Monday, August 10, 2009

Refuting Illusions: Picasso and Lady's Mantle

The leaves of Alchemilla mollis are often wet. In fact, lady's mantle could be the Official Plant of the Pacific Northwest: people think it's always covered with dew just as people think it always rains in Seattle. But both suppositions are incorrect.

The weather myth is easy to refute: Seattle's average annual rainfall of 34.5 inches is nearly ten inches less than the 44.4 inches of average annual rainfall in New York City's Central Park.

Why then does Seattle have the reputation for being so rainy? Because myths are difficult to uproot (think of the story of The Hook and how there's always someone who swears it really happened). The sky is definitely cloudy in Seattle more often than it is in Manhattan. That's probably why people think of Seattle as Rain City. They equate clouds to rain, and the fact that our grey skies are often just that--grey skies--seems to have little influence. You will win every time if you lay down your money against someone who wagers it rains more here (and who thinks you're a moron for taking the bet), but be prepared to support your position with statistics.

That Alchemilla mollis has the reputation of being dew-drenched most of the time is also more related to appearance than to fact. In reality, it looks dewy because some mornings the leaves are covered with water that the plant itself expels in a process called guttation (gutta, Latin for drop). This is not the same as dew, which is condensation from moisture in the air. If you're not familiar with lady's mantle, you can see the same phenomenon on the umbrella-like leaves of the more generally available nasturtium (Tropaeolum) and Fuchsia. The water droplets look like dew but they are not. Things are not always what they seem.

I realize I'm not breaking any new ground here. My mother started warning me about judging books by their covers before I was even old enough to understand that she was speaking metaphorically. But judge we do, and generally by what we see repeatedly. With equal frequency, we form our opinions based on what we repeatedly hear.

Pablo Picasso painted the portrait shown to the left in 1903 during his so-called Blue Period. He referred to it as The Old Guitarist. Writer Wallace Stevens, influenced by Picasso, wrote a poem which he called The Man with the Blue Guitar in 1937. Since that time the painting itself is often referred to as The Man with the Blue Guitar. But look at the image again: the guitar is the only thing on the canvas that is not blue. In spite of the evidence to the contrary, most people will tell you the guitar is blue if you ask them to imagine Picasso's Old Guitarist painting and then describe it to you, and I am sure that anyone who can imagine the painting well enough to do that has actually seen it or seen a reproduction of it. Seen, yet not seen.

Wallace wrote: "They said, You have a blue guitar. /You do not play things as they are. The man replied, Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar." Maybe Wallace wrote with irony. But isn't it also possible he wrote from a faulty but permanently lodged impression of what Picasso had actually put down in paint?

I'm attempting heavy personal rationale building here. The fact is that during my marriage I was repeatedly regarded as someone other than the person I actually was. My husband's ideas about who I am were as concretely formed as Wallace's mental picture of Picasso's guitar. And over the course of the marriage, I, too, became like Wallace: in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of what my own eyes and my own memories told me, I came to agree that the guitar was blue.

I chose divorce. And for the most part I know that Alchemilla mollis isn't covered with dew. I know Manhattan is rainier than Seattle. I even know Picasso's guitar is more red than blue.

But sometimes in dark and quiet moments I forget I'm not the person my former husband told me I was. Sometimes I have to force that phantom to leave me alone.

Sometimes I still feel small.

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