The Thoughtful Blogger

For all the bloggers out there, have you ever analyzed what blogging means to you and how it influences what you write? You could learn a lot. Recently, I did just that for Esther Prokopienko, a grad student at the College of Saint Rose. Researching both the act and platform of blogging, she incorporated the following answers into her research and posted the resulting paper, The Scholarly Writer/Blogger: A New Discursive Space, on her own blog, Esther’s Space.

Blog Breakdown

1. How long have you been blogging? Why did you choose to begin? Do you notice any changes in your writing/thinking process from before you were a blogger to now, as an active blogger? Do you use blogging as a way of thinking through ideas? How do you use the different mediums (journals, blogs, livejournals, etc) for thinking and writing?

While spending a great deal of time overseas as a flight attendant (1997-2001), I had begun a blog of sorts, The Lincoln Street Chronicles, to keep friends and family updated on my personal activities and observations. I’d also share pre-digital, scanned photos of my layovers. That primitive HTML site was hosted by Geocities and I would add entries to the top of a free, single and static web page. There was no mechanism for readers to enter comments, but I sometimes posted interesting email replies under the main post. I certainly wasn’t the only person doing this, but I suspect that blogs, as they are known today, stemmed from this type of “web logging.”

I have been blogging officially since January 2007 when required to do so for a college literary theory class. Transitioning to a more sophisticated data entry system and the access to an extensive, searchable catalogue of Google Images added for multi-layered meaning was quite exciting. After I resigned from flying, my writing had become private again, hand written within various small, decorative journals. I had forgotten how much I missed my online interactions until assigned my first class task, to write an introduction about myself, a task that included a carefully selected picture of a toilet.

I thought, initially, that the informal style I used to record thoughts and feelings about places I had visited would not translate well to academic theory analysis. I was wrong. I quickly realized that it was the perfect tool to express my frustration with my lack of quick and easy understanding. In fact, while venting about how difficult Bakhtin’s theory was to grasp upon first reading, I had a bit of fun creating dialogue as if I were speaking with him. His picture looks down upon my own as he encourages me to take another look at what he has to say. When I do, I gain more understanding and share that understanding with my classmates. In this and later posts, I draw parallels between the material and various pop cultural phenomena such as Madonna’s affinity for sparkly things and Star Trek’s arch enemy of assimilation, the Borg.

Creating written content, through blogging or any other kind of writing, forces me to engage more thoroughly with the material. Fleeting thoughts must be carefully molded into cohesive ideas. In my mind, because blogs are designed for a wider audience than that of a private scholastic paper read by a single professor, the inherent design infuses an added responsibility to entertain (or at least engage) a larger audience. It also adds importance, when presenting interpretations publicly, to ensure accuracy. To get sloppy is to risk public humiliation on the world stage. This is the additional pressure of academia in the blogosphere, a place where unknown professors are looking for lesson plans, students are looking for clues in order to grasp difficult topics, and, in the case of a particular international literary journal that pirated one of my posts, editors are looking for material to publish.

2. Describe what you write. What makes the blog an appropriate avenue for exploring your topic? Do you have a separate personal blog and a more academic blog, or are they one? Do you think of your blog as a personal space, or as a space to engage in discussion with others?

The majority of my blogging tends to focus on class discussion topics or to stem from assignments. As my collection grew, I decided to make this a repository for all my academic writing. I have since added and back dated assignments from other classes in order to keep a mind-expansion record of sorts.

To talk of academic writing alone would only portray half of the story. At some point, after talking with two friends about the first and last time I ate haggis, I pulled an old journal entry from that day, posted it to my blog and shared the link. When I first did this, I knew that classmates would also be able to read about my adventure. This was the day I discovered a use for categories and tags, an easy way to delimit the personal from the scholastic within the same blog. From then on, Daily Drivel became the category of choice for anything personal.

The terms “personal space” and “blog” are incongruous to me. The fact that readers from all walks of life and from all over the world have the ability to comment make this space public. In fact, I have learned to limit the presence of my personal snippets, or at least writing that is meaningful to me, thanks to the advent of Google AdSense. It seems that the new trend for “entrepreneurs” is to steal posts from other blogs, post them to their own site, sign up with Google AdSense and have Google place topic specific advertisements in their sidebars. When people land on these sites and click the sidebar ad, the blog thief capitalizes on writing that is not their own. This has happened twice, putting the onus on me to prove my identity by sending a copy of my passport as well as the original site of authorship prior to Google shutting down the culprit. Apparently blogging is no longer enough. Now one most police their posts as well.

3. When writing a blog post, how do you imagine yourself as the writer? How much of your writing is ‘real you’ and how much is a portion of you- writer you, blogger you, academic you?

I have heard this question asked before and still don’t know how to reply. I do not picture myself compartmentalized in such clear terms. My humor almost always enters into my academic writing, for better or worse, so that could probably be read as “the real me” shining through. Since the academic scope of my writing is based in deep-seated curiosity, even that is “the real me.”

What I can say about writing, in any format, is that I am far more confident using the written word than I am with engaging in the messy act of unleashing my ideas verbally. I am more apt to express my actual thoughts in writing than when under the gun to speak in public, a task that strikes terror into the depths of my soul. In fact, when speaking, I often cannot find those words most important to conveying my idea at all.

4. When you are writing, do you imagine an audience? Do you know your audience personally? Has your blog provided opportunities for you to meet others with the same interests? Have you ever consciously chosen to write/not write something because of concern over your readers’ possible responses? Do you ever use blog feedback to generate new blogs?

My audience, beyond my classmates, is typically envisioned as a big, black void. Brave confidence in writing only goes so far when I never know what is coming at me from the dark recesses of the internet. Some expert can come along and tell me I’ve got it all wrong, which I would actually welcome, but I am careful not to write much about politics for fear of a giant slamfest. My political opinions are only now becoming part of the majority point of view. The past eight years have been a different story.

I broke this political silence recently when I received a friend’s response to my Facebook tagline that sparked a political discussion. Moving the discussion from one platform to another, I transferred it to my blog and kept my correspondent-in-crime anonymous. This would be the closest I have ever come to generating new posts from blog feedback.

