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Layers

In my ordinary life (which is most of it), I go about my ordinary activities, and think ordinary thoughts about what I experience. If that were my entire life, I think it wouldn’t be interesting enough to bother with. I might as well watch “Wheel of Fortune” on television. But that’s just one layer of my life. Let me explain:

Photoshop is a computer program that allows one to manipulate an image, such as a photograph that has been made with a digital camera. What the photographer sees on her computer screen is the image more or less as it appeared to her when she snapped the shutter. By means of a program like Photoshop, she can enlarge or reduce in size, brighten or darken, change colors and modify the image in an almost unlimited number of ways.

One feature of Photoshop that aids this process is that of layers. Layers make possible alterations of an image that otherwise would be extremely difficult and time consuming. For example, suppose we have a landscape of grassy foreground, mountains in the background, and a sky full of fluffy clouds. Because of limitations in the ability of photographic processes, chemical or digital, to adequately show the darker detail along with the bright sky, an unmanipulated landscape photograph is likely to show a solid white sky and appropriate foreground detail, or a blue and white sky with a dull, dark foreground.

In Photoshop the image could be copied onto a layer just above the basic or background layer. It would be as though the copy were printed on a piece of transparent plastic, lying on top of the original. Either layer could easily be lightened to reveal the foreground detail, and the other layer darkened until the clouds are visible in the blue sky. Then, the top layer could be partially erased, revealing the bottom layer in those areas that have the desired detail. When the resulting image sandwich is printed, the combination shows the best of both layers.

Let’s now say that the photographer had also taken a picture of her dog, but the background was cluttered and uninteresting. She could copy the image of the dog onto another layer of the landscape photograph, and erase everything except the dog himself. The resulting image would appear with the dog standing proudly in the foreground of the beautiful landscape. Using the program tools, the photographer could modify each layer independently until the image was perfect. Printing would flatten the separate layers into one.

Another layer in my life (which is what this is all about, actually) is continually involved in reading, writing and thinking about subjects as varied as cognitive science, the beauty of nature, the intricacies of machines such as computers and cameras, and the excitement of new ideas.

A still different layer feels the emotional pull of my relationships with others, basking in felt love and affection, sometimes brooding over uncertainties, trying to integrate my feelings for different people and different experiences.

None of these layers of experience is completely separate from the others. Each one affects me in subtle ways no matter what I am doing or thinking about.

It’s a little like the parlor game in which one lists all of the different “hats” one wears. “I am a father.” “I am a husband.” “I am a man.” “I am still a little boy.” And so on. The list that each of us might create is surprisingly long. Each of these distinguishable identities resides inside us all the time, and even if we are unconscious of them at any moment, they affect how we feel, think and behave.

Many years ago I participated in a group session discussing the differences between men and women. Members addressed questions to the group of the opposite gender, and each person had the opportunity to respond. One of the men asked, “Why do women give such mixed signals?”—referring to the difficulty that people have sometimes understanding those of the opposite sex.

The prompt and simple answer was “Mixed feelings.”

Even though it was, on reflection, quite obvious, the response stopped us all for a few minutes. The question was asked out of frustration and from a point of view that saw men and women as distinct groups—“they” behave in ways different from “us.” The men had no trouble understanding nuances of male behavior and adjusting the way they interpreted their actions. If “mixed messages” were given, they were largely unseen by themselves. From the opposite sex, however, differing responses at different times proved baffling.

When I encounter another person, I am apt to bounce around among the different parts of my psyche—my layers. I may feel in turn attracted, repelled, confused, angry or amused, depending upon which “I” is brought to the surface. Often, I have no conscious idea why I respond the way I do. If I am generally feeling secure in myself, I may enjoy the tickling of these different parts of me. Flirtation is just such a playing between people, risking a little, teasing a little, suggesting things that both parties know are taboo, but enjoying the game nonetheless.

A job interview can sometimes be a kind of flirting, with both parties playing a game and both knowing that a game is being played. One “loses” by saying just the wrong thing or showing a vulnerability at the wrong moment. Because the future of the relationship often depends upon each party seeing the other as an authentic personality, both will be looking for clues to different layers which might reveal characteristics that make them unsuitable for the relationship.

So we interact with each other on multiple levels all the time, often without being aware of it. Like the photographer adjusting layers in Photoshop, we modify our persona according to our perceived situation. I might want to come across to the traffic officer as steady and reliable—with my current misstep an inconsequential aberration. After he leaves, I might laugh uproariously at my own failure to pay attention to my driving.

One might say that counting all these layers and levels together, it’s who we are. None of them, taken alone, defines us. Recognizing that fact can help us understand other people and forgive our own trespasses.

Donald Skiff, May 10, 2007

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