Friday, August 6, 2010

Tour de Crash

Contact sports with good quality smash factor are guaranteed moneymakers. Demolition Derby, football, and the fine art of Theater Wrestling packs coliseums and auditoriums with fans, just craving a good pileup.
Cycling is different. Racers practice the fine art of avoiding each other. Rocking handlebars an inch apart, they somehow undulate with the grace of a bee swarm across the finish line. One nanosecond of a wrong move would ruin the party.
So, what's to like about bike racing? No smashing with purpose. No big money. Aversion to physical contact. Uniforms made of tight-fitting Phospho-Lycra decorated with dozens of sponsor logos. Wild socks and strange helmets.
Getting into all this stuff is interestingly called "suiting up." What?
I've done a lot of bike racing, and I'm willing to admit I've probably been laughed at for years. A good friend who's an author has a place in Moab but doesn't ride. He calls it the Halloween Lycra Brigade. We're a little low on the spectator list and don't get much respect.
Racing is strictly a participating sport for me. I'll watch others doing it for about ten seconds during the sprint, and then I'm done, "suited up," and out the door.
This year however, I watched the entire Tour de France. I watched the replays. Twice. And for the first time, I got an attitude adjustment on my own sport.
But it's complicated.
Tour de France organizers are gifted event planners. They manage to lure thousands of fans who'll willingly camp in anyone's pasture for three weeks, waiting for a fast moving train of men in tights, who come and go in a flash.
Then they jump in their Winnie and follow. Amped-up the whole time, fans conduct their own costume contest while they're at it, outclassing the bike racers. Women shove handbags and men bedsheet-sized flags into racer's faces, tangling with bikes and taking them down.
Racers don't complain much. They pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get back on the bike. They don't ask leashless dogs and free-range sheep why they cross the road. The critters do it anyway, and like any road-kill candidate, know how to pick their moment.
This thrilling sideshow provides more demolition action for Tour fans than the Indy 500. The Longest Sports Production Ever still needs all the publicity it can get, and love-crazed spectators have no problem providing it.
This year's Tour started politely enough in Stage 1. The French lengthened the course near the finish, knowing just-out-of-the-gate machismo would grind out some crashes.
But in Stage 2, they ambushed a trusting Peloton by serving up a route the width of a luge run in a scheduled rainstorm. Motorcycle pacers leading the pack spun out, buttering up the road with transmission oil and producing, rather than preventing, nasty crashes.
The Peloton reacted smartly with a boycott. Bunched together, they refused to race, casually cruising wet and mad en masse across the finish line. Tour officials were forced to play by their own rules and award the whole pack the same points.
Fans were furieux.
For the rest of the Tour though, racers provided the feature entertainment. A finishing-school-quality Ethics Revival broke out, quel surprise after last year, resulting in single acts of loyal camaraderie while infractions of honor were met with team disdain and boo-hisses from fans.
After a day managing the Biggest Bike Race on the planet, French officials deserve a little amusement too. Although their crowd control was missing and a few routes sucked, they were still handing out stuffed animals to Stage winners, and one option on stand-by.
A little relentless random drug testing in the middle of the night on a "person of interest" was entertaining. And while at it, they picked their favorite with just a little too much bon destin and heroisme, plus more Tour wins than any other racer in history.
Worse yet, not a native of France but some Big State in another country that relishes the battle cry "Don't mess with Texas". Tenderized by accusations from other racers, not too squeaky clean themselves, they had their man.
And yes, you guessed correctly.
Last year, a talented Spaniard on the Astana team abandoned his job description front-running for Lance Armstrong. Alberto Contador jumped-and-dumped, leaving Lance behind to buck the wind all by himself. This shocking lack of respect for team cohesion resulted in massive mutiny by the Astana Team, leaving Alberto all alone on the ship.
Before the Tour was even over, Astana announced the formation of their new Team Radio Shack, Contador not included. Alberto's consolation prize was to squeeze out Armstrong on the podium in Paris, breaking Lance's historic seven year winning streak.
Armstrong's global following was huge, and his Foundation's work beyond impressive. With every success story though, a storm is not far behind. Fame and Infamy are identical twins. The French "questioned" Lance's almost superhuman accomplishments. He must be doping, or something. Let the tests begin . . .
Cycling was about to get even more interesting, for all the wrong reasons.
About our only reprieve this year from the persistent drone of the Lance Bashing Show was the Andy and Alberto Show. Still on a resurrected Astana Team and a favorite to win the Tour again, Contador's self-serving side made a comeback. Best Buds with Andy Schleck, also a favorite, he staged another jump-and-dump when Schleck popped a gear change and grinded to a halt on a tough climb.
Winning the Stage, a sheepish Contador was rewarded with booing fans. Schleck, now rocket fueled with the rage of betrayal, relentlessly dragged Contador up the next day's Mountain Stage. Still perky from hitching a long free ride, Contador attempted another jump-and-dump. Schleck quickly bridged the gap, staring Contador down mano-a-mano, as if to say "Don't even think about it."
