Self-isolation does and doesn’t seem like a bad place to me of late. Sure, I miss the social gadfly fun of days gone by, when I was scheduled within an inch of my life. I was desperately trying to outrun the flaws I hoped people wouldn’t have time to recognize. But, that false self merely entrenched himself so deep nothing short of a nuclear missile could blast him out.
My false self is more like a six-year-old with a loose tooth. I just need a thread of floss and a door handle to tie it to, then slam the door super hard. Cue the Tooth Fairy (False Self Fairy?) to give me that quarter for getting rid of him once and for all. Flush that tooth down the toilet and move on, son.
Perhaps the harsher reality is knowing people don’t want to hear what I have to say. That Collective of Strangers known as social media doesn’t matter to me as I’ve cut those ties. The best part is knowing my anxiety level is dipping below red for the first time in a long while. Yet, when I dare to engage in conversation with people closest to me in person, I find their attention span taxed before I can even finish a thought. They dismiss me with a curt, “I have to make a call,” or worse, cut me off with nary a thought as they mock what I had to offer.
My younger brother is an expert in making people feel small or intellectually inferior, something I think he enjoys when I’m the chosen target. That’s when I lapse into total silence. Another key figure in my life waves away my cultural references or favored topics of conversation with such ease it is no longer a wonder why my often-Herculean efforts at sustaining mental stability are so challenging. It is also better to remain silent with him, but then I’m subjected to statements like, “What’s wrong?” This constantly checking of the baby’s temperature only sets me off. The vicious cycle of being told, “I’m selfish, self-destructive, a narcissistic sociopath that’s hurting them,” then rotates with enough energy to power a Texas suburb. Even with a busted ass grid!
This weekend hurt a little, particularly after being a witness to two inspiring works of art, a double feature of a play and a documentary, both dealing with the search for signs of intelligent life on Earth. I think it is better to bask in the glow of how good it felt to be challenged by the things that bring me joy, like theater and film, fueling my desire to express myself, even if I’m reaching an audience of one: me.
Sooner or later, that spiritual door, the one with the bloody string of floss, will slam shut again, keeping the negative forces around me at bay as I walk towards a different path of fulfillment and enlightenment. As for those who choose to dismiss me? Better to ignore me. That silence you fear, of being unheard or adored, will be a telling reminder of what, no, who you let slip away.
Cecily Strong in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” by Jane Wagner @ Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles
Today, I am officially 55 years old. That’s (still) the legal speed limit in some areas, but I’ve never been interested in sticking to it in terms of living my life. I had to get THERE, wherever THERE was at that moment. Now is an excellent time to think about HERE or where I am today.
I did attempt to stop and look around from time to time, but that just meant having to allow specific thoughts and realities to make themselves known in my head. Demons remain my chosen go-to passengers on this ride and for as long as I can remember. Food. Spending. Status. Validation. Funny, I rarely viewed love and companionship as priorities at the beginning for being too dangerous. Neither stayed very long on the passenger side when it did happen. The demons made sure of that, like damn sure.
Friendship and family remain my favored angels, and thank heavens for them. Otherwise, I would have intentionally hit the cosmic center divider a long time ago. It always seemed like a surefire way to shut those demons down for good. But they’re resilient little fuckers.
Demons sound cute to me in a post-Buffy world, all latex, make-up, and effects. Fear is something, well, scarier. Fear exists as my twin because I LET that happen. I’ve known Fear as long as I’ve known myself. Every fall on the sidewalk, every perceived failure, the bullies I let get in my head and under my skin. These exterior forces which tormented me as a kid were NOTHING compared to what I’ve done to myself over the years as an adult.
But I’m still here and for good reasons.
Not to let the demons share my airtime but to shift focus away from them. Maybe even speed up the breaking up process already. Every minute I refuse to succumb to fear is a significant victory. Choosing not to sleep away the day is a cause for celebration. Cooking a healthy meal on my own and not consuming one designed to keep me sick is a source of jubilation. Trying to find ways to spend ALL of my hard-earned coin to make myself sound or look attractive is a thrill on par with a musical’s overture when the curtain rises.
These are not gifts but the tools to find a sense of balance, contentment, and especially hope. I possess them and more because I’ve learned to understand the importance of such devices. Yet, Fear still distracts me or, more often than not, kills the desire.
As I look around and take in the view of 55, I see all that the demons, Fear, and that annoying cousin Depression seek to absorb and destroy. That cannot be without my help, at least. Do you know those first sparks cast to start a campfire? Writing this feels like that, trying not to let moisture or wind snuff out what can lead to something bright and warm. You fan the embers too much; you smother the flame.
Words, music, films, art, design, and photography are all selfless acts of courage. It still takes courage to be queer, to not be part of the mainstream, to be one’s true self today. To exist as a gay Latino remains an act of defiance, no longer allowing oneself to hide or blend in with the herd of scared masses. We know what Fear can do to an individual in their quest for betterment. We see the power of Fear in a group. Start one lie, and create a mob of terrified people to disavow truth, science, and logic.
Someone sent me a meme with the legend, “I picked a stupid time to be alive.” I laughed at loud. Then again, this is also a time NOT to be stupid. I’m not alone in recognizing how emotional paralysis stems from what we consume in terms of information, social media especially.
It would be easy to live out one’s life like a 21st-century Miss Havisham, hiding amongst souvenirs of a perceived better past. That’s not an option in a world determined to live on the defensive about everything. Why beat yourself up about where you’re supposed to be in this life?
At this moment, I am encouraged by being 55, albeit cautiously. I’m not sure what tomorrow will be like or the day after that. Will I have personal stumbles and moments of shrill assholeness? Probably. Whatever happens next is always up to us. Forward motion isn’t always about avoiding the past. We have to avoid being defined by it. When I find the courage and clarity to stop and admire the view again, I have the hope and excitement that what I see will be different, empowering, and still delightfully the same.
