Truth Be Told: The Fight Against Plagiarism & Fabrication in Print Media

This is part one in a series of five, making up the entirety of BlueEyedPhoenix‘s senior project, an extensive research paper required for graduation at Purchase College, SUNY. The paper was written with footnoting, which cannot be duplicated via this format; however, all sources will be included at the end of the fifth chapter, upon publication here. Originally published at Backwash on May 24, 2006.

Chapter One: Introduction

In the heyday of “yellow journalism,” the name given to sensationalized news stories, as opposed to the traditional straightforward style of news writing, a great deal of journalists took tremendous pride in the fabrication of news stories.

The New York Sun published an article in 1835 which detailed the discovery of “man-bats” on the Earth’s moon. These bats were allegedly discovered by a man named “Sir John Herschel” who used a brand-new large telescope to view the moon. When the story was discovered to be nothing more than a ruse, the editors of the newspaper blamed it on a slow time for news. But instead of responding angrily, as would be the likely reaction today, the paper’s circulation remained high; most people didn’t seem to care that their valued daily was capable of deceptive “reporting.”

In 1889, when media conglomerate William Randolph Hearst first ran the headline “Boston is Destroyed, Another Earthquake Calamity in the East” on the front-page of his newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, he was conscious of the fact that the story was completely made-up and that he was intentionally deceiving his readers.

In fact, that entire day’s issue was filled with nothing but fantasy presented as reality, much of it based on the stories of the fiction writer, Jules Verne. While Hearst did print a miniscule disclaimer to protect himself against any potential legal complications, few people actually noticed the disclaimer, which was exactly what Hearst expected.

The subsequent issue of the Examiner reported the truth of the previous day’s issue, taking satisfaction in writing of one old lady, among others, who had personal ties to Boston residents, who “had been given a pleasing thrill of terror” when they read the story, which vividly described the destruction of the East Coast city and the loss of thousands of lives.

Since the days when powerful political players were running the majority of the United States’ newspapers, much has changed.

Although yellow journalism is still a flourishing and lucrative business concept, modern laws have helped to assure that real news is distinguished from false news. There is a clear distinction between papers running content based solely on verifiable information, and those running stories intended for the purpose of titillating readers.

While tabloid newspapers still account for a significant number of news publications in this country, legal measures have been taken to prevent front-page headlines from running as they did back during the days of Hearst’s reign over print media.

The less-than-credible publications, running headlines about wolf children, alien abductions, or dead celebrities brought back to life, are typically thought of as complete farces by the average person, otherwise they are targets for slander or libel (when they do attempt to run “real” stories).

What distinguishes Hearst and the tabloid press from the rest of the journalists is that ultimately, the former group tended not to take itself seriously; Hearst’s headline was labeled, albeit in the smallest of letterings, as a gag, and the modern tabloids, by-and-large, know they’re getting their “information” from less-than-credible sources.

However, it’s when a journalist, working for a credible news publication, decides to blur the line between news and fiction that problems arise.

The one ideal that journalists writing for credible news sources have prided themselves on, is their journalistic integrity – their abilities to effectively deliver the news to the masses not only in a timely manner, but in as truthful a means as possible.

When even a single journalist breaches this barrier of trust, taking the “easy road” so that he or she can make a front-page story without doing any of the actual work, it can cause cataclysmic repercussions of various natures throughout the media world. Whether the falsities begin the process of breaking down the levels of trust between those who report the news and those who ingest the news, or else become the catalyst for one or more libelous lawsuits, the results are never desirable by the majority.

Misinformation that manages to sneak its way onto the mass-printed pages of newspapers always proves detrimental, not only to the journalist responsible, but to the entire publication. The theory is that those in charge should be more than capable of filtering the facts from the fiction. When there is even the slightest amount of doubt, it is generally understood that strides should be taken to verify the information, or else the information in question should be cut until the time comes in which it can be verified.

For these reasons, the average journalist takes strides to assure that the sources they use are credible, the information they gather is verifiable, and that their editors will be able to back them up on both accounts with little-to-no questioning.

Breaches of trust have occurred a number of times since the heydays of yellow journalism in the early 20th century, each time inflicting damage to the public views of journalists.

In 1980, Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize award for her shocking expose’ on an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy for The Washington Post. Shortly after the prize was awarded, it was discovered that Jimmy didn’t exist. Cooke claimed that, though the Jimmy of her story didn’t exist, he was a character composite of others that she had actually met and interviewed. Cooke resigned from the Post and was forced to return the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1998, Patricia Smith, an award-winning metro columnist for the Boston Globe, was asked to resign from her position after it was discovered that she had created a series of quotes from nonexistent people in order to stir the desired emotions from her readers.

Also in 1998, Stephen Glass, a young up-and-coming writer for The New Republic was fired for fabricating a series of stories during his brief employment with the small, but influential, magazine.

In 2001, Marcia Stepanek was fired from her position with Business Week for allegedly plagiarizing part of an article she had written on computer privacy. Though Stepanek refused to admit to plagiarizing, neither she nor her editors were able to prove that she had gotten her information on her own.

In 2003, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired for having plagiarized more than 30 articles during his tenure with the acclaimed newspaper, the most notable being a falsified in-person interview with the parents of Iraq war solider Jessica Lynch.

In 2004, Jack Kelley, a reporter for USA Today, resigned amidst an investigation into his work, which showed that a number of his stories contained fabrications, plagiarized quotations, and other stolen material.

Plagiarism and fabrication happen in not only the smaller publications, the ones with less intricate, if any at all, means of fact-checking, but it also happens in the larger publications, ones known throughout the world.

It’s the large-scale plagiarists and fabricators that truly help to damage the public’s opinions about news credibility, and it is as a result of these professional liars that news companies have begun to look into their fact-checking procedures, attempting to fine-tune the truth-seeking steps taken so as to prevent such events from happening again in the future.

