Thursday, December 30, 2010

Look to this Day: A Reflection on Resolutions

Somewhere around 27 years ago, I forewent writing New Year's Resolutions. To look out over the landscape of 365 days with the confidence that I had enough self-discipline to live a new life -- which the resolutions foreshadow and promise -- seemed deflating rather than invigorating. But I can live one day at a time in full and rich ways that hold promise.

In essence, I suppose, my new year's resolution became the same resolution for the past 27 years: live each day as fully as I can. As trite as it sounds, it seems the most authentic way for me to live. I am not always successful even in that bite-sized morsel of a year, 1/365 of the new year, but I get a new chance each day.

Probably the best writing of this entry follows (because it is not mine!):

Look to this day,
For it is life,
The very life of life.
In its brief course lie all
The realities and verities of existence,
The bliss of growth,
The splendor of action,
The glory of power --

For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today, well lived,
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day.

Sanskrit Proverb

Happy New Year and best wishes for 2011.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The BBC says nobody will read this blog post. Prove it wrong!

A recent survey circulating on Facebook is a BBC list of 100 works of literature accompanied by a "challenge" (for lack of a better term) that most people have not read more than 6 of them. I took the challenge and have read or started to read or read excerpts from about 20 or so. Some I have read more than once. The BBC included the works of Shakespeare -- but wouldn't it be a more appropriate question to ask how many Shakespeare plays you have seen performed? I believe Shakespeare was the only playwright included in the list.

So on my drive back from 11 Mile Canyon after a brief afternoon of fishing, my thoughts naturally went to Hemingway and his short story "Big Two-Hearted River," and then to Maclean and his A River Runs Through It. But then my thoughts went back to the BBC list. Why that list? Why those titles? What does the list reveal about me if I read three of those books? Or twenty-three? Or fifty-three? How much different would my life be if I read seventy-three of those titles rather than somewhere around twenty? What if the only book I read on that list was Moby Dick (and how did Moby Dick make the list and not Huckleberry Finn?) What does the list reveal about "us" (and similar lists, too) even by the very choices of literature on the list?

When I was an English major at CSU, I proudly declared that I was an American Literature devotee -- much to the chagrin of Dr. John Boni yet much to the delight of Dr. Robert Zoellner. Any list I would dare to create would certainly show an American Lit bias -- and the list would reveal more about me, perhaps, than about those who responded. Would it reveal any more or less cultural or literary literacy for those who took my American Lit challenge? Was Dr. Boni's disdain legit because I favor American Lit more than British Lit?

When I got to Divide, Colorado, I started to wonder what if we changed the artistic medium and conducted a similar survey. What if the question became "The _ _ _ believes most people will only have viewed five of the following works of art." Then the list would include Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, Jasper Johns' US Flag, Picasso's Guernica, Kooninig's Woman I, Matisse's Dance, Dali's The Persistence of Memory, Diego Rivera's The Arsenal: Frida Kahlo Distributes Arms. My list, of course, could go on for 90 or so more paintings. Am I less cultured because I have only viewed, first hand, a handful of those works in a museum setting? What if the medium became baseball games, certainly artistry of a more kinesthetic sort? Am I less cultured because I have seen games in Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field but not in Fenway Park?

Literary works lend themselves to lists more than any other artistic endeavor because we all have the ability to hold those works in our hands and to take our time to savor those works. (Of course, the Internet allows us to "see" the above works of art but we lose all sense of dimension. For example, O'Keeffe's The Black Iris is 36" x 29"; Dali's The Persistence of Memory a mere 9.5" x 13"; Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" is 30 x 60 inches.) So we turn to our familiarity with and indulgence in literature to "say something" about us as a culture, as a society, as an individual. But what is that statement -- what does it say about us if we have only read six of these, or eight of those, or none of that list?

And does "our" list have to change? How many books have we read of writers from the Middle East? How many books of Latina/a writers -- books representing the voice and culture of the fastest growing ethnicity in the U.S.? If, as it is said, literature offers a window into another's experience -- and that literature serves offers us a mirror to look at ourselves -- what does the BBC List of 100 offer? Is it a multi-faceted mirror or a multi-paned window?

I'll bring this pondering to an end...not so much out of lack of interest to continue musing but because other obligations call my name.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day 2010

Even though it is bit cliche to be reminded that Thanksgiving is a day to express our gratitude and thanks for the blessings in our lives, here I am writing about those things for which I am truly appreciative. Actually, it is not the "things" but the people in my life for whom I am grateful. To paraphrase another saying: gratitude starts at home. And with that, I am grateful for the beauty of my daughter, Jessica, and her continual evolution into young adulthood. She amazes me every day. It's a joyful thing to watch -- this unfolding of a young life. The beauty is her physical self, of course, and her social self as she trusts her Self, shapes her life, and feels her way along a path that is not always sure or clear. She has dealt with the challenges in front of her with resilience and perseverance.

