debbie millman

Friday, February 24, 2006

Commentary: Seeing and Knowing

I often think about how we know the things that we know. For example, I know what I know: I know that I am a woman; I know that I am left-handed; I know that I have two dogs and two cats. I also know what I don’t know. I know that I will never be a brain surgeon, I know that no matter how much I wish I could, I will never win an Olympic medal. And I know, however humiliating it might be, that I can’t speak a second language. But what I think about a lot, in fact, what I am rather obsessed by, are the things that I don’t know that I don’t know.

I call these “unseen things.” I have selected this term primarily because after the initial thrill of learning something new, or simply becoming aware of something for the first time, I find that those very same things have actually been surrounding me for years. I just never noticed them before. Yet they were there.

One of the great ironies in this relentlessly visual culture we live in is that so few people know how to see, or at least how to see beyond what is viewed in prearranged form: through a car window, an iPod or a television screen. Why is that? How have we become a culture of un-seer’s?

John Stilgoe is a popular Harvard professor and author of several books, including one of my favorites, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. He believes that the power of acute observation is one of nature's most useful tools in learning. Stilgoe tries to teach "another way of knowing" beyond words and numbers. Essentially he believes that people are so focused on a goal or zeroing in on what appears to be obvious that they miss what is right in front of them. Rather than not being able to see the forest for the trees, they are unable to see the trees for the forest. Stilgoe attributes this to the "constant blur of modern life."

I think there are several reasons for our collective inability to see the unseen. The first and more obvious explanation is we are surrounded by a world of activity and events that can’t be seen. The intricate forms and patterns produced by the splash of a raindrop or the volley of a tennis ball occur too quickly for our eyes to catch. But the other more complicated—and compelling--rationale is that we only choose to see the things we know and can understand and relate to. It is this basic comfort zone that curtails exposure to new experiences, or discovering what we don’t know that we don’t know.

In our day-to-day usage, objectivity is the capacity to see things as they are. In our culture, we strive for objectivity, i.e. what is true and fair and clear. There is an emphasis on seeing things that can be reliably correlated with observable reality, to the extent possible.

But what about our claims on what we might believe are objective and true but can’t be reliably correlated?

Seeing the unseen involves approaching a view of the world from multiple angles, multiple points of view, subjectively.

I can understand why more of us don’t strive for subjectivity, even the dictionary definition treats it like a mean stepsister: the modern definition of subjective is, get this: “Moodily introspective,” or “Existing only in the mind; illusory.”

I think that subjectivity is the search for the unseen. It is a quest for the unrecorded point of view, for the supposed bad idea in the back of your head, for the unproven, the un-validated, the non-quantified. It is only when we reach for these ideas that we have even the slightest possibility of ever possibly knowing what we don’t know that we don’t know.

In the grand scheme of things, I think that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke says it better than I ever could: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Poem: Entanglement

This way.
You don’t have to be this way.
We stood there, both here, both stunned.

I go in and out, up and down and
the duality reassures me. Sometimes this way,
sometimes that.

It is magic the way I do it.
I am not sorry.
Only slightly afraid.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Commentary: Hello Dolly

When I was eight years old my mother sat my brother and I down in our living room and told us that she and my father were getting a divorce. She then proceeded to try and cheer us up by taking us to the movies. She brought us to see Barbra Streisand in the then big box office hit Hello Dolly. I remember my brother weeping as I watched Barbra convince Walter Matthau to eat his beets, how good the beets were, there was nothing quite as good as beets. To this day I can’t see a beet without thinking of, well, about a million different things, actually. Who knew that a red root vegetable could have such context?

I find it both curious and compelling that the moments of our lives are punctuated by visual images that, over time, become permanently embedded in the experience. There are few women I know that can not recall what they were wearing when they met the love of their life, few men I know that can not recall the scent of the leather of their first baseball mitt or what Led Zeppelin song was playing in their basement the night they smoked pot for the first time.

These visuals mark time for us, they represent age; they represent love and lust and longing.

I remember the grey corduroy suit I wore to my first job in 1983. I remember the sparkly colors of the stones in a necklace a cherished babysitter gave me when I was 6. I remember an awkwardly bespectacled girl named Susan use the words chimera and enigma in an essay she read aloud in 10th grade English; I remember the way a little girl in my kindergarten class named Kathy drew grass in her many drawings, and how straight her bangs were. Individually these are random images, joined together they reflect a life.

For me, some of the things I love most are fleeting metaphorical images: how I knew the day I walked out of my apartment with a big heart and hefty hopes, how when I saw a dead squirrel in the street I felt something horrible was about to happen. Or when I turned thirty and got all dressed up and went to Elaine’s with my then husband and another couple to celebrate. My favorite pearl necklace broke and spilled out all over the floor around us. As everyone frantically ran gathering the mess of scattered pearls, I knew in that instant my marriage was over. I think that Mark Rothko described it best as reflected in Bernard Malamud’s heartbreaking introduction to the Retrospective tome "Mark Rothko." He writes: Rothko liked to reminise. One night he told me how he had left his first wife. He had gone off for an army physical during World War II and they had turned him down. When he arrived home and told his wife he was 4-F he didn’t like the look that flitted across her face. The next day he went to see his lawyer about a divorce.

