extends beyond a female audience?

KEYS: There are so many wonderful women in the world and we have to be represented properly. So, yes! It is time to tell more interesting stories about the many variations of women.

CARREON: Men are thinking, “How does this relate to me?”

KEYS: I think ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is something that will relate to a lot of men. In fact, all the men that I spoke to were like, “I’ll tell you what. I thought it was a ‘chick flick,’ but I really loved it.” They can see in the women their mothers, their sisters, lovers they know. They can see all the women that they know and they can see their own experience being a young person displaced and trying to find their way through it all. It’s not really about color and it’s not about gender. It’s about the experience of finding your place in this world and I think that’s something that everyone can relate to. It’s a story about the human condition. We can all relate to love, family, defeat, and fear. And, we can all relate inspiration, hope, and faith. These are all the themes that are inside the movie.

CARREON As you continue to evolve as an artist, what made this filmmaking experience important to you?

KEYS: This experience is what I expected it to be and more! I learned that it’s just incredible to be around such fascinating women. I learned that it’s amazing to be directed by a woman like Gina (Prince-Bythewood), who was the screenwriter as well. I learned that when you put a whole lot of great women in one space, it’s a wonderful outcome.

CARREON: Faith continues to be a buzzword in the media of late. It seems entertainment is not shying away from addressing such themes, either. Why do you think faith and family have to go hand in hand?

KEYS: Faith brings the family together. And through all of the things that families go through, it’s the faith that we keep that allows us to know that we’ll make it through everything. You can’t do it on your own, even if it’s just one person; you need someone that has that faith with you.

CARREON: Do you find yourself thinking about your life’s journey after being part of a project like a film as opposed to music?

KEYS: Very much so. Always. Especially now, I am definitely searching for my place, my stability, what I’d like for myself. It’s a good journey because sometimes I just dig and find and figure it out. That’s what I think they’ve all done in “The Secret Life of Bees” and I’m doing it, too.

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Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ The Secret Life of Bees (2008)

CARREON: Is there any coincidence that three of the film’s leads are actually musicians in their own right?

ALICIA KEYS: No! (Laughs)

CARREON: As your career continues to evolve, do you feel different about music and acting in a movie? Is it exercising the same muscle or is it nice to switch it up a little bit?

KEYS: Well, for me, acting and music do come from the same muscle in regards to tapping into something that’s honest and pure. You’re expressing it with abandonment, and in that way, it’s very much the same. The difference is, obviously, you are in a film. You’re becoming a different person from yourself, so you’re expressing another person’s story. With music, I’m expressing my story but it’s so similar because you’re empathetic, you understand it and you can connect. What I find about “June,” I can connect with every part of her. I understand her from a woman’s perspective, from a transitional perspective, from growing from one kind of part of your self into the next. There’s so much of me in her.

CARREON: “Bees” director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood gave the cast an amazing amount of resources to feel connected to the period of the film. Why is it important then, Alicia, to continue to look back to honor the struggles of one time and how they parallel to our own contemporary experience?

KEYS: That’s something that we discussed a lot. Gina has been phenomenal in providing us with a multitude of ways to dig out who our characters are and where they sit amongst society and what’s happening in the society at this time. The NAACP and SNCC and all of these organizations that were coming up were really fighting powerfully for a major change with the opportunity for Black people to be able to vote. It’s an incredible history. Sometimes we go on in life and don’t realize the amount of struggle that it took to just get to the point of where we are. You know how many people say, “Oh, I’m not voting, it’s rigged anyway.” How many people struggled, fought and died for that and you take it for granted as if it’s not important to utilize your voice when that’s all we wanted? To have a voice? It’s important to remember and understand things like that. To understand where we have come from and to realize that we, honestly, haven’t even come that far, which is the sad part. You know what I mean? Because you think about the state of the world today and I think about where we are in this film, and it’s almost parallel. Major change, radical change, much struggle and fighting needed to just demand something different.

CARREON: The film offers your first of two new songs bearing your voice this year. What was the inspiration for the song featured in “The Secret Life of Bees?”

KEYS: I love the song in the film and it really represents it perfectly. Just the fact that sometimes you might feel down, you might feel like the world is on your shoulders, but have a little faith in you because the sky is blue.

** My interview with Alicia Keys was conducted on September 8, 2008, at the Toronto Film Festival for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.

“Of spare parts and DREAM Acts 2.0: La Vida Robot Revisited” — #SaveDACA

“Of spare parts and DREAM Acts 2.0: La Vida Robot Revisited” — #SaveDACA

In my first conversation with President Trump on Inauguration Day, I thanked him for the positive things he had said about the Dreamers. He looked me in the eye and said: “Don’t worry. We are going to take care of those kids.”

Despite many of the terrible immigration policies this Administration has put forward, I have always held out the hope that President Trump would keep his word and “take care” of the Dreamers. After all, the President told America, “we love the Dreamers.”

But today’s announcement from Attorney General Sessions was cold, harsh, threatening, and showed little respect, let alone love, for these Dreamers.

Starting this countdown clock will require Congress to act fast to stop rolling mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of young people—students, teachers, doctors, engineers, first responders, servicemembers, and more. Families will be torn apart and America will lose many of our best and brightest unless Republicans join with Democrats to right this wrong immediately. I first introduced the Dream Act sixteen years ago to ensure these young people could stay here, in the only country they’ve ever known. Now Congress must act on this bipartisan bill, and act now. These families cannot wait.  

— A statement from U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration. 

The intent of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy signed by President Barach Obama in June 2012 was to allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. As of 2017, an estimated 800,000 young people, also referred to as “Dreamers” (after the failed DREAM Act), enrolled into the program. As for September 5, 2017, DACA is no more. Now, they face an uncertain future, whether they enrolled into the program or are no longer eligible for its protection.

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Political Cartoon by artist Lalo Alcaraz, 2017

Living in fear as an undocumented individual is just one of the many realities faced by millions of people living in the United States today. Historically speaking, to be an immigrant is to be responsible for all the societal ills and woes of a nation. We’ve seen what humanity can do when it vilifies and turns against “The Other,” that group of people who become the target of genocides and “final solutions.” How anyone can venerate such monsters, as witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia last August is beyond the pale. Yet, we have only begun to see the ramifications of a president who has inspired those living with white privilege to exact a sense of revenge, of taking back a country they feel has gone to the dogs. That’s what many of us are to certain sectors of America, animals unworthy of being deemed human.

Since Trump took office, he’s made an art of playing to the cheap seats, that coterie of angry trolls sporting those damn red caps with the legend “Make America Great Again.” His propagandist rhetoric continues to target journalists, Women, the Muslim community, Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, the Latino Community, anyone who just isn’t white. He targets anyone with a brain able to deduce just how dangerous his screaming brat mentality really is for us all.

