My Picks for Ric Flicks of 2019: Social Class, The Boss, and The Best of Plans

If you don’t know yet, I consider myself a cinephile. I love movies. I love escaping into a good story and letting the plot and characters guide me into their world. While it is easy to let viewers into familiar stories with plot lines that do not surprise, I prefer movies that lead into unexpected areas where I am caught off-guard, thrown off-balance, and left with sense of confusion and amazement once I leave the theatre. My preferred movies are not for the average movie goer. They require preparation by not knowing (in most cases) the plot, characters, and settings. The less I know, the better my experience. I love to go into a theatre with a sense of excitement and uncertainty with what the next two hours may hold.

These characteristics combine to create what my wife Angie calls, a “Ric Flick”. Ric Flicks are movies that usually are placed into the category of art-house movies, which is a shame. These movies are some of the best and demand a wider audience appreciation. They demand viewers to think, to not follow the expected story conclusions, and most importantly, to reflect on what was just presented on the screen. Nothing is more satisfying for me than discussing and sharing thoughts on a shared movie experience. Last year, I had the pleasure of viewing the movie “Roma” with my colleague and scholar-brother Paul Eaton. After viewing this beautiful film, I recall both of us immediately sharing deep reflections on the images, the story, and the gorgeous cinematography presented to us. It was a movie that did not leave us immediately. The story opened more doors of contemplation and analysis well after the final credits. I prefer like these – movies that challenge, movies that provide deep introspection, movies that do more than offer explosions and action. These are “Ric Flicks”.

Ric Flicks of 2019

The movies of 2019 did not disappoint. In fact, there are several movies that I’m sure will be on this list once I see them. In no particular order, the movies that I have NOT seen that would likely round out the two movies described on this post include:

  1. The Lighthouse
  2. Little Women
  3. Jojo Rabbit

I hope to see these movies before the end of the year and I’m sure they will be on my “best of” list for 2019. Viewing their trailers provide some taste of what each story brings to the viewer, which hint at their unique perspectives of the film’s characters.

While I did see a variety of movies, this post will describe two movies that I thought were fantastic movie watching experiences. They definitely fall into two spectrums of movie watching, but both share an uncanny sense of humor among the harshest of environments. While having characteristics of humor, each film dives into heady issues of racism, social class, stereotypes, and inequity in society. I think this is why these films are at the top of my list. Each film deals with these issues in unexpected ways. Whether it is through music or social satire, these movies provided viewers new perspectives on common issues facing all of us today.

These two movies I highly recommend!

Blinded by the Light

One of the unexpected surprises of 2019 was “Blinded by the Light”, an uplifting story of an English-born Pakistan teenager who discovers the music and wisdom of Bruce Springsteen.

Javed is an aspiring writer in high school who lives in the economically impoverished working class town of Luton, where unemployment, racism, and white nationalism coexist with dreams of a better life just beyond the city limits. Javed imagines life outside of his hometown. Luton is about 40 miles away from London. Javed is a dreamer and London represents an escape from strife he observes daily in Luton. The films begins with a young Javed sitting on top of a grassy hill with his friend Matt. Both look at the traffic on the freeway below leading drivers toward London. Each promise to one day make it out of Luton to chase their dreams in the big city. Fast forward to 1987 where Javed and Matt are now in high school still chasing their dreams. Matt dreams to be the next New Wave synth superstar (which by the way, the movie’s soundtrack includes some of my favorite English New Wave acts!) and Javed aspires to write. As high school students, their friendship has developed into one where both still believe they can make it out of Luton. At the same time, Javed becomes more keen at the discrimination and racism placed on his family living in working-class England. His family lives in a modest flat where his dad is unemployed and his mother keeps the family afloat as a launderer for the community. Javed’s father can be described as strong willed family man with strong pride for his family and culture, but stubborn to not see the discrimination apparent in his current living situation. Javed tries to keep his own dreams alive, yet he also realizes that his family and community is suffering due to the conservative Thatcher era policies.

Javed is at a crossroads on trying to understand where his life will take him and whether Luton is the place where he belongs for his aspirations to grow. His life path is further tested after he has a encounter with a skinhead who tells him “Pakis” do not belong in Luton. He is frustrated on his current life until one fateful lunch period, his Sikh classmate, Roops, tells him that “The Boss” understands their world. Javed questions Roops and his belief that the songs of Bruce Springsteen can help him navigate all of his life situations. Roops, determined to convince Javed, proceeds to loan Javed his cassettes (this is the 80s) of “Born in the USA” and “Born to Run”. Later that evening, Javed listens to the tapes on his Walkman and thus, begins his journey of self-discovery and cultural pride with the assistance of Bruce Springsteen.

What I loved about this movie was how the director, Gurinda Chadha, visualizes how Javed sees and interprets the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. His first listen of “Dancing in the Dark” is portrayed as a montage of seeing the lyrics of despair and desire circling Javed’s headphones and eventually spiraling into a literal whirlwind of thoughts and ideas that spin his writings out of his bedroom window. The director’s creativeness in portraying Javed’s enthusiasm in discovering that Roops was right and that Springsteen’s lyrics reflected his plight and challenges was brilliant to watch. Throughout the movie, the songs of Bruce Springsteen show up at pivotal moments of Javed’s personal development. Song lyrics are flashed on the side of buildings throughout Luton, lyrics follow Javed as he walks the streets, and lyrics appear larger than life in tunnels and walls following Javed. The director’s Indian movie culture of Bollywood appears also within the movie. One of these Bollywood touches can be found in the scene where Javed and Roops try to have their school radio station play Bruce Springsteen. The head DJ, who sees their music as not as hip as the current synth pop of that time, refuses to allow them to play Springsteen. What follows is a homage to both teen movies of the 80s and Bollywood joyfulness where dance and song break out spontaneously using “Born to Run” as the soundtrack:

To describe in detail what occurs throughout the movie would take away the joy and pain that the characters experience in the story. “Blinded by the Light” gave me pure joy on the power of music and a reminder that the injustices faced by immigrant communities in the 1980s still lives today worldwide. Music, however, knows no boundaries and the cross-cultural interactions between Javed and the music of Bruce Springsteen are the surprises that made this one of my favorite films of 2019. The movie also surprised me with life in working-class England during the late 1980s. The hardships that not only Javed’s family encounters, but also his childhood friend Matt and others in the film stand out in letting viewers understand why something like music allows them to continue to dream and to become resilient. Javed comes to own his Pakistani identity and working-class background. He realizes that Bruce Springsteen empowers him to fight back against those who not only share his musical passion, but also those who look to oppress him.

