Archive for category: Artistic Tendencies

The Remains of the Day: One Year Later

11 Sep 2002
September 11, 2002

We are lucky enough to know that we are more than our losses.

Jenna Jacobs, Wife of Ariel Jacobs
who was killed at the WTC

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated, Foer’s American protagonist, Jonathan, searches for the Ukrainian woman who hid and protected his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II. But it is Alex, Jonathan’s Ukrainian guide, who ultimately understands the meaning behind the search. His narration and letters to Jonathan become our guide. His broken English is hard to understand but if we read carefully we are rewarded with insight and meaning.

Horoscope for 9/11During the past year I have felt like I am made up of two similar men. Like Jonathan, one is involved in the mechanics of the search—arranging for my journey, seeking expert guidance, and collecting facts. I have suddenly found myself in a strange land. Simultaneously, the other part of me is looking for meaning and understanding. Despite my inability to fully express myself and put together my words into some cogent form, it makes me feel better just trying. Ultimately, the effort pays off.

Learning that sadness and the excitement of discovery can coexist has made me stop and think a bit. There is something to be learned about listening carefully when we try to decipher Alex’s way of expressing himself. We really have to want to understand what he is saying. Funny how someone with such secondhand knowledge of our culture can understand our very American quest and force us think about who we are.

Now that I think about it, being forced to look at things from a new angle is a lesson I’ve had before (and one I’m likely to have again). Like most life lessons, if given the choice, I probably would have avoided it at all costs. But, of course, I didn’t have that choice. As Foer’s title suggests, this past year has been one where many things have become illuminated.

And so today begins a succession of anniversaries.

• • •

To commemorate this day, some of my friends and I will launch a memorial lantern in a tidal basin next to the Pentagon this morning. The official Pentagon ceremony will take place on the opposite side of the building (the side hit by the airliner) from where we will be.

When I was in Japan 19 years ago, working on a film about American POWs killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, I attended such a ceremony for victims of the blast along the banks of the Motoyasu River.

I couldn’t think of a more personal and meaningful way to remember those whose lives where irrevocably altered by the events of that morning, one year ago (thanks, Donna and Susie for your help).

Update: When Randall, Phyllis, and I arrived at our destination (land belonging to the US Park Service, right next to the Lady Bird Johnson Memorial Park) we unloaded the lantern and our cameras.

We walked to the edge of an embankment, directly across from the Pentagon, and looked for a place to launch the memorial. It was a problem as we were about 8 feet above the water. In addition, we were concerned about a burning candle so close to nearby boats moored at the marina. We lowered our lantern but it got wet as we tried to set it to sail in the brisk remnant breeze of Tropical Storm Gustav. Despite the wind, it was a beautiful day. Randall had prepared a CD of music with bells and sirens in the background.

We took video and stills of our preparations. Across the water (about 100 meters away) the occupants of a military humvee observed us. Commercial airliners took off directly over our heads from nearby National Airport.

Soon another humvee with two burly military police in full battle dress arrived to question what we were doing. The head of the Park Service for that area soon joined us. We told them about the memorial. While the military encouraged us to continue, they wanted to confiscate our imagery for security reasons. They asked us to put away our cameras. The music continued to play as they left.

We decided to jettison our initial idea for the ceremony and concentrate on sharing our thoughts. Without having to worry about the structure of the ceremony and without mediation from the media or politicians, we simply talked with each other.

As we started to leave, the Park Service officer returned to thank us for being cooperative. “In reality,” he said, “you have every right to photograph here. This is US Park property and I have jurisdiction here.” Tell that to the military.

Related Outtacontext Stories and Projects:
The Remains of the Day (September 11, 2001)
Hunting for Zippers in the Emperor’s New Clothes (September 13, 2001)
Reliving Ground Zero (January 28, 2002)
Dichotomy: It Was a Matter of Time and Place (A 9/11 Storytelling Project)

It’s All in the Background

13 Aug 2002
August 13, 2002

horoscope for August 13Some are headline type of people but I’m mostly a peripheral sort of guy. The edges and the background are where I like to live. If you know me, you might be surprised to hear me say that. I can be pretty forthright and direct. But it’s the underneath and in between I really love.

