On Purpose (and Reinventing the Delusion)

I haven’t written in a while. Once again life does what it does best!

The last two weeks were full of desire to stay optimistic and to find relief from the strife of adulting. This means I let thoughts or impressions percolate for far too long. I need little interludes to process and unpack. I’m getting better at taking breaks, and telling myself that working a full time job and raising a child and maintaining a household with my wife is all part of a delicate balancing act. Much like a squirrel swaying on the power line, life is always in the balance; and surely a constant flow of traffic will remain eager to contribute to my demise.

Okay, I didn’t mean it to sound so fatalistic, but it’s a Monday, so forgive my tone. Let me cheer it up slightly: I’m fortunate I can give myself breaks. I have never been in a position, at work or outside of it, where I could take a moment to adjust my direction and that of my career/family/creativity. Most of my twenties, I felt I couldn’t breathe because I had to do something. I had to busy my mind and body with tasks without really pondering the direction of my actions. If it’s one thing I would advocate as a stepping stone to quieting the anxiety of one’s life, it is to slow down.

Listen to your heartbeat.

Listen to what ails you and what your mind is telling you. I felt aimless for so long because I was following goals and objectives that I had set for myself from a young age. Goals and ambitions don’t remain static. They grow with you. The only way you can adjust accordingly is to forget the external factors and dial in on the things that make your mind soar. Clarify the possibilities that only you know will bring you joy. These are the actions that will make a difference to you and yours and what you care about.

There was a period of about 17 years, during which I lied to myself about what I wanted to be. It was difficult to accept. I wanted to be a filmmaker. That’s it. According to 13 year old me, that was the one and only thing that would make me someone worthwhile. I imbued my all to this purpose, into this fantasy, that for a long time, there was room for nothing else. No room for growth. That all changed. And so before I tell you why I call this filmmaking dream a fantasy, let me explain:

In early 2013, I had a nervous breakdown.

I, the filmmaker-in-the-making, had this glorious orange and teal tinted idea of tomorrow: I was to make movies, and something would happen that would allow me to do that in the future. Something.

I was praying to the cosmos something would happen to me. I never explicitly sat down to ponder the actionable things I needed to do in order for me to be in a position to be successful as a filmmaker. I didn’t reverse-engineer how to get my foot in the door. I never explored and investigated the way I should have. That’s not to say I was twiddling my thumbs during that time. Back then, I explored viciously. Though I couldn’t afford to go to film school, theater was close enough, so I performed and wrote seven full length plays, three screenplays (outlined a shitload) and countless short plays and ten minute plays and so on. I made movies with my friends, two of them full length films and several shorts. I continued to write poetry in my journal like I used to as a child, and recorded music like I’ve always wanted to do. I created simply out of curiosity. A very productive time, but undoubtedly aimless.

Something will not happen to you. You have to create the conditions for you to be in the vicinity of something.

In 2013, my wait for something came to an end. As Maddie and I anticipated our child coming into this world, I sat in the living room of our little one bedroom apartment in Seattle, and I came to the realization that the reason something never happened, was because I never went looking for it. What were we doing in Seattle? Did I come here to write and direct? Did I ever mean to produce anything? Did I come here for the coffee? Why did I waste my parent’s money to learn playwriting and directing for the stage, which ultimately, was an approximation of the filmmaking dreams of my youth? Did I even want to be a filmmaker anymore? Maybe. No. Not really. I don’t know.

I thought of the journal entries of a middle-schooler with broken English who wanted to make action movies and would draw posters of his made up films. I thought of the dramatic scripts I wrote to prevent me from giving in to depression and potentially doing something really stupid. I dreamt and wrote and sang about doing stupid shit, but then my dreams began to take another shape. Dreaming of cinema was a beautiful coping mechanism and it became the compass of my life. I was a shell and I ascribed my person-hood to the act of movie-making. The kid who bugged his friends to make movies. I was a volcano of creativity, out in the vast Pacific, spewing lukewarm magma and calling it art. I was the Movie Guy. That is all I was and over a decade later, I looked up and saw myself still hiding behind that false purpose:

Quiet, opinion-less, and empty.