Post inspiration is most likely to come from my in-depth comment on other blogs rather than blog feedback. When I receive a comment, of course that sparks conversation. I simply tend to keep topic conversations confined to a single post, sometimes replying with as much as an essay-length response rather than breaking out a new post.

5. What are your blog stats? What is an average number of visitors to your blog per day? What areas of your blog are the most popular? Are there particular topics that elicit a higher readership? How has your readership changed over time?

My most famous blog post of all time is called “Foucault, Foot Lickers, & 7 Foot Sex Symposium.” This post is a Foucaultian interpretation of a college faculty reading in which one essay examined how wrong the fetish of foot-licking seems to be while another explored the ways housing a seven foot tall painting of a bikini clad couple for a friend changes one’s life. Both essays had, in my mind, proven Foucault’s point that in all the ways we try to avoid talking about sex, a discourse is thus created.

Search terms for this particular post are less than academic: foot lick, foot licking, lick foot, licking feet, lick feet, feet lick, feet licker, sex foot, sex feet, feet sex, foot sex, footsex, and so on… 2008 has yielded 2,736 hits for this post alone, up from a measly 300 from May-Dec. in 2007.

Close seconds include posts on Cindy Sherman and Linda Hutcheon, both of the postmodern persuasion.

Oddly, political posts get the fewest hits so perhaps it’s time to shelve that unfounded fear of a slam fest from folks who disagree with my views. Good to know.

One Recollection of September 11th

In memory of this day seven years ago, I offer a clarified adaptation (pulled from frantic writings) of my personal account. The majority of this was written to reassure family and friends of my safety, to reach out to those I hadn’t heard from, and to attempt to process the day’s events in some way that made sense, if only chronologically.

September 13, 2001
Tuesday and Beyond

Hi all,
For those who have have written and called to ask if I was okay, I am slowly recovering. Thank you for your concern. Still, I am in shock, a state in which I know I am not alone.

I was glad to hear that most everyone I was concerned about is alright. I hope that those I haven’t heard from are safe and sound… Max, Dan, and the rest of the NYC contingent.

I can’t repeat this story much more than I have, so this is it in one big shot. I’m shipping this letter out to everyone on my email list.

On Tuesday I arrived at the Continental Training Center across the river from lower Manhattan at 8:30 a.m. My three hour drive from Albany that morning was basked in sunlight. Bands of fog, like webs of spun gold, stretched between the trees. By the time I reached the skyline of New York, it was shimmering with the warm hues of sunrise against a crisp blue sky. I cursed myself for leaving my camera on the kitchen counter.

Upon my arrival, I sat in the Continental Training Center’s cafe reviewing for the FAA’s annual training. As I tried to recall things not published in our manual or elsewhere, things like weapons identification and hijacking procedures, people approached the windows with urgency saying, “You can’t see it from here.” I asked what they were looking for and couldn’t believe what I was told.

I joined them and we ran to the nearest glass walled classroom. Others were filing in fast. From our position just across the river from the World Trade Center we faced the horrific sight of smoke and flames coming from several of the tower’s upper floors. Snippets of hushed conversation revealed the general and naive assumption that this plane crash was an accident. A dismissive fellow said, “Don’t worry. The Trade Center was built to withstand that kind of shock.” Insensitive jerk. I shot him a look of disgust.

The flight attendant in me felt an immediate sense of loss for the crew and the passengers. It took a slow moment to process of the scope of the tragedy, for the sense of loss to extend toward the people in that burning building. When I became aware of my own insensitivity, my heart flooded with guilt.

A television adjacent to the windows aired the news in Spanish through grainy bands of reception. Someone in the room was interpreting poorly. A plane hit the WTC… accident… building on fire. It was nothing I didn’t already know by looking at the scene. My chest clenched with frustration. I wanted information. I wanted answers.

My hands and knees were trembling when someone yelled, “There’s another plane!” My eyes shifted slightly to the right. Locking onto the oncoming jet, its trajectory automatically computed in my mind. My left hand, with a will of its own, shot up as if to say “Stop!” Impotent, impotent hand.

A picture etched in my memory, one of that hole engulfed in flames where the plane entered or perhaps (and I still can’t make sense of it) where the side had blown out. Mine is nothing like any news camera angle I’ve seen. I’ve spent hours watching perpetual loops playing across every TV channel trying to find the perfect match. I don’t know why I need to find it but I do. I still find myself continuing to search.

After the second strike, I heard someone yelp, “The plane is burning inside.” Several people dug for their cameras. I reached for the space in my handbag where mine typically resides. In that single moment my disappointment for forgetting it mingled with the sour taste of shame for wanting to preserve this moment forever. My thoughts did battle. How could these people! How could I?

The woman next to me said in disbelief, “Maybe that plane couldn’t see through the smoke from the first.” It made no sense. Nothing made sense, not to me, not to anyone.

Because those moments were inextricably fused in the heat of the situation, I learned just today that I had left a frantic voicemail with my friend Erin as the second plane hit. She recounted me saying, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my GOD! NO! Oh Jesus…” Click. I don’t remember being on the phone.

I ran out of the room and tried repeatedly to call my mother. The line was perpetually busy. Stupidly, I imagined her sitting in front of the television in her apartment six blocks from the Empire State Building chatting away with a friend. A flash of anger charged through me. The more desperately I needed to talk to her and the more I hit redial just to hear a busy signal, the more out of control I felt. Of course my mother is smarter than to keep her lines tied up. It didn’t occur to me until a short while later that the lines were jammed. Selfish, selfish girl.

I wanted to talk with someone I knew yet I was surrounded by a mixture of hysterical strangers or people who were entirely too calm. I never felt more alone, disconnected, scared, and helpless.

I called my friend Sandy and couldn’t calmly tell her co-workers who I was, “Um, Sandy is going to be my roommate, I’m in New Jersey. I need to talk to her.” I was shaking and choking on sobs. I think I spit out that I had just watched the WTC in person. She made no inference of understanding. A suspicious voice replied with caution, “Um, Sandy isn’t available. Can I have her call you back?” I hung up.

My father wasn’t home. I left no message, had no words.

I dialed another friend. Robbin. I reached her hard-of-hearing father who all too slowly explained why she wasn’t home. She had taken her daughter shopping at the mall for a pair of new sneakers. He ended with “So, when will you fly out to see us?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call back later.”

