You will find it all around you

Photo by stefano stacchini on Unsplash

“Oh really? What do you write?”, Mic asked me, in that quiet rolling-thunder of a voice he has.

We’re sitting rolling silverware as we wait for the day to start. It’s my third week at the new job, and one of the biggest contrasts is that I’m no longer the oldest server on staff. Heck, I’ve been demoted to third. I have the feeling Mic is the new champion, with his cool lock of white hair (he loves that I call me, him, and Allen, nine years my senior, the Silver Squad).

We’ve been making small talk for a while, and he tells me he’s thankful he doesn’t worry about money anymore, that he takes “what the Universe sends me”. I tell him I wish I could be like that, that it’s one of the reasons I want to go back to working nights (more money), and also that I contribute to a news site as a journalist, and that I want to continue writing.

“Short stories, mostly”, I answer, sheepishly, not even bothering to add the “I hope to publish a book this year” part that I’ve been saying for the past three years.

“Oh nice. I’m a playwright myself”, he says. “I had a piece of mine open in Broadway once”.

And immediately, Mic is 47% more interesting. And I am once again struck by the contrast of the people I am encountering in this job. The general manager used to be a theater actor as well, and is a trained tap dancer, whose heroes are Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gregory Hines (and he once told me got to dance in front of Hines himself). One of the hostesses quit because she’s going back to art school, and showed me some of her amazing drawings. And now Mic just tells me he’s a playwright. And got to narrate a short film that got played in theaters (you can watch it here). And when he was a young theater actor he auditioned in front of… Neil Simon?!

“I was doing my part, and all of a sudden I hear him start talking”, Mic told me. “So I assume that’s it, I didn’t get it. So I say thank you very much, and I start getting off the stage. But Neil says ‘Hey kid, where are you going?’ And he tells me to keep going. Then there was this silence, and again I go thank you very much, and he goes, ‘What is it with this kid? Where are you going?’ He did see something, and he called me back five times, even gave me some direction. I didn’t end up getting the part, but can you imagine the honor?”

Can I imagine touching the hem of Jesus’ robe and then walking away? Hmm, can’t say I have, brother.

Mic lives with his wife of several years in a mobile home which is going through a bathroom renovation. (This is the type of home you can lift into a flatbed and move somewhere else.) From what he describes, it’s a simple life, and he seems pretty content. You would never guess he auditioned and nearly got to work with one of theater’s greatest playwrights. I didn’t ask him how he wounded up as a server again –shouldn’t it be the other way around, as in, you’re a server wanting to be a playwright, a la Jonathan Larsen?– but I didn’t need to. The stories are all different, but one thing remains: sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you catch it as best you can. And it throws different curves to different people.

Late that same day, another server, Kierra, told me this weird, wonderful thing that had happened to her. Her family was in line at Walmart to pay for a 40-inch TV that she had got for her young son. They had saved for a while to get it, and it had been on sale for a couple of hundred dollars. A woman behind them, in nurse scrubs, noticed it and asked if it had been on sale. Yes it had been, they said. “Would you mind if I go in front of you?”, she asked then. They thought it was weird, bit she had only one item, so they let her. And they were absolutely floored when the lady told the cashier, “I would like to pay for their purchases, please”.

Of course Kierra’s family couldn’t believe it, and tried to say it was OK, no need, but she insisted. “I’ve just had a miracle happen to me at the hospital, and I intend to spread the joy”, she said. I get goosebumps thinking about it. Kierra told me she’s trying to locate her so they could at least send her flowers, but I’m sure the lady doesn’t need them.

I find these stories so encouraging. They make me think that good surrounds me even when lousy things happen. It’s just a reminder that good and bad are constantly present, and night always turns into day. Yes, I’m going through some very hard times right now, but I know they will end. And I have learned valuable lessons in this hard period, and I have traced a clear objective. It just tells me that I have to get up and start doing the things that make me feel good, that will lead me towards good, and not feel sorry for myself.

Thanks Mic and Kierra for inspiring me to write this. And to keep on writing.

Get up, stand up

Image from the poster for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, rick… BOOM!. Image source: Netflix

I’ve just finished watching tick, tick…BOOM!, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature film directorial debut, his adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical play of the same name. In case you’re not a theater geek, Larson also wrote the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Rent, the musical that changed musicals forever. The movie is a joy to watch in spite of its general sadness –Larson died of an aneurysm the day Rent had its first off-Broadway preview performance– especially thanks to Andrew Garfield’s amazing performance. Lin-Manuel continues to own my heart one way or another.

