I wrote this in honor of my high school mathematics teacher, Virginia Guthery, who celebrates 80 years of a most influential life this month. Not everyone is so blessed, but many of us in fact owe a tremendous debt to one or two extraordinary teachers, people who were instrumental in leading us to a never-ending search for illumination. Ms. Guthery was that kind of special teacher.


In Honor of Virginia Guthery

How far beyond measure
Is the worth of the true teacher.
That rare soul who
Can lead your soul
To follow the endless search
Into what lies below
And what soars above,
And what connects it all.

Mentor, yogi, rabbi, shaman,
Teacher. The one who
Will not accept less
Than the best you have
And then demands that
Which is beyond your best.

The one who won’t reveal
The answer, but instead
Points to a path that leads there.
Who imparts knowledge,
But especially that knowledge
Which, when unwrapped,
Unfolds into a map.
The secret places do exist,
But only for those who seek.
They are not merely given.

We all sojourn alone.
The barrier between souls
Is infinite, but not
Students trudge in rows,
Endless empty faces,
And the chance is small
That any will encounter
A jewel in the classroom,
Will look up and see
A bright flare that ignites
Their fire to learn,
The zeal to discover.

There is no metric
That measures the worth
Of the ones who make
The universe your doorstep.

February 2017
© 2017 Chuck Puckett

Burn Down the Mission

The student riots in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. May, 1970. I remember those few days vividly, wrapping up my freshman year. That year had started innocently enough. Buckling down to the books as I made the transition from the high school educational experience to the newfound freedom of college. Classes every other day, and stretched out over the day, rather than closely sequential. And more intense, or so it seemed at first. High school had always been fun, and comparatively easy for me, and of course I knew everyone, including all the teachers and their reputations. But college brought with it the apprehension of uncertainty, and my response was to focus on the courses and the assignments.

Second semester, I had a better grip on things, and started looking around and noticing the rest of the college experience. New ideas, wider perspectives. I even began to pay close attention to the national political scene. The Vietnam War was raging. and the protests reached a fever pitch that spring, mainly on campuses across the country, although Tuscaloosa had managed to remain largely unaffected.

And then Kent State happened.

Kent State was so horrific, and in some way, so personal, that even the sleepy Capstone was stirred into action. Students gathered in groups, then into crowds, chanting and singing. It was hard to tell how real it all was, but it was really happening.

I remember Jerry Pruett and I going out to protest, with my bed sheet sign hung between us, “Gestapo Go Home” printed in large letters across the linen (we weren’t very creative). We stood on the corner of University Boulevard right at the edge of campus, across the street from The Dickery, holding our sign and waving our fists at the police cruisers that paraded endlessly up and down the road. This was the day after the Tuscaloosa cops had raided the frat houses on University Boulevard, in particular the Deke house. (Those houses are all gone now; the Bryant-Denny stadium expansion razed all of them to the ground). The police stormed into the frat houses, their name tags taped over, billy-clubbing and arresting the frat guys. As a result of this excessive use of force, the governor (or somebody) had called in the (believe it or not) much more responsible and well-trained State Troopers to control the situation.

Jerry and I got thru with our “protesting”, feeling pretty good about our radical selves. We walked back to my house, which was a couple blocks away. As we crossed an empty parking lot, a Jeep holding 4-5 Crimson Tide football players (they looked like linemen), zoomed up, screeched to a halt in front of us, and the jocks jumped out, surrounding us. They took our makeshift sign, unrolled it and started threatening us, yelling “Commie Fascist faggots!”, etc. I tried to calmly explain that you can’t be a Commie and a Fascist at the same time, but, to my utter surprise, this logic failed to impress them. Then I tried the tactic of letting them know that a year ago, I had been a fellow football player myself, in Cullman. This attempt at comradery also had no mollifying effect.

We were pretty sure we were on the verge of having the shit beat out us, when a State Trooper wheeled in beside the Jeep. The officer got out, and the whole thing broke up very quickly. Of course, the jocks were just told to move on, but Jerry and I were more than happy to withdraw from the battlefield, skulls and other body parts intact.

It was a grand moment in my personal history. No, there was no massive change in the overall face of the Capstone. In fact, there were only two concrete results of the “Riots of 1970”: An old abandoned building down near the river was burned down, but no arrests were made, and (suspiciously) that was where construction began on the new Ferguson Center almost immediately. The other thing that happened was the University cancelled all final exams that semester. Yes! I guess we showed the Man!

No, I don’t think any lasting changes occurred in Tuscaloosa. But there has always existed a liberal undercurrent at the University of Alabama, sometimes very well hidden. Nevertheless, it is a strong and persistent force for the same reason that Blue Dots in Red States are strong: we know how isolated we are, and therefore always seek out like-minded spirits.

© 2017 Chuck Puckett


In Memory Of My Mother

We buried my mother, Martha Evelyn Black Puckett, four years ago today. I wrote this at the time. It bears repeating and remembering.

This day is done, and we pass into a future already permanently altered, folding the day’s events into our hearts and minds. We have bade our last farewell, given a nod to the past, while simultaneously, though tentatively, accepting the future. We bow our heads in the acknowledgement that we are now unequivocally a generation on our own, a generation that must either either offer wisdom or else pretend we know it. Too much depends on this eternal fiction that must now transform into an ever-recurring truth.

I say a last farewell: Mother, Father, frail humans who did the best they could with the adventures Aslan sent them. If we do better, it is only because we carefully watched your footsteps and saw where and how you strove against the pitiless winds of existence, dealt with every success and triumph, how you were forged and tempered on the anvil of God.

