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Posts Tagged ‘Debbie Millman’

25 MARCH, 2015

Reinventing the Secular Sermon: Remarkable Commencement Addresses by Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, Ira Glass, and More

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How to live life “on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

We live in an era where religion is, thank “god,” increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought. And yet, secular education and the arts have a great deal to learn from religion as a mode of seeding values of good-personhood and disseminating ideas about the meaning of life. The contemporary secular equivalent of the sermon — religion’s most potent ideological delivery mechanism, that compact packet of wisdom on how to be a decent human being and lead a good life — is the commencement address. This singular genre of intergenerational hand-me-down advice accomplishes something no other form of modern communication does — it inverts our culture’s skewed balance of cynicism and hope and fosters what Oscar Wilde called a “temperament of receptivity” to deliver messages we would dismiss as trite in any other context; here, however, we know that trite means vitally true — it means hard-earned, life-tested, experience-proven truths about the simplest yet most difficult tenets of existence.

Now, some of the greatest commencement addresses of all time have been neatly packaged in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library) — a compendium of timeless wisdom including classics like David Foster Wallace’s indispensable This Is Water, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, and Norah Ephron’s piercing 1996 Wellesley College speech, as well as contemporary masterworks of the commencement genre by This American Life host Ira Glass, writer Michael Lewis, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, artist and educator Debbie Millman, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, actor Bradley Whitford, and more.

The book opens with artist, author, and Design Matters host Debbie Millman’s 2013 San Jose State University commencement address, which was originally and exclusively published right here on Brain Pickings. She writes:

For most of my adult life, I traveled a safe path. I remember in vivid detail the moment I began my journey: August 1983, the hot muggy summer of David Bowie’s Modern Love and Synchronicity by the Police.

A few months after I graduated college, I stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleeker Street in New York City, wearing pastel blue trousers, a hot pink V-neck tee shirt, and bright white Capezio oxfords. I lingered at the intersection, peering deep into my future, and contemplated the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical, between the known and the unknown. I dreamed of being a successful artist, but inasmuch as I knew what I wanted, I felt compelled to consider what was reasonable in order to ensure my economic security. Even though I wanted what my best friend once referred to as the whole wide world, I thought it was prudent to compromise. I told myself it was more sensible to aspire for success that was realistically attainable, perhaps even failure-proof. It never once occurred to me that I could succeed at what I dreamed of.

As I look back on this decision nearly thirty years later, I try to soothe myself with this rationale. I grew up in an atmosphere of emotional and financial disarray, so my impulse as a young woman was to be tenaciously self-sufficient. As a result, I’ve lived within a fairly fixed set of possibilities.

Her decision, Millman points out, is far from uncommon — most of us, in one form or another, limit our own possibilities. But what begins as a reasonable and voluntary self-protection mechanism often gathers exponential momentum that ends up dragging us down life-paths further and further from our dreams:

I discovered these common, self-imposed restrictions are rather insidious, though they start out simple enough. We begin by worrying that we aren’t good enough, that we’re not smart enough or talented enough to get what we want. And then we voluntarily live in this paralyzing mental framework, rather than confront our own role in this self-fulfilling paralysis. Just the possibility of failing turns into something self-fulfilling. We begin to believe that these personal restrictions are in fact fixed limitations of the world. We go on to live our lives, all the while wondering what we can change and how we can change it. And we calculate and re-calculate when we’ll be ready to do the things that we really want to do. And we dream. If only. If only. One day. Someday.

But then, Millman argues, we meet “someone more courageous” than we are, a person who “didn’t determine what was impossible before it was possible,” and something in us is reawakened. (The very purpose of a commencement speaker, after all, is to be such an awakening example of that courageous someone, a preemptive living proof that there is hope for transcending those self-imposed limitations.) Turning to Robert Frost’s famous proclamation, Millman transmutes the secret of a great poem into the secret of a great life:

The grand scheme of a life — maybe, just maybe — is not about knowing or not knowing, choosing or not choosing. Perhaps what is truly known can’t be described or articulated by creativity or logic, science or art. Perhaps it can be expressed by the most authentic and meaningful combination of the two: poetry.

As Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”

I recommend the following course of action for those, like you, who are just starting out, or who, like me, may be re-configuring midway through. Heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big fat lump in your throat. Start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, a crazy lovesickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love. And don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can. Imagine immensities. Don’t compromise and don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one. Start now. Not twenty years from now. Not thirty years from now. Not two weeks from now. Now.

Dick Costolo (Photograph by Joi Ito)

That same year, Twitter CEO and former improv comedian Dick Costolo took the podium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He recounts moving to Chicago, young and broke, hoping to get into the legendary improv comedy group Second City, the yellow-brick road to Saturday Night Live and “ultimate fame and glory.” Eventually, he got to study with the acclaimed director Martin Demont. He shares one exchange with Demont that shaped his approach to life:

Steve Carell was out on stage improvising something. I was backstage and I came up with this amazing line and I thought, “I’ve gotta get out there and get this line out.” So I went out on stage and started trying to move the scene in the direction of what I wanted to say, and Martin stops the scene and says to the whole class (but really he was talking to me): “You can’t plan a script. The beauty of improv is you’re experiencing it in the moment. If you try to plan what the next line is going to be, you’re just going to be disappointed when the other people don’t do or say what you want them to, and you’ll stand there frozen.” He stopped everyone in the room and said, “Be in this moment.”

