Archive for the People Category

America’s Coarse

Posted in Observations, People on June 1, 2018 by Vince.Puzick

How’s my driving?  Call 1-800-Eat Shit.

My daughter and I sit at breakfast at a local restaurant that serves an awesome huevos rancheros with a green chile that is so hot it brings beads of sweat to my forehead.  I look over her shoulder at the man sitting at the next table.  His shirt, bright orange with block white letters, reads Peyton Fucking Manning.  With every forkful, I get an eyeful.

The President’s daughter is a feckless c**t.

Another bumper sticker warns that my kid can kick your honor student’s ass. I sit at the stoplight and read and re-read.

Maybe I am a prude.  I could, clearly, be called worse.  Maybe I am a weakling of a liberal snowflake.

Grab ‘em by the pussy.

 If I wanted to look away from the bumper sticker, the t-shirt, the TV to avoid the profanity, I couldn’t.  There is no place to turn.

A friend posts a video on Facebook of a black comedian saying that times will be fairer when more white kids are killed and white mothers are crying, mourning their deaths.  The audience laughs. The 30-second grab from the longer “performance” loops through again. It’s an endless feed.

There was a time long past when we would cringe at any one of these incidents.  Our civil sensibilities would have been violated. Locker room talk, right or wrong, had a place – and it was in the locker room. Vulgarities might have flown in a sports bar or in a basement.  Today, we are all – every one of us — the audience for a steady stream of Technicolor invectives offered up through airwaves, bumper stickers, and digital delivery.  We can’t shield our eyes. Can’t cover our ears. It’s Dolby surround sound.

We need a societal mouth washing with Dove soap.

Our plight has been an evolution.  Or rather devolution as we have devolved into united states of a coarsening America.  Thoughts become words.  Words become actions.  As a man thinketh … Just listen. We have dulled our ability to cringe.

We can point our finger at, or give a finger to, the person we claim “well, he started it!”, or the one who has been more offensive, or more racist or sexist or homophobic or obscene or more out of line or somehow further over the top than our own over-the-topness.  We aim to one-up as we aim to cut down.  Entertainers strive for Nielsen ratings when what we should be watching is the Richter scale measuring our cultural tremors, no longer terra firma as we have lost our footing.

Maybe I’m a prude.  I’ve been called worse.

We clamor about lyrics of rap songs, images in video games, the photoshopped perfection of objectified women, the crassness of the cat-call.  And yet we endure a litany of daily assaults on our senses, we adorn our shirts, our cars, our media with crude and dehumanizing language.  We’ve become tone deaf in the din.

How’s my driving? 

 It’s horrible.  Right into the ditch.

 

Having a Voice

Posted in Arts and Creativity, Healing and Recovery, People, Teaching, Writing on April 8, 2018 by Vince.Puzick

Rob Lessig had a vision. It wasn’t too sharply focused, and it was admittedly a bit of a crazy idea, but it all centered around one idea: “stories are relevant.” He wanted to create an event that would showcase storytelling and all the different modalities through which we tell stories: film, poetry, art, music. And the Storytelling Festival was born.

Rob, English teacher at Mitchell High School and founder of Ghost Factory Press, said the idea had its origin when he took a class on “narrative theory” a few years ago. Sounds like an English teacher, right? And the idea grew to fruition.

Saturday, at the City Auditorium in Colorado Springs, high school students, their teachers, and community members gathered and moved through small auditoriums in the building to take in student-produced films, a fashion show, dance, jazz concerts, and rock and roll sessions. The theme holding the evening together was story – how do we tell them, in what genre, and with what craft?

I hung out in the halls of the City Aud to check out the student art for sale, but my main focus was on the slam poetry event. Last spring, I had the privilege and honor of judging the Slam Poetry contest featuring students from Colorado Springs District 11 high schools.

The Storytelling Festival had a twist – the Teacher Poetry Slam. Teachers from D11 schools spit their best poems in fevered three minute poems. Students and audience members snapped fingers when they were moved and “ooohhed” and “ahhhhed” at lines that particularly sung to them.

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Student hosts provide some comedy before introducing the next teacher-poet.

The Teacher Poetry Slam ended in a three-way tie!  Dan Reicks from Russell Middle School, Sarah Hook and Andrew Ziegler from Mitchell all received PERFECT scores for their performances!

I was able to catch up to only three of the teachers who participated; other participating teachers were either swarmed by their students or they had made their way to some of the other events in the Aud.

I asked Miranda Popp, a teacher and colleague of Lessig’s at Mitchell High School, what was the power of slam poetry for these students. “It’s the empowerment itself. It gives formerly voiceless people the spotlight,” Popp said. Slam Poetry often is very introspective with topics ranging from commentary on social issues, to identity, to abuse, to questions about gender. Miranda said that slam poetry is healing: “the speaker heals from saying it; the others heal from listening to it.”

Slams are competitions among poets and are judged on delivery and language use, as well as the message delivered. This isn’t your restrained “poetry reading”; slams are performance art. While some slams can be a bit aggressive (for lack of a better term) in crowd response and scoring, the teachers in D11 have done a great job to create a positive event — seen in the vulnerable topics the students choose and the supportive spirit the audience offers.