Upon viewing the film, I looked up the book upon which the movie is based on. The writer, Sarfraz Manzoor and his memoir Greetings from Bury Park is on my 2020 book read list. I found the movie to connect to my own experience as a Mexican American growing up in a similar working-class town and neighborhood – Euless, Texas. My preference to the 80s synth pop of the Pet Shop Boys, the Eurythmics, New Order, and Depeche Mode (to name a few) was largely due how the music spoke to those who were introverted and on the fringes of the preppie and materialistic youth culture of that time. I definitely did not match the “goth New Wave” image, but the music and lyrics of these groups spoke to me. I owned my Mexican identity, but I also owned my lonely, shy, somewhat reclusive self and my upbringing in an area of the suburbs that did not have the levels of income surrounding it. “Blinded by the Light” reminded me of my youth and personal development in the 80s. I highly recommend it to be reminded of the power of music and The Boss.

“Parasite”

Where to begin with my #1 pick for 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”? It’s an extremely dark comedy, it’s a biting commentary on social class and how we treat those at lower and upper levels of income, it’s a tragedy at the highest levels, and it’s confounding, providing one of the strangest “WTF” moments on film. I loved it and it is definitely a film that requires thinking and deep reflection after viewing:

The less I write about this movie, the better it is to not spoil any of the many surprises found in this brilliant film. The trailer gives the slightest of peeks on the many twists and turns found in this movie.

I found this movie to have three acts: the plan, the plan played out, and what happens when a plan vanishes? The idea of having a “well thought-out plan” is a theme found in the movie. Obviously, when you view the movie trailer, you can sense that the story involves how one family infiltrates another to find financial opportunities. Oh, that is just the tip of the iceberg! While that is a primary focus, the movie actually is a biting satire on how social class dictates the human psyche. Who are the victims in the movie? Those taking advantage of those more fortunate or those who take advantage of the labor and work of those in the lower rungs so that upper-class individuals can enjoy the comforts provided to them. When viewing the movie, you start to believe that the film portrays this theme vividly….then the rug gets pulled completely under you in the third act.

What the third act has will have you re-evaluating the entire storyline. However, the theme of social class still is apparent. The movie is titled “Parasite” and what you know about parasites from biology or other science courses is probably helpful in providing a symbolic interpretation of the movie. In some reviews and essays on the film, I read that parasites live off their hosts and there is a constant competition on who will get the most from the host when other parasites are found. Thus, the real question of this movie is who exactly is the “host”? One minor spoiler is that the house where the wealthy Park family lives is, in my opinion, a major character in the film. I will leave it at that and do know that the house, while splendid in its modern architecture, is a house filled with laughter, secrets, horror, and tragedy. In some way, houses across all social classes have these elements. How we deal with them as humans provides a real look at our humanity. Happiness can be found in a sub-basement apartment and terror can be found in a multimillion dollar mansion. “Parasite” reminds the viewer that just when a well thought out plan appears to be working, sometimes having no plan might be the best route to take. When you watch “Parasite”, I recommend going in with no plan and see how you come out after viewing.

In my Facebook post immediately after viewing the film, I have it a rare “two thumbs up and two toes up”, which means this was a definite “Ric Flick”. One that I will enjoy viewing again.

It was a good movie year and I know some good flicks will be coming in 2020. Some popular and “Ric Flicks” already on my radar include:

  1. 1917
  2. Color Out of Space
  3. Wonder Woman: 1984
  4. In the Heights

I’m looking forward to watching stories that take me to unexpected and surprising places.

Onward!

Social Class, Confidence & Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”

During the November midterm elections, much was made regarding a “migrant caravan”.  Numerous local, state, and national politicians (including our president) made much ado about the how these men, women, and children from Central America would bring a variety of societal ills to our country.  Conservative commentators raised fear and worry by claiming these individuals only mean to break the law and cause harm to innocent Americans.  A full month after the elections, the chaos and anarchy dreamed up by nationalist figures has yet to occur along our border. The president’s call for military presence was largely aimed to boost egos and win political races at the expense of service men and women. Today, the United States being seen as a beacon of hope and prosperity continues to be eroded. Tucker Carlson even eluded in his most recent rant that immigrants make America “dirtier” and “poorer”.  Central in all these debates is knowledge that Latina/o/x communities are the recipients of stereotypes, discrimination, hatred, fear, and blame.

Yet, for all these discussions on Latina/o/x immigrants, much of American society takes advantage of these individuals in our economic and social environments. In the comfortable surroundings of my middle-class neighborhood, I see how my neighbors depend on a mostly Latina/o labor force to care for lawns, housekeeping, and handiwork. Some would believe that Latina/o/x immigrants come into our country expecting a free ride or taking away benefits from others.  I do not see this when I look out my window to see these individuals working morning, noon, and night. Work is respected and earned.  The narrative that Latina/o/x immigrants bring harm, drugs, and gangs is, to use a favorite phrase since 2016, “fake news”.

Knowing how I feel about immigrant rights and trying to understand the root of how immigrants are perceived and treated are a few reasons why Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” was on my must-see list of holiday movies.  Cleo, the central focus of the movie, is one of the most emotionally realized characters put on film.  From what I read, Cuaron intentionally sought an actress with indigenous features to portray Cleo, who is modeled after the director’s beloved caretaker and nanny, Libo, who is mentioned at the very end of the film. Yalitza Aparicio, who was a pre-school teacher prior to acting in her first film, captures all the emotions beautifully her character Cleo faces.  The one fascinating aspect of Ms. Aparicio’s role is how she develops Cleo into a confident, proud, and respected figure during the course of one year, 1971.