Contador didn't, eased off, forced himself to eat his own crow, and gave Schleck the win by a hair. Promptly mobbed by the News Reporter Surge, he planted his palm on Schleck's jaw, twisted his head around, and flashed him a rather condescending wink. Contador knew he was winning the Tour anyway.
While all this soapish drama was unfolding up front, Lance was back cruising with his team through his last Tour de France, licking multiple wounds. Battle weary and ripped to shreds from hitting the pavement almost daily in Peloton frenzy, he declared to an interviewer "The day wouldn't be complete without a crash."
Armstrong's falling-out with Lady Luck was shored up by Versus commentators who ran daily re-runs of his best Tour moments of the past. Then it was back to another Stage commentary with more drama and surprise. Bob Rolled on as Phil Liggett made good use of his favorite British expletive "Oh my goodness me!" throughout the Wild and Crazy Tour of 2010.
The warm and fuzzy memories didn't last long. Just when we thought our Hero Lance would ride lovingly into the Tour Sunset, somebody let the dogs out, biting at his wheels yet again.
Apparently, the media, sour-graping racers, and the Privatized Police were missing The Soaps in France.
On August 2nd, the US Anti-Doping Agency started up their own. USADA was quoted by unnamed sources they were promising racers previously busted a "sweetheart deal" if "you can finger Armstrong . . with anything harmful", and "we'll get out the eraser . . . everything is cool". USADA is reported to have reduced penalties for athletes caught doping in the past. If they provided evidence on other athletes, even though it's prohibited by USADA rules, the offenders were off the hook.
Many are calling this bribery, and yet another oddity is USADA singling out Armstrong with charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, but no one else.
Rounding up "illegals" is rather trendy right now. Illegal "aliens," illegal "drug users," illegal "celebrity probation jumpers" . . . All it seems to take is a few to agree some type of human behavior is "illegal" and lots of noise and punitive action is quickly justified.
I'm trying to remember the last time I enjoyed something construed to be "legal" and wasn't rained on because they didn't like the color of my parade.
Actually, now that I'm thinking, it was last night. I gazed up at a night sky planetarium in the Wasatch Mountains packed with real stars, and no one seemed offended.
If I get on the bike tomorrow and the same thing happens, I just might be on a roll.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Butterfly Effect at 29,000 Feet

An image of Annapurna III in Nepal stretches across the top of my blog page. Athletes and mountain climbers often reference the Zone to describe the body's natural endorphin high when time slows down and intensifies every detail, sometimes for survival.
When the Zone is launched, that deep-down wellspring of survivalist moxy flies into action. It's our reward for not giving up, just when pain is too great and our body wants to shut down. We're zeroing in on how we gain access to it, as neuroscience continues to reveal more about how our brain functions.
It took nine days of trekking for our expedition to reach Annapurna Base Camp in "The Sanctuary." This venerated sanctity tag didn't last long. Hypodermic syringes from a previous expedition were littered everywhere. We had to assume their entire summit attempt was amped-up on a variety of drugs, and we were stunned.
What happened to the venerated sanctity of the sport? Reverence for the mountain? How was this justified? How did it affect the Nepalese people's opinion of their wealthy foreign guests, bringing offerings of respect?
We climbed as clean as it gets in high-altitude climbing. No oxygen. No Sherpas. When our carefully chosen route was trashed by avalanches, we paid another thousand and sat on the mountain for days, until the Nepalese approved our second choice, that included a 2000-foot vertical Half Dome of a cliff.
Our expedition leader was a climbing buddy of Jon Krakauer, author of the best seller Into Thin Air. His personal account of the fatal and chaotic 1996 Everest Expedition cut close to the bone. I bought his book years after my climb, and it would be my first attempt to read about my own sport, nail-biting and all.
I expected the familiar story of climbers and their teams preparing endlessly and meticulously for a six-hour window of opportunity to place one climbing pair on top, proudly displaying their national flag. Then come out alive.
I was stunned again. Into Thin Air also changed my view of the ethics of mountain climbing forever. The pros were now tour guides, and for an extortionist's fee, would drag their clients, one way or another, to the summit of Everest.
The use of drugs on Everest sensationalized the sport. Famous mountain climbers even died trying to push some of their inadequately prepared clients to the top. And some were left behind to die.
It changed others too. At annual dinners in San Francisco of the American Himalayan Foundation, I met Sir Edmund Hillary and Maurice Herzog, in the rarefied air of the Climbing Tribe. But after Into Thin Air, the dinner topic subtly shifted from climbing to philanthropy. An honorable shift, but the ritual memorializing of recent climbs mysteriously vanished.
Human endurance, even in the face of self-imposed death, attracts timeless attention. There are always stories of athletes who survive the impossible. But if they do, it's apparently with their brain, and not much else.