Todd Hegert, an English teacher from Palmer High, agreed. “Slam poetry is so strong on word play, in language, and in telling a story” that it sets it apart from other poetic forms or events and it is “more compelling” to the current student population. “They get to tell their story, talk about the world around them, work toward solutions.” In the long run, Todd says, these “young voices are equipped with the language to shift the political and social landscape.”

One teacher I could not interview, but all three of the other teachers mentioned, is Chris Hartman from Coronado High School. His work with students and his efforts in creating the student Poetry Slam competition are recognized by students and teachers, alike.

“I love how this night showcased students and the arts,” Popp said. “Arts are so important to our students, and show that our students are human beings. This is more important than the standardized assessments” that are so much part of their educational world.

 

Lessig agreed, saying that once the expenses are met, the rest of the proceeds from the evening will be donated to arts education in our community. He reminded me that all the events tonight – the films, music, art, dance – were student created.

“The arts build community,” he said. And, as the program for the night’s event stated, “Stories create our world.”

 

Creative Forces Community Summit

Posted in Arts and Creativity, Healing and Recovery, People, Writing on February 19, 2018 by Vince.Puzick

Let’s start with the stories.

A panel of four veterans ended Day One of the Creative Forces Summit by telling part of their story. Staff Sergeant Cory Sandoval, First Sergeant David Griego, Sergeant Curt Bean, and Lieutenant Colonel Walter Ernst shared their experience coming home and reintegrating back into the civilian life following their combat duty.

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“Whatever you come back with has no cure,” LT. Col. Ernst told the approximately 200 attendees at the Summit. “It’s part of the culture of combat. You don’t come home the same (as when you went in).”

The others told parts of their stories – because the stories are all unique to the veteran yet common themes run through – that echoed those sentiments. “I deal with a lot of guilt each day,” SSgt Sandoval reflected. They also commented on the “15 Things Veterans Want You to Know” which was really informative for a civilian like me to hear.

The Summit, part of the network of Creative Forces initiatives happening throughout the country, was the launch of the community efforts to help veterans heal from the trauma of their combat experiences. The Colorado Springs region – with its military presence here – is one of eleven sites in the NEA Military Healing Arts Network.

The Network brings together the 3 Cs for creative arts therapies to foster the healing process: Clinical (Medical Research, Creative Arts Therapies, and Telehealth services), Community (State, Regional, and Local Arts Organizations, Veterans Networks), and Capacity Building (Training & Education, Digital Resource Centers, and Medical Research). These three components put creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care.

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Held at the beautiful ENT Center for the Arts on the UCCS campus, the Summit brought various local arts organizations together with military representatives to hear the clinical support veterans receive and to hear the work of the arts organizations that currently provide community support for our veterans. The Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR) in conjunction with the Colorado Creative Industries will serve as the administrative lead for our community’s local Creative Forces initiative with support from, among others, the National Endowment for the Arts, Americans for the Arts, and Fort Carson to spearhead these efforts.

A panel of local arts organizations presented on their efforts to provide art therapies to veterans. We heard reports from the following local arts organizations:

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The creative arts therapies allow veterans to tap into ways to “identify, name, and process their trauma.” That trauma may manifest itself in Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, or chronic and debilitating pain. The creative arts therapies give them multiple ways “in” that other therapies may not tap into. Through music, visual arts, movement, or writing, veterans are able to use the resources they might learn in their clinical sessions – tools like mindfulness, socialization strategies, expressing feelings, ways to enhance reasoning and thinking skills. The combination of clinical approaches and the community arts organizations allow veterans to treat the wounds of war and come home whole.

The invisible wounds of war, wounds that have a physical, emotional, and economic impact on the veterans, are healed through connection (engaging the veteran), communication (controlling their own narrative), and creativity (veterans want to help and serve and the creative arts allow them to tap into what they can create).

The keynote speaker on Day Two for the culmination of the Summit was a presentation by Stacy Pearsall. Pearsall, combat disabled and retired from military service, served as a military photojournalist during three combat tours in the Middle East. She is the founder of the Veterans Portrait Project which arose out of her desire to turn her photography into art and capture the portraits of veterans to honor their service. You can view Pearsall’s work on the Veterans Portrait Project website.

Attending the Creative Forces Summit was a very humbling experience. To hear the veterans’ stories, to move toward understanding the process of healing their combat trauma, and to hear their own perspective on their experience was completely enlightening. More than one of them said that they didn’t want pity or sympathy from their community, and they encouraged us to think of those soldiers who lost their lives as the real “heroes.” What I heard from them was that they want to heal the wounds that we cannot see and that we might barely be able to understand.

And it is through the arts that makes that healing possible.

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I Am Involved

Posted in People on November 6, 2017 by Vince.Puzick

I was a classroom English teacher when the Columbine shooting happened that spring day in 1999.  I was also the newspaper advisor for the school paper, The Lever, at Palmer High School.  We were wrapping up the April edition of the paper when the news broke.  The staff scrambled to put together articles and commentaries about the tragedy, basically in real time.  We worked into the night to finalize the paper.  It is an unforgettable time in my teaching career.