Cleo is the epitome of many things that make us believe in true form of humanity, in my opinion.  Without giving away too much of the movie’s story, in the course of one year, she faces challenges and situations which would make normal individuals question their faith, trust in others, pride, society, and even nature itself.  Yet, Cleo remarkably overcomes each of these challenges with one thing she realizes come the end of that tumultuous year in Mexico – her confidence.

[A few minor spoilers ahead!] One of the things I love about Alfonso Cuaron’s movies is his use of subtle symbolism and visuals.  “Roma” is filled with these cues, which makes me want to watch the film one, two, three more times.  One interesting visual that caught my attention is the frequent appearance of an airplane in flight.  I took this visual as Cuaron’s way of letting us know Cleo’s mindset at that moment.  Is the plane landing?  Is the plane leaving?  In some scenes, especially the beautiful opening when a precise shot of the plane is reflected off a puddle of water, the plane foretells a significant event in Cleo’s life.  After viewing, I interpreted the plane as Cleo’s life path that maybe she’s considering.  Maybe she wants to leave the life of a live-in servant to a middle-class family to escape to another place.  Maybe she could see a peaceful (yet dusty and blurry) future with someone who doesn’t really love her back.  In the end, I loved how Cuaron uses this subtle visual to add to Cleo’s story. 

Cuaron again uses a baby to help his characters and the viewers understand the delicacy of humankind.  Again, new life in the world as viewed by Cuaron is tested in ways that is gut-wretching, yet hopeful.  As in this powerful scene from his dystopian vision of the future in Great Britain, “Children of Men”:

New life in the world is tested on day one.  In “Roma”, Cleo emerges from this challenge with a mixture of doubt and sadness on how fate questions her connection to humanity.  Yalitza Aparacio deserves an Oscar nomination just for the facial expressions she was able to produce in this portion of the movie.  Some actresses grandstand their pivotal scenes with shouts and emotional overkill.  Here, Yalitza (Cleo) connects with the viewer with what she doesn’t say and what she finds difficult to express.  It is a powerhouse of a performance. 

One of the most remarkable scenes in “Roma” is the re-enactment of the Corpus Christi Thursday Massacre.  Viewed from the window of a furniture store, the chaos and terror is capture in one unexpected moment of violence.  Again, Cuaron digs into his memory of this sad part of Mexican history which likely impacted his life.  Researching this event in the movie, I found the following explaining the chaos visualized in the film and the connection Cleo personally has to this horrific event:

https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/Mexico-Marks-1971-Halconazo-Student-Massacre-with-Protest-20160610-0027.html

What “Roma” captures with Cleo is her development into someone who always had tremendous confidence and strength, even among all the personal and natural disasters that came her way.  Which is the reason I loved this movie.  Without giving to much away, the director beautifully symbolizes her rise in respect and honor among the family members she cares for in Mexico City (plane visual included). After viewing, I equated this confidence with reasons why fear and distrust is placed among today’s immigrant population.  Those who see immigrants as making the United States “dirtier” are far from the truth.  For those we label as immigrants – or shall we say humans – they truly are beautiful, and they realize that.  People like Cleo and her best friend are part of one strong community others do not fully understand (or choose not to).  They support each other and when all hell breaks loose, they are resolute in their recovery.  Respect and honor is not something that is given, it is earned through tireless effort and diligence.   Individuals in Cleo’s world are treated with innocence, understanding, and most importantly love.  When not reciprocated, the idea that deep down people are still good keeps life going. All of these qualities and more make those individuals who lack this in their daily lives jealous. For them, gone is compassion, instead replaced by hatred. A life of privilege is a life that is unfulfilled. Unlike Cleo, you do not face challenges that test you.  Avoiding these on your own choosing makes you vulnerable to the stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination that creates an easy, yet desolate, path of living life.  In the end, Cleo continues living life on her own terms, with the knowledge that she will only get stronger at each passing year.

“Roma” for me will be a movie that I can say impacted me for years to come. Film is art that I cherish and while some movies I view are lovingly called “Ric Flicks”, they embody what I want cinema to create – emotional reaction, character connection, and visual immersion. “Roma” had all of these and more.  Yes, you can say I give this film 5 stars (out of four)!   It does not have scenes that end in 1-minute, it is purposely slow paced, and interestingly does not have a musical soundtrack, just natural noise from the surroundings.  If you want a movie that will make you believe in the true beauty of understanding who you are in this chaotic world, I urge you to see “Roma”.

Onward.  

“He is.”

Paul Thomas Anderson & The Thrill of the Unexpected

While waiting in line to buy my ticket to see “Phantom Thread”, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, I could not avoid eavesdropping on the conversation of two well-dressed women who were waiting to buy tickets for the same movie.  One was very eager to see the movie.  The other interestingly was more focused on talking about the Catholic Mass they just came from.   The one excited about the film was worried that they would be late for the show since we had about 10 minutes to get tickets before showtime.  When someone asked what movie they were going to see, the excited woman said “Phantom Thread, the movie about dresses and a dressmaker!”

I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of the movie mentioned above.  I purposely did not read too much about the movie Phantom Thread since I wanted to go in to be surprised and ready for the unexpected. Fans of the director PT Anderson know that his films easily divide audiences.  The main reason for these divisions is that his films tend to go into unexpected and sometimes outrageous directions. 

While his last movies have been historic drama pieces, they all have gone into storylines and plots that throw viewers off balance, scratching their heads to say “WTF!?”  The thrill of his movies is not necessarily the complex stories and meticulous set pieces, its the surprises that he throws at viewers to challenge them on re-thinking what cinema is and isn’t.

Before you read further, I will add a spoiler note in that I will describe some of my favorite “WTF!” moments of PT Anderson’s movies.  If you want to stay surprised and enjoy the unexpected, then I advise you stop reading this blog right now!  If you already have seen the director’s repertoire, then you will not be surprised.  If you are curious, then by all means read on!

My fascination with this director started when I viewed the movie “Boogie Nights.”  The audacity to make a 2.5 hour film about the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s obviously would challenge anyone who entered the theater.  For me, the refreshing surprise was that the film wasn’t about the industry, but rather it was a film about lonely individuals looking for family and how family can be define for those whose real families fail to love, support, or care for others.  In viewing the film, the unexpected moment comes in a shocking and graphic suicide of character Little Bill, played by William H. Macy.

