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.