Monthly Archives: January 2013

Looking for Wow

First Baptist Church in Madison, Wisconsin (where I no longer officially belong but will always, in some way, BELONG) once hired a youth minister who had a nose ring, so, I liked her immediately. Then also she has a son the same age as mine. And then she quoted Anne Lamott in a sermon and called her the writer of the fifth gospel. BOOM! That’s one of the ways I know I’m in the same tribe as someone—massive respect and affection for Anne Lamott.

I read her latest, Help, Thanks, Wow, on the iPad, with the Kindle app, and I liked the book a lot. (Also liked reading digitally–If my son hadn’t essentially taken over the iPad, I might be reading more books that way. )

I like her definition of prayer:
“It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding.”

I am charmed that this might annoy, unnerve, or offend any number of people I care about, who see prayer differently than I see it–all across the spectrum from pretty conservative-evangelical-fundamentalist Christians who’d be bothered not to see God in a definition of prayer (if they haven’t hidden me entirely on our social-media-in-common sites) to my atheist friends, who politely avert their eyes when I get going on the Jesus talk.

I particularly like this paragraph:
“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy—all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe miraculously, we just release our grip slightly.”

Oh, does that resonate with me–both the need to release my grip AND the way that prayer helps me do that.

Her categories of prayer are helpful, though of course she’s not the first to come up with these. There’s “help,” for which we have the formal name of “intercessory prayer.” And then “thanks,” which some would call “prayers of thanksgiving,” and then “wow,” which I would probably call praise, but seems to be the official category of “adoration.”

Or is it?

This article, “Prayer and Subjective Well-Being: An Examination of Six Different Types of Prayer” lists these: “adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, reception, and obligatory.”

Here’s how Whittington and Scher define prayers of adoration: “prayers focused on the worship of God, without any reference to circumstances, needs, or desires.” This is partly what Lamott means by “wow,” and it also coordinates with my new favorite song “Bring Your Praise,” by Trin-i-tee 5:7 (and if the fact that I love this song isn’t proof the Lord works in mysterious ways, well then….)

“If you want to see amazing, all you got to do is praise Him,” they sing. And also, “he can do anything, but he wants you to praise him.” (Which makes God sound a little needy and high-maintenance, frankly, which makes the Gnostic idea that Christianity’s creator-God has some issues. I always figure he was a second son, based on his dismissiveness about primogeniture in Genesis….)

Here’s the definition Whittington and Scher use for a prayer of “reception.” They quote another researcher, who says reception is “characterized by a contemplative attitude of openness, receptivity, and surrender, resulting in experiences ranging from peaceful/quiet to rapture/ecstasy.”

Sounds more like WOW, doesn’t it?

So I’ve been singing that song, “if you wanna see amazin’, all you gotta do is praise him” and essentially looking for wow.

I wrote one “help” prayer and posted it recently: “Prayer for a New Semester.” And of course there have already been school shootings, so immediately there’s the issue of “when God says no” and the question of whether my lack of faith is why my requests don’t get granted 100% of the time. (I found this sermon very comforting–I’ve long made the connection of “if faith is a gift, it’s not my fault I don’t have it.”)

I followed that up with a “thanks” prayer, “Grateful for my Crazy Life.”

Here are a couple of stabs at wow:

Stopping in Lone Rock

If I lived in L.A. traffic would drive me nuts,
And I don’t like Chicago’s bus-to-bus-to-el routes,
But yesterday’s commute sucked big-time, massive
Sucking—whereas usually my rural drive
Is lovely—how many eagles this week? A pileated?—
Yesterday it was snow-slick on the way in
And on the way home I nearly went snow-blind.
Today I worked from home, fever-breathing with a cold.

At one point I thought, “So this is zen driving” because
Really, I was guessing where the road was.
In the distance, there simply was no road in sight.
Up close, you could hazard a hypothesis.
I had to stop in Lone Rock to buy sunglasses—
My eyes were exhausted from staring at white on white on white.

All right, so it’s also a prayer of complaint (not a problem–there are whole Psalms that do that, right?), but the last six lines I was trying to convey the wow I felt, even though it wasn’t a very blissy wow.

I’m not such a fan of winter.

But I do use these cold days and nights (it’s supposed to get down to -11 tonight) to practice wow. One of the ways I do it is looking at frost on windows and seeing how many images are there that start with the letter “f.” Feather, flame, fire, fractal….By the time spring gets here, the list is usually pretty long. It’s not gratitude. Gratitude, from me, about winter–almost never going to happen. (MINUS ELEVEN.) But I can, occasionally, get to wow about it.