Take music. One of my secret desires is to be a backup singer. My voice is not lead material. And I hold no illusions about its quality. American Idol is neither my desire nor quest (I’m a much better critic of my range and choice of songs than judge Simon Cowell anyway). But singing backup, now that’s something I would love to do.

R and B would be my first choice. A little Aretha, with me standing stage right, in the middle of two really good backup singers. Our hand movements would be refined and independently in unison. Our voices soft but adding to the fullness of the song.

There is subtly to the background. It’s where interesting things often occur. The best is just inside our peripheral vision. If we listen for it or look directly at it we may not even see it. This makes it an even more intriguing place to explore.

I’ve just discovered one of the premiere background artists of the 20th century, Raymond Scott. Scott composed jazz and early electronic music in the 1930s. Born, Harry Warnow, like the great backgrounder he was to become, he took his new name from the phone book. He never meant for his compositions to recede but after Carl Stalling at Warner Bros. began using them as tracks on cartoons Scott’s place in Background History was assured. Those of you who grew up with these mid century toons will be recognize his work. Listen to The Toy Trumpet (Real Audio via Amazon.com) and tell me what zaniness comes to mind. Background coming to the foreground: that’s how we know we’ve been there.

It’s not surprising I’m a photographer. I’ve always been a voyeur: not a Peeping Tom but someone interested in what goes on around corners. When I was about six I was watching my dog through a crack in the door. I remember thinking “I wonder if he’d be doing the same thing if I wasn’t watching him.” I was very existential for my age.

Correct photographic composition dictates that in The Rule of Thirds, the important part of a composition takes place, not in the center of our view, but at the intersections of a three part grid. I like to go a little further. Sometimes the most interesting part of the image is at the very edge and sometimes it’s actually taking place outside of the frame. It’s eluded to by the position, pose, or actions of elements within the picture.

In everyday life, I look to these recesses for a lot of my information. In meetings, what’s she really saying? Oh, I hear what she’s saying but what does she really mean?

This isn’t to say I’m always walking this edge, looking for hidden meanings and agendas. I’m not paranoid. But language can be so subtle and our own filters so overbearing, sometimes we’re missing something important and special if we don’t look and listen carefully. It’s getting harder to find these edges in the news or listening to our politicians. We know about spin. But how can we find out what’s beyond it? Especially when it’s clear we’re not wanted there.

Often there are competing and overlapping issues and it’s often difficult to separate the black from the white. In our neighborhood, the local rescue squad wants to relocate. Its present building, in the center of the business district, is too small.

Simultaneously, the Catholic high school, a mile or so down the street (and close to our neighborhood), is moving. A developer has already petitioned the county to rezone the school’s 15 acres for development. Right now it zoned for one house per half acre. The developer wants to change that so that they can build 15 townhouses on an acre.

Years ago the rescue squad bought three parcels of land next to the high school. They’ve been waiting to develop it and move there. But a county planner suggested a land swap. What if the rescue squad gave their land to the developer (for even more houses I suppose) and in exchange the county would let them relocate to the site of our present community center (which is even closer to our neighborhood—right next to it in fact)? We are concerned about the center’s loss and moving a loud set of fast moving trucks and ambulances next to a residential area and the regional public library.

What do we protest first? Massive urban growth with over 200 new townhouses in a neighborhood of single homes? The increased pressure new children entering the already overcrowded elementary school will add to our children’s education experience? The loss of our community center? Questionable land swaps?

We support our rescue squad. More than 75% of its income comes from neighbors like us. We don’t want them to think we aren’t appreciative of their work, but we don’t want them to move out of the business district and into our quiet neighborhood.

What’s really going on? What’s happening along the edges, whispers after meetings amongst politicians and developers (a little paranoia might be justified here)? Vocal reassurances of support for the Squad mixed with murmers of strange bedfellows. Who is sleeping with whom in this rather murky place is next to impossible to observe. Sometimes the background is a pretty crowded and ambiguous place to be.

