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Su s h

Off theTop of My Head An Al phabeti cal Odyssey




vii Foreword

xii Acknowledgments

xiv Introduction

xviii Alphabet



8 Boundary



22 Discrimination





48 Gestalt

60 How Are You?

72 Imagine

84 Jackie

96 Karola’s Kitchen

110 Language 124 Myths, Memes, and the Marines



150 Opera, Option, and Organization 164 Power 178 Question 190 Risk 202 Silence, Space, System, Strategy



230 Unity and Uncertainty 242 Vision 256 The Six W’s 268 X = The Unknown 282 YES! 294

Zabaglione and Zero

309 About the typefaces 318 About the author 319 About the book designer





Outward aspect; external show; the presentation of oneself —Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

When I asked Elof Eriksson, my surgeon, what the negative consequences of his recommended procedure to rid me of melanoma would be, he answered that if all went well they would only be cosmetic. After explaining in detail what that meant, he asked how I felt about a possible radical change in my appearance. I replied I was sure that I would be able to handle that without any difficulty. It immediately brought to mind the following poignant memory. Having been born with a physical deformity—a spastic condition on my right side making it smaller and weaker than my left side, a severe curvature of my spine, causing a small hunch back, and a ptosis, a drooping of my right eye lid—as a child I considered myself a physical mess. Add to that the need to wear leg braces, the fact that the late forties and fifties, when I grew up, celebrated the good looks of movie/sports stars, and the fact that society did not easily tolerate the aberrant appearance of physically or mentally challenged individuals, and you can see why I felt different, if not inferior. (My mother had to crusade to get me into the public schools, which at the time did not accept physically handicapped students.) My psychic struggle was to constantly come to grips with my “handicap” and find ways to minimize its undeniable effects on me and those around me. Being smart and personable helped, but these assets were never enough to compensate for my deeply felt and obvious physical deficiencies that hid the more attractive inner real me.


On many occasions I would find myself in a situation where I needed assistance with a task that I could not perform. When I asked for help, I often got a quizzical look. I would have to explain that I was “handicapped” and couldn’t do what was needed. In many instances I would get a response akin to—Oh, I didn’t realize (or notice) that you were handicapped. I can remember how furious these remarks would make me. With such a large percentage of my mental energy being devoted to compensating for my physical condition, how interested and/ or engaged with me could this person be if he or she didn’t even notice my most glaring and apparent characteristics? Let me now fast-forward to my early post-college years. After spending five months traveling around Europe and growing a neat Van Dyke beard (see page 7), I returned to a job at Massachusetts General Hospital. I was employed as a “mathematician,” helping to design research experiments and supporting those early adapters who wanted to use computers in their research. By a quirk, I was officially housed in the Psychiatry Department working primarily with Gardner Quarton on interviewing techniques, Frank Ervin on the neurophysiology of the visual system, Mike McGuire on language studies, and Peter Sifneous on the development of short-term psychotherapy. These interactions led to an increasing interest in psychodynamics and I eventually decided to be psychoanalyzed. Not far into my analysis, my analyst, Sidney Levin, started asking me about my beard. What purpose did it serve? Was I using it as a mask for something? After several weeks of this kind of inquiry, I decided the beard was costing me too much money and so I shaved it. Now in the mid-sixties beards were not that common, especially neatly trimmed beards on fairly mainstream guys. So my beard had evoked rather strong (mostly negative) responses from many of my female acquaintances. I was therefore braced for an onslaught of remarks and unwanted attention about my newly shorn face. To my surprise I got a very mixed bag of reactions. My secretary immediately commented on its loss, while many of my closest colleagues never said a word. They were not shy and reticent types, so after a week or two went by I had to conclude they did not notice. I was then in the awkward position of not wanting to embarrass them by saying something after all that time had elapsed. Even


At times in our pink innocence, we lie fallow, composting waiting

to grow.

And other times we rush headlong like so many of our ancestors. But rush headlong or lie fallow, it doesn’t matter. One day you’ll round a corner, your path is shifted. In a blink, something is missing. It’s stolen, misplaced, it’s gone.

