Work Lessons

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When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.

Henry J. Kaiser

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.

Albert Camus

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.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

Pearl S. Buck

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.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

Old(er) American (Beginning Part 1)

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One in a series of essays about being American.

I sometimes do everything possible to stop from getting old(er) denying the truth in front of me and trying to make life stand still while finding that life is just too exciting to stop my body and mind from getting old(er) through all my years and its been difficult to stop the aging process when one grows up like for example in a place like the South Bronx from the ages of birth to thirteen years of life with all its urban stress of living in the projects compared to let’s say Middletown New York in the sixties from the ages of thirteen to fifteen years of life where I was living in the most rural country as rural could be and there was unobstructed land as far as my mind’s eye could see and the air was clean as clean could be out in the country compared to the big city and I could see there in the country at night more stars that I thought existed shining their lights down on my eyes and whispering that they were as old as time could be and were now probably dead since the time they first threw their light down at me and now they are old because they are dead and I’m just getting old(er) because I had not died like them (yet) instead of focusing on living that almost pure life I focused on leaving all that clean air and unobstructed land and more stars that I thought existed back to twenty-one story projects in the South Bronx compacted with so many people and urban stress but by this point in my fifteen years of life I faced painful memories of a catholic seminary and the catholic church and priests who reeked of sour wine and cheap booze while showering me with too much grace and sins and mystical powers that no one can describe or point out but being asked (no told) that I just had to have faith and with that faith I could learn to live in a place like the South Bronx happily ever after with a smile on my face as I grew old(er) dreaming of another life far from the South Bronx like that rural area called Middletown New York with its clean air and unobstructed land and more stars than I thought existed when I told myself and my parents and anyone who would listen that what I loved most was the freedom that came with imagination where I could dream and create my own view of unobstructed land and more stars than I could imagine in my head and that through the freedom I created for myself I could live more of life and learn to be old(er) in a more inspiring way than I could ever find there in the projects whether it was the Patterson’s or the John Adam Houses or that apartment building just south of Crotona Park where my first marriage was dying and the air in the Bronx was choking me and I had gotten tired of the junkie life (but not drugs) and I dreamed to live as many dreams as I could whether in a new big city like the Washington DC or Hartford Connecticut New England of the seventies where on a clear night I could look up at the sky of rural Connecticut and inhale clean brisk air on a cold winter night and see unobstructed land for miles and see more stars than I thought was possible and then to go back to Washington DC after the purity of New England history to live again in a compact city with history and legends and I realize that I am now at thirty years of life wondering what the hell happened in between birth and thirty years of life that it went so fast or lived so fast that I never stood still long enough to absorb it all like the fresh air in Middletown New York or New England and realize all those years are more than a number they are a life if only I had stopped long enough to realize when I was young(er) and full of vigor and ambition and I didn’t need to fear getting old(er) while thinking aloud that life will be special and exciting and it’s all there ahead of me with no care in the world due to this innocence or naiveté or blindness that they taught me in Phoenix House about no matter where I go there I’ll be and no matter how far I go how far I run I cannot hide from me so I’ll always be there with all my faults and wrinkles and holes in my soul and a little old(er) and I fool myself into thinking I know so much when I don’t because what else is there to know about life except I was born and I get old(er) and then I will die (trust me I’ve tested that and I tried more than once) but at that young(er) age so long ago when the idea of old(er) was so far away so distant as the stars above me are so far away and life just goes on and on through thirty years of age and there are plenty of mistakes and remorse (not always) and plenty more mistakes and remorse (not always) because I think I will live forever and not get old(er) so I fill myself with more drugs and alcohol than I thought possible and had ever thought was possible and I crash at thirty five and I keep hoping that there are better days ahead when I will be much old(er) and wiser and I swear that I just need to get away and everything will change and I will change and then I remember what they told me in Phoenix House about wherever I go there I am because there is no guarantee that getting old(er) will make me wiser if I could only move somewhere else anywhere else but I learn quickly as I run all the way from the east coast of this here United States of America to the west coast of this here United States of America that getting old(er) is not just an ongoing physical degradation of the cells in my body and mind but something else is happening in my present and future inside of my consciousness and I will get another chance to get it right or wrong or whatever it is that I want of living and getting old(er) at thirty five as I stand on the edge of America on a cliff overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean and look up at the sky on a clear brisk night where the breeze of the Pacific Ocean humbles me and the stars above me are more stars than I ever imagined overwhelm me while pointing me in a new direction toward an old(er) self and I wonder how far do I have to go and how much time will it take while wondering if I still have time to get there.

(End Part 1)

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