Letter to my new #uindygrad friends

Dear Class of 2015,

You’ve graduated, I see—literally, since the photos are everywhere. So I wanted to say, “Congratulations! Way to go!” You’ve just marked a major milestone, one you’ll not regret even when the student loan bills begin to arrive. Believe me, I know. After all, I graduated once, too, all the way in 2014, though it’s ancient history now. Back in my day, we waited until May 3 to do it, but as I keep reading in the newspaper, the kids are doing it younger and younger these days.


Graduation 2014, pulled from the dusty archives. (Photo by Ben Zhang)

Anyway, soon you’ll be feeling a pretty strong hangover—rife with headaches, vomiting, sensitivity to light—that has nothing to do with alcohol consumption. No matter how you celebrate graduation, it’s the graduating itself that gives you the highest high. Soon you’ll be spending all of your time in what some people call “the real world.” Fortunately, some people are what others call “bitter.” Either way, it ain’t pretty. This brave new world isn’t a geographically defined space with where everyone shares the same goal. You’ll have to create your own goals.

Maybe you already know what those goals are. Maybe you’ve known since elementary school what you wanted to be, to do, to win. This is, and always was, yours to decide. Hopefully you’ve landed your dream job already, but for most, you’ll have years to go and plenty of hard work before your big break.

So this is the part where I have some advice. Since you’ve had it up to your ears with lectures by this point, I’ll make it pithy. Two quick things:

1. Be proud of your accomplishments but not pompous. You’ve come a long way! But so has everyone already working in your field, even if you can tweet better. Don’t let people tell you you’re too young or inexperienced to take on anything. However, don’t pretend there’s nothing more to learn. Instead, be tenacious. Talk to people in your field about how they got to where they are, even if you don’t work with them and just meet for coffee. Few can resist free coffee.

2. Ask questions—even dumb ones. After four years in school, you know the old adage about “no dumb questions” is a farce. You’ve heard the stupidest questions imaginable in ethics, anthropology, composition, and all the other gen eds you didn’t want to take. But even the stupid questions found answers. Asking questions means you’re curious, and that’s one of the best motivators you can have. Curiosity is a virtue in my book. Curiosity drives people to do great things without the promise of money or celebrity, but simply to understand our world and the ways we live in it.

Lastly, when you start to retch from that post-commencement hangover, just remember that it’s not the last time. There are higher highs to come. (Ditto for worse hangovers.) But that lightness you felt walking across the stage, even if you never again graduate, it’ll find you, fill up the pit of your stomach like helium until you’re once more walking on air.


Lara Parker: BuzzFeed staff lister extraordinaire

Indian Creek graduate Lara Parker is shown at the Los Angeles office of the popular website BuzzFeed. Parker worked at BuzzFeed as an intern and now has a job as a staff writer for the company. (Courtesy Photo)

Indian Creek graduate Lara Parker is shown at the Los Angeles office of the popular website BuzzFeed. Parker worked at BuzzFeed as an intern and now has a job as a staff writer for the company. (Courtesy Photo)

As a staff writer at BuzzFeed, Lara Parker spends her days figuring out how to make list articles—”listicles”— that will go viral. And she loves it. Just last year, though, she was a recent UIndy grad trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.

I was working at a PR agency at the time, and I absolutely hated it. I would spend most of my day wondering if this was what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life, and if so, how I was supposed to get through that, because I just felt like this cannot be what the real world is like.

When she started posting on BuzzFeed, Lara’s content kept getting promoted from the community page to the main homepage. Eventually, she scored an internship in L.A., at the end of which she was hired on as a staff writer. She loves working there because of the variety of things the website publishes.

We’re like the place that everyone can go to for all sorts of things. If you want to read about hard news, you can go to BuzzFeed; if you want to learn about politics, you can go to BuzzFeed; if you want to get recipes, you can go to BuzzFeed; and if you want to look at pictures of cats, you can go to BuzzFeed.

On top of the softer, 90s nostalgia lists that she loves writing, Lara wrote a bold essay about her personal health on BuzzFeed. It’s entitled “Learning To Love Life Without Sex.”

Check out my full article from The Reporter-Times about her, and the BuzzFeed itself.



Thank you, Ben Zefeng Zhang for this photo. You're twice as fine a friend as you are a photographer.

