Monthly Archives: November 2012

Tripping on Christmas

for Michael Higgins, my Zen Baptist Brother in Christ

Some churches hang the Christmas greens, a big deal,
But I don’t think First Baptist did. Instead,
Miss Iris’ shiny metal tree is what we had—
White, not silver, and oh! The color wheel!

Little kindergartners tripping out
In Sunday School. The tea party saucer became
The stone for Jacob’s pillow. We took turns being him,
And we saw angels climb a ladder to the clouds.

And then at the end of the season, some churches burn
The trees and garlands—the incense of which must bring
To mind the smell of other burning greens—
A safe and sanctioned mode of getting stoned.

Your message this morning recommended Marley—
A sweet gift for Advent. Grace. Mind? Altered.

From the Vermont Country Store online!

RERUN: Dry Stretch: Beer and Creativity (or, Beerativity)

[New blogging goals in my second year of blogging:  host more guest blogs + rerun some of my “notes” from Facebook, which I was clearly trying to use as a blog. The following is from July 27, 2011. Update afterward.]

My husband commented at dinner last night that it had been 18 days since he’d mowed, which he thought was a record. We’ve had such a hot, dry stretch here in Wisconsin that you can’t really even tell–the only things growing in the yard are those spiky things which we called plantains in Southern Illinois (so they’re probably called something else everywhere else).

It occurred to me that this is approximately the same amount of time I’ve gone without drinking.  No beer, no wine, and I hadn’t even gotten around to having my first G&T of the summer—I like to make tonic water ice cubes so the drink doesn’t get watery (though it does get tonic-watery).

A writer I know announced yesterday that he’ll be avoiding alcohol for 21 days in August & reporting for Men’s Health.

And doing more reading for my ongoing research on creativity, this section came up yesterday: “Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.” In this section, leading creativity researcher Mark Runco (who I like to pretend looks like Mark Ruffalo) makes these points, which seemed relevant to the whole dry-stretch theme:

  • In summarizing multiple findings, Runco gives these numbers:  One researcher “found a full 60 percent of those involved in theater probably having alcoholism, with writers of fiction and musicians not far behind (41% and 49% respectively).” Another researcher “found writers to be especially prone to alcoholism” (131).
  • (NOTE: poets score higher on the whole suicide index, to be fair.)

To make sense of the next point, you have to know that Wallas was an early creativity researcher, and any time a researcher discusses the stages of creativity, the basis began with Wallas, who described these as the stages of creativity: preparation (defining the problem, setting the task, doing research, mulling over different possibilities), incubation (setting the project aside & letting things stew/coalesce at a subconscious or preconscious level), illumination (that a-ha! moment), verification (when other people confirm whether the creativity is successful or just bizarro).

  • Runco reports two researchers who looked at drinking and creativity “found alcohol consumption to be related to improved incubation…as well as high originality but only in the illumination phase of the creative process. Alcohol seems to inhibit flexibility during illumination. It was also related to poor verification….” These researchers “were extremely precise in the methods used to administer alcohol. They used 1.0 milliliter of alcohol (100% pure alcohol, not Bud Light nor even Captain Morgan Rum) for each kilogram of body weight” (132).

Then he describes alcohol’s effect on primary processes (“Primary process is associative and uninhibited. It is impulsive, libidinal, and free of censorship”) and secondary processes (“realistic, practical, and reality-oriented”) (133).

  • Yet another group of researchers “administered alcohol with two experimental groups in an attempt to manipulate primary and secondary process. Surprisingly [they] reported that the alcohol group seemed to use secondary process more than primary process. The prediction had been that alcohol would allow primary process but inhibits secondary process….The surprising finding may explain the common misconception that alcohol frees up our thinking and therefore improves our creativity. Thinking while intoxicated may actually be more original, but it may also be unrealistic and worthless. Truly creative insights are both original and worthwhile Perhaps intoxicated individuals are simply very poor judges of their own thinking. They may indeed have a really bizarre and therefore original idea, and they may like it because it is original, but they fail to see that even though it is original, it is worthless” (132).