At TED MED last year, Ken Kamler, a microsurgeon on the 1996 Everest climb, also had a personal account. He described how Beck Weathers may have survived after being left for dead. Other climbers, struggling against a sudden freezing wind, descended past him as he lay motionless in frozen snow with his eyes open.
A day and a half later, just below the summit, Weathers walked down alone and into a tent set up for rescue. Face blackened with frostbite, he lucidly asked Ken "Do you accept my health insurance?" as he described his near-death experience.
After the expedition, Ken hypothetically reconstructed Weather's brain activity from similar brain scans of patients. A dying brain powers down, and one by one, the lights go out. Ken displays fMRI images of the anterior cingulate gyrus, the "seat of will," and how it may have saved Weathers. Where the red of normal had been replaced by power-down blue, spots of power-up red re-appeared as Weathers zoned out on a comforting memory. Thirty-six hours later, like Superman, he launched himself out of the snow and walked down to the tent, as his anterior cingulate gyrus sent neuron signals to the frontal lobe, which powered up the red of self-preservation, sending signals to the posterior, which powered up the red of motor activity. A stunning Butterfly Effect staged in Weather's brain on Everest.
What would our thoughts be if we knew we were dying? Would "life pass before our eyes"? What image would we choose to summon the Zone? For Weathers, it was his family.
We like the idea love had something to do with it, and it did, but there's more... I found an online Scientific American article on magician David Blaine. He held his breath for a world record, accomplished on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Similar to high altitude climbing, David deprived his brain of oxygen intentionally. His initial nervousness on stage raised his heart rate to 150 beats per minute. The audience panicked and screamed as it was displayed. David could see it too. He relaxed anyway and hit the Zone. His heart rate dropped. He made friends with pain. After seventeen minutes, the audience cheered, snapping him out of the Zone. He knew he had just broken the world record.
Another article I found by David Eagleman, "When Life Passes Before Your Eyes," describes what happens in his Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine. As a neuroscientist, he's in one of the only facilities dedicated to running experiments on how we perceive time.
His experiments with people in a free-fall displayed a boost of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which processes conflicting information. Test results indicate the brain has two separate versions of time, the perception of Now, and another in slow-motion, resolving information that conflicts with Now.
David suspects the brain compensates for conflict by producing a single concept of time that slows the brain down in life-threatening situations. It only worked though, if test subjects kept their eyes open in the free-fall. One test subject couldn't do it, and was eliminated from the study.
I'm reminded of my Big America roller coaster ride. My friend downgraded me for closing my eyes, so we did it again, and I failed. On the third, I was determined. Not only did I finish wide-eyed, I impressed him with the exact number of seismic bolts in the track every twenty feet. How I did it then I don't know -- until now -- realizing I slowed time down then.
As Weather's brain powered down on Everest, his eyes remained open and aware of everything, including the comment of one climber, "He's dead." Like David Blaine, he relaxed anyway, his heart rate slowed way down, and he spent singular time thinking of his family.
Peter Tse, a Harvard cognitive psychologist, offered another explanation. Evolution trained us to recognize novelty. Would we eat, or be eaten? The brain views our daily meal as boringly familiar. This repetition is "suppressed" and diminishes the brain's electrical activity. When we're about to become a meal, survival kicks in and our brain slows time down. Electrical activity soars and we pay hyper-attention to process more conflicting information per second. "It re-calibrates on-the-fly," Tse says.
On Everest, a "dead" Weathers was actually hyper-alive, potentially recalibrating and processing more information per second. This could have saved his life.
According to Einstein, time is relative, depending on whether we're in a spaceship or on the ground. David's free-fall test results of brain activity imply time is relative to the individual, not a location in space. Two individuals can be experiencing the same thing standing next to each other, but their concept of time is relative.
These findings might question the validity of Einstein's theory, ruling in favor of the human brain, regardless of what happens in Space.
Adventurous humans aren't the only heroes. The Everest Expedition was also notorious for featuring heroic machines on oxygen deprivation.
Our expedition required two helicopter evacuations. Each Nepalese helicopter dispatched to Annapurna flew to the 10,000 foot limit of aviation technology that could fly in thin air. Our team physician, bitten by an inch-long centipede, was carried 3000 feet down to the helicopter pad with a massively necrotic arm, in a bamboo basket on the back of a Nepalese porter half his size.
Beck Weathers was rescued by a private French Eurostar, which made an outrageous landing near 21,000 feet in practically no air at all. It's been contested as impossible, even with approach photos taken by the pilot, who risked his life in a pricey helicopter on his own dare.
Epic stories like these viralize in the mountain climbing community, and then spread elsewhere. Something motivates humans, and even machines, to do amazing things.
Now we have curious neuroscientists catching the wave, and attempting to explain the human brain in compelling circumstances.
Climbers are constantly asked the same question. Why climb mountains so high that we might die? We all rehearse George Mallory's infamous 1924 excuse before he disappeared on the third British attempt of Everest. "Because it's there."
