This photo was taken almost 4 years ago, and although its true that memories fade, and although you can't see my face in the picture, I'm pretty sure I was smiling. The dirt alone was enough to make a person cry, for heaven's sake, never mind the blisters, but I was grinning from ear to ear. I took this picture of my feet on the second day of the Boston 3-Day For the Cure, a 60-mile walk aimed at raising money and awareness to combat breast cancer. This was the first weekend in August, 2007 and it was 104 degrees. I don't think anyone's feet were made to sweat that much - so, yup - we got blisters - and heat rash - and sun burn. But no one that I encountered over those three days - and there were about 2,000 of us - no one, was whining. Why? Because the people of "The 3-Day" are a rising tide that inspires and lifts us all. I had never before been around that many strong, selfless, gracious and determined human beings in one place. The spirit of The 3-Day is infectious and I hope this blog will continue its spread. Maybe by talking about what I go through to fundraise and train for a 3-Day event, I can help people stay motivated and committed. I am proud to be associated with this cause. I am grateful I have the strength to walk. And I'm filled with joy that I can do it with such a great group of people. So I'll buck up and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Feel free to join me. But remember; no whining allowed!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Essay on Illusions - Part II; F#

Illusions are not just visual phenomena. They can be auditory, too, like the Tri-tone Paradox referenced in the title of this series. Also, I'm fairly certain that if we humans had more advanced sniffers and relied on our sense of smell as much as other species do, we'd experience countless varieties of olfactory illusions as well. My ten year old says every time he smells Frito's, he feels like he's on a boat. It's because when he was about three, we took the Block Island Ferry over to the island for the day and, to the best of my knowledge, that was the first time he was exposed to that corn fried deliciousness. It wasn't a snack that we kept in the house at the time, but it was available for purchase below decks on the boat. I thought the salty crunch might keep my stomach settled, so down the narrow stairs we staggered and came back up with the familiar yellow bag. Now, almost eight years later, he vaguely remembers snippets of the trip, in flashes; the stairs, the long wooden bench seats. . . . He doesn't remember eating Frito's exactly, but without fail, when he gets a whiff of them, he says he can almost feel the bounce of the heavy ferry against the waves.

It's fascinating really. I think our sense of smell, more than any other sense, has the power to evoke a far distant time or place. I, for example, cannot smell cut hay without also smelling cow manure, whether it's there or not. I guess in my childhood, there was never one around without the other close by. Now, the two smells are so linked in my mind and my memory that I genuinely cannot smell one without the other. So these days, when I take the kids on a hay-ride, the hay is usually from a farm that has no herd. The bundled straw has more than likely been nowhere near a four-legged creature bigger than a fox, but I get the whiff of sh*# just the same. This illusion, like my son's, is a trick played on our individual senses. It is an experience unique to us. No one who hasn't shared with us the past events that shape our perception would encounter the actual aroma and have the same reaction. These are one-of-a-kind fantasies over which we exert little influence.

On the other hand, auditory illusions like the tri-tone paradox, which have been studied by musicians and psychologists alike, apparently produce reactions by individuals that are similar enough to be grouped with little variation. My understanding of the paradox is that when two notes are played sequentially, separated exactly by an octave, and then the half-octave note, the tri-tone, is introduced, about half of the population hears the note as ascending in pitch and about half hear it as descending. Unlike the other illusions, it is a real paradox, in that two seemingly contradictory statements can be made and they can both nonetheless be true. From what I've read, there is a strong geographic component to how the tones are resolved in peoples' minds and ears, interestingly enough.

For me, the real question that is raised by these illusions is to what degree are our reactions to various stimuli so reflexive and involuntary that our brains are really on some sort of auto-pilot. It could be such a natural, mechanized and instinctive response that we become mindless of the stimulus itself. How many of us have caught the barber pole out of the corner of our eye and let ourselves watch the stripes travel up the cylinder, while some part of our brain clearly knows that the red, white, and blue paint is merely spinning around? At what point are we seeing or hearing or smelling or touching something authentic, yet letting ourselves be tricked into a different experience? Maybe the real illusion is the notion that we have any control at all over how we react to certain events or observations.

Although the evidence sure seems to be mounting against me, I would like to believe that most of the time, we actually choose, at least on some level, how to react to the information, stimuli, and happenings in our path. Probably many of you read the piece that Leonard Pitts wrote while he was training this year for the Washington DC 3-Day for the Cure. I enjoyed it very much and think it is relevant here. For Mr. Pitts, the "stimulus" he encountered was his mother's death from breast cancer. His chosen reaction to it was to make a commitment to walk and raise money in her honor. But for years, he let his mind play tricks on him that allowed him not to do it. The illusions were the excuses and rationales and the vague sense that he still had plenty of time and would eventually get it done. But then his wake-up call came and he was able to face his own deception. He realized he was tired of getting to places without knowing how he did. And he certainly did not want his own life to end on that disheartening note. The illusions were stripped away and enough clarity to produce action came from the understanding that, "We're all going to the same destination. The only difference is in what you choose to see along the way."