I have always been good at the preparation & incubation & illumination stages—it’s just the verification I’ve struggled with. And the notion of flexibility seems most relevant to revising—looking at options and not getting locked in to the original plan or draft.

So. It’s raining today in southwest Wisconsin, but at least at the moment, I’m still not drinking.  I’m sleeping better and feeling calmer overall. And it comforts me to know that I’m probably not losing anything in terms of creativity by staying sober.

Runco, Mark. Creativity: Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice. Amsterdam: Elsevier,

2007. Print.

[11/26/12: I stopped drinking until I could imagine myself having a glass of wine or a beer without having a second or third automatically. It was the right thing to do–since I started drinking again (I think I went a couple months total without drinking), it hasn’t felt out of control at all. I’m checking to see if I can find the article Benjamin Percy wrote about his dry stretch.  One of the biggest disappointments about finding out that Jonah Lehrer is a big fat liar is that I really liked how his book on creativity talked about the benefits and drawbacks of drugs/alcohol on the creative process. Perhaps I’ll check his sources and write about that myself in a future blog.]

Derailing the Train of the Perfect Semester

Welcome aboard, students and friends, yes welcome to
The Train of the Perfect Semester. I’m your Engineer,
Conductor, Coal Shoveler, and the Happy Waving Guy
In the bright red caboose.  See the circus animals?
I clean up after them and feed them.  (And unlike
SOME professors, no, I don’t think my students
Are animals. Or vice versa.) See the tracks
Below us, flying past? Learning outcomes
Set by the department.  Or wait, no,
The learning outcomes are our destination.
Yes, that’s right. So those rails, well, they must be
The syllabus. (I thought the train might be the syllabus,
One car per week, but that doesn’t work.
Why would you move through a moving train like that?
And I need the lounge car more than just one week.)
I’m in constant contact with other trains,
Most are far ahead of us, a few behind,
And we are all converging on the station,
The depot with its train-font, “Finals Week,”
Where you will disembark and I’ll post grades
And tend to the train for a month or so until
We load her up again in Spring and head for May.

Except, oh Christ, it doesn’t work that way for me.
It never has. And even there, in that happy stanza,
I fucked it up—the destination was “Learning  Outcomes,”
Not “Finals Week.” The hardest thing for me
In everything is how to keep things straight.
So yes, it would be lovely if you’d climbed
The folding step and taken your seat and toured
Each depot along the way in an orderly fashion
Set up by me, “Here is the town of Paraphrase,”
Imagine my having said, “Next stop, Quotation Sandwich.”
Only those stops required, in order,
With me as your energetic tour guide.
(Oh great—engineer, conductor, shoveler, happy guy
animal wrangler and tour guide. I needed more work.)
And I guess your ticket for each stop would be a quiz
Or an essay. Your luggage is all your prior learning….
How much grit did you pack? You’ll need a fair bit.

Let’s talk about those circus animals.
They’re well treated, of course. They’re escapees
From other circuses, if you really want to know.
I thought you might enjoy them. I thought you might
Even learn a little from them, but no,
They aren’t exactly on the syllabus.

So here’s the thing. I lied when I gave you the schedule
For the semester. I should have told you then
“Here’s where we’re starting out, the first few weeks,
and then here’s a list of everywhere else we’ll go,
but no, I’m not committing to exactly when.
I promise we will get to the destination. On time.
And we will stop at all the absolutely necessary stops.”

Beyond that, I should have told you, who knows?
Will I ever be brave enough to say that?

Will I ever be brave enough to say that
If I see a pond I’ve never noticed before
And it occurs to me we could go fishing there
For topic ideas or movie reviews that bring up
What we’re reading from the 19th century,
We’re stopping. We’re always going to stop.
We might even abandon the train. Don’t freak—
I promise we’ll get where we’re going. We always do.
But I will not promise by what conveyance.

