debbie millman

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Poetry Tuesday: Rejection

It was a tin doll house you gave me and when you
assembled it your hands bled
and I knew you loved me.

This is how it was presented to me, love was;
it made me envious to watch the blood drip,
to taste the salty, metallic mess.

Your blatant skin and smoky eyes led me on.
You followed me everywhere.

But when I asked, you said no.
I pushed and inquired if by no, you meant no.

You spit, you tucked in your shirt, and you nodded.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Poem: Distractions

I keep thinking it could be
you or you or you
to take me over
to bring me back
to calm me down.

But I fight the intimacy it takes
to be kind—
To stop punishing any persistence
with regret.

I hold my bad behavior close
I continue lying to myself
I keep thinking it could be
you or you or you.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Poetry Tuesday: Living

By Denise Levertov

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Poem: The Need

It took twenty-four years to get over it.

Still I remember when it first occurred--
The sky was as pink as a milkshake,
thick and soft and as
I walked up the long, gray stairs
my heart was thick and dull,
and I didn’t know why.

I’ve used you all these years
to fill up the bitter space
to push away the pettiness:
I wanted that and that and that.

You’ve filled me well and delivered me much.
You’ve pushed and pushed and pushed,
and though the envy remains, it is calmer.
Still thick, still soft, sometimes bitter
but no longer, after twenty-four years, so pink.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Commentary: Good Enough

born with a weak heart
Originally uploaded by debbie millman.
Last year I completed an apartment renovation that lasted nearly 14 months. What started as an attempt to simply choose new living room furniture burgeoned into an entire home redesign, with one new project begetting another and then another. My best friend, Susan Benjamin, an Emmy-nominated set decorator handled the redesign. I had never redecorated a home before, and throughout most of the experience, I lived amidst dust and debris and demolition. For two weeks in the deepest February, I even had to trek through the snow and frigid New York City temperatures in my robe and sneakers to use my generous neighbor’s shower while mine was being replaced.

It was a grueling journey, and during the experience I became so obsessed with faucets, floor tiles, door hinges and sofa fabric that I began to fantasize about toilets and bathtubs rather than my usual daydreams of designer shoes and expensive handbags.

This was my first experience working with an interior decorator. Albeit a different discipline, this designer also exhibited many of the same traits as graphic designers: she was headstrong, opinionated, finicky, elitist and a complete perfectionist. She was also frequently right, sometimes impatient (with me, mostly) and often baffled by my lack of interior design knowledge. And until she pointed it out for me, I couldn’t understand why it was not really necessary for me to ask my dog walker for her opinion of the color of the grout for the kitchen backsplash.

This experience has made me far more aware of my surroundings and beauty and comfort than I have ever been before. Sue was not satisfied with anything less than perfect and nothing ever seemed to be perfect. This impressed me, confounded me and surprised me throughout our arduous expedition together. I was far more forgiving of the contactor’s failings than she was, and I couldn’t understand (and still don’t, really) why she made the contractor who installed the glass wall in my entranceway take the damn thing down because she chose a 1/2 inch stainless steel border instead of a 3/4 inch one, and he made a mistake. But I guess this is her art--her creation--and she wanted it to be flawless.

I have experienced this before, over and over, in the business of graphic design. Many of the designers I work with and admire are on the same quest: the perfect layout, the perfect logo, a most perfect label design. But who makes that call? Who determines perfection? I had a client call me yesterday to tell me that the design work I recently presented was considered “good, not great” by her brand team. I couldn’t help but wonder what made them feel qualified to say that. Is it because they know the brand better? Because they think they know design? Or is it because they are paying the bills?

In this day and age of uber-fast decision-making and split second intuitive leaps, it seems as though knowledge, education and talent can’t always insure that our clients are making good, appropriate decisions or that our final creations will be exactly as we want them. I can’t help but wonder if it is possible that nothing, really, is ever good enough and if we should always strive for something better.