This became a powerful parable for how over-planning limits our happiness — a lesson that reemerged in a different guise when “the Internet happened” around the same time. Recognizing it as an “extensible structure with amazing possibilities,” Costolo dove in and helped build a number of companies over the years that followed, including Twitter. He illustrates how not planning a script enabled this humble startup to become a global force:

When [Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey] sent out his first tweet — “just setting up my twttr” — he didn’t plan for President Obama to declare victory on that platform in the 2012 election. None of us at Twitter thought that during the earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, that our platform would be a great alternative means of communication if mobile networks were spotty in the aftermath. Certainly none of us even hoped, let alone considered, that our platform would be used to help organize protests across the Middle East and Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Here’s the amazing thing about what I’ve observed from those things. Not only can you not plan the impact you’re going to have, you often won’t recognize it even while you’re having it.

[…]

The impact is what others frame for you and the world after it happens. The present is only what you’re experiencing and focused on right now.

Echoing Steve Jobs’s legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” — Costolo reflects on Twitter’s unexpected journey and his own unscripted career outcome:

You cannot draw that path looking forward. You can’t draw any path looking forward. You have to figure out what you love to do and what you have conviction about, and go do that.

He exhorts graduates to unmoor themselves from the system of external expectations that is formal education — a special kind of societal script — and plunge into the uncomfortable but infinitely rewarding task of writing their own ongoing, open-ended internal scripts:

You are no longer meeting and exceeding expectations. There are no expectations; there’s no script. When you’re doing what you love to do, you become resilient, because you create that habit. You create the habit of taking a gamble on yourself and making courageous choices in service of what you love.

If, on the other hand, you do what you think is expected of you or what you’re supposed to do, and chaos ensues — as it surely will — you will look to external forces for what to do next, because that will be the habit you have created for yourself. You’ll be standing there frozen on the stage of your own life. If you’re just filling a role, you will be blindsided.

Michel Uslan (Photograph by Robert Sciarrino)

Speaking at Indiana University Bloomington in 2006, Batman / Dark Knight franchise originator and executive producer Michael Uslan echoes what college-aged André Gide’s rules of conduct penned a century and a half earlier — “One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.” — and counsels graduates:

You must knock on doors until your knuckles bleed. Doors will slam in your face; I guarantee it. You must pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back and knock again. It’s the only way to achieve your goals in life.

This calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s spectacular 1977 Douglass College commencement address, in which she argued that an education is not something you get, but something you claim. An opportunity, Uslan seems to suggest, is equally something you actively claim rather than passively get.

Bradley Whitford (Photograph by Frank Franklin II)

Bradley Whitford, perhaps best-known for his role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing, opens his 2004 University of Wisconsin–Madison address by lamenting the quintessential commencement challenge of speaking to “a big, distracted crowd that thinks they know everything about everything.” (This, indeed, might explain one of the most prevalent commencement-address tropes — the speaker’s admission of not remembering who spoke at his or her own graduation many years earlier. Perhaps part of our youthful arrogance is the tendency to dismiss as irrelevant any information with which we aren’t sufficiently familiar — like, say, a prominent but unknown to us cultural figure tasked with delivering a commencement address — and bar it from entering our long-term memory.)

Whitford shares his six most important life-learnings, which he dubs “Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned on My Way to a Humiliating Audition”:

Number One: Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.

Number Two: Very obvious: do your work. When faced with the terror of an opening night on Broadway, you can either dissolve in a puddle of fear or you can get yourself ready. Drown out your inevitable self-doubt with the work that needs to be done. Find joy in the process of preparation.

Number Three: Once you’re prepared, throw your preparation in the trash. The most interesting acting and the most interesting living in this world have the element of surprise and of genuine, honest discovery. Be open to that.

This third piece of advice parallels what we now know about the role of “effective surprise” in creativity, including the supreme creative act of forging one’s life-path. Whitford, like Costolo, admonishes against the tendency to peg our sense of arrival on having fulfilled external expectations:

You’ve all spent the majority of your lives in school, where your work is assigned to you and you’re supposed to please your teachers.

The pressure to get into wonderful institutions like this is threatening to create a generation of what I call hiney-kissing requirement-fulfillers. You are all so much more than that. You’ve reached the wonderful and terrifying moment where you must be your own guide. Listen to the whispers inside you.

Whitford offers the fourth of his learnings:

You are capable of more than you think. If you’ve ever smashed a mosquito on your arm, there is a murderous Richard III inside you. If you’ve ever caught your breath at the sight of someone dipping their toes into Lake Mendota in the late afternoon sun over at the Union, you, too, have Romeo’s fluttering heart.

Echoing Anna Deavere Smith on the importance of listening in a culture of speaking, Whitford continues:

Number Five: Listen. It is the most difficult thing an actor can do, and it is the most riveting. You can’t afford to spend your life like a bad actor stumbling through a predetermined performance that is oblivious to the world around you. We can’t afford it either. Listening isn’t passive. It is an act of liberation that will connect you to the world with compassion and be your best guide as you navigate the choppy waters of love, work, and citizenship.

And finally, Number Six: Take action. Every story you’ve ever connected with, every leader you’ve ever admired, every puny little thing that you’ve ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.

Speaking to the 1996 graduating class at Wellesley College, her own alma mater, Nora Ephron begins by offering some perspective on where the world was thirty-four years earlier, when she was sitting in one of those seats herself — an era when “if you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with $ 500 in cash in an envelope, and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic”; when women were asked to, and complied without so much as a second thought, to strip and have their “posture pictures” taken; when there was a mandatory class called Fundamentals, Fundies, in which women were actually “taught how to get in and out of the back seat of the car.” Ephron, a master at the art of rhetorical buildup where no detail is superfluous to the ultimate point, writes:

Why am I telling you this? It was a long time ago, right? Things have changed, haven’t they? Yes, they have. But I mention it because I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away.

In a sentiment that has aged lamentably well in the two decades since — a fact that speaks equally to Ephron’s genius and to our culture’s tectonic, toxically reluctant pace of change — she adds:

Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, “Don’t take it personally,” but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged… The acquittal of O. J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.