If you’re the sort of student who needs the train
To run on time above all else, my class will make you nuts.
But if you’re focused on the destination,
(I will give repeated updates about how close we are),
and able to be a traveler, not a tourist,
and able to enjoy the scenery and the side trips,
I can promise you  a punched ticket in 16 weeks.
You might even get the opportunity to shovel coal!
Or animal shit! I’ll even let you wave from the caboose.

Also there might be small robots or sushi or kazoos.

______
Here at the Sunday morning gathering of Zen Baptists at my house (Today’s Attendance…1), the reading was from St. Anne (Lamott) about the prayer of “Help.”

I came away thinking–why do I persist in seeing my semester as a mess when the weekly schedule I set up becomes something fictional? Why not work on making sure we hit the necessary stops but otherwise just say to students, why not say TO MYSELF, “Sure it’s a mess. But it’s a GLORIOUS mess.”

Because that’s what life is. At least that’s what my life is.

(And yes, I was thinking of those leaders who were praised with “at least the trains ran on time.” It isn’t logical, of course, to equate an on-time train with evil, but it’s also not logical to equate a meandering journey with educational malpractice, which is what those EXEMPLARY PROFESSOR CRITICS in my head say to me. I’m telling them hush. I’m telling them, enjoy the freaking ride, and here’s some herbal insect repellant. “For what?” say the EXEMPLARY PROFESSOR CRITICS. “For the bugs up your collective butt,” I say.)

Guest Blog from my Dad! “Unseen Shadows and Unheard Echoes”

Hello, everyone! One of my big goals as I begin my second year of blogging is to host more guest bloggers. My first guest is my Dad, Everett Bullock.

Born in 1939 in Southern Illinois, he has to his credit full retirement from the U.S. Army, including time in Viet Nam during the Tet Offensive. Also to his credit: the ability to dance the Charleston on roller skates when he was a teenager (I have no video proof, but I do trust him on this).

He and my Mom will celebrate their 54th wedding anniversary on November 29th. That’s to their credit–good job, guys!

Also, he’s a terrific Dad–loving and present. I know I learned a lot of what I know as a writer and thinker from him–you’ll see why, below.

(And, just so you know, if you’re concerned after reading the poem & commentary, he’ll be surrounded by family and love on Thanksgiving AND after–it’s a huge reason I lured my parents up to Spring Green, so I can bother them ALL THE TIME at their house.)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and without further ado, here’s my Dad’s post:

_______

Amateur writers of prose or poetry often hesitate to put words on paper or in their computer. At times it is because of a lack of confidence in their ability, and other times we literally cannot think of anything to write. For better or worse, there are also occasions when our emotions, dreams, or nightmares reduce our ability to think clearly and write sensibly. Several years ago, members of my family departed after a Holiday visit, and I experienced a period such as this. I could not think of any cause for my feeling or any means for moving out of it. After suffering for a few hours, I started trying to write, planning to draft a poem or a paragraph or two that might clarify my problem. The attached poem was the result, finished several hours and days later. It was a relief to finish it, and I buried it with my other treasures for some time.

I must have done a poor job of burial, as the poem would come to mind every time a family member or friend would depart after a visit. I finally excavated the poem and tried to improve it. I had no success. I found that every time I read the poem, it caused me to miss those who were gone and caused me to think of how I might let them know how much I cared for them the next time they visited. While I have improved greatly, I am still less open about my caring than I should be, and I still seek out the poem to consider the empty house, empty of life, love, caring, or passion. May those who read this poem reach out to their loved ones before they depart and be sure to let them know of your love before their departure. There is no guarantee you will be able to do this at the next visit.

Everett Bullock
November 18, 2012

Unseen Shadows and Unheard Echoes

Now the house sits quietly, with feeling.
The chairs are in their places, empty.
The floors are bare and clean.
Tables are loaded with empty space.

In the dim corners, latent shadows stir,
stretch, and observe without blinking,
present, but not present,
old dust undisturbed.