Eight climbers died on Everest in 1996. Did they think of love in the end? As a climber, I try to imagine myself. Would this be my choice while powering down? Maybe love would have been the last thing on my mind, and yet...

Surfing The Universe With Dr. JoAnn

I'm checking out an entry in Wikipedia on Schrodinger's Equation, which remains unsolved. It's one of the most perplexing in quantum physics.
"The atomic orbitals of hydrogen like ions are solutions to the Schrodinger Equation in a spherically symmetric potential".
Wow. I've been invited to a Ball. A Big symmetric One. And it might have a clue how to solve this equation.
I drive almost into the Pacific Ocean as I enter the campus at UC Santa Barbara. I spot my destination immediately. It's got a billboard-sized free-form graphic consuming half the face of the building. For academia, it's out of character and a refreshing hit of serendipity. I enter Elings Hall and take the elevator to the second floor. The door opens into a dark corridor. A guy on the elevator confirms, "It's over there." My eyes have no time to adjust. I don't see anyone. Then the outline of a woman with familiar long hair walks toward me. Her face is barely visible.
"JoAnn, is that you?"
Yes, it is. My brain is about to be blown open by the immersive 3D digital reality of the AlloSphere.
When I saw a video of Dr. JoAnn Kuchera-Morin at the TED conference, and then in person at the Humanity Plus conference, I became an immediate follower. My first thought was, she's got answers. A musician and composer, JoAnn is not a predictable candidate for scientists, physicists, physicians, architects, psychologists, cosmologists, and nanotechnologists to feign over. They're waiting in line to meet her and upload the contents of their brains into her virtual 3D program, which leaves audiences with mouths gaping and eyes a mile wide.
Today I will experience some of JoAnn's brilliant visual art and musical composition. She could be mistaken for anyone. JoAnn doesn't carry around the compulsory hubris often expected of high profile PHD's. She's understaffed, driven too hard by her passion, and her Birkenstocks are wearing thin from pounding out hours in the AlloSphere.
JoAnn unlocks a door and we enter. The Dome consumes three stories of Elings Hall. Thirty feet in diameter, it's the largest scientific instrument of it's kind in the world.
A triangular steel grid forms this giant ball, and it resembles a geodesic dome. Anything with that appearance is instantly user-friendly to me. Buckminster Fuller was one of my architectural professors.
Knowing this, JoAnn first takes me to a bridge near the top of the Dome so I can inspect its structural beauty. Curved metal perforated panels span the voids with perfect seams, where they attach to the spherical steel strut frame. A special black paint coats the panels so they reflect the entire color spectrum in the dark with surreal state-of-the-art intensity.
In this giant near-to-anechoic chamber, Dr. JoAnn simulates daily the collective minds of geniuses and displays her brilliance as an inventor, musician, and artist.
The architect for the project, Robert Venturi, was perplexed by some of her requirements, but fulfilled all of them, which doesn't surprise me. JoAnn's passion is addictive. She just "knows" what will work. She's so persuasive you have no choice but to follow her.
As I do, I feel like Alice descending down a giant macrocosmic Bucky Ball of a rabbit hole.
JoAnn is surprisingly animated by my visit, considering she's battling the misery of the flu. An incurable inquisitionist, she seems more than willing to capture another tenacious brain to influence in her web of hyper-reality.
She takes me to another bridge in the middle of the Dome. I park my MacBook in small room filled with electronic equipment and a ganglion of cable. From a control panel out on the bridge, JoAnn picks up her favorite toy, a joystick, that ironically materializes the joy she's having creating Wonders of the Universe inside her Dome. A PC desktop pops up on the giant curved surface. She moves her cursor around and launches the show.
"Ok Ann, put on your 3D glasses."
Here we go. The rabbit hole is about to rocket me out the other end. I don't think I'll need popcorn for this one.
The desktop minimizes off to the side and a gigantic 3D brain, floating in space like a hologram, consumes the Dome and my entire visual field. Knowing I'm an architect and I write about brain science, JoAnn is hitting me right where I live.
She rotates the brain a little, inputs some data, and we zoom into the right side of the prefrontal cortex like a couple Nanobot Journalists on a mission. Collective bits of color and shape are flying all over like a flock of migrant birds in a hurricane. Then they critical mass and return like bees back to the hive of a neuron.
"The grid you see is one of the horizontal slices taken through the brain of an Architect we put in a fMRI. We're also simulating the effects of pharmaceuticals, genetics, and the brain's own chemistry this way. We can see how thoughts travel based on emotion and imagery."
Wow, again.
I know an fMRI literally reconstructs imagination in the brain, uploading to a computer program that crunches data by mapping changes in cerebral blood flow in the visual cortex. Now data has become a very big show. Am I also watching how my own brain visualizes?
"While he was in there we showed him visual images and then watched his brain light up. This is real-time simulation."
No kidding. Now I'm visualizing Bucky in there, a computer uploading his brain with all 12 last-century phonebook-sized volumes of his legendary Dymaxion treatise, the World Design Science Decade.