This paper seeks to take a glimpse into the world of these fabricators by analyzing the patterns of fabrication, from the slight altering of a quote to the complete creation of people, places, and events.

Additionally, this paper will look into the various levels of plagiarism that exist in print media today, from the “borrowing” or lifting of single quotes that appeared in other stories, to the stealing of significant pieces of other journalists’ published writing.

These patterns will be further dissected by a series of case studies involving the more famous of fabricators, including the individuals’ thoughts on their actions after their secrets were exposed to the public.

Furthermore, this paper will look into the methods being taken by newspapers across the country to counteract potential fabricators before they have a chance to create a name for themselves based on falsehoods (a name that, while undesirable by most, can be an extremely lucrative one).

Yesterday, Scrambled Eggs Is What You Meant To Say

Casetta’s Yesterday, Scrambled Eggs Is What You Meant To Say was originally published at Backwash on November 18, 2004 — look for the update at the end!

Recently a poll was conducted in the UK to determine the worse song ever and The Beatles’ 1968 song “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was chosen. Now, I love The Beatles. I have all their albums, some outtakes recordings, some video performances, books, and even some little figurines, and while I wouldn’t choose that song as the most annoying song ever, I will admit it is kind of a stinker.

This got me thinking, is this even the worse Beatle song? Surely, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is worse than that early attempt at light reggae and that whole Abbey Road medley thing has always annoyed me for some reason. It was time to pose this question to others and surprisingly I discovered that no single song by those lovable mop tops stood out. Some people gave arguments to defend “Fool On The Hill”, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’s Garden”. I stood up for “Being For The Benefit of Mister Kite”, “Goodnight” and even “Yellow Submarine”. Then there was the song “Yesterday”. I have a love hate/relationship with this one because it, more than any other Beatle song, failed to live up to its original potential.

Supposedly this is the most recorded or most performed song of all time and maybe that is why many of us have a problem with “Yesterday”. We are just so sick of it. I have to admit; I find it nauseating and blame Paul McCartney and this song for launching what would become all that California singer-songwriter swill.

Paul McCartney could have saved the Seventies from a world of Dan Fogelbergs had he only stuck with the original lyrics:

Scrambled Eggs,
Have an omellette with some Muenster cheese,
Put your dishes in the washbin’ please,
So I can clean the scrambled eggs

Join me, do,
There are lots of eggs for me and you,
I’ve got ham and cheese and bacon too,
So go get two and join me, do

Fried or sunny-side,
Just aren’t right.
The mix bowl begs,
Quick, go get a pan, and we’ll scramble up
Some eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs,

Scrambled eggs,
Good for breakfast, dinner time or brunch,
Don’t buy six or twelve, buy a bunch,
And we’ll have lunch on scrambled eggs

(1965 Northern Songs Ltd/Sony/ATV/Music Publishing)

That is the kind of song I would sing to my love, not the nauseating ode about longing for the past. Heck, I’m bummed Paul didn’t see the genius of the original line he scrapped “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs”. I can’t count how many times I’ve uttered those exact words!

Now you know my love/hate relationship with “Yesterday”. I love it for what it could have been but I am disappointed. I can only hope that when Paul sings “I said something wrong now I long for yesterday”, he is telling me that he knows he screwed up and should have stuck with the original lyrics.

Update:

A few years back, someone sent me a collection of the Esher Demos that The Beatles recorded in May  of 1968 at George Harrison’s home, Kinfauns, in the London suburb of Esher. They gathered to make rough demos of material to use for The White Album.  There are no other tapes that document the Beatles rehearsing and making demo recording outside of the EMI Studios. Here we find them working on demos in a mostly acoustic setup. The result is a wonderful “unplugged” collection of songs. While a few of the songs showed up on the Anthology releases, most of the recordings have never been legitimately released.

Among the demos was an early version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and I was forced to revoke it’s “stinker” status.  It is truly magical (as are all these demos) and those who answered that poll back in 2004 would agree. The stripped down version gives it a much needed earthy feel that has me appreciating the song in ways I never had.

As for my stand on “Yesterday”, I still long for the original words and not even sure if Paul himself would ever record the whole thing, but much to my surprise he did play around with the original words while a guest on The Jimmy Fallon Show and not only that he sang the much loved original lyrics that I longed to hear….

You can also hear the Esher Demos here:

Haunted Alarm Clock

Another BW flashback piece from AzraelBrown; originally published August 3, 2001.

I have a haunted alarm clock. Actually, when it started acting haunted, I figured it was just something electrical. The time just spins up and up and up at lightning speed. In the last few seconds, it went from 5:35 to 7:21.

Its hauntedness was first brought to my attention in the middle of the night. I had set the alarm for 6am. Like most mornings, when the alarm sounded I shut it off and went back to bed. After dozing off a little, I rolled back over to check the time, which now read 9:30 on the alarm clock.

Needless to say, the haunted alarm clock is evil.

It really was only 3am, so it wasn’t too bad. After that point, the haunted alarm clock became entertaining – word of the ghostly timepiece spread throughout my circle of friends. I bought a new alarm clock in the meantime, but I still kept the haunted one.

Today, the haunted alarm clock sits on my desk at work. It’s back to 5:45 again. Having it on my desk is better than letting it back in my house — one day I figured I’d blow some air into it, in hopes of fixing it. Something like this must be a short somewhere, and since all I ever did was use it to wake myself up in the morning, it must have just gotten dirty. It IS an old clock — I’ve had it since high school.

I bought some canned air at the office supply shop, and gave a quick blast into the vents on the back.