These woefully ironic images haunt me. Many years ago, I confronted a man who had hurt me badly. It literally took me years to get up the courage to do this. Looking back on it now, I can’t help but shake my head in amazement as I remember that as I did this, as I stood there shivering in the autumn chill on the front porch of his house, as I wrapped myself tight in my yellow coat, this man’s clueless wife kept calling out to her husband, insisting he invite me in for coffee and cake.

These visceral images document our experiences. For example, when I think about divorce I ordinarily don’t think about beets, but when I see beets, I inevitably think about divorce. I think that this how we process our emotions: through images. I believe this is why we are both drawn to and provoked by art in such powerful and profound ways, ultimately why art is such a subjective and personal experience: it simultaneously allows us feel things we might not otherwise be able to describe and evokes our own personal association with those very emotions.

I prefer to look back and remember the images, as opposed to what was actually said or what was accomplished or what was fucked up. I like to think that there is beauty and power in every one of these images. But as I told them close, I also realize that they don’t really exist. They are not anything I can touch. They are not archived in a photo album or hanging in a pretty frame, they are not neatly taped into a scrapbook, or downloaded and stored on Flickr or my iPod. They don’t exist now, they never really did. But they live, and always will--in my imagination and my heart.

Poem: Tolerance

I sent you what you left me with.
Hands clean and spirit gone:
Everything is neat now.

I wonder why I took it.
Putting up was neither noble nor warranted.
Such a disgrace, really.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Poem: Pretending

I looked at Meredith and thought
Is this what I feel like?
I looked for the calibration, the direction in.

I squinted.
The timbre gave her away and I watched
waiting for a clue, anything to give life

to the empty.
I thought:
It is wrong to borrow this.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Commentary: A Memory I Can't Remember

There is a book that I read when I was very young that I still think about. It was a thin, hard cover book about a little girl going to sleep. It featured lushly drawn illustrations of the girl’s bedroom and there was a night table next to her bed. It had a glass of water on it, a clock and a book. I also remember an illustration of an open window filled with a giant moon. I remember being so taken with this book that I set up my own night table to mimic the girl’s night table in the story, complete with the very same water glass. I wore my hair the way she did. I read and re-read this book night after night for months on end. I don’t think I could have been more than 6 or 7. What I DON’T remember is the name of the book or the author who wrote it. But the images of this book have been vividly lodged in my memory for nearly forty years now, still a part of my consciousness, though the part that might enable it to be fully brought back to life (namely the name) has been tucked out of reach. I call this a memory I can’t remember.

‘Memory’ is a moniker for a unique set of cognitive abilities that we use to reconstruct past experiences, usually for purposes in the present. I think that our ability to conjure up long-gone episodes of our lives is both comforting and baffling. Since we remember experiences that are not currently happening, memories seem to be rather different from perception. But as we remember events that really happened, memory is different from pure imagination. Memory seems to be a source of knowledge, or perhaps retained knowledge. And remembering is often combined with emotion. It is connected in enigmatic ways with dreaming. Some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. According to Daniel Wegner in his marvelous book “The Illusion of Conscious Will” the essence of personal identity is memory. For example, if you recall or recognize an experience that occurred to you at prior time, there is a thread of personal identity linking now and then. The experience contains not only the events that you remember, but also you, the “rememberer.” Wegner contends that our identities can be understood as a chain of such memory links, and if there is a break in this chain of personal identity, then the current self might not be the same as the past self. So I naturally can’t help but think that my quest to recreate my childhood library and re-experience the same imagery first hand as opposed to vague faraway recollections is an attempt at filling in some blanks in understanding myself.

My childhood library is not my only quest for reconstruction, I have tried to re-experience movies and television shows I saw as a child and young adult, perfumes I loved, magazines I read, even toys I once cherished. Though I would like to think I am alone in this somewhat bizarre affliction, one need only to go to ebay and do a search for 1970’s memorabilia to know that thousands, and even millions of people are trying to do this too. Ebay even made a commercial about this quest.
What are we looking for? Why do we seek physical proof of experiences and images that are so deeply and viscerally embedded in our brains? What are we really searching for?

I read the other day in the book “Strangers to Ourselves, Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious” by Timothy WIlson that our five senses take in more than 11 million pieces of information in any given moment. 11 million! Scientists have determined this number by counting the receptor cells each sense organ has and the nerves that go from these cells to the brain. Our eyes alone receive and send over 10 million signals to our brains each second. Scientists have also tried to determine how many of these signals can be processed consciously at any given point in time, by looking at such things as how quickly people can read and detect different flashes of light, and tell apart different types of smells. The most liberal estimate is that people can consciously process is about 40 pieces of information per second. So…we can take in 11 million pieces of information per second, and can process only 40 of them consciously. What happens to the other 10,999,960? According Wilson it seems terribly wasteful to design a system with such incredible sensory acuity but very little capacity to use the incoming information.

