Living to 75


“Every day you’re alive is a special occasion…The challenge is to remember, day in, day out, the specialness found in the ordinariness of our lives.”

pp. 247, Everyday Serenity, David Kundtz

I recently discovered that a former colleague, friend, and my oldest son’s godfather died. We had worked together in the seventies at a television station and had once in a blue moon kept up with each other after I left. I last spoke to him ten or eleven years ago when I was on the east coast. We were supposed to connect in person then, but time and our lives disconnected us. I’ve tried to connect with him over the years, but it was as if he had disappeared off the face of the earth. If he had lived, we would have been about the same age, seventy-four, 74.

Not to be a downer, but I’ve noticed the ages of people in the news and friends who have died recently. When their ages are 74 or less, I get nervous. I get twitchy, conscious of all the health issues I’ve had and have, and wonder which one will do me in. I mean, forty-five years of drug and alcohol abuse and the ups and downs of obesity and threats of diabetes, breathing lousy air from the San Diego Freeway nearby, convinced the Hepatitis C that was “cured” will suddenly come back to bite me in the ass or scared stiff that what killed my parents (father-cancer, mother-Parkinson) is sneaking their way through my DNA soon to dive into my veins to wreak destruction on my body.

Or I may be overreacting to the news of my friend’s death (Ya think?).

Photo by Antonio Ruiz

But seriously, as I roll forward (because life doesn’t let you roll backward) toward the momentous age of seventy-five, 75 years old, later this year, you get to think about the inevitabilities in life, whether you want to or not, about its fragility, about aging (I’m taking Gerontology 401 at the university so that doesn’t help) and what happens to your body as you pile on those years, about your past lifestyle and the one you find yourself in now where you act like you’re 50 and even sometimes, in a moment of fantasy, you delude yourself into thinking you are 25 again. But you’re not, and this is where you are.

I can’t help but think about the long ass journey to 75 and how easy it is to overthink all the mistakes I’ve made and wallow in self-pity about them while wishing I could apologize to everyone who has ever been at the end of one of my mistakes. I think about the millions of apologies I’ve made to myself trying to live my life as a better human than I was yesterday or fifty years ago. Then, I wake up from self-pity and think, enough of the apologies. Just don’t do it again.

Live in the present and prepare for the future. Your past is yours; you’ve learned many lessons for the future. By the way, there are more good things than bad things that should make yourself proud and should be the lights ahead for the paths you will walk toward 75.

Photo by Antonio Ruiz

My life partner, Sumire, recently reminded me that many of my life stories seem to be about all the harmful acts in my life as if that is all that defines me. My entire life seemed limited by how many drugs I took and how much alcohol I drowned my liver with. Yes, there was a lot, but damn it, Sumire reminds me that I should not go out believing that’s my only story. I am a three-dimensional human being who has lived (and is still living) a life full of lucky breaks, determined paths, and accomplished goals.

If you exclude the crazy in my life, I’ve done well. Whether being the only person of color in a seminary (talk about what I learned), graduating from high school with honors, or being accepted at two of New York’s best universities on full scholarships, all before my eighteenth birthday, that ain’t bad. From there, I’ve had nothing but a run of accomplishments that took me from the South Bronx to Washington, D.C. radio and television and the halls of Congress and the White House to New England local news to being on the ground floor to bring cable television to Washington, D.C. all by the time I was thirty-five.

Photo by Antonio Ruiz

Then, I changed the coasts, east to west. I taught myself to ride a motorcycle (courier) when I had no idea, how to bartend (you do what you do to pay the rent) and was accepted as part of a national competition into an American Film Institute television drama workshop by writing a script when I didn’t know how to write one. Then, I met a guy who gave me a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be on the ground floor of a new cable network which then grew up to become a cultural icon about celebrities walking down a red carpet into a building and stopping to tell the world what they were wearing. Hell, proud of it. I was there as an Executive Producer, and as much derision is thrown at that ritual, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have a big hand in it.

The last fifteen years have been a roller coaster of mentoring young and older, publishing a glossy magazine and its online version, and organizing a diversity festival, Color Me Long Beach. My best accomplishment to date is graduating from Community College in my seventies with an associate degree in English, and now, only fifteen units away from graduating from a University with a bachelor’s degree in English, Creative Writing while working toward attending post-graduate school to pursue a Master’s degree in the same. Okay, a little tired (a fast lane life can do that to you), but able to hold my own against people half my age, and did I tell you my overall GPA is 3.94?

My Television Life

Yeah, I feel good as I live toward December 8 and mark the close of seventy-five, 75 years, ready to push to the next phase of my life. Not bad for a kid from the projects in the South Bronx. I got this, and I’m damn proud of myself.

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”

Colette (quoted in pp. 278, Everyday Serenity, David Kundtz)

West Side Story

Look, I love West Side Story’s music and dance sequences, both versions. I have listened to the 1961 cast album and 1961 movie version numerous times. Yes, I was crushed when I found out that most Puerto Rican leads were white people in brownface and that Natalie Woods was not Puerto Rican (hey, I was twelve years old). And I didn’t understand that much of what I saw on the screen was not real Puerto Rican life as I knew it (I’m half Puerto Rican and half Dominican but 100% American born in the South Bronx).