There is, of course, the mandatory David Foster Wallace classic, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 and considered the beloved author’s only public talk directly addressing his views on the meaning of life. The speech, the original delivery of which you can hear in full here, is strewn with his singular gems of deeply irreverent, deeply urgent wisdom. Among them:

I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

But for all of his antiauthoritarian incisiveness, Wallace reveals himself once again as a sensitive soul concerned with the essential currency of the human experience — kindness:

Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photograph by Graeme Mitchell)

This theme of kindness — for what else is there? — recurs throughout most commencement addresses, but nowhere with more timely poignancy than in the speech Jonathan Safran Foer delivered at Middlebury College in 2013. He recounts finding himself on a Brooklyn park bench across from a teenage girl who was crying into her phone. As she sobbed “I know, I know, I know… Mama, I know,” he wondered about what portion of the fragile human experience she was coming to know. Reflecting on his inner tussle with whether to try comforting her or to continue staring into his own device pretending not to have noticed, Foer considers how technology has come to mediate our experience of who we are to one another, as people bearing witness to crying strangers:

It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to retreat into the scrolling names of one’s contact list, or whatever one’s favorite iDistraction happens to be. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.

He chronicles how we got to this paradoxical place:

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

But then a funny thing happened: We began to prefer the diminished substitutes.

Foer traces our sliding scale of communicational convenience — making a phone call is easier than traversing space across time to meet someone in person; leaving a voicemail is easier than investing in the cognitive and emotional tennis match of a two-way conversation; sending an email is easier still, for it removes the emotional undertones of vocal inflection and enables us to deliver an even more sterile one-way message; texting reduces whatever complexity of meaning there might have remained in an email to mere information, distilled to a bare minimum of sentiment. (There is something to be said, too, for the demise of correspondence, which ushered in the death of mutual response and the rise of mutual reaction.) Foer considers the outcome of this process:

As the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.

[…]

I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.

He returns to the encounter with the sobbing girl, which precipitated his concerned contemplation:

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.

[…]

Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.

Complement Way More than Luck with some of the genre’s greatest secular sermons not included in the book: Joseph Brodsky on winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and hate (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Neil Gaiman on courage and the creative life (University of the Arts, 2012), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the secret to a happy life.

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04 FEBRUARY, 2015

Happy Birthday, Design Matters: 10 Years of Intelligent and Inspiring Interviews with Creative Icons

By:

Stimulating, ennobling, deeply human conversations with Maira Kalman, Seth Godin, Dani Shapiro, Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Ware, Shepard Fairey, and more.

A decade before the so-called golden age of podcasting and exactly a year after the word “podcast” itself was timidly coined by The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley, Debbie Millman launched the world’s first podcast about design, armed with nothing more than an idea, a telephone line, and ample doggedness. Design Matters premiered on February 4, 2005. Over the years that followed, it evolved beyond design into the broader world of creative culture, featuring wide-ranging and deep conversations with celebrated designers, artists, writers, musicians, and other luminaries, including Chris Ware, Seth Godin, Maira Kalman, Dave Eggers, Kurt Andersen, Paola Antonelli, Malcolm Gladwell, John Maeda, Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Jonathan Harris, Chip Kidd, Dani Shapiro, Terry Teachout, Wendy MacNaughton, Jason Kottke, Ze Frank, Steven Heller, Grace Bonney, Marian Bantjes, Christoph Niemann, Dominique Browning, John Hockenberry, Barbara Kruger, and hundreds more. In 2011, the show received the People’s Choice Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. One of the most downloaded podcasts in the world today, it has shaped the public discourse on design and has inspired such newer projects as 99% Invisible and The Great Discontent.

Propelled at once by Moore’s Law and the pioneer spirit of exploring any new territory, the show’s early days were marked by that distinct blend of endearing technical embarrassments and visionary creative bravery. There is the bad audio quality, the atrocious commercial breaks, and the fact that Millman had to pay the network to put her show on the air — a pause-giving reminder of how low the barriers of entry have fallen, and how much we’ve come to take for granted.

But there are also boundlessly emboldening moments reminding us that the best kind of genius is one backed by goodwill, generosity, and pure human goodness. In an admirable antidote to our cancellation culture, graphic artist Shepard Fairey keeps his interview date despite having just had emergency eye surgery; he actually takes the call from his hospital bed to discuss, among other things, how having a baby daughter opened his eyes to the patriarchy’s oppressive impact and profoundly changed the kind of art he wanted to put into the world. In an uncommonly heartening conversation marking the fourth season premiere, mother-son writer duo Malcolm and Joyce Gladwell share the airwaves; when asked whether she was surprised by her son’s success in looking at what everyone looks at but seeing what no one sees, Joyce’s answer emanates the deep and disarming warmth of motherly love:

I was not [occupied with] fame and fortune… I wasn’t looking ahead very far — I was just enjoying the delightful child that had come into our life. He provoked mirth just by being who he was — by the way he moved, by the way he was made, by his eyes and his hair… Am I surprised? Yes and no. I can see the strands that contribute to Malcolm’s success, and to the way he thinks, the way he expresses himself. But I also am surprised at what it is he says and how he says it, and at how he got there — because there is no precedent for that.

Collected below are ten of my favorite episodes from the past ten years, along with my favorite highlights from each. You can subscribe to Design Matters here and catch up on the archive here.

DANI SHAPIRO (2014)

Dani Shapiro — whose memoir Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life is one of the very finest books on writing and the creative experience ever published — discusses our chronic flight from presence, how she wrote her way out of an existential crisis, and why vulnerability is the wellspring of all meaningful creative work. Listen on iTunes or below:

Deep inside, we are all so much the same — our details might be different, but we are all kind of walking the same internal path. And when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I am allowing myself to connect. I’m allowing people to connect to me.