JoAnn tweaks with her joystick. All the shapes representing anything imaginable in the brain take off again as she describes what's happening. She's on verbal autopilot. Words spill out of her non-stop, creating seamless and precise descriptions. How can I interrupt her now? I've got a million questions as I fly high on my own internally launched candy-store frenzy . . .
"Go HERE! Now over to the LEFT side! WHOA, back up a little . . . where's the amygdala? Add some ENDORPHINS to the CEREBELLUM!"
Like a bad cough in the audience, I would have ruined her performance.
Then her computer crashes. The desktop freezes.
"This is a new one", she says. After spending some time trying to fix it and being overly apologetic, she calls her engineer to the bridge. JoAnn must be melting down the AlloSphere computer system with her data input, yet again.
"We need a supercomputer. There's one upstairs, and I'm trying to get access to it."
Well, yeah, I'm thinking. Give it to her, like NOW. I suggest Wolfram Alpha might help her crunch more data as her engineer successfully launches us again. She prepares her next event.
"Here's Schrodinger."
JoAnn produces his famous unsolved paradox on her minimized desktop. I'm prepared for another Avatar 3D experience, but when a massive hydrogen like atom amped up on computational simulation explodes in my face, I'm thrown into full-body 4D immersion. As JoAnn zooms in, out, around, and through, accelerating it all over the Dome, an expanding symmetry of color and shape comes right at me.
Then it expands right through my head. I step back to get out of the way, but all I do is bump into the back wall. I step to the side, then lose my balance. The only way to get it back is to cross my eyes. This turns the quantum takeover into two stable images in front of me. I feel like I'm in a big round box, a paradox in itself. I think I may have bifurcated into two branched universes, not knowing where my body is and where it isn't.
"I had one famous physicist in here, very skeptical. I ran my program of a hydrogen-like atom with various combinations of wave functioning equations. He couldn't believe it was so complicated and behaved in so many ways."
This makes me smile, knowing this has never been seen by the human eye. If I'd been an atom on the wall, I would have given anything to see the expression on his face.
I look at the equations again displayed on JoAnn's desktop that have stumped the best of them. Schrodinger's are analytically unsolved, but they're now growing and organically changing seamlessly into brilliant visual replications of his theory all through me.
Two more visitors arrive on the bridge for their appointment with JoAnn. She introduces me to a student and a music professor checking out the progress of his collaboration with her. The show goes on all around me.
Then they leave in the usual state of dropped jaws and big eyes. JoAnn returns to Schrodinger, grins, and reminds me to put my 3D glasses back on. She seems to be enjoying my 4 year-old Wonder Face as I dance around, this close to out-of-motor-control.
"I think I can convince them that visualizing this is important."
Well, yeah, I think again. I know she's on to something, and it's much bigger than her Dome. This could convince there really are multiple dimensions.
Schrodinger is understood by few. A quantum physicist, he won the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his paradox of "many worlds". He invented an interesting scenario in an attempt to explain his theory.
A cat is sealed up in a box with a tiny radioactive substance. If over time a radioactive atom decays, it's detected, poison released, and results in a dead cat. But it's also probable no atom decays and the cat is still alive, making it probable the cat is either dead or alive regardless of the behavior of an atom.
What if the cat exists in both states? This is also probable, based on the measurable behavior of atomic particles that constitute all living matter. To exist in both states, a "branch point" event occurs, where the cat becomes two and assumes existence in different distinct dimensions of the Universe, being dead and alive simultaneously. If the box is opened, regardless of what's discovered, both are equally real.
Solving Schrodinger's time-dependent and time-independent states of quantum theory would validate how being alive and dead at the same time could occur. As my grandmother might say, a crazy idea like this is "far-fetched", as in, you've got to go way out there to get it, a good reason why the cat-in-the-box is a challenge to wrap a brain around.
Schrodinger's probability does align with what I know about Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspenky's "shock interval", Wilhelm Reich's Orgone Theory, and Garrett Lisi's E8 Theory.
I've got a hunch. Our curiosity may not kill the cat. Refusing to be squashed by skepticism, our curiosity could manifest proof of Schrodinger's equation visually. Then the cat also lives. If missing particles explode out of the Large Hadron Collider completing E8 theory, we'll also have an Exceptional Theory of Everything.
How could we possibly arrive at all this? How about transmuting analytical data into visually symmetrical imagery and watch what happens?
When I Wiki-surfed Schrodinger, some interesting terms represented his equations. Wave, amplitude, oscillation, frequency . . these are words that coincidentally describe the sound and behavior of music. JoAnn's fascination with the structure of musical composition was running in the background as Guitar Hero and Rock Band launched the modern rhythm gaming craze.
Eventually, the inventors designed joystick controllers shaped like musical instruments. The names of the games and inventors are also interesting, like Frequency, Amplitude, Harmonix...
