8 years ago, in my debut post, I floated the idea that there would be an annual series on this blog where I would give some love to some of the best random things and moments from the outgoing year…a personal awards showcase for my blog, per se. I wrote that I could call it The Best of series. It was something I did on my old blog, Life: The Juan Thomas Story. I was supposed to start it here on this day in 2014 but for several reasons—mostly my own laziness—I’ve been derelict in this particular area of this blog. That changes now. As I wrote in this particular post 4 months ago, it will happen this year. And so, ladies and gentlemen, readers of all kinds, I present to you the 1st installment in The Best of series.
Like 2020, this year at 2021 has been an unusual year for me. It was dominated in the first half by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was showing some signs of recovery from the disastrous previous year. 2021 was also my first full year with the Department of State as my Foreign Service career has taken off. I was finally able to escape the National Capital Region in 2021 after 5 years of captivity with the move to South America. The year was something of a blur…everything seemed to move at Mach speed or at least as fast as a young Leandro Barbosa. Luckily for me, Triumphs & Tribulations is still going strong and I write down almost everything that happens, which allows for me to reflect at my own speed. Anyway, without further ado, here’s Part I of The Best of 2021 Awards.
BEST NEW PERSON. This reincarnated series starts with the Best New Person of 2021. The qualifier of this is that I meet the person for the very first time in 2021. The nominees are:
- Francy Ruiz: the administrative assistant for the Facilities section at Embassy Bogotá. I met her in mid-June when she reached out to help me prepare for my arrival to Colombia. And by help, I mean she set everything up to the point where all I had to do was show up and breathe. From having an expeditor waiting for me at El Dorado to getting my Embassy access in order before I arrived to even arranging for my cable and Internet hookup in the temporary apartment, she did it all. For the 6 months I’ve known her, she’s been a valuable asset to the Facilities mission in Colombia and crucial to my navigation of the learning curve of being a Foreign Service Facility Manager.
- Heather Kauffman: my classmate in Spanish Basic for S-2/R-2 Skills. I met her in March on the first day of class. She is the wife of one of my classmates from the 2020-2021 Facility Manager Tradecraft cohort. As I noted, Spanish was a tough language to learn but learning it with her in the slower-paced class made it very tolerable. Oftentimes, it was just us two and we learned quite a bit about each other while becoming bilingual, per se. For instance, Ashton is the name of both of our first-born children.
- Yvette Trevino-Magallan: the Community Liaison Office Coordinator for Embassy Bogotá. Though I had communications with the CLO going back to November 2020, when I got my Welcome to Colombia emails from the office, I met Yvette for the first time in February when I joined the Facebook community group for American diplomats in Bogotá. She was pleasant and easy to work with then, she’s pleasant and easy to work with now. Apart from my own people in FAC, she may be the best colleague I have in the Management Section in the Embassy.
- Marcos Estrada: the boss. I mentioned him in the last part of this post a few months back. He’s the Senior Facility Manager here and my direct supervisor. We met back in February when my initial sponsor in the FAC Mentoring Program suggested I reach out to him. From the start, it’s been a great relationship. I’ve learned a lot from him as I’m breaking in as a Foreign Service Facility Manager. He’s allowed me to find my groove at my own pace. He’s by the book and very well-respected in this lifestyle, which bodes well for me in terms of learning and in corridor reputation.
- Nury Gutierrez: a human resources specialist at Embassy Bogotá. I met her on my first official day in the office. If you need a visa and a Colombian identification card while you’re here in La Atenas Suramericana, she’s the person you see. In a lot of ways, she reminds me of great personnelists and administrative contacts I worked with previously like Fumie Kobayashi during my Yokota Air Base military assignment and LaShunda Hutchinson, my work sister from the USACE gig. Always pleasant and always has some great tidbit of advice to offer to get the most out of my time here.
And the Best New Person of 2021 is…Francy Ruiz.
BEST NEW FILM. For Best New Film of 2021, the qualifier is that it’s a film I see for the very first time in 2021. It does not mean that the film was released in 2021. The nominees are:
- No Time to Die. The final film of the Daniel Craig era in the famed 007 role was the most anticipated film in my book for the better part of 2 years. As noted in an October Flashback Friday Moment, my intent was to see it on October 7th in my Cine Colombia debut. I did just that and I was literally blown away by the film. It certainly earned its space here…the first film to leave me crying since The Way, Way Back. In fact, it produced nominees for Best Quote, Best New Music Track, Best Ahh Ha Moment, and Most Disappointing Moment in this year’s series.
- Encanto. This is likely the last new film I’ll view in 2021. It was heavily marketed and anticipated here in Bogotá. For a Disney animated film, the screenplay was wonderful. Being that it was based here, in Colombia, it has something of a magical realism feel to it that this nation is known for. The voice acting was top-notch. I definitely earned new respect for Stephanie Beatriz whom I saw a couple of times in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The music was very appropriate for the representation of this nation.
- Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse. I first saw this action thriller on Amazon Prime Video back on Mother’s Day. I was intrigued because it was a film adaptation of the novel I read on the plane ride back to Japan from Qatar after the Iraq deployment. I thought it was well presented and Michael B. Jordan played his role well. The battle scenes were arguably the best I’ve seen of anything this year…new and old.
- The Whole Truth. I checked this out in June on Amazon Prime Video. We all know of my love for my #2 celebrity crush in Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She co-starred in this film alongside Keanu Reeves, Renée Zellweger, and Jim Belushi but let’s face it: I really watched it because of her. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The twists and turns definitely had me shocked at the end.
- Fatherhood. This is, by far, the biggest surprise of the films I saw for the first time in 2021. I saw it being heavily advertised on Netflix prior to its June 18 release so I downloaded it to watch on my flight back to Baltimore from Indianapolis on June 30. In a way similar to my experience with Mike Epps in Something New, watching Kevin Hart in the lead role of a serious storyline changed my perception of him as an actor. It was a great film…made better with the lovely Deborah Ayorinde making an appearance and the great acting by a future star in Melody Hurd.
And the Best New Film of 2021 is…No Time to Die.
BEST LAUGH. For Best Laugh of 2021, the qualifier is that the moment of hilarity had to occur in 2021. The nominees are:
- The “Mass” Public Service Announcement. This was a late entrant into the field, only dropping into my world last week. It actually bumped off my Alabama victory cigar video, which was a moment of hilarity that had been carrying the water since February. It’s basically a guy giving a very passionate appeal for everybody to wear their masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. I was floored by his pronunciation of the words “mask” and “important”…definitely reminiscent of somebody from the Deep South. Think the whole “chirren”, “lieberry”, “souf” pronunciations. It was even more hilarious with his emotional disposition and the hair.
- The San Francisco Giants Biggest Loser Memes. It’s no secret that I hate the San Francisco Giants. As a longtime fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, it’s in my blood. It’s always personal with them. For the better part of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, all I heard was Giants fans gloating about their run in the National League West. The 107 wins and the division championship were impressive but Dodger Nation remembers that atrocious call in July that cost us a very important game. Fast forward to October and the National League Division Series. Mad Max Scherzer came in and closed out the archrivals in Game 5 on their home field to end their season. I christened it my Best Moment as a Dodgers fan. After a year of trash talk from Giants fans, you know we had to respond and boy did we ever. Not even 20 minutes after the last pitch did the memes start coming out. We had the Jordan crying faces, the Beat “by” L.A. sign, and a favorite of mine…the team photo celebrating a playoff victory in front of their scoreboard. I laughed for an hour going through all of the memes.
- The Renisha Pool Victory Cigar Video. Before I had my moment with Giants fans, I had my moment with Renisha Pool. She’s a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and I very clearly remember what happened when they ended our seasons in 2013 and 2014. We drew them in the National League Wild Card Game and finished them in dramatic fashion. Much like I was quick to acknowledge the better team when the Red Birds were giving us the business in the Don Mattingly days, Renisha came through the next day and delivered the victory cigar video. As a sports fan, nothing in the aftermath is more hilarious than victory cigar videos. Think of this epic moment from almost 5 years ago. Renisha was a great sport and she provided a great laugh. Check it out here.
- Sha’Carri Richardson’s Epic Flameout. Back in June, during the USA Track & Field Olympic Trials, all of the buzz was about the young, brash phenom Sha’Carri Richardson as the immediate heir apparent in the premier women’s track event. With her wildly-colored hair, the fingernails that would give Freddy Kruger a run for his money, and the tattoos, she was the embodiment of many young urban people of today. When she was deemed ineligible for the Olympics because she couldn’t stay off the weed, everybody pointed to the 2021 Prefontaine Classic as the showcase in which she would prove that she was the fastest woman breathing. Of course, Elaine Thompson-Herah obliterated the field and Richardson was a distant last amongst the 9-woman Diamond League field. Her post-race interview—a rarity for a dead-last finisher—was a meltdown of epic proportions…and it was pure gold for hilarity. It had a lot going on. You had profanity on live television, an impersonation of Juvenile’s “Ha”, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s epic walk by.
- Dabo Swinney Eating Crow. Ahead of the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the 2021 Allstate Sugar Bowl, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney revealed that he ranked the 2020 Ohio State Buckeyes—his opponent in the game—at #11 in his final coaches poll ballot. He reasoned that any team that didn’t play 9 games in the COVID-ravaged season shouldn’t be in the Top 10 of any final poll. Obviously, the Buckeyes took that very personally and dominated the Clemson Tigers in New Orleans. After the game, Swinney had to face all of America and own up to his words in one of the most uncomfortable interview sessions ever…even though it was funny because his squad were losers. Those of us in Buckeye Nation let him have it. The image of him all sullen was good humor for the soul. The whole scene is a reminder of this famous GIF.
And the Best Laugh of 2021 is…Sha’Carri Richardson’s epic flameout.