[…]

How do we actually be right here, right now? Not leaning toward the future, not leaning backwards into the past… How do we find a way to inhabit the moment more often than not?

[…]

It’s the feeling of something becoming heightened in just a moment where … I know that it’s going into a place where it’s like it’s storing itself somewhere inside of me… It is unmistakable when it happens. And then sometimes … it requires a lot of patience to make sense of it. It’s not like that shimmer happens and, Eureka!, you have a story — it’s like that shimmer happens and, sometimes, it can be years before it connects to something else that then makes the story clearer, or makes clear why it shimmered.

MILTON GLASER (2010)

Legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and cofounder of the equally iconic New York Magazine, builds on his conversation with Millman from the 2007 book How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and discusses idealism, community, aging, the moral duties of the imagination, and what it takes to sustain one’s creative vitality over a long life. Listen on iTunes or below:

No one has the ability to understand our path until it is over, and if you can sustain your interest in what you are doing in your later years, you are very lucky. Many people get tired, indifferent, and defensive, and lose their capacity for astonishment…

Daily life astonishes me. I’m looking through the door here, at the little table-and-chairs that was painted a light green and yellow, and there’s a plant on the table — a little pussy willow — and the combination is totally astonishing… Shadows in the night astonish me. And when you’re working, and you’re putting forms out on paper, every once in a while you’ll be astonished by what happens… The great thing about the work, and particularly work later in your life, is that you can still maintain the sense of possibility that at the end of the day you’ll know something that you didn’t know at the beginning of the day. And I just find that an extraordinary gift.

SETH GODIN (2014)

In this Design Matters Live conversation — occasional interviews recorded not in the studio but at various public events — the wise and wonderful Seth Godin discusses creative courage, the art of dancing with the Resistance, what defines great design, and his “children’s book for grownups” about vulnerability. See more transcribed excerpts and commentary here, then hear Millman’s 2007 studio interview with Godin here.

That is what [artists] do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

[…]

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

MALCOLM GLADWELL & JOYCE GLADWELL (2007)

Prolific author Malcolm Gladwell and his mother, Jamaican-born psychotherapist and writer Joyce Gladwell, discuss success, luck, racism, why we treat enduring ideas as disposable by letting timeless books go out of print (something I encounter regularly and find particularly unsettling), and more. Listen on iTunes or below:

When I think about my family, I think of us as being “serial outsiders”… I have a mother who moved from Jamaica to England — [and] the cultural distance between those two points is greater than the physical difference between those two points — then married an Englishman and moved to Canada (and not just to Canada — to a little rural corner of Ontario filled with Mennonites), and then I went from there and moved to the United States, to New York City.

So when I say we’re “serial outsiders” I mean we’ve replicated the role of the outsider over and over again. And my writing is the writing of an outsider — it’s the writing of an observer… The outsider always has an enormous advantage in terms of seeing things in a different way… It doesn’t have to do, necessarily, with any particular gift of the outsider him- or herself — it’s the gift of the position of being on the outside. You literally see something differently when you look from outside the house than when you look from inside the house. So, in that sense, I’m the lucky recipient of that series of circumstances.

[…]

What I like to do in my writing is combat the feeling one has of bafflement, which I think is a disconcerting feeling… I don’t think I can promise in my writing the answers to problems, but I can promise something which is probably more important in … combatting the sense of unease we have in the world… I can help people to understand how to think about things. That’s what we really want. We’re not unhappy with the fact that the world presents lots of different, difficult-to-answer problems — we’re unhappy about the fact that we don’t even know how to start to think about all these things, what kind of framework to use, what questions to ask, where the beginning point is and where the end point is to any kind of process of analysis. My writing is really intended to be that kind of a roadmap — and I find those kinds of roadmaps to be enormously comforting.

RACHEL SUSSMAN (2014)

Artist Rachel Sussman discusses her decade-long project The Oldest Living Things in the World — which produced one of the best books of 2014 — and its underlying questions about permanence, impermanence, deep time, and how we orient ourselves to the universe. Listen on iTunes or below:

It’s hard to answer [whether any of these ancient organisms have consciousness]. I mean, no, I don’t literally think that they have a consciousness. But at the same time I think there is a sort of “world spirit” — which I say to you as an atheist. Nature is a system, and these organisms are part of that — and I think there is a strong will to live.

And [yet], these are all terms that we just impose upon these things.

PAOLA ANTONELLI (2006)

Curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli offers a behind-the-scenes look at her uncommonly visionary MoMA shows exploring safety, the humble masterpieces of everyday life, and the intersection of design and technology, and discusses the glories of living in New York City, the tyranny of the corporate world on our inner lives, and what we can do to create degrees of freedom even within limiting systems. Listen on iTunes or below:

Designers’ humility will change the world… Designers just sit and think about how to make people’s lives better. And to do so, you have to strip yourself of your ego for a moment and put yourself in other people’s shoes — the first act of real humanity. And it takes humility.

SHEPARD FAIREY (2007)

Graphic artist Shepard Fairey — who has used the raw materials of capitalism and freedom to continually challenge our social, political, and personal assumptions about how the world works and to offer sometimes subtle, sometimes provocative ideas on how it can work better — discusses how he went from covering his neighborhood in stickers to being one of the world’s most prominent street artists, how the notion of “selling out” impoverishes our understanding of creative culture, and what his daughter’s birth taught him about our world. Listen on iTunes or below:

Here’s how having a child has affected my art: I think that in society, much of the time, the male, dominant, aggressive, I’m-gonna-make-my-way-and-rule-things mentality is rewarded, and the maternal side of things is definitely not valued as much… It’s a patriarchal society. But seeing how my wife is with our daughter and realizing how much work it is … and that it’s our yin and yang that allows the family unit to function in a really amazingly positive way, I really tapped into more of my feminine side, appreciating more the maternal side of things…

A lot of the work that I’ve been doing is dealing with peace and using a lot of female figures. One of the things I’ve thought about was [that] it’s usually men that perpetuate injustice, and they take up arms to do so. And when women take up arms, I think they do it to correct an injustice. (This is a generalization, of course… There are people like Margaret Thatcher out there.) … A lot of the work that I was doing [was] as agitational and provocative as possible. Now, I still try to make the work really engaging and provocative, but also allow beauty, the merit of beauty and the maternal side of things to show through in some of the elements in my work.