Now, about that one-man show I keep threatening to stage…
We can spend a whole lifetime debating why some films connect with an audience while others remain left out in the cold. Yet, many titles endure as favorites, good or bad, and often for surprisingly personal reasons. That’s the focus of this edition of the Carreón Cinema Club: The “Films That Make You Go Hmm!”
When I started mulling over this episode’s topic, it was hard not to focus on just flops with cult followings. Every movie fan has a list of guilty pleasures, including box office monsters or monster flops. I’m notorious for not being able to differentiate between either. My good may be your bad, and vice versa. Besides, anyone who’s been on a set knows that it takes the same amount of effort to make a good film as it does a bad one. What kickstarted my engines to hit overdrive was a simple question: What is it about certain movies that straddle both lines of success and failure, the ones you wonder, “Was that the best they could do?” Those are the films that make you go Hmm. Depending on your tastes, any list can be chock full of surprises, but I’m only going to offer up three titles for now. Ready? Here we go!
FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) — Directed by Adrian Lyne
I will never forget the eager audience at the Mann Bruin in Westwood, CA, the night Fatal Attraction opened in 1987. You could feel the anticipation growing as the lights went down, and the trailers started playing. Blood was in the air. We wanted to see a crazy Glenn Close in action. What makes this significant is that the group excitement was driven only by TV spots and word of mouth. Before reality shows, recap culture, and the vast network of trash-talking platforms overtook all media coverage. The audience took pleasure that night in ’87, gaping at director Adrian Lyne’s ability to present a chic, upper West Side veneer of gloss and privilege sullied by curly haired madness and one, crowd-pleasing gunshot at the bitter end. It was like the opera diva hit a high note; the applause was deafening.
Fatal Attraction was a zeitgeist hit, its vision of infidelity gone wrong, becoming the topic of opinion pieces and talk shows for weeks. Audiences couldn’t get enough, turning the film into a major hit, becoming the highest-grossing film of that year worldwide. The title itself became synonymous with unhinged exes. It even earned six Academy Awards nominations , including Best Picture. But was it that good? More, does it hold up in the post-lions and Christians era of social media, reality TV, and the MeToo era? Not even close. Ha.
Watching Fatal Attraction today is to be turned off by its carefully designed vision of white male privilege and entitlement. Nothing happens to Michael Douglas, the lawyer husband who cheats on his gorgeous and wholesome wife with a rather intense book editor played by Glenn Close. His so-called punishments effect his pride and ego. Okay, she boils the family’s rabbit, destroys his car, kidnaps his daughter from elementary school to ride a roller coaster, and sends him a cassette of a profane rant. He got laid twice and freaks over why the woman in question can’t take no for an answer for his being a selfish asshole. No, the dirty is done by and to the women, a showdown between the perfectly wavy-haired Madonna and the frizzy permed whore. Instead of nuance, they represent extremes, trading looks of betrayal or outrage. It was hailed as visionary to have wifey Anne Archer shoot Glenn Close in the final, come-back-from-the-dead-moment. But it wasn’t. It was just slasher film lite nonsense.
Movie writers made much ado about the famed original ending, where Glenn Close commits suicide to the celebrated aria from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The knife she used was one held by Douglas to threaten her in a previous scene. With his fingerprints still on the weapon, the police arrive at his home to arrest him, giving Close what appears to be the final word. Mama Archer is stupefied, with Douglas yells at her to call a lawyer. She runs into the house, goes into his artfully decorated man cave to make the call, only to stumble upon the cassette sent by Close. Archer plays it, rewinds one passage, hearing Close would just have to cut herself deeper, killing herself. With evidence of the suicide, not murder in hand, Archer bolts out of the room. We hear her saying to her daughter as she runs out, “Come on honey, we’re going to get Daddy.” Test audiences hated that Douglas was even punished a little, leading to a new ending, further underscoring the perils of a group vote in Hollywood. It did make a difference, though. Instead of earning a possible $15 million at the US box office, the film cashed out with nearly $160 million instead.
Fatal Attraction does hold a special place in history for being one of the trashiest films ever to be validated by Oscar nominations. It makes you go “Hmm” as to why so many people venerated the movie in its time. Close is a complex actor of incredible skill and depth, and you have to admire what she tries to do with the character. The idea of someone turning the tables on an unfaithful, arrogant partner is a good one. With violence perpetrated against women a major problem worldwide, seeing it done for entertainment purposes with a false ending of so-called female empowerment diminishes and trivializes what could have been a fascinating study of an age-old question. Why do people cheat? Instead, we get a passionate male fantasy dressed in white jersey and black leather, set in some gorgeous looking spaces in New York City. It’s fatal, alright.
Ah, what to say about Cats. The musical’s tag line was “Now and Forever.” The film version bears the legend, “What the Fuck Was That?” One of the most successful musicals ever produced, studios circled it for several decades. Besides its being a plotless show based on poems by T. S. Eliot, the underlying problem was how do you present it in a filmed medium. At one point, it looked like Cats would roam as an animated feature, which in hindsight, wouldn’t have been so terrible.
With musical films still doing surprisingly well at the box office, fans cheered when Universal announced that Cats the movie would be helmed by Tom Hooper. The man who shepherded the Oscar-winning hit adaptation of Les Misérables would now herd the kitties for the big screen. Its glittering cast led by James Corden, Taylor Swift, Judi Dench, and Jennifer Hudson, who’d sing the legendary “Memory” on screen, felt like this years-in-the-making version of Cats was on the right track. Then we saw the first trailer. Oooof. Derided and dissed, hated and hissed, Cats looked like a dog.
Once you saw it, design-wise, Eve Stewart’s Cats is a dream to look at on-screen, filling it in a way John Napier’s original stage production set could not. The choreography earned comparisons, too. Fans found themselves divided over Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, a landmark blend of acrobatics and modern dance enhanced by feline movement, versus Hamilton‘s Andy Blankenbuehler’s edgier take. Yet, even with such glittering trappings, most audiences either stayed away or failed to enjoy the experience if they did go.