Trump wants to be worshipped, not challenged, even by those he chooses to marginalize. He demands your respect, although he’s done nothing to earn it. To challenge him is to stir his pitchfork mob of fans while most the members of his political party of choice opt to stick its head in the sand or stay silent. All fear to lose their moment of power, even if it means sacrificing the greater good of the nation. I often wonder who will stand up for anyone if most of the nation is excluded from the bullshit Trump country club our president and his acolytes have chosen as its manifest destiny for our nation.

Our most treasured national icon, the Statue of Liberty, is an ageless beacon, offering shelter from the storms of inhumanity elsewhere. Trump has turned our borders into the frontline of class and racial warfare, its motto is “Keep Out. You Don’t Belong Here.” If we are now known for turning people away, mercilessly deporting the rest, how will that not stop the war on terror? How will it not inspire new groups to target this great nation with their own brand of wrath? We cannot keep punishing the many for the sins of the few who refuse to honor decency and peace.

This entire nation owes its very identity and soul to the millions of other immigrants who have risked life and limb for decades to secure a better life for themselves and their families. To believe otherwise is absolutely un-American. Perhaps if those who fear “The Other” understood that not everyone who dares to call America their new home is a criminal run amok. Perhaps they need to be reminded of the ones who come here for a specific reason, to find their version of the American Dream. Like my parents. Like many of my friends’ parents and families. Who knows what immigrants can offer this nation in terms of innovation, inspiration, and beneficial to us all lucky enough to be citizens of the United States. Perhaps they need to know that not everyone who comes here is looking for a handout or abusing the social welfare system. I offer one reminder for your consideration.

In 2005, writer Joshua Davis penned an extraordinary article for Wired Magazine chronicling the lives of four undocumented teen boys from Arizona. What made them unique? They bested universities such as MIT and Harvard to win a robotics prize at UC Santa Barbara. Titled “La Vida Robot,” Davis’ meticulously written story of Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda and Oscar Vazquez’s journey to victory was truly the stuff of Hollywood films. A decade later, that film, rechristened “Spare Parts,” was produced.

The Carl Hayden Robotics Team and Coaches
From left: teacher Allan Cameron, Lorenzo Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega, Luis Aranda, and teacher Fredi Lajvardi. Photo: LIVIA CORONA

Directed by Sean McNamara and starring George Lopez, “Spare Parts” benefited from the momentum of the early DREAM Act (DACA) era, when the Latino voice had never been more urgent in terms of our national narrative. While the film relied on the “feel good” tropes of the underdog story, it did not shy away from the fact that these “illegals” are not the enemy in this ugly, paranoid era of fear mongering and reactionary politics.

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Writer Jorge Carreón with Oscar Vazquez and his wife Karla on the New Mexico set of “Spare Parts” in November 2013.

I had the privilege of meeting journalist Joshua Davis and the real boys of Carl Hayden High, interviewing them and their cinematic counterparts for Pantelion Films. Along with producer and star George Lopez, they first expressed the importance of the Latino imprint in terms of mainstream films. However, their ultimate goal was to not only provide quality entertainment, it was to also illuminate an essential community still undervalued or unfairly marginalized by some Americans.

“Spare Parts” opened in January 2015, renewing attention on the lives of Vasquez, Arcega, Santillan, and Aranda. Over the course of a decade, the group from Carl Hayden High School inspired countless newspaper and magazine pieces. Writer Davis followed up his “La Vida Robot” article with a book, also titled “Spare Parts,” catching up on the lives of the boys. Director Mary Mazzio was inspired by the Hayden students to create the documentary “Underwater Dreams.”  The quartet was also included in “Dream Big,” an IMAX feature-length documentary about engineering achievements. Even the team’s famed robot Stinky had its moment when it was put on display at the film’s premiere at the Smithsonian.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

— President Donald J. Trump during a campaign speech, June 16, 2015. 

Yet, with all the attention and praise for their underdog story, life after high school for Vasquez and several of his classmates has not been without its complications. As of 2014, Vasquez was able to secure his American citizenship after a challenging decade that saw him return to Mexico at one point. His return to his homeland meant a 10-year ban of re-entry to the U.S. It was or the assistance of Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who helped overturn the ban, allowing Vasquez return to the States with a visa. Enlisting in the U.S. Army, Vasquez saw combat in Afghanistan before returning and finishing his college education. Now a U.S. citizen, he and wife Karla moved to Texas with their family, where he works in an engineering-related job with BNSF Railroad.

Dreamers in Action
Photo: Livia Corona

Aranda was already a citizen when the team won the robotics contest. Arcega and Santillan both attempted college careers but ultimately were forced to drop out due to the changes in Arizona state law that required all students without legal status to pay out-of-state tuition fees. Today, Santillan runs a catering company with former classmate Aranda, appropriately called Ni De Aqui, Ni De Alla. Translation? “Neither from Here Nor from There.”

“The Making of ‘Spare Parts'” featurette produced by Jorge Carreon @ Monkey Deux, Inc., edited by Steve Schmidt and Drew Friedman for Pantelion Films.

The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences. It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens. —

From U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions statement on the Trump Administration’s rescinding of DACA, September 5, 2017, 

As of  September 2017, the more than 800,000 undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents are awaiting the other chancla to drop now that “President” Donald J. Trump has announced the end of DACA. Its effect will be catastrophic, breaking families apart and ending opportunities, like finishing an education or gainful employment, that have been hard won. What we stand to lose as a nation, however, is on par with a lobotomy.

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The hope generated in 2012 when President Barack Obama signed this bold piece of legislation into effect was designed to protect them from a growing sense of paranoia and fear stoked by members of the GOP, and especially, Trump. They don’t know who are the Dreamers affected, nor do they care. Trump’s campaign engaged classic fear-mongering tactics, stoking the fires of intolerance with his supporters. It didn’t matter if the facts were true or not. The lack of employment, our border safety, our homes, our lives, we were all under attack by this scourge of evil from Latin America or elsewhere. We smirked that Trump could never be elected on such a brazenly racist and xenophobic platform. No one was laughing as the election proved otherwise. Now we have the sound of fear and it is palpable. (That American-born Latinos even voted for him because they deemed “her” unpresidential and untrustworthy is a testament to self-loathing that deserves its own essay. I say to them now, “Look what you’ve done to your brothers and sisters in blood. Shame on you.”)

As the child of immigrant parents, I am beyond angry. As an American citizen, I am ashamed. I wasn’t raised to hate people. I was raised to believe in the innate good of humanity, because good can flourish, even in the direst of times. Yet, to be told that I’m not good enough to be an American because of my Latino heritage or my sexuality is enough to make me want to take up arms. This is not the America that raised me and I’ll be damned if I let it harm anyone else out of fear and intolerance. What Trump offers is not the American Way. It is HIS way. That’s not good enough, not for this beautifully diverse nation.

