Water and soul: A Los Angeles County Lifeguard’s art

Anto Boghokian is a Los Angeles County Lifeguard who finds safety in writing

by Judy Shane

Anto Boghokian was 12 years old, visiting his grandparents in California, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Though Armenian, he was raised in Lebanon, and Kuwait, and had been living in Kuwait. He couldn’t return.

It took him two decades to earn permanent residency in the U.S. During this time, he became a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard, earned a masters in education, taught science and math in middle school, and became proficient in a fourth language. He also took up acting and writing..

“In the midst of those difficult times, I turned to writing, particularly poetry, as an emotional and creative outlet,” he said. 

In 2018, Boghokian published 1000 Hours: The Questions that Changed my Tomorrows. The book is a raw, unfiltered account of 41 days, 14 hours and 24 minutes of his life in 2011. The book chronicles a flowing stream of thoughts, feelings, and insights. He never claims to have the answers, but he invites questions that nudge readers toward their own reflections.

Anto Boghokian. Photo by Dana Boian

“I started chronicling because my life was stagnant. There needed to be change and I figured if I wrote enough, the issues would unfold. And I wouldn’t be able to deny it because I wrote it.  I never meant to publish it,” he said.

The idea of chronicling 1000 hours was an accident. 

“I had accidentally started the stopwatch on my phone, and when I next checked it 250 hours had gone by, and I couldn’t really remember what the heck I did. So I decided to keep track of what I was doing, and see if it was getting me closer or further away from the person I wanted to be. Every day I took a test on a website called positivityratio.com. The idea of the positivity scale is that in order to grow you have to have three positive experiences for every negative experience throughout your day. Based on [my early results] I was clinically depressed.”

When asked how lifeguarding influences his writing, Boghokian said, “The ocean teaches me the life lessons I need. As a lifeguard – and as an artist – I must be a keen observer. I must live in the moment. I must stay in shape physically and mentally. And I must continue to learn about human interaction.”

In 1000 Hours, Boghokian recounts a particularly dramatic rescue of two seven-year-old girls at Venice Beach.  

“It was the Wednesday before Labor Day weekend. A swell was building and 12- to 15-foot waves shook the lifeguard tower. The lifeguards were keeping kids close to shore, in ankle-deep water. From the deck of my tower, I noticed two girls playing in the sand only a few feet from their mom. I grabbed my fins and red rescue can, intending to move the girls to higher ground, when the white water knocked them down, and dragged them into the rip current.” 

Boghokian has no memory of putting on his fins. “I just remember dolphining through the waves over and over until I reached the first girl.” 

When a back-up lifeguard arrived and took the girl from him, he swam to the second girl.

“We had to swim them out to sea to stay clear of the impact zone,” he said. “That made the girls even more frightened. But when Baywatch arrived, the swells were too big and too consistent to safely get the girls on the boat.

The two guards waited for a lull and then started swimming the two girls to shore. A set rolled in when they were still about 70 yards from the beach.

“I told the girl I was swimming in, ‘You’re going to be okay. I won’t let go.’ Then I told her to take a deep breath just before a wave drove us under the water. I remember thinking while this was happening, that if I went unconscious there would be lifeguards on the beach to revive me.”

“As I watched that mom hugging her daughter, I realized nothing is more important than getting a child back into the arms of a parent,” Boghokian said.

Boghokian’s poetry is informed by the emotions he experiences during ocean rescues.  

“Art can cut into the heart of our human condition. My goal is to be authentic. I figure if I write with brutal self-honesty, I might inspire others to do the same,” he said.

In 2012, Boghokian launched a monthly, multidisciplinary art show called Streaming Hope. “I wanted to provide a supportive community where artists could grow and be inspired.” It earned the 9th Annual Most Innovative Artist of the Year award from the Los Angeles Black Book Exposition. After being closed by the pandemic, Streaming Hope has resumed showcasing poets, musicians, comedians and filmmakers at the Metro Café in Santa Monica, outdoors on the third Thursday of each month.

On being a parent, Boghokian said, “I want my daughter to see life can get messy and that that is okay. I’m aware of the fact that my daughter, even at age four, watches my every move. I’m the template for her future relationships. How my voice fluctuates, how I treat her mother, what she observes about my work ethic – for all of this, I feel responsible. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about being brutally honest, owning up to my mistakes, and doing the best with what I have.” 

Boghokian’s first published poetry collection, On Conscious Love, explores mistakes he has made trying to fulfill his need for love. He dedicates the book, “To all those who have the tenacity to venture on love’s journey wholeheartedly, with resilient courage, and a touch of humor.”

He writes his poems on huge sheets of parchment paper.

“I’m a visual person and I want to see everything on one page. As I begin, a line will come through, a thought or a circumstance. Eventually what is in my heart is revealed.” 

His recent poetry collection, Human Nature, has just been released, and he is currently preparing a one-man show, titled “Redemption.” 

To learn more, visit antoboghokian.com. ER

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