3 poems for friday

October 5, 2007

Parable of the Hostages

by Louise Glück

The Greeks are sitting on the beach

wondering what to do when the war ends. No one

wants to go home, back

to that bony island; everyone wants a little more

of what there is in Troy, more

life on the edge, that sense of every day as being

packed with surprises.

Continue reading at Poetry Foundation…


Eyes Fastened With Pins

by Charles Simic

How much death works,

No one knows what a long

Day he puts in. The little

Wife always alone

Ironing death’s laundry.

The beautiful daughters

Setting death’s supper table.

               Continue reading at Poets.org...


A Vagrant

by Sherwood Anderson
I am become a brightly colored insect.
I am a boy lying by a river on a summer day.
At my back is an orchard.

Continue reading at Poetry Daily…


Beware. Fixing a problem isn’t always as simple as A, B, C.

Let me explain.

Our daughter started kindergarten a few weeks ago. One week in she wanted to share with me how WE do the alphabet song in MY class.

She’s known how to sing/say her ABCs properly for a couple of years, but this time when she gets to the LMNOP section she slows down and sings it without the N. She does it again, but this time inverts some of the letters in that section. She repeats it incorrectly again, as if for emphasis.

I’m not sure if she’s teasing me. I say don’t you mean L-M-N-O-P. She firmly says NO and does it wrong again. I tell her no that’s not right. She says yes, that’s how my teacher says to do it.

I ask her if she maybe heard it wrong, or whether the teacher was teasing or testing them, wanting them to spot the mistake…? No, no, no! My daughter says maybe I am wrong about the alphabet, or maybe their alphabet at school was different.

I assure her that there is indeed only one alphabet (at least for English) and that the whole purpose of the song is to help kids remember the order of the letters, so singing it out of order was counterproductive. She will have none of it.

A marvelous start to her public school education.

We eventually agree that I will ask the teacher next time I saw her. And I do so a few days later.

Of course the teacher wasn’t teaching them to do the letters in a different order. But she was having them sing it differently, with claps at various intervals, one being in the middle of the infamous LMNOP. She said it was helpful to do it this way because so many kids think LMNOP is one word and this way they recognize the distinct letters. That’s the theory anyway.

Of course, because that’s common knowledge about kids and the alphabet, I had always slowed down that section and had made a point of enunciating those letters distinctly. We also discussed (and laughed about) how little kids often say LMNOP as one word, so she wouldn’t get thrown off by hearing it that way.

This is not a rant about public school (my daughter’s teacher is warm and caring and bright).

It’s just a reminder to watch out for unintended consequences.

It happens in all fields, on scales large and small.

Saddam Hussein is bad. So removing him will be good, right?

I’ve certainly seen it a lot in the corporate world.

There’s a study. Or a usability session. Or a focus group. Or some guy in the Product group’s mother had trouble with something. And so everything needs to be fixed according to this “finding.”

But the finding is misinterpreted. Misapplied. Over-extended. Not properly communicated. So the fixes don’t always fix. They breaks things. Or they may fix in one area and break in another, as probably happened in my daughter’s kindergarten class.

Caveat fixer.


Let me explain.Today on Kottke.org I saw a link to a piece about Roger Federer and his “relaxed concentration.”

It’s a subject that’ s interested me for a while now, since I’ve always loved sports and had a fascination with zen. A good book on this subject, which was what got me thinking about it ages ago, is The Inner Game of Tennis.

When preforming at their peak, athletes typically report being “in the zone.” I know that beautiful feeling first-hand, albeit at a much lower level than a pro.

It is definitely a time of relaxed concentration, a zone of calm fluidity that’s conspicuously devoid of doubt, hesitation, or self-consciousness. You don’t think. You just do. Act. React. Flow. And if you’re thinking at all, it’s really more like a knowing or trusting than thinking. Knowing the ball’s going in. And it does. (Think Luke Skywalker trusting the Force to work through him.)

Great athletes are those who can get in the zone more often, stay in it longer, or summon it in big games/tournaments. The later are called “clutch” performers, like Derek Jeter or Tom Brady, and they are contrasted by the “chokers” (until last year, the incomparable regular-season star Peyton Manning was criticized for choking in the big games).

Kottke also links back to a previous post on relaxed concentration in acting, which links out to another piece by John Lahr about stage fright, the antithesis of relaxed concentration (something I’m also familiar with).

That got me thinking about writing. Or rather not writing: writer’s block.

