On Belay: Some Thoughts on Risk-Taking

Posted in Uncategorized on October 21, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

I’ve been thinking about risk-taking a lot lately.  I’m not much of a risk-taker, it turns out, despite the fact that I am the youngest child in my family and according to some infographic I saw on Facebook (second only to Wikipedia for credible information), the last born child is a risk-taker just naturally.  But I had been thinking about this even before that contradictory chart appeared on my newsfeed the other day.

Risk-taking — taking a chance, a gamble — means working without a net.  Rock-climbing without a belay.  It means the mutual fund is made up more with your Aggressive Growth Portfolio instead of Money Market.

It seems there is this continuum of risk from low-level to high.  At the low-end, there is a certain confidence that “I won’t fail” which moves to “If I fail, I’ll be protected” (the belay rope will stop the fall) and then moves to high-level risk which is that “failure is not an option,” I’m operating with no protection or “If you don’t die, what’s the failure?”

But if you can’t fail or there is protection if you do, what sort of risk is that.  It’s rock climbing by walking on an undulating forest-service road.  It’s tight-rope walking on sidewalk cracks.  Low-risk is low-pay off.  Low-risk is low consequences.  Not much of an adrenaline rush if you’re tightroping the curb.

When I was younger, in my twenties and thirties and before parenthood, those seem to be the days for risk-taking.  Leave it all and backpack through Europe.  Move to the mountains and backpack, cross-country ski, write, go with the flow.  Work to live not live to work. The yearning was there but I couldn’t step out on that tightrope.  I couldn’t make that first move on the rock face.  It felt too freestyle.  You have to have two things to freestyle:  nerve and skills.  You need guts and at least the self-perception of enough skill to survive.  It takes some brashness.  It takes tip-toeing up on the side of rash, cavalier.  You can’t hesitate.  You can’t question.  “Do I dare to wear my pants rolled?”

Adulthood, parenthood, responsibilities and bills to be paid seem to sandpaper off the urge (or is it the opportunity) for risk-taking.  You can’t take unwilling — or even unknowing — hostages with you on that tightrope.  You can’t let them piggy back as you scale that rock face.  Can you?

So I look around at my comfortable home, my loved ones who share it, and the respectable professional life I have pursued.  It’s a nice life.  Fulfilling.  Pretty safe.  It won’t win any gold medal at the X-Games.  No Extreme sport, this life.

But just once I’d like to climb without a belay.

Lessons Learned from Aspen

Posted in Observations, People, Teaching on June 9, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

Aspen sat in Row 11, Seat 14 at the Dodgers vs. Rockies game on Sunday.  She captured our attention when she passed the row she was sitting in and her grandfather (we think it was her grandfather) started calling her name.  She was on the stairs about at row 3 when she heard him and made her way back, a little sheepishly, to her seat which was directly in front of mine.

I’m guessing Aspen is about ten or eleven years old.  Her multi-colored stocking hat was sort of sassy, distinctive and gave me the impression that Aspen may be a bit of a free spirit.  She had a little black bag with some sort of colorful images on it, too, that she kept her things in.

I’m always a bit intrigued by young children at ball games. Sometimes they just don’t have the patience to hang in there and watch a game for two or three hours.  Baseball is particularly challenging, at times, because the action can be so far away.  At other sports events, basketball and hockey, you can feel more intimately connected with the game because of proximity to the players and action. The extra-curricular activities, little shirt giveaways and contests, help keep spectators entertained at time-outs and slower moments of the games.  At Coors Field, they do a nice job with the big screen to keep us entertained.  And people watching at baseball games is fun.

As we settled in to the game this rainy Sunday, people huddling together to pretend it really wasn’t so damp and chilly in early June, Aspen and her grandfather also settled into the afternoon.  Aspen sat at the front of her seat, sort of on the edge of her seat, as the game picked up.  She never leaned back in the seat as she watched the game and did a little people watching of her own.

Every now and then as the game went on, Aspen and her grandfather would get into some conversations that appeared a little, for lack of a better word, “intense.”  And this is where I had my lesson from Aspen. Again, she did not sit all the way back in her seat.  She only sat about half way back. When her grandfather talked, she turned her torso one-quarter of a turn so she was facing him a little more directly.  I could not see her grandfather’s face or hear the content of the conversation.

