Antonio Ruiz is an ex-junkie-alcoholic, former seminarian, one-time radio host-producer, past community organizer, continuing to be a media advocate, retired television reporter, ex-commission executive director, once a street vendor of jewelry and gloves, waitron (waiter to you), a former bartender who drank too much on the job, an ex-motorcycle courier who learned to ride a bike just for the job, ex-airport shuttle driver, former Entertainment news director-producer, the best time of my life, one-time live TV events red carpet producer-executive producer, ex-small business consultant, ex-youth media and journalism mentor, and now a college student who also has been married three times (thirds the charm), and just couldn't help living with two other women because well, that's part of my story.
I recently posted this on Facebook about the toxic word “Woke”: According to WordHippo.com, as an adjective (dialect, African American Vernacular or slang), the word means “conscious and not asleep. In the US, Canada, as slang, it means “alert and aware of what is going on, especially in social justice contexts.” What is the opposite of the word “woke?”: flaked out, dozed off, vegetated, lulled, zizzed, crashed, zoned out, and, my favorite, asleep at the wheel.
(By the way, during the past seven years attending college with 20-30-somethings, I have never heard the word “Woke” ever uttered by them or any professors. This is a total figment of the right wing’s imagination. Get help. See a therapist).
This is why I prefer the word “Awake” as an alternative to the one that the right wing in this country has weaponized as an insult without realizing they have no idea what they’re talking about. WordHippo.com asks, “What does awake mean?” Being “awake,” according to the website, is being in a state of “not asleep; conscious” and, by extension, “Alert, aware,” two states of being that give me power because it allows me to know what is happening around me.
WordHippo.com defines it further as “to excite or to stir up something latent” and “To rouse from a state of inaction or dormancy.” I interpret this as being able to stir up some action when necessary. If there is one bit of wisdom I’ve learned in all my years is that one must be prepared to stir the pot to boil when one witness some wrongs. You could ignore it, and you would probably be able to live the rest of your life contently. Except I was taught from a young age in Catholic School and even through American history studies that Americans fight for justice (it’s the American way). Of course, there has always been that disconnect between slogans and reality. However, I think I took much of that belief to heart.
For some time now, as part of my morning ritual, I’ve studied wise quotes from men and women throughout history. Insightful, jaw-dropping, mesmerizing statements that provide me with plenty of Aha moments. One source has been a Kindle book, “Positive Affirmations for Atheists, Agnostics, and Secular Humanists, edited by I.M. Probulos. The chapters are categorized with titles such as Reason, Success, Self Help, Happiness, and Journey. If I may borrow a quote by tennis great Artur Ashe, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” Life is a journey full of successes and failures. What is most important is that you deal with each victory and each defeat at the moment and learn a lesson from each without caring about what you will make of it a year, five years, or ten years from that moment. Who gives a shit about the future when it is that moment that is most important. What bit of wisdom could you extract, or did you blow the opportunity and instead decide to worry about the long-term impact of your choices?
This is especially true when you witness any injustice, whether a bully in your class or a group of people who mock another group because of their religion, race, or gender. You can see what you see, shrug your shoulders, and walk away to be what you want. You didn’t learn anything at that moment in your life journey. Or you can say something, do something even better. Not alone. Stir others to join you. Find power in rousing “from a state of inaction or dormancy.”
I’ve been awake since my formative years in the seminary (1962-1964) when I became increasingly aware of a world beyond the classroom and study hall where evil men and women engaged in immoral acts against the less powerful. During those moments when one or two of my classmates felt it was OK to shout a racial slur at me, I realized that they were not isolated incidents or were alone in their behavior. They must have learned that behavior from someone. That someone was from somewhere in the real world called America.
That awareness carried with me when I returned to the Bronx in 1964, and I would watch for the next four years the continuing struggles for freedom and against injustice not only in the south of this country but also up north. Our failings as a nation were exposed, and many of us took up the burden to do what we could. We were awakened to the contradiction between what we were led to believe is the ideals of this nation and the reality of race and class.
I wasn’t always right. It was easy to fall into the trap of being sucked up by slogans and the illusion that we were winning the fight for justice. Through the seventies, I believed that journalism was the weapon to be used for fighting the good fight. Sometimes it worked, and other times I realized that the goal of a commercial television station was to sell commercials, not always the truth. Inevitably, you find yourself swimming in doubts about the fight, and you surrender to instincts about survival (paying the rent, food, clothing, and a car). Suddenly you’re not awake anymore but instead find yourself, according to WordHippo.com, asleep, dormant, dozing, unawakened, inattentive, crashed out dead to the world.
That is why I write every week. To ensure I don’t fall asleep, be inattentive, or ever crash out dead to the world again. It’s a small act, I concede. I may not reach large audiences, and my words may not sometimes make sense because I may not use the right words to inspire and break through the wall of ignorance that seems to envelop us all these days in our silos.
In the meantime, I’ll keep doing whatever I can to stay awake, whether it’s reading, writing, or throwing verbal hand grenades to bust down those walls to continue the fight against injustice and all the social and political afflictions that prevent us from being the best America we can ever be.
The following essay has been updated to reflect additional insight from myself and others.
America is broken. There’s video evidence everywhere. Facebook. Twitter. Especially Twitter. Instagram. TikTok. I’ve even seen evidence on Truth Social, that Trumpian fountain of irreconcilable conflict between reality and fantasy. You know things are horrible when the liars are lying about lying.
The videos show that Americans hate each other so much that their faces contort from the short-circuiting anger gripping their hearts in headlocks. If someone could put their heart in a headlock, this is what it would be like. Mobs of black, white, and brown teenage girls, it don’t matter, kicking each other’s asses until someone can’t get up anymore. Americans whom we label Karen and Ken with their spittle running down their mouths onto their polyester rayon shirts and sweaters that they bought at their local Kroger or Marshall and swearing that they are the guides to the truth and that I am in the way. Or the traffic stop that turns deadly because one side is talking about power, and the other party is just trying to get home.
