I Can’t Think of Anything to Write About

“To retire is to begin to die.”

Pablo Casals
1966 James Monroe High School Yearbook Photo

Weird. I usually have a million things on my mind to write about. I mean, I have a list. I’ve wanted to write about police brutality, what I should call myself (Hispanic, Dominican-Puerto Rican, Latino, Latinx), how white liberals are going to get us killed, the GOP delusion, how much reading I must do this semester for school; I mean I have a very long list. Yet, I can’t seem to put two sentences together this week. Nothing is coming out of my mind into my fingers onto the keyboard.

Paris, France (Photo by Antonio Ruiz)

I’m just so busy with my three classes this semester. Seriously, I didn’t even think about how much reading and writing I would be doing as part of my classes and assignments. Take, for instance, Gerontology 401 (the study of aging). I just finished our third week, and I’m already overwhelmed with so much reading and writing, but I must admit, it’s interesting as hell. Theories of Aging, the biology of aging, the genetics of aging, and the three categories of aging (Young-old, Middle-Old, and Old-old) are right up there with lessons on physiology. I feel like I’ve walked into a medical school classroom. I learned some of this material in Anthropology at Long Beach City College, so it’s not entirely foreign to me. I’m glad I decided to take the class. When you’re 74, you discover you need all the knowledge and tools you can gather to deal with your aging.

One of our assignments this week was to write a 500–750-word essay about ourselves in the context of why we are taking this class. I wrote:

According to the Social Security Administration, I have an additional 12.5 years in life expectancy subject to a “wide number of factors such as current health, lifestyle, and family history that could increase or decrease life expectancy” (Unites States Government). I’m hopeful that my family genes will play a more significant role than my past health issues in determining my life expectancy. I have family members on both sides who have lived into their nineties and seen their centennial birthdays.

Discussion Post for GERN401
Paris, France (Photo by Antonio Ruiz)

Until I wrote those sentences, I hadn’t thought much about aging. Honestly, I feel young except for the slow-moving getting up from a chair or those aches in places I never thought I had and the getting up in the middle of the night two or three times for the lonely journey to the bathroom (it’s a man thing). But a look in the mirror or the spider-like skin growing on my hands, along with those medical appointments to check my plumbing, all are severe indicators of aging. Yeah, I’m glad I’m taking this class.

My U.S. Ethnic Writers class, English 375, is beginning to heat up. In the last two weeks, we’ve watched two documentaries, Agents of Change (2016), directed by Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson, and Race: The Power of an Illusion, both critical films about race, whiteness, and culture in this here America. Particularly disturbing were the familiar battles over ethnic study programs in the late sixties and early seventies spotlighted in Agents of Change. Here we are in 2023, still fighting the same struggles with basically the same group of conservative white Christians, primarily men (accompanied now by more women), telling us People of Color who we should be and what we should learn about ourselves. Yeah, I have two words for you, and it isn’t a merry christmas. Thank goodness, I’m not tired yet.

Paris, France (Photo by Antonio Ruiz)

Journalism 415 Diversity in the Media has turned out to be a surprise. This class isn’t what I first thought it was, and I’m cool. Here’s an excerpt from the syllabus:

This course is designed to give students a theoretical, as well as practical, experience with issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality as they manifest in mediated artifacts of popular culture. The course is taught from a cultural studies perspective where students will gain skills in critical analysis and media literacy. Concepts of power, privilege, justice, representations, hegemony, consumption, and resistance will be woven throughout course readings, films, assignments, and discussions.

Excerpted from syllabus JOUR 415: Diversity in the Media

Now that’s a mouthful. In practical terms, this past week, I spent much time listening to various podcasts like Scene on Radio’s “Seeing White: Turning the Lens,” and Code Switch’s “Can We Talk About Whiteness,”along with watching a documentary called White Like Me. Catch the theme? That makes two classes in the same week address the issue of race. The right wing in Texas and Florida must be pissing in their pants. Look, seriously, I know these are complex subjects to discuss that make people uncomfortable, but I can tell you from experience that these are not new subjects. American history is full of these subjects and will be for the foreseeable future until, if ever, we accept and deal with the foundational narrative of America. It hurts and will continue to be a sore on the soul of this nation, so pull up your britches and grow up.