But what is even more memorable is the next day in sophomore English class.  It was an incredibly difficult day.  We were shocked, then, at these mass shootings.  They hadn’t been part of our weekly lives.  And students were scared, confused, saddened;  we all were.  This had an emotional hold on us, in part, because Columbine High School was 60 miles north on I-25 from us.  It had an emotional grip on us, even more so, because these were teens and a teacher that were killed. We may not have known Columbine HS, but we knew school.  We looked at our hallways differently.  We looked at our libraries and cafeteria differently.

As the classroom teacher, I looked at my students differently.  And I am guessing they looked at me differently.  What would I say?  What would I do in the aftermath of this tragedy?

I let them talk.

Jesse, a muscular kid, a football player, a kid who wanted to be a boxer, said he knew some of the guys from Columbine because of football.  He didn’t know them well, Jesse said, but he had interactions with them.  I imagined the helmets cracking against each other, the grunts and groans trying to grind out a few more yards.  I imagine him looking eye-to-eye with a Columbine player.  All of a sudden, 60 miles didn’t seem so far away.

I let them talk as long as they needed to.

And then I shared that I didn’t even know what to say, really.  I said that any emotion they were feeling was legitimate.  Confusion.  Sadness.  Anger.  All appropriate.  I didn’t have anything profound to say.  We were all raw.

But I did have something to share with them,  a piece of literature.  I may have distributed it to them or I may have just read it aloud.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 

I re-read a part not so much for them, but for me:

    any man’s death diminishes me,

    because I am involved in mankind.

 

I shared with them that in all the shock, all the sorrow, all the emotions too tangled together to even make sense, I felt, we did, the loss because I am, we are, involved in mankind.

As classroom teachers, putting together a newspaper or holding together a classroom community, we need to show up every day.  Our students need to see us deal with the same loss they are experiencing.  Need to hear us talk about our emotions, get choked up, listen attentively.  Stumble through no answers.

And, sadly, we have had to do that repeatedly.  It doesn’t get easier.  We don’t get better at it.

60 miles isn’t so far, after all.  Columbine’s right up the road.  And so is Sutherland Springs.  So is Newtown.  Names of places so familiar we don’t even need to identify the state.

They’re our neighbors.

The Paseo House

Posted in People, Places on October 30, 2017 by Vince.Puzick

An Open Letter to Any Prospective Buyer,

Welcome to The Paseo House.  Look around.  Make yourself comfortable.  We certainly did for the last thirteen and a half years.

Enjoy the view out of the south-facing window, the one that looks over the Patty Jewett golf course (country club living on a teacher salary), while I tell you a little about our history with the house.

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I bought the house in May of 2004 just as my daughter was heading out of 5th Grade from Stratton Elementary and into the 6th Grade at Mann Middle School the following fall.  Part of the motivation for buying the home was to enable my daughter to continue on with her friends into middle school (it’s a long story – about single parenting, her mother’s move to Florida to pursue her master’s degree, etc.). The motivation was to be in a cool neighborhood near her childhood friends as we began a single-dad household.

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Hopefully  you can envision the fullness of the life lived here.  A pre-adolescent girl growing into a confident and outspoken young woman.  A middle-aged dad trying to guide her through that growth.  At one point, when she was around 16, I was washing dishes, she was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room.  Our conversation (was it about driving? about boys?) was tiptoeing up on becoming an argument.  I looked at her with my hands dripping soapy water, and said “Jess, I am learning how to be a parent to a 16-year old.”  She looked across the expanse of the kitchen and said “And I’m learning how to be 16.”  That’s what happened here:  we learned to live a rich life.

We had movie marathons downstairs in the big room in the basement.  What a great home theater that was – it’s even shaped like a theater!  From The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Minority Report, Jeremiah Johnson, to Juno  and X – we watched our favorites, argued over the quality of each other’s choices, cheered on Seabiscuit, cringed at shared bad choices like Stepbrothers.  Wrapped in blankets, we ate popcorn in the glow of a good movie from our big screen.

And that basement, partially finished but totally funky, became the home of a third bedroom, became the site of a pottery studio, became the venue for a Super Bowl party and a Halloween gathering.  My daughter’s friends bobbed for apples in a plastic tub in the utility room. The bathroom glowed red from the decorative bulb. The basement may look a little tired — thirteen years can take its toll.

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While the basement was sort of the raucous part of the house, upstairs was quieter.  Winters called for a fire in the fireplace, chili cooking on the stove, potitza rolled out on the table at Christmas, and snow-filled views out the window.  We’d watch foxes against the white snow on winter mornings.  Occasionally a deer or two would leap the fence separating the tee box on Hole #5 from our yard. From the same window and the back deck, we’d watch the golfers, wince at their missed putts, rejoice at their solid drives. cringe at their colorful language.

