debbie millman

Friday, March 23, 2007

Her Story Is Strange

fit 3
Illustration by Maira Kalman

In a recent episode of the popular television show Grey’s Anatomy, central character Meredith Grey laments the state of her personality. Tired of being considered “dark and twisty,” she resolves instead to be “bright and shiny” because life is good. She further insists that the sheer intensity of her anticipated state of future happiness will make her friends teeth hurt.

I couldn’t help but nod in agreement in regard to Grey’s noble quest. As far back as I can remember, I have longed for the ability to laugh at myself instead of agonize over what I would consider a perpetual state of drama and, frankly, what “bright and shiny” people would likely consider outright strange. In short, I longed to be happy and shiny and to fit in.

There have been brief stints at my passing for what could be considered fairly normal, but this behavior was primarily displayed during job interviews, first dates and most recently in a dreaded middle seat on an airplane. Instead of pulling out my brand spanking new issue of Bitch magazine, I instead chose to play solitaire on my computer for the entire flight while the two rather large men on either side of me peered at pie charts and played Suduku.

In actuality, I suppose I have lived a sort of odd existence. I was the only daughter of divorced parents decades before divorce was acceptably mainstream. My splintered family moved four times before I made it to third grade and with each transplant I had no choice but to leave all my hard won friends behind. I was married and divorced twice before I was forty and now, instead of a big suburban home filled with a brood of teenage children, I live alone in Manhattan with four furry friends—my two beloved cats and dogs.

Mostly, I have been sheepishly ashamed of this. But over the last few years I have begun to experience a growing sense of comfort in my ever so slightly alternative lifestyle and have discovered that I am much more relaxed in my own skin than I’ve ever been before.

But I still remember the painful moments of adolescence and young adulthood as I attempted to twist myself into someone that at least looked like they fit in. There was the Farrah Fawcett haircut that went horribly awry—with one side of my hair perfectly feathered and the other side sabotaged by an unruly hair lick. This resulted in a sad and bizarre gigantic unfathomable curl jutting out from the left side of my head. And then there was the unfortunate attempt by my seamstress mother to design a shirt for me indicating what SHE thought of me. Realizing my deep despair at what I considered my “too numerous to count” flaws, she bedazzled a t-shirt for me with the word “Perfect” on the front. I wore it proudly to school the next day. But to my utter horror, most people thought the shirt read E R F E C, as the letter spacing of the word P E R F E C T was too wide, resulting in and the first and last letters—the P and the T—being bunched up, squished and concealed under my armpits. Needless to say, the message was so far from perfect, the boy I had a crush on at the time thought it was an uproarious joke.

The philosophy of belonging -- to a family, group, or community – is a fascinating study of our primary need to connect. Psychologist Leon Litwinski has analyzed the psychology of' belonging' at great length. He described ‘belonging' as a unification of the individual with some aspect of the world, initially a passive unification with the mother or the family, then an active domination of possessions, and ultimately an independent and free belonging to oneself. Psychologist Dyrian Benz-Chartrand, a doctor who practices relational somatic psychology, believes that “We can hold surprisingly clear attitudes about right and wrong, and it’s astonishing how we can suspend those beliefs because we want to fit in and be part of some group. Conscience seems to monitor this basic need to fit in. Our desire to be included and belong is immense.”

Last year I had the distinct good fortune to attend Maira Kalman’s opera “The Elements of Style,” which was based on the landmark tome written by William Strunk and E. B. White. This also coincided with the release of her illustrated version of the book. The opera was being presented for one night only at the New York Public Library and the show was entirely sold out. In an effort to manage the large crowd, ushers holding way-finding signs were situated all along the snaking line. But interspersed among the directional posters were whimsical signs, handmade by Maira, featuring quirky and fanciful lines from the book. This pre-show exhibit was enchanting. But my heart stopped when I noticed a young woman holding a sign that simply stated what I considered to be the most mesmerizing line of all. The sign, handwritten in Maira’s sweet, unmistakable script read as follows: “Her Story is Strange.” I couldn’t help what I did next. I ran up to the young girl and asked if I could have the poster. She replied no, she needed it until the show began. I then asked if I could have it after the show was over and offered her all the money I had in my wallet. She looked embarrassed and suggested that I try to find her after the show. In the meantime, she would ask the people in charge if she was allowed give the poster away. After what could only be described as a truly magnificent opera, the audience gathered for a post-show reception. I scanned the room searching for the young usher and when I finally found her I inquired again about the poster. She responded that she had forgotten to ask her boss and told me she would go and try to find her. After what seemed like an eternity, she returned and explained that before giving away the poster, her boss needed to ask Maira’s permission to part with it. And as a result, Maira had a question for the person who wanted the cardboard sign. Since the poster read, “Her Story is Strange” Maira wanted to know if indeed my story was strange. I looked this affable young usher right in the eye and without missing a beat I gleefully and proudly stated that yes!, most assuredly, my story was strange. And with that my new friend smiled wide, pulled the prized poster from behind her back, and replied, “Then yes. If your story is strange, then yes, Maira said you could have it.”

2 Comments:

Blogger Jeff said...

Now that story was strangely beautiful!

3/23/2007 11:07:00 PM  
Blogger linda said...

funnnny!

3/23/2007 11:55:00 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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