Whatever committee agreed to employ motion capture effects, projecting the cast’s faces onto feline bodies, doomed the film from the start. You can accept it in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but the sight of La Dench doing a leg extension stretch like a cat was too much to handle. That was a “Hmm” moment for the ages. Of course, it did trigger cheers from the “It’s so bad it’s good” crowd, who turned Cats into The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the 21st century. Leave it to some folks to pull the one thread from this ball of wool to play with good fun.
Some magic does exist in Hooper’s super-sized production. The appearance of Taylor Swift, late as it is, is welcome. Her natural gifts as a performer found the right space. The same applies to Jennifer Hudson, whose delivery of the classic “Memory” is one to remember. Francesca Hayward and Robert Fairchild also make good on delivering the dance elements with grace and excitement. But it ends there, at least for me.
In the end, Cats is for the curious only. However, I will never forget the sight of one little girl watching the film that Christmas week at a theater in Mexico City, where I saw the movie with my family. My siblings slept, but as I walked out to see why my mother hadn’t come back to her seat, I saw this child looking at the screen with a smile; you can see it was one of absolute wonder and joy. She loved the film. As for my mom, she was reading a magazine in the lobby.
The unexpected success of George Lucas’s Star Wars in 1977 paved the way for special effects-driven narratives that could transport audiences further than ever before. In 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie had droves of moviegoers believing a man could fly. And in 1979, Disney unveiled the dark space mysteries of The Black Hole.
Young listeners, believe it or not, a time existed where Disney was floundering in leading the cinematic charge. Even its fabled animation division was struggling for relevancy. Tastes were changing, and audiences no longer sought the family films that were the studio’s hallmark. Disney had been developing a space-themed adventure for the better part of the 1970s, which eventually became The Black Hole. Instead of delving into the heart of darkness in space, the studio opted to rehash its famed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with wildly uneven results.
What makes you go “Hmm” over this film is when you ponder what could have been.
The famed imaginations of Harrison and Peter Ellenshaw and their visual effects team dreamed up visceral images of the black hole phenomenon in space. Their matte paintings also added plenty of fire to some of the widescreen sequences. The entire enterprise should have broadened Disney’s reach outside of kid-centric fare to keep the brand alive. Instead, the film was an awkward blend of its former self and its future goals, with neither coming out ahead. For all its visual wonder in places, you could see how the marketing team wanted to commodify its leading robotic players. The tie-ins were plentiful, the robots were cute and menacing, but the film’s failure meant no one wanted The Black Hole merch for Christmas 1978.
None of its accomplished ensemble cast led by Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine could do anything with the by-the-numbers script. And its lofty desire to visualize the descent into the Heaven and Hell of the black hole was laughable, along with some other less than effective sequences. What could have helped was having a director with vision, not Gary Nelson, the man who brought forth Freaky Friday and The Boy Who Talked to Badgers for the studio, as well as episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Patty Duke Show.
Science dictates that nothing can escape the pull of a black hole in space. Trust me. People avoided its force on Earth that Christmas season, bringing Disney a sizeable lump of coal. Despite its failure, Disney did not give up on creating more mature fare, as exemplified by the original Tron, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the notorious Watcher in the Woods in the early 80s. Still, a cult following has developed for The Black Hole, one that continues to grow. So much so, Disney is looking to revive the movie again. Given the studio’s revamped fortunes courtesy of Lucasfilm and Marvel, a black hole may be swirling our way sooner than later. In the meantime, witness the humble origins of a powerhouse genre.
We could go on for a while longer discussing the films that make you go Hmm, but rest assured it will be back to ponder again. David Lynch’s baroque take on Frank Herbert’s Dune and the hateful, franchise killing sequel to Sex and the City both come to mind. Until the Club meets again, stay safe and healthy out there, mi gente.
If you’re like me, this Election Day is all about comfort food and comfort movies. If you need to break away from the pundits & prognosticators, here are the Carreón Cinema Club’s Top Five Election Day Movies to help steady, or jangle, your nerves as we await the results of a lifetime.
TED (2012) – Feeling the need to bust a gut, look no further than Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar-nominated hit, TED. One of my favorite R comedies ever, the image of a trash-mouthed, alcoholic teddy bear is perfect for tonight. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, prepare for a case of the moist fuzzies thanks to MacFarlane’s pitch-perfect voice performance as Ted. It’s for anyone who needs a thunder buddy tonight.
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) – One of my favorite films ever, George Cukor’s 1940 classic THE PHILADELPHIA, is as perfect a comedy as you’ll ever see. Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart in his only Oscar-winning performance, this is a film to treasure thanks to a screenplay that is practically music to your ears. Classy, legendary, and funny in its depiction of class, media, and marriage, you will swoon away the anxiety in no time.
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (1988) –Tap into the pop kitsch of Spanish iconoclast Pedro Almódovar’s first mainstream hit, WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. This Spanish-language comedy from 1988 reveals how far an anxious woman will go to get a call back from a straying lover. A hilarious look at relationships and gender, you’ll be ignoring your telephone as election updates start coming in.
NETWORK (1976) – If you need something a little more substantive, why not Paddy Chayefsky’s brutally funny but accurate look at media with NETWORK. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this prophetic movie details how a last-place network taps into the era’s popular rage with outrageous and tragic results. Featuring William Holden and Robert Duvall, it is the Oscar-winning trio of Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch, along with Chayefsky’s script that makes this film a classic for any media age.
Z (1969) – For the nihilists just looking for a cathartic release, may I suggest Costa-Gavras’ Z, a dark and chilling account of Greek politics following the assassination of a Greek political leader. Inspired by real events, Z’s representation of the event’s aftermath, including a mass cover-up and a coup d’etat, is sobering and all-too timely. One of the first films to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Foreign Film Oscars, winning for the latter. Unforgettable.