“I can’t hear you, honey. Call back later.”

Okay.

I called my machine for messages. My mother’s voice. Continental wouldn’t tell her where I was in the name of security. While they reassured her that Continental’s planes were not involved, she knew I sometimes traveled through partner perks on other airlines. The final words on the tape were, “Call me.”

I dialed again. Busy.

The training staff entered as a collective to round us up for an announcement. Talking. Frantic talking everywhere. I remember yelling “Shut the **** up” in a highly unprofessional yet effective manner. The trainers nodded something between disapproval and gratitude.

They had just heard from Continental’s headquarters and were asked to have us stay put. They wanted to bus us to Newark Airport to help accommodate thousands of grounded passengers. We were, after all, on the clock. “Sit tight until we know if airport access is even possible.” I later found out that the airport was evacuated.

Hotel rooms were suggested for the night. We should book before they were gone. I added my name to the list.

Another man entered the room with a piece of paper. Finally. Information. One plane was an American Airlines flight out of Boston. The other was still unclear.

Each of the four pay phones had lines of seven to ten people. I overheard a clean-cut twenty-something explain to the girl behind him that he was trying to reach his father in the burning tower. He turned away when the secretary answered. Some words. He hung up and turned back with a look of deep concern. “She said that people are evacuating and she is leaving. She had hoped I was her daughter. My father isn’t there. She doesn’t know where he is.”

Back in the classroom, trainers passed out water and single serving pretzels. Ridiculous, but it was something. I was in and out of the room, unsure where to go or what to do. Entering once more, I heard the news. People were jumping.

I imagined the heat, having to make the choice to leap or burn. What kind of choice is that?

I ran out into a hall filled with so many people and still felt so very alone. Several women curled up in armchairs and cried. Others listened to snippets of their cell phone conversations in horror. I stepped over them on my way to… where? 

As the elevator doors opened, two young girls unburied their faces from the others’ shoulder. They were in a fit of tears. I entered. One the way down, the brunette said that she and the redhead had rebooked their friends from an oversold Continental flight to the American flight out of Boston. They were supposed to meet at South Street Seaport for dinner after class. She didn’t seem to be talking to me so much as convincing herself of their loss. An unwarranted but very real sense of guilt had washed over each of their mourning faces.

I entered the glass enclosed tunnel to the parking garage alone. Through the windows I saw a column of smoke and the outline of the building. So much was burning. Down to the base? How?… As I understand it now, the first tower had collapsed. I had never entertained the thought of it being gone, just on fire. Looking directly at the destruction, my mind still couldn’t embrace it.

A helicopter hovered overhead. I crouched behind a green pick-up in the parking garage. The last I had heard was that we are a nation under attack… all aircraft had been grounded… terrorists may be using remote controls. Who was above me? Us? Them?

In a panic, I left more hysterical, muttering messages on Erin’s voicemail. I threw my address book on the cement peeling through pages for anyone who would be home… Marty, Todd, Deb and Dana. My cell cut out and came back. Every line now came up busy.

In desperation, I thought of Tom, my ex-boyfriend. Being so recently exed and having him vacate the apartment just last month, I didn’t have his new number. I called his father to get it. He had to fire up his extremely slow computer to get the number off of an email. I was on speaker phone. I HATE speaker phones. I tried to joke with no success, “Don’t you keep a REAL address book?” Tom’s poor father was taken aback. My tone just couldn’t muster any lightening effect. For that I felt awful.

“Is Tom in New York City?” he asked.

He assumed I was in Albany watching everything on TV. He must have been scared out of his mind thinking his son was at a rehearsal in New York. It took a few attempts to clarify that circumstances were reversed. “Tom is in Albany, I am in New Jersey. I need to reach him.”

There were no windows between me and the scene now. More helicopters circled over my head and then disappeared. Sirens were sounding in several directions. What was going to happen next? What I gleaned from the news replayed in my head. Suicide bombers… hijacking… Was all of NYC under attack? I froze behind the truck under four floors of steel and cement.

Sitting crossed legged on the concrete between the truck and the wall, I finally reached my ex. He filled me in on the Pentagon and the unaccounted for planes in the air. I just kept pleading for an answer, “What the **** is going on? This is so ****ing BIG!”

“Breathe. Calm Down. You okay? The Pentagon was hit too. All they keep saying is ‘America is under attack,’ but not much else.”

I rocked back and forth hugging my knees like a scared child. “Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus.”

There was a long silence between us. I eventually looked up through my tears. A new plume of smoke. “Wait. Where did it go? Where is it?!?”

Nothing was more sobering than hearing, “It’s gone, Kim. It’s just gone.”

All those people in one fell swoop. All those souls. Unfathomable.

Gibberish. That was all I could produce. In hysterics, I relived coming in via Rt. 3 and how, near Giants’ Stadium, the view of Manhattan was glazed in gold light so glorious that I wished I had film. As I calmed myself, I realized that it would have been my last picture of the unaltered skyline, an opportunity sorely missed. I noted the failed and unbelievably ironic plan to review hijacking procedures on this particular day. I would have gone on but, just then, five people quickly fled from the training center. I followed their lead. I had to move, to do something.

Where do I go? Tom said the tunnels and bridges were closed so I couldn’t get to my mother’s. I frantically searched the garage in a hurry to nowhere. “Where are the ***ing stairs? I have to get out of here!”

The stairs were right where I had been sitting. Concerned for my sanity, Tom made me stay on the line until I found my car.

The roads were swamped and I finally got my father on the phone. f***ing @$$hole!!!” I could feel my father flinch. Some guy had passed me at high speed on the left shoulder of the road. Sirens went off. Flashing lights.

“This is crazy! Where is it safe? They hijacked a plane to PITTSBURGH! What the HELL is in PITTSBURGH???”

Misinformation or misunderstanding, it didn’t matter. My father understood nothing I said. He, like Tom’s father, thought I had seen it all on TV. He wanted to tell me about the geese he saw in the park that morning. I hung up.

People on cell phones drove by, some crying like idiots just like me. Small accidents and fender benders went unacknowledged. The definition of lanes meant nothing.

