debbie millman

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Look Both Ways

I often fantasize about what might have been, but isn’t. What my life might have been like if I had been accepted to the journalism school I’d applied to in 1985 or the art program I hoped to attend in 1992. I sometimes imagine what might have been if my first marriage hadn’t fallen apart, or the second. I will never really know, but I imagine that self a very different self, with shorter hair and different clothes, as if the choices I made for myself define how I look in addition to how I live. Somehow, these other “selves” have a sunnier disposition and cleaner closets and they are almost always thinner. They have more money and more free time, they drink less, and they definitely don’t worry about getting older. Nowadays, they are a more secret self, as the memory of what might have been is now more of a projection of what isn’t than what if. But mostly I find myself fascinated, as I live my deeply ritualized and ingrained life, with the idea of this unknown other. Who could I have been? Should I have been her? Could I have been her? And what about her?

This past summer I spent a lot of time in Albany, New York, the home of my alma mater, the State University of New York at Albany. I wasn’t there to visit the school, per se, but rather because my father (who lives in Upstate New York) was in the hospital undergoing triple bypass surgery. The first day was long and exaggerated, every response analyzed, every behavior deconstructed. My family was fully on edge, as we waited for news, and then when the news was good, we waited for physical verification. But my dad’s recovery took longer than expected and three days in Albany turned into seven. Most of the time I spent in the hospital, but one afternoon I headed over to the campus that was the center of my universe so, so many, many years ago.

There, I retraced my baby steps in design and literature and art and boys and books and bands. All of the offices and classrooms were locked, but the buildings were still open. I walked by every one—past the library, through the art gallery, into the English Department. I traced the embossed letters of the nameplate on the office door of my favorite literature professor, whom I was thrilled to see was still teaching. I ran up the three flights of stairs in the Campus Center to the offices of the school newspaper and the radio station and, on tiptoes, tried to peer through the dark windows into the rooms where I’d spent thousands of hours. As I lingered in the hallways, I looked down at the surging fountain in the center of the Campus and remembered the same view in the same building by the same person so long ago; how I stood in the same spot, squinting in the daylight for a clue, any clue at all, to who I was or what I would become. And it occurred to me, as I stood there, that I could simultaneously, vividly look both ways—backward and forward, at once. I remembered longing to know what was coming, who I would become and how. And I suddenly saw it all over again in front of me. The light was exactly the same, and as the sun fell and the summer shadows slivered against the elegant, lean, concrete towers in the distance, I recognized the smell of the warm air, the precise pink and grey of the coming dusk and the mysterious melancholy and joy of both knowing and not-knowing, and the continuity that occurs when both collide.

Last week, I went foraging through my storage closet looking for an old scrapbook I put together the years before I went to college. It was a rather makeshift scrapbook—as I simply used a large blank sketchbook as a vessel for my ephemera. This included the requisite party and bat mitzvah invitations, my commendations in art and home economics, various diplomas and newspaper clippings, and some shredded prom corsages. But it also included things I had long forgotten existed: the airplane boarding pass for a trip to Europe in 1976, the first cryptogram I ever solved from the Long Island daily newspaper, Newsday, in 1973, a faded mimeographed copy of the Lawrence Ferlingetti poem, “The Pennycandystore Beyond The El” with my scribbled notation “why does he say too soon,” a handmade poster encouraging my fellow students to vote for me for as Senior Class Secretary of Student Affairs in High School, the Playbill from a 1970s production of Chorus Line, and most incredulously, the original tag from my very first pair of Levi’s. As I gingerly hugged the Playbill, I surveyed these scraps, this evidence of a life. But I felt feeble recalling my desire to document such banality. How foolish I was! As I rifled through the book again, I fell upon the silly little threadbare newspaper cryptogram. I assumed I had saved it because it was the first code I ever broke. But as I re-read the content of the code I broke nearly four decades ago, it occurred to me that perhaps I kept it because of the quote it contained—this excerpt from Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography: “Because I have confidence in the power of truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind.” Maybe we do collect our scraps and our memories as evidence of a life lived. And perhaps we decorate our pages, and our dreams, through the projective lens of what we hope for. But maybe, as Ezra Pound so appropriately stated: “We do not know the past in chronological sequence. It may be convenient to lay it out…on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time.”


Blogger a.parker said...

Fantastic post. I especially like the part about the "what might have been" existing as almost another person. I realized that I have a few of those, and that however more cheerful or skinny or organized they might be, they are a lot more fragile than I am now.

I recently visited my childhood home. I hadn't been back in years, and it was very similar to your experience. Thanks for sharing and capturing it so well!

1/10/2009 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger Alberto Rigau said...

Interesting read, particularly since some of us are now making choices and decisions that will later shape our own "what might have beens"… thanks for sharing

1/10/2009 10:40:00 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

thanks debbie, that was a great, poetic,powerful post... I've found myself thinking along very similar lines lately, maybe I should go visit the halls of my old school, its only a few blocks away.

1/12/2009 05:25:00 PM  
OpenID shakeandshiftdesign said...

This was a very insightful and thought provoking post. I also agree with a. Parker's comment about the "what might have been" person being a lot more fragile than I am now.

1/12/2009 05:33:00 PM  

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Location: new york city, United States

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 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 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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