Two weeks after my fourteen-month renovation was finally complete, my dog Duff urinated on my brand new custom made sofa and a squirrel fell five floors down through my chimney, and was chased, covered in soot and blood, by my two cats all through my perfect living room. I was inconsolable. When I told Sue, first she comforted me and then she laughed. I was stunned at her humorous mood and questioned why she wasn’t more upset at the very obvious mess that was now prevalent in my apartment. She looked at me in bewilderment and told me though she wanted everything in the renovation to GO perfectly, she didn’t expect that everything would BE perfect. And though the apartment was now very messy, it most certainly wasn’t ruined. In fact, now it was officially “lived in.” And suddenly I knew what she meant: In a perfect world, the imperfections in our homes are really the only evidence we have of truly inhabiting where we live.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Poem: Not You

It is better before the beginning--
muscles taut and belly aflutter.
Now I shake when I think of you.

It is better before the beginning, really--
when there exists only a representation,
when it is easy to misappropriate,

when there is so little to be ashamed of.
I wait for it to start and my breath
moves down my back, up through my thighs,

stops and settles.
It is better before the beginning--
Before it starts. Before we ruin everything.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Poetry Tuesday: somewhere i have never travelled...

somewhere i have never travelled...
by e.e. cummings

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, misteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Friday, June 09, 2006

Commentary: The Safety of Objects

Originally uploaded by debbie millman.
As far back as I can remember I have collected odd things. When I was about five years old, whenever anyone gave me a gift of candy, rather than consume it immediately like my younger brother always did, I secretly hid it away in an old pocketbook my mother had given me for when I was playing dress-up. No one knew that I didn’t eat the candy and after several months, I amassed quite a collection of lollipops and Sweet Tarts and Lifesavers, and my favorite sweet of all: Necco Wafers. When I was sure that no one could catch me, I would close my bedroom door, remove the pocketbook from its hiding place and carefully remove all of the candy. Then, as the reds and yellows of the lollipops shimmered and sparkled like the stars in my eyes, I would lovingly admire my covert collection. Then I would gingerly organize it, and when I finished cataloging my treasure, I would carefully put it all back and once again, hide it away. Needless to say, I was proud and awed by my secret stash.

One day, very mysteriously, my pocketbook disappeared; it simply vanished into thin air. I didn’t know if my mother found my candy collection and threw it away or if she accidentally gave the bag to Good Will. At the time I was too afraid to ask; as I was fearful of being confronted with my strange pack-rat-like behavior. But at that moment, my heart was broken. It was only thirty years later that I finally asked my mother about my lost pocketbook full of candy and she had absolutely no recollection of it at all. I will never, ever know what happened to my hidden treasure.

I still collect odd things, but thankfully, they are objects that are more useful. Now I feel blissfully happy when I open up my kitchen closet and see my shelves bountifully stocked with things like paper towels and tissue boxes and toilet paper. I fearfully quip that my house is the place to go if there ever was another big black out or a war, as I have enough household rations to last a minimum of six months. I also have cases of canned cat and dog food for my furry family and, of course, just in case, several gallon-sized plastic jugs of water. It makes me happy to see all these things. I admire them in the same way I long ago admired my secret candy and whenever I open my closet door, I smile. I think these humble products are rather beautiful in their simplicity—the perfectly round rolls of winter white paper and the iconic boxes—and their loveliness, at least to me, is as real as their usefulness.

In analyzing my strange desire to have a supply of household products that could easily serve an extended family of ten or more in a what is actually a household of one, I have considered that it is more than just happiness that fuels my need for this abundance. Initially, I thought these products produced a profound sense of security and self-sufficiency—but now I feel that it goes even deeper than that. They make me feel safe.

In Paola Antonelli’s book, Safe, Design Takes on Risk, which is also a catalog of the marvelous exhibit she curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she writes: “Safety is an instinctive need that has guided human choices throughout history. Like love, it is a universal feeling, and, as such, has inspired endless analytical thinking and motivated science, literature and art. On our sleeves we wear not only our hearts but also big red panic buttons. As often happens with basic tenets of human nature, no definition of safety can be more powerful than the one that each of us carries inside. In the interest of discourse, however, at least one interpretation can prove useful. The Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, for example, is a five-layer model of psychological behavior, developed around the middle of the twentieth century. It places the need for safety second only to the need for food, water, shelter, warmth and sex. Safety here means security, stability, and freedom from fear….The path of ascension toward self-actualization, and the stress on our neediness help us better understand what we are protecting and why. Maslow’s hierarchy could be adopted as a basic textbook on human-centered design.”

