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.

 

Generic: Vin Diesel (2008)

Generic: Vin Diesel (2008)

 

Fun fact: Since 1999, I’ve been hailed around Hollywood as “The Generic Guy.”

Now, in entertainment industry parlance, that means I’m the one studios call to handle their “generic interviews.” These were either fashioned into featurettes or similar “behind the scenes” programming, as well as feature stories planted in specifically chosen print or digital sites. Such a job did have an enviable quality as I would usually get a lot more time than most journalists, as well as travel wherever the talent was best available. Junkets, film festivals, film sets, these interviews were never boring and the best part? It was always an adventure. 

This is no longer the case in 2017 since my focus is strictly placed on creating original content for broadcast, home entertainment and, mostly, online platforms. But those early, palmier years had me interviewing more celebrities than Barbara Walters at her peak. It was like having the jet setting talk show of my dreams, without an audience knowing who the hell was asking the questions.

Being a producer in this capacity fulfilled my biggest dream of becoming a journalist, despite its also being an extension of my career as a publicist. That I was firmly embedded with the International film publicity teams was just one of the many blessings. They were fantastic colleagues and collaborators, all of whom treated me with great respect, care and trusted my ability to do the best job for their films and tv series. Why I was able to last as long as a “generic interviewer” was because I aimed to avoid asking generic or gossipy questions.

I believed then and now in the power of conversation, even in a junket setting, which was can be as in depth as speed dating. The rewards are so much greater when you just relate to the person in front of you. It takes about 30 seconds for most people to either be engaged or write you off. We all get a few talent who prefer to be in lock down mode or rip the mic right off, or just sit there taking up oxygen. Fear of libel prevents me from naming names. I’d rather focus on the positive anyway.

A lot of candid and entertaining chatter has happened over the years and I’ve often thought about collecting the best interview transcripts into a book. I even have a title: Generic. Envision a brown paper cover on the outside, a Hollywood life chronicled on the inside. 

So, why not test run a chapter?

Thanks to Facebook, I was reminded of an August afternoon in 2008 when I went face to face with Vin Diesel. He was promoting the infamous futuristic thriller “Babylon A.D.” What makes this interview interesting was knowing he was about to return to “The Fast and the Furious” after a run of flops that slowed down his momentum as a box office draw. The swagger that was hallmark was tempered a bit, most likely from his also being a new father at that time. Regardless, the ensuing conversation was one I won’t forget as it was referred as a “fireside chat” by the studio’s publicist. Adding, “All that’s missing are the brandy snifters and the velvet smoking jackets.” 

If only.

Yet, we did talk about the fear of building walls at our borders, a key theme in “Babylon, A.D.”  Funny what can happen in nine years. Here’s more of what happened that August afternoon at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City

No matter the generation, when a film star is launched, audiences can’t wait for a second helping of what sated their hunger in the first place. But, pop culture is notoriously fickle, and people will move on to their next craving without mercy. It is a wonder why anyone wants to be an actor in the first place, but yet, the temptation is too great for some to ignore. And — which one of us can’t resist a delicious fantasy to post on our walls, computer screen – or beam down on us from a big screen at the multiplex?

Enter Vin Diesel.

Since hitting the box office lotto with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, Diesel has become the ultimate representation of not only macho cool, but the face of a multi-cultural generation finally seeing itself on screen.

Born in 1967 as Mark Sinclair Vincent, Diesel was a product of the Love Generation. Raised in an artist commune in New York, Diesel was determined from a young age to express himself through the arts. Acting since he was 7 years old, he would encounter adult rejection because of his mixed heritage. Deemed either too black or too white or sometimes not enough of either, it was his supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning SAVING PRIVATE RYAN that would prove to be more than a lucky break.

As a counterpoint to his sensitive voice performance as the robot in THE IRON GIANT, it was Diesel’s brash confidence that proved the “Nos” to fuel such films as PITCH BLACK and XXX. With the box office returns to prove it, Diesel was being hailed as the arrival of a new kind of action hero.

And then the banquet became something less enticing.

For Hollywood pundits, his refusal to return for the FAST AND FURIOUS and XXX sequels was on par with career suicide. Then, the head scratching decision to star anew as PITCH BLACK’S Riddick in the epic CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK with mild success. Perhaps in a bid to stave off further disappointments, Diesel went the route of The Rock in playing rock hard and cuddly with THE PACIFIER. While a surprise hit, Diesel seemed to be enduring an identity crisis on screen.