Frost in my bedroom window

Frost in my bedroom window

Grateful for my Crazy Life

Just this once, right now, and I wouldn’t say
It will happen again, I’m glad I have too much to do.
My crazy job is almost never boring.
I have the kind of brain that makes big plans
Involving levels and layers and long-term fun
With multiple players and organizations, and—well,
I tell you what—it makes me feel alive.
And tending to the people that I love
Takes time, but look at who I love—a full
Roster of family and friends and coworkers, a whole town
Of creative, funny people. And I LOVE Things,
More than a To Do list, more than software.
My house is messy, yes, because we choose
To read and play instead of clean. What a way
To be allowed to live. I’m grateful. At least today.

Prayer for a New Semester

No massacres, no guns at all, no death,
No sharp-turn, black-ice, driving-to-work car wrecks,
No suicides, no overdose, no heart attacks,
No valiant battle with cancer lost, no death.

And also just this one semester,
could everybody get to class on time?
Including me? And then, once we’re all there,
could we try to stretch each other’s minds?

This is a prayer for brilliant course design,
for follow-through, for good assignments meant
to let my students show me all they’ve learned,
not sort them into piles of can and can’t.

May we focus most on what matters most,
and may deep learning grab us in our hearts.

Car Sonnets, Bloems, and Pogs

UPDATE: I no longer write sonnets while driving. Nothing bad happened, but on reflection, it seemed so clear it was distracted driving.

Did you land here look for sonnets about cars? If you leave a comment, I’ll write you one…..


Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Kind of like that.

Also not entirely unlike “father son and holy ghost” because I side with the Orthodox idea there, that the Trinity is meant to be un-understandable, to remind us there is always going to be something we can’t fathom about God. (I can’t remember where I read that, but it’s probably from my Holy Trinity of theology–Karen Armstrong, Kathleen Norris, or Anne Lamott. Probably Kathleen Norris.)

But my list is MOST like “gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” because one person could be a gypsy AND a tramp AND a thief, or there could be lots of people fulfilling those roles.

So, to define:

A CAR SONNET is a sonnet that was written entirely, or at least begun, while I was driving, usually on my commute to work. Unless that’s illegal, in which case of course I don’t do that. Who would do that? Not me.

A BLOEM is a poem I wrote primarily to post in my blog, upon which I usually commentate in the same blog.

A POG is a poem I post in the blog, which I think could probably stand alone (even though I go ahead and commentate anyway).

Of these, I would say the bloems have the least poetential. (Poetential, adj. Meaning: Least likely to stand the test of time, or the smell test, or the urge-to-revise test, or the put-in-a-manuscript urge.) They’re in response to current events or current concerns. Here’s a recent example of a bloem, a poem I wrote because I was so freaking excited that David Bowie had a new album & a new single.

And another bloem, about Ding Dongs.

Here’s a recent example of a pog (much of which I probably did write in the car as I drove to work, but I was writing only one line a day, so that didn’t take the whole commute). Since “Sustainable Chaos” is my life motto, this is an important poem, and like other pogs, has some level of poetential. One of my goals when I work on my full-length manuscript of poetry (either Summer 2013 or Fall 2013 or Winter 2014) is to look back through the blog and see which poems still excite me. I wonder if this one will.

Here’s another pog, called “Yes. No–wait” in which I have a conversation with competing voices. And which I do have in mind for a particular collection, a chapbook called “Each Other’s Anodyne,” all about teaching and work-life balance issues. It has a pretty particular audience in mind, and we may try to publish some to raise money for my sabbatical (speaking of work life issues).

And “On Conscientiousness” is an important topic for me, and I do love this poem.

Not surprisingly, “Truck Pulling the Moon” was written while I was driving.

And another car sonnet (not surprisingly, I’m often thinking of work when I’m commuting), called “The Moan Tax.”

I’m not entirely sure why these distinctions(and non-disctinctions, since a car sonnet could be a pog or a bloem) are important to me. Especially since I’ve realized one of my biggest weaknesses as a poet is the ability to view my work in terms of audience–who will love what? What should get submitted where? What will stand the test of time? (Or the smell test.)

All I know is what I do, and that I feel compelled to share, and thus–poetry is a part of my blog.

(I’ve meditated on this once before, sans categories, here.)

C-word, N-word, R-word: Forward!

Seriously considering putting a warning in my syllabi for spring semester:

CAUTION! Profanity Uttered Here.

By me, by other students, by Louis C.K. in our pop culture unit in my composition classes….

Probably thinking, "man, I don't want to be in a composition class."

Probably thinking, “man, I don’t want to be in a composition class.”