The walls push faint noises from
one room to the next, pausing,
while silence catches up and passes,
leaving faint echoes.

Outside, the flowers nod with approval
as the grass straightens.
Trees hold their own conversation
with large, slow gestures.

The wind seeks familiarity,
Examining with gentle fingers,
passing with kind rejection,
continuing its search.

The fence sturdily fences out,
and fences in,
providing a beginning
and an end.

The house is still,
And waits patiently
for decay or use,
secure but empty.

Also Not Sinatra, Except I’m Not Retiring

Philip Roth says he’s retired from writing:

 

‘“I didn’t say anything about it because I wanted to be sure it was true,’ he said. ‘I thought, “Wait a minute, don’t announce your retirement and then come out of it.” I’m not Frank Sinatra. So I didn’t say anything to anyone, just to see if it was so.’”

 

According to the author of the New York Times article, “Mr. Roth stopped because he feels he has said what he has to say.”  Later, though, he quotes Roth as saying

 

“’I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.’ He went on: ‘I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.’” 

 

Which seems different to me than not having anything more to say.

 

In any case, although I am also not Frank Sinatra, I am not retiring.

 

I’m still up for all the frustrations, more up for them than ever, really. I’m trying to be very intentional about which projects I work on and what actions I’m taking to build my audience.  We’ll see what the payoff is soon enough, but what’s nice about where I am right now is that if I’m not satisfied with the payoff, I’ll change what I’m doing.

 

Interviewing a friend last week about creativity—more on that in an upcoming post—he commented on all the work I’m doing, not just the writing, but the work of getting the writing out there in front of people (Shitty Barn, blogging, etc.) and said sort of casually that I was someone who actually had something to say (as opposed to people who seem to get in front of an audience regularly but don’t have much important to say).

 

Pretty huge compliment from someone I respect hugely.

 

And I don’t feel as though I’ve come anywhere close to saying it all.  Maybe in 33 years, when I’m nearing 80 as Philip Roth is, I’ll be done.  If I’m lucky enough to live that long, a whole Jesus-on-earth-lifetime, with my faculties intact, maybe then.

 

But not yet.

 

My first blog post was November 20, 2011. Although I had used Facebook’s “Notes” as a kind of blog  previously, and had published the occasional op-ed in the Cap Times or Wisconsin State Journal, blogging is the first time I’ve genuinely felt as though I was writing “my letter to the world,” in any kind of format that might allow the world to actually receive the letter, let alone read it, in any kind of consistent fashion.

 

So here’s where we are so far:

With this post,

  • 52 posts published.
  • 3,828 views all time.
  • 278 views on my busiest day (thank-you Aeron Haynie!)
  • 1,179 views in my busiest month (thank-you  Aeron Haynie!)
  • Hits from all over the world—many of which are spam, or people Googling something and landing on my blog by error or curiosity. And yet, it’s a pretty picture:

Image

(And there are more one-hit wonders below Ukraine (with its blue sky/wheat field flag), including Germany, Japan, Hungary, and Tunisia. But hey!  I have former students in Japan.  Why aren’t they reading my blog for real?  HarrrUMPH.)

These stats don’t say how many people actually read the blog, or GOT IT, or enjoyed it, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. More telling, perhaps, are my

  • 204 comments,
  • 38 “followers,” and
  • 64 “likes.”

 

I had no expectations going into this but still have been pleasantly surprised by the response (so I must have expected less somehow). I want to do some research to get a sense of what an appropriate goal might be for expanding my readership, but the blog has led to another writing opportunity already (more on that soon!) and more importantly, it’s given me a way to share what I’ve always done a lot of—writing.

 

Goals I’ve settled on for my second year of blogging:

  • try to post at least once a week (I aimed for 52 because that means I averaged one a week, but they came in very spurty spurts).
  • host guest blogs!

In fact, I want my next blog to be a guest blog from one of my favorite writers, my Dad.