Paris, France (Photo by Antonio Ruiz)

This Spring 2023 semester marks fourteen semesters (hey, you don’t gulp fine wine, you slowly sip it) of college (Long Beach City College and California State University, Long Beach) with only two more until the Spring of 2024 when at the ripe middle-old age of seventy-five, I will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing. The journey has been both exciting because I’ve met so many inspiring students, teachers, and staff and because of the universe of knowledge and wisdom that has been opened for me, including Math (Stats) which I am not a big fan of, but which proved to be my biggest challenge over the past seven years. I got my only B in all my years in college in that class, surprising me (no, not that I got a B, but that I even passed the course).

I have often told myself that retirement is outdated in the digital age. There are too many opportunities to enrich your mind, body, and soul at any age, especially now. If I can walk, talk, and think, I intend to keep pushing my boundaries of living by learning and grabbing up as many degrees as I can fit on my wall. After that B.A., a Master/MFA is next. Hell, why stop now? I don’t play golf.

“Where Are You From?”

The following is adapted from an essay first posted on Medium.com on February 1, 2021.

Different Identities Montage by Antonio Ruiz

The question is always the same. The speaker is different. “Where are you from?” In the beginning, dating back to the sixties, I would say proudly, The Bronx. And I would think, that was enough. But, the questioner, sometimes some white guy from Manhattan or Queens or even Brooklyn, would dryly ask again, “No, where are you really from?” I would, without a hint of being insulted, proudly proclaim again that I was from the Bronx.

It would only be years later that I would understand that merely stating your place of birth in this here United States wasn’t enough. The questioner wanted proof that you weren’t from somewhere else because, well, since you didn’t look like them, was not like them, they couldn’t be sure that you were, like them, good old red and white and blue Americans.

It didn’t matter that my father was from Puerto Rico, where its residents have been American citizens since 1917. Yes, my mother was from the Dominican Republic, but she was legally here and later became an American citizen. Not that any of that mattered because I was born in this here U.S. of A. South Bronx, at the old Lincoln Hospital, a citizen of this great country. Didn’t matter. The question lingered because this here is the U.S. of A. They just can’t help themselves.

St. Mark’s Place by Antonio Ruiz

I didn’t think much of all this nonsense as I moved through life. It didn’t matter because, in the early seventies, I hung out mostly with people who looked like me or were other people of color who didn’t give a shit where I was from. They might ask, “Where are you from?” which usually meant like what city are you from (they figured New York) because I had this accent that I never noticed years after leaving the city. When I moved to New England, I would occasionally be asked the question “Where are you from?” by people who would claim to trace their ancestry back to Plymouth Rock. And I would dryly answer again, “New York.” I would forget the South Bronx part because I figured it would be too hard to explain the whole Bronx borough thing.

“No, really, where are you from?” they would ask again, and I would immediately know what they were asking. You don’t look like us, so you must be from somewhere else. Like from another country maybe. I would get a little annoyed because I knew it was a question centered on what crack of the Caribbean or South America or Central America I hailed from. “I was born in the United States,” I would indignantly state. Still incredulous, they would walk away or change the subject. As the years went on, my American English was enough to qualify me as an American. I mean, no foreigner talks like that. To most, it became apparent that I wasn’t from around there, but my patois of New York, New England, and semi-Southern accents inherited from spending nearly ten years in Washington, D.C., answered their question before it got out of their mouths. Although some would stare at me wondering, “Yeah, but what is he?”