When I was tenure-track, I was getting some negative comments from students about my profanity in the classroom, (probably based on The Five-Paragraph Fuck) and my student evaluation numbers weren’t as high as they needed to be to make satisfactory progress on what I used to call “the march to tenure,” so I made swearing less one of my goals. At the time, I asked myself “how important is swearing to me vs. making sure I get tenure?” Seemed like an easy choice.

Since then, I had the honor of working with a male professor who swore like crazy in class, and got terrifically high student eval numbers (mostly because he was an amazing teacher). One of the conclusions I drew from that, rightly or wrongly, was that it’s o.k. for boys to swear. Girls, not so much.

Well, fuck that shit.

It isn’t as though I swear a whole lot, actually, in life or in class. More as a writer probably than any other time. But the freedom to do so feels important, and gosh, sometimes it’s just fun.

But I suppose I’m wanting to give my students fair warning, in case they’re likely to take too much offense. Of course, we’re a small campus, so there aren’t very many sections of any given class, so it isn’t as though students have a lot of choice in course scheduling. So maybe I just want them to steel themselves….

I guess showing Louis C.K. in class gives me automatic membership in the “It’s Our Job to Complicate Students’ Worldview” Club.” Note: I have also shown Slapshot in class. But it isn’t as simple as that.

I have two goals as a teacher that often come into conflict with each other:
1. I want to create a learning environment where students feel safe to learn and grow.
2. I want part of that learning and growing to come through experimentation and boundary-expansion.

So, for example, #2 is being satisfied when students have to grapple with the episode of Louie called “Heckler/Cop Movie,” when Louie goes absolutely nuclear on a female heckler. He calls her a c*&t and calls her mother a c*&t. He says, at one point, “You’re the worst thing that ever happened to America.” I ask students to analyze it (and some episodes of Roseanne) in terms of humor, and it didn’t take very long this past fall semester for students to notice that Louie doesn’t fare so well in that episode, that every offensive thing he does gets punished one way or the other. Then they did research, and many of them found this article: “The Filthy Moralist: How the comedian Louis C.K. became America’s unlikely conscience” from the Atlantic. So there you go, worldview complicated.

Well, worldview complicated for a lot of students. Complicated in one way for students who were appalled by his humor and needed to see how freaking brilliant he is. Complicated, too, for students (primarily male and white) who already thought Louie was hilarious, but couldn’t imagine he might, possibly, be making fun of THEM for laughing and not thinking.

You’ll notice I couldn’t quite bring myself to spell out the c-word. The DVD I had bleeped it, and we had some relatively hilarious, inadvertently hilarious class moments when we discovered that not everyone knew what “c-word” stood for, or what the word meant, or why it struck some people as different than saying “dick” instead of “penis.” #whyIloveteaching

And this takes me back to point #1 above: in our culture, the c-word has a lot of baggage, much of it painful for women. As a teacher, I now feel it is my duty, to be even-handed, to find something that some male students might feel not-just-offended-but-wounded by in the same way some way some female students felt in response to Louie’s rant. Open to suggestions here. (Seriously. Post suggestions.)

My big concern, in other words, is that I don’t guide students in pursuing #2 at the expense of the same people over and over–people who are often picked on in our society.

Just in the realm of vocabulary alone, it’s hard for me to think of a _-word that slams a heterosexual white man without any obvious disabilities. But if we were brainstorming, insults for women, those in the LGBTQ community, people of color, people who are differently-abled…those insults would just spring trippingly and quickly off our tongues.

I’m completely comfortable deleting a post on my own Facebook thread when someone casually uses language I am offended by (or worry a friend might be offended by). In the classroom, the rules of propriety and etiquette don’t seem as clear to me.

As part of my ongoing creativity research, and in preparation for spring semester, I’m continuing to read Dispatches from the Classroom: Graduate Students on Creative Writing Pedagogy, a terrific book I got excited about FIRST because there are precious few articles, let alone whole BOOKS on creative writing pedagogy. This book, edited by Christ Drew, Joseph Rein, and David Yost, came out last year and I find it consistently thought-provoking.

Just this week, I finished M. Thomas Gammarino’s “Invoking the Muzzle: Censorship and the Creative Writing Classroom” and found much to applaud and agree with, but a few places I found sticky.

It’s pretty obviously connected to my concerns above.

He positions himself as a libertarian sort of professor for the most part (for which I feel some kinship, cf: assigning Louis CK, above).

“Can fiction create a hostile learning environment?” he asks as he discusses one of his own experiences as a student writer, when he turned a story into a workshop about a pedophile keeping “pets” in the basement. The teacher reacted strongly, reasoning that other students would essentially have been forced to read it, that they weren’t as free to put it down as they would have been if it had been in a magazine, etc. Gammarino dropped that class, but as he points out, the problem remains.