The ground below my feet opened up, and I fell into a horrible, hellish world full of monsters and demons. The burning air tore at my skin, and I was filled with a terror I had never known before. An ominous, formless body materialized before me and said four words:

“LEAVE THE CLOCK ALONE.”

Being a Witch on a Rainy Day

Being a Witch on a Rainy Day was written by Laura and published on November 28, 2001.

Its raining today, the sky has been grey from dawn and will remain so until dark. That’s not a bad thing. I actually like the rain, it gives all the plants a good watering before they go dormant for the winter. The plants are still green here but the blooms are finished.

I decided to create a little ritual for the day. Not for any special reason just something I thought I would enjoy doing. A little show of appreciation for Mother Earth.

I started by putting on warm socks. Witches get cold too! I put on my fleece jacket, picked up my purse and walked out the door. I didn’t need any special tools or a lot of planning. I know I can find everything I need as I go along, outside. In fact, that’s pretty much the point of the ritual.

I love wild things and the great outdoors. If anything is the centre of my Witchcraft its nature, wild things and the outdoors. In one word: life.

Back to the ritual. None of my rituals are formal. I don’t wear black or any special accessories. Sometimes I do have a special bit of something like a holiday pin, not today. I went across the street and had a coffee at the local diner. While I was there I put a paper package of sugar in my pocket. I don’t drink sugar with my coffee. I was going to use it for the Earth element of my ritual.

Outside again it was easy to find an Autumn leaf to become the Air element of the ritual. I walked along, enjoying the feel of the wind and rain. Of course, the rain was the Water element for me, I didn’t even have to look for that one. The last thing I needed was Fire. I could have had a book of matches but that was too easy. Besides I don’t smoke so I would have had to buy or borrow some from someone. So, it took me a little walking and creativity to come up with the Fire element. In the end I used a pebble. Pebbles are great additions to rituals, they can be so many elements because they have been eroded by water, wind, pressure and heat. So the pebble became my Fire element.

I held the sugar package, the leaf and the pebble out in my hand. I let the rain water get them damp. When I felt they were saturated enough I clenched my fist around them holding them tight and melding them together in my hand. I let my mind flow with thoughts, random, creative and practical thoughts. I continued to walk, along the streets for longer than I thought. To close the ritual I turned in a circle and started walking back the way I had come. I left the pebble, leaf and sugar out in the rain, by a tree trunk.

Now here I am out of the rain, indoors, having a hot coffee and watching the traffic on the road outside our apartment. Inside my mind I feel recharged. I’ve put away some things that have been bothering me. Most of all I’ve fully enjoyed being outside, feeling the power of the Earth and the Life all around us.

The Kind of Person You’d Meet at a SuperAmerica

The Kind of Person You’d Meet at a SuperAmerica was written by AzraelBrown and published at Backwash on April 11, 2004.

The insides of Curt’s eyelids glowed brighter the tighter he squeezed them. The stall walls grew warmer under the touch of his outstretched hands. The world twisted and swirled for a moment, and Curt opened his eyes.

The tiles beneath his feet seemed a bit brighter than before, the walls seemed less decorated by graffiti. The toilet seemed cleaner, too. Curt had no reason to flush; he had just needed a solitary place to sit and collect his mind. With a twist of his thumb he unlatched the bathroom stall door and stepped out.

Curt spun a full circle, getting his bearings. He had long ago gotten used to the moments of disorientation. He no longer felt the confusion, though. It’d been so long, he was immune to the lost vertigo feeling. Curt knew where he was; he was in a SuperAmerica. The sinks had moved, there was an extra urinal, and he thinks the door opened the other direction before, but he was certain it was a SuperAmerica bathroom.

The water tingled as it flowed through his fingers. Curt ran his wet hands over his face and through his hair. The damp smell, sweet and a little sterile, coated his nostrils.

The bustling noise of the gas station snuck though the doorway as a young boy struggled to push his way past the restroom door. He stopped and stared at Curt a moment, studying Curt’s demeanor, before barricading himself in a stall. Curt grabbed the door before it had closed completely and excused himself.

Curt shielded his eyes from the sunlight flowing in through the wall of windows. He checked his watch, and noted the direction of the setting sun. North, south, east, west; Curt had his bearings now.

He walked over to the west end of the store, turned away from the sunlight, and let his eyes open and relax. Curt’s breathing slowed as he let the world fall out of focus. The soda coolers melted into a wall of polkadot colors, the shelves of candy bars became a smear of brown and pink. People became streaks, humanoid forms leaving trails of light behind them. To Curt, everything felt like it was both moving too fast to see and in slow motion all at once. His eyes crossed slightly, not quite enough to see double. His eyelids felt like they were about to close, he thought he might fall asleep if they did droop too far. Curt resisted the urge, and panned his head around to scan every part of the convenience store.

The world remained blurry until his eyes pointed towards the cash registers. Of the three workers, the older gentleman seemed to be in sharp focus. It seemed to Curt that he could see every detail of each hair on the man’s head, balding as he may be. People walked past, interfering with Curt’s gaze, causing it to fall back into blurriness. Once they passed, however, the man crystallized back into sharp contrast.

A slight movement to his left made Curt swing his head quickly, making himself a little dizzy. A fuzzy family finished their respite from the road and were vacating their booth by the microwave pizza machine. They stood as a boy emerged from the bathroom, handed the child a jacket, and headed towards the door. Their absence exposed the back of a person’s head in the booth behind. Each of the dark brown strands of hair seemed as thick as a man’s arm, clear and detailed in Curt’s mind. The woman turned her head, eyes following a passerby. Every wrinkle on her face, each line of her iris, each muscle twitch in her lips was magnified in Curt’s blurry eye.

Nancy looked back down at her Styrofoam cup of coffee, only to see her cup be joined by it’s sibling.

“Hi, how’ya doing?” Curt asked as he set down his coffee.

