Author: jenniferpetruzzi001

“The Voyagers.” Where to begin?

There are so many things about this video that I enjoyed. First, the layering of this film is very different than any other that we’ve watched so far. The story of the Voyagers, and the romance between Carl Sagan and Ann Dryan is a seemingly perfect backdrop to Penny Lane’s own love story, and embodies all the complications and risks that go along with love. I’m fascinated by the way that she was able to interweave these two things together so seamlessly, and so intuitively. She tackles some really heavy stuff here:  commitment, love, existentialism; and she doesn’t examine these topics in wordy, over complicated prose but with powerful images and short, thought-provoking statements. In her interview, she says that her movie “needed some kind of conflict or other dimension. Also, it seemed lame and potentially maudlin to make a “love story” movie.” If she had tried to make a video for her husband that just consisted of her own feelings about love and their upcoming wedding, it probably would have been cheesy, cliché, or at the very least not as powerful or memorable as this. The images of the spacecrafts, especially the one that exploded, perfectly compliment her resolution that “We have to know in order to love. We have to risk everything. We have to open ourselves up — to contact — even with the possibility of disaster,” and without this juxtaposition, her script probably would have seemed a bit trifling. Instead she gives us the story of the voyagers, and the interesting love story that inspired them to help the viewer fill in the gaps, and really understand what she’s trying to say.

In her interview, she talks about her difficulty finding “the center of the spiral: the narrative anchor that is strong enough to hang all the wandering and meandering and pondering on to.” When I got to this line, I thought “YES” because she was able to vocalize the difficulty that I am having (more common than I realized) with my own video essay. The Voyagers are her “center” because they represent love’s “irrational hope” and “cold hard reason” in a way that a thousand words probably wouldn’t be able to adequately express. She’s successfully accomplished one of the main tasks of the essayists by making these associations that we would never realize on our own, but help us to understand a difficult concept or feeling. 


Video Essays

I just finished watching the 4 video essays for his week, and the thing that really struck me is the way that each video used images to support or help convey its message. My initial thoughts were that “Grandpa” and “Mangoes” followed more of a traditional format that we’re used to getting in a digital story. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily the content, or the storyline (or lack of) that made me think this; I think it’s just the way they used images. Both of them use home videos, moving images, and outside testimony in their stories. I had to watch “That Kind of Daughter” and “Ode to everything,” twice because I felt like I was missing a lot of both of them the first time around. I got bits and pieces of both essays, but had trouble processing what they were saying. Although their concepts were not really more abstract than Grandpa and Mangoes,” they felt that way because their images were more ambiguous than the other two, and didn’t give me something concrete that I could associate with their words. For example, in “Grandpa,” the scene around the table with the painted faces helps to illustrate theway the author feels like an outsider when he’s with his father’s side of the family. Even if he wasn’t narrating, and I looked at a still shot of this scene, I would probably be able to guess, in general terms, what the piece is about.

On the other hand, the projected images in “Daughters”left me feeling the way I do when I look at abstract art that doesn’t quite make sense to me. I sort of get it, but I have to stare at it a long time, listen to someone else talk about it, and make a few conceptual leaps to be able to really understand it.This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this particular piece, and I wouldn’t say that one approach is more powerful than the other, but it seems that “Daughters” and “Ode to Everything” are more similar to the type of video essays that Freeman discusses in “On the Form of Video Essay.” He notes that “conventional films are made to appear seamless and to move audiences forward along a dramatic line. By contrast, the video essay aims to move audiences deeper. It disrupts the smooth impenetrable surface of standard cinema with unexpected couplings of sound and image. Those couplings open up the video essay to interpretation and invite in audiences to co-create meaning.” All of the essays accomplish this, but I think that even though “Grandpa” and “Mangoes” don’t follow a linear storyline, their images sort of do. Even though the images don’t follow each other consecutively, they have been manipulated to create a specific meaning for the viewer, while “Ode to Everything” presents random objects as they are, leaving more room for subjective interpretation.