Little Bill was the cameraman of porn director Jack Horner. Little Bill was the tortured soul in the “family” created by Jack Horner.  While being oblivious to the acts he filmed, he couldn’t shake off the same acts that was used by his wife to belittle him.  PT Anderson challenged the viewer to react to how Little Bill faced his “family” problem.  The director brilliantly followed Little Bill through the house as he reacted to the demons impacting him. While the house party was welcoming the new decade of the 1980s, Little Bill, after performing an act of violence that is implied, goes into a living room while others are partying and laughing at him.  Here, he smiles directly at the camera and pulls out a gun and shoots himself where immediately, “80s” flashes on the screen.  Due to the graphic nature of the scene, I will not share it in this space, but do a YouTube search on “Boogie Nights Little Bill”, the scene will likely show up.  It’s a stunner.

One of my favorite movies to this day is “Punch-Drunk Love”,  a strange and sweet love story about a man with anger issues and a plan to fly anywhere in the world courtesy of a pudding promotion.  If you never seen this movie, you are likely saying “what?”  This movie is full of PT Anderson’s tricks, leading viewers on a strange trip through one man’s quest to find love.  One can dissect the opening scene alone for ages to find out its meaning. In this film, the unexpected moment for me was when love is reached for the character Barry.  Once it is, the director stages one of the most beautifully filmed first kiss scenes in cinema.

One of favorite movies of all time is “Magnolia”.  Much has been written about the movie’s infamous “it’s raining frogs” scene.  This alone would create the biggest “WTF!” moment.  However for me, PT Anderson’s best unexpected twist is actually constructing a film where plots and characters are all connected by Aimee Mann songs.

I had the terrific opportunity to attend an Aimee Mann concert recently and I was beyond thrilled that she sang three songs from the Magnolia soundtrack.  The movie was widely discussed on how audiences felt about two pivotal scenes.  First, the raining frogs and second, the characters who sing Ms. Mann’s song “Wise Up”.  When I first viewed the movie (I saw it 3 times at the theater), audiences walked out mostly on the Aimee Mann scene.  Again, PT Anderson threw an expected twist on the movie experience, once again challenging what we expect when we see a drama.  For me, it’s one of the most beautiful depictions of lonely people who are, in fact, not alone.

So, it was no surprise that today’s viewing of “Phantom Thread” did not disappoint…at least for me.  I will not give away any scenes other than the movie, like all PT Anderson movies, takes viewers on an interesting ride which if audiences pay attention, will provide a turn that will likely make a few go “WTF!”

Back to my friends who were excited to see the movie.  When I was leaving the theater I walked past them.  While they were still planted in their seats, I did overhear the one most excited telling her friend, “What was that?”  I just laughed when I heard that comment.  In my head, I said “A PT Anderson picture.”   We were all taken for a ride.  Yes, it was about dresses.  Yes, it was about a dress maker.  And yes, it was about……well, you just have to go see it yourself.

Onward.

This is U.S./HOME (end of year reflection)

Yesterday, my wife and I went to the museum to view an exhibition of the creative genius that was Oscar De La Renta.  I am not much into high fashion, I never quite understood the idea of some things that are considered “in style”.  However, I found the exhibit we attended quite amazing and educational!  Much of Mr. De La Renta’s work paid close attention to not how a woman looks like in his dresses, but how a woman *feels* when they put on one of his creations.  According to the audio narration that accompanied the exhibit, De La Renta wanted women to feel comfortable in his tailored clothing and many pieces were described as actually being light and airy with no bulk and heaviness to burden those that wore his works.  Mr. De La Renta was described as someone who valued women and whatever role they were in when they wore his dresses.  Many of the pieces on display were noted for who wore them – celebrities, political figures, art patrons, and socialites.  One piece in particular stuck out for me, not for the designer but for how the person viewed Mr. De La Renta.  One outfit was described by a Houston socialite who apparently had a close relationship with the designer.  The socialite is a big name in Houston society.  However, something she said in her narrative struck me as odd.

While describing the greatness of De La Renta, the socialite had to add in her story that he was “quite the Latin charmer” which was followed by a burst of laughter.  Ah yes, the Latin lover image where respect and attention to women by Latino men is equated to the “latin lover” charmer caricature.  After all I heard throughout the exhibit on how De La Renta, a gentleman of Dominican Republic descent,  respected the women who wore his dresses, the statement which came in the last space in the exhibit had to be made.  I know that I might be a bit sensitive to the comment but I was truly impressed by the works on this Latino genius in the fashion world.  In a way, my thoughts of how others really come to respect and honor this man kind of got diminished in that others listening to the narration might have a little giggle and be put back into the world of how Latino men are viewed.  I was disappointed to leave the exhibit with this thought.

It reminded me that this is the U.S. , where we are often surrounded by casual reminders that diverse groups have their “place”, or at least their perceptions that others hold.  Despite that subtle reminder in the exhibit, we continued on into the museum.  Thanks to one of my close friends, we were recommended to check out another exhibition titled “HOME”, where several contemporary Latinx artists created pieces of art depicting their views of “home”.  It was another great exhibit.  One piece in particular hit me emotionally in its subtle message of what home is for many Latinx individuals.  The piece was a series of paintings by the San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez.