In the film, Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio shows us what happens when we don’t pay attention to those edges. He states:

“If one lives in this world, the globalized world of high technology, all one can see is one layer of commodity piled upon another. In our world the “original” is the proliferation of the standardized. Copies are copies of copies. There seems to be no ability to see beyond, to see that we have encased ourselves in an artificial environment that has remarkably replaced the original, nature itself.”

Despite my pursuit along the edges, I often suddenly realize how myopic my senses have become. Daily work and family schedules, Palm calendar filled with meetings, playdates, and reports due. Even my recreation is on a path, the bike path this morning. The same beautiful path I ride every weekend. I go around a corner, not too fast, but the wet pavement from the storm the night before makes me slip. More like a glide I remember in slow motion. And suddenly I am scraping along the asphalt, my arm bleeding and my bike chain broken.

I take an immediate inventory, a little in shock. My first thought is, thankfully, no one was watching my spastic ballet. After seeing my arm I wish someone had been there. Otherwise, I am fine and begin walking home. But it’s far and I think I should wash my wound as soon as I can.

I start asking people along the path if they have a phone (nuts, I used to carry mine). And while I’m talking to these people, I realize I’m talking to these people. Formerly on my seemingly unimportant periphery, they are now central to my moment. I walk past a spur in the path that leads to a neighborhood of houses. I’ve never taken this path before but perhaps I can stop and use someone’s phone.

I see two men standing in their open garage. I almost stop, then instinctively move on. At the next house a man is washing his car, a Range Rover. I ask if I can use his phone. Showing my bloody arm is my guest pass into his life. He brings me into his workroom, lifts the phone, and hands me the receiver. It’s a pink princess phone, once in a bedroom and now relegated to the workshop. How incongruous I thought. Funny how in these times your mind is so observant.

When I ask for directions so my wife can pick me up he says “why don’t I take you home.” While I’m familiar with the bike path, once off of it, even so close, I have no idea where I am. I accept with a mixture of relief and gratitude but feel funny. Now my journey off the edge has taken this man in an unforeseen direction.

Once he gets to the main street I see where I am. As we ride up the highway he suddenly says “where’d you get your Kawasaki’s?” Surprised at the non-sequitur, I hear myself thinking “I was riding a bike, not a motorcycle.” I grapple with the connection. Where is my mind? “My eyeglasses, you mean my glasses?” Both he and his wife are optometrists. We talk about drilling holes in these frameless lenses and how the magnetic clip-on sunglasses are so cool to put on (everyone thinks the case is a cell phone and when you whip it out to put on your glasses someone asks if you need to make a call). We reach my house.

I thank him and offer some money for his time and trouble. This isn’t what I want to give him. My gratitude is more important to me. He agrees. And as I walk my bike to the garage I walk away from this edge with a reminder that there’s something special to be found when you live in the background.

Conceptual Hobbies: My Primer

06 Jul 2002
July 6, 2002

Once again the news is authenticating my life. The latest example comes from New Scientist magazine. It is reporting that studies now show that people become more eccentric as they age: “Odd and eccentric behaviour increases with age—but flamboyant behaviour becomes less pronounced, according to a new UK study.”

Horoscope for July 6Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about my, um, specialness (ok, quirks) for the last month. This is what happens when an artist moonlights as a bureaucrat. To offset the effects of paper pushing, project managing, and heavy administrative duties most federal workers cultivate outside interests—hobbies: sports, stamp collecting, and primping one’s car, that sort of thing. This is especially important for an artist in my position. And after a long day in my cube, I’ve been encouraging myself to develop relaxing counterpoints. I started by inventorying my interests.

Immediately I hit an obstacle. As an artist much of my free time (the little I have these days with full time job and full time family) is spent vying with my wife (who is also an artist) for time alone to do my work. My Work. This is how artists define our art endeavors. Serious stuff that can be fun and gratifying. Serious, fun, and gratifying? No wonder the general public thinks the word “artist” is an oxymoron? To some our activities are more akin to hobby material. Extra stuff.