I wept there in the living room. I felt like an insane person. I never had a goal to have a career as a filmmaker. I had an unreachable fantasy because I never determined what I would seek. I broke my own heart and I cried not out of sadness, but out of brute desperation that I had not realized my own lack of purpose up until that point. I was shocked at the obvious. In the aftermath of this uncomfortable epiphany, I didn’t feel like I had much left of myself. But in the rubble of a burning shit-show of my non-existent ambitions, I pulled my head out of my ass and remembered I could not dwell on this for long:

We have a baby to raise.

And so together with my beautiful, supportive and loving wife, I went back to the drawing board. I asked myself for the first time, what do you need to do to be fulfilled creatively? What the fuck do you actually want?

I want to go home to start over. We wanted to start our family on the right foot. That’s when we returned to Wyoming. That was six years ago. Trial and error, luck, and the help of our families steadied the ship until the Captain remembered where he left his compass. We figured out what we wanted out of life, we saved our pennies, worked hard, started a business, made sacrifices, took left turns, asked more questions, then took the right turns, bought a home, closed the business, stumbled into good jobs, and suddenly I fell face first into a job I love and while things aren’t perfect, they have never been better and I have never felt this much empowerment in my life. I want to share and prolong this feeling of wonder and possibility with my wife and son every single day. I want to share it with my friends and my community but I am still building the courage to look inside myself to see how the emptiness in my soul is now full of love and ambition for a future of honesty, love, and empathy. This is the compass I have longed for. When you ask the right questions, the answers will follow. I’m blessed to have a partner who has helped me so much to be better. This is what I’ve always wanted. Being a father is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me for so many reasons, and one big reason is that I was able to set aside my priorities to help my little one get settled into his life, raise him and learn from him. And I’ve tried like hell to learn as much as possible. This is what I’ve always wanted. And lo and behold, creativity flows not aimlessly, but concisely and out of love. So far so good.

I thought this would be a brief post about Mondays and finding time to breathe, but the heart and subconscious had other plans. I guess what I’m getting at is that nothing really started to fall into place until I began asking difficult questions of myself, and challenged myself to assess my personal growth honestly. I’m not writing about a catastrophe at all. In my fat head, I liken this to missing the morning alarm and waking up late when you should have been at work two hours ago. Yes, there is an urgency, but you can still use your get out of jail free card with your boss. And then you get to work to play catch up, knowing you won’t have many more chances to get this shit right. Don’t short yourself, life will do that without your help. Yes, it’s an awakening that took way longer than it should have. Could be worse, though: I have seen folks at the tail end of their lives still waiting for their something to reach down into the well of suffering and carry them away.

So as I wrap this up, what can I say? I strongly suggest you ask yourself the tough questions, be brutally honest, and make plans full of good intent and strong purpose. No matter your age, your station in life, your current status, there’s still time to breathe.

I’ll keep trying too.

j

Night Owl, what are you looking for?

I don’t know what I’m trying to find at this hour.

As it tends to happen when normal people go to bed and I choose to stay up, the wheels fall off the wagon of motivation and I sink into melancholy. At 12:15 a.m. my intention is to polish a few old photographs and share some thoughts on Valentine’s Day. I want to record a new episode of Creative Drive because I had some things to say. Wanted to read something. I type this on the first few minutes of the 15th, as a clear admission of failure. This is a slight failure, however. It won’t haunt me too long.

“Some nights, I’d have to sleep alone. I didn’t mind, I would listen to the house breathin’. All those people sleepin’. I felt… safe.”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Very often, I think about this quote from that superb film written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Eagerly waiting for the movie’s release, I read the short story hoping to get a sense of what was lifted straight from the story, how it was embellished, and how it would live in a different medium. The process of stories transcending their mediums really intrigues me, if you haven’t noticed…

While I don’t recall this line nor the scene it comes from existing in the original tale, I became madly in love with that notion: There is an endless comfort in knowing your loved ones are safe in their warm beds, and you know nothing will harm them. I find that my biggest daily preoccupation (you might say, my constant, irrational worry) is making sure my wife and son are aware of my love for them, the emotional part of it, the loosey goosey moments of communicating to them that I will do anything for them, and proving it by working hard at the office for them, by trying my damnedest to be present when we’re together, and by trying to put the phone down and sometimes succeeding. I don’t know how many folks out there think about this, but I let it motivate and burden my every action.