I like the frequencies of JoAnn's simulated music that back-drops her 3D shows. They sound like sonar recordings of whales, or the Cobe Satellite bringing back sounds of the Universe.
I don't want to leave, but JoAnn's flu-fight, upcoming conferences demanding her presence, plus another typical day indulging persistent fans, has worn her down to what's left of her Birkenstocks. Guilt sets in, and I plan a quick, but grateful exit.
Still, she's having a hard time powering down the Dome and leaving herself. I honorably body-coax her out and get her to lock the door as she continues to talk.
She always has so much more to say . . .
I'm hoping someone will find attractive bait to get her out of that Dome daily so we don't lose her in there forever. I'm also thinking that would be ok with JoAnn, and she would want to take a bunch of her friends with her. Maybe that's her next simulation . . .
I gush, get profuse, and diminish myself in her presence, as I walk toward the elevator that will soon de-elevate me. Like an SNL bit, I am not worthy. I say goodbye to JoAnn, my arm raised in an arc and headed for her slumped shoulders bearing the weight of her passion and the flu.
"Don't hug me. You'll get it."
No worries. She can infect me with whatever she wants. I do it anyway, and then blur the fuzzy moment with a semi-trite evaluation.
"You're not part of this world JoAnn. You are it."
Finally, she doesn't know what to say.
I walk back out into the setting sun and face the disappointing visual of a parking structure with my car in it. I read emails, check messages, and drive back out into Real Reality.
Even with a Pacific Sunset Moment, I can't get my head out of the AlloSphere.
Anybody got a contact for the Nobel Laureate Nominating Committee in Sweden?

Objects may be larger or smaller than they appear

I attended a conference in Southern California last December featuring current developments in human enhancement and life extension. Not sure it was worth the flight from San Francisco, I checked out the speakers, most whom I didn't know. A few had presented at the TED conference, which was a plus, and the program was compelling, so I went.
I told one friend what the conference was about. He just looked at me, unsure where my head had gone for vacation. Then I joked to another friend I was curious if I could pick out the Cyborgs in the audience. This resulted in "Wow, I want to know all the details when you get back!"
I guess our relationship with science hasn't changed much. What we don't think is possible either makes us edgy or gets us all excited.
My preconceptions however, were completely reversed. For three days, my reality was transformed by an incredible and fascinating world of probability and possibility. "Hive mind" took over as a sizable collection of real human conferees began to think and feel alike. If there were any Cyborgs, they were excellent proof transhumanist technology has been perfected.
I thought about a video circulated on the web recently of a guy who married the virtual one he created, and realized our New Century just might become a Brave New World.
For me, The Humanity Plus conference was an over-the-top hit. I had a long list on my laptop of words to search after I left. One out of four failed spell-check. This is how rapidly our language is changing to suit our desires, inventions, and curiosity.
I'm amazed at the thousands of scientific choices available for altering, enhancing, repairing, healing, and extending the lifespan of the human body. And more choices on how we can enhance our experience of what we currently call reality. Science fiction, digital animation, cinema, religion, spirituality, and altered states of consciousness are tools we use to experience what doesn't exist. One by one however, we're chipping away at the short list and transforming our visions into scientific fact.
"Imagineering" is a buzzword now. We've been ramping up for centuries to manifest our wildest dreams. If you "imagine" something, is it "real", and will it "happen"? Can you "create" it? Does it "exist", and if so, to "whom"? Is it "true"? Do we need "science" to "prove" it?
Wow. Check out all those quotation marks! These are familiar words we use every day, but is there scientific proof behind them? And if there is, for how long? If I say it's true and you say it isn't, who wins until next week?
This could be the biggest transition in the history of technology and dictionaries. Add the power of Wikipedia (this failed spell-check too), and it's a world on a power drink.
Instead of "no, it isn't," I've traded that one in for "that's interesting." It keeps the sign in front of my head flipped to "open." It also provides safe haven so I don't offend anyone until there's "proof," including myself. This conference provided so much to think about, all the heads attending were flipped open.
Since the turn of the century we've come mind-blowingly close to solving some of our toughest challenges for quality of life and the nature of our universe. A modest awareness of quantum physics can provide the realization this is not the only dimension we may occupy. The film "Back to the Future" was a prequel to this possibility, and now it's a probability.
Plenty has been written about the integrity of accepting the experiences of others as real to them, even if it isn't to us. This extends to the body as well. If you physically alter your DNA, your body, or use it as a canvas for art, or lose an arm and go get another one, does it change your experience or who you are to others? Or maybe change your brain?
Psychologists and behaviorists specialize in counseling those who alter their body, and even their gender. We now have technology that can replace an arm with a robotic prosthesis and a small computer attached to the body that transmits the brain's neuron conversation to the replaced arm, telling it what to do. It literally "reads your mind."