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We had pets here, too.  Two dogs, two cats.  They slid across the wood floors.  They sat in the sun streaming through the windows.

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Family members — sisters and brothers and nephews — stayed here.  They stayed on vacations and on relocations.  They recovered here and regained their footing.  There was no place to comment on the realtor’s listing documents as we put the house on the  market, but this house has healing powers.

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The other day as my daughter and I were reminiscing about The Paseo House, she mentioned that she lived here for over half her life.  In all my busy-ness to get the house ready to sell, the move had not fully hit until then.  She had lived in other homes over her 24 years, but this was the longest she had lived in one residence.  That night, I made a little timeline of the houses I have lived in.  The Paseo House is #24 (this includes the various dorms and college apartments I called home for 6- or 10-month periods).  By the time I graduated from high school, I had lived in five houses, three of them with solely with my single mother.  My daughter was right in slowing us down to reminisce about this transition from one home, one life, to another.  It’s not a small thing, this.

You may be wondering why sell the house now?  Well, that pottery studio housed in the basement was the home of JK’s Creative Disasters Pottery.  And JK moved from being my friend, to my best friend, and now to my fiancée.  I found love at the Paseo House (and wooed her with Durango Chicken and Green Chile Rice cooked in a funky 60’s-style turquoise oven along the way).

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My daughter and I lived a great life here, and we shared that life with family and friends for over thirteen years.  Paseo means “a slow walk” or “leisurely stroll.”  While it wasn’t always leisurely, we walked together as father and daughter, each growing in our own individual ways, our lives unfolding in wonderful ways.

As Tom Stoppard writes in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”  So while we are exiting The Paseo House, it is to enter a new life, new experiences, and share our lives with loves that were born here. I’d like to think that our life here set the foundation for life’s next offerings.

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We hope, as you enter, that you have love and health, and enjoy a joyful walk of your own, here in The Paseo House, with the warm morning light from the southern sun streaming in.

 

“Press at the Edge of Memory and Truth”

Posted in Observations, People, Writing on October 24, 2017 by Vince.Puzick

Mary Karr talks with Sherman Alexie at The New Yorker Festival 2017

October 6, 2017

nyfWhen I heard that Mary Karr was going to have a 90-minute conversation with Sherman Alexie as part of the New Yorker Festival of 2017, I had to find a way to get to NYC.  I searched flights from Denver to LaGuardia, searched lodging on TripAdvisor, mapped out an itinerary.  After I had the logistics of the trip mapped out, I realized that on October 7, the morning after their conversation, I had to be in Denver for a commitment to present at a conference.  The adrenaline rush to hear two of my favorite writers puddled into disappointment. 

But I kept at the planning.  And an unlikely solution came to me.  I’d fly out on Friday morning, arrive in the City around 3:00, find the theater, have dinner, and go listen to the conversation which would end at 8:30.  I’d catch the flight back to Denver at 10:45 and arrive at DIA around 1:00 a.m.  A long day, seventeen hours, but sandwiched in between flights would be a literary event I would not have the opportunity to experience any other way. 

In the dark theater of the School of Visual Arts in the Chelsea neighborhood, I scribbled notes in the composition notebook I always carry, sporadic chicken scratchings, scrawled out haphazardly and cross-ways to the lined paper.

So what stuck from the 90 minutes?

In the best moments, it felt like eavesdropping on two people who hold huge mutual respect for each other talking about family, in general, and more specifically about Sherman Alexie’s newest work, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a memoir about his relationship with his mother who died in July of 2015.  Of course, they were also “on” and their conversation had an audience; the act of being observed changes the nature of the object being observed.  We were, in essence, a part of the event.

There were awkward moments in the conversation like there are in any other conversation.  Moments when Mary’s question (it was such an intimate space that I am going to sometimes use first names), a good question, caused Sherman to pause, gather his thoughts, and in some instances, collect himself before answering.  He became choked up with some responses, like when he commented on how his mother probably saved his life:  “the first was when she quit drinking and the second was when she let me leave the rez.”

Karr’s questions were almost those of a therapist – exploring, pressing Sherman to reveal motivations behind the book, the drive to tell the story about his relationship with his mother.  And he said early in the conversation, “I had never written about her before” that he “avoided writing about her” and was somewhat “scared of writing honestly about my mother. I wanted to be truthful.”  Mary said later, “your book is very loving” toward her and it was a book that had to be written.

At one point, Sherman said something like “I knew there would be this priestly thing” about having this conversation with Mary.  So maybe the conversation was somewhat confessional since they joked about Mary’s Catholicism and Sherman’s belief system characterized by what he calls “spiritual coincidences.”

At other times, she probed about the nature of memoir writing.  She asked him if he considered writing this book as fiction.  In the first three months after his mother’s death, Sherman wrote something like 150 poems and “thought [he] had a book of poetry.”  And somehow it morphed into his first – and what sounds like his last – memoir.  “I’m not going to do it again!” he laughed when Mary pressed him about the challenge of writing memoir, a genre, she joked, that’s “very ghetto in the literature world. You’ve sunk to the bottom.”