If we do not, is only because we closed our eyes and ignored the lessons we were taught.

Thanks be to God.

The Thin Place

It is difficult to comprehend the extent to which there are two completely different Americas, existing side-by-side. It is like one of those science-fiction constructs, with two intermingling realities, separated not in time and space but by alternate perceptions so drastically and radically different that neither is even aware of the other’s existence, except in fleeting moments when they brush up against each other. Sort of like the Thin Place you read about in tales of the supernatural, that gossamer film between the real world and the world of Fairie. The inhabitants of the two worlds look on the same events, but see things the other would never recognize. If they spy a denizen of the alternate reality, it seems as if a shadow being is drifting by. A ghost at best, a dangerous threat at worst. The being in the other universe may speak, but the sounds, though they resemble English words, are difficult to hear, indistinct and they make no sense.

This difference in perception and conception does not mean, however, that both worlds are equally valid. Trump’s Press Conference of 16 February is a perfect example of this unequal regard. Before this split universe dichotomy had taken such a firm hold on our national consciousness, it would have been impossible to imagine that Trump’s behavior in that room would ever have been seen as remotely valid, much less admirable. But almost the whole of the Trumping universe perceived it as not only valid (and somehow comprehensible), but even praiseworthy.

There was a time when the incoherence and lack of focus he exhibited would have been perceived the same by every observer. But now we have a significant (a definite minority, but still significant) segment of the electorate who are vested in this maniac. Once they pulled the lever, they established a psychological investment that will find validation wherever and however they can. It will, I fear, be a long time before such a person can be pried away from their devotion and belief in Trump. The blatantly unconstitutional and even treasonous actions he has made his daily todo list either do not phase that loyalty, or else they do not understand that these actions are even improper, much less illegal in many cases. 

No, it’s very likely that only a terrible disaster, possibly even a deadly disaster, or the war that Bannon wants, or out and out criminal prosecutions at the highest level (a low probability event, given Sessions as Attorney General); only such a drastic event will dislodge those hypnotized by Trump’s so-called rhetoric. And perhaps even disasters of this magnitude will not be sufficient to push them back through the Thin Place. 

But when the jobs fail to materialize, that failure may be sufficient (although it will take time for this to sink in). If he succeeds in banning Muslims, the impact in our technical edge in the global marketplace may eventually be noticed. If millions of Latinos are deported, and somehow kept out, the sudden huge drop in the labor force, combined with a huge drop in contributions to the economy, will definitely be noticed. And if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, and no equivalent substitute is put in its place, there will be an outraged howl, raised from coast to coast, even among the hypnotized, so many of whom think “Obamacare” should be abolished, but don’t want anything to happen to the ACA.

The thing about the Thin Place is that it is thin. It doesn’t take much stark reality to punch through.

© 2017 Chuck Puckett

Never the New Normal

Is it just me, or does anyone else find themselves looking at “normal” life these days (and “normal” FB posts, and normal tweets and normal conversations) and think to themselves, “HOW CAN PEOPLE CARRY ON AS IF THINGS WERE NORMAL??! Don’t they realize WHAT’S AT STAKE HERE? Don’t they see WHAT’S GOING ON??!”

Look. I know I’m obsessed with this national catastrophe. And I realize that life goes on, oblah-di, oblah-dah. Hell, I’m in the middle of writing a musical, fer Chrissake, a Christmas musical, though I confess I wonder if there’s gonna be a place to stage it by then. And yes, being retired, maybe I have too many spare cycles to fixate on all of this. And yes, it does get wearying just trying to keep up with the Crazy Train to Trumpville.

But damn it, none of this is NORMAL! If I come across as a madman, please forgive me. If I seem irrationally perturbed, I understand the perception. But things are ricocheting out of control, and I feel like a ball on a billiard table in an earthquake, tossed from one outrageous event to the next, with no time to process it all.

I have always considered the abstract notion of “evil” as extremely problematic. Greed, yes. Hunger for power, of course. There’s no doubt may bad people are motivated by these bad motivations. But evil, as some abstract, other-worldly force…? That takes a leap into a metaphysical quagmire. I often contemplated whether Cheney might represent a possible real example of evil. But ultimately, I believe that was simply a naked attempt at power and money, combined with a stupid ideology.

But this? What is this, if it’s not real evil at work? In every “textbook” description of evil (and I think of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien as prime examples), the goal of evil is simply destruction. Dissolution. Chaos. It’s easy to recognize that kind of force at work in the Trump administration. Particularly given Steve Bannon’s public statements to that effect. And to hear Kelly Ann Conway distort perceptions so skillfully, and willfully, is to imagine the serpent whispering to Eve.

And if it’s not the evil goal of utter chaos, what is the end game? What do these people truly want? It seems to me that Trump is a mere tool, a pathetic megalomaniac, whose only agenda seems to be enrichment, aggrandizement and adulation. A man pitifully easy to manipulate in order to accomplish whatever goals are hidden behind the curtain. But wherefore the chaos? Wherefore the inward-directed destruction? Who benefits?

The only clear thing in this roiling shitstorm is the fact that the sheer volume of chaos will undoubtedly conceal the real goals very effectively. And it therefore behooves all those who resist and oppose to never falter from closer observation. Because eventually, the end game will be revealed.

Until then, we can never accept even an iota of this new world as even remotely “the new normal”.

© 2017 Chuck Puckett