Thank you, Ben Zefeng Zhang for this photo. You’re twice as incredible of a friend as you are a photographer.

I want to say “Thank you” to every single person who has wished me well and congratulated me. The kind words over the past few days have been countless. Really, it has been a long journey, and I would not have been able to do it without the support of friends, family and faculty. Thank you especially to those who continually pushed me in and outside the classroom.

With your encouragement and guidance, I completed three internships, oversaw the publication of UIndy’s student newspaper and founded the UIndy Francophone Club. I was inducted into two honors societies. I completed my bachelor’s degree in English Creative Writing with a minor in (don’t tell grandpa Figy) French. Somehow, I managed to have fun.

To everyone who has asked, “What’s next?” Right now, I will continue looking for full-time employment for the next year. Until I find that, I plan to continue freelancing for the Reporter-Times and look for other freelance opportunities. With the rest of my time, I will try not to get evicted from my apartment by doing carpentry and construction with my dad. In the long run, I want to go back to school to get an MFA in creative writing. This will put me a step closer to my dream of publishing books and, eventually, teaching on the college level. I am signed up to take the GRE in June, and we’ll see where everything goes from there.

If I know anything, though, it’s that life is unexpected. So there will probably be many twists that I didn’t know about before. But that’s nothing new. Going to college, really, was not something I planned to do when I was in high school. At that point, it seemed like too much work for too little reward. After all, I was going to be a rock icon. My life at that point felt aimless. I didn’t know what or how, but I knew that I wanted to create… something.


Me with my beautiful girlfriend Stephanie Snay, a 2012 UIndy grad. (Photo by Lizzie Figy.)

What started me on the path towards academia was meeting up for coffee with a friend. She had just returned from spring break in Maine—a chilly place to vacation at that time of year—and was heading to France for spring term. I was interested, intrigued. And I saw, through her, that college wasn’t just about taking tests and trying to push everyone out of your way in the pursuit of a larger paycheck. It’s a place to learn and grow and push yourself. It’s a place to meet interesting people from all around the world and discover different ways of thinking. And, at least in the humanities, it’s a place to learn that people think differently than you do—and that’s okay.

So thank you, Stephanie Snay, for inspiring me to go to school and supporting me through my undergrad career. I love you, and I am excited about our future together outside of school. But buckle up, because I still have a ways to go.

It feels wrong to end this without saying once more: Thank you, everyone.

Sincerely, James

Robert Neal—actor and professor

Robert Neal looks over the Queen Anne monologue from "Richard III" during the Speech for the Stage course that he teaches at UIndy. (James Figy)

Robert Neal looks over the Queen Anne monologue from “Richard III” during the Speech for the Stage course that he teaches at UIndy. (James Figy)

Robert Neal is a tall mountain of a man with booming voice and intense eyes. The first time that I saw Robert, he had a big black beard, long coat and overlarge pirate hat. He was playing Orsino in the strangest production of “Twelfth Night” that I’ve ever seen. (So, I guess, the weirder of two productions.) At the time, the IRT was doing some 60-minute Shakespeare plays for high school kids, and they decided to spice this one up by playing off the Pirates of the Caribbean. But that was nearly 10 years ago.

More recently, I saw him in the IRT’s production of “Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Who am I this Time? (and other conundrums of love).'” It was amazing. I recognized him from “Twelfth Night”—and I believe another play in between, though I don’t remember what it was—even though he looked completely different.

However, I was even more amazed when I found out that he has been teaching at the University of Indianapolis as an adjunct for quite some time. This guy has acted in 30 plays over the past 13 seasons at the IRT, not including his other appearances. I was even more amazed, when I sat down to interview him, that he was an English major during his undergraduate career. When I asked him about he told me:

I ended up majoring in English because I always had this love of reading and language and that kind of thing. I found out what I really loved and what was great about that was it taught me the power of sound and meaning together. Then when I ended up in acting, it really coalesced for me in that I loved language, but I love the sound of language, too. So I was using both things.

You can read the full article in The Reflector here.

Nikki Giovanni on Kurt Vonnegut and Antarctica

If I say something stupid, which does happen, I prefer to be in the company of friends. Not famous people. But when I met Nikki Giovanni, I said something pretty stupid.