And I am grateful for the presence and love of Jannetta in my life today. She has a strength that is not superficial...a strength that is not forceful but is steady and committed and clear. So I get to share in that today. Her presence makes my life fuller, richer. I feel loved and possessed with the ability to be loving. William Faulkner says "Maybe the only thing worse than having to give gratitude constantly ... is having to accept it." I get to be grateful for Jannetta's life in mine and accept gratitude, too, for what we share.

And today I have a certain gratitude for my employer who gives me the opportunity to grow as a leader every day. I feel challenged in my work every day and given the opportunity to meet that challenge every day, too.

In short, today -- this day -- I get to express the gratitude to and for the people in my life who make it richer. Mother Theresa said "The best way to show our gratitude to God and the people is to accept everything with joy. A joyful heart is the inevitable result of a heart burning with love." I get to learn how to fuel that love every day with the people in my life.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Prose Poem

I watch her snap the skateboard's tail to the street just like her boyfriend does, mount it, one foot at a time, steady herself and roll to the corner. Her right foot steps off, kicks twice, three times, and she accelerates, soundlessly, her black hoodie flapping like wings by her own breeze. I wave at her back, she kicks again, accelerates, her boyfriend waits at school, she's a silhoutte obscured by the neighbor's trees, kicks again, rolls, gone. I take a backward step on the porch, my hand on the railing, think I hear her wheels rolling, hear her distancing herself in the cool autumn morning.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Inscription: Writers I Have Met (DRAFT)

So I was at the CLAS conference this past weekend and one of the speakers kept mentioning names of various writers she had met, their little quirks, maybe a nugget about their approach to writing. It wasn't name-dropping to impress her listeners, necessarily, and by the end of the presentation you realized how incredibly rich of an experience, in sum, she had meeting these writers. So it got me to thinking...who are the writers I have met and what is the sum impact of those encounters?

The first two writers I met were at the same event in Denver in 1977. I first met Yusef Komunyakaa when he was a student at CSU and was attending a poetry reading by Adrienne Rich. I went to the event with Victoria McCabe, a poetry instructor at UCCS. We met other folks from CSU, too, including Bill Tremblay, an English professor. The encounter with Rich was brief and uneventful. A quick introduction and she was gone. After the reading, though, Victoria and I went to somebody's apartment and talked about Rich, poetry, and, no doubt, the state of the world. I was 20, working in a factory in Colorado Springs, and taking a class or two at UCCS. Later, when I had returned to CSU, Komunyakaa wrote in his chapbook, Dedications & Other Dark Horses, "To Vince -- Hopefully this book gives you a glimpse into the eyes that I see through. Hopefully I am where the heart takes root, where the blues begins in all of us. Yusef K."

Although it is not a "meet" the author encounter, this is a pretty cool story. In 1981, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I read with interest the announcement about a poetry reading in Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley -- a bit of a drive from Palo Alto, but worth it. The poet reading: Adrienne Rich. I made the drive over and listened to her read -- this rather small, Jewish woman, who moves me with her poetry. She signed her book A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. In 1986, when I was in the Stanford Teacher Education Program, Adrienne Rich was a guest professor. I went to one of her lectures, sat way in the back, and at the end of her class session, went down to her podium. Reintroduced myself to her and explained I had seen her in 1977, 1981, and now. She laughed, held my outstretched hand for a beat or two after the shake had finished, and we went our separate ways.

Two years later, in March of 1988, I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read in San Francisco. He was, by then, a professor at Indiana University. He was on his way to winning the Pulitzer Prize. In my copy of Dedications he wrote "For Vince -- Here in California where the light brings out the hidden images. Peace & Magic, Yusef"

I had a long drought of book signings in the 1990's. It wasn't until the summer of 1999 that my inscriptions took on a new momentum. At that time, I was teaching English at Palmer High School and had the opportunity to go to San Antonio as one of 26 teachers selected for the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. The focus was Mexican-American Literature and Culture in the Classroom. It was a seminal summer for my teaching / education career.