Seeking real challenges and opportunities to add new ingredients to his own screen recipe, Diesel showed great dramatic prowess as real-life mobster Jack DiNorscio in Sidney Lumet’s FIND ME GUILTY. Despite receiving acclaim for his performance, the film offered disappointing returns – and an uncertain future for Diesel himself.

I sat down with the actor for a one-on-one interview during a press tour for his latest film effort — French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s wildly controversial BABYLON A.D. A bold take on the dystopian future personified by such films as BLADE RUNNER and THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Diesel anchors the film as a soulless mercenary for hire named Toorop. Engaged by a crime lord to escort a mysterious young woman to New York, their danger-filled journey reveals the girl actually harbors the power to save a desperate world from itself.

After serving as executive producer on last year’s HITMAN, it appears Diesel enjoyed the chance to engage in the aesthetics of another French auteur. To hear him discuss BABYLON A.D., however, it comes as no surprise that Diesel is a real Showman, as brash and confident as the anti-heroes he’s played over the last decade.

However, I was surprised to find that Diesel is less concerned about trying to replicate any kind of prefab formula. He just doesn’t give a shit as to any labels the industry/media have, as he is content with his life:

He’s a new father.

He’s got a new film that sated both his comfort zones in action and drama.

He knows success and failure and he’s fine if either strike at any time.

I often wonder why every comic wants to be a serious actor, and why action stars want to be more than just brute muscle. I also don’t know why audiences can’t seem to want to see their favorite star recipes tampered with. What I enjoyed in our conversation was that Diesel is determined to give people what they want, but on his terms.

He’s a man of action for a reason.

JORGE CARREON:

You seem to be content with following your own path, despite people wanting to keep you locked into a certain type. Why return to this particular genre now?

VIN DIESEL:

I was talking to my father last night, who was in the screening. I always act like I don’t know what movie he’s talking about when he talks about a movie, ‘cause I want to get as much as I can. I said, “So it was packed with action?’ and he said, “Yes, it was.” I said, “So, Dad, so this other studio wants to move forward on this action film. Would it be too soon? Should I go back to the dramatic thing right now, and then do an action after?” He said, “Vin, your action film audience can’t get enough. “ There’s something about the action film genre. When you’re a fan of action films, you can’t get enough. It doesn’t matter how old you are. And he then went on to tell me a story about the guard that lived in our building. And he said, “Yeah, Vin’s got another movie coming out.” This is a guy that knew me as a child. And he goes, “Is it action?” And my father said, “Yeah,” he said “GOOD! And I’m there!” I probably never considered it as much as I did just last night talking to my father, how loyal and almost fanatic we are about action movies. We need to have them and expect to see them and make an event out of them. When I go to see an action movie, I get that charge, you know? I was raised to study the craft intensely from a very young age. You’d almost think well action movies are action movies. First of all, “action movie” is a new term, okay? Films like THE WILD ONE, GONE WITH THE WIND could be called “action movies” since they were made with the best effects that technology could provide at that time. It wasn’t until the Arnold generation that this title of action movies even came about. So every movie that I approach, every character I approach, I approach with the same conviction and the same attention to the craft, whether it’s a dramatic piece by Sidney Lumet or whether it’s an action piece.

CARREON:

What’s your take on Mathieu Kassovitz’s vision of the future in BABYLON A.D.?

DIESEL:

The thought of this was taking something that had the action component and then string it together if you will all these sequences with this real French auteur style, you know? That’s what the fun of doing this film was and the challenge of doing this film and what was attractive about doing it. I had just come off this incredible experience with working with Sidney Lumet. I was hungry for different kinds of directors. The fact that it was an action piece was a comfort zone. That was the easy part, so to speak. And I was going to go. What was attractive was having a visceral take on an action movie.

CARREON:

Do you have faith? Do you have faith in humanity?

DIESEL:

Yes, I do have faith in humanity. And I will guard that faith against any cynicism to my dying day. But, I’m the son of an idealist. I’m the son of artists. I am an artist! I think by being an artist, you have to have some kind of faith in humanity otherwise you wouldn’t be an artist. You wouldn’t expect anyone to get what you are saying in your art.