“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate. Some men you can’t reach,” said Strother Martin as Captain in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. (I love that movie). It’s terrible out here. You better believe it.
I haven’t touched the subject of politics, and I’m already disheartened that America doesn’t seem to have learned anything from its history. The struggle over who this country belongs to is insane. How do we define a nation? Are you talking about land? Or institutions? Or history? It’s not like there’s a deed somewhere with my or your name. All I know is that inside that debate, something terrible is happening. The idea of a United States of America, a people unified behind a concept of liberty and justice for all, all those lost words that have become nothing for Americans or those who will die trying to become Americans.
There is a war going on. People are screaming at each other over stupid shit. Meanness has replaced kindness. Empathy has been replaced by antipathy. Threats against persons are commonplace. A gun, a knife, and fists are now the preferred communication tool. Both extreme ends of the political spectrum are gearing up for battle, and many of us are left wondering, “Should I buy a gun or move?” (Move where?) because we all suspect that the real civil war is coming, and it ain’t going to be pretty.
First, I can’t afford a gun except maybe a Nerf Gun, and I may want to kill some people sometimes, but I know I don’t have the cojones to pull a trigger (I’m a lover, not a fighter) or ready for the ugly truth that it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Somewhere in this country (Texas, Florida), the next generations of Americans are being taught a 1950 version of American History where everyone knew their place (Can we like forget those pesky reminders of class, race, and gender warfare and the laws that came out of those battles?). Yeah, some people would rather burn our memories so we don’t remember them and substitute a more tranquil picture of patriotic Americans with their red, white, and blue flags and AR-15s and a mask of revenge and a I don’t give a fuck snarl that is now a license to intimidate whether you like it or not.
2024 and the next presidential election is almost here, and I am terrified that it will turn ugly (Ya’ think?). On one side, we have an incumbent who refuses to see the reality of age before him and that his time has passed (Thank you for your service). We need fresh meat, a fresh perspective, and new ideas.
On the other side, oh my, what can I say? You didn’t think we would let you people take this country away from us? What do you mean, You people? I honestly don’t know who is scarier. The old(er) guy who can barely remember what time period he is in or the other ones who think America needs to go back to that time a hundred and three years ago to find the real America when men were men and women were…well, women who could not vote. Or maybe, at a time when only white men who owned land could only vote (Any time before 1954 would be fine).
I’ve witnessed a lot of American history and hysteria in my nearly seventy-five years. It’s not like I’ve understood everything I’ve seen, but I suspected back then, even when I was a ten-year-old child in 1958 in the South Bronx, that something was very wrong with America. All that talk about the Pledge of Allegiance and the star-spangled banner and that all men are created equal didn’t mean it applied to everyone, only white people, preferably men. Then I was told that certain people had to earn their freedom, not yet but soon, and that those people wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it. Freedom is earned, not given for free (What?).
I wondered who they were talking about. I was sure the ten-year-old with a Puerto Rican father and a Dominican mother believed all that talk about freedom applied to someone else. Not me. I was born American, and I was free. Then, three years later, I discovered in an all-white school that no, they were also talking about me as they shouted racial insults and thought it was cute to call me Pancho.
We are broken. And I don’t know how to fix ourselves. I don’t think you can pass a law to heal us or think you could start all over and try again or decide to ignore it and go about your business and hope that someone comes up with a fix. I worry about the America my sons and granddaughter will meet as they get older in ten, twenty, or even thirty years when we’re supposed to become a nation of majority people of color. All I could hope for is we’re lucky enough to get there alive and well. It’s just that right now; it doesn’t look good from here in 2023.
I’ve been working since I was fifteen years old. Evidence can be found in last week’s essay. I spoke about all the good work I’ve done. Satisfying accomplishments. Hard work (not like my father’s work as a truck mechanic or my mother’s as a mother and head of the house work). Our father lectured us often about not wanting us to end up under the truck with grease on our hands (I wonder what truck mechanics make these days?). Our father also taught us the value of hard work, perseverance, and not being a “lazy bum” to use his words. Of course, I’ve often been accused of taking the working hard part a little too seriously. Workaholic. Workhorse. Hustler. The hardest working man in _____(Fill in the blank).
Of course, there is a negative side to working all the time. It’s called no life. However, when I think about all the jobs I’ve held in my fifty-nine years of working, I can honestly say that my values, life philosophy, and my view of the world and people flow from the experiences of work. Whether being a motorcycle courier (short-cuts and strategy of driving on the L.A. Freeways) or being Executive Producer of Live Television (Where do I begin?), I learned valuable work lessons that became the life lessons I use daily.
A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.
Those who know me well would be shocked to hear that I once thought of myself as shy. When I was with the education advocacy organization United Bronx Parents in 1968, I would often be asked to call parents to invite them to a rally or a meeting. I would be given a phone list with some written speech I was supposed to read to them. I could not, for the life of me, call someone on the phone to ask them to do something or ask them a question. I swear I would freeze. I could barely dial (rotary phone) the letters and numbers.
A simple call would take minutes instead of a minute. My voice would crack from the nervousness. I don’t know why this happened. It just did. I was nineteen years old. Now, mind you, I didn’t seem to have a problem talking to people in person. I’ve spoken to students at an anti-war rally, so why would I crack under pressure from speaking anonymously to someone on the phone? Of course, with time, the phobia disappeared as I realized that those calls were more than calls. They were part of an essential organizing effort to invite Black and Latino parents to take control of their children’s education (It didn’t mean the same then as it does for some parents now). Lesson learned: confidence to solve a problem and inspire people.
When I was the host of two radio shows at WHUR-FM, Howard University, I spoke to hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, anonymously, and aside from some early technical f*ck-ups, I learned to take those lessons from United Bronx Parents and used that confidence to speak and connect with that audience. I wasn’t afraid to use the platform I had to not only play great Salsa (La Voz del Barrio) and Jazz (Espiritu Libre) but also speak about national and local political issues. It was the early seventies, Nixon was President, and Washington, D.C. was seen as a city without power for its mostly Black residents (The word plantation was often thrown around). But I learned important lessons about organization, communication techniques, and the ability and courage to tackle complex subjects without fear when needed.