Nikki was speaking for a diversity lecture at UIndy, and she kept bringing up Kurt Vonnegut, a personal hero of mine. So I recommended: “If you’re staying a few days, in town you should check out the Kurt Vonnegut museum.”

Nikki Giovanni spoke about everything from diversity, the Civil Rights movement and Emmet Till to Kurt Vonnegut, alcohol and Antarctica on Feb. 5 at UIndy. (Photo credit goes to Ayla Wilder)

Nikki Giovanni spoke about everything from diversity, the Civil Rights movement and Emmet Till to Kurt Vonnegut, alcohol and Antarctica on Feb. 5 at UIndy. (Photo credit goes to Ayla Wilder)

She smiled (coyly) and said, “Oh, dear.” And she proceeded to tell me how she and Kurt were close friends, how he would take her son to the circus. He loved the circus, she said, but since his kids were grown, he would always ask to take her son whenever the big top was in town. He would babysit for her, too. I was instantly jealous of her son’s childhood.

But the reason I brought Vonnegut up in the first place was she deeply wanted him to go on her next trip—to Antarctica. Apparently she and her nonagenarian aunt went there a few years back, and ever since, she has wanted to take a group of writers. And writers from Indiana would be great, according to her, because they would know how to describe a flat, empty landscape.

Although I wrote an article about her reading for The Reflector, there were other things that I didn’t write. At least, not until now. So here’s her pitch for a writers booze cruise—I mean, research trip—to Antarctica:

It would just be wonderful to put 10 of you all on a boat, with a couple of cases of wine, beer, you know? Because you’re going to come up with something different.

When you think about it, well I always think about it when I think about Indiana, cause my first thought is Kurt Vonnegut. He was one of the best and most imaginative writers, you know? And Kurt’s gone, so we don’t get to take Kurt to Antarctica. But you can see that there’s, I don’t mean a Kurt, but that kind of mentality. Can’t you see Kurt Vonnegut, and beer, and Antarctica?

So that’s what I’m saying, and so I just keep talking about things because somebody’s got to do it. NASA’s not listening to me right now. They haven’t said a firm no, but they’re always asking for more information and more information. And of course they’re going to push it, and I’m going to say, ‘Fuck you.’ And that’ll be unhappy for everybody. Because, well, what the hell? I mean, they have the beds, right? You can only go in December, because otherwise you’re stuck down there. And they have the beds. It’s just that.

I mean, we’re writers: how much food do we eat? And a couple of cases of wine, you know, if we come through Chile—that’s it. And we’d just get to talk and imagine. I think that we can’t always look at things as what their worth is.

I’m still waiting for an invitation. Nikki had talked more about Kurt, Antarctica and beer earlier in the evening. The best way to sum it all up is with this Vonnegut-ism:

And so on.

Le Café Français

Today, my student organization continued its French Week celebrations. The event was my own brain baby, entitled Le Café Français, and it was an hour of coffee and snacks during which people who grew up in a French-speaking country could talk about their lives.

Dr. Amy Allen Sekhar (left) listens as Dr. Sarah Ohmer talks about growing up in rural France.

Dr. Amy Allen Sekhar (left) listens as Dr. Sarah Ohmer talks about growing up in rural France.

The discussion was even more interesting than I had hoped. It went beyond food and stereotypical French stuff to talk about cultural and linguistic imperialism, racism and injustice.

My professor from Cameroon, Dr. Peter Vakunta, is never soft-spoken about these things. He started out the conversation by saying he is culturally schizophrenic, because so many cultures have influenced his life. He also said that France is great, but inequality exists there just like anywhere else.

“I look at the whole thing, like liberté, égalité and all that stuff, and I say, ‘Cool, but can we put some meaning behind that stuff?'”

Dr. Sarah Ohmer, whose father is from France and mother from Madagascar, spoke about growing up in the French countryside, then moving to Texas. Living in Texas opened her up to the Spanish language and Latin American culture, which she went on to study in college and now teaches at UIndy. However, she still misses getting baguettes and having time to spend with friends.

According to Dr. Amy Allen Sekhar, the only non-native Francophone on the panel, the French identity is in question right now. As people from other countries move in and take up the mantle, it forces those from France to question what it really means to be French.