Hang in there, mi gente. We have each other for whatever happens next. See you on the other side of history.
In 1998, the great Hilary Clark encouraged me to step into the role of content producer/interviewer. To be honest, it felt more like a dare. I thought our publicity content was rather dated at the time, colorless and flavorless. This was during my tenure as a studio publicist at 20th Century Fox under her invaluable guidance. I took her up on the challenge, hired a crew and went to the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Blvd. to interview composer Mark Snow and television icon Chris Carter about their collaboration for “The X-Files” movie soundtrack. I never looked back. By 1999, I was responsible for the writing, producing, and interviewing of all content created by Fox International Theatrical Publicity. It was an unusual role as most publicity departments didn’t handle this task. They’d hire an agency and that was it. No, this enterprise was the result of vision and it changed my life in the process.
Much has changed over the last two decades, especially in this industry. I’ve changed, too. I used to be caught up in the false notion that I had to be a James Lipton-type. When I finally found my true voice, it was as natural as just saying, “Hi, I’m Jorge.” No adornment or overstating things, just simplicity and honesty. I gush, sure. I’m first and foremost a fanboy for all things motion picture. I was also raised on Regis Philbin, Merv Griffin, and Mike Douglas. I was also nurtured by Linda Ellerbee, Diane Sawyer, and especially, Charles Kuralt. It is a winning combination, where I end up getting hugs more often than annoyance or indifference from the people I interview. I take great pride in that ability.
Sure, I still make the mistake of giving a person the answer in my question. It is true, I never really mean, “Last question.” And, I can’t do a 20-minute BTS interview, not really. It usually ends up going over 40 minutes or more. In fact, the fearless crew on my recent project in New York coined the phrase, “The Jorge 20.” (I’m not offended, I swear.) Even this posting was just supposed to be a “Happy Anniversary” Instagram moment! But nooooo, I had to write a novel about “What it all means!”
I don’t always think I’m the best person for EPK because I have “big emotions” that fight against the rule of this job, which is not being visible. I’m not sitting at video village trying to butter up film producers for that next gig. Yet, I know I am visible when I sit in the chair and begin that next interview.
As BTS producers, we have 30 seconds to let talent know we’re not going to be looking for a “gotcha” moment or engage in any of the other bad behaviors that have been unceremoniously attached to this role. No one likes facing someone who just reads questions off a page. It also enrages me how still others make this process about themselves and NOT the movie or television show. The flip side is no better, where it is obvious the client or studio executives could care less about nuance and humanity. Their only focus is making sure we hit what’s been listed on a marketing brief or remain oblivious to interview at and keep their eyes on the ticking of an iPhone stopwatch.
Still, during these last 20 years, I’ve achieved more than even I imagined in this role. I continue to roam this country and world in search of stories that complement the profiles of some of the best and not-so-best films and TV series. The artists and cultural figures I’ve had the privilege to sit and interview over the years are as diverse and fascinating as I’d hoped, even surprising, too. My journeys have not just been about chatting with actors and filmmakers, either. Nobel Prize winners, best selling authors, pop stars, families seeking asylum, entrepreneurs, and public figures venturing into a different spotlight are all part of this story. Y ahora la narrativa también se cuenta en español.
Red carpets, rooms built out of black duvetyne, junkets at five-star hotel suites on several continents, storerooms, warehouses, falling lights, hurricane-induced blackouts on set, museum offices, desert gateways, hutongs, a Mexican prison with Mel Gibson, legendary and still vital film festivals, jungle spa retreats, jazz festivals, screaming fans, stern publicists pointing at a watch, colleagues bitching over why I have more time, planes, train rides, bus rides, a police ride-along with an armed consultant, noisy soundmen, diva DoP’s, recording studios, snowy man-made villages, busy city streets, country backroads, and everything in between. It’s been the good, the bad, the ugly, and the redemptive. As for my collaborators? They’ve been or become great friends, war buddies, some frenemies, but the numbers of role models, muses, and mentors are greater. Oh, the madness of this town defies anything you think you know or read. You cannot be part of this circus without having some sort of tale to tell.
I always wanted my own talk show and in many ways, this is like having one without people knowing who I am. (Although that dream still lingers.) What still excites me is knowing when I’ve connected with someone and they reveal more than just “the perfect soundbite.” It is when real emotion is present, whether laughter or tears, that I find the ability to want to keep doing this job. These moments of revealed humanity give me hope that we are all not living just for “the show.” These connections DO matter in this job, no matter how we continue to water down all the messages into a square box for 60 seconds or less.
Being a storyteller has been my goal since childhood. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between writing and producing for most of my adult life. It is rather telling that I am now grappling with the effects of a changing media landscape, which has even impacted the entire BTS/EPK medium. In this era of influencers and similar constructs, I worry about my true fate. Ageism is rampant everywhere. I went from Young Turk to Establishment in the blink of an eye. Maturity and experience are viewed by too many people in this industry as being expensive and even irrelevant. It strikes real fear in my heart some days. I do take great pride in knowing what looks and sounds real, though, and I know how to make people not fear the question or the conversation. It doesn’t matter if it’s in English or Spanish, either. It all has to count for something, even in a world where people think “fake news” is a real construct.
When I was recently sent the lead photo of this piece by Dave Nolte of Scratch Creative from a marketing shoot completed last June, I was at a low point. Losing Dad to Alzheimer’s in late February of this year left such a void in my life. I also found myself possessing a need for a second act. I felt so guilty and scared about this, which I’ve coupled with the tangible doubt as to whether I even want to continue this journey as a producer/interviewer. Then I saw the photo Dave sent me and I was instantly reminded of what I am capable of in this world.
Stories need telling by people who truly give a shit about an impactful and engaging narrative. Spin is not enough for some of us, nor is passing off HDR images and excessive font overlays as the “story.” The cynicism of thinking the audience doesn’t care is bullshit. We are in part responsible for feeding them this steady diet of lowest common denominator content instead of elevating them with material that nurtures the ability to pay attention and think!