When it comes to hobbies, I do, however, have some extra stuff. I continued compiling my extracurricular inventory.

Because my life is so packed, I’ve become good at organization. For an artist/bureaucrat/father with hobbies, proper time management is the key. So I have developed activities that are economical (nothing to buy or maintain), portable (require no space and are easy to accomplish almost anywhere—they are totally “non-object-oriented”), and inexpensive. These are conceptual hobbies. In no particular order, here they are:

First to clap. I like to be the very first to clap at the conclusion of a lecture, panel discussion, performance, or any other venue at which I am part of the audience. I’ve been doing this for about five years. It happened quite naturally actually. I simply took note of it one day when I was the first to put my hands together (artists often notice things others don’t).

After that, it became something I could collect (I’ve been the first to clap at over 120 events). I noticed how powerful I felt (perfect for our post-9/11 world) and it was so simple. Finally, it was something I could do on my own. I didn’t have to consult with anyone, get a critique, or rely on any fancy setup or organization. No highly effective collaboration techniques required. I could do this at will.

Starting Conversations in Elevators with Strangers. This is not something I can plan. It happens when the conditions are just right. And it takes a quick assessment of the other potential participants to determine if they might be open to bucking a strong, very human condition: looking towards the elevator door and staring at it in silence. It helps when the elevator has two sets of doors (often seen in DC’s subway), where you enter on one side and exit on the other. The group desire to face one direction is reduced. Individuals in this type of “pack” often face each other, further reducing the effect of this conditioning.

What you talk about under these conditions depends on the context of the elevator’s location. For example, the elevator at the end of my commute to work surfaces onto an area filled with various federal offices and Smithsonian museums. Early in the morning there aren’t many tourists so, it’s safe to assume we are mostly government workers. Conversations on this particular elevator are harder to start later in the day when the group is more variegated (and more exhausted after all that paper pushing).

Also, commuting with your children enhances the possibility a group discourse will ensue. My children, for example, love to press elevator buttons. And I’ve developed a fair system for making sure each gets her fill every day. We simply alternate (as my children have gotten older, they now allow me a place in this que). Last week, as we entered the lift, there was a small disagreement as to whose turn it was to press the button. It had been a particularly trying commute and everyone could tell my girls were antsy. As we entered, my eldest daughter decided that my bellybutton was considered an official button. Quickly sizing up the group, I stated “Yes, you press my buttons.” It got a nice laugh and everyone started discussing our children.

Incorporating TV advertising slogans in normal day-to-day conversations. I love advertising and the psychology behind it. Developing a previously unnecessary market for some new item facinates me. Home shopping networks are amazing. I love the way the “selling jockey” describes each product. How do they make these things sound so delicious and desireable? Listening to callers convey their pleasure at their latest purchase is equally wonderful to hear.

Before we got cable, I used to go over to my mother’s-in-law to watch QVC. She thought I was nuts and decided to alter my viewing habits (at least to get me out of her house) by buying us six months of cable for our next anniversary. To thank her, initially as a joke, I bought her one caret cubic zirconium earrings for her birthday. This is part of QVC’s Diamondique Collection (which is celebrating its 15th anniversary on the show, by the way). We were all surprised to see how big and and sparkling they were. My mother-in-law loved them (and for $34.95, they were a steal).

This is only background to my interest in speaking advertisese in my everyday life. A few years ago I could be found to inject the McDonald’s slogan “You deserve a break today…” quite often. After all, we did deserve a break as office workers and parents, so injecting it was not out of context. And that’s both the art and thrill of this hobby: incorporating these bits of Madison Avenue totally within the context of your conversation. It has to be seamless. The biggest thrill is when I can do this in a meeting without anyone even noticing. My eccentric hobbies involve some stealth. That’s part of the fun and excitement. See if you can inject these phrases at your next meeting: Can you hear me now? Good. (Verizon), Yeah, it’s kinda like that. (Sierra Mist), and We can’t make you work better, but we can make you better at work. (Allegra).