To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.
That confidence would strengthen me when I became a television reporter. I asked challenging questions of politicians, police, cat lovers (I covered more than one pet show), bureaucrats and accused people facing trial. There’s a benefit in learning how to not only speak with and to people but also an ability to read people, body language, the skill to see clearly between the lines, and the strength to call people out when you must.
The most critical skills that came out of the first twenty years of work life in New York and Washington, D.C., was the ability to see, hear, and speak of the world square on. Not to flinch when it seemed hopeless but to keep moving forward, through it, around it, under it, over it if necessary.
And all of this happened before I moved to Los Angeles, California, where I knew one person, and my first job was as a motorcycle courier. Up until that point in 1984, I had never ridden a motorcycle. So I went out and learned how to ride one, got a job, and learned how to get around Metro L.A. to the point that I probably knew more shortcuts than most native Angelenos. I learned not only those shortcuts but also so much more about L.A., the city, the culture, and the people. I began to soak myself in the inspiration of this city.
Bartending? Man, if you deal with a bunch of drunk men and women for two and a half years, you should get a medal and a big ass bonus. I learned about herding cats and manipulating (in a good way) people to trust you with their secrets and big tips.
So, I took all the experiences and skills learned in those first L.A. jobs and everything from my time on the east coast, and I knew I was ready for a television production job. Why? Well, producing is about organization, strategy, confidence, patience, people power, creativity, budgets, negotiation, bribery (okay, maybe not in the strict sense of the word), and calling forth all of that New York attitude (Some might call it cojones) that I could muster to rise from a segment producer to an Executive Producer of Live Events. I could synthesize all those skills into doing my job and still learn how to hone them into new skills about people and life and success and the occasional failure without losing my mind or soul.
The call of the artist is to follow the excitement. Where there’s excitement, there’s energy. And where there is energy, there is light.
Rick Rubin, The Creative Act: A Way of Being
There were plenty of other lessons learned at other jobs not mentioned, but in the end, all this has helped me with my college life (Learning a few things there too). I keep going because the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that for a long time, work was my life, and now my life is work for me. I’m taking all I have learned to learn more. Skills to living a fuller life, a life where just waking up every morning breathing, sober, and ready for the day, is the great lesson I’ve learned.
The accompanying photographs are the result of my always-moving eye to document the beauty and complexity of life.
My life partner, Sumire, often teases me that I write too much about the dark side of my life. Even my biography on this website is chock full of negativity. She tells me, “You have a long list of accomplishments. You should write more about them.” Yeah, but what fun is that? No one cares about the happy stuff. In today’s world, it’s all about drama.
But maybe, she has a point. I recently had to submit a resume (I didn’t have a bio handy) for an article that someone was writing about me being an older college student. It was the first time in a long time that I had read it, and I was taken aback by all the career work I’ve done in my life. Good work that impacted me and, hopefully, people I’ve worked alongside. I’ve traveled this country from New York to Washington, D.C., Hartford, Connecticut, Los Angeles, California, and international cities like London, Tokyo, and Cannes, France, fulfilling my work-life dreams. So why not take a moment to be proud of all I’ve done?
For example, during my twenty-plus years at the Los Angeles-based cable network E! Entertainment, I managed, in partnership with others, the growth of E!’s Red Carpet Shows into a major brand and a pop culture icon. Those years at E! were some of the most exciting times in my life. I led a large team of producers, writers, and technical professionals to produce live Big Event television covering the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, Grammys, and Primetime Emmys, as well as movie premieres and the ultimate icon, Fashion Police. I was on the ground floor helping build the network’s live red carpet coverage from a one-camera, one-host, two-hour program into multiple cameras, multiple hosts, and ten-hour live shows. I was an Executive Producer on Fashion Police with the late Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa Rivers. In addition, I worked on international specials, including coverage of the Cannes Film Festival in France.
During my early days at E!, I supervised a team of segment producers creating short and long-form television series and specials on various entertainment subjects, including Daytime Emmys, Grammys, Country Music Awards, and Academy Awards.
Near the end of my tenure at E!, I created my own production company, Really Big Boom Productions, with E! Networks as the first client, providing Executive Producer services on the highly rated red carpet shows. Locally, we also created the Color Me Long Beach Cultural Festival.
My work life in media (radio and television) extends back to the east coast from 1972-1978, when I was a television news reporter at WFSB-TV Eyewitness News, Hartford, Connecticut, a radio and television news reporter trainee at WTOP-AM-TV, Washington, D.C., and on-air host and radio producer at WHUR-FM (Howard University’s 50-thousand watt commercial radio station) also in D.C.
Filling in some gaps in my work timeline during the late seventies and early eighties, I was a Public Information Specialist in the Office of Mayor Marion Barry (another story) in Washington, D.C. I followed that up as the Executive Director for the D.C. Cable Television Design Commission, responsible for bringing Cable Television to Washington, D.C.
In recent years, I was the Publisher and Executive Editor of Palacio Magazine, a digital multimedia platform featuring stories about Latinos and other people of color. As if I wasn’t busy enough, I was the Community Engagement Coordinator for VoiceWaves, a journalism and multimedia training program in Long Beach for youth 16-24 years old to produce media content to foster a healthier community. Between gigs, I was a Small Business Advisor at El Camino College Small Business Development Center in Hawthorne, advising emerging and established small businesses regarding website content and multimedia strategies.
When I stop and consider that I’ve been working since I was fifteen years old (selling magazine subscriptions, dry cleaners, motorcycle messenger, bartender, airport shuttle driver, Wall Street clerk) and that I am now seventy-four (and still kicking it), there is much to be proud of, including my time on the board of Directors for Leadership Long Beach and the Arts Council for Long Beach. My life partner and I co-founded the arts advocacy group, The Creativity Network, where we helped rewrite the city’s Cultural Master Plan with the Arts Council. The list of good work includes all the volunteer work on the east coast, for example publishing a book of poems by Connecticut-based Puerto Rican poets called Revista and being a part of the first incarnation of the National Latino Media Coalition (Thankfully, it went on to survive in more capable hands. Oops, there’s that negativity again) in Washington, D.C.
