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?

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