In the midst of writing my own memoir, I was an active and reflective listener during the dialogue, listening carefully as Karr mentioned how family stories change depending on who is telling them and with the different occasions and contexts for the telling.  How we move, as Sherman said, from being “the boy on the kitchen floor,” absorbing the stories and experiences in the family, to being the storyteller, the voice for the family stories and family history.  And that shift is always a jolt as you may hold on to an idea that you convince yourself is true about your family – but perspective, time, and memory may ultimately challenge that idea.

And there it was, the heart of the conversation, the reason I was there eavesdropping: the steady pulse throughout their talk about family, truth, and memory.   To illustrate, Sherman’s memoir includes the story of his mother being conceived by rape told three different times in the memoir.  And when Sherman told how he came to write that story of his mother (and of his older sister who was also conceived by a rape), Mary expressed her admiration at his “willingness to press at all the edges of memory and truth and how stories are told in your family.”

My daughter would ask, once I was back in Colorado, if attending the conversation was a life-changing event.  I had to think for a minute.  Did the conversation change my life?  It was a once-in-a-lifetime event in many ways – but did that make it life-changing? If I had to label it something, the label would be “life affirming” or at least “affirming of a writerly life.”

It affirmed the power of stories and the necessity of telling them. It’s through sharing our experience in the world that we may give others strength and hope.

I’m left these three weeks later, summoning the courage to press at the edges of memory, to tell my one, true story.

Eulogy for the Misfits, the Tenderhearteds

Posted in Observations, People on April 5, 2017 by Vince.Puzick

For all who feel they don’t quite fit
Inspired by and in memory of Chris Winter, 8/6/86 – 4/5/16

Sometimes this world was too large for you. Sometimes, too small.

Too large because it seemed you could not find your place.  It didn’t always feel inviting.  Didn’t offer an easy chair to kick-back, where you could sink in and be yourself.

Too small because it could not contain what you brought into this space, what you filled it with – your heart, your laughter, your humor, your spirit.

Sometimes, I remember, when you entered the room, what you presented to the world screamed that you were unapproachable, don’t touch, hands-off. Let me be. But on the inside you sought acknowledgement, notice, connection.

On other days, the exterior you presented to the world whispered “Here I am. Notice me” and your interior throbbed with loneliness, sadness, with fatigue from your struggle to be in that world that was, at the same time, too big and too small.

I could feel your state of being when we would hug – even if it was brief – because you would either relax into the embrace, body heavy against my chest, your arms embracing back. Or, on bad days, your grip would be limp, your torso rigid. Those days you needed to be held more but you desired it less.

You had such unbridled creativity and didn’t always know how to channel it. Your fascination with The Stanley Hotel, and by extension, King’s The Shining, was riveting to observe. You knew the architecture, knew the backstory. And that time you built the replica of the Titanic! You knew details about the Titanic that we didn’t. You knew answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask.

Maybe we always struggled with that, knowing which questions to ask.

You didn’t see the world as others do – and you wondered why. You saw this disconnect as something “wrong” with you – rather than seeing it, maybe, as a shortcoming in the world around you.

Sometimes I wondered, we asked, why you couldn’t see the world, see you, as we did. Was that the wrong question? Maybe we needed to ask how you saw the world.  Did you see it as too big, one vast ocean? Or too small like the chamber of a heart? How can we fit in this space that seemed sized for somebody else?

You were fiercely independent yet had such close bonds with those you would let in. And when we were in, you were fiercely loyal and loving. Which is why losing you touches us so deeply. We thought that since we were in, we knew you. We had you and you, us.

Strength to fight yet tenderhearted; bold but sheepish; spirit and flesh; engaging but distant.

Oh, how we wanted to bridge that distance.

To-do List: Things I Have Never Written About (but maybe should)