I was taught and mentored by some amazing people to be a rebel in this town until the end, dammit. I am not the product of Affirmative Action or quotas. No one felt sorry for this gay Latino from Pico Rivera and said, “Aw, let’s give him a chance.” I didn’t complete my journalism degree, nor am I the most technically-savvy producer in the game. To be clear, I am here because I worked like hell to be in the room, even making some compromises that make me wince today. Dad always said the worst thing you can hear is “No.” I heard the negative and other choice words that did little to stop my trajectory.
The people that were a major part of my Hollywood career are no longer part of this industry or are facing an uncertain future, too. “The Jorge Show,” as I call it, has been a shared adventure. Period. I didn’t achieve this life alone. I carry their influence and teachings with me on every project, every interview. As long as people are willing to sit with me without reservation or fear, they will discover that they are in good hands and in the presence of a good heart.
And, yes, I’ll keep getting their attention first by sporting a great pair of shoes.
Here’s to 20 more years of “The Jorge Show” and conversations to remember.
**One of my most treasured moments, meeting Mexican icon Verónica Castro and the incomparable director/writer Manolo Caro for the Netflix series, “La Casa de las Flores” (House of Flowers). This was a true full-circle moment to treasure, the bridging of my American and Mexican selves as a content producer. Gracias a Netflix y Hari Sinn y su equipo por realizar este sueño.
“Too many people in this room,” he thought. “Again.”
It was getting late. 6 pm, to be exact, everything would shut down at the factory.
“Closing time,” he’d like to say.
The sun going down was the best alarm system ever devised for Dad. It meant quiet would be restored. It was the time when he felt most relaxed, when the world, his world, was in order. Dad sensed someone approaching. He prepared for impact.
“Hi, Uncle George!” the Person said excitedly.
Dad instinctually knew which of his smiles to engage.
He had quite the array of smiles in his arsenal; some were broad, others were veiled politeness. They were never fake or insincere. This one smile was one of his most appreciated because it had genuine warmth, even if he didn’t quite know the source of its heat.
Dad also learned a while ago that speaking in Spanish was always the best way to keep contact with short.
“If you gave them too much,” he reasoned, “they’ll stay too long.”
Communicating with people was never this hard, or maybe it was? How long had this been his “new normal?” Everything felt so hazy these days as if his mind was processing photocopies with very little ink.
Sometimes, the images before him (memories?) were shockingly bright, with each color pushing its vibrancy to the limit. It was then he couldn’t help but smile. He could see his world so clearly, shapes and figures that felt so familiar and real. Most of the time, he witnessed an expanse of grey that threatened to dominate everything. Not today, though.
Dad used to miss the “beautiful noise,” as he’d called it before he got “sick.” It still happened from time to time, and he recognized it. That once beautiful din was often too loud now, and it scared him, something that had never happened before. For Dad, this human tidal wave of sounds, letters, and languages pulled him under without a floatation device. He couldn’t begin to sort it out, taking his breath away when a room full of people reached its audible peak.
Dad was well aware something was wrong with his brain. He’d known for some time that things were off. Mom was still a mental constant, as was Sis. They offered him two of the few respites from the long days waiting for “quitting time” to arrive.
“Oh my god! Uncle George looks so good!” said Another Figure.
“This one was more excitable than the other,” Dad thought. Still, something in her face made him feel the need to offer more than one of his pre-fab smiles.
“Bien! Bien!” Dad offered as he excitedly patted this Person’s hand for extra measure.
Of all his Old World manners and gestures, the hand pat was his most friendly, the one he only used with people that meant a great deal to him. Perhaps the criteria had slipped a bit of late, but the importance of it hadn’t waned. Not yet, anyway.
More people arrived, breaking his repose. Suddenly, Dad’s leather lounge chair felt like a steel trap. He wanted to leave, but where?
“I know I’m still me,” he thought. A surge of emotion was rising in his brain, a lava-like substance that took very little time to heat and explode.
“Dad’s eyes are looking tense,” Someone said.
“He’s going to start kicking people out!” Someone else added.
“I’m not angry!” Dad wanted to shout.
He didn’t feel sure about who everyone was in the room. His eyes darted furiously about the den, desperately trying to find the familiar faces of Mom and Sis, but they weren’t around. That made him panic ever so slightly, the color of his eyes shifting from their charming hazel shade to something foreboding and stormy.
“Hace mucho ruido! Tanto ruido. Chingados!” Dad said to no one in particular.
For the record, Dad NEVER swore. In any language. But a long-buried archive of Spanish language profanities had since been unearthed. All bets were off as to when Dad would decide to access it.
“It’s so much better when it’s quiet. Don’t these people know?” he heard from within his fussy and uncooperative mind.
It felt like these words were tumbling forth. Dad could feel his mouth moving, forming a declarative sentence that could restore order, but it was futile. Even if he did manage to say something, it would not have been discernable to anyone. All they would hear was a defeated sigh from the man they came to visit and love as he settled deeper into the isolating safety of his leather armchair.
In case you haven’t noticed, being in a reflective mood is a big part of who I am as a person.
I’ll pause for the rolling of your eyes, dear reader.
Yeah, I think too much. I think too much about stuff that is hardly ground shaking anymore. I, too, suffer from that illness of wanting to make myself seem so fucking interesting. So much effort has gone into curating a self that could be deemed “fabulous” or “fascinating” by others that I now question whether it was worth it. Losing Dad last month has allowed for a sense of clarity to take over. Revisiting all of our struggles together, the endless array of pendejadas I’d craft just to piss him off. And for what? He forgot them all due to his Alzheimer’s. However, what took over was something totally real and true. Each time he smiled, I knew we were in a good place. We laughed and lived out some of the best years of our lives together with respect. It will be a gift that will keep on giving.