Amazingly, I seem to have passed this activity on to my eldest daughter. When she was about 17 months old, as we were driving around on suburban errands, my daughter would laugh as she proclaimed “There’s the Starbucks Logo!” How many parents can say that one of their daughter’s first words was logo?

Now that she’s older, she does equally well injecting lines from TV in her daily chat. Yes, we are a little concerned. But, as she gets older, we will just have to pay close attention to her sense of money, value, the marketplace, and need. Each child requires specific direction. And this is now on our list. Of course, I am secretly proud she is showing signs of idiosyncratic behavior. But it must be matched with wisdom and an understanding of the world. In due time.

Savings Bonds for Babies. Finally, one of my most gratifying hobbies. Eighteen years ago I was wondering how I could give back to the community I was born into. Trying to approach this creatively (after all, doesn’t eccentricity have a strong creative element behind it?) I decided every year, on my birthday, I wanted to give a savings bond to the baby born closest to the exact time of my birth at the hospital I was born in. As simple as this sounds (idiosyncratic behavior also incorporates an element of simplicity), it was not easy to carry off.

After finding the right department of the hospital, I had to convince them I was not off my rocker, that I was on the up-and-up (yes, this behavior can attract this personality trait too). It wasn’t much, a $50 savings bond with no strings attached. If the child’s parents wanted to get in touch with me that was fine. But I went out of my way to say this was as pure a gift as I could muster. No acknowledgement was necessary and, while I told them I hoped they would use it for the child’s needs, they could use it for whatever they wanted.

Once the hospital and I had established a relationship, we had to reassure the newborn’s parents that this was legit. A US Savings Bond requires a social security number. Many of these families were latino or from other immigrant groups. I could see where they might be a little leery.

For years I wanted to remain anonymous. I didn’t want any focus on me. One year, my hospital contact sent me an article that appeared in their hospital newsletter about an Anonymous Gift Giver. I must admit, I felt a little like the other Gates. Neat. But, again, I wanted no attention from this. In fact, this was a huge relief to me, given that, early on, I was trying to develop my career which did require some often exhausting attention getting.

A few years back, as my birthday approached, my wife and I talked about remaining anonymous. She made a good case for talking about it as it might encourage others to do the same. So, I slowly began to go public, telling a few friends at first and then some coworkers. I don’t know what it is, but it’s difficult to speak about this.

As a bonus for telling people, some tell me little quiet things they do to “pass it around.” Just last week, I mentioned this to someone in my office and she told me her father surreptitiously places $2 bills in arbitrary books in his public library. Amazing. Do any of you know of any other like-minded acts? My birthday’s coming up in the next couple of weeks. It’s time for me to get in touch with the hospital.

I’m hoping the UK study is true. I’m hoping that as I get older my eccentric tendencies will only increase. It helps me make sense of the world, such as it presently is.

Culturally Attaché

22 Jun 2002
June 22, 2002

This past week I participated in the The World Mediation Summit here in Washington, DC. Attended by government workers, cultural representatives from numerous embassies, artists, and cultural workers, it was sponsored by the US Department of Art and Technology and the Goethe-Institut.

In my duel roles as both Deputy Secretary of the Department (working directly under the Secretary, Randall Packer) and Under Secretary for the Office of Artist and Homeland Insecurity, I was asked to give some opening remarks:

The events of September 11 have caused all Americans to look at the world and our lives in new ways. We are beginning to question what it means to be an American within the greater world stage. Like Pearl Harbor, the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have once again jolted us out of our isolationism. This presents us with a unique opportunity. Let us reevaluate the relationship between our government and its policies and the contributions of artists and other cultural workers.

We are standing at a divide, just as we were soon after December 7, 1941. We can redefine our country by building taller, more impenetrable walls or we can promote our way of life by looking for new ways to solve our problems.

In Milan Kundera’s novel, Immortality, a 19th century artist, Goethe, meets a 19th century politician, Napoleonn, in front of a late 20th century group of photographers and news media. While Goethe has never heard the phrase “sound bite,” he is familiar with its essence and so recognizes Napoleon’s intent when he proclaims “The theatre should become a school of the people.”