Immigrants are not here to eradicate white history or white privilege. Nor are they here to tear this country asunder. That is a total lie to keep the status quo of xenophobia. We excuse the horrors of white terrorism, but movements like Black Lives Matter are deemed dangerous, inspiring legislation to declare such movements as being illegal.

American history was never just white. It is every color and creed and orientation, no matter how hard people try to obfuscate it. We are at a crossroads that will have consequences for generations to still to come. What we lose by excluding the many undocumented individuals now forced to live in the shadows again won’t be felt immediately, but it will be felt. Nothing stirs up a public more than paying for the poor decisions of our leaders. And we will pay for the loss of DACA is many ways, socially, morally and economically.

We are deporting the wrong groups of people. To be silent is to be complicit in this cruelly interminable series of unjust and un-American traitorous political acts. If we continue down this path of eradicating those deemed unworthy of citizenship, we will cease to be the United States of America. We will become the Dishonorable States of Trump, a soulless and rudderless nation offering nothing but a smirk, hatred, and violence to the world that once looked to us for guidance, protection, and inspiration.

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Ana Rice, 18, of Manasas, Va., holds a sign that simply reads “SHAME” outside the White House. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

**Now that the DACA program has been shut down, here is a breakdown of the Trump decision and what people should know:

Some DACA recipients won’t lose their DACA on March 5, 2018: People who have DACA now and whose DACA doesn’t expire until after March 5, 2018, will continue to have DACA and the work permit that comes with it until the expiration date of their DACA.

It’s too late to apply for DACA: The president ended the program so from Wednesday (September 6) on no more applications for DACA are being accepted.

A deadline that shouldn’t be missed: People whose DACA expired Tuesday, September 5 or will expire Wednesday, September 6 through March 5, 2018, can renew their DACA, but they must apply by October 5.

The ball is in Congress’ court – or Trump’s?: Between now and March 5, 2018, Congress can draft legislation to revive DACA, come up with a substitute or even do away with what the administration has put in place. Some opponents of DACA disagreed with the program being authorized by the president but may support a congressionally created program. Late Tuesday, Trump tweeted that he may “revisit” the DACA issue if Congress doesn’t act.

Legal challenges could play a role: There’s always a possibility of a court case. President Donald Trump came up with the DACA phase out plan under threat of legal action by a group of state officials. A young immigrant and immigration group filed a lawsuit in New York Tuesday challenging Trump’s action. There could also be discrimination lawsuits as a result.

 

“Dad”

“Dad”

Dad: How far is your house from here?

Me: About 14 miles.

Dad: I’m tired. I think you should go.

Me: But I promised Mom I’d watch you.

Dad: Where’s Mom?

Me: In Mexico. Visiting her family. She’s coming home today.

Dad: I’m fine. I don’t need you here. I’m tired. You should go.

Me: Okay.

That’s when I called my sister…

The day didn’t start out this way.  That exchange happened around 6 pm. We’d made a day of it, Dad and I. We ran errands, had lunch, even went to a movie together. Then things got a little complicated, ending with my saying to my older sister, “Thank God for pharmaceuticals.” In the end, I had to turn my Dad into Neely O’Hara to restore order. Under normal circumstances, this day out with Dad should have been like it was 40 years ago when we were father & young son. Now the roles are reversed, but with one crucial difference: Alzheimer’s.

Being with an Alzheimer’s patient is a bit like being in a scene from “Groundhog Day.” Repetition is the name of the game and it requires a decent amount of patience and humor when they are this stage. You push away thoughts about the silence still to come when they enter a state of haunted immobility as they no longer engage with the world. For now, we can still have conversations. These are comprised of lightning rounds of the same group of questions as they fixate on specific topics. In my Dad’s case, it usually involves the measurement of space or time.

I was assigned one day to sit and care for Dad, which was also the day Mom was to return from visiting her family in Mexico. Dad’s mental long play record was stuck in one groove. His current jam was the track about where was Mom and when would she return. My younger sister had gone to work and I was chuffed by the idea of getting to spend time with Dad in during the regular week.  I sat in our family home living room, taking care of Emails as Dad took his usual spot, the outside porch. Yet, for the next 90 minutes, he’d rotate from the living room to the porch. Each time Dad would enter the room, he’d ask:

Dad: Tu viniste a cuidarme?

Me: Si, papá.

Dad: Muy amable.

He seemed touched to know I had been asked by the family to take care of him. He’d rap on the table, an emphatic gesture that made me smile. An hour or so later, his pacing evolved into that of a caged animal. His eyes glittered in a unique way and the rapping, which at first felt like a war buddies fist bump, now had a tone of anger. Without hesitating, I took Dad on a Target run.

My Dad has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s for well over a decade. We’ve been fortunate to have him mentally present with us for so long. He recognizes my mom and sister, who care for him 24/7. As for the rest of my siblings, we are in iPod shuffle mode. Sometimes he knows who we are and we ignore the times he doesn’t.

Sometimes we are simply “los muchachos,” a catchall term that refers us as being his “kids.” It offers its own comforts, being part of that group memory. We’re still his children. Then reality takes over. One time, he told Mom I couldn’t be his son since I’m too old as he’s only in his 50s. I go, “Mom, that makes you an OG cougar.” We both laughed. You have to laugh, otherwise, you cry.

Dad’s eating habits are changing. Texture matters, in addition to the color of his food. At times, he can forget when he’s had a meal, then he’ll insist that he hasn’t. He is losing weight. He’s irascible at times, the Latino machismo surging to a boiling point when contradicted. Again, those glittering eyes are a sign for us to be calm. That’s when he’s in that “mad” mode.

My mom and sister have learned to wait out the tantrums instead of fueling them further, although I see now why Mom has no fuse at all anymore. Their matrimonial sea roils and it calms itself just as suddenly as if nothing happened at all. Yet the after effects are revealing the wear on her, too. The one saving grace? Whenever things do get too intense, Dad’s physician has prescribed Dad a mild sedative. Yes, it is on par with giving a screaming toddler Benadryl, but sometimes…

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I can see Dad’s age now. He’s 92. I regret not getting him on record to capture his view of the world, the chronicle of a Mexican immigrant father, businessman, and world traveler projected against the canvas of contemporary history. Today, he can’t differentiate what he sees on the television screen, fictional or otherwise, from his real life.

When we do receive those treasurable moments, though, it is on par with winning the lottery. Like the time, I went to meet Dad and my younger sister for a showing of “Atomic Blonde.” As they entered the cinema, he saw me and instantly opened his arms for a hug. Usually, he just offers a gentlemanly handshake and a pat on the shoulder, which was his way. But this was wonderfully different. For a moment, we were on the track many grown sons are with their older parent.