At that Institute, I was honored to meet Rudolfo Anaya who inscribed my copy of Bless Me, Ultima -- one of my favorite novels to teach. He wrote "Vince - A Great Future! Rudolfo Anaya" I met other Latino and Latina authors as well: Pat Mora who wrote Aunt Carmen's Book of Practical Saints and inscribed my copy with 'For Vince, Joy! Pat Mora July 1999." Cristina Garcia, in her lovely novel about three generations of Cuban women called Dreaming in Cuban, inscribed "To Vince, Good luck with your writing. Cristina Garcia." A young writer named Sergio Troncoso wrote "To Vince: I hope you enjoy these stories about the moral character of my community in El Paso. Sergio" Elva Trevino Hart, in Barefoot Heart / Stories of a Migrant Child, wrote "For Vince -- from my heart & hands to yours-- with Love, Elva 7/17/99."

One of my favorite inscriptions is in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street. I told her the copy was for my daughter, Jessica, and she wrote "Para La Jessica. Felicidades! Many happinesses to you today -- always. Sandra Cisneros. July 9. 99." A few weeks later I was honored to have dinner with Ms. Cisneros. I was encouraged by the professor who proposed the NEH Summer Institute to contact Cisneros. I emailed her and waited. She replied. We could go to dinner Saturday night. Well, the conference was over Friday night and I was driving back to Colorado Springs the next day. She replied we could go Friday, but it would have to be after her dance class. We agreed to meet at a local smokehouse. I was a bit surprised at her choice. When I showed up at the restaurant, I was only mildly surprised that she had a chaperone. It was her house painter who, she explained, was there because she did not like to meet people alone. I could understand. Our conversation ranged from Mango Street, to the act of writing, to the fact that it is difficult to be a teacher AND a writer at the same time because the creative energy is aimed at creating engaging lesson plans not on the writing a writer may choose to do.

When I talked briefly with her about Mango Street she said "it seems so long ago that I wrote it" and that echoed the sentiments expressed by Anaya when I spoke with him about Bless Me, Ultima. For novelists, those works are old news. At this point, Mango Street was 15 years old (published in 1984) and Ultima was 27 years old (1972). Talking about these works, they both showed the pride similar to that of a parent for a child with the recognition, too, that lives move on. Cisneros was just working on Caramelo. Anaya was working on mysteries. What they did talk about was commitment, to routine, to dedicating time to writing every day.

The poets, on the other hand, were a bit more ... immediate ... in their response. Poets see the world through image, or insight, or impulse, or maybe an intuitive moment. In two lines, the poet expresses an image, an inspiration.

So the impact of those encounters...these encounters with writers let me know that craft is the result of work. Writers write.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The air on this mid-autumn morning smells of rain and a summer that has finished.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Some "natural drifts" from this morning

I'm not sure if watering by hand is more economical than watering by sprinkler system, but I know it is more therapeutic.  During the 30 minutes of watering my lawn and plants this morning, I was able to get clarity on a work issue, enjoy the cool transition offered at sunrise, notice the three buds about to bloom on one rose bush (and two other buds on a second rose bush), think about my daughter's approaching 17th birthday, and consider the day spent yesterday with the friend (not "a friend" but THE friend).  The automaticity of a sprinkler system just doesn't cut it. 


Rush Limbaugh is a dangerous guy.  He has no accountability for anything he says, so he can say, propose, recommend anything he wants without repercussion.  And that's fine, really, since he is a talk show personality and can enjoy the freedoms of voicing his views and opinions, but he is still dangerous.  At some point, I will write a longer critique of his program (his continuous resorting to ad hominem attacks, his amazing ability to state an opinion as fact, his faulty assmptions), but I don't want it to taint my day by thinking about it too much this morning.  However, while I am here, I recalled today that about six weeks ago (or so), he said that the oil in the gulf amounted to little more than "seepage" and, more recently, that the ocean would simply absorb the oil in a relatively natural, efficient, and effective manner.  The true danger, he says is when the oil reaches the sandy beaches and marshlands.  Seems like a bit beyond the effects of mere seepage from my perspective.  (Note:  some of my fellow liberal and moderate friends think I am crazy for listening to Rush on a frequent basis.  I like to think of it as knowing thy enemy. If you can't know the opposition's argument, how can you know where the threat is?)


My own "worst" critic.  Sometimes I tend to be a tad hard on myself:  the yard isn't quite right; the car's alignment wouldn't be off if I had done "something" different (as if I can prevent potholes and the washboard road in 11 mile canyon); the kitchen floor could be a bit shinier, etc.  If a friend was telling me about these things, I would be kind and gentle and reassuring.  Instead, I am my own "best" critic -- I don't miss a thing!  I'm going to be kind and gentle and reassuring to my own Self and Soul today. 