As her grandfather spoke, Aspen’s eyes narrowed a little and stayed focused on his eyes. Sometimes they scanned his face.  But her eyes stayed attentive.  She’d nod.  Her nod reminded me of my own daughter’s action when she was about that age. A nod that said “I get it … keep telling me more. I’m with you.”  She would add a word or two in the conversation.  Then she would be attentive again, listening.

I was reminded, again, once more, of the power of listening.  Attentive listening.  Watching Aspen reminded me that active listening is done with more than ears.  It is a whole body act.  She listened with her ears, for sure, under that multicolored hat.  She listened with her body turned toward her grandfather.  She listened with her eyes, glued to his, scanning his face, attentive and engaged.

In many ways, I was glad I could not hear the content.  Aspen’s lesson was about listening behavior, the physical act of listening.  You can learn a lot from an eleven year old who is curious, inquisitive, engaged.

Oh, one last important lesson from Aspen on this cold, rainy day.  Start the day with Dippin’ Dots.  An inning later, make the move to cotton candy. (She had a great strategy: don’t take the plastic wrapper off;  instead, eat the cotton candy one finger-pinch at a time by reaching up under the packaging from the bottom.  It keeps the cotton candy undisturbed, and, if you get tired of eating it, you can then save it for later.  Aspen didn’t need to save any for later.)  And then to finish off the game, warm yourself back up with a hot chocolate.

After all, you only live once and you are eleven.

Treadmill Thoughts

Posted in Uncategorized on June 6, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

So, in the 30 minutes of treadmilling today, where did my mind wander?  Here’ s a glimpse:

  • It has been a long time since I have sat “Indian style.”  Do we grow out of it or just not find ourselves sitting on the floor so much after a certain age?  Or maybe it is a flexibility thing.  Getting down there isn’t the issue.  Unfolding is.
  • I doubt that it’s even called “Indian style” anymore.  I’ll have to ask some of my friends who are elementary school teachers.
  • I forgot how much I enjoy many of the songs by the Cowboy Junkies.  My sister, Deb, turned me on to the Cowboy Junkies.  She also, back in 1977, introduced me to the album The Outlaws (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser).  Oh, and Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou, and John Prine.  Damn.  34 years ago.  Or 37.  I can’t do math and treadmill at the same time.
  • I wonder what Jannetta would like for her half-birthday?  That’s coming up in a few weeks.  She has done a great job as summer school principal after a demanding school year as Master Teacher.  She’s one of the best in the education world at what she does.  She’s one of the best people that I know.  And she’s my best friend.
  • What kind of a writer do I want to be?  what kind of genre do I  explore next?  Tackle shorter pieces.  Maybe a focus on prose poetry.  Love the prose poem.  Maybe essay writing.  Creative nonfiction.  Greenback Cutthroats.  Skin.  The Old Bon Pharmacy and cherry cokes!  Being male.
  • I feel closer to God when I am in the mountains.  Wow, that’s a little trite: “I found God in the mountains.”  But it’s true.  I think my conception of God was formed in the spring of 1972 during the Outward Bound trip in the Lost Creek Wilderness Area.  During the solo portion.  I wish I had that journal.
  • “If you’re gonna worry, don’t pray.  If you’re gonna pray, don’t worry.”  I’m worrying a lot less these days. Maybe a lot less than ever before.
  • Is this a normal respiratory rate for my age, weight and amount of exertion?  This isn’t “shortness of breath,” is it?  I didn’t consult a physician before beginning my exercise routine.
  • Homeownership isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Well, it is a nice thing.  A lot of maintenance.  Hell ya.
  • Being an adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either.  Fatherhood is a pretty cool gig.  Jess is a free-spirit of a daughter.  She is growing growing growing in so many ways.  Her fiancé is a good dude, too.
  • I’m a late bloomer.  I discover things later than some.  I think I’m good with that — but I wish I would have discovered fly fishing earlier in my life.  Then again, things happen when they happen.


May’s Winter Day

Posted in Uncategorized on May 12, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

Who scrapes his windshield

in May, standing in Keens, wool

socks, t-shirt under hoodie, beneath

snow-weary trees that canopy 

the driveway?  My, how the lilac

petals pop from their snowy blanket

that threatens their very branches.