The art was titled “Excerpts for John”, a friend of the artist who suffered from PTSD and unfortunately committed suicide.  The artist powerfully depicted his friend returning home in an imagined series of paintings where his friend’s flag-drapped casket is being led away from the military cemetery where he’s buried to return to his home, a simple one-story wooden house that looked almost like my Grandma Inez’ house.  The procession with full military honor guard goes through what looks like the barrio.  The image where the casket passes the supermarket got me for some reason.  I think it was because that market is something most Mexican Americans in Texas have seen and visited, especially during the holidays.  Who hasn’t gone with their parents to buy ingredients for tamales, menudo, and if you’re lucky, some pan dulce to eat on the way home?  The artists’ ability to capture that moment at least for this patron was amazing.  To see the painting end with his friend returning “home” with his casket now facing the front porch was beautiful and sad.  I would recommend that you visit the artist’s section of his website to view this great piece of Texas art  http://www.vincentvaldezart.com/work/excerpts-for-john/1

How we view “home” in the U.S. gets taken for granted, I think.  I’ve always seen myself as extremely fortunate that I still get to visit my Mom in the house where I grew up.  I can also say that in my lifetime, my parent’s never moved from that same house.  The neighborhood that I visit is still the same neighborhood I rode my bike and walked to elementary school.  I think that is special.  For me, “home” is more than a structure, it is a space where I know I feel at ease, where I feel connection, and most importantly, I feel some sense of identity.  Home with all its comforts also provides challenges.  In my home space, I encountered racism and discrimination at an early age.  I was called “beaner” “wetback” and other terms despite being born in that space.  I was bullied for being just me: a chubby Mexican American kid who was dealing with other challenges personally.  Sure, I had friends but I also had individuals who made life miserable for me.  It was rough, but despite that, my home is what it is and I learned a great deal from these experiences.

Back at the museum, I was given another reminder of having a home here in the U.S.  As a Mexican American who lives proudly in Texas and loves his cultural heritage and identity, I found my introspective self continuing to analyze the surroundings at the museum.  In a large gallery, I noticed there was a huge installation with a video projected onto the wall.  I’ll confess, I didn’t make my way down to the gallery to learn more about the piece of art, but what I did see was the videos had pictures of monuments marking the southern border of the U.S.  Various images showed how these monuments are represented in marking the border.  From my vantage point, I saw something different.  With the “Latin charmer” comment on Oscar De La Renta made by the Houston socialite, to the imagined homecoming of a soldier friend through a San Antonio barrio, to my own reflections of what “home” meant for me, I saw the art installation in the gallery below of representing the U.S. – where home can be an interesting conflict of success, barriers, sadness, beauty, stereotyping, and respect.

I looked down at the people below me and wondered, do they really understand the message the art is expressing?  For many, a border (and not just a physical geographical one) is a daily part of life.  Living in the U.S. is a challenging one, yet it is also one that provides many rewards and opportunities.  I have found balance in living in this country.  However, the balance can be a bit tricky to keep centered but still I find ways to keep it where I would like it to be and to adjust when possible.  It requires thought and like the like the pieces of art I viewed, interaction.  The Latinx artistic minds I saw yesterday gave me a much needed opportunity to reflect on this important fact.

Today is the last day of 2017.  This year was odd.  Yes, Houston had its challenges and personally, I had mine.  Despite this, another year awaits and what is ahead is yet to be seen.   I think this fueled my intense thinking at the museum.  I want to continue to be a curious, introspective mind and be the observant person I’ve always been.  2018 will hold good changes, I feel it.

I am surrounded by a great deal of love.  Blah! Sappy statement, I know, but a recent Facebook posting about my Zodiac forecast (I’m a Cancer) told me to just let love rule.  I’m going to take more care of myself (physically and mentally) and I’m going to remind myself of those who support me in all my endeavors.  Reflecting on the past year, I have made a great deal of great friends.  I know some that will be lifelong friends and that is amazing when you think about it.  I hope to return all the good that those folx provide to me and to help them in their goals as well.  Of course, I cannot forget my family and loved ones.  These individuals are my reason for being.  In 2018, I will make sure to let them know how much they mean to me.  2018 will be a good year.  Why? Because I am home

Onward. 

Reference:

http://www.vincentvaldezart.com/

Haircut Elegy

Every two weeks, I get my haircut.  Every two weeks, I pop into a hair salon located in between a blue-collar sports bar and a shady looking tattoo parlor.  The salon isn’t by any means fancy, it’s functional and for $7, men can get a nice trim and fade. For twelve years since moving back to Texas, it has been a regular part of my monthly routine.  If I do my calculations right, I have accumulated almost 300 haircuts since moving into this part of Houston.  For most of these haircuts, one person has cut my hair.  His name is Tim (or as the ladies in the salon call him, “Timmy”).

Today, I popped in for my bi-weekly trim and fade.  For the past two months, my trips to get my haircut has been met with a bit of anxiety.

For most of my visits, Tim will usually get up from his station and immediately got his chair ready for me.  Since he has been cutting my hair for 12 years, I feel like I get some kind of V.I.P. treatment.  Tim usually allows me to “cut” in line whenever there is a wait for a stylist (he only did that for his regulars).  When he cut my hair, he always would ask how my family was doing.  He wanted to make sure that since my last visit, all was doing okay and well on my end.  I would in return ask how he was doing.  I would always hear about how busy or not the shop has been and during some weeks in the year, he will inform me on his next trip.  Over the many years he cut my hair, I’ve heard in extensive details his trips to Vietnam, Amsterdam, London, Cozumel, Hawaii, and most recently Cancun.  In fact, his last trip just occurred right before my haircut at the start of October.  At that visit, I heard how him and his wife just sat on the beach and drank tropical drinks.  I was always jealous to hear about his trips and flights.  For a barber, he did much more traveling in states and abroad than this professor!

Flashback to my visit in mid-October.  When I went in for my cut then,  I walked in and noticed Tim wasn’t at his station.  I asked the ladies when Tim would return.  Immediately, they had a look that something wasn’t right.  The stylist that works across to Tim told me that Tim was sick.  I replied that I could wait another day.  She then said for me to come over and sit.  I knew then that they had something to tell me.  Once I sat, she said that she would cut my hair and let me know more about Tim.  Then, she told me that Tim was diagnosed earlier that week with Stage IV brain cancer.  I was shocked.  He just cut my hair that month and he appear all fine.  She told me that soon after that cut, he started experiencing symptoms at work.  Notably, one day he froze up and told the ladies that he couldn’t move his arm.  They knew something wasn’t right.

Today, I found out that my barber of 12 years was pulled off life support.  Cindy, the stylist who first broke the news to me said and her and the other stylists went to the hospital this morning to say their goodbyes to their co-worker.  I asked how long Tim has been at his cutting station and she told me that he has been working there for 15 years.  Imagine, that many years at the same spot and the same location seeing most of the same people.  Cindy said that he’s with his family but that Tim likely would not make it past the weekend.  I told her that I would pray for his family and that I was truly sorry at the eventual passing of their colleague and friend.  My haircut was done.