Sunday, May 30, 2010

On the Eve of 53

I've always been somewhat of a late-bloomer, venturing into new experiences a bit out of sync with what may be considered the norm or at a different pace than that of my peers.  Tomorrow I turn 53 years old, and, as usual, birthdays offer an opportunity for reflection.  I wonder what will shape this next year, this next period of my life, the next steps along the way?

Last week, my daughter, who turns 17 later this summer, opened the door for this reflective moment. She said, in the midst of a conversation about choices, "dad, you should just do what you want to do...what you want to do for you."  Her emphasis on you took me back about 18 years when, after having a heart-felt conversation with my sister about a decision with which I was struggling, Deb called out to me as I was leaving her house walking through her yard to the back gate:  "hey, Vinnie, it's your it."  Deb's voice offering that advice has stayed with me for 18 years, echoing through my mind and serving as a guidepost, in a way, for different decisions along this journey. 

So today, as an adult with responsibilities (responsibilities I am happy to meet: those of parenting, those of a demanding job, those with financial ramifications), I am reminded again that I have the choice to create my life -- and then the opportunity to fully live that life.  It's different on the eve of 53 then it was at 35 or 25 -- because of the responsibilities to others and the ripple effects that one's decisions have on others.  I guess, ultimately, it comes down to making the choices that we will -- then living out those choices as passionately as we can.  And I am neither naive nor a polly-ana.  I know that living "life on life's terms" means facing the challenges that each day brings and meeting the responsibilities that come with this life.  I also know, though, that it is possible to experience "the joy of living -- even under pressure and difficulty."  Down which path will I walk:  the path that reveals a life rich with possibility and joy or the one that only sees the pressures and difficulties? 

So on this eve of my 53rd year, my hand poised to open the metaphorical gate of Deb's back yard, I consider the balance of making the choices to "live it" fully with the inherent responsibility of adulthood. I will trust this to be true:  "live from your own center." 

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Raking Leaves in the Wind

Raking Leaves in the Wind

My dog cocks his head,
turns his nose to the right,
catches whatever early spring
scent is in the air.  Or
maybe he wonders what I’m
doing, raking leaves in the wind.

The pile at my feet flutters,
into the air,
swirling in a tight
before settling again. 
I pull my rake
over the dirt,
the leaves
once more in the tines,
shaping them
again in a futile pile. 
The dog cocks
his head,
turns his nose,
catches the breeze
as it rises again. 

I turn your words
over in my head
one more time,
pulling them tight,
then watching them lift and
flutter in my mind,
leaves of thoughts
caught in the early
breeze of the spring day.

Last fall’s leaves linger.
The morning’s work clears
the soil for the new growth,
the wind lifts your words,
the dog cocks his head,
catches the spring scent,   
as your words settle again

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In Memoriam: Dr. Zoellner

I was a late bloomer when it came to academics.  I didn't go to college right out of high school, and when I did enter Colorado State University in the spring semester of 1976, I was enrolled in Dr. Robert Zoellner's Intro to Literature class.  It was the first of four semesters I would have with him during my college career.

During that first semester, we read what could be deemed pretty typical fare in college freshman literature classes:  a novel or two, a handful of short stories, some poetry, a play.  Grades were based on a mid-term and a final essay, written in class, in blue books.  I'll never forget Dr. Zoellner's comment scrawled across the last page of my exam:  "Mr. Puzick, You have a fine mind for literature. Your analysis of Rich's "Orion" is by far one of the best in the class (I am at the bottom of the stack), but your discussion of Hamlet, on the other hand, is weak and perfunctory.  You were clearly rushed for time."  I remember going to the dictionary, first, and looking up the word "perfunctory" -- a word not used by many of my high school friends or college dorm peers!  His words stick with me today because they set the tone and expectations for my own study of literature for the next 3.5 years (and beyond -- into my own classroom teaching):  commit to your interpretation, be passionate in your expression of that interpretation, and watch the clock.

At this year's Colorado Language Arts Society's Spring Conference, I learned from Dr. Bill McBride that Dr. Zoellner had died.  I didn't catch the date of his death, but Dr. McBride said that there were no funeral services, no obituary, no notice except for a few phone calls from the office secretary to a handful of his colleagues.  He said Dr. Zoellner's last few years were painful -- hunched over from physical conditions, a painfully slow gait, isolated from others.  I think Dr. Zoellner was a troubled soul -- and it saddens me because of the impact he had on my life.