After I moved to Southern California in 1984, I saw graffiti in big ass letters on a low wall on the 405 freeway at the Santa Monica Boulevard exit, “MEXICANS GO HOME.” It wasn’t long before, as I worked my way through low wage jobs to pay the rent, that someone inevitably would ask me, “Where are you from?” And they weren’t just white people but mostly. “I’m from New York, but I’ve lived in other states, and I just came from Washington, D.C.” like they gave a shit about my residences. “No, where are you really from?” And I would just mumble something about New York and move on.

Hotel Lobby by Antonio Ruiz

In the eighties, I worked as a bartender at a German-themed restaurant. It was full of ex-pats from Germany (before the reunification), the former Yugoslavia, and the U.S.S.R. (before the fall of the Empire). Some could barely speak English (well, American English), and they would sit on their stools in front of me and in accented English or broken English or straight out English (obviously here a long time), “Where are you from?” And again, I would dryly say, “New York.” I knew that this question was not about where they thought I had lived but was about where I was born because I was obviously not from around here. I don’t mean like from New York or Southern California. “No, where are you from? Where were you born?” I was born in Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, a borough of New York City.” They had no idea what the fuck I was talking about. There was a pause, and then it came again. “No, I mean, where are your parents from.” Oh, now we’re going to talk about my parents.

I was born in the U.S. of A. Raised in everything America, believing that qualified me to be called American. The United States of America is a feel-good fairy tale, an exceptional one even. When we want to feel the exhilaration of patriotic music and blood-boiling flag-waving, we all stand and sing the Star-Spangled Banner and dutifully recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Some residents of this country who believe that there is a sacred halo surrounding the good old U.S. of A. love to invoke images of America the beautiful to justify why this here America is their America. They believe it is an exclusive club from sea to shining sea, over large expanses of wheat and corn and mountains and rivers and small towns and big cities and the powerhouses of growth and industry and our exalted majesty, and we are not members.

Car Lights by Antonio Ruiz

I consider myself lucky as hell. I have lived in multicultural communities: New York, Washington, D.C., Southern New England (more than you think), and Southern California. I move very freely between many ethnic and racial communities and economic classes, selfishly sometimes absorbing all I can from them. I listen to their words and speech patterns. I am interested in what they’re feeling and thinking. Their religion, ethics, philosophy, politics, music, culture, and writings, all are sources of information that I suck up through a straw. It doesn’t matter if they are American born or foreign-born (No, I don’t ask them where they’re from that way). Or whether raised on a farm in Iowa or a five-million-dollar condo in Manhattan, New York. I just want to swim in this here diverse America, soaking it all up to be always growing in life and the people I know.

I’ve been to many parts of this country. I have met many great people who have never once asked me where I was from. They might instead say something nice like, “You ain’t from around here,” but not in an insulting way like I wasn’t an American but knew that I was not from around there and would light up when I told them I was from New York or that I was from the South Bronx. They never once questioned my Americanism.

American History
Cracks in Our Soul. (Image by SEDAT TAŞ from Pixabay)

Nativism, nationalism, xenophobia, small minds, small worlds are a disease that suffocates your ability to see and experience the whole spectrum of humankind, and that’s a goddamn shame — your loss.

Now, ask me again where I’m from.

Dear Joe

On the eve of the one year anniversary of the inauguration of President Joe Biden, I repost this open letter to him that I wrote on Medium.com on January 16. 2021.

Image by Tibor Janosi Mozes from Pixabay

Whatever happens on January 20, 2021, or after, you will need to begin your administration with a clear vision, the vigor of spirit, and a powerful determination to take on the greatest challenge of this young century and possibly of our modern age. No, not the MAGA insurrection (I’ll address them later). Our nation cannot move forward until we work together to cure ourselves of the Pandemic. With millions of people worldwide affected by COVID-19, deaths and hospitalizations mounting daily, we cannot return to normalcy until we find the leadership necessary to show us a path forward. This crisis needs its own Marshall Plan.