Posted in Observations, People, Places, Teaching, Writing on September 28, 2016 by Vince.Puzick
  1. Colorado Springs. I have written about places before – different houses we’ve lived in, places I have hiked or fished. Mesa Verde. Lost Creek Wilderness Area. But I have never written about my hometown with any real focus or commitment. I was born and raised here, have seen the changes that time and people have brought to the city, and have observed how things have stayed the same, too. I’ve wondered about the identify of the place – home of Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, NORAD, Focus on the Family (a transplant from California). I’ve pondered Penrose Hospital – the first building to rise up over ten stories, my mother’s employer for 40 years, my birthplace. I’ve thought about the neighborhoods – Wood Avenue, Tejon Street with tree-lined homes of doctors, lawyers, and Colorado College professors. Of Roswell, the homes of blue-collar workers from the assembly line who worked with my dad. How Colorado Springs sits at the base of Pikes Peak, America’s mountain, the Colorado 14er furthest to the east. It’s not a mountain town or a town on the prairie. Military town? College town? Tourist destination? Olympic City (I heard that on the TV)?
  2. Baseball. America’s pastime. My boyhood passion. I played in little league baseball starting when I was eight years old and played through high school. I was on the Red Sox, the A’s, the Orioles. We played “homerun derby,” 500, wiffle ball at Bonny Park. We mimicked our heroes – Reggie Jackson, Clemente, Bob Gibson. Me mocked our foes – Pete Rose, Yaz, Wilbur Wood. I played epic one-on-one pitch-and-hit battles with my older, southpaw brother. He struck me out way more often than I got hits off of him. I chased him through the fields surrounding our house, me waving the bat above my head. I was never a good loser. Ten summers of organized ball. Family vacations postponed until August and built around little league schedules – Saturday morning games, afternoon practices. Championships were celebrated. Losses were mourned. Friendships made.
  3. My Mother. I have written relentlessly, filled up reams, about my father. I have only rarely written about my mother. Short bursts of an image of her, a recollection of a conversation, or her devotion to a nursing career. I wrote a poem about her once, “Sestina for the Nuns,” about her work at Penrose Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity. I have down some notes, and I have certainly pondered her life, but I have not written about her with the same sustained energy and focus that I have about my father. Maybe it is the same as poetry; we are motivated by the pain of the human experience to write poetry more than we are motivated from that place of beauty and peace. Maybe it has been easier to write about the dysfunction of my dad than the strength and consistency of my mother. I have not written about our evening conversation at Penrose Hospital, her first bout with lung cancer, when the loudspeaker said “Visiting hours end in 15 minutes” and I stayed another 45. The staff, her colleagues, understood.
  4. Reluctant Readers. I was a reluctant reader throughout high school. A typical high school boy (some may argue that it doesn’t have to be typical), I was more interested in baseball, backpacking, and eventually beer than in books. I was, still am, a strong reader, but in school I would make my way through the assigned reading and basically call it good. I’d devour Sports Illustrated. Outdoor Life. Field and Stream. It wasn’t until I worked in a factory, White Automotive, after dropping out of college, that I became interested in the written word. And my interest was borne from the impulse to write while working on the assembly line at Whitco. And it wasn’t until I declared myself an English major – due to that interest in writing rather than reading – that I turned the corner as a reader. I was naïve, in fact, when I declared as an English major and came to realize, you know, how much actual reading that academic major required. Add on a minor in history and my nights were spent in Morgan Library on the CSU campus.
  5. Fatherhood. I was 36 years old when my daughter was born. I have written some things about her – poems, mainly, and occasional observances of her life – but I have not written about my own observations about and experiences as a father. For a long part of that time, I was a single father. Jessica’s mother and I were divorced when Jess was about a year old, so I experienced being a parent with shared custody. When Jess entered middle school, she lived with me for all but her 8th grade year. I haven’t written about the joy of watching her mature. I haven’t written about the conversation in the kitchen that gradually grew heated as it headed to an argument and then, in a memorable moment, turned to provide such a lesson. So here it is: I was standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing that night’s dinner dishes. Jessica was leaning against the doorframe between the kitchen and the dining room. I don’t recall the topic of our conversation, but it was escalating. I finally said to her, “Jess, I am learning what it is like to parent a 16-year old.” She looked across the kitchen at me and said “And I’m learning what it’s like to be 16.” But I haven’t written about that.
  6. Teaching. For nearly 30 years, I have pursued my career in education. The first 15 of those years were in the classroom. I have written a brief article or two about specific strategies or instructional practices, but I have not explored my own philosophies, perspectives, or experiences in the classroom or in my roles outside of the classroom. I haven’t written about the moments that evoked great pride in my students: the student journalists on the Palmer newspaper (The Lever); the scores on the IB exams; the conversations about Song of Solomon, Mary Oliver and Eavan Boland poetry, the narratives we wrote. Mike and Ian emphatically pointing at the book and yelling “Let’s go back to the text! Where’s the evidence?” I haven’t written about those less-than-stellar moments of my teaching – the sarcastic response, the dropped f-bomb, the poorly planned lesson. I haven’t written about the tears shed at the loss of a student due to a heart problem, the ache in my heart hearing about a student suicide, the collective grief over Columbine.
  7. On Keeping a Notebook. Or this one could be called Regrets. I have had maybe two dozen attempts at keeping some sort of a writer’s notebook for a long, long time. Only in the last 5-7 years, though, have I routinely written in one. I have had some great starts in the past, but I could never really settle on what the notebook should “look like” – what should be written, how should that writing sound. None of that matters. Not the way entries look on the page. Not the way they sound. Dated or undated entries. Should it read like a diary or like Lewis and Clark’s journals? Visuals and drawings like da Vinci? None of that matters. Just get stuff down. Instead, I only have memory and recall to draw from. So I should write about writing … I should write about keeping a writer’s notebook to those who are reluctant to do so or not sure why or what or what it should look like. Just show up. Lined or unlined? College-ruled or narrow? It. Does. Not. Matter. Writing does.

 

My (first) Tattoo;

Posted in Observations, People on August 21, 2016 by Vince.Puzick

On the drive to the tattoo parlor (do they still call them “parlors”?) I had my usual second- guessing.