He summarizes another incident (that he was not involved in) in which a teacher was disturbed by the violence in a student story and sought help outside the classroom–this ended with the student getting expelled and the instructor losing her job. Gammarino blames this on the institution’s overreaction and the attempt at censorship, calling it “prophylactic hysteria” (the phrasing of which I covet).

I like how he distinguishes the basic philosophical positions: “Libertarians may find themselves in the anguished position of having to defend the free speech of people whose viewpoints they find repulsive, but those who favor enacting controls on hate speech appoint themselves to the essentially undemocratic position of prescribing a morality for the masses.”

(I would say in this case it’s not the masses so much as it is the enrollment in any given course, but the point still holds.)

I also appreciate that he asked for feedback from other creative writing teachers, and there’s one response I’d like to highlight, the one from Wilton Barnhardt: “It is, of course, always a judgment call whether this kind of incident is pure aggression, a sociopathic acting out, a smart-ass way to get attention or indulge in hate-speech, or a clumsy attempt by an untrained writer to deal with difficult topics. I think we all know good and well when it’s the former, and I am prepared to sit there and listen and help and edit when it’s the latter.”

Therein lies the sticky place for me. I don’t always know good and well how to distinguish between the former and the latter. Sometimes it’s obvious, sure, but we’ve all seen studies about the higher incidence of mental illness in the field of creative writing, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to find problems with mental illness in the creative writing classroom.

[Would it automatically be different, I realize I need to ask myself, seeing violent imagery from a student I knew to have mental illness issues, vs. a student who seemed emotionally stable? Hm.]

Violent imagery + mental illness doesn’t automatically add up to “will act on what is described.” Still, when a student I was working with informally began submitting pieces about stalking and harming a female teacher, I wrote him and said I wasn’t comfortable working with him. He cried censorship, and maybe he was right, but one of my absolute life goals is to trust my gut more, and my gut was telling me “RUN!”

I had the choice though–he’d been my student in the past, but wasn’t enrolled in anything at the time.

Gammarino did not give much space to discussing his original teacher’s point about student choice in terms of reading and responding, but I think it’s an important question. He was also very dismissive of another teacher he knows of who asks students to fill out a cover sheet for the pieces they’re going to workshop, describing the potential offensiveness (among other things, I assume). Gammarino says “I want to challenge the warrant behind all of this: namely, that it is part of the writing teacher’s job to protect the comfort level of his students—that is, to keep them from being offended.”

But it isn’t just “being offended” that I’m concerned about. It’s trauma. If a young woman has been raped, a rape scene will be traumatic. The more graphic, the more traumatic (I assume). And even if a young woman hasn’t been raped, do I really want to contribute to the rape culture we live in by asking a whole class to read a graphically violent rape scene?

I’m remembering a particular violent story, a series of revenge fantasies by a student who had writing skills and “issues” in approximately equal measure. It just so happened that the women victims came to more gruesome ends than the men.

I worked with this particular student all semester, and tried to get him to move beyond what I called his “shock and awe” imagery. But there were female students who were deeply uncomfortable working with him, and I don’t feel as though I helped them navigate their discomfort because I wasn’t sure how much of it was sort of an intellectual “ooh. ick.” and how much was simply an appropriate reaction of horror.

Gammarino says “Clearly teachers must do everything they can to protect their students’ safety,” but in this case he means safety in the sense of not actually being the ones killed and hacked up as described in this particular story.

Nothing bad happened in that way with this student; I wasn’t really worried that it would. My “gut,” in other words, was telling me this wasn’t going to make the news.

Gammarino adds that teachers must also “maintain a level of discussion appropriate to higher education,” and that’s where I’m getting stuck. What is appropriate here?

I absolutely agree with him when he says “…insofar as we choose to protect our students from ideas we ourselves may find odious, we also protect them from developing complex minds capable of deciding such matters for themselves.”

So my goal IS helping them navigate their discomfort and their horror. I am wondering if some kind of cover sheet would help–not simply to let students opt-out of reading something they’re alarmed at before reading it, but to also help us keep track of who is pushing what boundaries.

Gammarino describes his own pedophile-with-pets story as “a chance to stretch my imagination,” and that, ultimately, is what I find most troublesome about censorship–it boxes everything up so tightly there is precious little stretching possible.

If we grant that creative writing has to be about more than the craft of writing (the “writing” half of “creative writing”), but also has to be about creativity, then the stretching is crucial, and worth a great deal of student discomfort.

But what if the student writing the scary imagery has been doing that for years? And wants to do only that for the class? How creative is that? What about the student who wants to turn in only masturbation-paced erotica? They’re pushing other people’s boundaries, sure, but not their own.