Dr. Zoellner was either loved or hated by his students.  I doubt any students could have had either a "neutral" or "moderate"opinion of him.  He was old-school in his approach to literature but taught me the power in close reading and explication de texte.  All that mattered to Zoellner was what was on the page, between the covers, in the body of the work.  And he was, no doubt, a chauvinist.  In 1976 and beyond, many of the female students in my classes found him coarse, crude, offensive.  I do not question nor doubt their feelings and perceptions of him.  While he could certainly teach the likes of Rich, he was at his best with Melville (see Zoellner's "The Salt-sea Mastodon"), Hemingway and Robert Penn Warren.  And Faulkner.  The man could teach Faulkner

If my memory is correct, each course I took from Zoellner was at 8:00 a.m. MWF.  He was usually on time, walking in either right at 8:00 or maybe a minute or two late.  If he came in late, as soon as he crossed the threshold, he would offer an apology -- or mutter it might more accurately express his tone.  If he had not put out his cigarette before coming in the building, he disposed of it right when he came in the class.  At times, his eyes were a little bloodshot, weary, but intense.  He stood about 5'8", maybe a little taller, and had short cropped light brown hair.  He was old school. He was blue-collar in his approach to life and to work. He could have just walked out of the Gates Rubber Plant in Denver.  He'd plop his book down on the table, turn to wherever we last left off or wherever he might want to start that day, and begin working his way through the text.  Discussion was minimal -- usually non-existent.  Perhaps a question or two to the class and then back into the text.  Classroom relationships were not his forte.

The other three courses I had with Zoellner were Survey of American Literature (from 1917 - 1945 and then 1945 to the present) and English 505: Major Authors: Faulkner.  We studied something like nine novels that semester.  I was the only senior in the course; the rest were graduate students.  On the Friday before spring break, Dr. Zoellner asked the class what we should read over the break.  Nobody had a response.  "What would you like to devote your time to over the next nine days," he asked again.  Leaning back in my chair, I blurted out "The Hamlet."  Heads turned and eyes glared.  Coming in at about 450 pages, it wasn't a popular choice among my classmates.  "Great choice, Vincent.  The Hamlet it is."

I  had gone to Dr. Zoellner at the beginning of that last semester, the Major Authors' semester, and for some reason felt it necessary to tell him that I had taken his courses four semesters and not once had he called me by name. When he actually said my name in the last semester of my undergraduate career, I felt somehow acknowledged. I suppose I looked to him as a mentor, certainly in his handling and negotiating of challenging texts, and felt somehow I had arrived (even if I had to ask!). 

I had gone to him earlier, too, in the beginning of my senior year, and asked his advice as to whether I should enter the professional semester for secondary education.  He suggested that I graduate and then head out of Colorado.  Head to LA, he said, or Chicago, or New York -- somewhere there were home offices for large corporations.  See what it was like in the business world or the world outside of education.  "Schools will always be around.  See what else your liberal arts degree will bring you."

I took his advice.  Graduated from CSU in May of 1981, travelled west to the Silicon Valley, worked for five years in the private industry, and then recognized my own need to work in the world of education.  I contacted Dr. Zoellner to see if he would write a letter of recommendation for graduate school.  "Certainly, I will," he said, "sure thing, Vincent." 

When I entered CSU in January of 1976, I was a confused 18-year old.  I didn't know my place -- shifting course from factory work to college campuses more than once -- and didn't really have a destination in mind.  Dr. Zoellner helped shape the direction my life was to take.  To think of his last days and years as disconnected, pained, and isolated hurts my own soul.  Thank you, Dr. Zoellner, for the literature you taught but more importantly for the guidance you gave when you least suspected it. 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Spring break looks as if it could be wet and snowy. I'm hoping to get to the dream stream.

Monday, March 8, 2010

At least one fish a month. I have 3 in both January and February. When will the March catch happen?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Colorado Language Arts Society -- Spring Conference

Friday night, March 5th, brought English/Language Arts teachers from the state of Colorado together for the CLAS annual conference. While this year's conference had the usual offerings of sessions covering a range of literacy and literary topics, writing and writing instruction had the spotlight. The opening session -- more than a keynote and just short of a workshop -- by Penny Kittle set the tone for what turned out to be one of the best conferences I have ever attended. She is truly gifted -- as a writer, teacher, and literacy leader.

I will continue to share some of my reflections about the conference -- because it seems right now like one of those events to savor and ponder -- but the key thoughts that stand out right as bullet points for me: choice (readings, writings) for students, and teacher as model. We should all be literacy apprentices. It seems to me that the apprenticeship model works in both reading and writing workshop as well as for modeling effective reading instruction in interventions. To paraphrase Ghandi, be the reader/writer you want them to become.