Music is key

The last piece that we listened to this week, Using Music: Jonathan Mitchell, highlighted one of the issues that I am having with my essay. Although my essay is very different from his, and doesn’t have anything to do with engineering, both pieces are abstract and sort of hard to visualize without the help of external components. Mitchell writes that Bejan’s theory is “very interesting, but it’s also very abstract and visual, and so it was a challenge to find a way to clearly present his ideas using sound.” This is what I’ve been trying to do for the past few weeks and although I’ve started to form some ideas about how to fix this, I’m trying to find ways that I can keep a few of the abstract lines in my audio essay, and find different ways to convey the others. Mitchell didn’t have the option to rewrite this piece to make it more visual, so he had to borrow from sounds and music to help stimulate images that illustrate parts of Bejan’s theory. After listening to these clips, I am starting to realize that I don’t think I have to necessarily cut out all the parts of my essays that are abstract, I just have to find ways to make them more effective, easier and more interesting for the reader to listen to. If I had listened to this piece without any of the music or background sounds, I probably would have zoned out within the first two minutes. And Mitchell knows this, so he added a score that does (somehow) sound like the theory that Bejan is describing. I read in the comments that Mitchell “tires not to spend more than 40 hours total” on a piece of this size, which is 6 minutes long. I can’t help but wonder how much of that time is devoted to finding music.  It seems like it would probably take hours to find the right song (unless you already have one in mind) and it must be hard not to get overwhelmed with all the music and sounds that you could potentially add.

One thing I noticed about all of the pieces is that they all have some sort of recorded audio that doesn’t seem scripted. I wasn’t planning to interview anyone, but I can see that one of the key advantages to doing that is that you end up with a piece that sounds real. Everything, right down to the pauses, seems natural. Not only does this make what you’re saying easier to the reader to accept, it really forces you to stop and think about the way that we communicate orally.

Audio essays: Say what you want to say, without saying it.

Antin brilliantly deconstructs his own experience of buying a mattress with his wife to illustrate the indecisiveness and skepticism that defines post-modernism, and he does this in a way that lends itself well to audio essays or broadcast journalism. Within the first “sentence” we learn that the subject of this essay is a mattress, a seemingly mundane topic eccentrically explored through fragmented, unpunctuated prose. In the descriptions of his wife’s indecision, their pleas for outside help, and eventually, their experience in the mattress store, Antin evokes this feeling of wavering that not only keeps readers engaged, it allows them to arrive at the same conclusion that he comes to at the end. “We don’t know if we got the right anything/there’s no way to know/let us live cheerfully in our ignorance” declares one of the only parts of the text that speaks in a reflective manner. Before I got to this line, I was already forced to have a similar notion because of the way he and his wife exhaust every option they have to make the “right” decision, to find the “perfect” mattress. The majority of readers, those who have suffered from back pain or insomnia at one point in their lives, will immediately empathize with his wife’s determination to find the perfect mattress, and will recognize the efforts she makes to accomplish this as only natural. A few years ago, before I bought my new mattress, I researched for weeks, went to several furniture stores, sought out advice from so-called mattress “experts,” all with the hope of finding this ideal bed that I didn’t even know how to describe. What kind of mattress do I want? I don’t know. Will prospect 48 provide a better night’s sleep than #12 did? I don’t know. Is this one too soft? Too hard? “Am I right she asks/you’re right I say” And then, like his wife, I second-guessed my prolonged decision before I even made it home. While reading this essay, you gradually start to understand this mattress as a metaphor for the many big decisions we make in life; the timeless philosophical conundrums we hope to solve with enough extensive research, even though we know, deep down, (and are reminded by post-modernist works) that there really is no “right” answer. That the “right” answer, like the present, is all relevant to the past and the future; to our previous pains and our idealistic futures without this pain.

Not only did I really enjoy this essay, it’s helping me to think about how to frame my own audio essay. Kern notes that “expressing your thoughts in short, declarative sentences doesn’t require you to eliminate any of your ideas- just to ration them out. You aren’t sacrificing anything by writing less convoluted prose.” If Antin had taken the claims about post-modernism that he arrives to at the end of his essay, and delivered them in a purely abstract form of clever and lengthy prose, his piece would never be able to translate to an audio format.  And I don’t think it would be as powerful. Because he tells us a story, gives us these concrete images that we can absorb, and illustrates his points instead of writing them, I can see this essay being really successfully when delivered orally. He might need to take a few suggestions from Kern before going this route, but this is a good example of what I need to do to my own audio essay. My textual essay is very reflective, and mostly abstract, so I need to find my own “mattress” and use it to ground my thoughts. And it’s not just that Antin grounds his thoughts with a concrete reference point. He structures his entire story in a way that deliberately stimulates indecisiveness in the reader, and allows them to inevitably consider that reality- in this case “the perfect mattress-” is defined by our own understanding of it; our own perception of it.  He says what he wants to say without actually saying it, and instead, forces us to feel it.