Families, particularly Latino families, do not like to share the truth of their loved ones’ health, especially serious conditions. For whatever reason, illnesses are a “private matter.” We become traffic wardens, telling onlookers, “Move along. There’s nothing to see. Everything is alright.” But everything is not alright. Our parents will get sick. They will change because of an illness, not because of some cosmic punishment.

I understand the desire, particularly when it comes to our parents or grandparents, to want people to remember how they were and not as their infirmed selves. It is such a waste of time, time left with us that we can’t possibly measure or gauge. Family can become so entrenched in denial. Better living through chemistry, at least when it comes to Alzheimer’s, yes. But the truth is it is just a stop gap.

I see where we are heading with Dad. That’s why I choose to laugh now about his, “Yo soy el dueño de esta casa” demeanor. It wasn’t easy knowing he wanted me to leave his house. My work caring for him was done and he wanted his independence and space back. Later that night, I regaled my Mom and younger brother about how Dad refused to go to sleep because he wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to “steal his shit.” Eventually, like a toddler, sleep caught up with him. Granted it was aided with the sedative I gave him a few hours earlier, but our cherished Poppadoodles was finally having a well-deserved rest.

I do not regret the frustration I felt at times that day. At times, I wanted to just yell, “Why don’t you understand?” I felt robbed because I can’t stop thinking about the conversations we could be having now we are both able to communicate again. It all seems so unfair. I can’t tell him I finally understand what he tried to teach me when I was a kid. I can’t tell him how he hurt me when I came out to him 17 years ago. I can’t tell him that I forgive him. I can’t share with him how I think this full circle reality we share is so good and inspiring to me.

Like “Groundhog Day,” we will be back at the same starting point the next day and the one after that. Our “Dad’s Day Out” will be forgotten, but how marvelous to know that when we do get to do this again it will be like a brand-new adventure. We have nothing to mourn or feel sorry about here. Dad is a part of many lives, not just with the family here and in Mexico, but our friends, too. As long as that smile still shines through I will remember what his mind can’t hold anymore. It’s the ultimate privilege and the best story I am ever going to be able to tell.

From the Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles website:

“Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles is a leader in developing culturally and linguistically appropriate programs and services, including those for Latinos.  Research shows Latinos with dementia are low users of formal health services and less likely than non-Latinos to see a physician.  Given the significance of familia in the Latino community, families (particularly daughters) provide a disproportionate share of Alzheimer’s care.

In order to reach these women (and their families) ALZGLA has taken a creative approach…we produced a bilingual, educational telenovela.  Lost Memories tells a story familiar to many Greater Los Angeles families.  It also disseminates complex medical and health information to caregivers with the goal of raising awareness of Alzheimer’s, fighting stigma, and encouraging Latino families to seek help sooner.

In honor of Latino Heritage Month,the 4-episode web series will debut September 19 at alzgla.org and on YouTube.

 

“The End”

“The End”

“The American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression; they’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve fucked themselves limp, and nothing helps. So, this concept analysis report concludes, ‘The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them.'”

Diana Christensen (as written by Paddy Chayefsky) in “Network” (1976)

“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path”

— As Tweeted by Donald Trump, “President” of the United States (2017)

 

11/20/1983

“It seems fitting to begin with the end.”

That’s how journalist Harry F. Waters’s cover story on “The Day After” for Newsweek began. I’ll never forget reading that piece, nor that opening line. The publicity machine over at the ABC network had been working overtime. TV Guide featured its own cover story and countless news reports added further momentum, worrying that the highly publicized telefilm’s depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear war on midwestern Americans would be too graphic and devastating for audiences, especially children. Others declared it was merely a leftist polemic for ratings. Yet, ABC did detonate one of the most watched television events ever with “The Day After,” a three-hour telefilm that answered of the ultimate “What if?” question. And more than 100 million people in 39 million homes tuned in one November night in 1983 to find out the answer.

Directed by Nicholas Meyer and featuring an ensemble led by such era heavyweights as Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams, Amy Madigan & John Cullum, “The Day After” was actually conceived as a two-part event. In the end, audiences would witness a three-hour film chronicling the lives of several Kansas families as they deal with the horrific aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

Whatever its technical limitations, the irradiated images of blast vaporization, flash burns, radiation sickness and the futility of restoring even the most basic of societal structures burned into the consciousness of a generation. President Ronald Reagan, who viewed the film prior to its airing, credits the experience as being the reason why he reversed his stance on certain nuclear arms policies.  (Reagan wrote in his diaries how the film was “very effective” and left him “greatly depressed.”)

Broadcasting a political statement as “entertainment” into the nation’s living rooms remains its hallmark. It was polarizing, but we had to watch, my family included. I recall how we sat in the den, my Dad, my sisters, and I. Mom or my younger brother weren’t present. Maybe, maybe not? What I do recall was sitting on the floor, leaning against the sofa and whispering, “Here we go” as the movie began. And our collective nuclear fears hit an unforgettable peak for the rest of the decade.

And we are still here.

In the 34 years since “The Day After,” we’ve seen and heard elected officials, dictators, religious zealots, grandstanding fringe media show hosts and a rogue’s gallery of other malcontents wax lyrical about warmongering. Then America elected Donald Trump.

Flannel shirts. Will & Grace. Roseanne. David Letterman. Fiorucci. Nuclear war! Sooner or later, everything comes back in vogue. Even the end of the world. Or maybe that prospect has never left us?

To those who know me, I am obsessed with apocalyptic fiction. I don’t know where it began, but movies, novels, mini-series, I loved the idea of “the end.” Hell, I even read the endings of books and hit Wikipedia to see how other narratives end. Haha. So, “When Harry Met Sally,” yo.  I still joke that such eccentricities were preparing me for the inevitable. I’ve written about this before, stating that I watch films like “The Day After,” “Threads,” and “Special Bulletin” because no matter what we go through today, it still isn’t a nuclear wasteland.

I guess the jokes on us? Maybe?

 

Seriously, Trump is the quintessential rebound boyfriend, the one that is a huge swing away from the one who treated you well, but you broke up with anyway. He’s that loud mouthed douche who talks a lot of shit but can’t back any of it up. He’s the surprise date your friend brings to dinner and you all wonder, “The sex can’t be THAT good. Why is he with him?” At best, he’ll leave you with a case of crabs, but that can be treated. At worst, he’ll leave you with a scorching case of the uncurable herp. And let’s face it, America,  you can’t afford to be left with another social disease transmitted through “fake news” or abject hatred. Bad enough we don’t have the healthcare reform to treat it.