The mama robin hunkers down 

in her nest to shield the spring-blue eggs 

that, just yesterday, caught my eye as

the messenger of spring’s final arrival.

Today, though, plastic blade scrapes

May’s Winter Day from the glass,

flip-flop footprints punctuate the grass,

and spring holds back despite 

what my calendar may say.  

My Mother, The Nurse

Posted in People on May 11, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

In the fall of 1969, my mom became a single mother.  It was a conscious, deliberate decision on her part, giving my father the ultimatum “quit drinking or leave.”  And he did.  In 1969 and for many years after, the term that was used to describe such a household was “broken home.”  For years, I believed that designation.  In retrospect, though, the home was broken when my father was present.  It stood a chance, actually, of healing after he was gone.  It took the healing hands of my mother.

So on this eve of Mother’s Day, the memories I remember of my mom are those that contribute to any healthy living I have been able to attain as a result of her influence.  Let me count the ways.  The first influences, sort of strangely, are of my mother the professional.  She was a nurse for over 40 years.  Most of those years were spent at (Glockner) Penrose Hospital.  She had nurses training at the Seton School of Nursing which was housed there in the 1930’s.  She birthed her own children there.  She was one of my nurses when I had knee surgery in 1974.

When other nurses called in sick or when they were unable to make their way down Ute Pass in the winter, she would either cover their shift until they made it in or she worked the entire 8 hours, if necessary.  I learned a professional work ethic from the model she set.  It was because of her professionalism, and her choice to pursue a career in the first place, that allowed her the financial freedom and security to give my father that ultimatum in 1969.  Having a career, even one with a modest income, provided her an independence she would not otherwise have had.  Although not as observable of an influence like her work ethic, this independent spirit said to me that you may not always be able to depend on others — so be sure that you can depend on your own resources.

Of course, as a single parent with a nursing salary, my mother had to make some tough financial decisions.  We moved five times after my father left.  She never visibly showed her disappointment in that.  She simply made the decision, packed up our household, and did what she needed to do.  We always stayed within several blocks of Penrose Hospital, though.  It anchored us.

One summer, when it was simply my mom and me (my siblings had graduated high school or college and didn’t live it home), we did not have money for a summer vacation.  But it is Colorado Springs — a magnet for tourists.  So we did what 30 years later became known as the stay-cation.  We went to Seven Falls.  Another day, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. We traveled up further and toured the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun.  We went to the Air Force Academy.  On another occasion, when we did have enough money for a road trip, my mom and I went to Juarez, Mexico.  On the way down, driving I-25 through New Mexico, my mom got her 1972 Mercury Montego up to 100 miles per hour.  At about 95 mph, I said something, maybe with a hint of nervousness (or outright fear) in my voice, to the effect of “what the heck, mom!?”  When she reached 100 mph, she backed off.  Smiling, she said “I always wanted to be able to say I drove 100 miles an hour!”  Cross one off of her bucket list.

My mother was able to support and enjoy the successes I have had (and, equally,my brothers and sister have had in their lives) and she was always there to help us up when we made a misstep along our way or, in my case, when I wandered completely off the path.  When I had a few years of sobriety under my belt and some stability in my life, she simply said, “you keep doing what you’re doing.”  That was a far cry from when I showed up at her door when I was 26, unemployed, lost (sometimes those who wander ARE, indeed, lost), and without a semblance of any plan or answer to “what’s next?”.  Despite her fear, she helped right the ship I was on and then let me adjust the sails.  She always had the right balance of giving suggestions (or straight-up advice) and of holding back her advice to let us make our mistakes and then learn from them.

When she was diagnosed with cancer in 1993, and perhaps six months before she died, I was visiting her at Penrose Hospital.  The treatment for her lung cancer was promising (but the promise did not hold true).  Over the intercom it was announced that visiting hours were over.  Well, that may have been true for others.  We were in the middle of a conversation.  And this was Betty Puzick.  A nurse and then, at the end of her career, a night supervisor for half of the 12-story building.  We would stretch the visiting hours rule for just a small bit of time.  The nurses providing her care understood.

“You need to know, Vince, that I am proud of you.  I’m proud as can be of all my children.  You have each done so well with your lives.”  She saw that we were happy, enjoying some success in our lives, and that we had survived the challenges of a difficult childhood.  And, with the end of her life a reality now, she wanted, she needed, to say it without any ambiguity.