Illusions are all around us. Our eyes, ears and brains play tricks on us every day. Often it's harmless, or even interesting or entertaining. I think we should have fun with them and not take them too seriously. If Dr. Phil said you're left-brain dominant, it doesn't mean you have to become a compulsive list-maker or quit your quilting circle. And if you hear ascending pitches in the tri-tone, you don't have to move to California and forever maintain a rosy outlook. But when you reach the point of Mr. Pitts, when you realize that "life is an act of will;" at that point, you need to choose to see clearly. No illusion, no paradox, no chimera, deception, or figment of the imagination. What authentic smells, sounds, tastes, touches and sights do you choose to experience?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

An Essay on Illusions in 3 Parts

A Tri-tone Paradox For Your Eyes.

Part 1 - "C" - Middle C? Maybe. . . . . .

Apparently Dr. Phil did a show this week about personality types. I know nothing about Dr. Phil and have never seen his show. I'm not so culturally unaware that I don't know who he is or anything. Of course I've heard of him. . . . He was, like, Oprah's pool boy or something, and gave out good advice and became some sort of celebrity psychologist as a result. I'm kidding. I understand he has helped many people and I'm sure his show about personality types was interesting, but I didn't see it. What I DID see, though, was a YouTube video that he used to encourage people to watch, and it was a real teaser, designed to get your attention and make you want to tune in and find out what kind of person you really are.

The video is of a computer generated dancer spinning around and around. The question is, is she spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise. Dr. Phil then advised everyone to tune in at a later date to see what their answer revealed about their personality. I immediately suspected that it revealed absolutely nothing. But then, I am a cynical person. The fact that I put no stock in the "personality test" possibly says everything you need to know about my personality. Or does it?

I rather enjoy optical illusions. (And auditory ones, too, but that's for Part II, forthcoming.) Just for the fun of it though, not for some fundamental truth that they might reveal about my very soul or world view. There are some great ones; the Necker Cube, old or young woman, MC Escher's stuff like the ascending/descending staircase. I did a science project about them once and found, quite simply, that some people see one thing and others see something else. It seemed the differences among people's reactions could have as much to do with who they were just talking to, what time of day it was, or what they just ate as any deeply ingrained essence of their being. Of course, I was some scrawny little high schooler making these observations, not some Ph.D. with a big grant budget and access to complicated statistical computer programs and several nerdishly sexy research assistants.

Regardless, my opinion hasn't changed much. But on something of a lark, I took the "test" anyway. I sat at my computer a couple of nights ago, clicked on that little dancer image, and off she went like a whirling dervish. I immediately and without any doubt in my mind, saw her turning counter-clockwise. I decided to watch it again, just to be sure. And again, she took off in the same direction. But my 6-year-old son was playing Lego's in the floor next to me and he heard the intro again and looked up. He glanced at the screen and stated, "Clockwise." I looked down at him and said, "Which way is that?" - just to be sure he knew the difference. He took his little index finger and moved it out in front of himself and drew a circle in the air, parallel to the floor, leading out and away to the right. Then he went back to playing Lego's, not caring at all what any of this meant. I looked back at the screen and there she was, plain as day, spinning clockwise.

I panicked. It had never mattered to me whether Dr. Phil thought I might be more ruled by my left brain than my right. I had just assumed he was going to alert all the "clockwise" people that they tended to be more creative, holistic, etc. and the "counter-clockwise" people with their left brains that they tended to be more logical, linear, etc. This result was something else entirely, though. Someone who sees the dancer spin BOTH directions within the same 20 second span?! Clearly this was an indication that my brain is mush. This had to say, in no uncertain terms, that my mind is malleable; I'm impressionable and highly susceptible to suggestion. And suggestions by a 6-year-old, no less. Crap. And here I've spent the last 20 years trying to be my own woman.

Before giving in to a full-fledged meta-physical meltdown, I decided to take a deep breath. I looked back at my Lego-playing pal again and watched him put an Indiana Jones hat on a Storm Trooper and pop him into a one-of-a-kind pod racer. I smiled and thought I'd try the "test" one more time. And that dancer, tricky little tart that she is, had gone back to spinning counter-clockwise.