Audacious Dirty Dish Abandoner

To whom it may concern:

I just went into the kitchen and had to overcome an Everest of dirty dishes just to clean off my spoon. With purpose and plain laziness, you abandon your dish as if the communal kitchen were an extension of your personal space. To say that it is inconsiderate is a vast understatement as it is a clearly a deliberate decision to drop your filthy dish without so much of a hesitation to rinse, wipe and put it away!

The little box in the right hand corner of my computer screen just appeared to let me know that someone is really pissed off. When I click the box, the anger enlarges in front of me and I can see that it has seeped past second thought, beyond the boundaries of professionalism and into the inbox of eighty seven state employees, myself included.

The guy behind me snickers. The only other sound is the continuous hum of the copy machine. If you’d like to cut the tension in the otherwise static air, please make sure you rinse the knife off after, and return it to its proper place.

Need you be reminded time and time again that it is a shared kitchen?

The whispering has started. Keyboards that haven’t been touched all day are going into overload. The retirements of public educators within the commonwealth of Massachusetts have been interrupted by the exasperation of humans. Calculations have been brought to a halt by a breach in office etiquette. Revolutions have started from lesser things.

There are many unwritten rules one has to abide by when working in an office: Start all emails with pleasantries. Regurgitate such pleasantries during awkward moments at staff parties, while waiting next to colleagues at the printer, and throughout any conversation with superiors, lest the interaction steer into controversial territories.  Expand your definition of controversy to include topics like yoga pants, the neutering of pets, and any trending social media story. Avoid these topics like the plague and keep a mental list of neutral conversation starters handy. When in doubt, smile and retreat back to phrases like, “I can’t believe it’s only 11 am” or “I can’t believe it’s already 11 am,” depending on the person. Smother your conversations, and while you’re at it, your personality, with a dispassion so thick that it blends in with the beige, unassuming carpets. Do not, under any circumstances, leave your dirty dishes in the sink.

It is unconscionable that at a professional office of working adults we find such selfish and disgusting behavior that defies the social norms of cleanliness and consideration.

As Google explains, social norms are defined as: “the rules of behavior that are considered acceptable in a group or society. People who do not follow these norms may be shunned or suffer some kind of consequence.” Even without that simplified definition, most of us have a vague understating of what behavior classifies as socially acceptable. Our societies are shaped, to some extent, by these underlying rules, and the defiance of them can have a domino effect. Say you’re sitting in traffic in the right hand lane on I-93, and even though you’re only a few yards away, it has taken you twenty minutes to get to your exit. Just as you’re approaching it, a car from the lane next to you dashes ahead, cutting off you and everyone else that has been patiently waiting their turn. Horns start honking. Birds are flipped, and a series of ungodly curses starts spewing from your mouth. Suddenly, you have damned this unknown offender to hell, insulted his or her mother several times, and are beginning to break a sweat. You have inadvertently defied social norms, not to mention your own moral standards, in an attempt to correct the negligence of these norms that you just witnessed. This is a meager, but not uncommon example of one of the ways in which we teeter on the edge of these social norms daily. We follow protocol, traffic patterns and laws of common curtsey until the moment we can no longer stand it, and something inside of us snaps. The very laws humans have created to uphold basic human decency are compromised regularly, by human error.

            The rules are simple …. Clean your dish.