So here’s my plan for my beginning creative writing class for Spring 2013: students are going to have access to a cover sheet for workshops. Half of it will be what they want to tell other students about the piece they’re submitting, and half of it will be like this (note–VERY ROUGH DRAFT), a way to keep track of how much experimenting people are doing. So if, for example, someone is writing in traditional meter and spouting mainstream ideas all semester, we can all note that and suggest the person push in some other directions. But by the same measure, we can suggest that someone who is consistently writing pieces that “might give your grandmother a stroke” could branch out a little.

I’m also going to Xerox Gammarino’s piece for my creative writing class before the first workshop. I anticipate a good discussion.

(This is also something I’m realizing I need to research more.)

Still haven’t decided about the “CAUTION: Profanity uttered here” warning.

If My Teaching Career Were Keats, It Would Be Dead

T minus 10 days and Spring Semester 2013 officially begins for me (I know many people have started already, and no, I don’t know why our classes begin on a Friday this year).  When I turned in grades for Fall 2012, I officially completed my 25th year of teaching at the college level.  When I started in 1987 at age 22, I was not particularly good at my job, but I was enthusiastic. My skills are solider now, and my enthusiasm…well, it’s pretty solid for the part of my job that takes place in the classroom.

As I approach the beginning of my 26th year of teaching, I find myself wondering about metaphors for semesters.

Of course, it might be better not to have a metaphor for a semester at all. It might be more productive to be the Kings and Queens of Denotation (say what?) and simply proceed, understanding that a semester is a unit of time. But that’s not how I roll.

The rooms we teach in affect how we teach: Nancy Van Note Chism notes “social constructivists point out that the social setting greatly influences learning. Picture the limitations of the standard classroom or study carrel in terms of these ideas. The decor is sterile and unstimulating; the seating arrangements rarely allow for peer-to-peer exchange; and the technology does not allow individual access to information as needed. Rather, the room supports a transmission theory whose built pedagogy says that one person will ‘transfer’ information to others who will ‘take it in’ at the same rate by focusing on the person at the front of the room.”

I think metaphors affect us in much the same way. If our metaphors don’t match our pedagogy, we will find ourselves asking students to balance buckets of water on their heads whilst also spinning on a merry-go-round (one of those old-school ones that are really dangerous and hard to find) without even realizing the impossibility of what we’re asking.

(But wow—wouldn’t that be hilarious? Everyone would just be soaked and dizzy and puking and miserable and laughing like crazy.)

Here are some metaphors I’ve been mulling:

  • Train trip
  • Garden
  • Party
  • Game
  • Business meeting
  • Battle
  • Swimming pool
photo by stingberd on Flickr (available through Creative Commons license)

photo by stingberd on Flickr (available through Creative Commons license)

Pros and cons:

  • Train trip

+ Destination clear. Class schedule much like itinerary. Professor as engineer and conductor.

– Rigidity. Students are simply passengers (passive unless they take over the train, which feels like a bad western).

  • Garden

+Aesthetically pleasing. Students as gardeners. Learning outcomes as harvest

-SLOW. I always plant more than I can manage. Weeds.

  • Party


-Learning not always fun

  • Game

+Clear objectives. Fun.

-Competition is stressful.

  • Business meeting



  • Battle

+Goals, outcome and timeline clear (if Colin Powell is in charge).

-Someone has to lose (die).

  • Swimming pool

+Professor as swimming instructor, coach, and lifeguard.  Fun. Immersion implied (the Baptist in me loves that part). Stakes are high.

-Some people show up with rocks in their pockets and WILL NOT FLOAT.

Think metaphors don’t matter? What about this:  One of my grad school professors said once, while erasing the board from a previous class, “Not erasing a board when you leave a class is as bad as not flushing the toilet when you leave the bathroom.”  It’s hard to get that out of your head, and it’s made me awfully sensitive to this particular sort of professor-etiquette (or lack of it).  But, yuck, for the image, and YUCK to saying what we write on the board is POOP in need of flushing.

As I’m working on syllabi for the spring (notice how I imply the work has already begun), I’m mulling the garden and game metaphors most.

Perhaps croquet the way we used to play at Gran’mommy and Gran’daddy’s… We must have used several sets, because I remember way more than six or eight players. And there was no standard set-up. We put the wickets in the trickiest places–one favorite was on the edge of a steep slope from the yard down to the road. If you missed that one, you were in the road, trying to hit your way back up. And I remember my Dad and my Uncle Ferrell just WHACKING (pardon me, I mean ROQUETING) each other all the way across the road, into the corn fields…

Or maybe not.  Would we actually get to the appropriate learning outcomes in a game like that?