I turned the computer off. But I couldn't get it out of my head. Maybe there WAS something to this personality indicator, and maybe it didn't have to be what I first thought, because, well, who wants to think that about themselves?! Maybe it was something more along the lines of the traditional Dr. Phil assessment regarding what part of your brain dominates your way of thinking. I remembered taking one of those right-brain/left-brain tests one time. There were 32 questions. My answers to exactly 16 of them indicated my right brain, the creative, intuitive side, was in charge. Exactly 16 also indicated my left brain, the logical, analytical side, most impacted how I function in the world. The lack of a clearly dominant hemisphere perhaps explains my ability to see the spinning in two different directions almost at once. Then again, it might mean I'm the perfect representative of my astrological sign, Gemini, The Twins. Open-minded and able to see both sides of an argument; inconsistent in decision-making to the point of almost appearing to have a split personality. Far from seeming freaky, this is all, in fact, starting to sound pretty accurate.

OK, so maybe my response to the personality test turns out to be perfectly in line with my actual personality and maybe this Dr. Phil is more than a pool boy after all. But if, in the end, I am just a weak-minded joiner, then thank God I saw an ad for The 3-Day. From that perspective, I'm happy to be impressionable. I'll be a willing sucker for a good suggestion. "Clockwise?" - yup. "Counter-clockwise?" - that too! "Walk 60 miles?" - I'm up for that. "In possibly extreme heat or a cold rain?" - I can get on board. "Raise a whole bunch of money by pestering the bejeesus out of your friends and co-workers?" - Sounds good. "Do it all again next year?" - Count me in. "And the next?" - I'm all over it. . . . .

Friday, October 15, 2010

Family Reserve

Back in July, a couple of weeks before the Boston 3-Day, I went down to Virginia for a family reunion. I mentioned it here in an earlier blog post on July 9. I find myself thinking about it from time to time and what is striking to me now is what a big family we have! My Mom's family had eleven children in it and my Dad is one of four. My husband is one of three and both of his parents came from three-child families. As a result, I have about a zillion first cousins and my children are blessed with an enormous extended family - most of whom seem to value it and want to keep the generations in touch. We are very fortunate indeed. But then I start to do the actual math. . . . .

When a family member was diagnosed with breast cancer about 4 years ago, we looked at her like she was some sort of anomaly. This wasn't something that ran in our family - we had no history with it. I think there was a lot of scratching of heads and pointing and wondering "Why her?" What had she been exposed to? What had been the trigger? But I'm afraid the real question is not 'why her?' It's 'why just her, so far?' The disease is ubiquitous. Women in their 20's are getting it along-side women in their 60's. It's rampant. You just don't meet people anymore who haven't been affected in some way by knowing and/or loving someone who has faced this diagnosis.

The Breast Cancer incidence rate in the United States right now is about one in eight women. My current home state, Rhode Island, is a high cancer rate state. If you live here, your odds of being diagnosed with breast cancer in your lifetime are 1 in 6!

When I got home from the family reunion this summer, I made my own little family tree. A very cursory one that only included living relatives. It basically lists my parents and my husband's parents, their siblings, spouses and children and then our first cousins with their spouses and children. Then I got out my pink Hi-lighter to illuminate all the women and girls. There were 50 of us. 50. Technically, I guess that means 6 or so more of us might be fighting this fight first hand at some point. Those are suckish odds. I think of my sisters-in-law, my 11 year old niece, my 70 year old aunt. Myself. And never mind all the girlfriends we love like sisters. How many of them get stamped into the algorithm? I don't like this math. And I just want it to stop. I want my family tree to remain crisp and white with pink hi-lights. No circles or asterisks or footnotes. Nothing to indicate how the statistics took their toll. Just names of living relatives. So it has to stop.

Many of us are working very hard, in the only ways we know how, to make it stop. I really think my "flash freeze" idea that I discussed here in my October 2 post might be a way to symbolically and cathartically "make it stop." We claim a couple of moments out of the event and "freeze" them. We hold them motionless; stopped. And maybe that will carry us until it stops for real; inspire us to keep going, work harder and see that it stops for good in our lifetime.

My "flash freeze" post has received a lot of attention. People are definitely spreading the word. But I'd love to know more about what people actually think of the idea. Interesting? Worthwhile? Do-able? If you have any comments or suggestions, please share. Thanks a lot!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Frozen Grand Central

Supermarket Flashmob

World biggest Freeze Flash Mob in Paris OFFICIAL VIDEO


First of all, thanks for your patience. I had some repairs made to my wrist back in September and was out of commission from a typing perspective for a few weeks. Thanks for all the good thoughts sent my way and I hope nobody got frustrated and gave up on me completely. Because if they did, they would miss out on the following Really Good Idea. While my fingers were out of commission, the old brain kept right on working and I think I'm really on to something here - so bear with me.