For those of you who lived through the Reagan era, the idea of witnessing a nuclear war was solid enough to kick start the low sweat stage in us all. Yet, how lucky to know we survived to see Trump engage in social media saber (i.e. penis) rattling. Now, I ponder whether “the end” as entertainment is no longer just a scary scenario. Can it manifest itself this time? And what does that mean for us all? It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine after all.

At times, I wonder if we are better of being dust in the atmosphere, given what we’ve done to ourselves and our planet. Then again, I’m not ready for “The End.” I refuse to give up on my right to dream of a good boy or girlfriend, the one who makes us all think and laugh at the dinner table, the one who believes in justice for all. Let all the haters ride the bomb to oblivion. We can’t allow for stupidity to have its way again.

“Basic”

“Basic”

As defined in the Urban Dictionary:

1. Used to describe someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.

2. Lacking intelligence and unable to socialize on even an elementary level.

3. Annoyingly frustrating because of the above

Oh her? Don’t even worry about her, girl. She’s so basic.

I think I preferred being gay in the 1990s. Well, sometimes I do.

That’s not an admission of not enjoying my gay life today. I enjoy it very much, although I probably hide out more than living out loud. Still, I honestly believe I am not alone in recognizing the limits that exist within the complex reality of the community today. Our tropes have been remixed, rebranded, shaken, and stirred into such a vast panoply of categories, it is no wonder we have begun to lose our connection to each other. It’s the same phenomenon of having too much choice. And while we continue to be political firebrands, I often feel it is hard to a distinguishing voice, one that embraces the entire group. Perhaps that’s an impossible task.

When I was sorting out my gay identity in the mid-80s to 1990s, I will never forget the fear and desperation I felt over what I perceived as a paucity of role models and resources with which to understand being homosexual. Yes, I loved watching old movies, Paul Lynde and broke my mother’s kitten heels as a kid, pretending that I was Ann-Margret in “The Pleasure Seekers.” Yes, I fell under the sway of Gershwin & Porter, Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt’s “What’s New” and Joan Rivers’ infamous comedy album “What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?” I wasn’t led to all of these places. Most happened by osmosis. Some of my favorite teachers, who probably felt I needed a little encouragement, steered me ever so gently towards some cultural touchstones. Bottom line, it all felt right, just like the crushes I felt for Han Solo, Steve Austin and Thomas Magnum, private investigator. However, as I poured through the oeuvre of Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, and Jacqueline Susann, their depictions of homosexuality only left me titillated and confused. Man, I had questions and no one to turn to for answers.

As a teenager, you didn’t dare mention anything “gay” for fear of being ostracized or brutalized by the macho fucks who prowled the school hallways. Pretty much anything that did not look or sound like them meant “faggot.” Advanced vocabularies were a secret shame for us chubby, nascent homos. It was all closets, stereotypes, and slurs, as I am sure it was for many teenagers surviving the early 80s. It didn’t help that the HIV/AIDS crisis was being treated like a biblical pestilence by the media. But how else would you view the deaths of 40,000 people between 1981 and 1987 as anything but a genocide? Gomorrah was burning and it was devastating to hear from Anita Bryant and your own friends’ parents that being gay was the match that lit the fuse. Asserting your homosexuality at that time was not going to be like an ABC Afternoon School Special.

As I ventured to UCLA and beyond, I began to discover the resources with which to further define my gay identity. It was about being part of the “gay and lesbian” community, even if only the white gay male narrative was what clearly in focus. I still didn’t see myself in the growing media presence of gay men. Although, we have come a long way in that regard. In many ways, it still is a very white focus, regardless of the gender. Room for progress? Yes.

While I stayed firmly in the closet when it came to my parents, I had no problems letting my gay flag fly elsewhere. After UCLA became an educational Waterloo, CSU Long Beach can take credit for leading me to the artistry Armistead Maupin, Charles Busch, Reinaldo Arenas, David Leavitt, Manuel Puig, Larry Kramer, Keith Haring, Joe Orton, Harvey Fierstein, Pedro Almódovar and so much more. Once I landed at Paramount Studios as an intern, I hit the mother lode (and not that stalwart WeHo bar.) Several of the men I worked with in the studio’s National Theatrical Publicity department presented themselves as being incredibly secure with their bad ass gay selves. It was the first of many safe and illuminating havens I experienced in terms of associating with professionals who were out in the workplace.  I was made aware just how gay men and women were the ones to make life and style synonymous terms. In this ACT UP era, it was time to understand we were “fierce.” More, I became hyper aware as to the debt attached to the attitude, parlance, and strength of the community, realities contributed by African-American, Latino and Asian queers. It all made for an intoxicating existence, especially when viewed on display at clubs Circus or Rosie’s or Jewel’s Catch One, where we embraced each other, fell in love on the hour and felt so invincible on the dance floor.

When I started writing this post on being “Basic,” it was meant to be another statement on dating today. That was before I sat down to watch the poignant if erratic “Strike a Pose” documentary. It is a “where are they now” piece that was produced by a Belgian-Dutch team, the film celebrated the 25th anniversary of “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” itself a cultural moment of considerable influence. The documentary regrouped seven of Madonna‘s unforgettable backup dancers, charting the course of their lives, trials, and considerable tribulations in the years since their co-starring in the Material Girl’s iconic 1990 Blonde Ambition tour. That zeitgeist moment, one that influenced so many young gay men and women, had a bittersweet impact on these men’s’ lives. How a defining cultural gift proved so challenging and heartbreaking for these incredibly talented men helped me broaden the context of what I wanted to say about this era of being “Basic.”

I was very much one of those fans who found refuge and pride in a movie theater during that summer of 1991. I instantly re-felt the impact of “Truth or Dare,” despite the difficulties faced by this group of men as chronicled by “Strike a Pose.” It was also like finding being a letter from a long-ago love. Witnessing these men, all nearing 50, still moving to their own music with purpose helped me understand the need to keep moving forward, of re-embracing my own strengths and colors. More, they inspired me to not feel adrift or isolated as a result of being 50 and gay in a world that still caters to the proverbial youthquake.

The first paragraphs on “Basic” were these:

When it comes to 21st century dating between men, two categories remain in play. The first group – or the Exceptionals – are men worth dating, but are most likely paired off or not interested in being a couple at all. This group does not include those who are in open relationships, a social phenomenon that is just more macho-induced “having your cake (or cock in this case) and eating, too. And then we have group two: The Basics. Oh, man.

Created by the internet, this constantly trending crowd thinks it’s redefining our world and perhaps they are with their throwback looks and sway back attitudes. They live for the now, even if they don’t know what that means.  It isn’t just millennials, either. Basicdom is spreading to all age groups like a virus as social media swallows the rest of us whole. And what’s in between is a collective of damaged goods spouting mangled psychosexual manifestos and more. It is no longer men you date or men you don’t. What we have today are next level distrust and basic human disconnection.