SOPHIE BLACKALL (2012)

Artist, author, and children’s book illustrator Sophie Blackall — creator of such wondrous treasures as The Mighty Lalouche and The Baby Tree — discusses the necessary balance of optimism and subversiveness in children’s books, her immeasurably charming Missed Connections project, and the challenges and rewards of illustrating Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. See more highlights here and listen on iTunes or below:

SB: I think children are pretty subversive creatures.

DM: It’s interesting: It’s subversive in the way that The Wizard of Oz is subversive — there’s a subtext. And that subtext has to do with love, and longing, and loss, and pain. But I guess, for me, there seems to be an innate optimism that doesn’t feel dark — yes, there’s darkness in the work, but I always get the sense that the light overcomes that darkness. … You can create a brush stroke that somehow defines wistfulness. But in that ability to see that wistfulness, I can’t help but feel understood — which … then gives me a great sense of joy.

CHRIS WARE (2012)

Chris Ware — one of the finest cartoonists of our time and a frequent New Yorker cover artist — discusses his intricate and immensely brilliant book-in-a-box Building Stories, why it’s necessary to make room for sadness in the fabric of life, and how storytelling gives shape to the human experience. Find more highlights here and listen on iTunes or below:

When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, “Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes”… And that seems ridiculous to me… That’s what writing is about — it’s about trying to understand other people.

[…]

It really all comes down to empathy… If you feel empathy for a group of people or a nation, you’re less likely to attack them. And I just feel like it’s what being human is — that’s the most important thing you can learn, it’s the most important thing you can impart to a child.

MAIRA KALMAN (2007)

The ceaselessly prolific and imaginative artist and author Maira Kalman — whose spectacular recent memoir of sorts, My Favorite Things, was among last year’s best books — discusses the essential role of boredom in creativity (something eloquently expounded by Søren Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell, and Adam Phillips) and why storytelling for children shouldn’t be approached as a special species of storytelling different from that for adults (something memorably asserted by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak, and Neil Gaiman). Listen on iTunes or below:

Boredom and impatience are real motivators. I don’t want to do one thing all the time — I’m “multi-curious.” And, really, not knowing how to do something and then not being afraid to do it is a nice combination — because you just try new things. If you’re open to whatever serendipity of inspiration is around, sometimes you find yourself sewing and sometimes you find yourself playing imaginary viola.

But I don’t like having a different mindset for children than I do for adults. I just would like to tell the story that’s around me, and just kind of chronicle what I see — and it shouldn’t matter if it’s an adult or a child… What’s the worst that can happen is you can fail — or it can be bad. (Which has happened.) And yet, somehow, the world doesn’t come to an end. So I’m ultimately very brave and terrified… It’s the human condition.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON & CAROLINE PAUL (2013)

Artist Wendy MacNaughton — a Brain Pickings regular — and writer Caroline Paul discuss their endlessly wonderful and layered book Lost Cat, how they balance their romantic relationship with their creative collaboration, our chronic compulsion for control, and what true love really means. See more highlights here and on iTunes or below:

You cannot know everything about the creature that you love, and you also can’t control that relationship. And maybe that’s okay — because we can’t control relationships. In fact, if we did control them to the degree that we want, it would probably provide us with nothing. Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences.

To see what the next decade of stimulating and ennobling conversations brings, subscribe to Design Matters here, then explore the archive here.

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26 AUGUST, 2014

Worn Stories: Playful and Poignant Tales of Clothes That Encode Life’s Most Meaningful Memories

By:

Wearable emotional memories from John Hodgman, Marina Abramovic, Piper Kerman, Pat Mahoney, Debbie Millman, Paola Antonelli, Kenneth Goldsmith, Meghan O’Rourke, Rosanne Cash, and more.

One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.

For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.

The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.

Spivack writes in the introduction:

The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone — in all of these are encoded the stories of our lives. We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn.

Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman selects an outfit she wore at a key moment in the memoir-turned-TV-hit Orange Is the New Black — a vintage suit that was among the three outfits she packed for her final court appearance and sentencing after taking a plea deal (which, she explains, 95% of criminal defendants do):

As your case wends through the system, you barely speak in court; the prosecutor and defense attorney do most of the talking. Unlike 80 percent of criminal defendants, I could afford to hire a lawyer, and I was lucky that he was a very good and experienced one. He had advocated long and hard with the prosecutor on my behalf, and then the day came where his work and my case would be decided by the judge, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench.

Most criminal defendants wear whatever they are given by their attorney or family to their sentencing ; a lot of people are too poor to afford bail, and so they have been wearing jailhouse orange for many months before ever getting their day in court. I was much more fortunate; when I flew to Chicago to be sentenced to prison, I had three choices of court attire in my suitcase. A cadet-blue pantsuit, a very severe navy coatdress, and a wild card I had packed at the last minute: a vintage fifties pencil-skirt suit I had bought on eBay, in a coffee and cream tweed with a subtle sky blue check. It looked like something a Hitchcock heroine would have worn.

“That’s the one,” said my lawyer, pointing to the skirt suit. “We want the judge to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbor when he looks at you.”

For someone standing for judgment, the importance of being seen as a complete human being, someone who is more than just the contents of the file folders that rest on the bench in front of His or Her Honor, cannot be overstated.