Dean Kamen, a robotics developer, has interfaced the latest technology, making this a reality. A robotic arm can now pick up a grape and not crush it. Captain Crunch can reach the mouth with all the milk in the spoon. Kamen's current goal is to refine the brain sensors so amputees can perform their next chess move, based on the decision made in their brain. He's also working with DARPA to make this existing technology affordable and available to anyone that needs a limb replaced. They're starting with victims of warfare, some who need four replacements. One recipient of a robotic arm has been without a real one for almost two decades.
So what about technology that enhances human experience? Well, that exists too. One of the hot topics in the conference break room was the impending release of the film Avatar, produced with unique advances in 3D digital media. The film is as close to an immersive holographic environment I've seen so far, but I was amazed during one presentation to discover one actually exists, constructed inside a building.
Dr. JoAnn Kuchera Morin, the ingenious mind behind the AlloSphere at UC Santa Barbara, explained how participants are surrounded with "true 3D" in a thirty-foot diameter dome laboratory, the largest in the world. This "scientific instrument" inputs the ingenuity of musicians, composers, artists, physicists, biologists, geneticists, psychologists, and astronomers into a computer software program and outputs sensory data that can simulate reality. Images are exploded to a thousand times their actual size and are in the face of participants inside the dome, whom transmit sensory feedback to the computer, altering the experience and creating the ideal feedback loop.
So if the AlloSphere is also a tool for developing interactive and bodily intuition, can we think ourselves into a reality we choose?
An interesting non-event at this conference was the still-present hush-ness about "digital sex." It was mentioned in the audience, maybe twice, and fast. Just a quickie.
The powerful presence of this digital media in our world is still too powerful for most of us, even though the biological imperative to replicate ourselves wins out over all other senses.
The United States is one of the few cultures with an expectation of monogamy, but humans can demand more input from their partner than is deliverable within the limits of human expression.
This dilemma is rarely expressed openly, and is often tethered to endless forms of psychoanalytic, therapeutic, and spiritual discipline in order to maintain it.
We like the term "chemistry" though, to describe that rare event with another human where bliss is experienced in sex, and we want it forever. But chemistry can also make us complete idiots. Even killers. Or forget to pay the bills, and if sex isn't consummated with a significant other, leave crumbs all over the place so we can be "found out", a rather subliminal tactic to confront cultural shame and guilt.
It's obvious from recent world events we just can't make sex go away. We continue to engage humans, and some engagements reward the participant's lack of due-diligence with a world stage at the grocery check-out stand. Many of us feed on infractions of monogamy or celibacy, and then humans become the celebrity status casualties of their biological surges.
Proliferation of human sexual expression through emotion, ritual, love, mind altered states, or chemicals has been the norm. We have control of our free will as to how often, with what, and with whom we enhance our experience. We can choose to immerse ourselves in human interaction, or join a virtual community that could take our current norm to the next level.
Full immersive virtual technology with sensory input/output offers boundless opportunity for this option to exist within the next five years, outside the box we call a computer.
Not much practice or commitment involved here. Just an admission ticket. Humans can maintain monogamy, control population, and avoid societal shame with a new twist. . .
"It's not what you think, Dear. All I did Friday night was hang out at the Full Dome 4D Digital
Immersion Multiplex. Look at our kids. They live in that computer with their games day and night. No big deal."
The Ultimate Safe Sex.
There are "private clubs" providing a choice in humans, but what might happen if we choose sensory input that goes straight to the brain without the middleperson? If we allow admittance into our head instead, what may come or go with it? This brand of enhancement might lease our free will with an open contract. We may turn ourselves over so our thoughts can be manipulated, our senses altered, and then just go along for the ride, getting off any time we want. Or so it seems.
A long time friend of mine is the first woman physician in her Native American Tribe. She's traveled all over the world representing the health and well-being of her People. She always waits in our conversations until she can deliver a profound observation about anything. I spoke to her recently about this topic. We tossed around a lot of ideas, and then she made a statement I knew would be questioned by the entertainment industry.
"Bollywood will surpass Hollywood here in a few years."
Silence. No way, I thought. Not in the US.
We exchanged our experiences in India and the movies we saw. After debating this for a while, I realized she was on to something. Traditional India pre-arranges marriages which make courtship obsolete, and even falling in love. We agreed the majority of movies made in Bollywood, even today, are about romance. Lots of singing, dancing, courting, fabulous costuming, opulent sets, camels racing, and The Big Kiss at the end when the audience goes wild. Every movie house in India is packed, and this now extends into the Mid East and Europe,
where Bollywood is wildly popular.
The emotional cravings for humans may not go away either. We agreed the day might come when popularity of this plot will surge back into cinema and video right here in the US, produced by Bollywood.
It's obvious within the last few weeks the Internet may be controlled more than the inventors intended it to be. If open platforms via electronic data are regulated further based on market share, bandwidth, and predetermined cultural morality, to what extent will humans go to surmount deprivation of their free will in the virtual world? Enhancement through immersive digital media in a pay-per-experience theater environment could be one potential option to the powerful urges that still bother us. And for many, a "second life" to enjoy.