I couldn’t continue down this path, one I’ve covered before and a Bombeckian take felt trite and unnecessary. Instead, I wanted to focus on how unfunny being labeled “basic” is to those who wield it as a joke or a tone-deaf insult.

While I applaud how millennials have turned up the dialogue to address and give names to the many facets of out and/or queer life, they are still working on variations of a theme long-established. I don’t think today’s young gay men quite understand the debt they owe previous generations, their lives, struggles, deaths and everything in between. Gay is a living, breathing creature, one that can decide the color of its plumage without a care in the world. Hide it, suppress it, oppress it, this creature will fight its way forward to be seen and with even greater radiance. A context to our present is missing today, a respect for history and the sacrifices made for us all to be able to say, “Sissy that walk.”

You will find nothing “basic” about being gay, now or ever. But it pisses me off that we are quick to diminish someone for not possessing whatever trend or ideology that makes them “interesting” or “worth devoting time to” in this world.  We all can’t look like refugees from the Electric Company or Romper Room. More, we can’t let striking a series of selfie poses, drinks up and duck lips be what defines our sexual freedom!

We all will get older. We all will find how our experiences can impact the future if take our narcissism out of the equation. How we dare shame those who are poz or act like PrEP is the golden bullet that will keep us young and fuckable. How dare we ignore those who choose a unique brand of queer, or want to unleash their true gender identity, are older or chubbier or a different color or creed? Bad enough religious zealots want us dead, still! We cannot castigate or diminish our own brothers and sisters. Not now.

Homosexuality is a reality that was never about a life style choice because it sparks to life in our very DNA. We should remix “basic” and take the dialogue back to basics when we were all vital human beings living life on our terms: compassionate, honorable, forward thinking and positively sexy.

 

Key Photo: Art by Keith Haring

“50”

“50”

Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age. – Victor Hugo

Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty. – Coco Chanel

Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed. – Charles M. Schulz

“Youth has many glories, but judgment is not one of them and no amount of electronic amplification can turn a belch into an aria.” — Alan Jay Lerner, “The Street Where I Live”

Age ain’t nothing but a number – Aaliyah

Todo lo he hecho a sabiendas y no me arrepiento de nada. Ni de lo bueno ni de lo mano ni de los momentos felices ni de las tristezas. Al final, tengo el alma llena de paz y de tranquilidad.  — Chavela Vargas

Holy fu*k! I’m 50! – Everyone else

I turned 50 today. I figure all that’s left for me now is getting an AARP membership and let those discounts begin! Hahaha. Nah. That’s not how I started my countdown to turning 50 earlier this week. It began by my pondering how I would look with the new Chanel Gabrielle bag in black lambskin. I mean, if it works for Pharrell Williams, who is an elder fashionista statesman of 44, it should look amazing on me!

Masculine. Feminine. It doesn’t matter anymore to me. I am finally settling into loving me as I am today after years of thinking happiness could only be found in constant reinvention or letting perception dictate who I was as a man. Capes. Open-toed shoes. Painted toe nails. And that’s just cosmetics, an expression of my evolving style. It’s on the inside where I am discovering where real beauty lies and I think I can safely say “I am beautiful” now. Maybe not at the top of my lungs, but I can say it, dammit.

Helen says this classic ad for the fragrance named Charlie, starring that golden blonde Shelley Hack and New York cafe society crooner Bobby Short, summed up my 40s. I’d have to concur. It was a decade filled with high-end glamor and high street drama. As I venture into the next 10 years, I think I’m gonna favor a life like a Chavela Vargas song.

I think about where I was 10 years ago. I was preparing for my 40th birthday party in my patio, complete with taco cart, a wide assortment of boozy drinks and a lot of fun people, family, friends, co-workers. I’d reached a personal peak. I was vice president of a content agency. I had a boyfriend that I loved so much. My duplex apartment was the first dwelling of mine to feel like home. The night of the party was soupy warm and full of expectations for the decade ahead. My worlds were colliding again, but I felt confident that it would be a night to remember. And it was.

That was 2007.

It is now 2017. The company I worked for at that time went bankrupt, leading its charismatic owners to an acrimonious and shocking divorce. Most of that crew went their separate ways, starting families, moving abroad or across the country. I love that they are all living exciting new lives today.

I broke up – twice — with my musician BF. In 2010, we stayed apart for good. While communication between us is now sporadic, it is still better than it was during the volatile early years of our split. However, I have yet to be able to call anyone a partner since, much less a steady date.

My duplex remains my chosen sanctuary, complete with pictures on the wall and other examples of a life less ordinary. The occasional screech of wild parrots still makes me smile as they break through the tree-lined quiet that makes this stretch of South Pasadena wonderful.

My family remains a unified front, even though some of us are starting to rebel as we finally make awkward attempts to curate lives on our own. Dad’s struggle with Alzheimer’s has run its inevitable course. While he is still very much with us, the realities of his age (92) and the illness have shrunk his capacity to stay in the moment. His dependency on my mom and sister is at a critical mass and I wonder how much more they can endure. Now I am starting to think about what will THEY need once he longer requires their selfless care.

I am three years in with the most extraordinary – and award-winning – agency. Career remains at a peak and I am surrounded by a constant source of creativity and inspiration. Yes, my political incorrectness does get me into trouble from time to time. However, is altering my unique voice a good thing or is it a means of being oppressed by those who can’t dominate me? Either way, the struggle keeps me alive and bristling with an energy I still possess, no matter how hard I try to obfuscate it.

But the journey since 40 has not been easy and I worked hard at making it unnecessarily complicated, which may be my biggest achievement to day. It can’t be explained away through depression, family loss and a voracious need to be liked anymore, although I continue a mighty battle with them all. What I discovered in the last decade is that I am my own worst enemy and we have reached a moment of “high noon.”

I gave turning 50 a lot of thought and my taking this milestone to Mexico City was the answer. I wanted to step away from all that has given me pause these last few years. I wanted not to worry about my weight, my lack of romantic pursuits, my stagnating friendships, the visits to the nutritionist, the shrink, the anti-depressants, the meds for diabetes and high blood pressure, all of it. I wanted to pay homage to my identity as an American born of Mexican parents. That I remain proud to be parte del mundo hispanohablante. I wanted my parents to know I owed all that I was, more, I wouldn’t be able to even stand before them if it wasn’t for their bringing me into this world. I wanted my siblings to know that they mattered, despite this surprise round of growing pains we are experiencing now.