Nancy looked to her left and right, not really trying to see anything, but just to express her confusion at Curt’s self-invitation.

“I’m alright,” she said.

“Just driving through?” Curt asked. “Yeah,” Nancy replied. “On business,” she said after a confused pause.

“I’m just riding the bus,” he said. “Got no car, but everybody’s gotta see the world, right? I ride the bus, stop wherever I stop, then get back on. It’s not too bad, if you don’t mind a bus.”

Nancy started emptily at Curt’s cup.

“And I don’t mind busses,” Curt added after a time.

Curt turned and looked out the window at the flow of traffic. In the parking lot, all the pumps were attended by a jellybean assortment of colored cars and trucks. Some nose-to-nose, some end-to-end, depending on which sides the gas caps were on. Beyond that, the interstate roared by. Headlights were on about half the vehicles, despite the fading sun.

Nancy studied Curt, looking for any signs of a sociopath. He seemed calm, very relaxed for the kind of person who’d impose themselves on a stranger at a gas station. Let alone a man introducing himself to a strange woman – it invited condemnation, the assumption that he were a rapist or worse. To Nancy, Curt just looked like a clean, average young man, like all the ones she’s ever seen at a gas station. Usually they’re the kind behind the counter, or stocking the chips. For a brief instant she told herself she should talk to men like this more often, but decided against it, figuring it’d only invite trouble.

“So, what sort of business you in?” Curt asked, still gazing out the window at nothing in particular.

“Just…” She paused, then took a sip of coffee. “Just work,” she added.

“Work? Like…” Curt trailed off, meeting her eyes.

She stared back, not answering.

“Where you on your way to? What town?”

Nancy’s eyebrows frowned slightly, but she made no move to answer.

“Not sure, are you?”

Nancy stood, leaving her coffee behind, and walked quickly to the restroom.

Only one of the stalls was available. The occupied stalls held a woman talking loudly on a cellular phone, and in the other a young girl whose feet couldn’t touch the floor. Nancy closed the stall door and leaned against it, holding it shut.

Her hand felt cold against her forehead, and she ran it across her head, flattening her hair. When it reached the nape of her neck, she grabbed her hair into a ponytail, on the slight suspicion she might throw up.

Nancy became dizzy, but she didn’t fall. The world became quiet, and the voice on the phone only inches from her disappeared.

She let her hair go, and rubbed her eyes back into focus. The door squeaked loudly as she swung it open. The stall next to hers was hanging open and empty. The cellphone woman had disappeared – and wasn’t there another stall? Nancy remembered seeing a child’s shoes under a door, but there were only two stalls in the bathroom. It must’ve been another bathroom, the one she stopped at for lunch.

She had been on the road since four in the morning, and according to her watch it was 2:00pm, so Nancy decided she was just over-tired. She told herself to stop for a rest more often next time. She’d said that to herself before, but she hadn’t listened. This time, she promised, she would listen. Driving while so worn out could be a danger, she reminded herself.

Nancy flushed the toilet out of habit, then washed her hands for the same reason. She exited the bathroom, and stared at the children in the school playground across the street.

“Here you go,” a voice said, very close behind her. An arm reached around in front of her, holding out a cup of coffee. The brim had a scalloped crease of fingernail marks around the circumference, just as Nancy does to all of her cups. She turned to see Curt, Still holding out her cup as he drank from his own coffee.

“Oh,” she said, pretending she’d asked him to hold it for her. “Thanks.”

“What time do you have to be to your work-thing?” Curt asked. “You don’t want to be late.”

“I’ve got time,” she said.

“How far do you have to go? Speed limit’s only 50 here.”

“Not far, next town over.”

“Well, then, why don’t we sit back down,” Curt offered. Nancy smiled and turned towards the booth she’d left only minutes ago. Then she spun around twice more, unable to see booths of any kind.

“Is there a problem?” Curt asked with a smirk.

“I…I know you had sat down with me, then I went to the bathroom, but…”

“We’ve got to talk….what’s your name?”

“Nancy.”

“I’m Curt. You’ve gotta get over the confusion, now, otherwise people will think you’re crazy.”

Curt started walking, and Nancy followed. He led her to a bench outside, cement and wood, a seat designed to withstand the elements. For mid-afternoon it seemed chilly, and Nancy was glad to have hot coffee in her hands.

“How long have you been driving?” Curt asked.

“Just this morning,” she said.

“No, where’d you stay last night?”

“Hotel, in Devils Lake. Drove all day yesterday, too.”

“And before that?”

Nancy opened her mouth to answer, then stopped. Her mind was counting back the days, the places she’d stayed. She was unsure, now, of when the last time she had been anyplace she’d call home, anyplace she’d had to be. Where did I live, she wondered to herself, and where was I going? How could this happen? Nancy started to panic.

“How can I not know?” she blurted out.

“Stop, now, relax. Look at your driver’s license.”

Nancy looked around her feet, and did not see her purse. “Hold on, it’s in my car.”

As she walked away she glanced over her shoulder at Curt. He reclined lazily, as comfortable as he could get on the cement bench. Nancy grabbed her purse and carried it back to Curt.

“See, this is me.”

“Good, good. Don’t lose this, Nancy. I lost mine long ago, stolen. It doesn’t pose a big problem, but you’ll forget what’s on it.”

“Forget? How?”

“You’re not in the linear, real-world real stuff anymore, Nance. Can I call you Nance? I think I new a Nance once, long time ago.”

“My brother calls me Nance. My brother! I remember him…”

“It’ll be spotty, you’ll remember and forget, depending on where you’re at. Just relax in it, you’ll be fine.”

“In what? What’s the it?”

Curt had never heard a name for It, it’d just always been the way things were.