Trust me, the list of good work is even longer: doing community work in 1968 in the South Bronx with one of my first mentors, Evelina Antonetty, at United Bronx Parents during the New York Teacher’s strike (hey, got me arrested and I wear it like a badge of honor), guerrilla community television in Washington, D.C. in the days when people didn’t know anything about portable video, the late great National Puerto Rican advocacy organization La Causa Comun, the Booker T. Washington Foundation with a man who taught me so much, the late Charles Tate.
I’m writing about this not to inflate my ego but to recognize that despite all the misadventures in my life, I’ve done more good than bad. Life is full of ups and downs, but we can survive the heartaches if we just put our heads down and move forward with good people around us.
As I prepare to head into the last year of my eight-year college journey to a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, Long Beach, I take pride that at my age, I’m still kicking and wanting more from an already full life of good work. I will be seventy-five years old when I graduate, and I intend to go for a post-graduate degree because I haven’t been able to come up with a good reason why not. I plan to keep pushing because it’s who I am. As I often say, “Eat Life like you’re starving. You may feel full at the end of the day, but damn, it tasted good.”
It’s Finals Week, and all my inspiration is tuned into making it over the hill. So, I grabbed this from the vault.The following was inspired by “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion for my English 404 Creative Nonfiction class.
I’ve been told that the inspiration for writing is everywhere. Just open your eyes, I’ve been directed. The person or object in front of you, even when it’s a computer screen or the view of the backyard through your office window. Look up in the sky like when you were a kid, and you stared out your bedroom window and conjured up images from the cumulous clouds above the Patterson Projects in the South Bronx. It doesn’t matter where it comes from as long as you write something. Oh, they’re very insistent. The inspiration is there and everywhere. I must open my eyes, ears, and mind to the possibilities.
For a long time, I couldn’t write a thing. Well, that’s not accurate. I could write a love letter, a script for a radio show, a television news report, a technical or policy paper, or maybe sneak in a poem or two. Still, these were either the duties of a job or some frivolous moment to fill while I waited for something more serious to come along. Filling time. That’s how I sometimes thought of creative writing. You know, the writing where you open your heart and soul and scream words onto a page until they click into moving pictures. Or, to put it another way, they can walk into living worlds and settle down to rest as long as they want.
A million other writers and I have said it before, writing, authentic writing that spills out honestly when you grab the courage to free yourself, and your soul will follow, is difficult. Almost impossible if you’re not honest with yourself. Writing on demand can seem easy when you’re just pecking away at the keys in the hopes that something comes out and all that seems to appear on the screen in front of you is gibberish that even your eyes can’t translate. But you did exercise your fingers and proved that you could type. Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it.
When I was a television reporter, and I had to crank out two-three scripts in the span of a couple of hours (without the aid of a computer or Grammarly), you had notes, and maybe you had a chance to watch the news film (probably not) or the video (doubtful). You had to tap your memory banks, write a story based on fact, make sure it made sense, and ensure that it weaved with the visual element into a minute-and-a-half report that was succinct and clear enough that someone at home would take that time to watch it. Not sure I would call it “creative writing,” but you did hope it moved someone’s feelings or mind an inch. This is before the internet when people did sit in front of a television at an appointed hour or at least had it playing in the background over dinner and watched and heard crime stories or scandals or some stimulating “if it bleeds, it leads” news report that had spun out of your electric typewriter only an hour before. My goal was, to tell the truth in the best way I knew how and my inspiration was the reality I had witnessed or at least gotten other witnesses to share their stories.
The Creative Writing I do in college is different and more challenging. Some people can do any number of processes, exercises, and techniques to get their creative juices started. I start writing simply enough. A title. A thought. An incident from my past. A word. A single word. What’s important is that I start typing. Type. Type. Type. Take a breath and then start typing again and be confident enough to ensure that a stream of sentences flows across the screen and that it makes some sense. Okay, maybe not at first. It’s my first write. Perhaps it will be gibberish at first. It’s a beginning.
Then, I go over it, the writing. Sometimes, I’ll study it on the screen, making immediate changes as I go along. Or maybe after the fourth or fifth versions (I’ve done upwards of twenty versions during the course of writing a piece), I’ll print it out and read it aloud, listening to the cadence of the words, the connection of those words, the specific words themselves, hoping that I’m not repeating the exact words, nouns, prepositions, adverbs, complex sentences that run into each other because I sometimes forget that there are such things as periods or commas or semi-colons. Grammar not being my strong suit sometimes. Always thinking what’s a better way to say something (Word Hippo is my thesaurus friend). To visualize it first and then splash it across the page so that whoever reads it stops for a moment to absorb it, to bring it into themselves and allow it to fill their head and soul with the music of the words and beauty of the picture that is flashing before their imaginations. That’s when you know. Yeah, it’s all good.
I don’t want to stop there. I want to be continuously inspired to make the words sing louder, and the picture is brighter, the colors forcing you to look at them while at the same time they burn into your very essence and your heart dances gleefully and more heartedly than the first time you read or heard my words.
There’s so much more to learn. To exercise my fingers across this page, to tap that thing inside all of us so that those unique words just come forward and wrap me and you in ecstasy.
It’s that time of the semester again, Finals Week (It’s two weeks for me, this and next week). I thought I would revive this essay from two years ago. The emotions are the same: stress, excitement, anxiety. When this semester is over, I will have only two semesters to go until graduation in Spring 2024.
It’s finals week at California State University, Long Beach. Actually, my finals began last week, but the hard stuff is this week. I don’t know what it is about testing and writing final papers. I always get anxious, sometimes nervous beyond relief. Now, these are not time-pressured deadlines save for the deadline to submit. That doesn’t seem to matter. The problem is with the task itself.
