Some two months ago, someone left a half-opened pot of mustard in a mini fridge at work. When I went to get some, the pot fell, splattering mustard all over the floor, my shoes, and my face, which was covered by my face mask. I had already been vaccinated some two months before, but I was still using them as a statement –you know, encouraging people to keep wearing them, make guests comfortable… But the mustard splatter was impossible to hide, much less clean at the moment. So I showed my face for the first time in almost a year to the staff and guests of my workplace.
I’m not gonna lie, it felt good. Being able to openly smile with my whole face, not just my eyes, for starters. Yeah, I had fun with all the different masks I had bought, from different sources, different styles, as you can see in my Instagram post below. But now I looked forward to never wearing them again. Feeling safe. But I was still uneasy. And it didn’t help that some of my coworkers –people I genuinely know are caring, hard-working, kind-hearted human beings (unlike some of the turds still currently working there)– refuse to get vaccinated. I of course did not say anything back then, because I truly care for these human beings, however misguided their beliefs are, and I thought they would either learn their lesson one way or the other, or they would simply keep wearing the mask and social-distance themselves until the pandemic is over.
I have always been an unironic fan of the actor known as Matthew McConaughey. Even before I thought of myself as a cinephile or, God forbid, a movie critic (heck, I even ran a semi successful movie blog back home for a good couple of years), I liked the man, even in his most terrible choices. It was part of his charm, the part of himself that bled into so many of his characters in all his rom-coms: charming to a fault, a little dangerous, could talk you into anything. And yes, why deny it, he was always one of those dudes I wish I could be, what with all the fame, and the women, and the good looks.
Now, as he is about to turn 51, just one year, eight months and 13 days before my 50th, he is riding high again, not because of a new movie –his last true hit, at least from a box office point of view, was 2014’s Interstellar—but because he is now a published author. His memoir, Greenlights, just came out eight days ago, on October 20th. I found out two weeks ago. I didn’t even think about it. I pre-ordered the audiobook and, in a rare case of commitment, proceeded to listen to the entire thing in four days.
That should tell you I loved it, but I’d like to expand a bit. Matthew (yes, I address him common, even though I’m sure if I’m ever lucky enough to meet the man I’d be Mister McCon-Con-Conaughey sir) reveals himself as a gifted raconteur. And like all of them, many of his wild tales I should take with a grain or two of salt: he states that once his dad revived a dead bird with mouth to, er, beak; he says he built a thirteen-story treehouse out of stolen wood; he says he wrestled in Africa, walked the desert, loved countless women… OK, that part has to be true. And it’s the ones that have to be true that equally fascinate me. How he got humbled after not preparing for a movie role; how convinced directors he was the natural choice for a movie; how he met and fell in love with his wife, Camila; how he wrote this book, after he sat down to read the journals he’d been keeping for almost forty years.
I found stories I experienced, lessons I learned and forgot, poems, prayers, prescriptions, beliefs about what matters, some great photographs, and a whole bunch of bumper stickers. I found a reliable theme, an approach to living that gave me more satisfaction, at the time, and still: If you know how, and when, to deal with life’s challenges—how to get relative with the inevitable—you can enjoy a state of success I call ‘catching greenlights.’
So I took a one-way ticket to the desert and wrote this book: an album, a record, a story of my life so far. This is fifty years of my sights and seens, felts and figured-outs, cools and shamefuls. Graces, truths, and beauties of brutality. Getting away withs, getting caughts, and getting wets while trying to dance between the raindrops.
That’s where the title comes from: his philosophy that “a green light is an affirmation, setting yourself up for success”, as he said in a recent radio interview. “A greenlight can be as simple as putting your coffee in the coffee filter before you go to bed so tomorrow morning all you’ve got to do is push the button.”
It’s easy to think this is one huge ego trip –-heck, I can basically see the twinkle in the eye in the tallest of stories, not to mention the regaling of all his successes—but Greenlight gives off another vibe, at least for me. It made me question whether I’ve been doing enough with my life. Whether I’ve been able to turn the red lights into green long enough, or if I am living to my fullest potential. Yes, it has that kind of effect on you. Even John Cena, sixteen time wrestling champion and positive-doer himself, says so. And Matthew is a fan of Cena himself.
But then again, I’ve had a very different life. I grew middle class Venezuela, he grew rural, working-class Texas. His father believed in tough love, the toughest of loves, divorced his mother twice, married her three times; my father believes in loving discipline, conversation, education. Matthew is a wandering soul; I’m a stay-at-home dude through and through (though I wouldn’t mind driving cross-country in a trailer). I think the biggest difference is Matthew was driven to find more, to get his greenlights (“The arrow does not heat the target; the target draws the arrow”, he writes). I was always too afraid, too comfortable.