It took a half hour before I reached clearer roads. Distracted by the haze clouding my mind, I missed 287 and had to circle around. What had been at my back was now in my face, the hideous sight of a burning skyline minus two towers. Smoke. Everywhere. Erin called from her cell while waiting to hear on her land line from two city friends, people who worked in the towers. Worked. Past tense.

Gassing up at the nearest rest area, people flocked to pay phones. The news was filled with images of plane crashes. The newscaster said the first plane hit 4 hours ago. 4 hours? I was still stuck in that first minute. He then said that the planes struck within 5 minutes of each other. 5 minutes. Infinity.

Still wearing my Continental I.D., I got a few odd looks before getting back in the car. Driving as Howard Stern clammored for anger, retaliation, war, I jammed my finger into a random button. Shut that freak up. 

That’s how my father heard the news – on the radio. I learned later that he thought it was another War of the Worlds. My frantic message was his first clue that this was very, very real. Even then it didn’t sink in.

Life in the streets of Albany was going on as usual. Cops along 87 looked for speeding drivers. People laughed on the corner of Madison and Pearl. I wanted to scream “Don’t you people have ANY idea???” It was as if nothing had happened.

Sandy left work early to communicate with my mother. She then took me to Washington Park when I returned home. The gardens there were in full bloom, blossoms worshipping the sun and sky. The towers of Empire Plaza stood solid and white against deep blue. This place was untouched. I felt suspended.

I went to SUNY Albany yesterday morning where they held a memorial and a unity march. Erin took me. We only caught the tail end as students, faculty and locals sang “America the Beautiful.” A single tear streamed down my cheek. I shook. Unable to sing. Coming unglued.

Erin quickly escorted me to the health center and found a crisis counselor. Skeptical, I went inside. “I’ve never seen a counselor so I don’t know where to start…” and then my mouth couldn’t run through everything fast enough.

I was the first to have seen the attack and come back. Most people did it in reverse, hearing the news on campus and leaving for the city to be with their families. As more people return, SUNY plans to match us up even though I’m not a student there. I think that might be good, although I’m feeling less need to talk at the moment.

That night, all my friends met at Lark Tavern to debrief. They expressed relief having heard from loved ones, although one of those loved ones was nearly crushed by a falling jet engine in flames. As they quietly and personally celebrated their good fortune, I was inundated by images on the wide screen TV. It was too big. I was too close. I went home.

Later, planes flew over Albany. I sat up. Who is that? Aren’t all air carriers supposed to be grounded. Military? Enemy? I didn’t sleep.

I thought, my job is so screwed. I had no idea what the airline was doing for itself or what it planned on doing with me. After two days of voicemail tag, I got through to my supervisor, Joanna, the next morning. The most reassuring words I heard were not to think about coming back yet. Just keep in touch. I wonder how long I can keep that up.

The FAA’s position has always been that certain procedures and codes can halt a hijacking. Training films have always portrayed crashes as mechanical accidents. We studied previous mistakes and learned to survive from them. I prepared mentally at every take-off and landing. That’s my job. If your a flight attendant, you know what I mean. Terrorism was only ever at the very back of my mind.

Many questions nag at me now. How do you keep this from happening on any flight? How do you combat a suicide mission? If you can’t use reason, the only other option is force. Is this my new job? How do I do it? Will I be able?

I can no longer step into that uniform and carry the responsibility of what wearing it means. I had the hardest time just taking it out of my bag. The stripes hang in my closet and that’s where they’ll remain for now.

My father says, “Get back on the horse” but a horse isn’t being threatened by terrorists. Think about that, tough guy. The rest of my family isn’t as cut and dried. They’re scared to see me go back. It makes me feel much less stupid for being so afraid.

I was scheduled to fly into London today. I can’t be more thankful that flights world-wide are canceled. I’m on call for the next three days. If they call, they’ll just have to find some one else. I need  time to think. I’ve heard others are calling in sick. I might have to do the same.

How can I believe this is over? Last night my heart jumped into my throat as the Empire State building was evacuated for a bomb threat. Phone lines to NYC were jammed again. After 20 redials, my mother answered. They called off the evacuation right after that.

Not to be so untrusting but, well, I’m untrusting. I don’t trust airport security measures even after reports of improvement. They can’t fix things that fast. And who wants to man the planes??? Contractually, we aren’t allowed to speak about airline matters, the news can’t cover those who cannot speak, so I have no word on how the others in my field feel. I wonder.

My story is just one point of view. Everyone has been, is and will be affected in different ways. I imagine the terror of climbing through rubble to walk down flights of flooded stairwells in a collapsing building, those people on the plane, the flight attendants who had their throats slit. So many stories. All I know is that talking about it both helps and exhausts me. If you were involved in any way and haven’t unloaded your feelings, find someone to listen. Even if you weren’t in it, talk. Write me, call me, talk to somebody… and most of all, don’t think anything you feel is invalid.

Peace, health, safety, and much love to everyone. I’m going to go update my address book now. I hadn’t realized how out of date it was until Tuesday.

Kim

To conclude, I’d like to share something I read today. 

And on this anniversary of 9/11,  your editor [Benjamin Marvin at the College of Saint Rose] would like to share with you this thought from his daughter, a brand-new middle school music teacher in Indiana:

Today is the 7th anniversary of 9/11.  On September 11, 2001:
My 8th Graders were in 1st Grade.
My 7th Graders were in Kindergarten.
My 6th Graders were in preschool.
The 5th Graders here probably don’t remember it – they were about 3.

It’s so strange for me to think about the fact that 9/11 isn’t a current event for everyone – for some students, it’s a historical event that has little personal meaning.

Off to Ghana

Hello my fellow lit, film and social justice heads,

I am off to the small village of Have, Ghana to volunteer for four weeks and won’t be updating this blog while I’m away. I do hope to share my daily experiences at my travel blog, Alfajiri: Destination Africa, electricity permitting. Stop by and say hello. It’ll be nice to converse with familiar folks from home.