I know that my semester grade is dependent on this. Sixteen weeks of studying, quizzes, a mid-term, writing other papers, class participation will mean very little if I flunk this final week. I’m sure I’ll still get a good grade of a “B,” but as you well know, such a grade is never good enough for me. At Long Beach City College, where I received my A.A. in English, only once did I garner a grade lower than an “A” sneak into my transcript. That was for Statistics. I can’t tell you how upset I was. That lone grade of “B” haunted me for weeks. That sound neurotic to you? And that’s the problem. One exam can really test your sense of self, patience, and measurement of how you are really doing in school.
Something isn’t right about that. Having served in the real world of careers, I don’t quite remember the last time someone asked me a statistics question or provide an analysis of Twelfth Night or spar with me on the true meaning behind Waiting for Godot. I mean, I wish they would. I’d be ready for them. Seems such a shame that you go through all the anxieties and gymnastics of studying and testing only to leave it behind once you leave school.
All those years in school, K-12 and College, and you can barely remember a fourth of it. What was the point? I mean, you know how much sleep I lost studying for a test only to discover that most of what I studied never appeared on the exam. What a waste of time is what I would say. And all this would be true if it wasn’t for the fact that I know this wasn’t just about memorizing facts. This semester at CSULB and my past semesters at LBCC were about my learning to think.
Wait, to think? Hell, I could have done that at home listening to some podcast with my eyes closed. And that would probably count too. Every time you watch television or a YouTube video or scan a website, you’re taking in information. If you’re conscious of what you’re doing, you’re learning to think.
I thought my years in jobs as a motorcycle messenger or bartender or waiter were just temp jobs until I scored the big career move. Actually, I learned so much about organizing, people relations, and how to make a mean drink (a great conversation starter even if I don’t drink anymore). I used to think that anything outside the formal setting of a school or a training course was just, oh I don’t know, just living, doing a job, making a living. The reality is I was learning to think through life. I’m not just talking about learning to survive in those cold, savage jungles of New York, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles (Okay, that too). I was learning how to view the total picture, the complexity of reality, an event or a situation, the people I met along the way, make decisions based on facts, instincts, experience. Did I always get it right? Oh, hell no. But, even when I got it wrong in Statistics, I learned something other than I would never take that course ever again. I sharpened my analytical skills.
I could go on with a long list of skills that I acquired doing activities outside of school. But, my time at Long Beach City College and now in the waning days of my first semester of CSULB have given me an appreciation of the power of formal education. The professors, the textbooks, the lectures, the interaction with fellow students create an environment where you can lose yourself in intellectual enlightenment if you allow yourself. Does that mean every class I’ve taken is equal in the results? No, some are better than others. But, I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to waste any chance to learn to think.
I haven’t. As I wrote in a reflections letter that was part of the finals for an English class,
“You can sail through college and get that degree and not remember a damn thing you studied. Or you can take each day to allow yourself to be absorbed by what you learn.” If you choose the latter path, you will be changed forever. I have, and I am.
English 380- English Studies
I shared with him my daily mantra, “Eat life like you’re starving. You may feel full at the end of the day, but damn, it tasted good.” The class, like life, offered me a buffet of mind-altering intellectual dishes in sixteen weeks that left me very full. I can comfortably say that my brain and my spirit feel very satisfied.
And isn’t that the point? You walk away from a person, an event, a job, and if you feel like, damn, I’m wiser now than I was before that encounter, you can smile. All that knowledge will go into my memory banks and be available to use the next time I want to learn something new. I’m doing Finals Week like it’s one more opportunity to learn something new no matter how stressful it might be. Because some things in life are worth putting a little more effort into it.
I wrote the following short fiction piece early in one of my Creative Writing classes at California State University, Long Beach.
The call from Herman B. (not his real name) came at one-thirty in the morning on Thursday, less than twelve hours after the takeover of the Capitol building. Herman wanted to explain why the seizure happened to the senior reporter for Infamy’s leftist website. “We went in with a plan, but other people got carried away. It was the rush of the moment.” He told Jeff Burrows that he should understand. “You protested in the sixties. You guys did crazy things.” Burrows retorted defensively that he never took over the capitol building, although it didn’t mean they hadn’t considered it. Herman wouldn’t let it go. “You guys rioted and burned buildings. You all blew up shit. You all wanted to launch a revolution.” Herman was convinced. “Well, the only difference between you and us is that our revolution is to take back America.” Jeff was silent.
Finally, Burrows pressed him, “Can we meet somewhere so you can give me the details?” There was shouting in the background at the other end of the call. Burrows strained to make it out. Herman had placed his hand over the phone to smother the voices. He finally came back on. “Look, we’re getting set to get out of town. My men don’t want me talking to you. We think they’re coming for us.” Burrows figured the “they” would be the FBI or Virginia State Police, D.C. Police, or all of them. “How do you know?” Herman laughed at the question. “Don’t you think we have friends in law enforcement? They’re standing with us.” The statement offended Burrows, whose brother was a former FBI agent, but he knew it was probably true. It didn’t surprise him. He’d met his fair share of right-wing sympathizers through his brother.
“Look, I can come to you. I can get in your car, or you can get in my car and do a quick interview.” Burrows could still hear people arguing in the background. This time Herman B. didn’t cover the phone. Whoever they were, they cursed him for trusting a reporter, especially one from a left-leaning website. At one point, someone shouted, “Fake News!” “Stop it,” Herman screamed at the shouter, “He’s okay with me.” Herman turned back to Burrows on the phone. “The Virginia Inn on Dixie Boulevard near Fort Meyer. Call me when you get here.” Burrows was tired. He had only gotten an hour of sleep when Herman called, but this was too important to worry about sleep.
The Virginia Inn is where tourists go when they don’t want to pay the high rates of the District across the Potomac River. It doesn’t stand out along the string of low-cost motels along the boulevard. Herman B. told Burrows last week that they were on their way and would only stay for two nights. They didn’t care that the place was run-down. The five men, all Arkansas New America Militia members, weren’t there for the ambiance. It was just a place to gather, plan, and sleep.