“Stagefright is a traumatic, insidious attack on the performer’s expressive instrument: the body. According to the psychoanalyst Donald Kaplan, who studied this morbid form of anxiety, the trajectory of stagefright begins with manic agitation and moodiness, proceeds to delusional thinking and obsessional fantasies, and then to “blocking” – the “complete loss of perception and rehearsed function.” [Bold emphasis mine.]

Because the immediacy and intensity of the stage actor’s experience (unlike the actor, the writer can walk away from his desk, never go to his desk, or simply sit and doodle without any immediate consequences), stage fright typically has more obvious and dramatic outward symptoms.

But at the core, I really think it’s the same underlying issue as writer’s block (as well as some sports performance issues).

It’s self doubt. It’s personal insecurity. It’s being watched (or read) by the audience. It’s the critics.

“Stagefright, with its ties to both terror and shame, inspires a powerful desire to hide.”

The actor experiences more intense terror because he/she will be watched, and the choice to hide has more dramatic and immediate repercussions for him/her, all the cast and crew, and the audience members already present in the theater.

Writer’s in general have the greater ability to hide. They simply don’t write. Writer’s block is the writer hiding. Hiding from anxiety. Hiding from responsibility. Hiding from scrutiny, critique, rejection, destruction.

Some types of writers with specific assignments and tight deadlines, such as journalists and tv staff writers, share the actor’s experience even more. Though in some of those cases, a meaningful distinction would be that the end product is either shared (staff will write the episode together) or not personally identifiable (copywriter for an e-commerce website).

Sometimes to write well (and on deadline) you need to get out of your own way. You need to trust that it will happen and be confident in the outcome. You need to court [pardon the pun] that Roger Federer inside you.
You find a way to get in the zone, so you’re just relaxed and focused and engaged, and the ideas and words just flow. And you know it’s good. And you try to stay out of the way and simply let it happen. Ahhh, it’s a beautiful (and too rare) feeling.

Like being Federer at your keyboard. Game. Set. Save As…

Clear views ahead

September 27, 2007

I’m a little behind on The Times (NY). I just got around to reading an interesting article from the Times Magazine about the new font, called Clearview, rolling out on highway signs nationwide. It was surprising to learn that this was:

“the first time in the nation’s history that anyone attempted to apply systematically the principles of graphic design to the American highway.”

With all the agencies and bureaucracies, you’d think that someone would have said, hey, lets make sure the signs people need to read while they are driving really fast are clear. You’d think.

But here’s something that got me thinking more:

“I’ve always thought that design can be a form of social activism.” – Don Meeker, environmental graphic designer behind the new font

This is not some flame-throwing radical. Not someone railing against injustice. Just someone who thinks that our country could use a little more clarity. And I couldn’t agree more.

Whether or not you call clarity-enhancing design social activism, it seems clear that clarity (usability & readability) is in short supply. With negative consequences large and small for our society.

Think back to the 2000 election and the infamous butterfly ballot usability problems in Florida. (A butterfly effect indeed.)

Think about Target’s award-winning prescription drug bottle designs (called ClearRX), which are meant to address, amongst other usability issues, the serious problem that about 60% of patients have taken the wrong medicine due to lack of labeling clarity.

Think about how much time you waste trying to figure out how to assemble toys for your kids because the instructions aren’t clear. Or program the VCR,DVR, cell phone, insert-your-pet-peeve-here. Companies that breakthrough usability/clarity issues with great design often win fanatical followers (iPod, Tivo).

Sometimes clarity and usability suffers simply because of inattention, as was the case for the highway system. Sometimes there are economic issues (outsourced product manufacturers outsource their instruction manuals as well, or choose to skimp on paper quantity or print quality).

And sometimes unclear design is a conscious choice: creative directors who think first about their design (and their own portfolios) and second or third about the customer or potential customer who must interact with their design. So font colors are changed from black to gray. Font sizes go down a point or two. Web site conventions are ignored.

But I do think the tide is turning. There’s much more focus on usability and consumer-centric design and marketing. And Apple’s success illustrates the profitable sweet spot where cutting-edge design and clear usability intersect.

Upfront in the short run, that may be a more costly path (you do pay a premium for Apple product), but I think it’s the smarter path from a long-term economic standpoint (product differentiation, user loyalty, product premiums). And better for society.

On a personal note, since my daughter is just starting kindergarten, I’m hoping that homework assignment usability has improved since I was little. It sometimes use to drive me crazy reading the instructions over and over trying to figure out if they meant I should do X or Y. Stay tuned.

