Bob Miller, a light artist, has sculpted a "window-mirror." He calls it "Everyone Is You and Me." The piece is so intriguing that it was selected as the sole U.S. representative to a recent worldwide conference of museums in Moscow. Yet it is a piece of glass that both reflects and transmits some light. If you look at it, you can see yourself in the "mirror." But you can also see through the "window" at a person sitting on the other side. The curious conglomeration of features that appears in the window-mirror may be an accurate reflection of the way we see things in our daily lives.
I know a woman, for example, who insisted that the average income in the United States was "at least" $40,000; of course, all she was seeing was her own image as reflected in her closed circle of friends. It reminded me of the Reagan aide who is quitting because a family "cannot live" on $62,000 a year in Washington, or the young lawyer who told the Washington Monthly that his $370,000 house was "not that expensive." It also reminded me of a conversation I had with a woman editor at The Washington Post. She was wondering how it was that all we media people were caught off guard when Reagan was elected. The reason of course was that all we New York and Washington media people had been listening and talking mainly to each other. We had been seeing a reflection and assuming it was a window to the outside world.
All of the information and ideas we deal with are filtered through many perceptions and prejudices -- our own and those of people around us. This is also one of the most fascinating facets of light. We see the stars twinkle, for example, not because the stars actually shimmer, but because the air between us and the stars is constantly moving, shaking the light from the stars around. The broad spokes of light tat fan out from stars and street-lights are not produced by the light at all; rather, they are lovely distortions created as the light bends around onion-like layers of transparent cells that make up the lens in our eye. The twinkle that we see is a sparkle in our mind's eye.
Miller has built dozens of sculptures that show how the play of light can play havoc with our notion of what's what and what's where. But other kinds of mediums that transport other kinds of messages can be equally distorting. Our friends and relatives, the press and entertainment industry, schools and churches, all refract the information they transmit in ways that reflect their own natures. If most of the "national" news we see on TV every night happens in Washington, it is not because most of the news of the nation happens in Washington; it is because most of the national press is in Washington.
I was not surprised, therefore, when the Senate made deep cuts in Medicaid (which helps all ages of poor people) but not Medicare (which helps old people of all incomes). Most of the powerful senators are old. I'm not surprised that the Reagan administration supports policies that benefit the rich -- not when 10 Cabinet members are millionaries. What is surprising is the convincing reality of even the most obvious reflections. Miller has built a sculpture known as an "anti-gravity mirror." It is really just an ordinary, large, free-standing mirror. If you walk up to the mirror and press against it so that the edge of the mirror vertically dissects your bellybutton, only one-half of your body is visible. But you appear quite whole to an observer, for the visible half is reflected in the mirror -- making two identical halves. If you raise your visible leg, its reflection also rises in the mirror -- and you appear to float effortlessly in midair. Even though it's clearly an illusion, people gasp and laugh and react when they see it exactly as if it were real. But the real trick is that there's no trick except the same illusion you see and accept every time you see yourself in a mirror. No one is fooling us but ourselves.
This doesn't mean that the images we see are somehow evil or invalid or "wrong." It does mean that they are usually bent out of shape, or filtered and incomplete. It's hard to get a clear picture when your window on the world is a mirror; you can't hear the truth when all your ideas are echoes. So it's wise to remember that it's the air that twinkles, and not the stars. And that no matter how objective you may think your outlook on the world, to some extent, everything is always you and me.