Burrows had been talking to Herman for a few months before Wednesday. The thirty-six-year-old mechanic from Witches Fork, Arkansas, was an ex-marine and an Iraq war veteran. Herman wanted everyone, including the leftist media, to know that a reckoning was coming. “This is bigger than one man or one movement,” Herman had told Burrows during their first phone call, “I’ve been reading your stuff. You have a following. I figured that you might be good enough to warn them.” Burrows quizzed him about who “them” was. Herman just snickered on the phone at the question. “I’ve read your stuff. You know who the real enemy is.” People like Herman fascinated Burrows. They both shared skepticism of big government but looked at government through a completely different set of eyes. For the right wing, the government was anyone who didn’t believe as they did.
Burrows wasn’t scared of Herman. He felt sorry for him. They had finally met in person on the Tuesday morning before the mall rally at the restaurant next to the Virginia Inn. After the first couple of calls with Herman, he told one of his partners, “This guy is not dumb. He sounds delusional.” Neither Herman nor any of his men wore masks. Burrows was laughed at for wearing his. The interview with Herman went fine. It was the one with his men that went downhill quickly. They couldn’t get off Burrows wearing a mask and refused to talk to him. “What are you hiding?” one kept repeating. Another got up in his face, “I don’t talk to men behind masks.”
Herman and his people from Arkansas weren’t the only ones staying at the Virginia Inn. The group was packing up their pickup trucks when Burrows finally arrived. The parking lot looked like a big truck rally. The license plates in the parking lot told the stories of journeys to the capital from as far west as Oregon and Arizona to Michigan, Mississippi, Alabama, New York State, and Maine. They were all here to “take back America,” as Herman had told Burrows months ago when they had begun their correspondence. Now, they were in a hurry to leave after the debacle at the Capitol. News of deaths and injuries had started to filter out through the news.
Burrows caught up with Herman B. as he was settling into the driver’s seat of his pick-up truck. “I thought we were going to talk?” The other men in the car with their leader started shouting at Burrows. “Shut up!” Herman called back as he exited the truck without turning off the ignition. He grabbed Burrows’ arm and pulled him away from the group. “What now?” asked Burrows. Herman leaned so close into Burrows that the reporter had to pull back to find a healthy distance without offending the man. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back. Real soon. The people that betrayed us?” he paused, “They’re going to get theirs.”
The reporter wanted to know if the taking over of the Capitol building had been planned as he implied or spontaneous. “All I’m going to say is that we knew what we were doing.” Burrows pressed him, “Was this coordinated? Did the President know? Was he pulling the strings?” Herman turned to him, laughing, “Why does everybody think we’re being controlled? Did it ever drop on you people that it’s maybe us who are doing the controlling?” Herman pulled a letter-size envelope out of his pocket and handed it to Burrows. “Here, take this. This will be a start to understanding what is about to happen.”
He looked back at his men shouting to get in the truck. From the corner of Burrows’ eye, he saw one man pushing a gun through the rear driver’s side window. Herman suddenly put himself between Burrows and the man, staring the man down. The gun retreated into the cab. “Look, I’ll send you more stuff through that encrypted email folder you sent me. I want all of them to know that this shit hasn’t finished. Not by a long shot.” Herman turned back to his truck and jumped in. Burrows could hear him cursing the other men in the dual cab. The car pulled away from the motel, joined by other trucks in a caravan heading back out onto Dixie Boulevard.
Burrows was walking back to his car at the far end of the parking lot when he saw flashing lights on Dixie racing toward the motel. It took a moment to realize that they belonged to police cars, many police cars. There were no sirens. He turned to see if Herman’s truck and the others had left the parking lot. There were police cars, at least twenty more, boxing in the caravan. A man wearing a green-colored flak jacket had jumped out of the back seat of Herman’s pick-up truck carrying what looked like an AR-15. He started firing at the police cars advancing on the group from my side of the parking lot. Burrows fell behind his car and closed his eyes, but he couldn’t shut off his ears from the thunderous volley of gunfire raining down on the Virginia Inn parking lot.
He could almost hear the bullets jumping around the motel and street. Burrows couldn’t see the action, but he knew this would be bad. Five minutes of shooting ended with shouts of “We surrender!” and screams of agony. Burrows waited. Sirens, more lights reflected in the motel windows, and more screaming, but no gunfire. He slowly raised himself to see what had happened over the trunk of his car. There were uniformed FBI SWAT officers, Virginia State Police, Arlington Police, and D.C. Police advancing on the caravan of pick-up trucks. Their AR-15 rifles and big handguns pointed wildly as they shouted orders, turning over bodies to see if they were still alive.
Herman’s head was lifelessly hanging halfway out his driver’s side window, blood streaming down the left side and onto the truck’s exterior. All the windows were shattered. There was blood everywhere. The first man who had jumped out of the rear cab with the AR-15 lay halfway between the parking lot and the sidewalk, his legs crushed between the back wheels of Herman’s pick-up. Burrows figured Herman had probably tried to back up from the police cars before him and accidentally ran over the man with the AR-15.
Burrows started shaking. He had never been in a gunfight. A riot, yes, but never anything quite like this. His journalism instincts kicked in, and he pulled out his phone and started shooting videos. He kept shooting video until his battery had run low. Everyone was too busy with the carnage to notice him. Burroughs decided against interviews thinking it would only raise questions about why he was there this early morning. Instead, he returned to his car and found an alternative exit into a quiet residential street behind the Virginia Inn.
The early morning sun was already breaking through the blinds in his office in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington as Burrows finally opened the letter-size envelope that Herman had given him. While he scanned the pages, he was also listening to network anchors on the television on his desk with breaking news: Big shoot-out in Virginia. White Nationalist militia. Law Enforcement. Multiple dead and injured. Handwritten at the top of the motel’s stationery, Herman had written a Declaration of Independence. What followed was atwo-page rambling and threatening manifesto about what would come on January 20 and the months ahead. “When democracy fails us, revolution is the only answer,” Herman had written.