Why did I just write four paragraphs about a barber who gave $7 haircuts?  While I never truly broke bread with this individual or even saw him outside of his work environment, I felt nothing but empathy for his fellow stylists in the salon and I felt like I was losing a good friend.  When I left after getting my haircut, I reflected that Tim, while only seeing me only 2 times a month, truly took care of how I looked and for the few minutes I was in his chair, how I felt.  Our conversations about his trips, my work, and even whispering what the other Vietnamese ladies were gossiping about in the shop, made me know that I held a good relationship with him.  I didn’t even have to let him know what I needed for my cut.  I just walked in, sat down, and off he went to make me look professional.  Last year, I jokingly walked in and sat on his chair and said, “Tim, I’m running a race this weekend and I feel like a Mohawk today.”  He looked at me and told me, “Mr. Ric, you know if you ask me for a Mohawk, I’ll give you a Mohawk.”  I told him I was joking and he immediately told me that he would do whatever I wished.  If I did, he would make it the best Mohawk that would look good on me.  He was serious when he said that and I felt somewhat bad that I made that joke.  Over the years, he would suggest a new cut or trim for me.  Just recently, he started to get really fancy on me and started to use his razor scissors.  He said he only used them for regulars whose hair he knows.  I know nothing of scissor but when he used them, I always freaked out a little since I would see big globs of hair fall into my lap.  Despite this, I trusted him.

I feel that when you develop a trusting relationship with a barber, it is somewhat like what our college students experience when they establish a trusting relationship with and advisor, counselor, or any other student affairs professional.  Mahoney (2009) mentions the importance of including “relational” competencies as part of career advising work.  Under this area, things like appreciating the individual, compassion, and just knowing that you are present and reliable helps students get services that are seen as having impact.  Another important aspect of any advising relationship is establishing trust.  Trust doesn’t occur after one visit.  You have to work hard to create it.  Not everyone will establish trust you and that is okay.  However, there are those who will look for you to help them with an urgent need or issue.  In higher education work, I have seen this many times in my administrative and faculty work.  Students express this trust in coming into my office to vent, to cry, or to celebrate.  Students will email me to disclose an urgent matter and see if I am available to discuss.  Students will even text me sometimes to let me know they are in town or interested in having lunch or happy hour.  They just want to reconnect or stay connected.  These outcomes only occur when you have a trusting relationship.  A relationship that likely lasts well after college.

Returning back to Tim, my barber.  Now that I know he will no longer cut my hair like he has for 12 years, I now have to seek out someone who I can trust with my hair.  I know that sounds silly, but think about it.  You likely rely on someone or some product with that part of yourself (even if you have no hair, you likely shop around for the best moisterizer or facial hair product).  For me, most importantly I have to find someone who will take the time to find out how my family is doing, someone to ask me how my last running event went, a person who will celebrate with me any good news from work or home.  See, my haircut is much more than that, it is a relationship that makes me feel like I matter and makes me know that someone beyond work and home shows care for me.

Tim did exactly that for 12 years.  I’ll miss my barber.

Today, Cindy I feel has taken the role of my new stylist.  In addition to our sad talk, she did discuss with me how she’s envious that I’m going to a holiday work party tonight and several more next week.  She also asked if I was cold in her spot since the A/C was on full blast and she herself complained that it was cold.  She told me also that Tim’s regular customers will be notified once he passes.  I feel like she’s going to get my trust.  Oh, my new haircut looks good as well.

Farewell Tim.  This post is dedicated to you.

Onward.

Reference:

Mahoney, E. (2009).  Career advising competencies.  In K. Hughey and Associates The Handbook of Career Advising (p. 48-67).  Jossey-Bass.

Commitment

Today I ran a 10 mile race.  I don’t mean to sound like I am an Olympic caliber athlete, but 10 miles doesn’t really scare me.  It’s a distance that for me is just beyond a daily run, but nothing out of the ordinary.  That is until today.   Fall in Texas can be misleading.  While others up north are likely seeing the first signs of the fall season, here in Texas the seasons can play mind tricks on you.  Which comes back to today’s race.  This race has become part of my fall series of races I run.  Today, it felt like I was running in July!

You know you are in for a hard race when at 6am in the morning, your glasses fog up, there is no breeze to be felt, and a thin layer of fog is just a hovering above ground.  Even the streets were wet and a bit slippery, despite no signs of rain the night before.  This is Texas.  And this is why I stay committed to fitness.

As the race gun shot at 7am sharp, I was already dripping in sweat.  I thought the pace of my stride will cool me down a bit.  Instead, it made it feel worse.  The sweat had nowhere to go.  Instead of evaporating to create a bit of coolness, it just weighted my race singlet down and by mile 2, I already looked like I ran half the miles.

I hate running in the humidity.  It is miserable.  When you run in the humidity, it slows down your pace, you need to hydrate more, and with no breeze, there is just nothing to cool you down or to help wick the sweat away.  Here in Houston, it’s like running in a sauna….at 7am!

Why do I do it?  After mile 6, I kept asking myself that question.  Why?  On a stretch of the course which looked like it went on into infinity (that is another thing about Houston.  It’s flat.  You can see 3-4 miles down a straightaway), I really thought if I was going to finish.  In order to not doubt myself in completing the race, I had to stop and just walk.

Walking I found has become an important part of my running technique.  It seems odd that to improve my running pace and distance, I need to stop and walk.  Real runners don’t stop, right?  Do you see walkers during the Olympic Marathon?  Do elite runners stop to walk because it’s too hot?  I found for regular runners like myself, it is okay to stop and walk a few minutes.  That is what you need to re-energize and to re-evaluate.

By mile 8 in today’s race, I felt like the finish was possible.  By that time in the race, the sun was out, the sky was clear, and the humidity was now replaced by a moist heat.  Oh, there was no shade in sight.  While only two miles was left, it was a long two miles.  That’s when I decided to put my phone on Spotify (oh, to top everything off, my Bluetooth headphones decided to run out of juice early despite an all-night charge) and to blare my music through my phone’s speakers.

