The beginnings of LookingOppositely
The web site of Gretchen Elsner-Sommer
Through the 1990s, and earlier, Gretchen’s research was a work of discovery, collecting, assembly, and analysis. The research continued into the last months of her life, July and August, 2020. Gretchen was also a writer, keeping a journal steadily from October 10, 1969 to July 20, 2020, mostly without gaps of more than a week. The journal comprised accounts of her everyday, of her work, of thoughts, of her research and writing goals and progress, of her relationships with friends, family, and lovers, and of her dreams, of her health, even of her on-coming death end of life during her last month. The journal was a place where Gretchen conceived poems, commented on books and films, where she conversed with herself, and where she lit the sparks of essays that she would draft and revise over the years.
A friend, Keith Breckenridge, a South African historian, recommended that Gretchen publish her essays, and accompanying materials, on a website of her own creation. In the early 1990s, Keith had constituted, and then moderated, a website that became a very dynamic space for debate in African studies and on the present and future of South Africa as the era of Apartheid was coming to a close. Nuafrica was more a forum for discussion than a place of publication. An insight from Gretchen, and possibly from Keith too, was that as her research and writing were on-going, print publication would not meet the realities of a project open to revision, expansion, and new discoveries.
During a visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in January 2001, Keith offered to do the technical construction of the website on Gretchen’s behalf. He put it on-line, almost effortlessly it seemed, within Microsoft’s FrontPage program. LookingOppositely drew its name from Emily Dickinson’s poem “A loss of something ever felt I.” Gretchen read and reread Dickinson, and works about Dickinson’s life and poems, for almost a half century.
Keith returned for a few days for a conference in Ann Arbor, in April 2003, and he helped Gretchen again. Gretchen had uploaded a number of essays and other materials in February and March 2003. By the time Keith left to return to South Africa at the end of April 2003, the basic outlines of the site as it is today had been established. It was also around that time that Microsoft decided to abandon FrontPage, though one could, as Gretchen did, still carry on trying to use it as a website program.
Additional essays, time-lines, photographs, and links would be added to lookingoppositely by Gretchen as recently as June 2020. But along the way, there was a crisis as Gretchen’s web host, Yahoo, advised that FrontPage would no longer be supported. While it was assumed that one could just transport the content of the website directly to a new and well supported program, it soon became apparent that this would be very challenging. Neither Microsoft nor Yahoo offered any feasible means to do this. In September, 2012, Gretchen asked Lars Anderson to work on the reestablishment of LookingOppositely. Within a new program. Lars and Gretchen worked together for more than three weeks and they succeeded in reopening the site in WordPress. Gretchen was forever grateful to Keith and Lars, respectively, for creating and salvaging LookingOppositely. Gretchen asked her niece Heather Gretsch Roller to become the guardian of the website.
Heather and Gretchen’s partner David William Cohen are working together on additions to the site. A beginning is to reveal more of Gretchen, including here how her website came to be. On the website, Gretchen provided little information about herself, however. Looking oppositely,the entire website is a study in who Gretchen was and what she sought to bring to the world. Thank you Gretchen.