debbie millman

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Commentary: Apophenia

view from abroad
Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.
For the last week, I have been living in a place where the sky is big, the days are slow and the scorpions are real. There is no television here, no wireless, no taxis or subways, no Fedex, no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no Chinese food delivery. I am living--for the moment--in an unbranded world. The only noises in this remotest part of Tuscany are the opera of birds and roosters, the hum of an occasional tractor, the singsong Italian of the neighbors nearby and the Wednesday visit from the fishmonger.

I am staying at the home of a friend in this small Tuscan village and with me are five other close friends. We are a myriad of nationalities in this house: Canadian, Mexican and American, and we all have different sensibilities and tastes and opinions. What we do have in common, however (other than our affection for each other), is that we all brought rather unique things with us from home in order to make our stay here more comfortable. Marian brought her favorite cereal bowl, Mark and Karen brought a fruit juice that they like, and I lugged along nine 20-ounce bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper. This (of course) caused my luggage to bulge somewhat perilously, and it was serious cause for consternation whenever I had to carry it. It was so heavy and cumbersome that I nicknamed the bag Henry, in honor of the 165-pound rottweiler that my parents own, who I became convinced the bag resembled.

I think that my bottles of Diet Dr. Pepper are both sad and comforting. Sad, because, of course, one can’t help but wonder why I can’t go without a silly soft drink for seven days, but also comforting because they are a common and consistent part of my vernacular that has accompanied me on this journey.

The things that we see around us are often attributed to how we see our place in the world, and those that create and distribute brands are convinced that the choices that we make with those brands signal who we are, and define and distinguish our affiliations. I don’t think that my choice of Diet Dr. Pepper necessarily signals any personal or brand affiliation, per se. It is more of a nascent choice really, one that I have trouble explaining. Maybe, just maybe, it is as simple as I like the way it tastes.

But maybe I am just fooling myself. William Gibson, in his novel Pattern Recognition, has one of his characters describe branding this way: “All truly viable advertising addresses the older, deeper mind, beyond language and logic. You “know” in your limbic brain. The seat of instinct. The mammalian brain. Deeper, wider, beyond logic. What we think of as ‘mind’ is only a sort of jumped-up gland, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older, mammalian mind, but it is our culture that tricks us into recognizing it as all of consciousness. The mammalian spreads continent-wide beneath it, mute and muscular, attending its ancient agenda. And (it) makes us buy things.”

I think we do buy things to help us fit in and feel more comfortable, and being part of a larger “tribe,” so to speak, is no doubt one of the benefits of global branding. Brands create intimate worlds inhabitants can understand, and where they can be somebody and feel as if they belong. I think Marty Neumeier states it best when he confides his thoughts about the tribes he belongs to in his book, “The Brand Gap:”
“We can belong to the Callaway club when we play golf, the Volkswagon tribe when we drive to work, the Williams Sonoma tribe when we cook a meal, the Nike club when we work-out.” He goes on to say, “As a weekend athlete, my two nagging doubts are that I might be congenitally lazy, and that I might have little actual ability. But I am not really worried about my shoes. But when the Nike folks say, “Just do it,” they’re peering into my soul. I begin to feel that, if they understand me that well, their shoes are probably pretty good. I am then willing to join the tribe of Nike.” But to see the world in brand tribes is to take possession of much more than just a theory of the world. It is to possess a theory of all the activity in it, perhaps an entire science, an ethology that could tell us everything we want to know about human behavior.

I think the way Neumeier describes brands is probably the most poetic and forgiving of the place that products now have in our lives. The mammalian part of our brain is indeed the part that makes us want to be part of a tribe, and I do think that we buy the brands that make us feel part of that tribe in order to be able to actually participate in that tribe. But I think it goes even deeper than that. We are buying brands and products to be part of a tribe because now, in the day and age and culture and world we are living in, we are otherwise tribeless. We feel tribeless and disconnected because, despite our technological connectedness, we are emotionally and physically further away from our friends and family than ever before. We have now replaced true closeness with people with closeness with brands that, at best, can only represent that we are close to other human beings.