CARREON:

Do you have a spiritual faith, or a faith in yourself?

DIESEL:

I have a spiritual faith.

MJ:

That’s interesting in the context of the film because you are a man of blank morality.

DIESEL:

You are so right, you are so right. Fascinating and interesting about playing that role, but the real me? Very strong on the spiritual faith. It’s interesting because part of the subtlety of the Michelle Yeoh character was that representation of that kind of spiritual faith.

CARREON:

Mélanie (Thierry, Diesel’s co-star in the film) was saying, in her mind we are not too far away from the world that is presented in BABYLON A.D. Do you share the same belief?

DIESEL:

I don’t know. I know that when we were making this movie, we were making this movie about a character having to export somebody through borders around Russia. I would pick up the New York Times and you’ve got borders increasing around Russia. Specifically Russia and Georgia and all that. And you see the seeds of something that is scary.

CARREON:

I guess we’re not too far after all, Vin you’re scaring the shit out of me!

DIESEL:

No, I’m just saying in the general sense. I have my own philosophy about how the border thing is working and how it’s…

CARREON:

And how it’s not.

CARREON:

And how it’s not and where we’re going to be in a few years with borders. But everyone might think I’m crazy.

CARREON:

We’ll have to look at this ten years from now and see if you’re right. I hope not.

DIESEL:

It’s a tricky thing because the borders will be increased and strengthened in a way no one will recognize. No one will ever see them being built. The walls of China, so to speak, that are going to divide our world are going to be constructed while we’re not paying attention. What we’ll be focused on is the virtual world where there are no borders. So the physical world is going to build its borders while we indulge further into the Internet, into a world where there are no borders. When you are locked in front of that screen you’ll never see the wall being built.

CARREON:

And they’ll be surprised.

CARREON:

And they’re going to be surprised.

CARREON:

Which did you find more challenging, the physical or the emotional aspects your role in BABYLON A.D.?

DIESEL:

Both are challenging in different ways. I become the character. As crazy as that sounds, live in that character and I don’t think of anything as being more challenging than the other. Might not be the smartest thing because when I’m in character I jump off the roof, I jump off the roof. It’s less of a specific thing that’s more challenging. The more you delve deep into a character, the more exhausting it is on you, right? You know, you hear all the time about actors that go and do these really deep performances and than need a year to try and detox and cleanse. Because, if it is done right and done with integrity, becoming a character is a heavy deal.

CARREON:

It ain’t easy.

DIESEL:

It ain’t easy. You live in that space. That’s if you are striving to do something significant in your craft. You end up living in a space and that space ain’t always a comfortable space.

CARREON:

Why do you think the multi-cultural face enhances this move?

DIESEL:

For me, any film that has a multi-cultural face is enhanced, personally. But I think it plays to this movie in a really good way. You know, Michelle Yeoh was originally written in the book as an old French kind of typical nun. And I think by casting Michelle Yeoh in that role, as opposed to the traditional, she was able to bring an unspoken spirituality. A spirituality that you didn’t have to really talk about too much, but she brought it to the screen, she brought it to the role and it helped the overall picture.

CARREON:

And Mélanie is interesting as well.

DIESEL:

So exciting! She’s one of our big finds in the movie. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mélanie.

CARREON:

You have a huge vested interest in this. Why?

DIESEL:

I’ve done enough movies now. You reach a place where you realize dreams which is surreal. It’s a surreal experience. I want my work to be significant. I take great pride in the art. I come from artist housing. It was government subsidized in New York, which were basically projects for artists that made less than ten thousand dollars a year. That’s the environment in which I was raised. That’s kind of affected me in Hollywood because sometimes I don’t take the big Hollywood picture payday thing and that causes a ripple because the studio needs that thing and I’m too idealistic. And the script isn’t good! And no one really gives a shit whether I think the script is good or not, but they care when they know I care, that I’m invested in a movie. I’ve had my challenges with that because sometimes I can be too precious and too involved, but I stand by the work that I do and I stand by the films that I do. And my philosophy about making movies is that everybody included in that process of making a movie should feel that way. I feel like the third wardrobe assistant should feel just as accountable for the movie as the director. That’s my own thing.

** This interview with Vin Diesel was conducted on August 20, 2008, at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.

“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.