What she wouldn’t see, what I truly think was veiled from her vision due to her own humility, was the very foundation she laid in all of our lives.

Nurses heal broken things.  They often say that bones and other broken things can be stronger when they heal than before the break.

No doubt.  Nice work, Betty Puzick, RN.  Thank you, Mom.


Posted in Uncategorized on February 25, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

This Holden Cornfield ain’t got nothin on me.

“You mean Holden Caulfield.”

Me and my partners called him Cornfield.  A play on words.  Cornfield running through the rye.

“Ahhh that’s a good one.  So why do you say he has nothing on you?”

Because this punk is runnin through his hood trying to erase all the times somebody tags up a building or somethin with the f-bomb.  Fuck that.  Can’t protect your sister from the world by trying to erase the shit.  Embrace don’t erase.

“What does that mean?  Embrace don’t erase?”

It means that Holden should be taggin over that shit.  Mark your territory.  Claim your turf.  Carve out your place.

“And that would –“

That’s the difference between white folk and black.  If that was my little sister, Phoebe, I’d still be protecting her but not by hiding that world from her.  Hold that world up.  Let her see what it looks like.  You can’t survive what you don’t see.  Then have her back.

“And –“

That’s the difference.  You people claim “Stand your ground” and shit.  You can only “stand it” if you got it.  I gots to gets mine.  Black folks got to get theirs.  Nothing to stand on.  Don’t erase that taggin. Tag back.

“So you think Holden is a punk?”

Punk ass bitch.  Grow up.  Whining about the way the world is.  No wonder he locked up.  Can’t hang.  Crumbled to the pressure when you got to be the one exerting the pressure.  It’s like D-up.  Ever see a guard crumble when he is pressured bringing the ball up the court?  Press or be pressed. 

“So do you think we can talk again about Holden next time?”

Yeah, we can do that.  




Direction: Remembering Roger

Posted in Uncategorized on February 10, 2014 by Vince.Puzick

In the fall of 1971, two years after my father left, I joined the North Junior Mountain Club, run by my Latin teacher, Roger Schoenstein. My weekends throughout all of 9th Grade and into my high school years were spent hiking the Colorado mountains with Roger, often with his wife Patty, and a bunch of other teens.

One Saturday, as we were getting ready to head back to our camp after hiking up a small peak, Roger said “OK, Puzick, lead us on back.”  About 10 seconds later he called out again:  “Hey, Vince…this is great and all but, actually, our camp is that way,” his gloved hand pointed about 180 degrees opposite the direction in which I was headed.

For about six years, from the time I was a 9th grade student until I was a college student, Roger gently (and sometimes maybe not so gently) gave me direction.  With my own addictions and immaturity as a teenage boy trying to navigate his way into young manhood, I was not always able to hear or heed the guidance. Maybe it is always that way between a mentor and a stubborn mentee?  Just when you think you are ready to spread your wings, you make your mistake and learn that you have a lot to learn?

Roger was an incredible Latin and English teacher.  But more than that, he was, in many ways, a Renaissance Man.  Not only did he take us on some extraordinary nature experiences — floating the Green River in canoes, hiking Barr Trail to summit Pikes Peak, exploring the Uncompahgres, surviving overnight cross-country ski trips, and even abandoning one trip to the Grand Canyon when the transmission went out in his truck before we even reached Walsenburg — he also built a darkroom in his basement, played the guitar, knew the ins-and-outs of 16mm films, played tennis, and became an accomplished woodworker.

My teacher, a mentor in so many ways, Roger died early Saturday morning.

We didn’t have a lot of contact in the last several years — for all of the reasons that can happen when two lives get busy and diverge.   But I spent a lot of miles riding in the cab of that F-250 headed to one adventure or another.  I spent hours in the summer of 1975, when we were working the Outdoor School in Vail, riding around in that truck.  He’d give me, a misguided teen boy without a father at home or a direction in life, the keys and let me drive around alone listening to his Cat Stevens tape:  “Wild World,” “Father and Son,” and “The Wind.” Listening for one more instance of “Vince, you want to head that way.”

Whether in a canoe, the cab of a pickup truck, or on the thin boards of cross country skis, or in long conversations while developing black and white photos in the darkroom, you gave me direction at a time I needed it most.

Thank you, Roger.  May you rest in peace.


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