See? That’s why I struggle, every goddam semester I’ve ever taught, with making it all the way through the semester using the week-to-week schedule I pass out on the first day. I have the best intentions of hitting each train station on the appointed day and time, but I’m just not very good at it.

I want to explore what it means to balance train-like, business-assed precision with game-like, adventuring fun.

Meanwhile, what’s your favorite metaphor for a semester? For any other unit of time? For any other job?

Dear Jodie Foster: I got it (and it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t)

It’s been a long time since I watched an award show, but my husband was getting our son to bed last night, so I got to turn on the Golden Globes, which has long been my favorite awards show because it never seems to take itself too seriously, and just enough big stars always show up to make it fun.

I missed the beginning, so I missed some good Fey-Poehler moments, but thank-you universe, I got to see George Clooney canoodling Amy Poehler during the best actress in a comedy category moment.

And I got to watch all of Jodie Foster’s speech. Live.

And it made me cry. In a good way. Because it’s 2013, I said something on Facebook almost immediately, and then read a comment and HOLY CRAP–that speech was an instant controversy in a way something can be instant controversy only now, with all our immediate access and RESPOND RESPOND RESPOND modes.  I’m glad I wasn’t looking at f.b. or Twitter when she was speaking, because the people complaining might have colored the speech for me.

It’s a pretty Rorschachy cultural moment, apparently. People who watched the same speech I did thought it was incoherent, fragmented, confusing, and inappropriate. On Twitter and Facebook, people have said she was drunk. On drugs. Unhinged. Or sad. Perhaps in need of professional help.

So far, the only article I’ve read that gets it right (from my perspective) is this one from Salon, “Jodie Foster Comes Out, Gritting Her Teeth,” and even there–I thought she was having more fun than that.

In an attempt to figure out why people are responding so differently, I’ve watched the speech several times and analyzed the transcript. Here’s what I think–it was the tone and the pace and the lack of transitions that made people holler “incoherent!” If you watch the speech again, knowing what’s coming, or look at the transcript, it doesn’t seem so wacky. Or even very disorganized or fragmented.

Some caveats for my analysis: I love Jodie Foster. She could pretty much do or say whatever and I would be fine.

Caveat #2: the speech did feel zoomy to me, sort of flight-of-fancy-paced, but HELLO. I like that kind of zooming, that kind of doesn’t-feel-structured-but-it-is feeling.

What did we expect her to do? I suppose we would have expected a brief “thank you, this town has been very good to me, etc.” speech. Something like her Oscar speech, when she won for The Accused in 1988, a 141-word snippet in which she also thanks her mother. She said, “There are very few things: there’s love and work and family. And this movie is so special to us because it was all three of those things. And I’d like to thank all of my families, the tribes that I come from.”

In contrast, last night’s speech was more than 1,100 words. Nearly ten times as long. Lots of time to do lots more.

And I do know from incoherence. I’ve been teaching first and second-year college students for 25 years now. There’s incoherence (no main point, supporting points that don’t match main point, supporting points that don’t connect to each other), and then there’s subtlety.  I also teach creative writing, including creative nonfiction. There are ways to express ourselves that meander, that don’t add up to incoherence. I think Jodie Foster is more akin to Mary Paumier Jone’s “Meander” than a first-year disorganized essay, or a “bizarre” or “incoherent rant,” as many people are labeling the speech.

What she did, as I outline it, is the following:

  • Start with an insider joke (“Well, for all of you ‘SNL’ fans, I’m 50! I’m 50!”)
  • Thank the person who introduced her (“I want to thank you for everything: for your bat-crazed, rapid-fire brain, the sweet intro. I love you and Susan and I am so grateful that you continually talk me off the ledge when I go on and foam at the mouth and say, ‘I’m done with acting, I’m done with acting, I’m really done, I’m done, I’m done.’” MORE ON THIS LATER. IT IS KEY.)
  • Comment on winning a Lifetime Achievement Award (““Trust me, 47 years in the film business is a long time….”)
  • Announce that she is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat (“So while I’m here being all confessional, I guess I have a sudden urge to say something that I’ve never really been able to air in public.”)
  • Thwart our expectations (“I’m single!”)
  • Explain why she’s thwarting our expectations (After a weird moment without audio–I thought it was my TV, but the ABC transcript says “audio went out,” she picks up with “…be a big coming-out speech tonight because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age….”)
  • Comment on culture in a joking way (“But now I’m told, apparently, that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show. You know, you guys might be surprised, but I am not Honey Boo Boo Child. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not me….)
  • Comment on culture in a serious way (““But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”  That BUT SERIOUSLY does count as a transition, btw.)
  • Impart some wisdom (“There are a few secrets to keeping your psyche intact over such a long career. The first, love people and stay beside them.”)
  • Thank people who have helped her (“That table over there, 222, way out in Idaho, Paris, Stockholm, that one, next to the bathroom with all the unfamous faces, the very same faces for all these years.”)
  • Conclude (“I will continue to tell stories, to move people by being moved, the greatest job in the world. It’s just that from now on, I may be holding a different talking stick. And maybe it won’t be as sparkly, maybe it won’t open on 3,000 screens, maybe it will be so quiet and delicate that only dogs can hear it whistle. But it will be my writing on the wall. Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely. Thank you, all of you, for the company. Here’s to the next 50 years.”)