Why t.c.?

September 25, 2007

After all, nobody knows me as T.C. Well, almost.

Back in a former life I decided to try improv. Comedy improv.

I’ll pause for a moment to give those who’ve know me in the corporate world as a pretty quiet, distinctly logical and level-headed, absolutely untheatrical Editorial/Creative Director time to get back into their chairs. Yes, I really did do improv. At the Groundlings.

Even back then it was, shall we say, a departure.

Sure, I was taking acting classes and had even been in a few plays (including performing the lead in Macbeth in front of 2 people, more on that sometime).

But I was always a sports guy, not an acting guy. A thinker, not a ham. I had only started acting to conquer my lifelong fear of being in front of people (which I never really did).

But in acting I always knew that my fear was manageable as long as I was 100% solid on my lines. Not knowing my lines would be like walking into the board room naked. Not knowing my lines would be like…IMPROV.

So I had to sign up for an improv class.

And as long as I was torturing myself I might as well violate my own personal Geneva Convention and make sure it was a comedy class. None of my acting classes had touched comedy. At least intentionally.

I began eying the Groundlings. Even back then in the 90s it was a pretty famous place, kind of like Second City West, having produced SNL’s Laraine Newman, Jon Lovitz, Julia Sweeney, Phil Hartman, and Paul Rubens, whose Pee Wee Herman character was created at the Groundlings. (The SNL pipeline continued with Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, and many more.)

I imagine it was a bit like shopping around for a cemetery. You want to pick the right place, but you don’t really want to imagine yourself there.

It was so hard to get my head around doing this – performing without lines AND trying to be funny at the same time. I felt I needed something.

Like a new name.

Or if not exactly a new name (too theatrical), I could at least start using my initials. That would feel different enough. And the author of World’s End, one of my favorite recent novels at the time, was T.C. Boyle. Who was, and is, quite a character.

So, as I filled out the Groundlings application, I smiled at my own little inside joke as I wrote…

Name: T.C. Sullivan.

And when they asked me in the first class if that’s what I wanted to be called, I hesitated only briefly and said yes.

TC it was.

The Groundlings had 4 levels and you had to qualify to move from level to level. My recollection is that a fairly small percentage moves on, perhaps 15-20% from each class, so I didn’t expect to be T.C. too long.

But I made it out of level 1 (thanks Patrick) and then out of level 2 (thanks Mike). On to Level 3.

This was a new level of terror, something I hadn’t contemplated when I signed up. Level 3 was a Writing Lab.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like writing. Rather, that I did. I loved it. I admired writers more than anything. Which is why I always had so much trouble doing it. I had given myself the perfectionist’s, the romantic’s luxury of writer’s block. That would end in a hurry.

Teacher: OK guys, you’ve got 10 minutes to write a monologue and perform it. No exceptions. No excuses. Go.


But I did it. Again and again.

Some of it was pretty funny, but all of it was miraculous. Miraculous that it happened at all. Happened like that: on demand.

The end of excuses. The end of writer’s block. And the beginning of my career as a writer.

I was finally forced to get it: To write…you just wrote. Terrifyingly simple. But simple nevertheless.

At the end of the year we put on a show (part written, part improv) that was open to the public. Someone in the audience was there to see another performer, but she knew my brother from New York City. She called him after the show and said she thought she saw me.

My brother: My brother? Tom? In an improv show. Comedy?

His friend: Yeah, looked just like you. He was good.

My brother: You sure it was Tom?

His friend: Pretty sure. The program said T.C. Sullivan. Why didn’t you tell me your brother was funny?

That’s why I resurrected T.C. for this blog.

Not to be funny. But because I’ve been sitting on the blogging sidelines too long, thinking that it wasn’t for me. Thinking it wasn’t me. So maybe it’s T.C?

I’m hoping to reclaim that improv spirit. Not too much planning. Not too much stressing. Not too much editing (of topic ideas or words).

I don’t have the time to do it any other way (3 little kids, job commute, blah blah blah). But I also think one of reasons that many of the best blogs are popular is the improv spirit behind them.

Good bloggers put themselves out there on a regular basis. Observations. Opinions. Passions. They say stuff without getting all levels of their inner bureaucracy to edit and approve. They say YES (that’s a Groundlings technique I hope to focus on soon) to topics and GO. The resulting authenticity of expression is something increasingly in demand in this Post-Media age.

At least that’s what I’m thinking right now. More to come.

Thanks for sticking with me while I make this up.