Dress for Success

You’ve probably seen the dress by now, the badly lit photograph of the sheath dress hooked onto the end of a rack, and posted to Tumblr with a strange plea for assistance: “What color is this dress?” Is it blue and black, or white and gold. At first blush, it seems absurd. You choose one, that’s obvious to you. BuzzFeed picked up the Tumblr post and put the question to its readers, in a quiz at the end. In an hour, the page got more than a half-million views.

In the same hour, my Twitter feed, which started with a link to the BuzzFeed post here, or a subtle allusion there, became wall-to-wall dress. A distant relation posted a link on Facebook. By day’s end, the toll was impressive. Tens of thousands of man-hours seemingly wasted in a battle between black and blue and white and gold, like warring factions at the Circus Maximus, in Ancient Rome, ten-million pageviews at BuzzFeed alone. On the subway this morning, people cast wary glances, as if to say, “What side are you on?”

All the while, I thought to myself, what silly bullshit. What a waste. When I got home, I asked my wife, nonchalantly, and yet with an undercurrent of urgency, “Hey, come over here. What color is this dress?” I sucked in some air, as she moved toward the screen. The dress filled the browser window, looming, unbearably white, with lace a flat, dead gold.

“Blue,” she said. I was crushed. I’m not sure what I had thought. Others had been convinced it was simply a matter of the brightness settings on your device of choice, or bad color calibration on PCs, or where you happened to be standing, the color of ambient light. We have all seen optical illusions, where a blank space will be filled with a color or checkered patterns appear or disappear, or a single photo where the same color looks entirely different in two parts of the image (The power of the brain! The magic of context!), but for two people, looking at the same photo at the same time in the same spot from the same position, it was humbling to find two different results.

Denial is the first, hard response. To this day, except for one brief moment, during which I am convinced I may have simply strained my perception, or even stared so hard I loosed a little fabric of my eyes to float out into my aqueous humor, I have never been able to make the 3-D “magic eye” dance into shape. All my friends, leafing through Sports Illustrated for Kids would pull out the poster, and see Ken Griffey Jr., striding from the computerized pattern as big as life. “Whoa!” they said. I shook my head, thinking a sort of collective madness or delusion had dropped upon them, like something out of The Crucible, which, having taken from the big-kids’ library, I held, the beat up, acid-odored paperbook, as a source of wisdom. Of course, I hadn’t had to go that far, there was always the tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Gradually the doubt wore itself down, and I remained one of a handful of outcasts who “could not see.” Here it is, I thought, the future arrived, and I’m locked out. Except the computerized renderings of magic-eye weren’t much more than a flash-in-the-pan gimmick, here for a bit but mostly gone, and that savant-like 3-D vision hasn’t seemed to have been a determining factor in life-success. Now, though, I felt a sense of shame quickly. I knew at once that my wife was right, and knew immediately that the varying perceptions of the dress had to do with something that varied inside us, not out in the universe.

This is the root of the reason the stupid dress photo spread so fast, and its perplexing challenge gripped us so unflinchingly. Deep down, we want to feel that we perceive the world, at least what we feel to be their concrete natures, more or less the same. Perhaps a stranger could be mistaken, or wrong, but our closest companions? Our husbands, and wives, brothers and sisters, friends? While my right-seeing wife wandered off, I took the dress to myself like a flaming gem of rebuke, and zoomed in and tilted and rolled it around until my brain jagged right and the dull gold darkened, and the white sunk to blue.

I struggled with this for a bit, and then felt an inward calm. I thought of all the things my wife and I shared, in our feelings about the world, and our understanding of the unseen, the bright forms that cast their shadows into our senses. The fact that some ghostly phosphorescing crystals, shining from a screen, should hold a pattern and color that some brains saw first one way, and others another isn’t frightful, but a blessing, a reminder that what we see is not all that is, and that focus and concentration can bring two views together – well, why shouldn’t, I reflected, the world we see with our vision be different to different people, and why shouldn’t we love those whose vision differs from ours? I mean, whose sight is different but whose vision, in the end, that is the apprehension of the world beyond the senses, the world as it actually is, is the same.

Simultaneously, you felt a sudden understanding of how people could exist with a worldview so diametric to your own, Republicans, for example, and how without a pause for reflection, that a fervent belief can rouse you up, and blind you, and in the end, some hope that the mind, and experience, could pull one out of error, from a mind-imposed darkness, out into the light. Not that the dress is blue and black, or white and gold, that one answer is the truth, but that neither is the case, and everything will be all right.

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