“You ever see that show Quantum Leap? That’s the only way I know to explain it, and everybody’s seen that sometime. They remember it, seems to stick with them.”

“I’m somebody else now?”

“No, you’re always you, it’s just the place. Your car is always here,” Curt pointed over at the Greyhound bus parked at the diner, “my bus is always waiting, but you won’t need it. It’ll make things worse, driving around.”

Nancy stared, clearly not understanding. Curt paused patiently, accustomed to the reaction. He sipped his coffee and watched the playground empty. Children screamed and pushed and laughed as they poured back into the school halls, completely unreceptive for any more learning in the day.

“I’m stuck at SuperAmerica, and you are too now. We might not ever see each other again, but we might.”

“Stuck? Why not get back on the bus?”

“I’ll always end up back at a SuperAmerica. Never the same one, then I go to another. You get dizzy in the bathroom?”

She sat still, like a statue, to express an affirmative.

“You can move, now. Best to do it in the bathroom, they’re the most similar between stores, but you can do it in the eating booths, or by the pumps – ever start to fill up your car, then notice you haven’t even opened your gas cap, or go in to pay and have them tell you that you haven’t started the pump? Same thing. You let your mind wander, and your body wanders. One crazy guy I knew had theories on dimensions and space and stuff…things about flattening the skin on an orange, and drawing lines between the tips….There’s spots where everything’s exactly the same everywhere, and you can go there. Anywhere. Anyplace that things are the same.”

“You’re fucking crazy.”

“But I’m right, and you’ll see it. Go drive, go somewhere.”

Nancy grabbed up her purse and stomped to her car. She knew she hadn’t paid, but the pump was reset to zero already. When she turned the key, the gas gage slid up to “F”. Another click further, and the car roared to life.

Nancy drove through the afternoon and into the night, avoiding any SuperAmericas. She filled up once at a Conoco, but paid at the pump and didn’t go inside.

She crossed a state line without paying attention to which one it was. The highway signs changed slightly, and the highway patrol cars looked a little different, but the road remained the same. Nancy passed three or four SuperAmericas before the glow of her ‘Low Fuel’ light threatened the choking death of her vehicle. She relented and pulled into the SuperAmerica fuel island. A Greyhound bus idled across the street.

A figure on a bench near the air hose stood and sauntered over to Nancy’s car. Curt held out the distinctive cup of coffee, fingernail-gouged around the rim. Steam rose from the cup, only half full.

“Why…you only refilled it halfway?” she asked.

“Same cup, same coffee, time didn’t pass for me. I’ve been doing this long enough, I can go wherever I want.”

Nancy shivered in the cold night wind. She jumped when the pump clicked off, indicating a full tank.

“Let’s sit in the car,” Curt offered.

Before Nancy could ask anything, as they settled into the seats of her Celica, Curt began to rattle off a list of his knowns. Credit cards always work, ATMs always work. Time moves funny; you won’t have to sleep unless you want to. Hunger, too: If you want to eat, you can, but if you don’t, it’s not necessary.

Nancy’s car will always be there, the way she left it. If she sets anything down other than in the car, it’ll be gone. Sometimes. Sometimes, if it’s in the ‘universal place,’ it’ll follow too, but don’t count on it. Nancy will learn how to tell others like her, if she only wants to see them.

Above all, she needed to relax. She now had no place to be, nothing she had to do. A place was given to her, and that was her only limitation.

“But, what do I DO?” she demanded.

“Whatever. Doesn’t matter. You get to decide. Lots of times we get jobs at the stations, just to keep from getting bored.”

“What do YOU do?”

“Just this,” Curt said.

Nancy stared at him, waiting for elaboration, then rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“This, I find new people, and teach them. Keep you from going crazy. You almost went whacko, you kept driving from place to place, made you hard to track down. Don’t feel so crazy anymore, do you?”

“No….maybe crazier, I don’t know. You found me?”

“It’s the one thing you got, the magic thing,” Curt said, feeling philosophical. “Like, you decide you want a job, you find one of the spots. You sit there, and you pray to go to a store that’ll hire you. You open your eyes and you’re there. Wherever that is, but it’ll be one for you.”

“Just like that?”

“That’s it. I don’t need nothing, have no place to go, so I sit on the can and think, ‘where’s a lost person?’ When I show up, I look around, and I find them sooner or later. Can’t go too far, they’re a regular now.”

“A regular what?”

“The kind of people that seem to belong in a gas station. You’ve seen them, right? You’re one of them now, a kind of person you always run into around here. If you get out for a while, go to McDonald’s, go to Denny’s, go to the laundromat, some of us are stuck there, too. You’ll see them, and they’re always around. Seems somebody’s always stuck somewhere.”

Nancy sat quietly, digesting her new learning.

Curt continued, “If you’re stuck here, just relax. Get a cup of coffee, start talking to someone. Sit and read the paper. Stare at the cars going by. World’s a relaxing place, if you don’t have anyplace to be or anything to do.”

“I can pick anywhere I want to go,” Nancy said.

“Long as they’ve got a SuperAmerica by. What do you want to go?”

“I’ve never been to an ocean, what with the mountains and the plane ticket cost.”

“Let’s go, then.”

“Just like that?”

“Yup.”

Nancy looked around, to be sure nobody was watching. She wasn’t sure what they’d even see, if they WERE watching, but she didn’t want to look crazy anyway. Her eyes drooped shut, and she felt herself start to slip into dreaming. Sparkly lights flashed in the darkness of her eyelids, and all she could feel is the faux-leather grip of her steering wheel. Her head felt like she was walking with her eyes closed, even though she knew she was seated. The flowing motion inside her head stopped, and she opened her eyes to a sunlit day.

Nancy opened the door and stepped out of the car, but then quickly stuck her head back inside. The passenger seat was empty, but there was a cup of coffee in each of the front-seat cupholders. One with fingernails around the rim, the other clean and empty.

