Thursday, January 31, 2019

Atta Boy

I've been limping my way through January. It hasn't exactly been the start I wanted for 2019. I don't know what it is, but haven't been as active as I wanted. Maybe it's the weather, which has been horrible. Brutally and relentlessly cold, which isn't much of a surprise considering it's January in Central New York, it's been something of a drag. Maybe it's a degree of frustration I'm having with the WIP. I feel like I'm doing to much in the story and I need to simplify what I'm doing so I can get to the meat of the story. I'm at what should be the jumping off point for the middle act and I just can't seem to get there. I'm resisting the urge to "half draft" it, meaning I go back to the beginning and clean it up. (I'm pretty sure I've talked about half-drafting before but I'm too lazy to look for it.) I want to just write it, so I'm thinking I should just dive into the middle part and be done with the wembling.

For the sake of sanity and, more importantly, precious energy, I've back burnered the BDB. This isn't a bad or disappointing thing, it's just I feel like I need to put it away for a bit. It's not ready and it needs to marinate a bit, though I am keeping it open enough that if I'm moved in some way by an idea related to it, I can attack it.

Yet, I still feel like I'm struggling a bit.

Earlier in the week, I was perusing my social networks and I came across this tweet by the co-creator of the classic CHAPPELLE'S SHOW:

I was moved and, in a weird way, inspired by this.

Burt Reynolds is a legend. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT is a formative movie. As is CANNONBALL RUN. His dramatic turn in BOOGIE NIGHTS is an all time great performance. He was an icon. His trademark mustache and laugh. His undeniable swagger and charm. He was masculinity defined, especially to a chubby kid on Long Island. Even a little bit of the chubby man from Syracuse. Knowing that the great Burt Reynolds needed someone to pat him on the back and telling him that he was doing a good job is reassuring. Knowing that the man's man, Burt Reynolds, needed affirmation and reassurance just like me is comforting.

We're made to feel guilty for wanting affirmation. I'm guilty of it with my students. I've never been big on affirmation, but there's value in it. We all want to hear someone tell us we're worth something or that we're doing a good job. And too many times, there isn't anyone around or willing. We're called snowflakes or soft because we crave that acknowledgement. When you feel like that, just remember, even the Bandit needed someone to remind him that he was doing a good job.

And if that fails, shoot me a text, a DM, an email or slide up in my inbox, because everyone deserves an "atta boy" and I'm happy to give it to you. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


A few days ago, I wrote about being discouraged and how my daughter's attitude moved me to try and be more encouraged. Time has passed. My students' project deadline looms and I see the work they are doing. It's not good. (Let's just say the phrase "when did I teach you that" has been used a lot this week.) I received two impersonal rejections on a project that really, really stung. There's no amount of Natalie chutzpah that's going to fix the overwhelming feeling of discouragement sliding towards complete and total worthlessness I'm now feeling. . But I've had some moments in the last few weeks that are at least helping.

On New Years' Eve, my wife and I bought a new car. It's a long story for another time, but for much of the afternoon of the last day of the sort of crappy year that 2018 was, we spent it in and out of our new car, doing paperwork and learning about the car. As I was standing in the cold afternoon air, a silver sedan came down the aisle and stopped suddenly. Out of the driver's seat jumped a well-dressed, handsome young man with a smile that could light up a room shouting, "Z!" My former student Lossine embraced me and I him. We talked for a few minutes and he said he'd be right back. We talked for a bit before he had to go back to work, but similar to what he said on Twitter, I knew 2019 was going to be good since I ran into him.

Lossine and his twin brother Abu are two of my favorite former students. Bright, friendly, hardworking, joyous young men, they've transcended being former students and I consider them friends. The mere mention of the "Twins" can instantly make me smile. Fast forward to a few nights ago at Natalie's lacrosse game. Before Liverpool took the field, there was a soccer game finishing up. As they left the field, I noticed their coach. It was Abu. I was overjoyed that within a short period of time I got to see the both of them and seeing them thriving makes me feel that maybe I shouldn't be so discouraged by what's happening now.