These many years of trying on and shedding personas were exhausting, for me and everyone around me. The irony? Going back to my OG self now makes the most sense. Take out the chaos and “big feelings” and I have a nice rack of lamb to offer the world. That’s what brought me back to Dad. With him, I discovered that life doesn’t need an excess of adornment. It needs to be tended to with care and purpose. You nurture the best part of yourself and the people you love with sun and air, not artificial light, filters, and the prism of a stranger’s validation. Why it’s taken me so long to figure that out has more to do with what I thought I wanted to “see” in myself and the world.
Born a preemie, I guess I was determined not to fade into the background since day one. I had to see what lurked outside the safety of Mom’s womb! Haha. Once I started going to school, it became apparent that I had a voice and the power to be heard. Shyness be damned, the first person I made laugh in kindergarten was a revelation! I was aware of what made me different from the other kids. In the end, my early interests would dictate much of who I would be as an adult. It happened organically thanks to the people who remain my role models, at home, school, the library that was my second home. Then, I started to doubt my own singularity.
When I think about our mania to be noticed today by being considered an “influencer” or a “public figure” on social media, I can’t help but marvel over how it is also doing us such harm. It’s just a setting, for crying out loud. Creating a false persona took real skill in “my day” and we could not depend on a filter to cover the flaws. To bear witness to the elements of sameness projected by people all over the world today scares the shit out of me. We seem less inclined to break free from the pack to fervently embrace this culture of uniformity. Copycat beauty is not a celebration of individuality, which contradicts a generation’s determination to eschew the context of the past. Many parrot the importance of fluidity in their lives, but they swirl around the contained space of a very specific and packed fish tank.
This concept of curating an authentic life is also just another variation of “keeping up appearances.” And whoever coined the term, “adulting” should be ashamed. We live in an era that invents so many terms and slogans to validate confusion and insecurity. Most people can’t even commit to a simple meet and greet because of their lives being so “hectic.” Yet, they still want to be praised for doing the things you’re supposed to do as an adult! Argh. But yeah, planning and taking photos of yourself at brunch and Coachella will take it out of you. This doesn’t apply only to the millennials, either.
Sigh. I’m rambling here, I know. That I’ve grappled with the same insecurity of being ignored and feeling irrelevant for so long is one of my biggest failures. The trigger point from childhood, when I stopped letting my own true self exist for fear of being labeled “different,” cannot be allowed to be pulled. Opting to create an exaggerated self with the threads of what made me different wasn’t any better, either. Dad wasn’t always enamored of my colorful self, but he admired my voracious need to read, watch films, go to the theater, and articulate what I loved about what I was watching or reading. (Except “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He tore a companion picture book in half and threw it in the trash.)
Dad believed in the power of words and I have found comfort and solace in recognizing that part of him. I know I won’t fade into the background anytime soon. My will to speak and write is too strong. However, the point is to allow our words to count. Empowerment and courage will forever exist in words, even in a fish tank.
Having the courage and will to express myself is what will get me through this next chapter without him. Nostalgia has also proven a great source of empowerment, lessons that were buried only to resurface as I contemplate my own future. For example, when I was a kid, visiting the family in Tampico, the tíos thought it would be great to get me on a horse. I was about 4 or 5. Tío Paul was so proud to see me ride. Instead, he saw me fall off, which wasn’t unusual for me. Graceful athleticism was left out of my DNA stew.
I didn’t get back on that horse. I often wonder what life would have been like if I just got back in the saddle again. No filter, either. It speaks volumes to me today. I don’t need a horse anymore, but I do know I won’t be staying down if I fall. I’ll just dust myself off and keep on moving forward as my singular self. Witnesses welcomed, but not required.
My sister Nancy coined the name “Poppadoodles” way back when. I instantly loved the sound of it, both frivolous and absurd, two words you’d never use when you wanted to describe Dad. He was Big George, Jorge Sr., Tío Jorge, but never Don Jorge, or Jefe. He represented many things to many people.
Dad passed away the morning of Tuesday, February 26 at the age of 94 at our home in Pico Rivera. It didn’t rain that day. The sun was out. He was surrounded by family and our closest friends. Alzheimer’s was also his nefarious companion during the last 12 years of his life. It finally left us alone, but it never fully took Dad away. Jorge Sr. knew where he was and who was the source of the love in that living room space that day.
Writing about him in the past tense makes me want to scream. Thinking about him in the past tense makes me want to cry. That is why I choose to focus my emotion on words these days. Words were my best friend as a chubby, eccentric kid. Words were what kept Dad entertained as he shuttled us all over Los Angeles to meet rock bands at record signings, shows, musicals, sports, everything. A carefully folded newspaper or magazine was also with him when he played chauffeur to the exciteable brood that was us.
I never did ask what he read about or what he even thought about what he read. I just know that when it was time to take us home, he carefully folded the material back up and we’d begin the journey. That slice of peace and quiet was always obliterated by our breathless stories about who or what we saw. He’d smile and listen as we cut through the city with caution because his precious cargo was aboard.
God, I wish I did ask him about those articles in the Herald-Examiner or Newsweek. One time, he even stood in line with my brother and me at Tower Records on Sunset Blvd. We wanted to meet the legendary child known as Boy George. Talk about your culture club. (Boom.) When we got up to meet George, we told him our Dad was a George, too. A huge smile stretched across the Brit crooner’s tastefully made-up face. Wouldn’t you know they launched into a nice little chat? Like neighbors stopping for tea. It was something George did not have time for with any of gallery of nightcrawlers and club kids that were desperate for a similar audience? Dad had no idea who Boy George even was, saying “That’s a nice young man” as we walked away. I wish Steve Jobs had already conquered the world for an iPhone! Imagine the photo, heck, the footage! Still, the memory remains a treasure, regardless, and unfiltered all these years later.
