Desperately Seeking Relevance

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson (Source:

"Ladies and gentlemen. My name is Celia Ruiz Tomlinson. I am the president and CEO of Rhombus Professional Associates, a rare national engineering company founded by an immigrant Filipino woman. I founded Rhombus as a civil engineering and surveying company in 1983 with $2,000, rented surveying instruments and a laborer plucked from the unemployment line.

The company has since grown, providing services all over the United States. Perhaps to fully appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment, I must take you back to 1968 in the Philippines where I had already achieved success as an engineer and liberated my family from the grinding poverty of the slums in Manila. 

It was a heady accomplishment for a woman in a male-dominated profession. Success went to my head. One day I boarded a Pan Am plane to enter the United States legally, alone and armed with only the civil engineering degree between my ears, three hundred dollars in my pocket and a shameless optimism in my spirit. Amidst the whir of the plane soaring over the Pacific Ocean, my imagination took on a flight of its own.

I was visualizing myself as America’s Engineer Extraordinaire, the engineer to end all engineers. I was going to show Americans how it’s done! The moment I stepped on the pavement at the LAX airport, harsh realities quickly yanked me out of La La land. There was nobody to whisk me out, I had no vehicle, no place to go, and no idea why I was there.

I had to make a life-altering decision fast. I decided to go to the restroom. As fate would have it, LAX had just installed pay-per-use contraptions on the toilet doors. When I found myself reading instructions as to how to open a toilet door with the use of a dime, it was my first clue that I was unclear on the concept of showing Americans how it’s done.

And one thing became clear. A long, lonely, bumpy road stretched ahead of me. The rest is history."

Tomlinson's book "Don't Ever Tell Me You Can't" (Source:

Thus went the start of the speeches for which I was paid as a motivational speaker. The rest of the one-hour speech varied according to the client’s requirements. 

In 2008, four years after the death of my husband, I sold 25-year-old Rhombus and retired to be a speaker-for-hire full time. I rewrote the speech introduction, gussied up my bio and shipped my new and improved portfolio to the speakers’ bureaus. My voice boomed in the bedroom as I rehearsed. I still had a lot of adrenaline leftover from my triumph as keynote speaker at Georgia Tech five months back. I was ready to sashay on stage anywhere. Unfortunately, the stars misaligned. The economy tanked. The calls for speaking auditions came to a screeching halt. People didn’t need spoken words that motivate; they needed toilet paper, toothpaste, basic necessities. 

Retirement caught me flat-footed, without a script for the proverbial Third Act. So what’s a vibrant person to do after over fifty years in nonstop emotional roller coasters over pitfalls and successes? Restlessness consumed me. My inner warrior struggled to escape. Activities zoomed to my mind in rapid succession. Mentoring startup business people. No, I’d been there, done that. Writing a book. Nah. I had never fully recovered from the fear of dropping dead without seeing my first book published. Someone suggested volunteering. No thanks. I didn’t want to be tied up in a certain place at a certain time. I’d just continue to donate to my favorite charities. 

Talk about a lost puppy! Often I’d surreptitiously drive by my former office building, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the RHOMBUS sign, wondering how it was doing. Memories of years spent nurturing the firm flashed back. I played three-card poker in the Indian casinos, allowing the delightful “cha-ching” of the slot machines to assault my eardrums. Thinking scenery change might help find my bearing, I traveled. I crawled in and out of the Pyramids along the Nile, cruised China’s pristine Yang-Tse River, raised my stein with the Germans along the Rhine, loaded up on kilawin (ceviche) in the Philippines. Always, before the jet lag wore off, I was back on square one—alone in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with nothing to do but hike the trails, practice yoga and answer calls from loved ones who asked, “What are you doing?” 

One day a Filipina friend phoned to ask me an entirely different question: “How about attending belly dancing classes with me?” I blurted out, “Yes!” Winning the 2008 Pin-Up Girl of the Year Award told me I had the curves for belly dancing. Actually the win was by acclamation. No other 66-year-old woman in our elementary school’s 44th reunion had the courage to submit a picture of herself in a bikini. While browsing the Internet for fringed hip scarves, my imagination transformed me to the Belly Dancing Engineer & CEO. The prospect of yet another off-the-wall endeavor intrigued me. 

Background actors, or extras, are vital in a movie. Imagine the ‘Ten Commandments’ or ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ without the extras.

In the beginning it was exciting—the simultaneous challenge of gyrating my hips and avoiding bumping those of the other femme fatales. Soon boredom crept in. It was time to toss the glittery bra in the Goodwill donation bin and continue the search for my Third Act. 

Then I had an epiphany. While tying my bootlaces, the empty chairs and sofas around me grabbed my attention. Not long ago, my mother and my husband buzzed about the house. My teenage son zipped back and forth, skateboard tucked under his arm. Relatives chattered noisily in Tagalog. “Why am I alone?” I asked myself, bewildered. “This is not acceptable!” With that, I kicked the boots off my feet and set out to solve the problem. Within ninety days, the population in my house doubled. I married Bruce Harders, a retiree eight years my senior. 