The Twins are refugees from Liberia. They became American citizens in 2014 and I was honored when they asked me to attend the ceremony. It was moving. When you ask why am I so against the wall and the ban or anything against immigration, the Twins are why. These two amazing young men are now part of the tapestry of our country and part of what makes this country already great.

The final moment is perhaps one of the most humbling experiences in my life. It really is amazing what a few words can do to a person. To my fellow Liverpudlians, we all could name someone at LHS that left an indelible mark on who you are as a person. For me (and for many of you I'd imagine) that teacher was Steven Garraffo. Like me to the Twins, Mr. Garraffo was and always will be known by the single letter moniker of "G." Last Monday, while the kids were at religious ed, my wife and I went to Panera for dinner. Mondays during religion are "date night" for us and usually involve Twin Trees chicken wings, but I was winged out from the weekend, requiring a change of venue.

G was having dinner with his family. While we waited for our order, I went over to say hello, shake his hand and share a "bro" hug. He turned and introduced me to his family.

"This is John Zeleznik, a teacher and writer...and one of my favorite former students."

I was humbled.

I was moved.

For once, I stammered and was momentarily speechless.

To hear that from someone I respected and looked up to thought of me as one of their favorites? I'm not crying, you're crying. I recovered and told his family how important G was to a listless teenager and later to a listless adult considering a career change. Armed with honest advice that sometimes I didn't want to hear and encouragement, G's influence helped make me who I am today. I think it was his turn for me crying not him.

So, gentlemen, thank you for being three encouraging and important figures in my life. You are what I aspire to be and helped form who I am. So, when I'm having a dodgy week, not only can I look to my kids, but I can remember the three of you to encourage me to be and do better.

Sunday, January 13, 2019


Friday night my daughter resumed indoor lacrosse. She's been playing steadily since first grade (she's in fifth now) and has gotten better each year. As is often the case, though, some of her teammates have gotten better than her, passing her by. But this hasn't discouraged her from playing the game. She has fun and still wants to get better. This year she noticed that she hadn't been asked to do any tournaments or play in the indoor championship game. She recognizes the gaps in her game and want to improve so she gets invited to tournaments for the summer and fall seasons. The coaches have been great, encouraging and teaching her while giving me some guidance on how to build up the deficiencies in her game. However, during Friday's game I thought I noticed a change in her body language that led me to believe she was discouraged. I want to go out on to the field and hug her, I knew what she was feeling.

I had a dodgy week at school. My nightmare study hall was more nightmarish than usual but it was my regular classes that had me questioning my own worth. All week it felt as if there was no point to the work I put in and by Friday, I was down, really down, and feeling incredibly discouraged. Like Natalie, my body language showed it. I was questioning why was I bothering. My discouragement ground down my resolve. Being told by students I'm not teaching them because I'm unwilling or frustrated that they want me to reteach an entire lesson because they couldn't be bothered to look up from their phones the first time I taught the lesson. It sometimes feels like I'm not there at all and my efforts are pointless. I am pointless. Feeling pointless is the ultimate discouraging feeling.

After the game, Natalie was gassed. She stepped up and played well. Got a few ground balls. Made a crisp pass that set up a teammate to score a goal. Threw some elbows and dug in deep on defense. We talked in the car, as we always do after a game, telling me that she had fun (the most important part of sports in my opinion). She played to her strengths and hustled a little more than usual. We talked about things she should improve on and agreed we'd work some this week. She also said she was tired. It had been a month since she last played and her body needed to catch up. I smiled to myself. I realized she hadn't been discouraged at all. She was just tired. I'd misinterpreted her signals, transposing my own feeling on her. And I'm glad for that. She wasn't disappointed. She's ready to play and get it done.

But I still am. And I'm tired too. But I look to my daughter for inspiration. Maybe I need to let my body catch up. Maybe I need to play to my strengths. Maybe I need to hustle a little more and think about this things I need to improve on.

And maybe, in the end, I just remember I'm doing all of this for Natalie. (And Cooper.)