Thinking

One Dress, Two Dress, White Dress, Blue Dress

the dress

My best friend is red-green colorblind. Both colors look identical to her and so she will never know for sure whether the color she sees is actually red, actually green, or some amalgam of the two. She memorized the placement of stop and go traffic lights at the age of 15, and since then, her minor disability has not had much of an impact on her life. She finds it fairly mundane. I, on the other hand, find it fascinating.

Every time she holds up a fire engine red dress at the mall or selects a ruby red nail polish at a salon or points to a maroon red paint sample and casually checks in with me to confirm, “What color is this?” – my mind basically bends in half.

“Does it look more like fire or grass to you?” I asked once, determined to get to the bottom of this once and for all.

“I don’t know. Fire and grass look like basically the same color to me.”

“But, wait – does it look more like pink or blue to you?”

“I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell.” She shrugged, untroubled.

It’s not so much the fact of her color-blindness that bewilders and intrigues me. It’s the larger idea that we can be looking at the exact same color and never really be certain that we’re seeing the same color at all.

I can easily accept subjective interpretations of experiences. Sure, two people can read the same book, see the same sunset, participate in the same conversation and both leave with entirely different impressions. And I can theoretically accept that language is subjective too. If I tell you “I love you,” there is no way to confirm with any certainty that the picture of love in my head matches the picture in yours. If you tell me that you believe in God, your inexpressible image of God might not match anything that I would recognize as a god. We might only think we’re communicating when we’re actually in entirely different conversations.

But if something as deeply rooted in concrete reality as color is in the eye of the beholder, it calls into question the very possibility of shared perception.

On a day-to-day basis, I forget all of this. I go through most days choosing to believe that we are all on the same page with regard to the basics of reality, because that’s the only functional, pragmatic thing to believe.  But this paradigm becomes impossible to maintain in those moments when my best friend holds up a hunter green fabric swatch or a mint green purse or an emerald green notebook and asks me, “What color is this?”

Maybe that’s why a (spoiler alert) black-and-blue dress scorched the internet this week.

Optical illusions are fairly commonplace, but this wasn’t a typical illusion. There was no way to squint and find a path back to an objective, shared reality. There was just the realization two people could look at the exact same dress and see two entirely different dresses. There was just the implicit question of whether it’s possible to ever know how anyone else sees anything.

Maybe the intense social media reaction was not in response to the idea of this photograph as an illusion, but in response to the idea that our shared reality is an illusion. It revealed a divide rarely contemplated but always lurking.  It provoked people to defend their perception as if their very reality depended on it. Because, in a way, it did.

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Thinking

Serial and the Myth of Objectivity

serial-social-logo

“Do you think he did it?”

It’s a question I’ve heard more times than I can count in the weeks that Serial has dominated water-cooler chit chat in my office and dinner party debates with my friends.

The answers are fascinating, not for what they reveal about the fifteen-year-old murder trial of Adnan Syed, but for what they reveal about the speaker. They reveal that there are those who want to believe Adnan is innocent and are determined to disarm every piece of damning evidence, weaving it into a story of tragically bad luck. Likewise, there are those who want to believe that Adnan is guilty and are determined reinterpret every piece of exculpatory evidence, appropriating it into a story of a premeditated murder.

Confirmation bias. We believe what we already believe and reject what we already reject. If your temperament, life experience, and beliefs lead you to view Adnan as trustworthy or untrustworthy from Episode 1, your subconscious likely filtered the facts that followed accordingly. You already had your narrative. And new facts alone were unlikely to shift your position.

Serial is interesting precisely because it recognizes this reality.

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Thinking

Love According to Rainer Maria Rilke

Beauty is only the first touch of terror, he quoted during one of our first conversations.

I had recently finished a required course in Romanticism and was stumbling through an inarticulate explanation of my interest in the idea of the sublime. His response left me dizzy with the rare thrill of feeling implicitly understood. I knew his words were borrowed, but it was all mixed up together in the months that followed – a whirlwind of handwritten letters and a borrowed copy of the Duino Elegies and professions of love.  I had never read Rilke before and so I was in awe at the way his beautiful words seemed to expand inside me, making room for new thoughts and carving out places for new feelings.

When the dust settled, I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been so much in love with a boy from my college as with a long dead Austrian poet and his idea of what love should be.  The college romance might be a distant memory, but I still hold to Rilke’s  exquisite vision of love:

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Thinking

On faith, doubt, and growing up in church

I have such happy memories of growing up in church. I remember vanilla wafers and flannelgraphs on Sunday mornings,  all the girls in our tights and ribbons, all the boys in their tiny jackets and miniature ties. I remember memorizing the books of the Bible to the tune of nursery rhymes and reciting verses in exchange for AWANA pins, trading prized “Bible cards” for candy, and earning Pioneer Girl badges for giving my “testimony.” I remember daydreaming about playing the coveted role of Mary in the Christmas pageant while perched in the baptismal as a manger-scene dove and singing a slightly off-tune Handel’s Messiah in the choir every Easter.

I made my first life-long friends in youth group and played out the awkward flirtations of my first crushes in the fellowship hall. There were road trips and lock-ins featuring elaborate games of Capture the Flag followed by contests to see who could stuff their mouth with the most whipped cream.  There was my nerdy junior high stage where I joined the church puppet team and my (obviously much cooler) high school phase where I joined the church drama club. There were service projects that turned into laughter-filled afternoons of paint fights or leaf-jumping, “missions trips” filled with white water rafting, and, of course, Nationals, where thousands of hormonally-charged Evangelical teenagers gathered every other year on a college campus to  rock out with Jeff Deyo, “rededicate their lives to Christ,” and scope out potential future spouses.

But there are less happy memories too.

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Thinking

Seeing Double

I’ve always had a weak spot for doppelganger stories, exploring one personality from two sides …

… seeing the living embodiment of a character’s id …

… the metaphor of protagonist and doppelganger going to battle for dominance only to realize their fundamental sameness.

I like the moment when the protagonist looks at the doppelganger and finally recognizes their own mirror image.  And, more than anything, I love the fall out; the protagonist’s reassessment of self in the light of a new, inextricable identity.

Vampire DiariesRinger, and Fringe have all built on this identity theme.

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Thinking

Things I Learned From Newsies

One of my most treasured possessions growing up was a cassette tape of songs from Newsies, obtained the old fashioned way: by setting my hand held recorder next to the television speaker and begging my parents for absolute silence. By the time I got to college, the movie was a cult classic. More than a few Saturday nights were spent with my roommates, leaving a party in the early AM, picking up another case of Barcardi spritzers, and singing along with Christian Bale til dawn. In law school, I’m sure my Labor Law professor was baffled by the smile I couldn’t quite suppress as she lectured about “scabs” crossing the picket line. It may have been set pre-NLRA, but I still credit Newsies for my passing grade in that class.

Yes, Newsies and I go back. And since the Broadway musical was nominated last week for a Tony Award, now seems like as good a time as any to share the many true and false things it has taught me over the years.

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Thinking

Illiteracy Spells Romance

My dream man would have a bedroom that looks something like V’s in V for Vendetta. He would not be wearing a black cape with a Guy Fawkes mask.  But, by and large, I maintain that there is nothing sexier than a man who loves to read.  Show me a bookworm protagonist and I’ll show you my latest fictional crush.

The truth is, though, despite my adoration for smart characters,  I sure do spend a lot of time swooning over characters who are – well, kinda dumb. And I bet you do too.  It’s a plot so widespread as to garner parody –  illiteracy as the catalyst for romance.

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