Most people who live in the twenty first century lead lives of constant movement. I will not bore you with the details of what you already know to be true: we are a society too busy to stop and smell the roses. Too busy to even plant the roses in the first place, let alone notice them. Unless you are among the few who live in isolation, living in the first world requires you to be constantly plugged in; constantly moving from one job to the next. By the time we have a few minutes to ourselves, we’re often too tired to enjoy them. Before we know it, we’re reprimanding strangers for misdemeanors we didn’t even realize we cared about until they suddenly disrupted our weird little routines. We rage war with retailers who wish us ‘Happy Holidays,’ threaten the lives of neighbors who refuse to mow their lawns, initiate heated Facebook rants about our disdain for people who post too much on social media, and publicly question the character of our messy co-workers. Before we know it, we’re pressing the send button on a rashly composed email, announcing our temporary deviance from social norms, and exposing inner pet peeves that thrive in the voids of our malcontent lives.

Why are we continuously fazed by such small matters? We let things like unwashed dishes ruin our afternoon and compromise our sanity, and then raise eyebrows and sneer in amusement when we witness the unraveling of reason; point our fingers at it in disbelief. I can’t presume to know what caused the angry office email that resulted in an agency-wide meeting about the urgency to maintain professionalism in written correspondence, but I laughed at it. I judged the sender, and the offender both internally and during conversations with fellow employees. Then, at some point, I thought about how many times I’d been close to sending an email of a similar nature. Close to posting the paragraph long Facebook rant, despite my own vow to never let my emotions materialize in the status box; close to leaving my dish behind, because after all, there are bigger problems to attend to than the immediate cleaning of soup bowls and momentary lapses in professionalism.

If for some reason you cannot immediately rinse your dish I suggest you keep it at your desk until you are able to, that way you are only inconveniencing yourself rather than being a nuisance to the collective office.

Overreaction is the first step to admitting you are human. I’m going to suggest that those who cannot call to mind a single instance in which they’ve lost their composure are just forgetting that occasion or choosing to deny its existence. Often, our overreactions are merely misplaced reactions; we are surrounded by an influx of complicated problems we cannot hope to solve in one lifetime. We are reminded on a daily basis, by media and firsthand experience that the world is in a dismal state, and will continue to be as long as humans inhibit it. It is a small wonder our anger is unleashed on trivial concerns; we dream of solving world hunger and settle for scolding the culprit who left his crumbs in the sink. These victories usually follow with a temporary relief before guilt or shame takes its place, if it does at all. Some of us move from one petty crime to the other, dictating the way twelve year old girls should dress, policing the proper ways to grieve in public, and denouncing humanity when someone doesn’t give up his seat for an elderly woman on a bus. Don’t we all, to some extent, resume the identity of these self-appointed social norm superheroes when we attempt to correct the annoying, though non-life-threatening behavior of others? And when we do this, are we acting out of some primitive instinct to feel powerful despite what little control we have of our lives, or are we all just one dirty dish away from cracking?

P.s. Just in case you would like to use the excuse of soaking to clean – unless you were previously mixing concrete in your bowl, it all comes off with soap, water and a little muscle – hence, no excuses.

When put into perspective, we usually acknowledge these minor offenses and overreactions as the result of fatigue, stress or irrational impulses we promise ourselves we’ll try to contain next time. Maybe we implement breathing techniques to ward off the anger, or maybe we don’t get that far and instead wallow in a mixed state of self-pity and loathe for fellow humans. We play eeny meeny miney mo with our blame; which came first, the dirty dish or the contempt for ill-mannered behavior within communal kitchens? We extinguish our overreactions with good deeds or justifications as we wait for the next violation of social norms to occur. We seek out other ways to rebel, to vent, to blacken the eyes of our routines and knock our mundane jobs and predictable lives on their asses in the hopes that this quake will revive us from the indifference we picked up somewhere on our way between I-93 and adulthood.

We should, in many ways, consider ourselves lucky to be able to count dirty dishes amongst our list of immediate problems. When we pause during these fits of rage, in the midst of our normal, though unreasonable spells of anger, we usually realize that all of these problems can be scrubbed away with soap and a little elbow grease. Given enough time to soak, these concerns will disperse, leaving room for more productive contemplation to occur. But this type of contemplation is dangerous. Sorting through the never-ending piles of dishes in life’s communal sink takes time, so we continually chose the smaller spoons, the teacups and the butter knives. We tell ourselves that someday, maybe tomorrow, we’ll tackle the serving platters and casserole dishes that we know won’t rinse clean without supplies and exertion. We content ourselves with solvable problems because dwelling on the heavy ones requires a resolute we have already lent to a dozen other causes.  We would lend a helping hand but we’re too busy scrubbing dishes.