On the second night my friends are I were in Tuscany we experienced a black out. As we were getting ready for bed, all of the lights in the house went out at once and the villa became an inky blue, impenetrable black. As we were in a completely foreign environment and had not memorized the paths to the bathrooms and stairs and hallways of the house, I panicked. As the adrenalin coursed through my veins, and I tripped over the concrete step in my bedroom to find the door, I had only one thought: to make sure that my friends were safe. Nothing else mattered.

After I knew that everyone was secure in their bedrooms, I sat awake in the dark thinking about them and I listened to the silence. I realized that sharing a worldwide iPod phenomena can not bring us closer to other people, it simply indicates that we all like the same thing. While participating in brand movements may indeed give us an illusion of inclusion, they will never be able to substitute for the prehistoric mammalian instinct to meaningfully connect with other humans through what I believe is our most profound need: the need to love. While we may try to substitute that need with any number of things, no brand, no ipod, no sneaker, no soft drink, and no golf club will ever be able to connect us more powerfully, more intrinsically and more viscerally than our need--and our ability--to love.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Commentary: Freedom of Thought

our laws
Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.
I have a friend named Mike who recently took his citizenship test in order to become a full-fledged American. Mike has lived and worked in the United States for nearly 15 years, he has a green card, he is married to an American woman and they have two small boys. He has been preparing for his citizenship test for the last couple of months, and this past week, as we traveled to visit a client together in North Carolina, he started telling me about the various topics he needed to master in order to pass the test. Essentially, Mike needs to answer ten random American history and trivia questions correctly, but the ten questions are from a pool of about one hundred he was given to learn by those ‘in the know’ about the test. Now, the questions aren’t trivial per se, for example, they don’t include queries such as “Who is the father of Britney Spears first child?” but they do include the question “What are the colors of the American Flag?” Not all of the questions are so simple, however, and as Mike started testing the depth of my own historical character, the examination became tougher and tougher. When he asked me, “What is the definition of the Constitution?” I fumbled and then I answered with the following: “Aren’t they the Amendments?” He answered that they were…sort of. And then he told me that the “formal,” “final answer” definition of the Constitution of the United States was as follows: "It is The Supreme Rule of Law.”

I have been thinking about this Supreme Law, and wondering how much certainty one has to have in their beliefs in order to proclaim them “supreme.” It never occurred to me that the “Supreme” Court was upholding “the Supreme Rule of Law,” rather, I assumed that 'Supreme' was simply the highest level one could go—in the same way that “ultra deluxe” in household detergent or “upper class” in airplanes or “extreme” in sports is used.

Essentially, the Supreme Court’s primary function is to uphold the Supreme Rules of Laws, laws that for the most part, were written in 1791, when slavery still existed and women couldn’t vote. Those amendments were ratified into the constitution decades and centuries later. I fully understand the need for our amendments. Sadly, telling people not to lie, not to steal and to be nice as often as possible isn’t necessarily going to compel them to behave this way. But in analyzing the need for a Constitution, I couldn’t help but be struck by some non-sequitors. The Constitution is supposed to uphold the rights of all the Americans in this country. But in order to do that, it seems that we must either force everyone that doesn’t believe in the “Supreme Rules of Law” to see the reality the way we see it or to punish them in order to protect those laws. What I don’t understand is how or why we determined that our Laws were indeed “Supreme”? How can we be sure that this is indeed the way that everyone should live and behave?

Let’s consider the First Amendment to the Constitution. Most everyone knows that it signifies the right of free speech, but it includes quite a lot more. I’d like to share it with you:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This very first amendment gives us not only freedom of speech, it also gives us freedom of thought. So why are we so obsessed with getting everyone to think they way WE want them to think. So despite the fact that we all have the right to privacy we are still fighting over who can marry who. This truly puzzles me.

Today, a new movie is opening; it is called The DaVinci Code, and it is based on a book written by Dan Brown. This is a book that has sold over 40 million copies, and it is still selling. I have read the book, and despite hoping not to, I thought it was really interesting. Some people feel differently, and the film's release has apparently sparked protests around the world. This is because of the book’s plot, which revolves around a church conspiracy to hide the authors fictional claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had children. Protestors have included Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation, the Culture and Family Institute, Concerned Women of America, The Catholic Family, The Human Rights Institute, Human Life International, Cardinal Newman Society; Indian Catholic nuns prayed at a protest rally in Mumbai on Tuesday, and after Indian censors cleared the film for public viewing, Catholic activist Joseph Dias began a hunger strike, promising to "fast unto death" unless the censors reverse their decision.