See you in August!
– AtticFox

I’ve Been Robbed

”WordPress

I learned last week through the WordPress pingback feature that a substantial number of Brain Drain posts had been mentioned on another site. As any blogger would probably agree, to see a pingback to what you’ve written is an honor of sorts, a hat tip to your brilliance or at least a mockery of something quirky you’ve said. You smile, feel full of yourself for a minute (sometimes two) and move on. Instead, this list of pingbacks aroused suspicion. This is a partial view:

  • literature linked here saying, “Silence Speaks Louder In response to Richard Barsa …”
  • literature linked here saying, “Anne Finch: Creating Her Own Space The poem “The …”
  • literature linked here saying, “Quills: Voyeur as the Voice of Reason The Voyeur a …”
  • literature linked here saying, “Objectivity: A Question of Perspective In referenc …”

Although I’d like to think I’m that important, nobody is worthy of being legitimately quoted twelve times in a single day.

I followed the pings to their source. There, a solid, orange banner bore the photo of a young woman-child. She wore a skimpy, green silk halter and cowboy hat. Her long, blonde highlights were seductively fanned by some off-screen electronic device yet there was an innocence about her that threw me. The small image was cocked to one side and framed as if it were a film negative but that didn’t produce the negative feeling in my gut as much as the title “literature” in bold letters (with a lower case L and quotes included) under which were all my latest posts. Only one, Aisha in Rwanda: In Need of Humanity, had been offered up for redistribution, NOT MY WHOLE DAMN BLOG.

While one knows that to blog is to run the risk of having your thoughts hijacked, still, the kicker was seeing a copyright symbol at the bottom of the page alongside the words “posted by Smite jonz.” Funny, Smite, you look a lot like ME in that picture linking to an article all about ME in the Saint Rose Chronicle.

Smite chose Blogger to host his (?) site, which works hand in hand with Google’s AdSense Program. From the look of it, this thief stole material from all over the web for two months, increasing the chances of drawing site traffic through numerous keywords. Cha-ching. Any visitor clicking through a sidebar ad generated a small pittance for Smite. The problem is this (as if there is only one here). The last time I looked at Smite’s tracking widget by Geovisite.com, new visitors were pouring in by the minute from all over the world to read my material and with no kickbacks to me. 

Ad-ing insult to injury, the kind of advertisements I was generating was astonishing. According to Google:

AdSense for content automatically crawls the content of your pages and delivers ads (you can choose both text or image ads) that are relevant to your audience and your site content—ads so well-matched, in fact, that your readers will actually find them useful.

How does my text translate to “Pro-Republican” in bot speak???? There were seven Republican spots on “my” page.

I notified the folks at Blogger last week, following their procedure by attaching a copy of my passport photo for proof of identity. By using my real name and photo, not just my screen name, Smite may have temporarily dealt a heavy blow to my identity but he also gave me legal leverage in persuing him. I’ve been watching to see how Blogger would deal with the offender and the site was finally removed today.

Of course, I’m pleased to be me again. More than that, this experience has taught me that it’s possible to make some dough off my own work. It’s been proven by Smite and his boatload of field testing, field testing that I’ve already paid for and learned a great deal from. Thanks for all the hard work, Dude. I’ll use it wisely.

Then again, perhaps the wiser choice is to stick with WordPress whose policy states:

We have a very low tolerance for blogs created purely for search engine optimization or commercial purposes, machine-generated blogs, and will continue to nuke them, so if that’s what you’re interested in WordPress.com is not for you.

It seems, once more, capitalism has been proven to gum up the works of free speech.

Its All About Me

Meg Polson at The College of Saint Rose Chronicle did a very nice senior profile on me called “Graduates life anything but ordinary.” It was distributed in print at graduation on May 10th with the following picture (credit: Tim Clune).

Read the full story here.

The ChronicleTim Clune)

PS: The title’s typo was produced by the paper’s editor, not Meg. He also added the humorous tagline “Senior Clune has settled in East Nassau with her husband and looks forward to walking.” How old does he think I am? Did I simply settle with my husband? AND, contrary to my pose for the picture, I do walk occasionally. I wonder where he thought I looked forward to walking to?

To clarify a few factual problems, college was my only option after high school and it was my father, not both parents who threatened the “teach or starve” approach to study back in the late ’80s. Actually, it was “teach or I’m buying you waitress shoes.” Also, as a transfer student, I was at Saint Rose for two and half years, not four. But hey, they didn’t mistake my 4.0 for something like a 3.8. That’s something.

Aisha in Rwanda: In Need of Humanity

I have just received the following story from Kevin Sudi, the volunteer coordinator at Kenya’s Common Ground Program. Kevin asks that anyone willing to repost this article will do so freely.

IN NEED OF HUMANITY

At the base of the majestic Parc de Volcanes mountain in the north-western part of Rwanda, in the town of Musanze, is a household headed by 19 year-old Aisha. She always has a smile on her face but a talk with her provides a glimpse to a life that would be near-impossible for some of us to even fathom.

I was introduced to Aisha and her siblings by Mr. Elie Nduwayesu, a modest man with a big dream for the poor children of Musanze.

This is Aisha’s story:

“My siblings and I lived with our parents up to 2004, when my father passed away. My mother later confided in me since I was the eldest, that my father had died of the disease called HIV/AIDS. She asked me not to tell my siblings so as not to cause them any discouragement and worry. Later in 2005, my mother too succumbed to the same disease. It is then that I became the provided for my four siblings, who, by then, were aged 13, 11, 9 and 7.”

Aisha looks pensive as she talks of her family, as though it is a distant memory that she has to delve deep to retrieve. She speaks in Kinyarwanda as she is most comfortable with the only language she knows.

“After my parents’ died, I left school in class 5 to fend for my siblings. It was really difficult and my younger sister, Sophia, also was pushed out of school to help support the family.”

 

clip_image002 Kevin with Aisha during the interview. In the background is the structure that Aisha, her siblings and her 4 month old Blessing have lived since birth

 

 

The three other children go to school since primary education is free in Rwanda, but their lack of school materials and uniforms is a psychological war they may soon lose. They stand out in their classes due to their situation. Their lack of food also hampers their concentration. They run home anytime it becomes unbearable.

Sophia, the second-born, told us that sometimes when she was in school, she would be so hungry that she would be unable to even stand, leave a lone concentrate on her class proceedings.