By next week, the email will be old news. The woman who sent it will be spoken to, and we’ll plod back into our routines and resume to our work. We’ll all keep our heads down and eagerly await the next interruption, maybe even hoping in some ways to be the one who causes it.

Empathy and essays

“This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.”

In Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison’s wonders, at length, about the complex nature of pain and empathy. There are a lot of components that make this essay powerful, one of which is the way it’s structured. She uses her job as a medical actor to establish a lighthearted, almost comical tone in her introduction, and the fact that she’s literally taking on these new personas in her job allows her to remain, at first, somewhat distant from her topic. This distance helps to create a certain comfort in the reader that prepares him for the gradual decent into “deeper levels of honesty” that she divulges a quarter of the way through, as the essay becomes considerably more personal. At first, she is describing empathy in terms of her job and the doctors that are being evaluated by how well they can convey it; she is describing empathy through the lens of Stephanie Phillips. In a way, this is similar to how McPhee uses the game monopoly as a gateway into his views of society and urban life.  Emerson would be pleased, as these authors have succeeded in “put(ting) the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them.” Although McPhee accomplishes this in a way that is much more tangible- through the use of a well known board game, Jamison’s abstract examinations and ideas are made palpable by her anecdote’s. Her revelations resonate with readers not just because of their power, but also because of how they are delivered.

A lot of the essays that we’ve read have been, at least to some extent, about the act of essay writing itself. There are only a few moments in which Jamison explicitly mentions that she’s a writer, but her reflections on empathy could also be read as examinations of her feelings towards essay writing. She writes, “This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.” Isn’t this (amoung other things) what essay writing is? Often times, we start with a feeling, an event, an object, a board game or occupation, something that resonates with or at least strikes us in some way, and we have maybe just the smallest inkling that if we examine it further, it could lead to a deeper understanding of something and others might be able to relate to that. We want them to relate to that, but sometimes this thing is so personal that we don’t want to share it, or we fear we don’t do it justice. “I felt simultaneously like I didn’t feel enough and like I was making a big deal out of nothing.” This is how I feel almost every time I sit down to write. I want to break down whatever it is that I’m trying to describe so that I can finally understand it, and at the same time, I am constantly asking “myself what’s the point? Am I not just over thinking this?”

Well, I guess one of the points we do this is sort of summed up by Susan Orleans in Introduction to The Best American Essays:

“Our voices matter to each other; we do wonder what goes on inside each other’s heads; we want to know each other, and we want to be known.”

Things that live within concepts

In “The Essay as a Form,” Theodor Adorno stresses the importance of the essayist’s ability to reconsider our traditional idea of truth and deconstruct definitions as we have come to know them. He notes that, unlike methodical, organized dissertation, the essay remains skeptical of fundamental definitions, and recognizes that “the longing for strict definitions has long offered to eliminate the irritating and dangerous elements of things that live within concepts.” In “Red Shoes,” Susan Griffin examines several preconceived notions about the color red, the boundaries of fiction, and matters reserved for “private life.” Throughout the essay, she transitions from her intellectual examination of these concepts into italicized font that describes her adolescent experiences, and the two “aspects of (her) argument interweave as in a carpet.” This unconventional structure gives the reader the impression of reading two essays at once, and thus exemplifies her assertion that “the form of the essay circumscribes imagination. At its edges, many other imagined possibilities are hovering,” Though she never explicitly connects the portions written in italicized font with the ones written in straight font, memories of her grandmother and her mother “hover over” her thoughtful examination of gender roles in today’s society. Not only do they physically frame her intellectual discussion, they add perspective and experience that further enhances her theories. These snippets from her past illustrate the “private life” that she refers to, and she keeps them separate from the rest of the essay to highlight the mainstream understanding and distinction of private and public matters. As Griffin notes in her essay, “what goes on in the private body, in the inner quarters of the mind, cannot fully be redeemed, or even understood, without public acknowledgment.” The reader gets the sense that as she writes this essay, she is trying to bring to light observations from her past to further understand the public’s perception of “the private sphere of life, which is also the sphere of life given over to women.” She is revisiting her adolescent view of things like red lipstick, the difference between her grandmother and her grandfather’s dresser, and the significance of a hidden black robe in order to deconstruct our own definitions of larger issues at stake.