As I past several runners, they could hear my Depeche Mode tune keeping my pace.  As I continued on, I mentioned to a woman I passed that yes, “everybody’s going to Wang Chung tonight!”  As I passed another runner, Missing Persons both caught our attention.  Even when I passed the group of motorcycle officers on the final turn, I turned up the volume on New Order’s “Blue Monday”, which one officer said “Yes!”

All of these strategies and techniques aren’t part of a training plan or exercise regiment.  It is the mental part of running.  For some, this is the forgotten part of running training.  You can get to your best pace, know the best hydration to use, and have the expensive shoes, but if you don’t pay attention to how you will keep you commitment to complete a race with complete satisfaction, then you are not becoming the best runner you can be.

Commitment keeps the doubts away.  Commitment has the terrific outcome of building confidence.  Commitment keeps the negative doubts away and reminds you that you did you best and that is good enough.  Commitment also keeps you committed outside of running.  I have found that committing to my running goals also makes me committed to other things in my life – work, teaching, writing, house tasks, and other things.

Commitment is tested as a runner.  As a runner, commitment is equally important to physical strength.

I may not have the athletic build as J.J. Watt (who does, honestly? LOL), but I have the committed mindset that makes him one of the best out there.

That makes me feel pretty damn good.  Oh, my race today?  I finished in 1 hour, 54 minutes.  My goal was to finish in under two hours.  So I achieved my goal.  I walked several times, I looked liked a crazy runner singing along to my New Wave tunes, and I looked miserable in my sweat-soaked shorts, shirt, and cap.

But I stayed committed and finished my race.  Can you say that you ran 10 miles in 90-degree weather and humidity?  Well, commit yourself that you can…and I’ll sweat alongside you.

Onward!

Saying goodbye.

I am 49 years old and I have never had to say “goodbye” to a close friend.  That is until yesterday.

Sunday was a National Day of Prayer and in my own private way, I paid attention to the meaning of the day and went to Mass.  I said prayers of thanks for our safety after tropical storm Harvey and thanks for the family and friends who checked in on us throughout the storm.  Deep inside my mind, I was always worried about a friend who was in dire need of prayers of healing.  The night before on Facebook, a message from his wife asked for such because her husband, my friend, was dealing with a serious medical crisis.

On Sunday afternoon, as I was about to do some work for my online courses, one of my colleagues texted me.  “Erik has passed away.”

I didn’t know how to react.  I was in shock and one of my first reactions was to call my colleague who texted me.  I guess I did it to just get an answer that the text truly was real.  I also checked Facebook to see the news.  Unfortunately, it was real.

I really didn’t express my emotions until I saw my wife.  Once I saw her, I broke down in tears.  My friend was gone.

Erik M. Colon was truly a one in a million.  His demeanor was all about caring for others.  He was like a big teddy bear.  Even the most macho of men would just break into a smile after meeting Erik.  He was a big guy with a bigger heart.  I was always amazed at how he could immediately make friends with total strangers.  I was even more amazed on how great of a salsa dancer he was.  I was jealous.  He knew all the moves and could break into a rhythm in a quick minute.  Like I said, the guy was truly amazing.

Most importantly, Erik M. Colon was an educator.  He was an advocate.  He was a fighter.  He was a loving husband to his wife Ivy.  He was a devoted father to his daughter Adrienne.  He was a surrogate big brother, uncle, dad, whatever to the ACPA Latinx Network.  He was a student affairs administrator.  He was a educator.  He was an advocate for college access for all.  He was a supporter of first-generation college students.  He was a professional throughout his career.

He was a loyal friend.

I will miss my “mijo” Erik.  Despite him not being on this living Earth, I know he will always be remembered in our little big family within the ACPA Latinx Network.  We will likely cry at our next meeting, but we will also laugh and likely we will also salsa dance.  Erik would like that.  We’ll make sure that will happen.

And when it does, we’ll wear our fedoras.

Onward.

Harvey, you can leave now.

Picture taken 12:30am Saturday during first day of heavy rain. Captured during a flash of lightning. Clear Lake received 20+ inches that evening.

As I write this, yet another band of heavy rain is hitting the Clear Lake City area of Houston.  Harvey has been a storm of historic portions.  It will likely go down in the history books as one of the costliest and most damaging storms ever recorded.  Knowing that I lived through it along with millions of other Houstonians is both sobering and fascinating.  Sobering in knowing that just 3-4 miles north of where I live, families are still being rescued via boats from houses with feet, not inches, of water inside of them.  Fascinating in that the boats are largely owned by everyday citizens who came to help their neighbors.

In my previous post, I wrote about the “human goodness” that shows when disasters strike.  I made the argument why does it only have to show up during catastrophic events like Harvey?  I do hope that the goodness continues.  Houstonians and Texans step up to help their fellow Texans.  I would say this is very true.  Today, there was an nice short story about a huge earth mover truck being used to load people from one flooded neighborhood.  The news showed the truck just as it was about to unload.  Once it did, you saw families who were diverse.  Those helping unload the truck were officers from another area than the one the rescue was occurring.  When the reporter asked if the driver would  be interested in being interviewed, one of the responders said that he  didn’t speak English.  This image to me was a microcosm of Houston, one of the most diverse cities in the nation.

We will have days, weeks, months, and dare I say, years to recover.  Houston has a lot to fix, but we will bounce back.  As awful as the past few days have been, Houstonians have shared experience that no one has experienced.  On top of this, the experience was mostly shared on social media.  If you were in the middle of the storm like I was during the first night, text messages and things like Facebook was your connection to know what was happening and for others to make sure all was okay (or not).  For those outside of Houston, you share our pain.  You cried when you saw senior citizens and young children emerge from the floodwaters.  You even got the “feels” when you saw examples of humans helping humans (my favorite was the person who shared her large porch to individuals being unloaded from rescue boats, which soon became a mini-community center that included cookies and coffee!).  Houston, I hope, will be remembered for what a large urban city can be – a diverse, helpful, caring community of neighbors.