The manifesto was spread out on the desk, and Burrows thought about what would have been if the police had not shown up. He was sorry to have seen Herman dead. While he couldn’t have disagreed with him more about his politics, he understood his frustration. At some point, Herman began to feel that he was forgotten. He used the word “betrayed” a lot in their conversations. When Burrows would ask him who had betrayed him, he would reply with comments like the swamp, Government, and Corporations. Herman had told Burrows that he and his people just wanted to be remembered for their contributions to America. In recent phone conversations, he had told Burrows that White people had been pushed to the background and that the New America militia was just one of many groups across the country who were getting ready to “take back this country.” Herman even used the phrase “by any means necessary.” Burrows found that ironic.
Re-reading the manifesto and thinking back to all his emails, texts, and phone conversations with Herman, Burrows remembered that the name of the President of the United States was never mentioned. He did remember the last phone conversation before he came to D.C. for the rally. “This will not be the last time, and we will not be the last ones.” Now that Herman was gone, Burrows thought about those words. The inauguration was less than ten days away. He put the letter down and returned to the story on the computer screen. He wrote the first words, “The threatening of America continues….”
I dug this up from a year ago. Given today’s announcement of President Joe Biden’s run for a second term, I thought this commentary would be appropriate. I’ll have more to say about his decision soon enough.
The news doesn’t look good from down here, Joe. Can I call you Joe? The polls look bad. We were so optimistic eleven months ago. Now, they say you’ve lost contact with reality. That you said that inflation is just a nuisance, and it will be soon under control. That the courts are just messin’ with you about vaccine mandates and that it will just be a matter of time before they all come to their senses. All these people screaming about vaccine mandates are just looney tunes, and we shouldn’t worry about them. And what the hell happened with Build Back Better (who came up with that name?). The moderates and the progressives are making fools of you at our expense. What the hell happened, Joe?
Then, I’m reading about Kamala, you know your vice-president. She is either the most incompetent or just the most ignored Vice-President in the nation’s history (okay, so I’m exaggerating). You made a big deal about the first person of color, and then it looks like you threw her under the bus. WTH is happening there?
Every day, I click open a news website, and it just seems like there’s nothing but bad news coming out of Washington and New York and Florida and Texas and pretty much most of the Midwest, South, and the West. All I hear and read about is how you don’t have a consistent message. Honestly, I just want to listen to a message, any positive message. I don’t want to hear about 3 trillion or 1.5 trillion. I want to know about the specific programs and policies that are going to help everyday Americans. About how you’ve united your political party so you can get something done before you get thrown to the GOP wolves who are already circling your body, and you’re not even dead. Yet. They’re sitting back doing nothing but throwing hand grenades with the assistance of that maniac in Florida and Fox News and every GOP member of Congress, and you seem to not realize the seriousness of the next two elections, 2022 and 2024.
Americans may not know their ass from their elbow about science and COVID and economic policy and inflation and that the GOP stands for Totalitarianism. Still, they know when someone ain’t shooting straight with them. They want reassurance that someone really cares about them and the issues that affect them. And the list is long: jobs with good pay and benefits, affordable housing, the price of gas (holy crap, what’s up with that), and making sure that we’re going to have Christmas gifts and food for the holidays. People are just trying to get their pre—COVID life back even if they are still doing their darndest to extend it by not getting vaccinated, hanging out without masks, and ignoring simple protocols. It doesn’t matter because, in the end, they will blame you because, well, they must blame someone in the White House. They say they want Leadership, Sanity, Calmness. Something that we didn’t get for four years from the maniac who was there before you.
Look, Joe, I can’t even imagine what life is like for you, and I’ve known you long enough to see that you do have a good heart, but a good heart is just not good enough these days. This country is splitting up. Breaking apart in all kinds of ways. We need some healing. We’re just trying to heal as a nation without getting jammed in the heart by the crazies out there. We need your help to unite us while at the same time protecting us and our democracy from millions of nut jobs out there.
I keep wondering what the hell happened to this country, and then I realize that as long as I’ve been alive, all seventy-three years, there have been nut cases out there, both right and left, who just can’t help themselves. That it’s always about them and screw the other person. My Way or the Highway kind of BS. I know from personal experience how easy it is to fall into that hole. We love to talk about how we are in this together and waving the flag and sacrifice and America the beautiful, but I know they don’t mean it. What they really mean is what’s good for them, and everyone else can eat dirt. Or is it cake?
Americans. If the GOP wins this year, you and we are screwed. I will never understand how a political party that has pledged allegiance to an idiot can win against a person who can think like a human being and dish out so much humanity. I just can never understand them. That political party is not the friend of People of Color, the working class, young people, or older Americans. They only want to screw us so they can help the rich. No debate about it.
But the Democrats have their own problems. Some of them are also out of touch and think that figuring out a way to allow most Americans to succeed with some help from our government is making them into a dependent group. I’m talking about you, Senator Manchin and Sinema. Look, I’m not looking for a handout. I’m just looking for some breathing room. An economic policy that doesn’t benefit just the rich. Talk about a dependent group. Dependent on a tax system that maintains them. Come on, we weren’t born yesterday.
Here’s my advice, Joe, talk to us every day. Go on national television and use your bully pulpit. Talk to the middle straight about what you’re doing to solve our problems. Press Conferences, Oval office speeches, one-on-one interviews, visit family homes, town halls in Des Moines and Bakersfield, not on CNN. Come on out and see us like you did on the campaign trail. Talk to us straight. We’re ready to listen. And bring Kamala along with you.
The sand fills my shoes (I hate when that happens)
The water soaks my socks (The squish squish squish unnerves me)
The sky fills my field of vision (Overwhelming me always)
sun rays bouncing off the atmosphere
onto the water sparkling little stars jumping with each wake
the sun rays pouring over me reminding me that there
are some things in life you cannot control.