Well my hope is that our desires to recreate reality—whether it be to paint, to write, to design, to collect, to remember—these are just some of the many ways we try to understand each other and our place in the world around us. What we can’t physically understand or remember, (even childhood book titles) become expressed in our actions or our artwork or our intentions. And all these expressions contain the other 10,999,960 pieces of imagery and information hidden in our minds.
I have come to the conclusion that I may never remember the name of my precious childhood tome. However, I now hold forth a different perspective, and one that I find oddly endearing: while I might not remember the name of the book, the book remembers me. The book is a marker that allows me to remember a person that once was. I think this is true for all of us on a quest to find something we have lost. Maybe the physical evidence isn’t that important. While we might have lost something tangible, it can always live on in our imagination. And if we continue to watch the world around us, and take in everything that we possibly can, our imagination can never go away, and never fail.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Commentary: Incongruity

Last weekend I took the subway to Brooklyn to visit some dear friends. I got on at my usual stop and as the train was about to take off, a gaggle of giddy teenage girls rushed the doors as they were closing and hurried in, all breathless and giggly. As it turned out, the group wasn’t sure that they were even on the correct train to their destination and asked a man near them for clarification.

I have discovered that as people run to make a nearly departing train or race across a street to beat a red light turning green, folks under a certain age tend to laugh rather hysterically at the prospect, as if there is something hilarious about keeping people waiting on a train or forcing traffic to pile up. Perhaps it is embarrassment at their behavior or perhaps it is glee at a negligible act of rebellion. In any case, as I scanned the small subway crowd traveling downtown, I noticed the man the girls queried was dressed in green camouflage pants and a chestnut brown suede country western jacket covered in knee-length fringe. He was sporting a battered fisherman’s cap and was licking a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone. Now, I don’t know what it is about me that attracts odd people--maybe it is a frequency that I give off from my inner antennae--but before I knew it, he approached me and sat down. I couldn’t help but acknowledge his sudden proximity; I mean after all, he was eating an ice cream cone in the middle of winter in a crowded subway car, and now he was my next door neighbor. As he settled in for the ride, he leaned into me and said very seriously, “there is something profoundly incongruous about people laughing as they ask for directions to get to Ground Zero.” I nodded in amazement. But I couldn’t help but think that there was something profoundly incongruous about a man dressed in green camouflage pants, a chestnut brown suede country western jacket covered in long fringe and a battered fisherman’s hat while licking a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone, talking to an utter stranger about incongruity.

The dictionary defines incongruous as “lacking in harmony; incompatible or not in keeping with what is correct, proper, or logical.” All this week I have been feeling this lack of harmony, but this is not due to my odd train encounter. The incompatibility I feel stems from our President’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. I find that there is something inherently incongruous about one of the world’s biggest oil “pushers” (so to speak) alerting the world of America’s addiction to oil. In my mind this would be equivalent to RJ Reynolds chastising smokers for being addicted to cigarettes. That this represents the sole memorable sound bite from our President’s annual address is not only incongruous to me, it is downright depressing. As I sat down Tuesday night to watch the speech and the subsequent analysis, I couldn’t help but wonder how we ended up here. Over 2000 Americans have died in Iraq. 250,000 people have abandoned their homes in New Orleans. Teenager girls laugh en route to the tourist attraction that is now Ground Zero. And yet we press on in our efforts to camouflage the obvious and the incongruity grows. Why must we kill each other? Why do we need to design and push this personal, moral and religious superiority? I think that ultimately it is a feeling of incongruity with the world and the universe that is at the heart of the problem. We fight our wars now with all sides convinced of their own moral superiority. Somehow we all believe that God is on our particular side. Yet no one is actually sure where God resides, and whether or not he or she actually exists at all. Therefore, to fight a war in the name of God feels a bit, well, incongruous, at least to me. I guess if we knew with certainty the origin of the universe, if we knew unquestionably how we got here and why, suddenly it would seem rather foolish to have our own personal subjective stance on who our creator was and to fight to convince each other that this specific creator ONLY liked us. I think it is this incertitude that is at the heart of all of our behavior. We are not fighting for the truth. We are fighting for proof. If we win, then we will believe that we have proven we are right. And I think this is true for both sides—all sides, really.

Today, we search for truths or answers or certainty in almost all of our endeavors. Inherent in this search is the notion that there are truths or answers or certainty! Maybe the world as we know it was designed this way, maybe it wasn’t. I think Joan Didion says it best in her remarkable book, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” She says: “Life changes fast, life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” So as we make our way through our corner of the universe, perhaps all we can be certain of is the uncertainty and the incongruous. I want to be optimistic this Friday afternoon and choose to see the possibilities and the beauty in this. If nothing more, perhaps we can take heart in however bad things might seem at this very moment in time, everything can change for the better in the moment that comes next.
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