I don’t want to take anything for granted.

It’s very rewarding to live this way, but I also recognize I need a breather. When my wife and son are safe and sound, I wallow. I muse on nothing. I take my time. This is a luxury for those of us pressed for time and a throwaway pleasure for those already in luxury. I wonder and wander as I imagine the stars beyond the ceiling of my unfinished basement and the ceilings of the living room and the bedrooms above. I remind myself there are constellations up there, always blinking.

Then I think of my grandfather. My Pa Valente, who played his violin but I forgot to ask him whereabouts. And then my heart fills with regret at not knowing enough about him, and worrying that I won’t be able to recognize his star in the sky, and I won’t know where to point when my son asks me where he is. That’s the kicker: trying to remember that which may fade away come morning. Maybe I’m just looking for one more chance to document something before it’s no longer here. As if my creativity will magically prolong special feelings and memories and messages to remain for just a moment more.

I’ve written my best stuff deep in the night. When you can feel winter creeping through the cracks in the door. In a quiet I’m not fearful of. When I was a kid and we lived in the duplex, I slept in the living room, and I stayed up late reading Stephen King, recording tracks, and scheming stories to capture on that bulky VHS camcorder in the closet under the stairs. This story might be quite common, but perhaps I’m looking to find that stillness once again. Maybe I had too many cups of coffee today. I don’t know.

Regardless of how I got to this point, it feels like I must write this out in the open because it’s okay to take a moment for yourself in the morning, midday or late at night. An ounce of time to get your act together, to ruminate and scheme. To find gratitude if you didn’t find it earlier that day, or to prepare for tomorrow. And sometimes, it’s even okay to hear the house breathin’ like a sad sack.

Happy Birthday, Pa Valente. Despite my worries, you are still here, keeping me company when I need it most.

j

P.S. For those of you riding the high of Valentine’s Day (I’ve been high on mine since 2006), here’s a little soundtrack for your troubles.

Five years.

An opportunity to transform blood, sweat, and tears into a new beginning.

It’s one in the morning on the first day of the new year. This time last year, we were in dire straits and I felt I put us there. Financially and emotionally: borderline S.O.L. It was all salvageable, but worrisome enough that even Mark Knopfler’s masterful picking wouldn’t cheer me up.

2018 was a year of possibility disguised as the scary unknown. When January rolled around, my wife and I had decided it would be best to phase out our videography business. Five years of doing one thing is heaven, if it’s the right thing. Five years is enough time to build habits, processes, and plans of attack. I wasn’t so much saddened by the decision to stop, but mostly concerned that our time had been spent heading down the wrong path for far too long. When you set out to do something, it needs to be something you believe in wholeheartedly. We committed to it for the long run because we thought we could make it a successful, long term career path and a viable future for our family. We believed in ourselves and that we had the resolve to carve a life on our own terms. After five years, we had our busiest year between weddings, recitals, and corporate videography. Regardless, we decided it was time to walk away.

I come from a family of freelancers, musicians, and hardworking women. My Apá is a musician and he, for a majority of his prime working years, was slave to festive seasons and touring schedules; always away, always at the mercy of la chamba. When we still lived in Mexico, my Amá hustled to keep us fed, clothed, and registered in the private Catholic school a few blocks from my Grandmother’s house. In memories besieged by the fog of time, I can still see her cutting hair in the early mornings of 1994 (while she worked her way through beauty school as well). I can see her cutting fruit outside my Ma Maria’s house, which was real busy in the middle of the day. She would sell fruit and shaved ice, as I meandered with the neighborhood mocosos, or the kid with the soccer ball, or sometimes with the older kids at the arcade down the street when I wanted to learn something unsavory about the world. When night came, my Amá moonlighted as a waitress for a brief time. The was a restaurant around the corner where they said two rats were possessed by the devil and danced to the sound of the Lambada. (We Mexicans tend to be specialists in hyperbole, so in reality, the occurrence might have been a less religious one and not-so cautionary toward the forbidden dance). Nonetheless, this is my lineage. We do not shy from work, but we could do better in the long term planning department.

5 years. 1825 days. 43800 hours. And so on.

Enough time to learn. Enough time to know if this was the right choice.