With everything going on in the world, I am astounded that people find it necessary to protest a movie! Sony and the producers of the film have as much a right to articulate their beliefs, whether they are fiction or not, and are protected by the Constitution to do so. Why do some people feel it necessary for all of mankind to believe the same exact thing? Isn’t it more fortuitous to be able to challenge and evolve beliefs? Think about it: if no one had challenged Copernicus, we would still believe that the earth was the center of the Universe!

The first ten amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights, and as I read through them this week I got confused and befuddled by some of the legalese, and I couldn’t help but wonder how it all got so dense. And the following occurred to me: while our constitution is a collection of the supreme laws of the U.S., they are not the Supreme Laws of the Universe. I think we have yet to discover those. So as we search for our profound answers and meaning, I hold out hope that it will one day be possible for mankind to live with dignity and kindness, and that our universal constitution will be the constitution of our spirit, not the constitution of our courts.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Poem: The Known

view from above
Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.

This constitution, this foundation. Well.
It has no where-with-all, no staying power

The grieving continues but I am still here:
Embarrassed, heartbroken, catatonic.
There is something more you need to say

In order for it to be different, this time.

But you knew that.

So did I.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Commentary: Making Life Beautiful

Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.
My next store neighbor on 29th street in Manhattan is a woman named Nancy. She is a petite Hispanic woman with a mile wide smile and gorgeous, perfectly straight hair she dyes blonde. Every once in a while she will let it go back to her natural grey, and when she does, she is regal and quite handsome. When it is platinum she looks like a Latina Marilyn Monroe and she is all soft and bright and luminous.

For the first five years or so that I lived on my block, I would see Nancy with her two children, the tall and husky Eduardo and the Jon Secada look-alike Raphael, or Rafi as she called him. There didn’t seem to be a dad, but one day Nancy appeared to look pregnant and a few months later her daughter Nicole was born. Then they got Anthony, a giant rottweiller, who was a great big baby and never wanted Nancy to leave the house.

Nancy was also the super of her building and I would often see her outside, sweeping the sidewalk, taking out the garbage and vacuuming the apartment hallways. I didn’t really know her then, but we nodded when we passed each other. Back then I would only define our relationship as polite.

When I got my first dog Scruffy, I hired a dog walker who lived three doors down, and I got the full scoop on Nancy. The boys weren’t her sons, they were her brothers children. He apparently was in jail, and there was no mother anymore. Nancy took the kids in and raised them as her own. Maria, my dog walker, referred to Nancy as a saint.

Three years ago, Nancy started to garden in front of her building. The apartment she lives in had a large, empty front open vestibule where the garbage bins were held. She had Rafi and Eduardo move the bins up to the sidewalk and slowly, she started filling the space with large clay pots and containers. She planted roses of every imaginable color—radiant purples and pinks and fluorescent reds and yellows. She was out in her “garden,” as I referred to it, every single day as I came home from work, beginning in March and going way into the first frost in November.

Nancy’s garden gave me an opportunity to get to know her—I have a backyard behind my apartment—and know how brutal Manhattan can be to a gardener. I couldn’t help but be amazed and impressed at both her prowess and her easy skill. Last year I decided to replace some of the containers holding the boxwoods in my garden. Rather than just throw them away or put them out on the street, I figured I would ask Nancy if she wanted them. I went to her building and buzzed. She let me in and for the first time, I got to see where she lived. Nancy lives in a one-room apartment. It doesn’t have a bathroom, she shares a bathroom with the other tenants on her floor. There is no kitchen, just a small area with a tiny fridge and miniature oven. There is a loft bed with a ladder to get you to the top. And there were a few chairs and a small round table, probably no more than 12 inches wide. If there was ever a moment in my life that I felt humbled, this was one. I thought of all the years I have lived alone and complained about closet space or a leaky faucet or ugly kitchen cabinets. I thought of all the times I felt that things weren’t good enough. As I looked at this woman who took care of three children and a giant dog in this tiny room, who had obviously struggled to make it the very best for herself and her family, I was ashamed of my good fortune and what seems to be my never ending quest for household perfection. I asked her one question: where do the boys sleep? She nodded to the floor. I looked at the boys and they could care less. They had a home and a wonderful, extraordinarily generous woman to take care of them and a good meal every night. To them, quite simply, they had it made.