In the last twenty-four hours, much has been written about the very odd gift that Martha Stewart gave out to her audience yesterday on her morning television show. In a day and age when wealthy celebrity hosts are giving away cars and houses and exotic vacation packages, yesterday Martha Stewart gave each member of her audience a roll of toilet paper. “What a cheapskate,” one blogger sneered. But I can’t help but feel differently. As I pondered the nature of her handout, I couldn’t help but wonder if she, like me, found comfort in having more than you need, so that you never run the risk of running out. I wondered if she, like me, felt that having an abundance of something helped her feel safer in a world of emotional and physical danger. In fact, the only criticism I could offer at this unusual audience gift was not in the quality, but rather in the quantity. I am convinced that, of all people, Martha must know that rather than a give a gift of a single roll of toilet paper, a much, much better gift would have been a twelve pack. Or a pack of 36. Or even an entire case.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Poem: Fresh

I’d forgotten what the weight felt like.
How I could feel it deep in my throat.
Trying to swallow and then choking

On the unnecessary nastiness.
That burden is a wonder, really.
And though I know it is cruel

I can’t help but continue the training
Knowing that (just like the girl said
last night): by no means am I you.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Poetry Tuesday: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Welcome to a new feature of this blog. Titled "Poetry Tuesday," it is just that: a weekly showcase of great poetry: old school, new wave, timeless classics (ha ha), forgotten gems and stuff I find lying around the house (joke). The title of this feature is taken from an old(ish) but fun exchange I had many years ago with someone who was very kind to me. This first poem is one of the 20th century greats. Hope you enjoy.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
by Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Commentary: An Inconvenient Piece of Spinach

Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth" continued to do well at the box office in its second weekend; it went into wider release and broke into the top 10 with $1.33 million, though playing in only 77 theaters nationwide. Released by Paramount Classics, the film averaged an impressive $17,292 a theater, compared to $12,410 in 3,070 cinemas for "The Break-Up," which (ironically and pitifully) was the Number One movie of the weekend.

However good "An Inconvenient Truth" is doing at the box office, and however impressive the reviews, I have to say this: I hated the movie.

These are my reasons why:

1) Though this may sound incredibly superficial, Al Gore has a piece of food stuck in his teeth throughout the entire "presentation" part of the movie, which (by my estimation) is over half the film. I sat in the third row of the theater and got way too close to his face to begin with, so you can only imagine my chagrin at having to view what I believe is a piece of spinach lodged in the corner of his lower bicuspid. I googled "Al Gore" + "food stuck in teeth/tooth" and came up with nothing. I can't believe that no one has noticed and/or written about this yet. It is appalling. If movie art directors and special effects folk can make actors look skinnier and taller than they are or create characters like Yoda, then they can get a piece of green gunk out of the former Vice President's mouth before they release a movie nationally.

2) While much has been written about Mr. Gore's stellar use of Powerpoint, I think we need to look at where these kudos are coming from. CNN is not, at least to my knowledge, the arbiter of good design taste. Before everyone starts ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Gore's use of bullets and laser pointers, I suggest they read what Edward Tufte thinks of tons of type on multi-colored slides. Go to Please.

3) Okay, so I am not suggesting here that WHAT Al Gore is saying isn't logical and truthful. It is. But it is certainly not the first time anyone has said it, and certainly not the first time it has been the focus of a nationally released film. Hasn't anyone seen The Day After Tomorrow? Same message, better special effects. I don't mean to be flippant here, but what is the new message? That Republican politicians don't believe the numerous scientific reports and overwhelming planetary evidence? Are we supposed to be surprised at this? This is the same administration that believed that they could get Bin Laden and thought that Katrina would blow out to sea.

4) So, the movie concludes with about a 60 second directive on "what we can do to help save the planet." This includes the following:
--try to get a hybrid car
--turn off your lights and get more efficient light bulbs
--go to his website
--write your local/national politicians
and the most self-indulgent directive:
--tell everyone you know to see the movie.

Now. I did not need to see the movie in order to understand what is happening to our planet. I was hoping to learn more about what can be done and who is coming up with new and innovative solutions to our global problems. I was hoping to learn how I could get more involved, to which I didn't anticipate hearing feeble recommendations about light bulbs and websites. I did not go to this movie to listen to Al Gore make a Powerpoint presentation with a conclusion reminiscent of "oh, it was a dream and Bobby is still really alive." There is no doubt in my mind that human beings are destroying the planet. There is no doubt in my mind that we must change our way of living in the world if we want to preserve it for future generations. But there is no doubt in my mind that this film is politicking at its worst: it does a great job of placing the blame and a dire job of suggesting realistic, innovative, non-cliched solutions.