  • What if it comes out bad?  Really bad?
  • Are tattoos a “need” or a “want”? (As my mother’s voice echoed in my head in chorus with my own voice when I spoke in the past with my daughter about her budgeting practices.)
  • And ultimately, do I really want to do this?

The answers arrived at each stoplight.

If it comes out bad, really bad, I can wear high socks in the summer and long pants in the winter.  (I was not clear on the line between a “bad” tattoo and a “really bad” tattoo;  I would know it when I see it.) Since I had decided that the placement would be on my right calf, it would not be blatant.  With that placement, it would not be obvious to people when we met.  It wasn’t like I was getting it on my cheek where it would scream “Here I am!  Look at me!”  And since I wouldn’t be able to see it myself without some gymnastic contortions, I could pretend it wasn’t there.  Disaster in the form of embarrassment and humiliation could be avoided if it turns out really bad.

Of course tattoos are “a want” and not “a need.”  It’s a luxury item.  It’s an adornment. It’s a statement, I guess, of some value, belief, some passion or interest that a person has.  We can make statements in other ways.  Write a blog. Post a FB rant or pic.  Buy a t-shirt. Tweet or Snap it.  Those expressions are fleeting, though, and the statement would have to be made repeatedly to “stick.”

“Well,” I said to myself at the stoplight at Forge Road and Garden of the Gods Road.  “No need to worry about if this statement ‘will stick’; it’s what you would call permanent.”

A need or a want? I was in a place where I could financially afford it.  And to answer my mother’s voice rattling around in there, I may have even said out loud in my car:  “I’m 59 years old. And she’s not alive to witness it.”  [I remember when I got my ear pierced and went over to her apartment.  When she noticed the ear ring, she said “Vincent! I told you if you ever got a piercing or a tattoo, you were not welcome in my house!” (She was joking to make a point, sort of, about that.) I looked at her and said “Mom, I’m 35.”]  Today, in this day of less stigma about and much greater acceptance of body art, I think she would say something like “you know, some of them come out very beautiful” and she might pause and then add “but some come out bad.  Really bad.”

My second-guessing about “a want” was answered by the time I reached 30th Street.

The second-guessing question that remained, “do I really want this,” moved back and forth from the back of my mind to the front of my mind for the whole trip.  The other questions were actually easier, so as they pushed their way to the front of my mind, I answered them.  I had about seven minutes until I reached Redemption Tattoo Shop on west Colorado Avenue.

I had debated on whether I “really want to do this” for several years.  My daughter, Jessica, who got her first ink on the day she turned 18, was now in a place where she rolled her eyes whenever I showed her a sketch of a tattoo idea or even mentioned it.  She had heard it for years.  Jannetta was the same way.  If Jessica and Jannetta were in the same room and I mentioned my ideas or even my desire to get a tattoo, they would roll their eyes in perfect synchronization.  They didn’t know why I had any hesitation;  they attributed it to the anticipated pain of the needle.  They attributed my lack of conviction to the whole idea of body art in any form.  I didn’t even know why.  Fears of really bad tattoos.  Fears of not being able to go to my deceased mother’s apartment.

I had cried wolf before.  Told them of my plans.  I posted status updates on Facebook seeking recommendations for artists and parlors (or shops). People responded with names and locations but I never took that step of actually, you know, going to the shop.

For months, ok — years, I sketched out designs.  I had random images that I had roughed out in my mind and on paper.  I had images from the internet that I thought would be cool.  I reached the decision that  I would get a tattoo inspired by my passion for fly fishing.  Yeah, that would be it.  Some of the fly fishing guides that I hung out with had some cool fish and river and nature designs.  I started to sketch out some ideas.  I considered using a line from Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” or the line from Emmylou Harris, “I am standing by the river; I’ll be standing here forever.”

Jessica rolled her eyes. Jannetta gave me a look and asked me to pass the chicken.

To make matters worse, I started to see people’s tattoos of a simple yet sophisticated punctuation mark:  the semicolon.  I always have liked the semicolon.  I didn’t know so many others shared my passion for it!  Then I read about Project ; 

Project Semicolon’s vision is to increase awareness and initiate honest conversation about suicide, mental health, and addiction.  I sought out more information.  And the need for this conversation is not lost on me.  I have been in recovery from my own addictions for a little over 30 years.  When I was 19, and again when I was 26 and only hours before I entered my own period of recovery, I had what they would call suicidal ideation.  The recovery rooms have seats filled with those who have battled similar suicidal thoughts and fought wars with their own self-harm.  If those battles aren’t tough enough, we usually fight them in silence and in isolation.  We feel alone.

I have had very close friends, and friends of family members, and former high school students who have committed suicide.  I have loved ones who, through some periods of their lives, battle the thought everyday.  I won’t share their story here out of respect for the families and friends;  it is their story to tell, in so many ways, and it is for them to decide the time to initiate any public conversations about their experiences.

I have come to hate it when people in recovery rooms say “I was going to suicide but I didn’t have the guts for it. I was too chicken.”  We need to change the language.  “I was going to suicide but for some reason, I still held onto an inkling of hope, a spark, something or some Higher Power kept me moving forward. I had enough courage to go on.”