I was spending days and nights in the basement, in a tangle of wires and gear and makeshift solutions. Editing. Editing. And also editing. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I was growing exceedingly meticulous on my cutting. I would cut long form wedding films and my goal was to provide a timeless artifact of the day. I sacrificed turnaround time for a solid overview of the entire day. I was doing too much for too little, working myself into the ground when less would have sufficed. I should have committed more to my health and self-care instead of which angle to cut to during the ceremony. Which nose-picking bridesmaid to omit from the cut. What music to license for the highlight when I could have used the same music I licensed for the preparation montage. I would cut and slice my way around Premiere and cut myself up as well, under the impression I would dice my way out of normalcy. It’s never that easy, though. The plan wasn’t clear enough, the money wasn’t worth the strain on my family, and something about the business itself questioned and jostled at that trusty creative engine of mine until it cracked. I write this at the beginning of a new year, still feeling tired, and constantly thinking that I may not be good at creativity in any capacity at all. Running a business, even one of a freelancer in a forgotten area tucked away in the prairie, is a beautiful grind of investment in the form of sweat, tears, and among other things: time.

Working on the last wedding, I was trying so hard to get it done before Xmas!

Making meticulously crafted home movies for strangers cracked my head open, my creative brain fell and it broke on the floor before I could catch it. All the while, my wife and son marched on and did the dishes and drew pictures upstairs without me. I can afford to give my work all the sweat and tears and the spare gas in the tank, but not my family time.

In fact, when we set out to do this, My wife and I figured out a way to work part time jobs, run the business, and care for our baby boy without a babysitter or daycare. Five years of hard work, but somehow we managed to find time. There was always time. As the business picked up, that precious time faded and I knew the choice would come between my little erratic business, and my commitment to the light of my life: my wife and son. We couldn’t make it work anymore. I couldn’t make it work anymore.


7.23.16 The date of a lovely wedding my wife and I shot, and also: the day that changed my life. Stay tuned, I’ll be writing that story soon…

So in short, I knew exactly what to do when the time came to make a decision: Fuck this, I’m going to go get a 9-5, and when I come home during the week, I will play ball with my boy in the backyard, drink wine with my wife on the deck. And I will spend the weekends living and learning and making art because we make time for the things we truly love and can’t live without.

I will live the shit out of my life. I will stop surviving and start thriving. I will do the best I can with the time I have in this life I have chosen. I will change course without hesitation if it means my loved ones will be okay. Finally realizing this, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be okay now. Isn’t that what life is all about?

“Life is precious, every minute. And more precious with you in it.”

Charlie Kaufman

Moving forward, my nights will be spent dreaming, and my days will be spent making those dreams manifest. Perhaps it’s my fate to think this way, but as the child of immigrants, I feel I have a responsibility to those who came before me to never become complacent. My Amá and my Apá worked way too hard for me to get too comfortable. Life is too precious to to stay rigid. I tried to make something work that didn’t work for me. I was a square peg round-holing. However, don’t get me wrong: If the desire, ambition and adaptability is present, square pegs find their way into the round hole quite often. It’s just not for me. I’d rather find a square hole that completes my incessant need to make art on my own terms. Now it feels like I can actually start writing improbable and ludicrous stories about dancing rats…


December 22nd, 2018: The day I finished my last wedding. I stayed up all night and dropped the Blu-Rays in the mail that Saturday morning, during the Christmas rush. An incredible weight lifted off my shoulders.

With the help of our amazing family and friends, we were able to transition from small business owners into full time employment positions in just over 12 months. It was the hardest year of our lives, but quite possibly the best one so far.

However, I bring no bitterness with me into this new chapter of my life. The efforts of one family to prosper and thrive are never thwarted by the universe. It sucks to feel like you can’t cut it, like your best shot looked lackluster at the heels of a jaded audience. But if I have learned one thing in this entire ordeal, it is the undeniable truth that the love and genuine good you bring into this world, no matter what form it takes, will find its way back to you. Five years have not been wasted. As I look back, mistakes and difficult memories transform into a landscape of discovery in my rear-view mirror.

Oscar, our newest addition to the family from September, would stay up with me as I edited weddings into the crack of dawn. I guess camera bags are comfier than I thought!