If you have ever been to a Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day event, the opening ceremonies in particular, then you have heard the following speech. If you have been to more than one such event, you may have it memorized and can recite it right along with me. It is pure Jenne Fromm. It is beautifully written and, from what I have seen, always equally beautifully delivered. Jenne Fromm is the National Spokesperson for the 3-Day and she deserves the credit for inspiring my Really Good Idea. I transcribed her "opening ceremonies" speech from video of the events I have participated in and from watching others that have been posted on YouTube and I excerpted it here:

"Moments. Wonderful, lifetime moments.
Rights of passage that shape our lives.
Milestones that represent a life's journey.
A baby's first step. A wedding kiss.
Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake - or loved ones reunited.
Moments we all deserve to look forward to but
when breast cancer invades, lives are so rudely interrupted -
stealing those precious moments away.

We are here now so that in the future, we will reminisce
about reunions with those we love and not
about our memories of them.

We come together to bring all possible joy to each birthday
and to give each graduate the gift of standing with both parents.

Today we are here because you have answered the call
to do something extraordinary - and that's the remarkable thing
about this lifetime moment. It's a celebration - measured in miles -
of a shared conviction that
Everyone Deserves a Lifetime."

Wouldn't it be great if we could freeze those moments!? Those fleeting instants where everyone is healthy and happy and gathered together in joy and celebration. In reality we can't. We freeze them in snapshots and pictures in our mind where they can remain forever. But that's about all we can do. Or is it?

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the idea of a "flash-freeze." It's a public "flash-mob" type event where participants involved freeze for a given amount of time in a public space spontaneously to the surprise of everyone else around. Flashmobs started out as a sort-of performance art, I believe initially as a challenge to conformity but they have evolved over the last 5 or 10 years to take many forms. (Who's more non-conformist than a bunch of 3-dayers anyway?! Aren't we accused almost daily of being out of our minds, of taking on the impossible and drinking some sort of Kool-aid?! This should be right up our alley!)

The point of most flashmobs is essentially point-less though. They are about creating a spectacle and giving people an opportunity to step outside of their norm. Sure it can wake someone up who has been lulled to clueless slumber by their routine and remind them to change it up a bit. There's still some magic to life if you look around for it. That's a good lesson and these things are important, albeit simplistic . But I think we have the opportunity to lend some real gravity, magnitude and thoughtfulness to the basic idea.

The 3-Day Walkers and Crew already create a spectacle and wake people up wherever we go. A couple thousand pink-clad and laughing troopers stomping thru the neighborhood or handing out PB&J graham crackers has a tendency to do that. But what if we incorporated a flash freeze. If everybody along that several mile long pink column and all the support staff and crew STOPPED - mid-stride, mid stretch, mid sip of Gatorade, mid shoe-tie, mid-hug, mid-laugh, mid tear-wipe, mid-groan--- - and froze. Just for a couple of minutes. We move well beyond spectacle and awareness at that point. We become art. Yes, in some ways we already are art in that we create an emotional response wherever we go - but that's largely due to our sheer numbers and willingness to subject ourselves to the discomforts of the event to make our point and raise our money. We stir feelings of empathy and compassion from even the most detached and dispassionate of observers. But I'm talking about a whole new level of meaning here. And I think people would get it.

It feels a little "Field of Dreams" right now, I know - Like I'm saying "if we build it, they will come." But I really believe "if we do it, they will comprehend." We will all feel it when we stop - we'll be silent and standing still but we'll actually be screaming it out - "NO, we can't freeze those moments at the graduation or the baby shower or the retirement party or the wedding. But we CAN freeze this moment!" And then we'll all always have it. And so will they. The 3-Day accomplishes so much already. I think this is one more thing it could accomplish - It can give us all - literally - one more moment. One more wonderful, lifetime moment. To keep forever.

I plan to write about this more in the near future. I would like to build support for the concept. If you have never seen a flash-freeze, I invite you to check out the three video links I just posted. They are three good examples; one is from New York, one from Paris and one in a supermarket! In one of them, a little girl happens upon the seemingly spontaneous scene and you can sort of tell by her face that the experience has invigorated a sense of magic in her - a sense of embracing the out-of-the-ordinary. Reactions also seem to imbue a sort of respect for people choosing to do something abnormal. These are beautiful things. But a 3-Day type event along these lines would be even more beautiful because it would go so far beyond the surface wake-up call to create a lasting symbol of the tangible permanence of the people we love and the lasting moments with them that we will treasure forever.

I hope you like my "Really Good Idea." And I hope if you do, you will spread the word. Let's see if we can't get a 3-day flash freeze going at an event in 2011. Let's all, once again, answer the call to do something extraordinary.