BEST NEW BOOK. For Best New Book of 2021, the qualifier is any new book that I took a peek at for the first time in 2021. It does not mean that the book was written or published in 2021. The nominees are:
- A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics: Why WAR, WHIP, wOBA, and Other Advanced Sabermetrics Are Essential to Understanding Modern Baseball by Anthony Castrovince. Game 6 of the 2020 World Series will always be remembered for Julio Urías striking out Willy Adames to clinch the championship. The defining moment of that game was the decision Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash made in pulling Blake Snell from the game…a move driven by analytics. As a longtime fan, I feel that the numbers games that these new-age general managers and presidents of baseball operations like Andrew Friedman, Billy Beane, Farhan Zaidi, and Theo Epstein brought into the sport have tainted it. After seeing what happened in the World Series last year, I wanted to learn more about this uniquely stupid phenomenon that has captured the sport. What I learned certainly didn’t make me any more accepting of it.
- Foreign Affairs Manual by U.S. Department of State. This is the Holy Bible equivalent of the Foreign Service. OK, maybe that was a bit strong. Let’s temper that down to Air Force Instruction or Army Regulation equivalent. Anyway, I heard a lot about the FAM during Orientation and during the early part of the Facility Manager Tradecraft course but I didn’t take a peek at it for the first time until January. It’s definitely exhaustive when it comes to this career and lifestyle but the power inside of it for a Facility Manager is absolute.
- What in the Baby?!?: The Modern Mama’s Guide to Confidently Caring for Your Baby and Surviving the Postpartum Period by Mercedes Thomas. This is my wife’s book, which was publicly released in April. After a couple of years of sacrifice in the household as she took a deep dive into the abyss as far as researching and writing about the break-in period for new mothers, you’re damn right that I was going to read it. I invested just as much time into it as she did. Though the target audience is new mothers, I think fathers can learn a thing or two…especially the part about what to expect in the 4th trimester, after the baby is born.
- Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle & Jill McElmurry. I was introduced to this book in February when I purchased it for Ashton from Tuesday Morning. It is the 3rd book in the Little Blue Truck series that he has acquired. He quickly took a liking to it…basically reading it every night before he went to bed. It was in those moments that I also took a liking to it. What can I say? It was an interesting story with great illustrations for kids.
And the Best New Book of 2021 is…Foreign Affairs Manual.
BEST RESTAURANT MOMENT. For Best Restaurant Moment of 2021, the qualifier is any experience in which I ate a meal inside of a restaurant in 2021. The nominees are:
- Firebirds Wood Fired Grill. After I made my escape from the DC area, which included tossing that E-Z Pass Flex out of the window as I crossed the Virginia-North Carolina state line, I spent a couple of weeks in the South with family…and of course some of my closest friends and associates. A couple of days before I took to the sky to make my debut in Bogotá, I arranged for dinner with some of my friends from the Huffman High Class of 2003. We convened at Firebirds in Hoover near the Riverchase Galleria. I invited 7 of my classmates to dine in on my dime but 3 of them couldn’t break away. For those that did come out, it was a great time. We were in there for close to 3 hours. It was great food, great conversation, great laughs. It was wonderful catching up with a few of them for the first time since Graduation Night in 2003. Of course, my best man was there and he made everything lively.
- Thaiphoon. In February, while she was visiting for official Government business, the de facto leader of my Foreign Service Orientation mission group got some of us who were still in the DC area together for a brunch. We convened at Thaiphoon, a swanky Thai restaurant in Pentagon Row that closed permanently last month. It was the first meetup for all of us in 2021 and served as a bit of a progress update as we all were either already at our first assignment, deep into language training, or deep into specialty training. It was a great conversation about the different dynamics of our young experiences as diplomats. It was very interesting the expectations we all had of our futures over the 2 years to follow. The food wasn’t bad either. In fact, the drunken noodle is a nominee for Best New Food.
- The Juicy Crab. For the first time since Jade convinced me to set aside my intense boycott in the Summer of 2009, I visited Jacksonville, Florida. With Mercedes and Ashton in tow, we went down for a few days to visit with Alonzo Jacque and his family in addition to introducing the little guy to the beach. We ate at this seafood spot called The Juicy Crab. As one would expect of a dinner gathering with Alonzo, he definitely kept us entertained with his jokes and self-deprecating humor. It’s definitely a gift that makes him a great person to be around. Our kids got a chance to meet each other for the first time and that was important to all of us. The food was fantastic. In fact, the collection of everything that was spread out along our table is a nominee for Best New Food.
- Prime 47. During a 2-day facilities seminar in Indianapolis in late June, I met up with a great friend from my Yahoo! Messenger days who happened to live nearby. We had known each other going back to 2005 but this was the first time we ever met in person. We had dinner at Prime 47 across from what is now called Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Anyway, it was a pleasant dinner. We got a chance to catch up on over a decade of empty space and we discovered that we both led some very interesting lives. The food was equally as intriguing. I’ve had filet mignon at many, many steakhouses around the world but Prime 47 may very well feature the best. For sure, the enhancements—the peppercorn gravy that had some kick and the parmesan garlic topping—made it a superstar steak.
And the Best Restaurant Moment of 2021 is…The Juicy Crab.
That’s it for Part I of The Best of 2021. Tune in tomorrow for Part II.