So in actuality there’s not much to this journey: I shot and edited wedding films with care and sincere commitment for each of my couples and their families. In all honesty, I may wonder if it’s all been worth it. But a part of me tells me they will treasure their memories, and that they will share those moving images with their loved ones down the road. I gave those five years everything, not just behind the camera: Five years of love, commitment, and laughing at kid’s cartoons with my wife and son.

Those sleepless, dreamless nights of mine have their vindication after all.

So in an effort to continue this learning experience into 2019, I leave you with this mantra, in the words of the incomparable Jorge Drexler:

“Nada se pierde, todo se transforma.”

“Nothing is lost, everything transforms.”

Be well this coming year. May you find your path sooner than later, and let your happiness be driven by the love in your heart. You deserve it.

-j

Also, make art if you have time to spare! (We working class humans require reminders so we can get that done too). #makeartmakehaste

30 mph

There’s a stretch of road that leads to my neighborhood in a little town in Wyoming. As I drive through, I hear a refrain from my childhood.

The speed limit is 30 miles per hour, and nobody follows it. Most people find it a perfect opportunity to step on the gas to tempt the onlooking authorities to start issuing tickets. Between the big trucks coal-rolling and commuters eager to get home, the average speed limit becomes 40. Perhaps I’m an old soul, but I don’t like risking it: I keep my odometer at 29 hovering on 30 and that’s that! Yes, I’m likely that old sour grape you see behind the wheel as you blast the AC/DC or race to your early morning meetings. I don’t mean to generalize, I don’t know your life. Or maybe you’re okay following the rules and staying in your lane like me. I’ve driven this road plenty since we moved into our home nearly two years ago, and just recently it struck me that I’m not just annoyed by those who ignored the speed limit: I’m actually terrified of getting pulled over.

It’s a fear that takes over and rumbles below my heart and aches at the sight of a police officer. I know the authorities are just trying to do their job the best they can with what they have and they are not out to get me. I have not had an issue ever with a police officer, and I understand I don’t have it as bad as others. Nevertheless, there’s a fear that is built into my DNA and it reminds me not to get too comfortable, even when I’m in my own town. I’m still a brown kid who’s listening to his mother’s voice.

Growing up, this brown kid hardly experienced discrimination in the great Cowboy State. But I’m lucky. I’m conditioned to experience these peculiar moments of emotional recall sparingly. I’m privileged. I didn’t experience Wyoming like my Amá did at the restaurants and hotels. I didn’t get to hear what my Apá heard at the construction sites. I was and continue to be this fortunate thanks to their sacrifices, and I learned quite quickly that things worked differently for kids who spoke English real good.

Now, we didn’t turn our backs on our culture. My sisters and I were raised in a Mexican household in the Old West. Those thin duplex walls contained a safe haven of Latinidad filled with nightly novelas, carne con chile and a constant quest to strengthen and maintain our connection to Mexico. As you can imagine, this can be difficult to accomplish in Wyoming. We started our Wyoming story in 1996, before the internet was really a thing. Sure, we had our little Latino community that kept us afloat. I would overhear conversations between my parents and their friends after a heavy meal to celebrate the Day of the Virgen de Guadalupe, on the 12th of December. They would talk of how far the Apás would have to drive in the snow to get to the oil fields during the week, or how their parents are doing back in Chihuahua or Jalisco or Michoacán, or when was the last time they made the pilgrimage to see them again. We shared holidays and important events together, like a support group for transplants who took a wrong turn on the way home. This is part of my Latinidad, and the way I learned to be Mexican. 

Every now and then, they would speak of how someone got deported after an inconvenient traffic stop, and that if we don’t bring attention to ourselves, we would have nothing to fear. You’ll be fine, they all concluded, so long as you stay in your lane.

Don’t be afraid. Be prepared. The terminology of transplants.

My Amá would tell my older sister when she started driving, and repeated the same plea to her son when I started getting behind the wheel: “Todo con cuidado. There are things your friends can get away with that you may not be able to. Be careful.” I hear her voice loud and clear as I drive past the bridge and the speed limit drops to 30, and I sigh with the slight comfort that I have nothing to hide.

I drive the same stretch of road with my son now, and I wonder if he will feel the same way I do the day he gets behind the wheel. Will this apply to him? Or does that voice belong to the transplants?

-J.A.