A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, August 15, 2011

Seeing Differently

Zoey Stoll and Micah McKechnie have never met each other, but they have a lot in common.
Both are scary smart, both hail from Oakland (Zoey is a junior at Oakland Tech; Micah is a junior at UC Santa Barbara) and both have a neurologically-based condition called synesthesia.
I know that sounds like a horrible disease, but it's actually something wonderful.
Synesthesia is a term scientists use to describe what happens when stimulating one sense causes an involuntary response in another sense.
In Zoey's case, it's her visual sense. When she reads, each letter and number has a specific color, gender and personality.
"It can be a real advantage," she says. "If I see a math problem, I see it in a range of colors, which is pretty cool. And it's hard for me to misspell a word because if I do, the colors don't line up right."
She feels sorry for the rest of us, who read only in black and white.
"I'm really glad I have synesthesia. Reading would be so boring without it."
Often, the letters in each word will take their cue from the first letter. If the first letter is feminine, the other letters in the word probably will be, too.
"For instance, 'M' and 'S' are feminine letters," she said. "'So I hate to tell you, but 'Martin Snapp' is a very feminine name."
When she was a little girl, she used to write science fiction stories influenced by her synesthesia.
"One of my stories was about a green planet, and all the names of places on the planet were words that started with a green letter," she says.
Micah share's Zoey's sensitivity to letters and numbers, but she's even more sensitive to vibrations, especially sounds.
"It allows me to escape in my head," she says. "Whenever I'm on a long car ride or stuck in school doing absolutely nothing for lunch, I can just close my eyes and see amazing shapes and colors from every sound I hear. I wish I were more of an artist so I could draw them."
Needless to say, music is an utter joy for her. When she closes her eyes she sees light shows that are infinitely better than anything I used to see at the Avalon or the Fillmore back in the 196Os. And she doesn't need drugs to do it, either.
That's another thing she and Zoey have in common: They adamantly refuse to touch drugs or alcohol, and for a simple reason.
"I don't like anything that messes with my head," says Micah. "I'm already there. I don't need that."
And there's one more advantage. Micah has loved horses since she was a little girl, and her riding instructors have always marveled at her perfect riding form.
"If you flex a muscle, that's just another type of vibration," she explains. "So I can see all my muscles when I'm riding. If my form is off even a little bit, I can see that in my mind."
Not much is known about this syndrome, although it seems to affect a lot of creative people.
Famous synesthetes include composers Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, painters David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky, novelist Vladimir Nabokov and physicist Richard Feynman.
I'm curious: Just how widespread is this syndrome? If you have synesthesia, too, please write me and describe your experiences. I'm absolutely fascinated - and, frankly, a little jealous.

Run While You Can

In 10 days, 24-year-old Sam Fox of Berkeley will attempt an arduous outdoor trek that has been accomplished by far fewer people than have climbed Mount Everest.
He's going to run, hike and climb 2,650 miles along the Pacific Coast Trail from Canada to Mexico, an odyssey that will take him past three national monuments, seven national parks and 24 national forests.
He will ascend 60 major mountain passes, descend 19 major canyons and pass more than 1,000 lakes through freezing cold, sweltering heat and driving rains, dodging mountain lions, black bears and rattlesnakes along the way.
The trip will start on Aug. 25 at Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia and, if all goes according to schedule, finish at the Mexican border on Oct. 24.
To meet that schedule, he'll need to average 44.6 miles per day. But he has no choice.
"The weather window is so tight," he explained. "That's the reason why so few people have completed the trail north to south: Not many people have tried."
That much exertion requires more than 8,000 calories per day, some in the form of high-protein drinks he will carry with him.
The rest of the menu will be what he calls "real food" - steaks, fresh veggies (especially avocados), even the occasional Big Mac, all provided by his two-man support team, who will be traveling on a parallel course in a recreational vehicle, meeting up with him at 38 strategically located contact points along the route.
"I'll call them on the walkie-talkie when I'm about 15 miles away from each contact point, and they'll have my foot bath waiting for me when I get there."
The month-long journey is a fundraiser for Team Fox, the grassroots support organization for the Michael J. Fox (no relation) Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
He hopes to raise $250,000, which he intends to leverage into four times that amount by asking people to donate through his own website, runwhileyoucan.org.
"An anonymous donor has agreed to match everything we get from now until August 25," he said. "And the Michael J. Fox Foundation has found someone else to match all their donations. So if you donate to them through us before that date, you can quadruple your contribution."
People can also send checks to Run While You Can, P.O. Box 786, Narragansett, RI 02882. The same leveraging applies.
Fox is dedicating this run to his mother, Lucy Fox, who has been a Parkinson's patient for more than 10 years.
"My mom is not a victim. She's not sitting at home feeling sorry for herself. Her attitude is that everybody has stuff they have to deal with, and hers just happens to be Parkinson's disease. She's probably embarrassed by the spotlight I'm putting on her.
"She doesn't think of herself as an inspiration, either, although she is to me. She's just so tough. I'm sure she feels awful, but if you ask her how she's doing, she always said, 'I feel great!'"
Fox's Canada-to-Mexico trek is one of many grassroots efforts taking place throughout the country to raise funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
"Michael's daughter, Esme, had a lemonade stand at this year's New York City Marathon," said Sheila Kelly, the foundation's deputy director of development. "Another person swam the English channel. We've also had mud wrestling, golf tournaments and pancake flipping events."
Sam Fox has other projects in mind, too.
"It might be somebody putting on a guitar-a-thon, or somebody writing 20 songs in 20 days," he said. "I can also see us branching out to other causes, like injured veterans.
"I didn't found Run While You Can only to fund Parkinson's research; that's just the first project. My larger goal is to remind people that you have to live in the moment because nothing is guaranteed for tomorrow. My mom's Parkinson's disease is a good example of that. A lot can happen in this life, and I don't want to regret not having given things a shot.
"So when my friends ask me, 'Why are you doing this?' I say, 'Because I want to do something for my mom, or for society.' But the real reason is because I can."