Our new sense of shared community will be tested once this is over.  Hurricane Ike in 2008 gave a preview of this idea.  Years after, I believe that some positive impact was made on Houston. Living here after, I feel that I know my neighbors better and as Harvey showed, we stepped up to the plate quickly when someone said, “please help”.  Positive change was seen and I personally think those that remembered and lived through Ike knew that it was time to take care of this great place we call Houston.

If you read to the end of this post, I would like you to consider donating to the fundraising effort by Houston Texan player J.J. Watt.  I’m a big fan of J.J. , not just for his awesome gift to take down a quarterback, but for his genuine love for the city of Houston.  If you are not from the area, you likely do not know all the extra community service he does off-season.  He’s a good guy with a big heart.  You can read about his fundraiser by going to YouCaring.com/JJWatt 

Goodness needs to keep going.  Again, as I type this more rain is falling.  We don’t need more rain.  As one of my college friends stated earlier today, “I used to like the sound of falling rain.”

I agree.  Falling rain will forever make millions of Houstonians sad, scared, and wondering what will be next.

Only answer I can think of is onward.

Now more than ever.

Human Goodness is Here: A Quick Reflection from Hurricane Harvey

Every Saturday morning since July, I have a regular routine of waking up  before 6am. While most folks will see this as an ungodly hour to wake up on a Saturday, most runners see it as a start of the day where you know you will be challenged by your weekly scheduled long run.  One of the things I enjoy about doing a long run (and I truly mean this) with my running club is the post-run camaraderie and support received after pushing yourself physically and mentally in completing a goal.  For most, it isn’t necessarily the miles completed I assume, but the sense that you are surrounded by others who validate your weekly accomplishment and encourage to keep going into the next week.  As runners we are there to keep the motivation going and to let others know that no matter what pace or distance, you are valued among the club.

This morning my scheduled Saturday long run with Bay Area Fit was cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey.  While at the current time as I’m writing this we haven’t encountered hurricane winds like our neighbors to the south of us, we have received a good amount of rain that continues to fall, torrential rain at times.  My usual Saturday feeling of accomplishment has been postponed until next week hopefully.  Despite missing my run for obviously good reasons, I noticed something made me reflect on human nature, especially when we notice when others are challenged and facing a difficult event.

On Friday evening, Hurricane Harvey was making landfall in Rockport, Texas, as a Category 4 storm around 9:45pm.  About an hour or so before landfall, a remarkable thing occurred that made me take notice.  Friends from all around the U.S. were checking in making sure my wife and I were doing well.  In this age of social media, you clearly get a sense of the care and concern of friends and family from around the globe.  On Facebook, a good number of folx responded to my (sometimes silly) weather updates.  Once the storm made landfall, this is where I started to notice that the connections started transitioning from quick “likes” on Facebook and Instagram into more personal text messages asking for status updates and responses.  At one moment of time, the text messages were coming in at a pace which made me feel like what I feel at the end of my Saturday morning long runs with my club.

Storms & Human Nature

My “brother from another mother” and best friend from Indiana University was one individual who texted to make sure we were well.  When I read his text, I noticed that he sent it around 1am his time on the East Coast.  Early this morning  I responded back to let him know that all was okay.  Almost immediately, he responded back in his usual sarcastic tone (it’s our way of preferred communication, which makes us great friends!).  After a few back and forths, he could sense that we were fine.  In my last text message, I told him that I really appreciated the time  he took to check in on us.

When natural disasters hit, my eternal optimistic self believes that human nature and goodness can arise.  Think about it, we all have it.  As a person who tries to see everyone as basically good, with some going beyond than minimal levels, I feel that when we as a community are challenged, we pull each other through as one community.  If you do not otherwise, then in my opinion, you are consciously blocking the human goodness that you have.

My running club is a good example of positive goodness.  Members of the club come from all walks of life.  We are a very diverse group in many ways from what I observe.  When Saturday early morning comes, we support each other as runners facing a weekly challenge.  We encourage each other and during the actual run, we wave or say “looking good!” to each other.  Afterwards, we high-five, fist-bump, and say “good run!” as we  do our cool down.  One thing has us connected and that is we completed our scheduled miles and crossed the finish line.  Training helps but I firmly believe that the main purpose of my running club has a mental aspect – to provide a sense of belonging into a community.

Storms like Hurricane Harvey thankfully do not occur often but once they do, our human goodness comes into play for many.  We send thoughts of safety to those in the path.  We call or text our friends to check on their safety and well-being.  We use social media to help spread updates, to let others know we’re “safe”, and sometimes to encourage a laugh in the face of difficulty.  All of these actions tap into our human goodness.

I’m an optimist. Unfortunately, natural disasters tend to be one of the few times where human goodness shows itself.  We see it definitely in social media use, but we can also see it the various actions humans do in these difficult times.  Actions as simple as telling someone “Don’t worry, I’ll help” all the way to using your Texas-sized monster truck to help a fellow Houstonian out of a flooded street (yes folx, this is Texas!)

  image from http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Watch-Monster-truck-pulls-truck-from-flooded-11744805.php

Human goodness is here.  Despite all the ugliness has occurred over the past month, it has to take a Category 4 hurricane to bring it to the surface.  Why is that?  Why can’t human goodness just be?  It brings me back to my running.  While a Saturday long run makes human goodness show, I think just knowing that we are part of a community makes it more visible.

However, human goodness and the lack of it can show up depending which community you belong in and how you identify yourself within a community.  Since the start of this long weekend, some events have taken place within our nation that makes me wonder about how some certain individuals define their “goodness” and their “community”.  Human goodness is something that is strongly attached to how you view your world.  Your view determines your actions.  What one specific individual has done in the midst of an impending storm affecting millions does make me wonder.  But that is just my personal opinion, whether others agree or not.

However, human goodness in how I personally define it would make me pause before doing my actions.  There are times to do certain things but there are definitely times where you should not do certain things.  When a Category 4 storm is approaching, I think the message of care, concern, worry, friendship, and safety are the main messages that should be expressed.  End of soapbox.

I fortunately see positive goodness every Saturday morning after I run.  I definitely saw that last night well into the wee hours of the morning. To those that did those actions, I thank you.  We needed it and still do.

Yes indeed, human goodness is here.

Onward…and as I type this, another strong rain band is hitting Clear Lake City.