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.

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.

The News Is Driving Us into A Dark Hole

Mental Health
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I have this daily ritual when I wake up and after I organize my day. I scan both the local and national news sites. My head usually hurts afterward. These days it’s just always the same: political fights, wars, shootings, COVID denial, culture wars, the GOP this, the Dems that. And the opinion pages aren’t any better. I mean, I have an opinion, and no one cares about it, so what makes me want to care about these (unless, of course, I agree with them). It’s all the news that’s bound to drive us into a dark hole.

This morning like every morning, I went through my list of sites beginning with local. Long Beach Post. It’s Monday, so at five a.m. in the morning, the news isn’t fresh yet, I get it. People need time off. Headlines like “Community Hospital to close ER, increase mental health services, skirting seismic requirements” and “From migraines to vomiting, residents struggle to live normally through Dominguez Channel odor” compete to get the positivity vibes going. Over at the Press-Telegram, there’s the mandatory update on the Pandemic (there’s a pandemic?) “LA County reports 1,153 new cases of COVID-19, 10 more deaths.” Seriously no one seems to care anymore. That’s the impression I get from all the sightings of people entering businesses with no masks (it’s okay, they’re vaccinated. Yea, how do I know that? I’ll leave this for another rant).

“4 weekend shootings in Long Beach leave 2 people hospitalized,” and this is with strict gun control laws. Wait until the Supreme Court rules that we can all run around with a handgun in our pocket to bars, stadiums, public transportation, hell, maybe a school. As my brother, who lives in New York, said, “What could go wrong?”

Over at the Los Angeles Times, the headline that caught my attention was the one about books in school libraries, “A ‘war on books’: Conservatives push for audits of school libraries.” Is this like election audits where we call in people who have no clue how to run elections, and then they sort of hack their way through ballots contaminating the process, and still come up with nothing but more votes for the winner? So who gets to decide who the expert is this time? Do the neighborhood Ken and Karen who barely made it out of high school get sent into school libraries and just go nuts pulling books from shelves and sniffing them for the odor of subversion and anti-stupid? No, that wouldn’t be right. Let’s invite the same people who gave us the majority conservative Supreme Court that we have. They’ll know what America needs.

Mental Health
Image by kalhh from Pixabay

Over on the national news sites, the news is scarier. The New York Times blasts “Retailers Scramble to Attract Workers Ahead of the Holidays.” It seems people don’t think bonuses of $500 upwards to $3000 are just not enough to put up with “the pandemic’s many challenges, from fights over mask-wearing to high rates of infection among employees.” Sure, the pay is just great. All I have to do is bring my boxing gloves to work every day to fight with Ken and Karen or break up a fight they start with other customers. I’ll just stay home and watch the videos.

Down in Washington, D.C., I see our elected officials are hard at work…arguing with each other and not doing the people’s work. The Democrats finally squeezed through an infrastructure bill (you know, the one that creates jobs) with some of their own refusing to sign on and only thirteen Republicans in the House voting for it. In the Senate in August, only nineteen Republicans voted for it. At the Washington Post, the headline is “Democrats insist Build Back Better bill will pass, despite divisions.” They’ve been saying that for months as the amount of money and programs are carved away to satisfy, wait for it, two Democrats in the Senate who will have to vote for whatever passes in the House eventually. I wonder how many Republicans will vote for the package. I’m not taking that bet.

Thank goodness there’s some good news, but good news gets easily crushed combined with what we see and hear on television, our phones, and radio. It’s all enough to make us depressed. The bad news has always been with us, but I do feel like this time is different. You cannot absorb all this terrible news without seeing it in the context of the Pandemic. It’s enough to drive all of us into a dark hole.

Mental Health
Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

According to Mental Health America in their report on “The State of Mental Health in America,” over half of adults (27 million adults) in the United States with a mental illness are not receiving treatment.” Thinking about suicide amongst adults has increased. “4.58% of adults report having serious thoughts of suicide,” that’s 664,000 more people from last year’s data. The numbers are numbing when it comes to substance abuse: “7.74% of adults in America reported having a substance use disorder in the past year. 2.97% of adults in America reported having an illicit drug use disorder in the past year. 5.71% of adults in America reported having an alcohol use disorder in the past year.  

This latest survey has more bad news. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the “Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020.” During June 24–30, 2020, “U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19.” The affected groups include younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers, pretty much everyone as far as I can tell. Compared to the same period in 2019, the survey turned up these groups suffering “disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide). I wonder if dealing with all the Ken and Karen debacles involving mask and vaccine resistance has anything to do with it (I’m not laughing).

The solution is not to stop watching the news, as I implied in last week’s blog. Although a respite from the noise sure does help drain the muddy swamp in my head. I speak to a therapist regularly, but that’s because it’s a medical insurance benefit. More people should take advantage of it if they have it. The real problem, as always, is reaching those who feel stigmatized by the idea of therapy. Then there are those Americans who don’t have access to the benefit at all.