At home, they sometimes find vegetables in an adjacent garden that is not theirs, so they can only pick wild growing plants, nothing else in this garden with a lot of plants, vegetables and root crops.

“A couple of months ago, someone raped me. I became pregnant and gave birth to Hirwa.”

(Hirwa means “blessing” in her native language). When asked about the name, she says it wasn’t the child’s fault that she was raped, so she named him blessing to keep the pain and trauma away from her relationship with her newborn baby.

 

clip_image004 Aisha and her 4 month old baby Hirwa

 

Elie has been immensely supportive of Aisha. With a MSc. in Psychology, he has been counseling Aisha and helping her recover from the trauma.

To support her siblings and baby, Aisha sells charcoal, and when business is low she also doubles as a public phone attendant and could make between 500 and 1000 Rwandan Francs a day (less than 2 US dollars) on which the six of them are dependent.

“This charcoal and the public phone don’t bring enough money, and I would like to learn other skills to increase the daily income to support my family. Since the small profit I get cannot support us, I cannot save any money, and even sometimes we use the capital, and business is stops for a while until we recover.”

 

clip_image006 Aisha by her small stand, where she sells charcoal

 

Their latest predicament lies in their housing. The structure that Aisha and her siblings were born in and have always called home is actually not theirs. Some months ago the apparent owner of the land told Aisha that someone had paid a deposit for the land, and as soon as the rest of the money was paid, she would be forced to vacate the land. Supposedly, Aisha’s parents had a friend who allowed them to settle on the land, but he later died. The land went through the traditional inheritance process and the new owner, a relative to the deceased initial owner, has already sold the piece of land, oblivious of the repercussions this move will inflict on Aisha’s household.

I asked Aisha to tell me what she wanted the world to know about her child-headed household, and this is what she said:

Children who are heads of households did not volunteer for the tasks they face everyday. They are just victims but have to live with the responsibility. We have the will to support our siblings the best way we can but the means are just not there. We want our siblings to be lead better lives in the future but how can we makes sure they do? We would be very, very grateful if anyone comes to our help.”

The structure the 5 siblings and the little Hirwa live in is, in reality, a death trap. The mud walls are worn out badly, the roof leaks and the siblings relocate several times to different corners of the house when it rains. Aisha told me,

“I can’t even sleep at night because I get dreams of our house falling on me, my siblings and my baby.” I also can’t sleep because I worry about the owner of the land. If he tells us to leave, where will I take my siblings and my baby? My heart is not calm because for three years, I have not found a solution to this problem.”

 

clip_image008 Views inside the house that Aisha lives with her 4 siblings and her newborn baby
clip_image010  

 

This is just one of the many child-headed households that Elie’s study found. There are a massive 94,207 children living in child headed households around Rwanda, where USAID estimates show the country has the highest percentage of orphans under 15years in the world. Elie Nduwayesu’s study identified 1575 vulnerable children in Musanze that he aims to incorporate in recovery and self-development through his Fair Children /Youth Foundation (FCYF). Without a single donor or sponsor, Elie has used almost all his monthly income to set up this project, and for a good course.

Sitting on an old tire outside the house, I look at Aisha and wonder how one person could have gone through all this, how she and her siblings were living each day, and what I could do to help them. The only way I could do this was to use my network of friends and hope that through them, the world would know and someone’s heart would be touched enough to reach out to this forgotten family.

We already found one friend that paid for the health Insurance of Aisha, her baby and her siblings. This is just a start, and we hope this sign of goodwill will continue. No help is so small.

For information on the fair children/youth foundation, please contact the founder and Director, Mr. Elie Nduwayesu on enduwayesu@hotmail.com, or contact the volunteer who sent this story on kevinsudi@gmail.com

 

clip_image012 Mr. Elie Nduwayesu, FCYF founder/director and the man behind the child-headed households’ development project shares a light moment with baby Hirwa while Aisha looks on
clip_image014 Kevin Sudi, the Kenyan volunteer, at the back of Aisha’s and her siblings’ house, with its low, rusted roof and see-through walls

 

About the author:

Kevin Sudi is a volunteer coordinator at a Kenyan Non-Governmental Organization, the Common Ground Program (CGP), based in Kitale, KENYA

Quills: Voyeur as the Voice of Reason

The Voyeur as the Voice of Reason in Philip Kaufman’s Film Quills

Quills (2000)Manipulation in film, not only of the objects within the frame but of the audience as well, has been the practice of film makers for decades. In Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000), a biopic loosely based on the last years of life for the18th century author, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), the audience becomes not just an observer but an active participant in particular sexual acts through overtly suggested voyeurism. For what purpose does Kaufman so conspicuously manipulate the audience into committing these acts? In an ambitious argument for uncensored art, even when pitted against the utmost controversial fiction of the Marquis de Sade (a man who RollingStone.com calls “one sick twist” (Travers)) Kaufman wants his audience to actively lust for things they cannot have. For this reason, I examine the transition from the experience of fictional freedom in the first scene involving Mademoiselle Renard (Diana Morrison) with the oppression of that freedom within the rest of the film. By beginning the story here, Kaufman demonstrates that in order to understand what can be lost through censorship, one must understand, first hand, what exists prior to that loss.

Before the censorship debate plays out, there are subtle signs that reveal the director’s bias toward a lack of censorship intended to influence our opinion from the start. Within the first ten seconds, we are presented with the idea that fiction is the protagonist through white, beautifully calligraphic title credits which glow in stark contrast to a jet black screen. The gentle curves of the text represent something natural, not contrived, like human nature and the use of narrative to make meaning. The color and font also work as a metaphor for the greater good of those who bring fiction to light. With the title credits comes the sound of soft, quivering breath. It permeates the darkness and gains strength while accompanied by a lone clarinet holding a single, suspenseful note. It is unclear whether the soft breathing belongs to a man or woman, or whether it is derived from pleasure or fear. Immediately we question. We want to know more. In that wanting, we are seduced into lusting after the fiction unfolding before us. This ten seconds of manipulation is skillfully designed to guide us though a difficult debate as the argument for free speech is not one without complication.