For centuries artists have developed creative ways of looking at the world. So, why aren’t more artists teaching at this school of the people? Employ our strengths and the country will be stronger and more able to adapt to the changing world around us. Work with us to become more inclusive domestically and more responsible internationally.

Our intent, this evening, is to provide you with sound bites. We trust you will understand their essence and know how to put them to good use.

In my previous position as Director of ArtFBI, I fought for seriously considering the importance of artists in our society. The US Department of Art and Technology hopes to take this further by working with both our goverment and the international community to use artist expertise to help solve domestic and world problems.

The Department promotes media art, cultural growth, the artist voice in reshaping public policy, and improved aesthetic standards for all Americans in our virtual world. The World Mediation Summit culminated with the signing of the Articles of Artistic Mediation, a document forged to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and cultural understanding by the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war, by the prescription of open, informed cultural dialogue between nations, by the establishment of the understanding of the aspirations of the artist as a model for spiritual and moral conduct among Governments, and by the maintenance of the role of the artist as a mediator on the world stage.

You can read Secretary Packer’s address to the assembly on the US Department of Art and Technology’s web site. And you will be hearing from us, as our ranks swell, in the near future.

Reliving Ground Zero

28 Jan 2002
January 28, 2002

Last week I took a trip up to NYC to see Ground Zero. I’d been wanting to make the trip for some time. And, after working on Dichotomy since September, I felt it was important to take the trip. They’ve recently put up a platform, about two blocks away from the site. You have to get [free] tickets at the South Street Seaport kiosk, about 7 blocks to the East.

horoscopeMany have mixed emotions about The Platform. Some see it as just another stop on a tourist’s itinerary and are concerned about the carnival atmosphere at the site. Even though I’m sure it exists I didn’t see any evidence of that attitude.

While in the city, I met with a friend who is involved with many art and culture issues. He told me that a panel he was helping to organize on 9/11 was just cancelled due to lack of interest, not only by the public but by the panel members! The event affected all of us in a major way as a nation (that is, feeling a part because we are all Americans) and in individual ways, whether we experienced 9/11 directly, knew people who did, or simply witnessed it on TV. After four months, there seems to be a whole range of feelings now from “let’s move on” to “I’ve hardly begun to process this.”

As you look at the site now, the viewer’s experience is, in a way, too abstract. Ground Zero is about 2 blocks from the platform and it now looks more like a construction site. The initial visual shock is missing for most of us. And for most who haven’t spent a lot of time in the city, it’s hard to remember where the WTC would be in one’s field of view as you walk down the streets.

Yet many are drawn here because they want it to be more concrete and less abstract. It’s important to them. I overheard a woman here in DC say she was taking her children to see the site so they would think a little about the realities of what happened. To a some teenagers who have grown up with the mayhem and murder on TV, these things can be pretty abstract and unbelievable.

I was there at about 5:15 pm. The sun had set, yet the sky was still blue in the west, in the direction we were looking. It was cold and windy. I felt the beauty of living with the realities of what we went through. And, I’m glad I went. Yes, of course, there were some who took snapshots but documenting this place and our contact with it is as important as documenting any family event. I’ve created documentation of my own at The Platform (Quicktime 2.3 MB).

* * *

Update: I just found out the Dichotomy is a Finalist in the Art/Culture category at the SXSW Festival!

A Review of Performance Reviews

13 Jan 2002
January 13, 2002

horoscopeIt’s January in Washington, DC. Nestled snuggly between The Holiday Season and The Tax Season in this town is The Performance Review Season! This is the period when all good federal government supervisors are “tasked” with evaluating the performance of their staff. Deadlines loom and are taken very seriously, so it’s important not to procrastinate.

Before I was hired, in my interview with our Administration people, I was asked what I would do if I had to fire someone. Since this was my first 9-5 job ever, and the only people I had previously supervised were my students, I only had my common sense to draw upon. “I’d make sure I hired good people in the first place!” I responded guilelessly. And that has been my policy (and good luck) from Day 1. I work with a wonderful group of people who do their jobs well and make mine a pleasure.