Warming my face
sitting at the edge of the sand my feet propped up
on the low wall as I try my darndest to stay dry
and free of the sand wanting it all at the same time.
Sand Water Sky.
I don’t swim (you’ll never catch me surfing)
maybe you’ll find me on a small boat (I remember that time
I ended up in the Potomac trying to learn how to sail)
or a cruise ship (like the time through the Caribbean in ‘83
eating my way through the islands while savoring a dying
People the brave ones who don’t mind a little sand in their shoes
a wet sock a cold dash of water rubbing against their skin as they
ride the waves playing with dolphins and sharks and jellyfish.
I like being the bystander cheering them on
enthralled by the California myth where everyone lives
dreaming of a house on the beach and
the water and sky paint your dream with peace and
I don’t swim or ride the waves on a surfboard
I don’t lay out a blanket on the sand
avoiding sand in my shoes
or the ocean filling my socks with excuses
of why it wants me to trust it
that it’s been there for millions of years since the beginning of time along
with the sand and its other friend the sky.
I sit at the edge of America scanning the horizon for
what’s on the other side of this vision
a thought a dream
a moment in time spent wondering how I got so lucky
to be here
to join the armies of beach huggers who
arrive every day to dig in the sand
poke their toes into the water and let the sun warm them over with peace and love.
I love sitting on the edge of America knowing that this is where
I will be forever because I was born to be here in peace and love.
This is where I need to be to live the La La myth
the lifestyle of Hawaiian shirts shorts and sandals and
beach bum hats
and free spirits relaxing taking it all in
and turning my face to the sky my arms and hands extended welcoming the
life force that confirms that I am alive at peace and in love
with Sand Water Sky.
Do you ever have so much stuff rolling around inside your head that it (your head) begins to pulsate with throbbing rhythms? Here I am, five weeks or so out from the end of the semester and all I’m thinking about are finals and essays and memorization (I hate trying to memorize stuff at my age). At the same time, I have a head full of writing topics that I want to get down on the screen in front of me. Still, I can’t organize it well enough to spit it out. Not quite writer’s block but more like roadblock.
Aging, mass shootings, weight gain and loss, MAGA mania, 2024 election, COVID-19 (yes, that’s still a thing), graduation next year with only 15 units to go, applying for graduate school in the fall, kitchen remodel, fantasies of summer vacation, my outdoor cat is dying, the crazy weather, I don’t want to call myself Latinx, the world seems to be going to shit, violent videos on Facebook, the lack of empathy, everyone is fighting, rudeness, my granddaughter’s smile, the peacefulness of an empty beach, creeping fascism, it’s always about power, don’t shoot, do I need to buy a gun, are we really better than this………………………………………………
This and a million other stuff rattle around in my head all day and a lot at night. I wake myself up in the middle of a bad dream having a conversation with someone while in that middle state between consciousness and sleep. I can hear myself talking but can’t quite understand the words so I can remember what happened when I wake up at 5 o’clock for the day in front of me. Weird.
There are so many stories to tell, but I don’t quite see the words yet. Only symbols, scribblings across my brain, smoke signals in my eyes, sounds like gibberish, hazy visions, distant memories trying their best to dig themselves out of that bottomless pit somewhere at the bottom of my brain.
The running joke in my family is something my brother Joey said once, and I’m paraphrasing here: “I have an opinion, and I’m going to express it.” It was a statement made in reaction to someone trying to tell him to keep his opinion to himself, or at least that’s how I remember it. I feel like that often. I have an opinion about everything, but in my case, no one is trying to shut me down. My problem is always about finding the time. And there’s probably a little hesitation about whether anyone cares what I have to say. Not that it would stop me. I pretty much don’t give a shit what people think about what I think these days. Not sure at what age I developed that thinking, but I do know it is increasingly becoming my anthem.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I want to be sensitive and not insult or offend people. I’m not going to shout the N-word in the middle of Times Square or call someone a name to their face about their appearance or intellectual capacity or any of a long list of possible insults. I might say it under my breath or behind their backs if I’m angry enough at them, but I’m more about picking winnable battles these days and measuring and storing my energy for more critical wars ahead.
And speaking of wars, do you sometimes feel we’re headed toward a civil war in this country? Or is it just good television that makes me think that? Seriously? Like Housewives of Beverly Hills or Basketball Wives or every Karen and Ken video that I see these days where someone can’t seem to control themselves or mind their own business and decides that lashing out at anyone in their field of vision is the appropriate response to their relationship with their neighbor or friend or any stranger they come upon.
We, humanity, seem to be getting on each other’s nerves these days. I can’t help but think we all are having a nervous breakdown. A breakdown of standards of politeness, empathy, sympathy, civility, decorum, tolerance, and live and let live. Why is everyone so intent on being the judge, jury, and executioner? Who died and made them the arbiter of truth and justice? Seriously?
Back to those semi-conscious conversations that I’ve been having at night. I vaguely remember that I’m usually in the middle of an argument with someone in a dream/nightmare, and I’m trying to make a point, and they’re not listening. The only way I can get my point across is to shout louder than they’re speaking, and then they raise their voice higher, and then I raise my voice so loud that I kick myself out of that dream into this twilight state, not quite asleep nor quite awake. The point is that’s how I’m beginning to feel about walking around and having arguments, usually with myself, about what is happening worldwide. This nervous breakdown I mentioned. It’s just not a good way to look at the world.
I tell my friend Thomas he’s the optimist, and I’m the pessimist. That happens when you study the history of humans on this earth (or maybe I’m projecting from my own life). Whatever. The truth is that life is what it is, and you must find your safe passage through it and your safe peace in it if you want to live a longer life, not locked away in a padded room or a coffin.
Yeah, that’s not what I want to do. I have plans for life 75+, so I’ll keep thinking and pondering and analyzing the world outside and inside of me and write about it and how I feel about it and know that this is the best therapy for me, even as I wish the entire world would get some therapy.
It’s all cool. In the meantime, I have some school homework to do.