But I just wanted to get off the couch and scream.

It’s been a rough couple of months. I don’t make it all public because it’s not all mine to share, but it’s been there. Y. has been in hell at work; she keeps feeling exploited, even if everyone around her, including the top brass, say (rightfully so) how incredible her work is. D. had a horrible couple of months too; we had to get her out of her school and into a new one due to an… incident. So a lack of routine and a growth of stress added to that untreatable condition that is tweenhood and she became… let’s just say, more difficult than usual.

Again, I wanted to scream. Every day. Many days, I did.

And yours truly? Oh I’ve been peachie. Can’t you tell? No, see, work hasn’t sucked at all, the crowds have been great, so generous. Venezuela is bouncing back, my parents are doing just fine. My nephews? Gorgeous little twins? About to turn seven, see them every day. And what my ladies are going through? Nah, doesn’t get to me at all, they’re fine. They’re fine, I tell you. Oh and yes, I have this incurable sarcasm dripping out of my mouth.

Can I scream now?

As you can probably tell, dear readers, the movie, Jonathan’s story, hit quite a few chords with me. The movie takes place in the weeks before his 30th birthday, where he is freaking out about not leaving any kind of mark behind (“Stephen Sondheim opened his first play on Broadway when he was 27!”). In the process, he estranges himself from his girlfriend, his best friend, his life; it all centers on his art. He feels time is running out when technically he had all the time in the world, even during the worst of the AIDS pandemic in New York City in the 90’s, which is saying quite something. And yet he never got to see all that he did accomplish, how he is now kind of a legend, a bright flame that burned the quickest, taken away way too soon. And did I mention he was a waiter? Why would I freak out, huh? I know, right? Right?

I remember freaking out when 50 was ready to come knocking. Heck, I thought by the time I was 30 I’d have a wife and kids. I start every year saying “this is the one, we got this, that book will come out”, or “we’ll do the podcast”, or… anything. But time keeps passing by. I don’t manage to sit at this laptop and put the work in. Or churn out the words on a notebook. And it’s not like I don’t want to. It’s just that there’s always… something. Have to go to work. Have to cook lunch. Have to walk Leia (doesn’t matter if it’s the first thing I do in the morning). Have to wait. Have to sit. Have to sleep. Have to. Have to. Have to.

And not enough things I want to.

I want to take Y. to a nice dinner, or take her to a nice getaway. I want to have a better relationship with D., and help her achieve anything she wants. I want time to sit and write every single day. I want to think I can have a financial future where I can buy my own car next year, and help get ourselves a decent house after that (or before). I want to think that I can submit at least one –ONE– story to a publication. Never mind it getting accepted, which would be amazing, just the actual submission would be a triumph. And above all I want to stop thinking that I’m too old. F**k too old. Stephanie Gangi wrote her first novel when she was 55, and it got published. (Yes, I didn’t know who she was till I read this, but it was inspiring nonetheless.) I want to drink the book I’m reading for my bookclub and let it sink in my brain, because it should tell me that I’m not too old.

In Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World, David Epstein argues the point that you don’t need laser focus on one thing to succeed in whatever you want. In fact, in whatever field you want, it’s the ones that diversify their interest that tend to succeed more. Did you know that tennis legend Roger Federer started out not caring for tennis at all –even having a tennis instructor for a mother. I’ll just let you watch Epstein’s TED talk and then I’ll end my rant.

Life is hard. Period. But we don’t need to make it harder. We need discipline, yes, but we need balance so much more. I have been on the “life is hard” part of my life too long now, as far as this absolute beast of a year goes. Enough, man. Enough.

Yes, it’s not the first time I’ve gotten up and written about writing more and getting my shit together and so on and so on. But life can end tomorrow, as poor Jonathan found out. I have to remind myself that life can also… start tomorrow. Heck, here’s a crazy idea…

What if life… starts right now?

I am an unabashed Lin-Manuel Miranda fan. The man exudes such a warmth as a person, but he also has a creativity without bounds. He has had an insane year: besides tick, tick… Boom!, he did voicework for the wonderful, underrated animated movie Vivo, and he composed the songs for the new animated movie Encanto. And if that wasn’t enough, he managed to show up on one of my favorite podcasts, the storytelling show The Moth.

Alright, alright, al— You know the rest

Foto tomada por su hija Vida Alves McConaughey

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.

Click ghere to go the book's official website

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.

Isn’t that an inspiration, after all?