Talk of review deadlines starts just before Christmas. Of course, no one really begins until New Year’s passed. Last week I began working, not just on my staff’s reviews, but on listing my own achievements for my own review. It was hard to piece together everything I did last year (may I recommend monthly reports, if only to remind you in December of what wondrous things you did in January?). But, once I got it all down, it was very gratifying to see what I actually did. I left work last Monday with a warm sense of accomplishment.

This week I wanted to assemble each worker’s review, their 2002 Performance Plan (with duty changes updated), and the official cover sheet to get them to my boss before the deadline (think 1040 (long), Schedules C and D, and Estimated Tax multiplied by the number of people you are responsible for). Since paperwork is not my forté, I like to dispense with it as soon as I can (not that I don’t take great care in writing these things).

Here’s how it works: each January I write a Performance Plan for the upcoming year for each employee using a template supplied by my higherups. My job is to list basic job assignments in the first column and more detailed duties in the second. Critical (i.e. important and heavily weighted) categories are noted with an asterisk. The third column, Actual Performance, is left blank and is filled out at the end of the year. The last three columns allow you to check whether they Exceeded, Met, or Not Met these criteria at year’s end.

From a design point of view, I’ve never been one for filling in prefab forms. I always feel an incredible sense of pressure to weigh my words to fit the space I’ve been allotted without touching the bounding lines (proper forms always make you put things in boxes). Of course, what I usually write is initially greater than the space I’ve been given. I hate going over those lines! It makes me, um, uncomfortable (whatever the reason for filling these things out, I’m always afraid I’ll be disqualified if I do). Do I edit or forget making it look elegant. Form or function? The old conundrum.

But now, with computers and the ability to use minuscule type, it’s possible to say as much as you want and still make it look good. Form and function can both be achieved! The only problem here is that I am required to place my final review comments on the original (signed by both the worker and the chain of superiors) form. Last year I was allowed to simply create an additional attachment page to write as much as I wanted. Life was good.

I’d planned to do the same this year when I was informed that OHR (personnel) had issued a clarifying email that stated we were no longer allowed to do this. Everything had to be on the original. Deep down, really deep down, I understood the importance of this. After all, this was a legal document and if a negative job action had to be taken, it was important to uphold the veracity of that document. But, I appealed to my boss anyway.

He deferred to Admin (but warned me to give into the “force” now, for my sake). And Admin pointed to OHR. I invoked my patented “is this worth fighting for?” internal bureaucratic checksum system. It immediately sent a warning to cease and desist this futile action. I resigned myself to figuring out how to put all I’d writen in the space alloted on the original form.

The choices: use a typewriter (where even the Elite typeface was sure to mess the form beyond the beyond, and besides, there was a long line to use the only typewriter on our floor) or cut and paste into the original form. But I couldn’t actually cut and paste something onto the form, it had to be entered directly on that sheet! This was why I never became a graphic designer. Despite my Masters degree in the subject, in the olden days, I hated doing real pasteups.

I was trapped (indulge me this one obscure inside joke). The only way to do it was to type my assessment in a copy of each worker’s review, making sure not to write more than the original space alloted. Then print it and use pieces of paper and whiteout to block out everything on the form but my appraisal (especially the column lines). With the comments in the right place I’d feed the signed review into the copier and, hopefully, it would fit perfectly in the right space.

It took me a good two hours to cover everything up on my staff’s documents. I printed out blank copies to practice copying on. I was tense. Would it work?

I assembled everything I needed and walked quickly to the copier. The first test showed that it sort of fit. Not perfectly: it was a little crooked, the margins were a bit uneven, and, yes, a recalcitrant word slipped beyond the boundary here and there. But then it hit me: IT DIDN’T MATTER IF IT FIT PERFECTLY! All along I had been focusing on my high design standards when it was the very different office standards that really mattered. OHR didn’t care if my review looked good! They simply wanted it on the signed original! The tension vaporized. I began to breathe again. It was over. They were done and they were done perfectly.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074