“This story [of post-colonial Africa] and Sarah’s completely picaresque story of traveling everywhere is the modern French story,” she said.


Lugar and Nunn speak at UIndy

Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition, shows a video highlighting the senators' careers and explaining the milieu in which they served.

Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, shows a video highlighting the senators’ careers and explaining the milieu in which they served. (James Figy/The Reflector)

In case you missed it, former Senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn spoke at the University of Indianapolis on Feb. 25. I had the privilege of talking to them, sitting in on the conversation and photographing the “Diplomacy in a Dangerous World” event. Lugar and Nunn spoke about turning nuclear weapons that were aimed at U.S. cities during the Cold War into fuel for U.S. power plants.

It is a parable of hope, Nunn said, like “beating swords into plowshares.”

Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition and a Hoosier native, moderated the event. Before introducing the senators to the audience, he mirthfully noted, “These are gentlemen who are deeply respected for their intellectual ability and their commitment to their country, despite having served a long time in the United States Congress.”

You can read my full article here.

UIndy administrator receives big award

David Wantz.

David Wantz cares about the community around the University of Indianapolis, and he has spent a good portion of his more than 30 years at the university trying to maintain a good relationship with people in the community. For these efforts, he was recently awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash from Gov. Mike Pence.

When I spoke with Wantz, he told me, “Colleges and universities are pretty insular. They don’t call them ‘the ivory tower’ for nothing.”

Read the full article here.



Here I am at the official-looking podium, wearing official-looking flannel.


I am lecturing at UIndy about my trip to Europe in 2011!

Not really. But I am reading my poem “Paris” (the 3rd prize winner of the university’s poetry contest).

I wrote this poem about one day that my girlfriend and I were walking around the city. We had visited the catacombs, La Tour Eiffel, the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay during the previous days. The day that inspired this poem was a loosely planned stride around la ville d’amour, including a long walk along the river.

That day we ate at a panini shop off some side street near the Seine. I have no idea where it was exactly. If I went back and tried to find it, I would probably feel like I was in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. At this restaurant, though, Stephanie and I had the best vegetarian food after leaving England a week prior. France is big on food, so long as you eat meat.

So I hope you enjoy this poem as much as I enjoyed that sandwich:


striding along the Seine, I have to laugh out,

resist the yell —Vous êtes le plus Français!—

at a man with striped sweater and baguette.


snow globe eyes wide, rotate every way—

like boules à neige that tourists are buying,

paying in camera clicks on les Champs-Elysées.


the Seine’s banks, maybe in waiting,

once were stones chiseled into statue

who forsook their humble beginning,


rose to the Louvre (small move, grand adieu),

after which Paris hired a new shore—

whose sidewalk splendor burns soul and shoe.


but a set of gray stairs climbs to a door

like a bear cave—ours brun ou noir ou gris?

we climb up, car il n’y a pas d’ascenseur.


dark crags hidden where everyone can see

is this an entrance possibly to the catacombs

where National Geographic says people party?


door opens and people emerge from the tomb

rushing-pushed-passed, down the staircase.

door being open, I peer cautious into the room


and some sign informs: St. Michel/Notre-Dame.

I reply: Stephanie, it’s another Métro entryway

but not iconographic for photographs, like some


in pictures for sale along Monets and Manets

cheap postcards, flags, each 3 euros per pop

outside former train station, Musée d’Orsay.


we pick a side-street, some petit panini shop

that offers more food (pour nous végétariens)

better service and cost, Orangina in a tab top.


we don’t choose a fancy restaurant, not again,

where waiter stereotypes straight from film

want to yell—Vous êtes le plus Américain!




There was some spotlight in the sky that night. Below the Seine is lit up by boats. The people riding in said boats must have been blind, or ended up that way afterwards.



I opted out of ending the poem with a melodramatic Fin. 

Although I do not have a photo of the situation that the poem describes, I do have a picture of the Seine from the top of La Tour Eiffel. It was freezing up there. But I could have warmed up with a glass of champagne for a mere 30 euros. I was a cheapskate and opted out of that as well. However, the forty couples that got engaged up there sprung for drinks. Hey, if you already spent a fortune on a ring and a trip to Paris and sweated out the stress up to that instant, you probably deserve (and definitely need) a drink. Am I right?