2017 has been a watershed year for friends. Weeks on the road brought the most wonderful energy to my life, taking me out of my self-imposed inertia because of my forging these new friendships. And the effects, which started out as confusing and frustrating, have evolved into a refreshed perspective on the roles my close circle of friends plays in my life. Loyalty was never an issue here. They are the epitome of tough love and I need them for that alone. More, it was high time for them know how they still make me try to BE a better person. Period.

The weekend’s wine soaked dinners, and there were two, truly became the stuff of a dream. The theme of “Details of Diego and Frida” that was taken too literally by my cousins who drove three hours from Tlanepantla to reach the first dinner. The all-female salsa band that played a theme as I entered the antro at the Sheraton María Isabel. The post-dinner mariachi performance as the “final-final.”

Perhaps the greatest moment was seeing Dad literally bolt from his seat at the table at Balcón when he laid eyes on his nieces, that sonorous blast of color and love I’ve grown to cherish so much more in the last decade. Dad KNEW who they were in an instant, Alzheimer’s be damned. The hugs and kisses and tears were a harbinger of things to come, too. Annie G captured the moment, broken ankle y todo, the sweetest gift preserved by one of my best friends, herself a purveyor of honest sentiment and great care.

At each stop that weekend, I offered my thanks to everyone, triggering a series of testimonials that were better than any AFI tribute I’d ever seen. As I faced my family, my friends at the Saturday night dinner at Rosetta in the colonia Roma, I was overcome with such emotion. I felt nothing when we dined at the Balcón del Zócalo on Friday night. I was too worried about having enough seats for everyone. Yet, after a day’s cultural excursion to the Museum of Anthropology and the visit to see the art of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo at the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco, I was in a fight to keep the buzz of happy from dissipated too soon. It was all going so fast! I just let the emotion take over. I couldn’t keep it in and I didn’t want to anyway. The hot tears I let fall were wonderful on my skin.

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 7.48.56 AM

This was the unification of the two Jorges, the American and the Mexican, and it was ultimately an out of body experience. I looked around the family-style dinner table at this grouping of family, friends, co-workers and more. I could see and feel the presence of those family members and friends no longer with us. Tío Ernesto and Tía Tayde. Aunt Susanna. Melissa Duke. I know they enjoyed a trago conmigo, that was the source of my emotion.

I was reunited with esteemed Mexican film journalist Daniela Michel, herself now a major figure in world cinema. It may have been an absence of 10 years, but the distance in time was quickly shored up the minute I saw her. We spoke at length that night, sharing the details of our lives in the effortless manner that belied the reason we became friends in the first place. Her influence on my life goes without compare and how I’ve missed our epic conversations. She’s a lot like Alan in that she brings out the best in people she trusts in friendship. Walking her through the colonia Roma streets, sitting down with her husband Jim and friends for a quick drink after the dinner encapsulated what my I envisioned my life to be as I enter this fifth decade.  It’s about the power of community, of creating a family that is made of strong ideals, true conversation, and absolute joy.

The next Sunday morning, we staggered through Reforma for an oh-so necessary pozole brunch at La Casa de Toño in the Zona Rosa, I was determined not to cry again. I had to keep some sense of strength and avoid the calling of the chillón. But then I looked over at my Dad, and his face was one of such love that his tears gave the order to allow for my own to march again. I’ll never forget that image, swiftly banishing all that we said and did so wrong to each other as father and son when I was growing up. In it is place was a recharged soul, one that I had let become airless and dull. My father. My mother. My family. My friends. They all brought me back to life. Having them in Mexico City was an affirmation of the following:

I am alive.

I am getting better.

I am looking forward, even as things change anew.

I wanted to wax lyrical in this post. Perhaps the flourish is steeped in the hyperbole that is the curse of being a former publicist, yet it’s something I’ve done since I first penned my first paragraph. Ego dictated that I write the sort of essay that gets quoted and/or added to some basic DIY Pinterest wall with a deep thoughts pic. Instead, I am happier with keeping 50 closer to my heart. The intimacy and emotion of the entire weekend were the culmination of a journey that’s never failed me, even as I failed myself in the process. What I’ve discovered as I start this chapter is that everything changes for the better in an instant when you finally let love take its rightful place within yourself. Once people see that emanate forth, nothing will stop another person’s love from being returned in kind. That’s the gift we are so lacking these days of acrimony and confusion. And we need to fight like hell to restore its place in us all.

“Everything changes
My heart’s at the wheel now
And all my mistakes
They make sense when I turn them around
Everything changes
What I thought was so permanent fades”

— From “Watiress,” score written by Sara Bareilles

The gifted singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles is the Carole King of our moment. I am drawn to her music for its honesty and poignancy. Like Ms. King, she is so cognizant of the universal emotions we experience at any age, at any moment, in life and in love. Her score for the musical adaptation of the film “Waitress” represents some of her best work as a songwriter. Near the end of the second act, the character of Jenna sings about how her view on life has changed because of the birth of her daughter, Lulu. That song, titled “Everything Changes,” resonated like a thunderbolt as I penned this essay. I may not never know the wonderful sense of achievement of being a parent. However, I do understand the importance of being reborn when we begin to shake loose from the torpor of our discontent and fear. Because, as Bareilles writes, “Everything changes. My heart’s at the wheel now and all my mistakes, they make sense when I turn them around. Everything changes. What I thought was so permanent fades.”

I don’t want my past mistakes to fade, but I know they will not represent me, either. And if it takes another half century to right these many wrongs, so be it. Most people forget you 10 minutes after you’ve gone. We don’t own this time on Earth, we pay rent. Don’t you want it to count, to know you were the best you could possibly be while you’re here? Don’t you want to cast aside the standard of mediocrity and narcissism we’ve let define our time? We need to deserve each other again so when the time comes for our departures, all that remains is what was felt with truth and love. That’s my goal for the next 50 years or however many years are left in my narrative.

And I have a whole lot of writing to do…

 

 

 

“Erma”

“Erma”

It’s been another week to upchuck thanks to the now even lower set of public standards established by our “president.” Defended by his equally inept minions as “fighting fire with fire” over media criticism, we are forced to bear witness to the tweeted verbal diarrhea of a school yard bully. Morning show hosts are being called out as “psycho” or “ugly.” He’s approving clips of his taking down the CNN logo like a WWF star. It’s all being done to overshadow a travel bans, dangerous health care laws and other exhibitions of governmental malfeasance now threatening the stability of the country. Hell, let’s make it the world. After years of “scripted” reality shows, we are keep tuning in on “That Crazy Trump!” because so many Americans can’t tell the difference anymore. Besides, it’s so entertaining! He’s keeping it real! He’s giving it to the Left, finally!