It is fitting that Dad made his living as a textile engineer. The yarn spun on the daily at the factory was no less important and as strong as the family ties he weaved at home. It never frayed. Even when it was pulled to maximum tautness, we didn’t break. Sometimes the words I exchanged with Dad were in anger, punctuated by the slam of a door or the start of a car engine. Even our silences carried the weight and text of our thoughts. That wasn’t the case once he began his travels with Alzheimer’s. I’d be damned if I’d let that bastard of a disease rob me of my time with Dad. I fought against the ALZ hard with smiles, laughter, and talks, real talks. It started out in English and then transferred to Dad’s native Spanish when his mind placed me in that category of awareness.
I have no regrets. I only possess this incredible want to have him here for a little while longer. I was able to say what I carried in my heart to him way before he left us. It is my most treasured moment with Dad. It happened at the Arboretum in Arcadia early last fall. Walking was tough for him, so I got him a wheelchair. We ventured around the gardens. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful day. In fact, it was grey and humid. The grounds were going through some pruning and renovations. The only added color that day was the famed peacocks, which were plentiful. I chose to tell Dad that I loved him and that he was right about so much. That I was sorry for all the hell I put him through. He was quiet for a moment, then, he asked if it was alright if he pushed me around the gardens, that I’d done enough. I said, “I don’t mind.” He answered, “Okay.” Then he started to comment on the peacocks, saying they don’t do anything. Just walk around and show off. I laughed. “Dad,” I said. I can’t believe you’re arguing with a peacock.” He just smiled and folded his hands on his lap. “I want to go home,” he said. So, we did.
Dad’s burial services were on a sunny Tuesday morning in Pico Rivera. I had the task of speaking, along with my brother. Writing his eulogy wasn’t easy, but when I started to write it, the words didn’t fail me. As my dear friend Ann said to me as my grief was in its upswing:
“He may be gone, but please know, as someone said to me when I lost my Dad, “The conversation continues.”
And it does…
A Eulogy for Dad by Jorge Carreón, Jr.
When you’ve been blessed to live a life as long, rich and vivid as Dad’s, the brevity of a eulogy seems cruel and unfair. Six paragraphs and out. I couldn’t do that. You only have to stop, pause, take a breath and take a look around a room like this and see the emotion and extent of the impact one life can make. You take comfort in knowing that this speaks volumes to the character and respect generated by Jorge Ramirez Carreón. Words were his power, and words are the inherited power we wield today.
I remember the day after my big performance in a high school play when I asked Dad what he thought of my “star” turn. He said, “Mijo, you’re a lot of things, but you’re not an actor. Write. It is what you do best.” He was “right,” for lack of a better word. He was pretty much always right about things.
I’ve been staring at a blank screen for days, crafting this message of remembrance and goodbye for Dad. All I could hear in my head are messages like, “Is this going to be enough?” followed by “I can’t do this.” When I finally sat down to put these words up on a laptop screen, it was surrounded by his spirit at our family home in Pico Rivera. Flowers, his favorite slice of nature, were everywhere. Music, the songs inspired by his varied tastes, provided the underscore. It made sense to me here. He made sense to me here, the house that raised my siblings and me.
My brother has composed a fitting testimony to his life, the details and achievements of a life less ordinary, but extraordinary. He ventured from the security of his home and living in Mexico to venture into the unknown territory of the US. He met Mom, married, had four children; he built the life of their dreams. The palm tree that graces the center of our home in Pico is that perfect symbol of our family history. It stands taller than ever before. It has bent with strong winds, never breaking, even when it felt like life was too much. It is the summation of who we are as his people, his family. You find a piece of who we are with each frond. Lil’s maturity and leadership as the firstborn. Nancy’s devotion and selfless protection of us all. Ernesto’s poetry and introspection. Mom’s love of life and strength. It is resilience incarnate.
With Dad’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s 12 years ago, the first impulse was to think life was over, that he’d forget us all quickly, that the damage to his mind and body would be relentless. We were scared he’d never be able to partake in our lives most crucial moments as adults. We were cursed and doomed. Yet, in the end, it was a gift. My father getting lost in the haze of this infernal disease allowed me to find him again. It is a personal detail that I will never let go.
My family mobilized upon the Doctor’s word. Nancy and Ernesto led the charge in researching every facet of treatment programs, medications, insurance allowances, anything, and everything to make sure Dad would live his best life with us beside him. That he was with us for as long as he was, glowing with color and filled with energy, is a testament to everyone’s role in keeping Dad healthy and alive. We involved him in all aspects of our lives. He wasn’t “sick” Dad. He was chingón Dad for us, for everyone he’d offer a smile. That’s the lesson of his life. Don’t fear the illness; make it fear YOU.
Like many Latino men, we like to live in our memories, tasked with the preservation of our family lore. Being Jorge is not just sharing the same name. Being Jorge means living as the chief chronicler of my family. You should see the epic collection of slides that remain encased and boxed, dutifully scanned by my sister Nancy with Smithsonian-like care. That is why I was compelled to record all that is Us before Dad’s mental files were purged entirely of data. My family and I will never forget the outpouring of emotion felt by many of you who never had a chance to meet Dad in person but were witnesses to his life in other manners.
My name now carries a stronger aura of poetry and romance. Yet, Dad is singular, the original creation. My task is never to let his memory fade, preserving that beautiful handprint in my heart, in all of our hearts.
Back to the power of words. Dad era creyente, a devout believer. He was a voracious reader, informed, an elegant debater who loved a good match of wits. I ask you all to take a moment at some point today to think of a word that personifies what Dad means to you. Share it with us today, tomorrow, whenever inspiration strikes.
As for us? Let me tell you: Dad is adventurous, sage, loyal, devoted, humorous, strict, careful, silly funny, lover of the song “Guantanamera,” classical music and Lerner & Lowe showtunes, Howard Stern-listener, admirer of Trini Lopez, Willie Nelson & Glen Campbell, damn good long haul driver, world-traveler, Christmas card address monitor, abstract pancake maker, mistaker of wasabi for guacamole, Nescafe drinker, eater of canned tuna fish in Italy, church leader, Eagle Scout motivator, industrious, a textile engineer, cultivated, Catholic, mustached, bald, native son of Celaya, Caballero, Mexicano, husband, father, tío, hero. He is forever our Poppadoodles.