She reached between the seats and retrieved her sunglasses. Nancy put them on, removed them, then bent them back into wearable form before reapplying them to her nose.

The horizon was a dark blue line, stretching from the north to the south. Between the trees, she saw whitecaps breaking on the rocks. Her watch read 7:30am, and the sun was behind her, so Nancy deduced that she was looking at the Pacific. Somewhere in northern California, maybe Oregon. Lots of trees on the hills. As the pump gushed fuel into her car, Nancy turned to the person refueling across from her.

“Hi,” she said. “Where you going to?”

A Greyhound bus was driving off from the post office a block away.

“Family reunion,” the fellow fuel pumper replied, “first time the kids get to see grandma and grandpa since they were really little.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“You from around here?” he asked.

“Kinda, but not really,” Nancy said, staring at the sailboats along the coastline.

Treasure in a Wooden Box

Dainec posted Treasure in a Wooden Box at Backwash on September 24, 2003 — there’s an update at the end!

He trudged between the neighbors’ houses towards home, and I did a double-take when I glanced out the window to make sure he was on his way. He was burdened by something more than the usual homework-laden backpack.

“You have a cello,” I noted, using my keen powers of observation. After all, I had signed the permission form for 4th-grade strings, and I wrote the check to cover instrument rental for the year. I’m good at putting two and two together like that. “When do you start strings class?”

“I already did,” he responded. “My homework tonight is to practice. Do you want to listen to me practice?”

Without waiting for an answer, he cast off his backpack and unzipped the instrument case. “A lot of kids have played my cello before me,” he said solemnly.

I had been a little nervous about my son being responsible for something so delicate as a stringed instrument. He’s not exactly the careful type. But when I laid eyes on his cello, my fears vanished. The finish is worn. A chunk of wood is missing from the bottom edge. I notice that the back edges are held together with what looks like wood grain contact paper.

Turbo interrupted my thoughts. “This is the fingerboard,” he said, pointing to a piece of wood that juts under the strings. “Never pick up the cello by the fingerboard.” He paused. “I’m just touching it. It’s okay to touch it, but it’s not a handle.”

“Do you know what this is?” he asked, pointing to a spot near the top. “It’s the peg box. We’re not supposed to turn the pegs. Only the teacher does that.” He paused again. “It’s okay to touch the pegs, just don’t turn them.”

I’m fascinated and impressed. We’re a family of musicians, but I’m a woodwinds person, and SpiritMan is a more of a rock/electronic type. MoonChild is the only experienced strings player in our house, having started viola in grade school. She has since added piano and bass guitar to her repertoire. If she had more time, she’d be playing drums, too. Moon has the music in her; it’s intuition.

Turbo, on the other hand, never seemed all that interested in learning an instrument. So I was surprised and secretly pleased when he told me he was planning to participate in strings this year.

I had started piano lessons at age 8, but my heart wasn’t in it until 5th grade presented the chance to be in band. The first day of class, we looked at pictures of different instruments and listened to a recording of their sounds. I chose flute at first. We all started by playing the mouthpieces. It looked rather odd, the future trumpeters with their little brass nozzles, the winds players making kazoo noises.

The flute was beyond me. I switched to clarinet and made a glorious noise that lasted through the rest of my school career.

“This is what we’re learning,” Turbo stated as he positioned the cello between his legs. He began bowing vigorously on the open strings. DAH – DAH – DAHDAHDAHDAH … DAH – DAH – DAHDAHDAHDAH …

He played with confidence. The tone was amazing, not the stuff of tenuous first attempts.

SpiritMan called to say he was on his way home, and I held the phone up for him to hear. “Is that Moon?” he wondered.

“No, it’s Turbo. Isn’t it great?” I couldn’t wait for him to get home and witness for himself.

Later, Turbo carefully put away the cello (I noticed the entire back is covered with contact paper, a true school instrument), zipped the case, and surveyed his room for the safest and best place to keep it. I helped him move a bookcase so that the space would be just right.

Dare I say that I’m proud? That I’m excited? That I’m bubbling over with anticipated joy? I look ahead and I see my past: the satisfaction of expressing feelings for which I had no words, the exhilaration of being part of something beautiful and fleeting, the excitement of facing an audience despite my internal butterflies, the healthy competition and the easy camaraderie.

I don’t imagine for a minute that I’m raising concert musicians who will perform before millions and make untold riches. But if they can uncover the pleasure and beauty hidden in notes and chords, they’ll have something that will remain theirs for life.

Maybe even longer.

Update:

Turbo switched from cello to trumpet a few years later, but didn’t keep it up. However, he has an amazing voice — which he’s used in a few garage bands and to serenade select girls. Moon still has a love for music, but decided to pursue a career as a software engineer. She occasionally gets out her bass guitar and plays tunes from Sabaton and other favorite bands. SpiritMan has a large collection of percussion instruments. He and I are part of a kirtan band, Indra Adhira. I still have my clarinet from high school.

Aine :)

The Internet Orgainized By Personality, For Real, Yo

GlamKitty on why Backwash.com was so important — and cool.

Like lots of things, BW seems even more important and fabulous in hindsight. When I think back, what strikes me most about Backwash is the novelty of it all. Sure, the Internet itself was pretty novel back then. But what we did at BW was new and exciting — and remains so, even for an evolving medium in an ever-progressing digital world.

David Ring created a site dedicated to cutting through the clutter of information overload by organizing the Internet by personality. He provided the tools; we columnists ran with them. We threw ourselves into the digital playground with a dedicated abandon that sometimes puzzled our real-world peers. It was a labor of love; but labor still.