A central theme of this essay, as signified in the title, is the color red. Griffin discusses the color red in several contexts, and uses it to provide a concrete reference point for her more abstract discussion about gender roles. Adorno notes that “the way in which the essay appropriates concepts is most easily comparable to the behavior of a man who is obliged, in a foreign country, to speak that country’s language instead of patching it together from its elements, as he did in school. He will read without a dictionary. If he has looked at the same word thirty times, in constantly changing contexts, he has a clearer grasp of it than he would if he looked up all the world’s meanings; meanings that are generally too narrow, considering they change depending on the context, and too vague in view of the nuances that the contexts established in every individual case.” Griffin examines the color red in several contexts, including shoes, lipstick, hair dye, and an overheard remark on the color of roses. She also refers to the color white and black and uses this color association to subtly suggest to the reader that we can deconstruct ideologies the same way we can deconstruct color implications. The reader can almost visualize her, staring at her outgrown, scuffed up red shoes, wondering why they appealed to her so much when she was younger. Maybe she started asking herself questions, like what made the color red so appealing, despite its “impracticality?” and instead of reducing her affection for the shoes to a physical, juvenile attraction sparked by the vibrant color, she began to understand what the color represents to her. This is just speculation on my part, but the unusual composition of the essay combined with its inquisitive manner and the use of “free association artistically controlled,” helps her accomplishes what Aldous Huxley considers to be the most satisfying type of essay. Griffin is able to blend “generalization with the anecdote, the homily with the autobiographical reminiscence,” and “makes use of the concrete particular to express some universal truth,” and presents it in a way that suggests she is coming to these insights at the same time as the reader.

Nothing but sublime moments

Although I enjoyed, highlighted, and internally responded to a lot of what we read this week, I will try to narrow the focus of this post to a few of the notions mentioned by A.C. Benson in “The Art of the Essayists.” As I was reading Benson’s essay, I felt myself nodding along and growing increasingly excited with his perspective on how the essayists must “be interested rather than displeased by the differences in human beings and their varied theories.” One could argue that this outlook can benefit all writers, (or potentially all people) but his emphasis on the need for essayists to appreciate experiences, and the “inconsistencies of humanity” is exemplified in the essays that we read in class this week, and is helping to shape my new understanding of what an essay is. Since Tuesday, I have been racking my brain trying to figure out if I’m just missing a huge chunk of my academia by not being able to recall much essay writing. Yes, I’ve written pieces that are essay-ish, and surely I’ve done work that resembles the composition of an essay, but I can’t help feeling a pang of disappointment that I am just now discovering, at least on a larger scale, how beneficial this type of writing can be. Why didn’t I do more of this kind of writing in high school and undergrad? Before this week, would I have been able to really explain the difference “between real essays and the things one has to write in school?” I can’t help but feel that this style of writing could help offset some of the stress students feel at writing thesis statements, and having conviction in their writing. That more essay writing could help students to understand the point of writing lies not in the product, but in the process. I’m simplifying here (and maybe coming off a little idealistic) but if students were given more space and time to work with these “little problems,” “soggy patches” and “floating ideas” and were given a chance for “exploration rather than persuasion,” they might come to appreciate the process of writing, and the way writing is meant to help us all think. They might start to understand that writing is essentially a way of thinking, and understanding our thoughts, rather than a rigid tool we use to prove points and persuade.

I can’t, in 400 words (or maybe at all) presume to answer my own questions, but after reading Didion and Benson, my first thoughts turn not only to my academic experience, but to my future classroom and how this sort of self-absorption and reflection can lead to larger understandings of complex issues, or at the very least, teach our students that it’s good to be confused by these complex matters. That everything can’t be reduced to a final summary, or conclusive paragraphs. Of course it’s importance to help students find structure in their writing, and the 5 paragraph essay format can help students to do that, but I think we should balance these formulas with notebooks, creative writing, composition of essays in their true form, and exploration of little “sublime moments” that so often breed inspiration from daily life and teach us about ourselves.