Yeah, he’s giving it to us, alright. However, one key difference must be recognized. We are ALL going to wake up with a scorching case of moral herpes. America will be that person other people whisper to you about NEVER dating because “they’re whores.” We are exactly that, whores. Trading our sanity and moral compass for the promise of something, white, rich and devoid of anything that sounds/looks like Barack Obama.

Many people turned to the Trumpian Way because they wanted to go back to the “old days” of when America was great. One of the sadder realities about such sentiments is that Trump does not represent what made this country such a beacon of hope to many. We know that racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia will fight to the end before leaving their places at the table. It is why many have taken up the mantle of resistance for generations. However, this era on “notice me” and “I want it now” has overtaken the important of virtues of shame, accountability, respect, tolerance and inclusivity. More, it is robbing us of the one thing that could bind us to see our way through it: a sense of humor.

The era of “snark and awe” punditry has obfuscated the role of the news person represented by Chet Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. The columnist and humorist is no less present, either, replaced by bloggers, vloggers and YouTube “personalities,” fueled by a cynical and arch tone aimed at showing how stupid everything and everyone can be today. It is the equivalent of graffiti with punctuation, offering little analysis and said as loudly as possible. All that matters are that these posts make an “impression.”

Making an impression.

Before, it meant impressing the group as they met you for the first time. Now? Social media marketing execs with crow about millions of impressions, but they cannot accurately gauge if it goes beyond just “looking” at the post. Does the audience engage with it beyond just blithely sharing it with their friends? Does it provoke them into acting? Of buying? Of contributing to the cause? Of any of the interactions we did not take for granted decades earlier?

The American columnist once carried such power, a power on par with reach and impact of Twitter today. From Andy Rooney to Ann Landers, from Louella Parsons to Hedda Hopper & Rona Barrett, and from Walter Winchell to Frank Rich, Americans read, listened and watched their way to understanding the political, social, cultural and gossipy effluvia of the growing celebrity age. They could turn the tide on national opinion and they gave it context beyond 140 characters or less. Sure, some of them appealed to the lowest common denominator. William Randolph Hearst makes Steve Bannon look like sloppy kid reporter with pizza stains on his chin. But we had a choice. We had options that catered to something classier. One stood above the fray, whose columns were about our shared humanity in a crazy world, all written to make us feel like we weren’t alone in our flawed beauty. And it made us smile, cry and laugh. Sometimes all at once. We had Erma. Erma Louise Bombeck of Dayton, Ohio.

Friends, she was a wise one. Clever, authentic, and funny AF. It was hella fun playing “Beat the Clock” during those elementary school mornings, the ones where she’d appear on Good Morning America right before the end of the final hour. My mom, who loved Auntie Erm as much as I did, would listen and laugh and then sweep us all out the door to our faithful aqua Beetle and haul ass to South Ranchito. She was so worth the tardy slip.

The inimitable Erma Bombeck, one of the most beloved American humorists of the 20th century. Her “At Wit’s End” nationally syndicated column appeared three times a week in 900 newspapers worldwide, earning a weekly readership of 31 million people at its peak. Bombeck’s columns, books and morning show appearances seduced a legion of fans comprised of women, men and even precocious kids like me. So beloved was she to her readers, it was like she was that Auntie Mame-like tía you couldn’t wait to see on family visits. No one exists like that today, a lost generation replaced by Kris Jenner and Kim K., who are now the criteria to be declared “New York Times Best Selling” writers in this era of Selfie Life as Style.

“They never lost their temper, gained weight, spent more money than their husbands made, or gave viewers any reason not to believe they were living out their lives in celibacy. 

Their collective virtue was patience.  

It was the age of the God, Motherhood, Flag, and Apple Pie. All you had to do to be a mother was to put on an apron. No one did it better than the prime-time mothers. I was of the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time-mothers.” – From Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession, 1983

Unfortunately, life after Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson and Carol Brady has been a trauma that will never be solved with a warm, homemade chocolate chip cookie and a hug. Aunt Erma was that voice of sanity in the chaos faced by the country in the 1970s and 1980s. While many fought for equality at home and in the workplace, people were still becoming parents and struggling with the many realities that plagued every new mom and dad. Erma was in the trenches with them, offering up a much-needed laugh in the face of what seemed insurmountable. She spoke to us, about us and it gave many of us a sense of security in knowing we were not alone in the changing tide of family dynamics.

Given our current state of angry racial, gender and cultural politics, a new generation may fault the writings of Bombeck as a dusty reflection of that suburban, white reality. Isn’t that what Trump’s legion of “fans” fighting to restore? But here’s the rub. It was never lost, just remixed by the inevitable forward motion of other groups in the land of plenty. Latinos, African Americans, Asians, all groups aspired and succeeded in reinventing the suburban experience in their own image. Struggling through oppression is not the only narrative we can contribute anymore! We have more to offer tales from life on the house on Mango Street or pen the umpteenth take on the “last mama on the couch” play, too.

The impact of Bombeck’s writing was a needed respite, especially after the upheaval of the 1970s. The 1980s were no easier thanks to the barrage of the Phil Donahue/Gail Sheehy/Self-Help Guru/You Can Have It All narratives that we started to ingest. We need a little Bombeck-style love again. We need someone who can write about the themes that are continuing to happen at a breakneck speed, despite the ugly that has exploded forth with Trump.

We continue to be new parents.

We continue to raise children.

We continue to be children.

We continue to see children as parents.

The grass is still greener over the septic tank.

We are still thinking if life is a bowl of cherries, while are we STILL in the pits?

We need a new Aunt Erma’s help to cope.

I say resist the snark and awe. Enough of the screaming. Enough of the blaming or bullying total strangers. No more extoling the virtues of sex tapes, reality stars, impressions and followers. We need to stop thinking our best means of curating an authentic life are those posts that disappear in 24 hours. We need to speak up and share our best insights and humorous outlooks at life today. We need to share those stories when we hear our kids refer to spaghetti as “gasphetti.”

Whatever our political sensibilities, we do share one common reality: we are such flawed human beings. Bombeck wasn’t shy to offer keen insight into her own less than perfect reality, which was a welcome breath of the authentic. As wrote about her family in “If Life is a Bowl of Cherries…”:

“I did not get these varicose veins of the neck from whispering. We shout at one another. We say hateful things. We cry, slam doors, goof off, make mistakes, experience disappointments, tragedies, sickness and traumas. When I last checked, we were members in good standing of your basic screw-up family.

There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.

And how do you know laughter if there is no pain to compare it with?”

We are all enduring the pain of an era we can’t seem to fathom on the daily. Maybe it’s time to take a breath and look beyond the 140 characters. Maybe it’s time for us to champion voices that lead us to feel it all a la Bombeck again.

Hmmm. Maybe it’s time for some tío Jorge realness in our lives? Who’s with me?