Despite the dramatic circumstances, Kerman’s experience captures something central to Spivack’s project — something fundamental about how we use clothing as this paradoxical combination of camouflage and self-revelation, a shield for and a stripping to our basic humanity.

Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan selects a pair of decidedly eighties Lycra cycle tights with orange-and-black graffiti writing and shares the touching story behind the seemingly silly garment:

One by one my roommates, friends, and boyfriends in Los Angeles started getting sick from AIDS. It was very early on in the epidemic and when you went to the doctor, they couldn’t refer you to an expert. They asked you if you were religious, meaning, you were going to die.

I decided to join a gym with a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. At least we could be healthy, we thought… I went every day. In an attempt to do “healthy” things, I became addicted to the lights, the music, the endorphins. It was a very showbiz-y way to keep in shape, and many actresses would go to the class, like Madonna when she was starting to become well known.

[…]

The cult of aerobics was waning by the time I moved to New York in 1985, but with so many people getting sick, for a couple of years it was an antidote to this incredible malaise of melancholy that had been blanketing L.A.

Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman recounts the story of a peculiar yellow coat from the era in her life when she was standing on the precipice of her creative journey, long before she was a successful artist, prolific author, and award-winning interviewer. She recounts one July afternoon in her late twenties when she, broke and lusting after a glamorous life, ended up at the Hermès store on Madison Avenue after a months-long quest to track down the mysterious, enchanting perfume she had smelled on an exceptionally elegant woman. A uniformed man opened the gates to an unfamiliar world, “the most elegantly expensive environment” she had ever entered, where people very much unlike her — people “very, very rich” — were browsing $200 scarves.

Just then, a kindly saleslady — one imagines a character like Cinderella’s fairy godmother — took pity on Millman and whispered in her ear a thrilling secret: they were having a sale upstairs. Millman was thrilled, but it didn’t take her long to realize that, even with the markdowns, she couldn’t afford anything — until she spotted “the softest, most luxurious, ultra-bright lemony-yellow cashmere coat ever made.” Certain it would cost thousands of dollars, she apprehensively searched for the price, which revealed itself like a miracle — the original $2,200 was crossed out, and a hopeful $400 was written in its place.

Millman writes:

I calculated what the expense would mean to my budget. Undeterred, I tried the coat on. It was at least one size too big. None of this mattered to me. I felt glamorous and beautiful. As the clerk wrapped up the coat in the biggest orange box I had ever seen, I knew this wasn’t a mistake. I would wear this coat forever.

And wear it I did! I wore it every day from September until March. I wore it to work, I wore it every weekend, I wore it on vacation in Vermont, and I wore it traveling to the West Coast. The only time I wished for a warmer coat was en route to a client’s office on Fifth Avenue one blustery subzero February afternoon. I was chewing a large piece of purple bubble gum and realized I’d have to get rid of it before my meeting. It was so cold I didn’t want to take my gloves off to take the gum out of my mouth. Perhaps the temperature affected my judgment, or perhaps I was lazy, but suddenly I did something I had never, ever done before: I raised my chin, puckered up my lips, and let my gum fly. As it descended onto the sidewalk, I saw that a man walking toward me was about to collide with the arc of its fall. I made eye contact with him as the sticky mass fell at his feet. Horrified, I instantly realized I was face-to-face with Woody Allen. Mercifully, he sidestepped the gum. But his outrage was palpable. He shook his head in disgust and passed me by. I was too embarrassed and frightened to even say I was sorry.

Two days later I went out with my friend Ellen. She had snagged a reservation at the newly reopened Le Cirque and we got all dolled up for the occasion. I, of course, wore my yellow coat. We were seated between the coat check and the front door, and since New York City was still in a deep freeze, I decided to keep my coat wrapped around me.

Then I saw him. He was approaching the coat check with his wife, fumbling for his ticket. Wildly, I looked around for a place to hide. Ellen asked me if I was okay and I hissed, no. I motioned with my eyes. Ellen squealed in delight, and he looked over at us. Once again, in the span of forty-eight hours, I was face-to-face with Woody Allen.

Our eyes locked and I saw him recognize my unmistakable ultra-bright yellow coat and the same frightened face. He grimaced. “You!” he said, as his wife pulled on his arm. I felt myself turn white and then red, as everyone turned to stare.

Two and a half decades later, I still have my beloved coat. It’s lost its belt and much of its lemony sheen, and it hasn’t left its special place in my closet in a long time. Maybe I’ll wear it again one day. As Woody Allen famously said, “Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.” I’ll remind him of that if I ever bump into him again.

Paola Antonelli

MoMA curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli selects a pair of aviator glasses that capture the strange blend of terror and optimism of growing up amidst Milan’s political unrest in the 1970s. Class was often interrupted by bomb threats. Her daily morning walk to school took her, always scared, through a contentious urban borderland that divided the peacoat-clad, anti-authoritarian leftists and the Sanbabilini — the “gun-toting neo-fascists from wealthy Milanese families who shared responsibility for much of the violence around Italy at that time” — whose distinctive look included fitted shirts, trench coats, and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. She tells Spivack:

Sometime in the late 1970s, during this time of upheaval, my father came home from his first trip to the United States with a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators he’d bought for me. He had not thought of the political implications; he had just wanted a gift that embodied “America.” Even though it was only a pair of sunglasses, it was like holding a bomb in my hands. I couldn’t wear them.

Along the way, the first pair of Aviators disappeared, and I decided to buy myself another pair. They never looked good on me, but it was a sort of exorcism. Even then, years later, it felt almost like they were burning in my hands; they transport me to a moment that was formative, but one that I also want to forget.