The original 1957 Broadway play was conceived and produced by a group of Manhattan white guys. One of them, Stephen Sondheim, almost didn’t join the project because he said he had never known a Puerto Rican. The “Latin” music for the play and the original movie was written and produced by a very famous white guy, Leonard Bernstein. The Broadway production and film were written by a bunch of white guys. A white guy, Jerome Robbins, did the choreography. The same with the film direction, Robert Wise.

But that didn’t matter to me the first time I saw the original West Side Story. I was just so enthralled by the whole spectacle of the music and choreography and the story that I didn’t care about the rest.

A modern-day version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg (a white guy), has been released, and now I find myself caring about all the rest and more. I saw it on the big screen this past Saturday, and I have so many mixed feelings about it. There have been significant changes to the casting (no brownface here), scenes, plotlines, and general character of the movie. Many of those changes were made to deal with the criticism over the years about how Puerto Ricans were portrayed in the Broadway play and the 1961 film. There is still great music and choreography in this 2021 version. The actors did their jobs with great singing and dancing. Even the acting wasn’t bad considering the words written for them, again by a white guy, Tony Kushner. The modern version was choreographed by Justin Peck (I don’t believe he’s Latino, although he is married to a Latina). Are you getting the point?

Extended Interview: Rita Moreno and Ariana DeBose On ‘West Side Story’ Remake

I’ll repeat it. I love the music and dance sequences and the fact that there are real Latinos (No, they’re not all Puerto Ricans. Hey, you can’t get it all) in the film. Spielberg has said in interviews that there was much research and collaboration with Puerto Rican scholars to get it right. I applaud that. Rita Moreno (The only authentic Puerto Rican lead in the 1961 film) is an actress and an executive producer for the 2021 version. Spielberg credits her with helping to get the film right. I applaud that also. Then, why did I walk out saying to myself, “It’s time to put this baby to bed.”

No one clapped. No one cheered. There wasn’t a peep out of the audience during or after the film ended. I found the film lacking sabor. It was tedious, slow, meandering between the song and dance numbers. At one point, I wished they had gotten rid of all the talking and just did back-to-back song and dance numbers.

I sat there watching the credits looking for all the Latinx names in the crew, and I saw a few (Of course, there could have been more since many people might have Anglo last names). However, based on my experience, I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority were non-Latinx. Why am I not shocked?

Some changes were made to place Puerto Ricans in a positive light. I mean, they’re not all lazy gang members terrorizing poor old white and Puerto Rican people. They have jobs, and some even have careers as boxers. So, I’ll give them that.  But, I knew that something was wrong the moment I thought about the film’s point of view. Aside from an opening sequence that involved the Sharks (The Puerto Rican gang), I felt like vast swathes of the film were all about the Jets, the white gang, telling it from their point of view. My wife disagrees. Okay, two people can disagree on that (I’m right).

But the part that made me stop and gasp was the scene at the famous dance where the Jets and the Sharks set their rumble and Maria and Tony meet. Now, I know my memory is not what it used to be, but I remember the 1961 version having a more subdued and well-produced sequence where they meet, and it’s love at first sight. In this version, they drift away from the dance floor and meet behind the bleachers, so they’re alone. Okay, cool. Not very romantic to me, but what do I know. Tony and Maria cozy up when Maria suddenly lunges at Tony to kiss him. I mean enough that Tony falls back. Wait, why is this Puerto Rican woman practically throwing herself at this gringo boy she just met. Would a young Puerto Rican woman in the late fifties, early sixties who has been taught better suddenly throw herself at a man? I don’t think so. It just hit me as the failed stereotype of Latinx women being “hot” women who would give it up for a dime. Come on.

Don’t even ask me about the attempted rape scene in the candy store. The one in the 1961 film featured Rita Moreno as the victim. This time, she plays the store owner and intercedes to stop it. I found it a little too real that I wondered, “uh, has anyone heard of #MeToo?” It just seemed so, not 2021 (Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be the late fifties, but still). And that’s the problem with the entire film.

West Side Story – Cast 2021 – America (From “West Side Story”)

From the Boricua Pride movements beginning in the late sixties until now, Puerto Ricans and other Latinx people have been fighting for control over their portrayal, images, and narratives, in Hollywood and the media. There have been valiant efforts to prod Hollywood, Broadway, and Television to allow us to tell our own story. Okay, most Latinx producers, directors, and writers don’t have the clout of a Steven Spielberg. And people will argue that West Side Story wasn’t just about Puerto Ricans. You’re right, but there would be no West Side Story without them, so don’t even try that crazy line of reasoning.

I find myself wondering when Hollywood is going to get it finally. Regurgitating old tropes, no matter how many Latinx participants they put in it, doesn’t change the fundamental that white guys produced, wrote, and directed the film. As many others have said about this film, it’s time to let it go except for the soundtrack album. I still like that. I’ll just close my eyes and imagine that some Latinx composers and musicians created it. Yeah, I know, denial is not a good antidote for reality. Damn.

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