We love you, Dad. Te queremos mucho, Pa.
**This is a video produced by my brother Ernesto for his Mateo & 8th line of home decor. We played it during the rosary services in honor of Dad. Hearing his voice sound so confident was shocking for a moment, then, restorative and calming. I hope you give it a view.
***Please consider making a donation to one of the following charities:
“I’m glad I cleaned the house today,” she thought in her best Lady Macbeth fashion. “Too many damn cobwebs. Out damn memories.”
She’d contemplated burning some sage but settled on removing old totems from the past as being enough. Finding the photos of “that other family” triggered this latest “limpiada,” a lesson taught by her mother.
“The best way to get rid of the past,” her Mamá Coraje once said, “is to believe it never happened at all.”
Rewriting history was a family skill so well-honed, even Orwell would blanch out of shame. For the Coraje women, lies were irradiated truths. Truths were best regarded as lies told by those who only wanted to destroy their gossamer veneer of perfection. The singular male Coraje — the son or brother — seemed to lack the focus required. He was a man-boy with feet of clay, desperate to be liked and loved, lacking integrity and grit.
Adept at creating her own reality since youth, this particular Coraje sister didn’t even break a sweat at the effort anymore. Ignoring events, people, the color of her skin, her family’s lower-middle-class reality, it didn’t faze her in the least. She chose to dance on the jagged edge, to remain a beautiful liar en pointe. Yet, the years were now revealing their own subtle truths, manifested in her stick-thin figure and the frozen look of bitter disappointment on her face. Whatever beauty or character was erased now.
It was seeing a photo of her mother with her American-born cousins that triggered this bolt of divine inspiration as she finished cleaning. She’d send the found photos to their original owners. It would be easier to simply place them in the trash.
“La basura se junta,” Mamá Coraje would say about people who had lost their use to her.
Another pair of trembling hands would soon hold the plain manila envelope she’d carefully filled with photos covering several years from what was now a different lifetime. The note? Benign in its phrasing, but packing a wallop that would reverberate beyond several area codes: “I thought you could use these.” Its simplicity was almost too perfect! Minimum effort for maximum damage, this bread & butter note written with the same intent as a “Thank you” card or a grocery list.
Would she know that sending this package would elicit feelings of anger and rage? Would she know that emptying her house of what was once treasure would be deemed callous and heartless? That the question of “Who does this?” would be muttered via texts and phone calls and several lunchtime conversations? The frozen smiles captured in these wrinkled black & whites and torn color images belied something she would never allow herself to acknowledge: her own feelings of malignant envy.
As la Hermana Coraje transported the sealed envelope to the post office, she reflected on the scorched earth demeanor of the Corajes. It was a cold feeling, cold and lonely and terrifying in its power. Was this too much? Had she gone too far? But she caught herself before any rationality or humanity could take root. Gripping the steering wheel of her sensible Japanese car, a trace of a smile revealed itself as she accelerating on the gas.
The rise of Trumpism has torn the veil off of 21st century America and what lies beneath is a roiling sea of hatred towards all non-white groups. It seems no one is immune from this cancer. Just view any of the iPhone videos of unbridled rage shot on location at hotel pools to Starbucks to any grocery store of late.
I can’t help but shake in rage when I think how mainstream media was complicit in giving Trump and his minions a platform that is part-revival tent and part- propaganda machine. By reporting and repeating his often wildly untrue statements designed for maximum collateral damage, the effect is not to inform the masses, but to give the Trump machine more steam and crucial validation.
Before the election, I found it unfathomable that we’d live in an era where a U.S. President would turn to social media to handle world affairs in the manner of an unhinged youth suffering from Twitter Tourette’s. The very thought of such a political figure leading the greatest nation on Earth as if he’s the oligarch of the Troll Nation churned my stomach. It couldn’t possibly happen here, right Sinclair Lewis?
Now we have the children of the undocumented living in detainment camps on American soil.
What we decide to do about Trump and his rabid fan base will define the next generations of our nation. But we have to start paying attention. We can’t turn away or tune it out, people. We can’t distract ourselves with cat videos, endless phone swiping through the digital swamps of clickbait nonsense, Beyoncé & Jay-Z’s new album or whatever it is we do to pretend our lives are hunky dory.
We are at war for the soul of this great nation. To avoid service is to call yourself a deserter. You do not warrant a place in this nation once we put down our arms to vanquish the Orange menace, the entitled, rich white men who’d rather see us corralled up like animals and treated like garbage. You are no better than them in thinking it is someone else’s problem.
We cannot be complicit in our silence. You see, it won’t stop here, this flouting of human and civil rights. If we allow these camps to continue, Trump will allow for them to grow in numbers and the parameters can only be broadened from here. Citizens may find themselves behind those gates just because they fit a government profile that can change at any given moment.
Camps have happened here before. Like all the evil that men do, a precedent exists. We have the power to look back in anger and do something with that emotion to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s the beauty of history. The clues. The answers. The best-laid plans are present for us to make our futures better. Yet, we are the fly in the ointment. Our apathy and divisiveness make us so.
Walls. Chainlink fences. Camps. These are devices engaged by the weak and cowardly to keep control and power. But these are also man-made constructs. And it is men and women of great courage and faith in the goodness of humankind that will take them down. Change cannot be contained. This is our chance. Make your voice heard. Speak your truth.
Here’s mine: I am the gay son of Mexican immigrants, people who chose to become citizens of this great nation. To witness the children of other Latinos in camps is a slap in the face of all immigrants who created America. We must become the change we want to see in the world before we are all on the other side of that fence wondering what the hell happened.