I compare notes with friends who grew up in Israel or Beirut, for example, and I realize we all went through something similar — living despite the bombs going off, despite the fact that it was almost a war zone. Little details, like scents or sounds or a piece of clothing, bring back the violence, and that’s what these Aviators do for me.

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, a woman of unparalleled creative vision and extraordinary wisdom, selects an apple-green sweater that belonged to her mother. She writes:

It is my lucky sweater because I always need luck. And the feeling of being lucky, which is ridiculous and elusive, is still a pleasant one.

Margaret D. Stetz

Then there are the bunny ears, which turn out to belong not to a Playmate but to Harvard Ph.D. Margaret D. Stetz — a self-described “middle-aged professor of women’s studies and literature” and a Beatrix Potter scholar, who wears the ears while lecturing about Potter’s iconic Peter Rabbit character. Stetz writes:

The notion of dressing women as “Bunnies” was, of course, the invention of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs. When she was a young journalist, Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem famously went undercover as a Bunny in 1963 to expose the harassment and miserable working conditions of women who wore the Clubs’ uniforms. Today, there’s something satisfying about taking these symbols of sexual availability and servility and flipping their meaning. By combining bunny ears with a tailored jacket and skirt on the lecture platform at a university, museum, or other cultural institution, I’m doing something subversive. No longer do they signify that women are merely “Playmates.” Conversely, this is also my way of suggesting that women don’t have to be wholly serious to be feminists.

Emily Spivack

Tucked midway through the book is Spivack’s own story about a pair of cheap black flip-flops her grandmother bought for her nearly twenty years ago off the Delaware boardwalk. In a way, these unassuming essentials capture the essence of the project — a seemingly ordinary object of clothing imbued with immeasurable sentimental value, amplified over a lifetime. Spivack writes:

Over time, these flip-flops — plain, pulled from a rack without a thought, manufactured to be disposable but apparently indestructible — have become such a lasting fixture in my life. Precisely, perhaps, because they are so ordinary: you don’t even notice them casually accumulating the years, like the shops along Rehoboth Avenue, like grandmothers, like everything.

Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean, sage of the written word, recounts her “uniform fixation” — the lifelong quest to find the ideal, and as it turns out mythic, outfit that would capture her personality perfectly and be therefore bought in multiples to be worn forever. She captures this cyclical infatuation elegantly:

It’s a temporary delusion that comes over me with regularity — a belief that by wearing this perfect thing, I will look right and feel good no matter what. Like, “How did I not know that I’m an agnes b. T-shirt and denim skirt kind of person? Now, I’m going to order ten of each and I never have to buy clothes again.” When I’m in it, I totally believe I have found my look, my personal style.

It’s cultish and my own particular mania. Each time I start over again, I think, “those were false gods — I have now found the true God.” I even observe myself doing it. I understand that fashion, by definition, is a changing thing, and so is one’s body. I try to talk myself out of my own crazy conviction that I’ve finally solved the puzzle — and yet I can’t do it.

I guess it’s probably safer to be this way about clothing than men or religion or something that could be really dangerous.

Ross Intelisano

Ross Intelisano picks a tie once made by his beloved immigrant grandmother, Anna, who tailored all of his clothes growing up, worked until she was 78, and lived to be 95. Two weeks after her death, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways, where Intelisano’s family lived. The house was condemned and all access was denied, but a family friend bravely ventured in to retrieve a few surviving valuables, including Anna’s ties. Intelisano writes:

That day, my father came over to my house, smiling for what seemed like the first time since the storm. He proudly presented me with two of Anna’s ties. I wear them all the time. I like handling the silk as I knot the ties.

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith turns his penchant for subverting literature to fashion and recounts wearing an over-the-top paisley suit by avant-garde designer Thom Browne to the White House, where Goldsmith was invited to read some of his poetry to President Obama. Browne had designed the suit under his Brooks Brothers-owned Black Fleece label, taking Brooks Brothers’ signature patterns to an intentional extreme. Goldsmith recounts his exchange with the President that night, who was, coincidentally, wearing a conventional Brooks Brothers suit himself:

Upon our introduction, the first thing the President said to me was, “That’s a great suit! You know? I’d wear a suit like that. But my staff would never let me.” To which I replied, “Mr. President, this is one instance where it’s better being an artist than being the President of the United States: artists can wear anything they want.” And then he glanced down at my saddle shoes and exclaimed, “You’re wearing golf shoes!” Which in part was true, that being the genius of Thom Browne, to take something familiar and recontextualize it to the point of it being “wrong.” And that is exactly what I aimed to do with my performance: to straddle tradition and radicality, being both and, at the same time, being neither; to embrace contradiction, keep people guessing.

David Carr

The New York Times’ David Carr reminisces about searching for a cheap t-shirt in a classic New York moment of sweltering need, when you’re forced to choose between suffering your wholly indiscreet sweat stains or buying one of those ubiquitous “I♥NY” touristy shirts. (“You can’t wear a shirt like that ironically,” Carr notes, “unless, say, you hate New York, which I do not.”) Instead, he chanced upon a miraculous find at one of Manhattan’s myriad souvenir shops — a defective t-shirt, with the “New York” script printed upside-down. Noting the kink, Carr offered the shopkeeper $3 for the oddball shirt and gleefully walked off with his find. Except for the occasional compliment from a hipster on the subway, people notice the shirt but say nothing, of which Carr remarks:

I like that about my shirt: it is something that is intuitively understood in the City, as we insufferable locals call it, and is baffling to others, akin to many other aspects of living or working in New York.