Suppose elected officials would stop their partisan sniping and sending up false flags. Then maybe, just maybe, Democrats and Republicans can deal with the real issues threatening all our futures.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to look for the good news amongst the bad and hope for the best.

What’s Bugging Me These Days

Image by Sammy-Sander from Pixabay

Watching television and your phone these days, do you ever get the feeling there’s just too much happening in your mind and your life? There’s the stress at work and school and home and community. Pandemic, arguing about Critical Race Theory, vaccination denial, death threats over masks, we won’t get toys in time for the holidays. There’s the social media hysteria. And the Democrats can’t get their act together. They’re practically handing 2022 and 2024 over to you know who. Don’t forget the new narrative about January 6, 2021. The FBI, BLM, Antifa, and yo momma did it. I have a severe headache.

Months ago began refusing to watch the evening opinion shows on CNN and MSNBC. Not because I was in denial. It was just the constant drone of lousy news hysteria and throwing shade, and it was just the same horrible bullshit night after night. There just didn’t seem to be any good news on the horizon. The bad guys were still the bad guys, and I couldn’t figure out who the good guys were. That was the sad part. Everyone points fingers and scream at each other. They accused each other of the worst things imaginable, and no one wanted to take the blame for anything. It was just easier to blame the other person.

Gas and everything else is going up. The supply lines are threatened. And you just can’t help but feel like nothing is happening and that nothing good will come out of this. Wow, this is a good time as any to take a deep breath and step out of the vortex of negativity, misinformation, and selfishness.

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

That’s a big part of the problem. You see and read more examples every day where people would rather satisfy their little selfish needs than take the time to see how their actions might impact their family or friends, or neighbors. Whether it’s speeding through someone’s neighborhood or refusing violently to wear a mask when asked, or shouting death to your neighbor every time you disagree with each other. Knocking out the teeth of a fellow passenger on an airplane 35-thousand feet in the air just doesn’t seem like a good idea. Arguing with the Uber or Lyft driver while they’re trying to take you to your destination by keeping their eyes on the road instead of your shouting mouth is just not the most brilliant move you can make.

Whatever happened to We’re all in this together? Yeah, I guess that was just a marketing slogan, not a sincere thought. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? We just can’t seem to muster enough empathy, sympathy, heartwarming feelings for our fellow human beings. Half of us are still angry that their guy didn’t win, and the other half is trying to move forward with an eye on our rear to make sure someone doesn’t run up on us and spray bear urine on us. Don’t grin. Some of that second half is spoiling for a fight and just can’t wait for the first half, nominally called Karen and Ken, to bounce out from their camouflaged hideaways and pick-up trucks and whatever hold they think they need to hide in to ambush the second half. Anger and threats fill the air between the first and second half, guns come out, and cheers and threats go up as we sadly watch our Democracy die.

In the meantime, we’re all just trying to survive. Carry on with life as if the past nearly two years didn’t happen. I hate to tell you, but it’s still happening whether you want to believe it or not. Denial, isn’t that a bitch? I just don’t get it. What’s the end game? There’s a whole network (actually more than one) devoted to fanning the flames of denial and hate and ignorance, and I’m trying to figure out what’s in it for them? It would be too easy just to say it’s all about money. And to say it’s just about aiding and abetting the next American revolution to overthrow the Democracy we know for something else like, I don’t know, a Theocracy or a United States of Republicanism or Trumpism. I mean, they do know that more of us voted for the other guy than voted for their guy? But, they have more guns and the deep state of law enforcement and military and ex-law enforcement and ex-military. What do we have? The stereotypical answer would be We have the truth on our side. But, no one cares anymore about facts. All that matters is which conspiracy theory, what crazy ass story, is the worst. How many times can you call something, anything, a False Flag?

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

I wish I could say that it’s only one side screaming crazy. The internet is full of people screaming equally crazy shit about the other side. Say something that breaks some invisible rule or crosses some imaginary red line, and you are fucked for life. All sense of perspective and proportion no longer exists. Everyone has anointed themselves enforcer, judge, and jury. All you need is a social media account, and you are suddenly that enforcer, judge, and jury. Whatever happened to sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Now, it’s we’re going to beat the shit out of you for your words with a stick, stones, more words, lawsuits, harassment, and threats against you, your family, and anyone else we can find. I’m just curious Who died and made you King and Queen?

I get into discussions with my wife and friends who have a more optimistic passion for the future. They believe in hope. In the long run, we all want happiness and a good life and community where we can all live as neighbors in peace. All the noise we hear and see in internet videos is not an accurate picture of this country. They try to convince me that there are more good people than bad people and that it’s all our responsibility to find each other and look out for each other. To celebrate together what we have and what we need. That without each other, we will surrender to all that noise that we just can’t seem to get out of our heads. Come on, Antonio, they say, change the channel and discover the other 500 channels of hope and love.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Okay, I’ll try. Except my channel seems to be stuck, and I have to change the batteries on my remote.

I guess I could just unplug the TV and turn off my phone.

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