So I decided on Monday morning, August 15, to get the semicolon tattoo.  Tuesday morning, I messaged my friend (who also came highly recommended), Josh Heney, at Redemption Tattoo Company my idea for the image. He responded a little later, and I tweaked the design.

I had put the fly fishing idea and moved ahead with the semicolon project.  I didn’t tell anybody I was going on Friday afternoon.  I texted Jessica and Jannetta the mock-up of the art work that I designed myself.  They expressed enthusiasm for the image, and I am sure they rolled their eyes that I would ever get it done.

As I turned right from 31st Street on to Colorado Avenue and saw the shop’s sign, I was confident in my decision.  Josh showed me his design and then put the pattern on my right calf.  I studied it in the mirror and we were ready to roll.

For the next 75 minutes or so, I lay face down, motionless, and speechless.  I was not going to move and I did not want to talk to the artist at work.  It’s my first tattoo — do not distract him with some sort of idle chit-chat!  At one point, his fellow artist walked through, stopped and observed.  “That’s cool.  A different approach to the semicolon design.”  I felt inspired.

IMG_7089

When I drew up the design, I started with the semicolon.   That’s the whole point.  And then I thought of my own passion for and interest in writing.  In fact, when I was 19 and battling my own depressive and suicidal thoughts, I would go home at midnight from the factory where I worked and I would write –poems, short stories, one-act plays.  The writing, as far as writing goes, sucked.  But it allowed me to get my story down, to get my story out, to begin to create a voice.

semicolon

As I shifted to lean on my forearms, I thought of my own friends, family, and former students who have been impacted by suicide, mental health issues, and addiction.  I thought of those who have not yet found a solution that they either don’t know exists or don’t believe they deserve.

And to them, I say, you are the writer, your life is your story.

Your story is not over; _________________.

 

 

The Power of Modeling

Posted in People, Teaching, Writing with tags , , on September 28, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

I’ve written six 500-word (or so) memoirs this past month and a half.  That’s due, in part, because of my love of the genre, but primarily these memoirs were composed as part of the instructional process as I guided two classes of high school sophomores (their triptych memoir as discussed in the Kirby’s article “Contemporary Memoir:  A 21st Century Genre Ideal for Teens”) and four classes of seniors through the process of composing their own memoirs.

Modeling is a powerful practice in the writing classroom — if not in all classrooms.  I wanted students to hear my thinking processes as I grappled with the same assignment in front of them.  My modeling moved from the initial brainstorming to uncover potential memoir topics (I used a couple of different strategies — “Stones in the River” and “Map My Neighborhood” — to approach the assignment) to drafting and revising the essay, and cleaning it up with some editing strategies.  We did Peter Elbow’s “looping” strategy to get to the heart of the reflection of the memoir — why is this memory even significant?  At each step of the way, using the document camera, my students listened as I thought through my own writing.

As an aside, one of the examples of instructional modeling I have experienced as a student was on the South Platte River with my friend and fishing guide, Steve.  As he taught me the techniques for putting a dry fly on the water so that it floated naturally to entice fish, he modeled the casting motion, watched as I attempted the same, and guided my “revision” process standing there side-by-side.  He didn’t “tell me” how to cast. He showed me.  He didn’t demonstrate and walk away.  He demonstrated then responded to my attempts with guidance, praise, and (because he’s my friend) some good natured kidding.

One discovery I made in this instructional practice is that I need to be careful as I talk through my process.  I want students to maintain ownership over their own papers, so I want them to mimic the thinking and decision-making process.  I model the thinking so they can follow a similar process to make decisions about their own writing.  One of my favorite questions I pose to myself and, later, pose to my students begins “What if…?”

  • “What if I develop this potential topic with some details and see what I discover;  is it meaty enough to pursue?”
  • “What if I craft these two sentences into one?”
  • “What if I break this paragraph into a couple of paragraphs to change the pace and emphasis? (Yes, that would mean that I may have a one-sentence paragraph.)”

So I wrote one in each of my classes.  Why?  Why didn’t I just fudge it and show subsequent classes the brainstormings and drafts that I did in the earlier class periods?  Simple.  The product at the end of the brainstorming session is only as valuable as the process to develop it.  I liken it to downloading a PDF of a powerpoint from the Internet rather than actually being at the presentation where the powerpoint was used.  Sure, I have a product — but I don’t hear the nuance, hear the thinking behind the slides, the inflection of voice, the speaker’s laugh or the asides.

Students benefit from hearing the thinking behind the arrows moving their eyes around the brainstorming; they need the reasons why things are scratched out and written over in the draft;  they need to hear how the ideas originally in the last paragraph end up being presented earlier and throughout the essay instead of lumped together at the end.  They need to hear me grapple with a decision, struggle with a revision, rethink where I was going as I head where the memoir needs to go.

While none of this may seem particularly new or groundbreaking, as I worked through the process with students, it became clear how powerful modeling is to give guidance, to stimulate thinking, and, ultimately, to release responsibility for their own work.

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