 

“Glen”

“Glen”

Dad was a big fan of Glen Campbell. That these formidable men have been afflicted by Alzheimer’s is still tough to fathom. Today, Mr. Campbell succumbed to this disease. He leaves behind generations of fans, a loving and supporting family and a legacy of art that is without compare.

I will never forget the sound of his music playing over the car radio as my family and I drove through the Southwestern desert on our way to visit family to Mexico in the early 1970s. My Dad would hum along, tapping the steering wheel, offering back-up. It was a late night, our family Impala cutting its path through the star-filled darkness. Dad didn’t know I was awake, his silent co-pilot, determined to remember it all.

Years later, before Mr. Campbell retired from touring, my siblings and I took Dad to see him perform live at the Pala Casino outside of San Diego. His own family shared the stage, with his daughter carefully guiding her legendary father through the songs. I remember holding back tears as my father smiled and tapped along to the music, clearly engaged by the Campbell musical experience like it was those many nights long ago.

Both men were in the throes of dealing with Alzheimer’s at that moment, never knowing what they had in common that evening. That one of these two men is no longer with us fills me with a surge of fills me with a surge of emotion. I am very blessed t still have my father in my life, despite the hardships of this disease. While Dad was far from being a rhinestone cowboy or a Wichita lineman, he still towers in my heart and life. And the music created by Mr. Campbell? It is a shame I can’t tell him it will forever be something so profound and poignant for my family and myself, now and forever. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, for leaving us this gift, too.

As posted on the Glen Campbell website: “In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Glen Campbell Memorial Fund at BrightFocus Foundation through the CareLiving.org donation page.

“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

“Pride”

“Pride”

It was the summer of 1978 and I was in Mexico City. Dad had left me and my sister Lil in the care of his family. His parting wish was that we not only get to know all of our aunts, uncles, and cousins but that we learn Spanish and understand what it meant to be part of two cultures.

In the years since that legendary visit, the lessons learned continue to fill me with pride. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been at odds with my American and Mexican identities in the years, but at 50, I am glad to be that perfect mollete of American & Mexican ingredients.  Back to 1978…

I was already a voracious reader and I brought along quite a few books to help me deal with the shyness that was still my want at that age. As the weeks went by, my shyness lessened, but I had my moments. One weekend, Tía Beba and Tío Pio headed to their ranch in Celaya, Guanajuato. They were this amazing duo, a matriarch and patriarch culled straight out of Tennessee Williams by way of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She was fair, blonde and every inch a Ms. DuBois. He was dark, silver-haired and a caballero from an era long passed. Their passing left a gaping hole that swallowed the entire family alive in the end, but that’s another story left to be told in the future.

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I didn’t want to go to the ranch that day. I preferred to be left alone in the hotel we were staying at outside the property since construction was still shaping up the main house. For whatever reason, I chose to read my book, a novelization of the NBC mini-series “Holocaust,” in the lobby. I’d seen the series earlier that year and the novel was no less vivid or engrossing. I was so immersed in the book, feeling this overwhelming horror and sadness over the plight of the Weiss family. That this happened in the 20th century scared me speechless.

As I continued reading author Gerald Green’s adaptation of his screenplay, the degrading atrocities experienced by European Jews tapped into my own burgeoning abilities of imagination and empathy at that age. I pondered, “What if that were me? What if that were my family? I felt a fear I did recognize. At that moment, the light fixture hanging from the ceiling chose to fall and shatter upon reaching the tiled floor. It only took seconds for me to get up and call my family to come get me. I didn’t want to be alone anymore.

Nearly 40 years later, I woke up on July 27 to feel a similar sense of fear and dread felt on a summer evening in Guanajuato. However, it didn’t leave me speechless. Quite the contrary, anger surged within me. We were still dissecting 45’s petty and bilious speech at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree. The scorched Twittersphere and media landscape is still digesting Trump’s infamous decree that transgender men and women are barred from enlisting in the military. Imagine the cruel joke that is the trash fire known as the Trump Administration doubled down on further eroding the protections for the LGBTQ community:

“The Justice Department has filed court papers arguing that a major federal civil rights law does not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, taking a stand against a decision reached under President Barack Obama.

The department’s move to insert itself into a federal case in New York was an unusual example of top officials in Washington intervening in court in what is an important but essentially private dispute between a worker and his boss over gay rights issues.