Wedded life after four years of widowhood diverted my Third-Act thoughts when the marriage hit rocks faster than our courtship careened to the magistrate judge. Friction jarred the relationship. Sparks flew when Bruce’s outdated mindset clashed with the set of beliefs that drove my battles. We tried hard to devise a compromise. Finally, we reached a conclusion. We agreed life’s too short to spend plotting each other’s early demise. 

In the wee hour of one morning, as I was traipsing in the dark to the bathroom, the glow of the power light of my cell phone on the vanity gripped my attention. Before my very eyes the color of the light changed mysteriously from red to green. My heart pounded. 

“Honey,” I whispered in a voice a tad loud for one o’clock in the morning.

“What?!” My startled husband asked. He was now sitting on the edge of the bed, his head buried in his hands. 

I turned on the lights and described to him the phenomenon I had just witnessed. 

“What is your problem? You’re an engineer. You know it means the phone’s battery is now completely charged.” 

“Yes, I know,” I admitted sheepishly. “But I have been waiting for a signal from the cosmos to tell me what I should do in retirement. You know, my Third Act.” 

He thought for a moment and then said, “Let’s do movies together.” 

A belly dancer cartoon by Celia Tomlinson's son (Image courtesy of Celia Tomlinson)

I studied Bruce’s face. He resembled the old William Holden. A former national corporation executive, Bruce had pursued the thespian arts after retirement, quickly built a bio, and got listed in the IMDB (International Movie Data Base) when his name, along with those of other featured extras, rolled up with the speed of lightning in the credits of “Horror in the Wind.” 

The “Black Blizzard,” a History Channel documentary, provided the opportunity for my first audition. Bruce and I trekked to a Santa Fe hotel where about a slew of people milled around in the hall, waiting to be called. When our turn came, a squat man in his forties who looked like he could be in the “Duck Dynasty” show herded us to the audition room. He sat me on a chair and handed me a wooden bowl. 

“You are a wife, snapping peas. Your husband will enter the room and greet you affectionately,” he said, and walked behind the camera. “Action!” 

In a moment it was over. Three days later, I received the audition results from the production company. Bruce got a part. I did not. I don’t know if I flunked the audition or there were just no roles for a senior Filipino babe. We auditioned again and again. In a few months, my bio swelled with background work experience. Movies including “Observe and Report,” “Sex and Sin City,” “Spy Next Door” and “Crazy Heart” gave me the rights to brag, “I was in that movie shoot!” 

Background actors, or extras, are vital in a movie. Imagine the “Ten Commandments” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” without the extras. For this reason, production crews and background actors treat each other with respect. We need each other. We eat the same delicious catered meals. During the long hours of shooting, we stay in a “holding room” while waiting to be called. Some play cards, others read. I solve crossword puzzles. We eat anytime, all the time, like in a cruise ship. 

The movie “Spy Next Door” starring Jackie Chan gave me my first featured extra role. In this film Bruce and I were the only couple having dinner in front of a teppan chef in a Japanese restaurant. A feral intense martial arts fight broke between Jackie Chan and the bad guys and ended up near our table. I was a diner in distress being helped out of harm’s way by my husband. When the movie came to the theater near us, Bruce and I went on the first screening and anxiously awaited the scene of our award-winning performance. It never came. It had been cut. 

The television series “Easy Money” provided me the vehicle for a recurring role. The director called several women to audition for roles of rich party guests of a wealthy couple in this TV series about loan sharks. The director picked eight winners including me! In this scene of the eighth episode, I portrayed a snob, disgusted at a fake Louis Vuitton purse. Months later, while dusting the bedroom, an extremely familiar face flashed on the TV screen. It was mine! The director had allowed my image to zoom in and out of the scene. Something sinister in those beady eyes made him do it! Seeing myself on TV got me all stoked, charged for action for the episodes of the next season. But woe is me. The network canceled “Easy Money” after the eighth episode. 

The movie shoot of “Dirty Weekend” came to town last month. I got a call to be one of three featured extras as businessmen dining near Matthew Broderick. In this movie my name, along with those of other featured extras, will roll up in the credits at the end of the film, according to an agreement that I signed. You’ve come a long way, baby! 

In conclusion, light dawned. All these five years that I’ve spent searching for my Third Act, I have been in it without knowing it. Free of financial worries and possessed of abundant free time, I have been enjoying the freedom to pursue what I want when I want. Background acting in movies is only the latest part of my third act. Driven by my mantra “Learn something new every day” I eagerly await the next adventure. I have redefined relevance. The search for the unicorn is over.  


Celia Ruiz Tomlinson (Photo courtesy of Celia Tomlinson)

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson is the author of "Don't Ever Tell Me You Can't".