Every columnist, or personality, at Backwash, was responsible not only for writing (blogging) but also had to provide several links of interest (content curation) and moderate any discussions regarding their columns and links, as well as any communities, topics, and newsletters they managed. All resting upon a social network platform. Each of these components was important. When combined, it was too powerful to resist.

Content Creation

Some of us came with the mission to build our businesses. Some came to polish their writing. Some came just to give voice to their thoughts or passions or otherwise express themselves. Some came with the single-minded purpose of finding and organizing a directory of sites on a theme. Whatever our reason, we had to write columns.

Columns were original works. In Internet terms, they were content — and BW knew that Content Was King. Sure, today some people write or blog or post their creations (their content) at sites like Facebook; but the only way you can really find it is by already knowing the person and following them. After a while, all you can find on your timeline is the most recent or the most popular posts — and only if you are looking at that home page timeline at the right time. (If you think you are following Facebook Pages, heaven help you. You only think you are following them; Facebook severely cripples Pages and their content from appearing in your timelines.) For this, and other reasons I will get more deeply into in just a few paragraphs, your original content is largely wasted at FB. At BW on the other hand…

glamkitty column 2003It was understood at BW that original content provided a main gateway into the site. Columns were the means by which we displayed our personalities. Every columnist and community moderator had to provide columns. And they were easily accessible too — even the newsletters were archived on the site. Links to columns, communities, topics, newsletters, and the discussions of each of them could be found on the site itself; and the content, with links to discussions, could also be found searching outside the site itself. The idea was simple: If a person liked us, liked what we wrote about and/or how we wrote it, then they would follow us anywhere — at least follow us anywhere on the Internet.

Each page on BW was full of links on the word wide web. (Click the image on the left for a visual of an actual page; via.) Along with each column were links to more columnists, communities, newsletters, that were picked based on the columnist’s work and who they liked. There were links to message boards and social member profiles too. And of course there were the directory links that lead off-site too.

Content Curation

At BW we were were building a hand-picked directory listing of websites and content by topic, much like DMOZ, Yahoo, and others at the time. Only we were doing it better. Because our directory of topics was based on, and cross-referenced by, personality or “Flavor”. This meant you didn’t have to know exactly what you wanted to find, what it might be categorized as, or even what it was called. You just had to read some columns you liked, hang out with the kids you thought were just like you (or cool, knowledgeable, or whatever made you like or trust them) and follow the link trail they left you.

Of course, with it’s customizable options, you could skip the columns if you wanted to and just get to the links themselves too. (See image below; via.)

backwash screenshot

It was better than most of today’s content curation because we didn’t just clip something from the web and categorize it; we wrote our brief individual reasons for sharing the links as our directory listing and we rated those links too, designating the links we thought were superior as Gold and Silver. Any registered member could rate or rank the links as well.  Along with the directory by topic, the communities, and flavors, there were links shared via the message boards and chat sessions. (Yes, chat sessions; columnists could actually set and publish chat times, so that readers and other like-minded folks could come hang out and ask for resources and the like.) It was the Internet by personality — and very personalized at that.

Social Networking

BW may not have been the first in social networking or social media — but it certainly was ahead of its time. Of course, not everyone understood the social media aspect back then. I remember trying to get my extended family to join and use the social network. They didn’t get it; didn’t join. (Now, however, they are the reason I have to use FB — and I really don’t like it *sigh* for reasons I will get to in a minute.) BW was better at social media — it may even have been The Best. Certainly better even than Facebook is today. Why? Again, I refer you to the tagline, The Internet Organized By Personality. The keywords here are “organized” and “personality”.

The Internet Organized

BW wasn’t a closed community, like FB and other sites are. That meant you could use a search engine, any search engine, and find content and postings at BW — and find them again later on too. These are things you just can’t do at FB. Go ahead, try to find something you know you saw at FB. Try to find something you know you posted at FB. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait.

The fact is, the search on FB is not a search engine for FB — unless what you are looking for is the name of a person, place or thing that exists on FB and is marked “public”. Otherwise, you are given links offsite (via Bing). If you can’t search the site for what’s on the Internet, how can the Internet be organized? Answer: It can’t.

Instead, FB wants to hold you captive to your timelines and home page news feeds so you don’t miss anything; but it also views what content you produce there as ephemeral and not worthy of finding. Unless you already have the permalink. (So begin the cycle of remaining glued to that feed or timeline and bookmark all those permalinks!)

Yes, BW wanted you to come to the site, and often; but it didn’t try to keep you there, compulsively checking timelines. At BW, we would send you to other places on the web and count on our coolness, knowledge, personalities — whatever you’d call it — to bring you back to BW again.

The Internet Organized By Personality, Not Legal Name

Today, most of the large social media sites require a person to be “transparent” and use their real name. But what if you don’t want to share your personal business with everyone — let alone with your customers and potential customers? Yeah, Google+ tries to give you those privacy options, placing people in circles; but Google too only wants you to be a real person. (I swear these sites are just days away from forcing you to provide documentation; like 2257 and “papers please!”)

But at Backwash, you could be you, yet maintain some privacy in both name and image because we were graciously allowed to write our columns under pseudonyms, pen names or just plain old wed IDs.

Remember the anonymity of web IDs? Remember how freeing it was to be you, say what you wanted to say, be as real and even as uncomfortable as you needed to be at the moment, and still just be whatever you dubbed yourself? (Even if that name had to be followed by some numbers because a bunch of other cool people thought of it earlier.) Your identity was hidden, but your truth, your personality, would shine. Oh, how it would shine! The result was that you could Dear Diary as much as you wanted without fear. No reason to fear name or image searches by future employers. No need to worry about embarrassing your parents, your kids — your conservative sister. In fact, Backwash was so a-OK with you being whoever you wanted to be, you could pretend to be your pet and anthropomorphize to your heart’s content!

