Thursday, January 17, 2008

Beyond FAVORITES: What I Love About Denver

Fair warning: This is a long one!

Larramie over at Seize a Daisy tagged me recently for a Local Knowledge meme. I’d like to add a twist: rather than tagging at the end I’d like to invite three other local bloggers (Lisa, Carleen, and Rebecca) to list the top reasons they love Denver as well as the top reasons they miss wherever they came from. I’m a transplant who’s also lived in Dallas, Nashville, and Hartford (CT) who’s originally from Syracuse, a mid-sized city smack dab in the middle of New York State that’s surrounded by lush hills and valleys and apple farms. Syracuse itself features my alma mater up on a hill, Syracuse University, which continues to grow and change at an amazing pace. I still have plenty of family in the area, which means Syracuse will always be home for me. What I miss most about it (besides close family and cherished friends):

GREEN lawns that rarely need watering
Wooded areas everywhere
Proximity to New England and New York City
Fall foliage
Armory Square shops and restaurants

What I love most about Denver (besides local family and friends), my adopted home:

Nonstop views of the Rockies
Four seasons, all mild
Skiing on snow instead of ice
300+ sunny days a year
Open spaces and trails in every town
Barely any bugs
LoDo (Lower Downtown) shops and restaurants
Tattered Cover bookstores (though I still miss the original!)

Neither of these cities hosts a dynamic literary scene. While in Nashville, I attended the annual Southern Festival of the Book and loved it. Denver once had the Rocky Mountain Book Festival, which has fallen by the wayside in recent years. In 2002 that’s where I saw and sold my first copies of my book (One Sister’s Song); ambushed George Plimpton for his autograph (though he wasn’t there for a signing); learned about George Dawson (and bought his biography Life Is So Good); met author and New York Times feature writer and now Columbia professor Claudia Dreifus (and failed to offer her a ride downtown when she voiced her concern about finding a cab in the deserted streets of the DU campus; duh!); and had a lovely conversation with poet extraordinaire Jane Hirshfield. At my very first Rocky Mountain Book Festival in 1996, I was introduced to the new Pearl Street Publishing house, which would eventually accept my book for publication, and met Michael Henry, poet and co-founder of the then-fledgling Lighthouse Writers Workshop. While I’ve taken only half a dozen Lighthouse classes and look forward to taking many more in the near (fingers crossed!) future, I definitely include Lighthouse as another Denver highlight; I know Lisa and Carleen, both of whom are much more involved in this local literary landmark, would agree.

Also within the Denver community is Community Resources, Inc., an organization that (among other things) brings professionals of all types into Denver Public Schools to share their expertise and inspire students to pursue their top career choices and follow their dreams. Through CRI, I’m now mentoring my second fifth-grader in short-story writing and I recently presented at a career fair at Denver’s historic East High School. My career fair category of “writing” was broad enough that I brought along publications ranging from a local community newspaper to alumni, trade, and consumer magazines to an assortment of books that included my own novel as well as Patricia Wood’s Lottery, John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye, Lisa See’s Peony in Love, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother I’m Dying, etc. etc. The one I’ll be sure to remember next time is Patry Francis’s The Liar’s Diary; I forgot how many students love to read mysteries! I handed out bookmarks with my e-mail noted, and plan to pass along links to websites of these and other authors to interested parties as I hear from them. I also pushed Lighthouse Writers as a terrific resource for those who can’t wait for college to begin serious writing instruction and for the school staff and other adults who approached me, wondering where to start with that novel or memoir they’d always wanted to write.

I love talking to students about writing, and at the career fair also enjoyed noting the differences they exhibit, from the freshmen who shyly admit to writing poetry, to the serious-talking young men who thrive on Stephen King, to the two boys who strolled up looking like they ought to already wear trench coats and hats with press passes stuck in their hatbands. None of that fluffy creative writing for these types; journalism was the name of the game for them and the mention of publications like The New York Times or Time or Newsweek garnered their interest much more than Poets & Writers or The New Yorker. I also got their attention when I suggested the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News surely offer student internships and they’d do well to research them.