In this week of giving thanks, I am thankful for everyone who’s tuned in and given my little radio show a listen. I’ll be back soon spinning the discs and dancing in the privacy of my padded room.  (Did I ever mention I started out in radio?  It’s true.  Why, one time I interviewed Big Jim Thompson when he was governor down in Illinois…..)

 

Ode on a Ding Dong (a fat sonnet)

O.k. so sure there’s the fine grit of baby aspirin
Or something like it now in Oreos and Pop Tarts
And Coke has, instead of sugar, Satan’s urine,
The whole country is obese and I’m too fat,
I get that, but Jesus, let me have one day of mourning
On hearing Hostess is going out of business.
The fact they’re anti-worker makes it worse–
I can’t even make a run on Ding Dongs
Without feeling I’ve betrayed Wisconsin’s spring
Of protesting, so I ate my last one without knowing
It would be the last time I would bite
Into a chocolate layer that resisted just
A tiny bit before giving way to cake,
And then…that creamy middle. I won’t say
I’m sorry for loving Ding Dongs. I am sad.
I’m not ashamed to love something so very bad.

_____

It has made me furrow my brow, people saying things like “you know they’re bad for you” or actually listing the ingredients, in response to someone mourning the loss of Twinkies (which I personally won’t miss) or Ding Dongs (which I really will miss).

As if there’s someone out there who loved Hostess because they were under the impression that display at the end of the aisle was full of healthy treats.

One of the many, many things I loved about Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh on The Closer was her addiction, and the way James Duff made obvious that she had unbridled love for things that were bad for her. I mean, gracious! Her going away present from her guys was a new black bag full of Ding Dongs! Or something like them, since I personally haven’t been able to find them wrapped in foil for a long time–perhaps there is a product I will come to love as much as Ding Dongs, but I suspect they were purchased and wrapped in foil by props people so that Brenda Leigh could unwrap them sensually. Foil can be sensual (at least in Sedgwick’s hands). Plastic wrap not so much.

So yes, Ding Dongs never were good for me. But I loved them and I will miss them, and you know what? You can criticize their badness all you want, but it isn’t as if now that they’re gone, the whole country will certainly get healthier.

That we’re all stress-eating, self-medicating with fat and sugar, that the country may well set off some new sort of plate tectonics by just weighing too damn much?

Don’t blame Ding Dongs.

Off Balance in Blaze Orange

“The morning air is all awash with angels… …keeping their difficult balance.”

Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”

The morning air is awash with orange in Wisconsin,
gun deer season almost here, all the manly men
and women hanging their gear on the line so the doe urine
don’t stink up the house so much. All righty then:

we all must choose who we are: our inner Zen Fransciscan
who is APPALLED at the blood and gore being
touted as a family ritual over Thanksgiving,

OR our car-insurance-paying selves who thank
every roadkill we’re not responsible for hitting,
every hunter who lowers the population,

OR all our cells currently, valiantly fighting
off all the diseases that are tick-borne
with names more beautiful than Lyme or Rocky Mountain–

babesiosis, and tularemia (which sounds like a dance),
OR we must admit those doe eyes, so longingly brown,
do nothing reliably but throw us off balance.

 

_____

Of course, another choice is participating in the hunt, enjoying the family tradition and ritual. I’m not a vegetarian, and I’m not anti-hunting, so I actually do see that as a perfectly fine option (it just didn’t occur to me as I was writing the poem, and I was trying to list the choices as I see them for myself as a non-hunter).

 

I was also interested in Dave Zweifel’s column, “If only hikers spent as much as hunters,” in terms of one of the basic things that keeps the hunt the way it is in Wisconsin–money-bucks and not boy-deer-bucks. He points out that “those folks who stroll in the woods don’t buy ammo and guns, down six packs of beer and devour big, juicy steaks after the sun goes down.”

 

Well. If we’re not shooting, there’s no need to buy ammo and guns.  And I’m not so big on the steak-eating.   But by golly, I’m going to try and buy lots and lots of beer, which I’m sure will do nothing but add clarity to the issue.