“The sole question here is whether, as a matter of law, Title VII reaches sexual orientation discrimination,” the Justice Department said in a friend-of-the-court brief, citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. ‘It does not, as has been settled for decades. Any efforts to amend Title VII’s scope should be directed to Congress rather than the courts.’

The department filed its brief on Wednesday, the same day President Trump announced on Twitter that transgender people would be banned from serving in the military, raising concerns among civil rights activists that the Trump administration was trying to undermine lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights won under previous administrations.” — From the New York Times article, published on July 27, 2017.

The Pentagon has no intention of changing its criteria on transgender enlisted officers just yet. The intervention sought by the White House and Department of Justice is also going to take the time to resolve and will be challenged in court. But Trump’s daily Twitter coffee and cigarette dump succeeds in playing to his support base of intolerant miscreants with such power, the message is too loud to ignore. That’s what strikes fear and anger is so many. It is being digested and accepted by those who want to see the LGBTQ lose its protections sectors of this American society seeking to blame the dreaded “Other” as their sources of woe.

Once he took office, Trump’s Orwellian desire to erase any and all achievements of President Barack Obama was just the start of his all-too obvious agenda of hate. The media still blasts his “achievements” with tongue in cheek, snide glee reserved for the second rate reality star that he is. Too many of the electronic and digital media sites are breathless in their constant, “Oooh. Look what he’s doing now!” If I wanted to watch a monkey throw shit out of his cage, I’ll go to the fucking zoo!

It’s infuriating, but not nearly as maddening as the lack of balls shown by the Democrats or the lack of concern from the Americans who DIDN’T vote for him. And how about the center ring of this circus manned by the Unholy Trinity of Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and, just added to the cast, Anthony Scaramucci?

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When cabinet members take to giving interviews to The New Yorker and utter statements like “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” you have to wonder if this is really our new normal — more — is this the start of the fall of the Great American State? You have to ponder the “show” that is being carefully curated and unveiled every given day. Cock sucking statements issued by Scaramucci is just a distraction. The Boy Scout Jamboree rant is just a distraction. The real show is what’s happening in between, slices of tasty sandwich meats topped with savory cheese but only available to select few. It’s not designed to satisfy us all.

The cowardly acts perpetrated by this administration are tailor made with the skins of the LGBTQ community because of the bias that already exists against them. It doesn’t matter the race, color and creed because being gay/trans/cisgender strikes that chord of terror-fueled intolerance in many people. But what the rest of us need to realize is that being silent makes us complicit in the eroding of precious civil liberties. Don’t think for one moment that Trump’s wrath won’t include you at some point.

This era of complicity is shaping up to be the personification of “First they came…,” the legendary poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller, first published in 1947. Europeans, especially Germans, saw the signs of an imminent genocide at the hands of Adolf Hitler. In the end, over six million men, women, and children would lose their lives. Silence allowed scores of husbands, wives, daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, doctors, artists, writers, scientists, all major contributors to society, to be eradicated without mercy. How many do you want to see claimed if Trump and his acolytes continue the brandish their brush of white wash on this country? Perhaps they won’t be murdered, but they will be stripped of their American identity, a crime in itself.

When I first started this essay, it was meant to be an examination of being gay, a piece inspired by the month of Pride festivals all over the country. Other life events took ownership of my thoughts, of course. Then this week of infamy started. It has dredged up a few unsavory realities about my earlier life. Like how I grappled with the desire of wanting to be white. I didn’t want to be treated differently because I wasn’t born into the tribe of Muffy & Trip. Or, how I stayed in the closet for as long as I did because for some being gay made you a carrier of AIDS, which was viewed as a punishment by those who felt it was “killing all the right people.”

We are born how we are born. Choice exists in what we learn in terms of how we live our lives. Men like Trump prey on those with weak minds with the isms that define the darker side of being human.  It is when we are most distracted that the thieves storm the castle, and not always at night. It is here why stupidity has a habit of getting its way.

This is the time to be heard, not succumb to a herd mentality.

This is the time to be strong, not weakened by being divided. This is the time to be out and proud, not hidden or silenced.

This is the time to be a true American.

This is the time to have pride, in ourselves, in our nation, in being a human being.

Tomorrow should belong to WE, dammit.