debbie millman

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.

2 Comments:

Blogger Steve Portigal said...

I can't help but observe or emphasize my own reaction to your descriptions - of how incredibly personal these associations and images are. By that, I don't mean that they represent special emotionally laden moments (of course, they do) but that they represent things that only you, unique on the planet, associate. Even if someone was with you at the moment you commemorate, you would be unlikely to take away the same impressions.

I suppose there are those in our lives for whom we can repeatedly and vividly narrate these personal associations and they might have a second order assocation - "Oh yeah, Steve was in a car accident when he was listening to this Rod Stewart song" but that won't hold the same strong association and since it's hard to have other people remember your favorite shirt, it's unlikely that they'd really take too many of these associations into their own memories.

So although we can all eat beets (or at least shop for them), or (paging Fons Trompenaars) eat hamburgers from McDonald's, the chance associations we may have with aspects of those experiences are just miles apart from the person standing next to us at the counter or checkout.

There's almost an element of synaesthesia (is the neurological mixing of the senses) in your description. Madelines taste like childhood, beets smell like that relationship, this beer tastes my like 20s, etc. etc.

2/17/2006 06:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

This process you describe is one that terrifies me. I've been aware of it too, though my memory is doubtless not as good as yours, or perhaps mine is simply more chaotic. But over the course of years I've responded to this process with a mixture of fear and repulsion, not exclusively, but often enough. Why? Usually because of something like this: some completely random comment made by a friend of my brother (not even to me, I was just in earshot) when I was 4 or 5 sticks with me and defines this guy, in a way that is neither accurate nor definitive nor deserving, simply because he made it, because I was there at that moment in time and space, because I was feeling this way and he was feeling that way and those elements came together and created a splinter in my brainpan that won't end until I do. I find something unfair and ridiculous and unchangeable about it. Or the image of a friend at the bowling alley, his face covered with food in a particularly disgusting way, is this how I must always remember him, in this cursed fashion? A sound, an image, a smell, an emotion. And of course the reason it's frightening is because I know I myself occupy such unknown and unknowable weirdness in the minds of others: the time I got sick in 1st grade, the time the portable television fell off the shelf and hit me on the head, the time I etc etc. There were witnesses to all these sorry spectacles and, in so far as I come up at all in the rememories of any of those people, there is at least a chance that the gestalt of me, the defining moment they can't help but substitute for a fair and balanced view, is... that one. Two final comments:

1. Nothing is to say that this memory must be disgusting or horrifying. It just has to be a standout. For example, something humorous could be the definer. (This is true of someone I knew when I was 13, the way he said the word "close!" was amusing in a way you just had to be there to appreciate. I no longer recall his name or, really, his face... but that single word now IS him to me.) But even this annoys and angers me because its limitations are so profound.

2. None of this matters, or at least matters a lot less, if you have a continuing relationship with someone, where experiences of all kinds move the dominos around and around.

3/13/2006 03:34:00 PM  

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Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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