Will Greenlights change my life? Will that be the book that inspires me to go further, work harder, be better? I certainly can’t stop thinking about it, or blabbing about it to anyone I might think will read it (and I do intend to buy a readable copy, not just have the audiobook –easier to study this way). Of course, it might just be my man-crush for Matthew; to hear his tales (tall or otherwise) is just… fun. He is a man that has embraced life at his fullest. Be it a student, an actor, a poet, a movie star, a father, a husband, a traveler or a poet, he does not go at anything “half-assedly”. He embraces challenges, lives for them.
The opening line is from a 1963 record by Mexican singer Tony Camargo, now turned into a staple of Latin American New Year celebrations. It’s a fun, upbeat song, where Camargo thanks the old year that’s ready to leave, like “a goat, a black donkey, a white mare, and good mother-in-law”. (Hey, I said upbeat, not logical.)
And last night, it was the first time I had to sing it with a stranger –a fun stranger, no doubt; that’s what people from Zulia are by default– and not with my family. To be honest, the moment I became part of the serving world, especially in the “happiest city in the world”, I should have expected it. Didn’t make it especially easy, though.
But the first few minutes of New Year’s Day, 2020, did make me see many things I am growing to appreciate more and more as my 50th birthday approaches (and we won’t mention that again till 2021, mmmkay?). I hope they will help me focus more on what I want to achieve.
Upon learning I would not be home at midnight, I raged. Not as I used to when younger –not that I’d like to go back to those days, mind you– but many people I work with heard me curse for the first time. Lauren, my manager, offered me a festive hat to wear and I think she was shocked when I declined to wear it, since she has only seen my fun-loving side. But as I got into my duties, I reflected on the Stoics, a philosophy I had very much embraced in 2019 (check out Daily Stoic if you’re interested). We have no control over the things around us; we can only control how we react to them. So I shuffled over to the gloom corner, the part of the restaurant where the servers mope their destiny, and shared this wisdom. Once the troops were rallied, I donned my “Happy 2020” hat and got on with it.
As midnight approached and guests became more and more pumped up, a funny thing happened: my countrymen began to appear. First it was a whole family: eleven year old son, seventeen year old daughter, mom and dad. Not that much English, but a whole lot of Caracas. Then it was a large, rowdy group: two sisters from Zulia, one married to a Puertorrican, another to an American. (“They have triumphed!”, according to one of our comedians.) They had a twenty-something daughter that very drunkenly said “You shouldn’t be working tonight!” (Yes, but hey, it is what it is.) And finally, a man, his brother, his wife and one-year-old daughter. Six months in the country, and obviously feeling homesick, all of them. I consoled them as best I could. Mostly because I didn’t feel that lonely, having a few of my people close by. Lucky indeed.
And finally… At around 12:45, I walked by the door. We had closed at ten past midnight. I saw two figures walking up to the door, and I was ready to call them off, perhaps more harshly than I expected. And that’s when I saw Y. and D., D. with tears in her eyes. They had come to say “Happy New Year”. I opened the door, stepped out and embraced them long and hard. D. asked tearfully, “Why didn’t you come?” I explained that I was really busy, and I still was, but I was overjoyed that she would come and see her Bird Daddy with Mommy. And I truly was, because I knew how big this moment was: back home, along with Y.’s best friend, her wife, son, dog and kitten, D.’s father, his new wife and ten-month old baby were also home. And yet, here she was, hugging me and saying Happy New Year.
This is how I expect to embrace the coming year, and hopefully the coming life I have in me. Don’t lose sight of the big things, no matter how small the package they come in. Don’t let anger guide your steps. Don’t settle for anything less than what you deserve. And always know that you are being a good man, with a lovely woman and child, however difficult she may be, that love you unconditionally.
Happy New Year, everyone, Here’s to twelve more months of reflections.
One of the first things I did when I moved to the States was register to vote. You may think it’s a small thing, but it was one of those things I wanted to do to truly feel American. I would make my voting debut just a little less than a year later, on the Florida primaries (I registered as a Democrat) for the midterm elections on November 6. And then, last week, out of sheer coincidence, I voted early.
I don’t need to tell you this is a major election. The 2016 Presidentials started changing the political scene in this country at a breathtaking speed, and a way all too familiar for someone who comes from a place where democracy is dying a slow death (I never believe it dies, but more on that later). I see, concerned, things happening in my new country and all around the world that I have seen before. And I see young people react with indifference, making up hundreds of excuses. Or express disappointment, believing that there’s no point.
I’m here to tell you that’s exactly what most people in power want you to think, guys. Although it is certainly telling that, considering how everything is going on in the world, people continue going to the less democratic of leaders (oh hello, Brazil). But please, if you really think that you still will get nowhere voting, the only way to overcome that is, precisely, voting.
There are so many things in the world that matter, and if we look closely enough, we find the things that speak to our own unique spirits — these are the things that speak to me. This is what matter to me today.