Ap p e arance

stranger, when I met my present and former girlfriends, many of whom had been very vocal about their dislike for my beard, they had no comments to offer. I hypothesized that I could characterize the likely response by the depth of my relationship with the person: the more superficial, the more likely they noticed my clean-shaven face, and the more meaningful the relationship, the more unlikely they were to notice. Once I came to that conclusion, I decided to test my theory. Julie worked at the MGH as a speech therapist and was quite interested in me but made very clear her dislike for my beard. My prediction was that if I paid a visit to her office she would not notice I had shaved. I was right. Forty-five minutes of chitchat and not a word about my beard. As I got up to go, Julie caught sight of me in the mirror on her wall and let out a cry of surprise. It was if she had been hit by a ton of bricks. When she saw my image, she immediately noticed that my beard was gone. Needless to say I had to explain how her lack of recognition for so long was a good thing, and that she need not be upset. Ten minutes later I was finally able to take my leave. Well, that was an epiphany for me. Although I had formulated the theory I had not really understood the implications until that moment with Julie. People who cared for me really didn’t see me, or my handicap, or my beard. They related to the essence of who I was, not the physical manifestation. All those people who had not seen my beard, or earlier in life, my handicap, were in fact relating to me as I had wished, to the inner me, not the deformed outer me. In many ways that moment with Julie changed my life. Storyteller and poet Kevin Kling was born with a deformed left arm and then later in life lost the use of his right arm in a motorcycle accident. His insight, attitude, and philosophy are beautifully captured in his poem Tickled Pink, which really resonated with me and my experience:


Your heart, a memory, a limb, a promise, a person. Your innocence is gone, and now your journey has changed. Your path, as though channeled through a spectrum, is refracted,

and has left you pointed in a new direction.

Some won’t approve. Some will want the other you. And some will cry that you’ve left it all. But what has happened, has happened, and cannot be undone. We pay for our laughter. We pay to weep. Knowledge is not cheap. To survive we must return to our senses, touch, taste, smell,

sight, sound.

We must let our spirit guide us, our spirit that lives in breath. With each breath we inhale, we exhale. We inspire, we expire. Every breath has a possibility of a laugh,

a cry, a story, a song.

Every conversation is an exchange of spirit, the words flowing bitter

or sweet over the tongue. Every scar is a monument to a

battle survived.

Now when you’re born into loss, you grow from it. But when you experience loss later in life, you grow toward it. A slow move to an embrace, an embrace that leaves you holding tight

the beauty wrapped in the grotesque, an embrace that becomes a

dance, a new dance, a dance of pink.

“When you’re born into loss, you grow from it, but when you experience loss later in life you grow toward it.” So when Elof said to me that the only downside of his procedure would be cosmetic, you can understand why I had no hesitation in going forward. I was tickled pink.


Ap p e arance


G Gestalt


A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts —Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

One of the surprising things to me about language is how its richness is enhanced by the inexactness of the meaning of most words. The most striking recent example was Bill Clinton’s difficulty in understanding what the meaning of “is” is. Even when I attempt to be absolutely precise (“Let me make this perfectly clear!”), whatever message I try to convey can often be open to interpretation. Equally fascinating is the use of foreign words that are incorporated in daily discourse because our native language has no “exact” equivalent. These words are meant to capture an essence of their reference that is seemingly not possible in our native tongue. Chutzpah, joie de vivre, al dente, and quid pro quo are some examples. In that realm, the word gestalt is doubly intriguing.

AE h



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“Steve Lorch’s extraordinary new book is both moving and inspiring in its honesty. His thoughtful explorations of how we think about and experience significant life events are compelling, inviting us to more deeply reflect on the events that shape our lives.” Dr. John J. DeGioia, President, Georgetown University

“Steve Lorch’s head and heart are filled with wise and warm associations and insights. A perfect read for all of us who are nourished by the wisdom of others.”


Ellen Schall, Dean and Martin Cherkasky Professor of Health Policy

O O & Management at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

“When all is said and done, I want this book close at hand simply because it keeps me—and many, many others— connected to a truly unique, remarkable, and wonderful human being.”

Harry L. Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service

Professor of Creative Management at the University of Chicago Booth


School of Management

“Steve’s writing is pervaded by optimism, yet served with a knowing wink—hey, this is human nature, and it really is worth putting up with. A great book, a philosophy for our times.”


Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate and Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor

Language Language Langu Language Language S Language Language Langua Language Language Langua Language

of Humane Letters, Emeritus, Cornell University


$0.00 ISBN 978-0-9898840-0-6


9 780989 884006 Language





Off the Top of My Head  
Off the Top of My Head  

Look inside the book.