The Bottom Line

The bottom line, Backwash.com was fabulous because it provided true original content — columns — and those columnists were organizers and taste-makers, building a directory based on topic as well as personality. There was a reason to go to BW; you could always find something interesting to read, share, maybe even discuss. It wasn’t solely based on who you already knew, allowing you to swim in the small ponds you already belonged to, limited by whatever privacy concerns you may have. Instead, BW was based on topics and personalities you could continually discover!

It was ever-evolving.

Until it wasn’t.


 

Links:

Facebook has some weird data-mining graph search; but is not searchable for content/posts — but it may be on the horizon?

Social media may not be the Google juice your SEO guru told you it was.

Why they force you to expose your real identity online.

Do you think that anonymity leads to troll-behavior? Think again.

Have questions about the difference between content creation and content curation? Go here.

Boobs or Brawn?

This classic BW post from Laura dates to Saturday March 18, 2006. 

When you think role model who or what springs to mind?

I see Ms. Perfect Career Mom. She’s wearing a very tailored red suit (with a mini skirt to show off her great long legs, of course). She wears those ultra killer high heels and one thick gold necklace to offset the red suit and perfectly crisp white blouse. Not a hair out of place, her nails and lipstick are a perfectly co-ordinated shade of ’bite me’ red. She drives a modest car, fuel economy and being good to the environment. People wonder how she crams all those kids, school bags, sports equipment and that family cat in there. But, she’s perfect, so she does it all, just fine.

She’s not a Barbie, she just looks like one. She can’t be a Barbie, she has to manage her small business, keep her entrepreneurial focus and get her butt motivated and making money to support those kids, the perfect house and that car. Hubby is around… somewhere.

He’s kind of how I imagine GI Joe. He is a bit gruff, busy with his career but kind of floundering when you take away the guns and stick him with a couple of kids to babysit. He gets that “what do I do with these?” look. He is out of his element. Way, out of his element, kind of like the planet Pluto waving at the Earth and hoping it gets noticed.

Sure GI Joe is a great role model for masculine grunting and whatever else it is that they do. If you were in the middle of a war, GI Joe would be great to have around. But, can he cut the grass on weekends? Can he read bedtime stories at night? Can he wake up to change the sheets when someone wets the bed cause they had a bad dream? Can he be affectionate with Ms. Perfect Career Woman when she has had a long, tough day and needs someone to listen to her unwind? Can he barbeque in summer and shovel in winter? Can he have a pleasant, little home life and show his kids and the neighbour’s kids what it takes to be a good man, a good Dad and a good husband?

Let’s skip to Barbie, the stereotypical blonde with boobs out to there and a shopping budget that makes Loch Ness look like an insignificant puddle. I’m not sure the word “we” is in Barbie’s vocabulary. She has her own horse, her own car, her own massive wardrobe and her friends. For awhile she had a gaping hole in her abdomen for a perpetual baby carrying mechanism. I don’t think I’d want Barbie as a Mother though. I don’t even know what I’d do with her as a friend. She wouldn’t approve of me. I’m not fashion conscious and I’d rather talk about science than shopping. I can’t see Barbie as my Ms. Career Mom, even though they look a lot alike.

But, if you had to pick one as a role model… which would it be?

Let’s give Barbie to the boys as a role model. She can teach them how to dress up for every occasion. They can learn about PMS too, assuming Boobs of Steel Barbie gets PMS.

GI Joe can teach the girls how to shoot to kill. That will help later when they begin dating. Hopefully they will also learn about science along the way.

Picking a role model is a dangerous thing. No one is perfect or balanced in all ways to really be put on a pedestal. Each person needs to find their own path and not spend too much time admiring or feeling jealous of someone else and what they have accomplished. If you model yourself after them you will be missing something great in yourself in your effort to be like them. Be like you instead.

A Flashback In The Women’s Room

[This was the meat of the May 25, 2004, Women's Room BW newsletter. (It was edited for some links that no longer exist and the like.) How amazing -- and upsetting -- that this remains applicable a decade later.]

“A lot of the hate mail I get is clearly misogynist. I am a proud liberal, feminist woman, and the hate mail I get about those three things is not about me. It’s about those signifiers, and about what the right in this country has managed to do to perpetuate anger over what they mean.”
~ Janeane Garofalo ~

I know that politics is about as personal as sex (all references to strange bedfellows aside), and that I am not the official poster-girl for political information, but seriously, this is one election year that as a woman you should be paying attention to.

Women’s rights – not just the right to your own body, but your health – is at stake.

Hell, healthcare for everyone in the US is at stake. Why are we the ‘wealthiest, most powerful nation’ & the one big player without a health care program for its citizens?!

The war matters. It should. You must have an opinion on that – if only that you hate the idea of war, September 11, folks dying, something must move you.

You also have a million & 3 reasons to be interested in your local elections. Education, for example. Even if you don’t have children of your own, the fact is that ‘those kids’ are your future. They will create jobs, rob your homes if they believe that is the best way to provide for their drug habits, and they will be the ones changing your diapers in the old age home or hospital…

And what about your strange bedfellows? Do you want government telling you what gender your consenting adult must be? Or your marriage partner? Yeah, there are still old laws on the books about this, and about specific forms of sex that are illegal also, but for the most part they are unenforceable. They can’t break in & prove it – well, if your rights to privacy still exist. Which leads us back to candidates & issues regarding terrorism & the war…

The point is you still have plenty of time to read & research about the issues & the candidates.

You can find out more about the candidates than you can a prospective lover, so what’s your excuse?

Get informed, get an opinion & get prepared to vote. Then vote.

After all, who do you want to spend the next four years in bed with?

This has been GK, with a rant.

Links for further reading:

Dare To Be A Feminist

Politics at Kitsch Slapped