Pat Mahoney

Some of the stories remind us that the assumptions we make — in this case, assumptions about what people seek to signal with their clothing choices — are often lightyears away from the truth. Take, for instance, the flesh-colored American Apparel nylon shorts selected by LCD Soundsystem founding member and drummer Pat Mahoney. One might write them off as a hipster or counter-hipster joke, but they actually represent a curious combination of extreme practicality and creative ritualization. Mahoney, who admits to sweating a great deal during his “epic sets” on stage, would regularly end up “drenched to the bone” after a show, his jeans left to dry in the tour bus until they smelled, much to his fellow bandmates’ dismay, “like rotten cotton.” He needed something quick-drying and light to wear onstage, so he bought the shorts on the road, fully aware of their laughable connotations. But over time, they came to serve a deeper psychological function — like a number of famous creators known for maintaining various odd habits and rituals to keep their creative flow flowing, Mahoney overcomes his chronic stage fright by employing “elaborate juju” — a compulsion to have everything just right, from the way he ties his sneakers to how he positions his drums on the rug — to get himself in a more secure mindset. Wearing the shorts became part of that creative ritual — part of the behavioral and environmental cues that psychology suggests help put us in a state of creative flow.

John Hodgman

“I have a dress and I have worn it many times,” comedian John Hodgman opens with a bang. That dress, it turns out, got its start when Hodgman was invited to impersonate Ayn Rand on the Dead Authors podcast. He writes:

I’d been fascinated with Rand since I’d written a story in the New York Times magazine about a competitive championship tournament bridge player who was also an active objectivist and Rand devotee. I had read half of Atlas Shrugged before I got the gist of my role. I really enjoyed the book because of its absurdly reductive philosophy that inadvertently plays on adolescent male narcissism like a jazz saxophone — to draw a connection to the famous Randian saxophonist and economist Alan Greenspan — but it also spoke directly to the adolescent male fantasy of “I’m the only smart one. Everyone is leeching off of me and I’d rather destroy my work than compromise my integrity by being nice to others.” Her moral severity came as a tonic to my cultural relativist upbringing.

The Rand impersonation eventually became a part of his stand-up routine and the dress was worn many times. Hodgman reflects on its allure:

Even though I’m imitating, in a ridiculous fashion, an exaggerated version of Ayn Rand, what precedes the moment of putting on the dress is an utter nudity of self, about as close as I’ll ever get.

Dorthy Finger

But undoubtedly the most moving story comes from Holocaust survivor Dorothy Finger, who was a child when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. Her family went into hiding, but inevitably succumbed to the tragic fate of so many Jews at the time. Her father was the first one killed, “almost beaten to death and then sent to an extermination camp.” Soon, her mother was shot. Dorothy herself was sent to a labor camp, where she was subjected to grueling toil and regularly beaten by the Nazis. On July 27, 1943, she escaped into the nearby forest with her aunt and two cousins as machine guns shot after them. They survived for a few months, into the middle of winter, huddling together to keep from freezing. But the Nazis eventually went looking for them, killing Dorothy’s aunt and her 17-year-old male cousin. Finger writes:

I was shot in the ear and I fainted. It just grazed my ear, but the impact of the explosion threw me on the earth and I was unconscious. I swear I saw my soul go to heaven, white angels and things like that. I thought I was dead and that when you’re dead you see yourself go to heaven. Of course, I understand now that I was not conscious. When I came to, I was even more upset. “God, why didn’t you finish me off, why didn’t you kill me, rather than slowly starve me to death? I have nobody. No parents.” I just had my second cousin in the forest with me.

The Nazis came back a second time. We heard shots coming from one side and we ran the other way. I fell through some ice into a body of water that wasn’t very deep. My instinct to live was so great that I could still think about how to survive.

I covered myself up with branches. I could hear the Ukrainians saying to the Nazis, “Somebody must have been running through there. I can see footprints.” And the Nazis said, “I don’t want to go that way or we’ll fall into the ice too. We’ll catch him the next time.” My heart stopped beating. I stopped breathing. I waited until I couldn’t hear their boots on the ice. I came out of the water with everything frozen on me, including the little dress that I wore until the day we were liberated from the forest.

In the forest, Finger got typhus and sank into a delirious fever. She lost all her hair and was so sick that she stayed in the fetal position until she was unable to walk, let alone run. At that point, she knew that if the Nazis came back, she’d be killed. She writes:

I don’t know what was worse — the fear, the hunger, the lice, or the humiliation.

Springtime came, and then summer, and it was warmer—although to this day, I am still cold.

I have not overcome it. The shooting started and it was coming from both sides. I still couldn’t run because I hadn’t completely recovered from the typhus. “I do not want to see the face of the Nazis that will shoot me,” I thought. I slowly moved from my back to my stomach. “Let them just shoot me in my back or my head and then it’ll be over.” The shooting stopped and I heard tanks coming into the forest, and I didn’t know if they were German or Russian. They were Russian tanks and they had come to liberate us, exactly one year from the day I entered the forest, July 27, 1944.

Young Dorothy eventually made it back to her hometown, but her few surviving neighbors had assumed she, like her parents, was dead, so they had discarded the family’s remaining possessions. The only thing she could recover was a piece of wool fabric from her family’s department store. She saved that, then wrote to an aunt and uncle in Delaware, who were eventually able to bring her to the United States. When she moved, her entire luggage — all her earthly possessions — consisted of two dresses, including the one she had worn that gruesome year in the forest, and the wool fabric. She made it to America, enrolled in high school, and graduated a year and a half later. Upon graduation, another uncle gave her $25 — a fortune in 1949 and in the context of her life — which she used to have a suit made from the wool fabric that was her only link to her family and her past life. Finger, now in her eighties, writes:

I always figured I’d be buried in it. But if people can learn from this suit and its history, what difference does it make what I’m buried in?

Worn Stories is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true labor of love that weaves this common thread of intensely personal, courageously vulnerable sartorial memories into a colorful tapestry of the human experience.

Photographs by Ally Lindsay; courtesy of Emily Spivack / Princeton Architectural Press

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