The United States of America needs — no demands — a leader who commands respect, believes in science and medicine, makes reasoned decisions, and is willing to tap and trust the best minds to solve problems. You will need to call upon the best experts and leaders in politics, business, nonprofits, and education in the United States of America and the world. As President, you must harness the best resources available like no other time in our history. This effort cannot be some long-term (of say, ten years or more) project where studies are first prepared and submitted for consideration to the appropriate authorities for consent. We demand action by our government today.

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay 

No solution is possible unless you get everyone on board, and yes, that includes the opposing political parties. The goal of this current President and his allies is to delegitimize you and your administration. He and his sycophants want to cripple your ability to save this country so that they can cynically claim in two and four years that they must clean up your mess. We face a critical question, how do you break through the fog of misinformation and subservience to conspiracy theories? It will take a certain amount of courage to reach out to America’s moderate voices for help. I want to believe that political, business, and nonprofit leaders recognize that this will not end well if we continue to fall down the rabbit hole of evil accusations and retribution. For the past four years, only the most vitriolic voices have been the loudest. We must call upon all Americans who believe in this country’s ideal to raise their voices together to break through the toxic atmosphere enveloping our nation.

We must task the influencers in media, the arts, culture, advertising, and marketing to help create inspiring and proactive messages to revitalize our vision of shared social responsibility and dedication to a shared future. All of us must work together to fill with new hope and vision, the chasm created by dark forces over the past four years. Somehow, we must convince a large swath of Americans that, as a past President has described, “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States.”

I am too life experienced to believe that we will all join hands and sing Kumbaya by changing the messaging or legislative solutions. You only need to study American history to see that truth. However, we cannot forever be prisoners of our history. We must be ready to make our new future; one where every resident of this country receives the promises of our Constitution, “…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” In 2021, after all that has gone on over the past four years, I believe it is time for all of us to step back from this precipice we find ourselves and stop and think about the challenges that are ahead for us as a country. We cannot survive if we only live in past conflicts and do not forge a better future.

Joe Biden
Photo by Antonio Ruiz

Now, we must spare no effort to hold those responsible for the MAGA insurrection. I’m not just talking about those who invaded the people’s house. You can trace the roots of that insurrection to the Tea Party’s birth and the lie of Birtherism. Unfortunately, too many in politics and the media didn’t take this seriously enough. We called it fringe. It was dismissed as racist and not deserving of our time and attention. The current President and his enabling elected officials, religious leaders, right-wing groups, and media pushed that fringe, the white supremacy monster, out of the darkness into the White House and the halls of Congress. We must protect ourselves from their desperation, mindful that they will continuously attempt to disrupt a return to constitutional government.

I believe that this last dying gasp of an America cannot survive the cataclysmic demographic changes underway. I have an older son who is two-thirds Puerto Rican and one-third Dominican (Yes, there is a difference). His daughter, my granddaughter, is a four-year-old who is half-Puerto Rican and half-Anglo. My youngest son is twenty-eight years old and is one-quarter Puerto Rican, one-quarter Dominican, one-quarter Black, and one-quarter Japanese. They are all members of that demographic wave. The new United States of America frightens many. It is not only race and ethnicity that scares them; it is also urban versus rural, old versus young, progressive versus some forgotten or non-existent past of what America was. The America that is shrouded in flags and myths hides what we have been and who we are today. When we accept the whole truth of our history, we can then immerse ourselves in the glory of the great moments we all shared and move forward as the United States of America.

Image by BarBus from Pixabay

Mister President-elect, I know the burden on your shoulders, and that of the Vice President-elect is great. But you will not be carrying the load alone. All of us who care for the future will be here with both of you. Reach across the chasm to those who did not vote for you. Those who did are ready to do the hard work. Create new ways for all of us to see and hear each other so that we can rise together and defeat the Pandemic and build the America that we need for the twenty-first century. As another American leader, Abraham Lincoln said during the last great war between Americans on a bloodied battlefield at Gettysburg, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure — It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We must soar above the worst in us to new heights and a new America. Don’t f*ck this up, Joe. We got your back.

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