What’s so fragmented about that? Just because she didn’t say, “Next, I would like to comment on culture in a joking way.”  Really? We needed that? “And finally I would like to conclude.”

I always tell students that transitions are for readers. They’re kind. They’re considerate. Jodie Foster wasn’t being so terribly kind and considerate, I suppose–maybe that’s why people actually seem offended by the PERCEIVED lack of coherence. We thought she was nice! We thought she loved us and wanted us along!

One reason I think this seemed incoherent is not because she was incoherent; I think it’s because she is so freaking smart. Who the hell tries to comment on culture and impart wisdom at the Golden Globes? Jode.

I don’t know that we’ll ever know if this was ad-libbed or totally planned or partly ad-libbed and partly planned or how sober she was. We just heard her thoughts on privacy, after all.  But it stands up pretty well to analysis.

And it’s hilarious in some ways, even though people were mostly NOT laughing at the right places (not at the Golden Globes and judging from Twitter, not in a lot of homes).  If we go with the notion that the biggest component of humor is surprise, we can see she was going for it again and again–starting with “I’m 50!” and tossing out the almost Schecky Green style of “my fellow actors out there, we’ve giggled through love scenes, we’ve punched and cried and spit and vomited and blown snot all over one another — and those are just the costars I liked.” (Someone should have done a rim-shot. Maybe if she’d slowed down and said, “bah dum bum” we’d have gotten it, but no, she was ZOOMING.)

Then she moved on  “I’m single” and then with “I’m not Honey Boo Boo,” which, if she’d allowed us to linger, could have taken us to layers upon layers of serious hilarity. Jodie Foster, beautiful, in a shiny dress that matched her great blue eyes, fit, strong, brilliant, no she is not Honey Boo Boo. But wow. If she did have a reality show….But we didn’t get time to picture it and giggle to ourselves because she went zooming on to “I’d have to spank Daniel Craig’s bottom just to stay on the air” (which he did laugh at–another reason to love him).

Then there’s all the deep irony of 1)coming out by thanking your longtime lover when HEY!  You just told us you weren’t coming out!  WAIT A MINUTE!  and 2)sending a message to your mother who apparently has dementia and is close to death, which is a pretty goddam intimate thing to do when you were just lecturing us on PRIVACY, 3)and also, there were your sons, which paparazzi are pretty crappy at grabbing snaps of, beautiful boys, right there at your table when you were just lecturing us on PRIVACY….

[And this actually wasn’t the first time she “came out” in public. I’m looking for the link, but she thanked Cydney publicly at least once before and called her her wife–and if her being a lesbian were a secret at all, it was a pretty open secret. I know some people have been angry at her for years for not “coming out” in a big way, but obviously, she wanted to do it her way.]

Caveat #3: I love Robert Downey Jr’s performance in Home for the Holidays, and Foster’s commentary on the DVD of that movie makes it sound like he ad-libbed almost constantly, and that she loved it.

So maybe I wasn’t as startled at the pace and lack of transitions in the speech because Robert Downey Jr. introduced her. He set the tone, and he set the pace. He was ironic almost all the way through, and silly, and almost no one laughed, it seemed, when he praised her for her philanthropy and the Jodie Foster Aquatic Pavilion, which he followed up quickly with a picture of her face photo-shopped onto Bo Derek’s famous “10” shot, with the caption, “Let’s Get Wet!”

He didn’t pause to let any of his jokes sink in. He just plowed on through.

And when she thanked him, she specifically mentioned his “bat-crazed, rapid-fire brain,” and “the sweet intro.”  You know what? The intro wasn’t sweet. It was, I trust, sweetly intended, since they’re friends, but it was mostly for her I think, an individualized, Robert Downey Jr.-ized chunk of what she would find funny.

She just picked up that baton and ran with it, and if we couldn’t keep up, well–we don’t get to hang out with them, do we? We’re not in their league.