Every year Nancy’s garden gets bigger and more beautiful. On the really hot summer days, some of the tenants in her building come out with chairs and bask in the beauty, others bring makeshift portable bbq’s and boom boxes. Recently, I was walking my dogs in the glorious Manhattan spring and Nancy was out in her makeshift garden, pruning. I complimented her on another spectacular display. Her flowers were glorious, cascading everywhere, the color spellbinding and happy and carefree. When I told her how extraordinary it was, she thanked me and joyfully replied: Debbie…this is how I make life beautiful.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Fun with Cartoons: Ode To Alan

Ode To Alan
Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.

Poem: Not Now

There’s a question about this space here,
underneath what I told you.

It’s easier when there’s a distraction--
A pumpkin or a silly toy will do.

I walked home today and they were talking as I passed,
he looked annoyed and I felt relief.

She said it was the equivalent
of leaving your gun out on the table.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Commentary: Balls Said The Queen

boys and girls
Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.
In 2003, scientists decoding the human genome discovered that only 78 genes separated men from women, the pesky little Y chromosome that divides the men from us girls. But since the beginning of recorded time, humans have been trying to figure out not only why men and women are different but how. Plato defined love as passion aroused by beauty. Plato believed the pathway to metaphysical ideas was a road that took him deep into the heart and depths of sensuousness. For Plato, love was essentially spiritual. In love, one entered a heavenly existence he referred to as "full sensuousness." In his "Symposium," Plato explained that love was the fundamental power that led the soul from the physical love of the body all the way up to the intellectual love of everlasting ideas. According to Plato, men and women were originally two equal halves of a spherical superior being. A more modern day philosopher of sorts, Chris Rock, sees it differently. Asking the audience in the 1999 HBO special Bigger and Blacker, “What do women want?” he answers his own question with this: “Women want compliments and lots of shoes.” And to the question, “What do men want?” he puts it rather bluntly. “Men,” he says, want this: “Feed me, fuck me and shut the fuck up.”

According to psychologist Michael Conner, “None of us would argue the fact that men and women are physically different. The physical differences are obvious and most of these can be seen and easily measured. Weight, shape, size and anatomy are not political opinions but rather tangible and easily measured. The physical differences between men and women provide functional advantages and have survival value. Men usually have greater upper body strength, build muscle easily, have thicker skin, bruise less easily and have a lower threshold of awareness of injuries to their extremities. Men are essentially built for physical confrontation and the use of force. Women on the other hand have four times as many brain cells connecting the right and left side of their brain. This physical evidence supports the observation that men rely easily and more heavily on the left brain to solve one problem, one step at a time. Women have more efficient access to both sides of their brain and therefore greater use of their right brain.”

However, a 2005 study by American Psychologist magazine found, that most intellectual differences between men and women have been vastly overstated. The publication examined 120 traits including personality, communication skills, thinking power and leadership potential and found that while there were some differences, they were mostly so small as to be statistically irrelevant.

The study found significant differences in only 22% of traits. These included sexual behavior, where men were less willing to show commitment, and in aggression — men were more prone to anger. Janet Shibley Hyde, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, who led the study, said: “Popular media has portrayed men and women as psychologically different as two planets — Mars and Venus — but these differences are vastly overestimated. The two sexes are more similar in personality, communication cognitive ability and leadership than realized.” One of the biggest and most intriguing finding was that while there were differences in sexual behavior, when it came down to love, there were actually very few differences. Men and women both wanted to be loved equally.

In researching the differences between men and women I came across a study that asked a group of children ranging 4-8 years old "What does love mean?" The answers they got were broader and deeper than anyone could have imagined and for the most part, they were gender agnostic. I’ll share ten of the best responses with you today:

"Love is that first feeling you feel before all the bad stuff gets in the way."

"When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth."

"Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other."

"Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your french fries without making them give you any of theirs."

"Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more.”

"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."

"Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday."

"When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you."

"Love is when mommy sees daddy on the toilet and she doesn't think it's gross."

And the most hopeful and optimistic response:

"You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget."

Other than the obvious exclusion of the importance of shoes and compliments, I think the children describe love rather well.
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