In fact, what I expect is this: "An Inconvenient Truth" is a well-timed movie release to get Gore back in the public eye. Does it have to do with the upcoming Presidential race? Hmmm. It is clear he has had quite a lot of speech coaching, and his clothes are better. Too bad he isn't saying anything new or offering any new suggestions, and too bad no one checked his teeth as he was getting ready for his redux close-up.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Commentary: Painful

blurry faces
Originally uploaded by debbie millman.
For the last three days I have been in the Georgetown University Hospital taking care of my friend Susan, who was undergoing surgery. The hospital is one of the best in the country and the care they gave my friend was formidable. Aside from their fastidious and obsessive attention to cleanliness (there was a serious hand washing policy enforced as the nurses visited each patient on the floor; and even flowers were forbidden in the rooms) there was also particular attention paid to pain. Someone in the hospital’s design department created a poster that was prominently displayed with the headline “Are You In Pain?’ and it included the following copy: “If you are in pain, you have the right to proper pain management. Talk to your doctor or nurse about it. Here’s why: No one should have to live with pain. There are medications that really work. The doctor or nurse can’t help you unless you tell them about your pain.”

Featured on the poster were ten face icons. They were numbered 1-10 and they ranged from a pleasant happy face to a face in utter agony. Each icon was numbered and corresponded to the amount of pain a person could be in; one was no pain, five was distressing pain and ten signified unbearable pain. The purpose of the graphic was to allow a patient to simply point to the emoticon that correlated to the amount of pain they were in. This, of course, got me thinking about the subjective vs. objective nature of pain, and how quickly we are, in our culture today, to articulate discomfort or annoyance or any number of pains we might believe constantly plague us.

Aside from the very measurable amount of pain patients are in, there is something else a visitor encounters in abundance while being in a hospital for a number of days. Time. Time moves very slowly in a hospital. There are no cell phones or computers allowed, and if the loved one you have come to visit or care for is in surgery or sleeping, there is very little to do. Mostly, during my experience at Georgetown University Hospital, I sat around thinking. I also continued my journey through Eric Kandel’s incredible autobiography “In Search of Memory.” In his book, Kandel charts the intellectual history of the emerging biology of the mind and illuminates how behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience and molecular biology have converged to allow us to understand how memories are formed and where they actually reside in our brains. For the work he did in this field, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000.

When I couldn’t read anymore, I walked the halls and perused the posters about coping with things like survival and advanced cancer and stem cell transplantation and bereavement. And I felt guilty about how lucky I am and how much I take for granted being healthy. I thought about how hard I have been working this past year and I wondered exactly what I have been doing. I wondered why, as a culture, we seem to use busy-ness as a badge of honor. I questioned if I needed to be busy in order to feel worthy of being alive and wondered if there was anything I was using my uber-busy schedule to distract me from thinking about. When I got back to Kandel’s book, the answer magically fell before me. In describing his need to constantly run more experiments in order to feel that he was continually accomplishing something, he realizes that it is taking a toll on his marriage. He corrects the error of his ways just in the nick of time and he confides the following: “As a consequence I learned the obvious lesson that hard thinking, especially if it leads to even one useful idea, is much more valuable than simply running more experiments.” Kandel is then reminded of a comment made about the scientist Jim Watson by Max Perutz, the Viennese-born British structural biologist: “Jim never made the mistake of confusing hard work with hard thinking.”

On the train ride home to New York, I sat in a seat next to two real estate moguls traveling together who talked on their cell phones for the entire 2:50 minute trip. When the conductor came around to collect our tickets, one of the gentlemen couldn’t find his ticket and wouldn’t get off of his phone as he searched through his bags and pockets. Finally he told the conductor that he had lost his ticket. As he begrudgingly hung up his phone, he looked at me and sneered as he quipped: “freakin’ pain in the ass.” At that moment all I wanted to do was to whip out the trusty pain poster that Susan’s nurse let me take, and ask him where his “freakin’ pain” might reside on a scale of 1-10.
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