Mel Gibson did look a little lost. I’d rather not be in his category of lost-ness.

But it says something, doesn’t it, that the two actors she chose to have at her table are not known for their clear-headedness and decorum? I take from this that she is loyal as the day is long and she has a fondness for the crazy. Both traits I happen to share.

I did feel dizzy at the end of her speech, no doubt, and the “I may never be on stage again” was a very weird moment, but we got a lot of Jodie Foster last night, more than I ever thought we’d get. Just looking at who was at her table–that was a lot, by itself.

She’s been in the public so publicly, so long, I’m not going to say “we got the real Jodie Foster!” There are layers upon layers upon layers there.

But in a room where she feels at home, where she can take whatever tone she wants and zoom however fast she wants, she ended with good news, “I will continue to tell stories, to move people by being moved,” and what I took to be the storyteller’s basic credo: “Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely.”

She finished with “Thank you, all of you, for the company. Here’s to the next 50 years.”

That’s why it matters, right, why it was bothering me for people to react to the speech so differently than I did? Because I was, very distantly, keeping her company. I’m 47. Beginning with her picture on the Coppertone bottle (and I could write a whole blog about Coppertone, the very name working as a transporter, and if I ever smell it–wow, I’m gone), she has been a part of my life.

She was never not there.

I wish her well and I loved, loved, loved that speech.

Zoom zoom!


UPDATE: Here’s a story from 2007 when Jodie Foster thanked Cydney Bernard. She isn’t quoted as having said “wife,” so I’m either remembering a different story, or remembering this one wrong, but this is from five years ago.

Where All the Slackers Did Go

I was thinking when the Boomers all retired,
Gen X would make the world more fun. Oh well.
My timeline, my assumptions–shot to hell.
I wish I’d known all this when I was hired.

There’s just so much I am so wrong about.

But I’m sure of this: however much the Gnostics
redeem the fall of Eve (and bless them for it),
the curséd part of work will not wash out.

Thorn and thistle, labor, sweaty brow–
an ever-expanding to do list (not quite cancer)–
let’s do our very best, let’s make it count–

I’m remembering how lazy I was when I was a child….

Work might be how I pay my fucking bills.
Work isn’t why I’m on the fucking planet.

New Policy on Tasks

Just as we no longer find it appropriate
to tempt our weak-willed colleagues with sweets
(or risk killing those with peanut allergies)
and thus last year banned everything but fruit
from the break room (and really–carbs–hello?),

we can no longer tolerate undone tasks.
Please volunteer whenever someone asks.

If you feel too busy (and only you would know),
you might consider sleeping slightly less
or drinking more caffeine. Or barring those
perfectly adequate solutions, you might
get a sitter and have a fun date night
with colleagues. If you don’t pitch in, someone
who’s really overworked will be forced to get it done.

for Dana

Don't compartmentalize! Work from home!

Don’t compartmentalize! Work from home!

Just Walking the Dead with Bowie (thank you, thank you, thank you)

(Hello there, multiple folks from multiple countries who’ve landed on this blog by Googling “walking the dead” and “meaning” or some such. Let me see if I can answer that question–I took it to be two things: one, a play on words, similar to “walking the dog,” and two, a sense of remembering, being nostalgic, longing for people and places and times that have passed. There may be other things going on as well–for all I know, it’s a translation of some clever saying in German. Thanks for checking out my blog! Please read on, if you would….)


Well, that’s it. David Bowie’s 66.
He’s old. I’m old. We’re old. How much do I care?
I’m happy to report he is still deeply weird.
The video “Where are we now” is sick
(sick meaning not normal, not boring), lovely in
a creepy way–Berlin, mute woman, disembodied heads–
I was born in the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm–
explains a lot–Bowie sings “just out walking the dead”

How close was I to suicide in college?
In high school? Too close. I’m glad I danced away.

And Bowie helped. His weirdness, the vast collage
of his career, still here to help me navigate
the perils of middle age–oh here it comes–
the dancing and the danger and the weirdness–just in time


Why does 47 feel so much like 17?

And why is the self-destructive behavior of my middle-age so banal? I haven’t been suicidal for decades. My risky behavior has nothing to do with drunk driving or needles or strangers. (Not that it ever did. Ahem.)

I just eat too much. And weigh too much. And move too little. And here’s how I tend to handle stress–self-medicate with food, with alcohol (but not enough to actually be interesting about it).

I shuffle things around in my compartmentalized brain, but gracious the clutter’s accumulated.

So. I hadn’t even realized how much I needed a new Bowie album until I saw the video. But I did need it. I do. So thank-you.

(Now I need to hunt for a picture of myself when I used to make my hair look like his.)