You can guess at interests by just looking at some kids, but many students at East surprised me over and over. While some kept their heads low and their voices even lower, others answered with an exuberant YES when I asked “Are you a writer?” and launched into a long list of their writing and reading interests. One girl kept talking and talking about all the stories she had coming out of her head; when I realized the other two girls I’d been talking to looked a little unnerved by her enthusiasm, I drew them all into the same conversation, handed them each a bookmark, and invited them to e-mail me. The two quiet girls appeared grateful and pleased, but the other girl was clearly moved. “Thank you!” she exclaimed, pulling me in for a hug that made my day. While so many of the students reminded me of myself and my friends at that age, one of my favorites was a boy in a special education group; though it was hard to understand his slurred speech at first, I’m glad I kept trying until I finally realized he was speaking at length about his love for photography. He said he planned to “travel the world” and take pictures, and his eyes lit up as I opened a copy of National Geographic and showed him a full-page landscape photo they’d run. When I picked up a local magazine and said, “You could start by sending your photos to smaller magazines like this, then work your way up,” he pointed directly to the National Geographic and said he’d much rather “start at the top.”

On the drive south from East High School, I saw a man walking home from the Denver Botanic gardens carrying a flat of purple pansies. It’s way too late for fall planting (though pansies are annuals, they do survive the winter here on the Front Range and are a welcome sight each spring when they re-emerge), so I imagined he’d pot them for some indoor color until after Mother’s Day, when it’s finally safe to plant outside in Denver. I enjoyed the fact that he bought these springtime favorites in January despite the snow on the ground and the north winds blustering through town. By the end of the East High career fair, it was evident many of the upperclassmen were eager for spring and the promise the end of yet another school year held for them. A few rowdy girls who seemed especially ready to escape the confines of high school began drumming on a table, laughing at their willingness to enjoy a few free moments, to celebrate whatever had brought them together, to forget worrying about what they’d be doing in a year or two or ten. These girls in their spirited display and the man with the flat of pansies are as sure signs of spring to come as the two robins that flew by my trusty minivan this morning despite frigid temperatures. Denver winters harbor many surprises, from sudden unpredicted blizzards that make locals appreciate their warm homes to a turn in weather that leads folks outside for a run or a walk or a stop on a park bench to enjoy the warm noon sun. Every day here seems to hold the promise of more wondrous days to come. No wonder I’m so happy to call Denver home.

Photo © Denver Visitors Bureau


Blogger Lisa said...

What an excellent post. You've named a lot of things I miss about New England and love about Denver, so I'll need to give this some thought and then...I'll be back!

10:17 PM  
Blogger Larramie said...

Whoa, Karen, this is amazing! Again I love the very personal anecdotes used to show how Denver has become your home...even if you'll always be from Syracuse.

10:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a wonderful post! it makes me long for denver all over again. we've never been, but we seriously considered moving there before we moved here, western mass.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Therese said...

SO interesting, Karen.

I hope to do some speaking to teens who have writing aspirations...

My husband came to Raleigh from Syracuse (though he's a Hudson Valley native) so this post had that additional pleasing connection for me. :)

2:02 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Thanks, ladies! This was definitely a fun one to write, probably why I babbled on so long. Lisa, looking forward to reading your thoughts!

Larramie, thanks again for the tag!

Kyra, Denver's also a great place to visit, let me know when you're headed our way.

Therese, I'm sure your husband understands the joy of eating a coney with a cold beer at a summer barbecue. As far as hooking up with young people, I really prefer one-on-one chats rather than group talks, which I still find daunting. It's all definitely worth it! K.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Moanna said...

This reminds me of what I liked best about Denver: my feeling, while driving back down into Denver from the mountains, that anything is possible.

5:57 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

What a great perspective, Moanna. So often it's the opposite for me since we don't get into the mountains as often as we should. Looking at the mountains every day is inspiring, but you're absolutely right about that drive back down! K.

8:26 AM  

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