Within the same opening minute, the Marquis de Sade is introduced to us through the sound of his voice which, like the white text, penetrates the darkness; or does it emanate from it? Either could be true. He addresses his “dear reader” introducing his “naughty little tale,” “plucked from the pages of history, tarted up, true, but guaranteed to stimulate the senses” (Kauffman). We are presented with the controversy that stems from the Marquis’ writing. While the film is a “tarted up” version of the real Marquis’s life, rather than embracing his historic penchant for committing horrific sexual crimes, it focuses on the writing that reflects the spirit in which these acts have been committed. If, in life, the Marquis’ actions are defined as criminal, could it be said that his fictionalized depictions of such acts should be considered criminal too? Or, is fiction the place to safely act out such libertine desires? In these few spoken words, we are presented with the dilemma which will plague and play with us throughout the film, whether we immediately realize it or not.

With no time to ponder, we are thrust into the tale of Mademoiselle Renard, a beautiful aristocrat “whose sexual proclivities [run] the gamut from winsome to bestial” (Kaufman). As the Marquis begins this line, the black screen fades up to an even, cobalt blue and classical music begins. We learn that the camera lens is pointed at a cloudless sky allowing us to gaze upward as if lying on our backs. The frame of blue is only contextualized by wisps of wavy, brunette hair which are carried into view on the wind while Mademoiselle’s rather innocent face, with half closed eyes and softly parted lips, enters and fills our entire overhead view. Her hair is upswept at the sides revealing the bare neck outstretched before us while loose tendrils of unruly curls carried on a strong breeze caress her face. That this sweet face belongs to a woman with such a wide range of sexual desire creates a great deal of intrigue and excitement for the viewer. With curiosity piqued, we linger in the space of this moment eagerly awaiting the Marquis’ next line.

Mademoiselle Renard 1

At this point, the Marquis asks, “Who doesn’t dream of indulging every spasm of lust, feeding each depraved hunger” (Kaufman)? Mademoiselle slowly closes her eyes, gently leans her head back to the left and her breathing, growing stronger, is heard once again. Because the camera lens is understood to be the viewer’s eye, the positioning and proximity of that lens to this young woman has the intended effect of making the audience experiencing emotions they would generally entertain only behind closed doors. Having been inserted into this intimate space, we realize that the Marquis’ question is directed at the viewer as much as Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle Renard appears to be in a state of heightened pleasure and the viewer, for this brief moment, is unmistakably positioned to look up at her as if we are her lover.

Why begin with this image, particularly since Mademoiselle Renard is never to be referenced again after this scene? Cinematographer John Alton says of framing in Painting with Light:

The screen offers the advantage of an ability … to photograph the story from the position from which the director thinks the audience would like to see it. The success of any particular film depends a great deal upon the ability of the director to anticipate the desires of the audience in this respect. (qtd. in Barsam, 141)

Following this philosophy, one can deduce that Kaufman acts on the supposition that the audience wants a film to awaken certain passions and offer an avenue to safely experience them. Since film has always been a voyeuristic experience, Kaufman raises the stakes by making the viewer painfully aware of the desire for indulgence through film. As Linda Mulvey says in her article “The Visual Pleasure of Narrative:”

The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. In the highly developed Hollywood cinema it was only through these codes that the alienated subject, torn in his imaginary memory by a sense of loss, by the terror of potential lack in phantasy, came near to finding a glimpse of satisfaction: through its formal beauty and its play on his own formative obsessions. (Mulvey)

Not only do we become aware of our own desires, thanks to Kaufman, we are granted the utmost freedom to experience it under an open sky rather than behind closed doors before we experience the loss that Mulvey describes.

With one quick twist, we learn that this window of opportunity is short lived. The Marquis goes on to say:

Owing to her noble birth, Mademoiselle Renard was granted full immunity to do just that, inflicting pain and pleasure with equal zest, until one day Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man whose skill in the Art of Pain exceeded her own. (Kaufman)

Mademoiselle Renard 2Mademoiselle Renard 3


This man (Stephen Marcus), whose filthy hands glide over Mademoiselle’s head and neck from behind, intrudes upon our own experience. As his black, leather executioners’ hood enters the frame, we learn from Sade that “Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man whose skill in the Art of Pain exceeded her own.” The executioner has slated Mademoiselle for his next kill and our precious lover is being taken from us. He slides his meaty fingers over her exposed collar bones and into the shoulders of her dress. The corners of her mouth spasm, although her expression is difficult to read. Does she enjoy this? The executioner rips the dress, revealing her shoulders, and she shrieks in terror “Please, no!” Only now are we sure of her distress. Leather straps bind her hands behind her back rendering her helpless, as are we in the throes of this horror. History, during this French Reign of Terror, is more appalling than fiction because it rings true.

Mademoiselle Renard 4

It is important to note here the finesse of Mademoiselle Renard’s casting and acting. As screenplay writer Geoffrey Wright says in the DVD special features:

Philip Kaufman … wanted a classically beautiful woman, a woman who didn’t look contemporary, a woman who had a gorgeous antique quality and he looked at more actresses for this small role than any other in the film.

The attention paid to these details is a testament to the importance of the general viewer’s relationship with her. It is helpful that Diana Morrison, the actress who plays Mademoiselle Renard, does not have a great deal of star recognition so that presuppositions based on previous roles cannot be assigned. Also, Morrison’s facial expression during her extreme close-up remains skillfully blank. As is said about editing in Looking at Movies: An Introduction, the “tendency of viewers to interpret shots in relation to surrounding shots is the most fundamental assumption behind all film editing” (Barsam, 239). This holds true with any combination of cinematic elements. With no mis-en-scéne yet to contextualize our film, all that is left to make meaning is the Marquis’ narrative. What we learn very quickly is that this narrative is powerful enough to reorder our entire sense of “reality,” which has been upended in a matter of seconds.

Quills\' guillotineSo, who is the Marquis de Sade and from where does such powerful fiction flow? Watching from behind bars in a prison tower perched high above the guillotine, the master of this story looks on with his own blank stare. The pleading eyes of Mademoiselle make contact with his own as the executioner slowly moves her hair and inhales the scent of her delicate neck. The Marquis’ steady voice continues, “How easily, dear reader, one changes from predator to prey! And how swiftly pleasure is taken from some and given to others” (Kaufman)! He is not just speaking of Mademoiselle but of himself, once the predator and now the caught and caged prey. A packed audience cheers and jeers with smiling faces once the shirtless executioner slowly and seductively bends her over placing her head gently in the guillotine. A body in a green dress separated from one of the many heads in a cart is passed over the crowd. Another cart of people to be executed, one looking like a disheveled version of the Marquis, are visibly distraught and sickened. In sharp contrast, the Marquis is composed and unmoved. His lack of outward emotion toward this long line of executions suggests a numbing madness.

Regardless of the Marquis’ lack of emotion, he and Mademoiselle are inextricably connected as demonstrated by the film’s editing. An extreme close-up of Mademoiselle’s face captures a drop of bright, red blood that falls to her cheek from the guillotine blade. We cut to an extreme close-up of the Marquis looking out with one eye, the other obscured by a black window bar. His face is more gray than black, perhaps suggesting a clouded version of good with a definite black and evil streak. As he turns away, we enter with him into his space. We circle around a jar of fanned black quills interspersed with two of muted white, suggesting that, contrary to the man, his writing is more vile than good. He continues to write on a sheet more than half filled using a white quill while chains bind his hands. An aerial view of the execution mob is seen from Sade’s vantage point but only by us as he writes. Humming Claire de Lune along with the children in the street, the Marquis’ quill releases a single drop of blood-red ink just as the guillotine blade begins to fall. Our view enters the flesh and blood sliced by the blade, a view that the Marquis does not get from his desk. What this editing works to say is that the Marquis’ internalized experience of this French Reign of Terror is released through writing and the tragedy of Mademoiselle Renard is, in this case, his muse, and we are active participants as his audience.

This connection between the three of us becomes a significant source of the film’s realism. As Laura Mulvey explains:

To begin with (as an ending), the voyeuristic-scopophilic look that is a crucial part of traditional filmic pleasure can itself be broken down. There are three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences (the material existence of the recording process, the critical reading of the spectator), fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness and truth. (Mulvey)

No longer shall we follow Mademoiselle’s story for hers has come to an end. Instead, we follow the Marquis to Charenton Asylum for the Insane years later. It is the blood, red color of the execution scene follows us as well, unifying our connection and coating the inside of a cell as if to say that the internal workings of the Marquis’ mind are blanketed with the culmination of all the deaths he has witnessed. The close-ups of eyes that first connected Mademoiselle and Sade now connect Sade and Charenton’s laundress, Madeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet). She slides the viewing panel on the heavy metal door open and calls for linens. Her eyes are centered in the open panel looking straight at us, but she cannot see the red that covers the inner walls. This is the Marquis cell and because Maddie is looking in at us, the audience members have just become lunatics.

This is the beginning of our time both as the asylum’s watched and the watchers. We begin by seeing limited parts of Sade, whether his eye through a circular hole in the door or his hands reaching through the laundry shoot. By the time the title of the film appears, our transformation is complete. From here on out we witness portions of the film one step removed and yet our experience becomes increasingly intimate. One example of this is when Bouchon, the executioner gone mad, is seen in his cell masturbating to his view of Madeleine through a hole in the wall. While he enjoys a peep at a girl, we are subject to deriving shock or pleasure from watching him watch her through our own hole in the wall. Regardless of our personal reaction, we have been made guilty of voyeurism and have a stake in the argument of whether or not we require censorship to protect us from ourselves.

It is now, in the unfolding of the film’s events that we are ready to assess censorship from a well-rounded standpoint. If fiction is a safe place to play out situations of vice, purging it as the asylum’s Abbe de Culmier (Joaquin Phoenix) instructs the Marquis to do, then the position of this film begins by leaning toward the Greek philosophy that art is cathartic. On the other side of the coin, because the power of the Marquis’ story results in the death of Medeleine, incites the chaotic destruction of the asylum, and frees the residents to copulate in the pouring rain, Plato’s belief that art is dangerous also comes to fruition. Even the The Bible, as a text, is portrayed as a dangerous narrative means, God being accused of stringing his son up “like a side of beef” making the Marquis fearful of what God might do to him if he succumbs to the word. The inclusion of this platonic argument asks the audience to truly examine all sides.

By partaking in such fiction, what does the debate surrounding censorship mean for and about the viewer? Kaufman says on the Cinema Review website:

I have always been fascinated by extreme literature… because it expands on our concept of what is human. And Sade more than anyone seems to demonstrate how extreme behavior can bring out hypocrisy in those who claim to be moralists. (“Production Notes: The Origins of Quills”)

We, the viewers are not left to our own idealistic assessments of what should and should not be. Kaufman is sure to make us get our hands dirty, tarnishing our own perceived halos. Forcing his audience to commit conscious acts of voyeurism, Kaufman does his best to remove that moralizing impulse we often feel in response to anything that appears to be dangerous, even fiction.

If this film proves anything, it’s that this argument is still going on today, whether through the resurrection an ancient criminal or the blaming of video game violence for children acting like vengeful lunatics. Telling are the last lines of the film which echo an earlier sentiment: that to know virtue one must also know vice. Fiction offers that outlet. In the viewer’s ability to experience natural emotions as well as exercise restraint is where Kaufman’s condemnation of censorship is revealed and thus gains its power. The audience is given the opportunity to strongly sense their own personal desire to act upon certain wants coupled with an understanding that such wants are best satisfied through fiction rather than experienced in real life. In that rare event that some person acts out the fiction, as is the case of the murderous executioner, Bouchon, there is already a predisposition to violence that exists before the influence of fiction. One is likely to conclude after seeing this film, censorship be damned and damn the author too.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard. Looking At Movies: an Introduction to Film. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007.

Mulvey, Linda. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Sonoma State University. Aug. 1975. Sonoma State University. 23 Apr. 2008 .

“Production Notes: the Origins of Quills.” Cinema Review. 23 Apr. 2008 .

Quills. Dir. Philip Kaufman. Perf. Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine. DVD. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2000.

Travers, Peter. “Quills (2000).” Film.Com. Rolling Stone. 23 Apr. 2008 .

Wright, Doug. “Quills Script.” Screenplay.Com. 20 Dec. 2000. 15 Apr. 2008 .

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