What I'm curious about regarding all this emerging technology in human enhancement and sensory augmentation is the pay-off and potential sacrifice in our complex human arena with each other. It might also bring front and center some surprising attention to the existence of a human soul. More inventive science will be needed to prove this one, if only to restore "con-science" and fulfilling interactions with "humans".
Until then, it's your call. Go to a nice romantic musical with camel races, or go to the Multiplex.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Miracle of Greg Lives On

My cell goes off. It’s Greg’s daughter Tosh.
“Annie, you better come.”
“I know. The owls are landing in trees above my head.”
She knows the story my Navajo friend told me about one of the Legends. Owls bring messages one of us here on Earth is about to transition out of the body to the Other World. For weeks before my Mother and Father died two months apart, they were visiting me constantly. They started getting closer, telling me the time was near. And it was.
“On my bike ride yesterday, I stopped to take off my arm warmers. There was an owl right above me in an evergreen tree. It hooted twice. Then it flew away. That’s the closest one yet. I’ll fly out tomorrow.”
I’m on my way to Utah. I know what the owl’s message was. Greg has made his decision. He plans to go out, soon.
I arrive at the SLC airport, rent a car, and drive to Greg’s bedside. We smile at each other.
“I guess you know why I’m here.”
“Yeah, I do.” he says.
His brain tumor has paralyzed his left side, but his right side is still active. Now the tumor is growing again, and it has a mind of it’s own. It’s been athletic all its life and is fighting, punching, and grabbing at everything. I pull on Greg’s arm so he can do some curls. His muscles are craving it. After about ten minutes, his arm calms down and just lays there.
We have our little talk.
“Ok, here’s how it goes down. I did this with my Mother, my Father, and my Dog. I know this works.”
He listens carefully, as if he too knows the words that are tumbling out of me come from somewhere else, The Great Manager of the Sky, anywhere but from me. I run him through the Bardo stages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an instruction manual for the transition from life to death, and then into All That Is.
“Greg, how do you want to prepare for the rest of the trip?”
He wants more chemo, the nastiest we can find. He wants to fight his invader to the end, and he knows it will kill him too.
“No, it won’t kill YOU. You’ll still be here. You’ll see.”
He knows what I mean.
Tosh and I take a walk as the emotion pours out of her like a broken dam. As soon as we’re outside, I hear owls.
“Tosh. They’re here too.”
“The owls.”
“Are you sure that’s an owl? I’ve never heard any around here.”
“Absolutely. It’s got the same rhythm. Who. Who-who-who. The first one is a sentence. Then followed by three more together. Every time.”
We walk up the street a few blocks and stand outside the house of Greg’s best friend Alan, who is also his accountant. Another owl lands in a tree right across the street, hoots three times, and flies off.
“It won’t be much longer Tosh. Greg’s ready.”
Just then Alan drives up, we all greet each other, then Tosh and I leave. She tells me Alan is barely coping, and then adds the latest development in the life and death cycles of life.
“I’m pregnant Annie. It’s Nathan’s.”
“Are you going to keep it?”
“Yes. Nathan is so happy.”
“How does everyone else feel about this?”
“My sisters aren’t happy, but my Mom is.”
“Did you tell Greg?”
“No. I’m not sure yet if I will.”
“Let’s go back” I tell her. “The three of us need to be with Greg.”
Greg’s new Hospice caregiver arrives. The regular one broke his finger and she’s the replacement. I’m hoping Greg is comfortable with a woman changing his disposable brief and giving him a bed bath.
“Hey Greg. This one’s a woman. Can you handle that?”
“The more the merrier”, he tells me as I crack up.
She’s fully present as she comes in, we smile at each other, and I get that usual best-of-friends warmth coming back at me I’m familiar with here in Utah. Must be something in the water . . .
I ask her if I can help, knowing she’s in charge. I explain Greg can’t move anything on the left, but he’s got a mean right punch. Greg grins.
“Take his right arm and pull him over to the other side of the bed. We’ll roll him on his side.”
Greg grabs on to me, I bear hug him, and pull with all I’ve got. He’s still an armful and strong as hell. He bear hugs me. It’s the first time we’ve hugged in a long time. He’s down to his skin, ready for his bath. We’re now locked into each other as his caregiver conducts her business.
“Hey you, you’re still hot!” I whisper in his ear, kissing his neck. He kisses back, but can’t get to my face, so the sounds of his kisses just fill the air. I laugh, and add some irony.
“How many times do we have to do this in front of other people?”

Greg laughs too. His caregiver cracks a smile, keeping her eyes discreetly on her towel as she washes. The room is just three people, completely comfortable being part of human compassion for each other. The harsh business of being in a struggling body just goes away. Greg knows I finally grabbed my moment with him, and he knows it will be the last time he hugs and loves anyone like this again. Not a bad way to complete one’s life.
I feel my moment on Friday and tell Greg I’m flying out.
“Talk to me anytime. I’ll hear you, and I will see you.” I think of the line in Avatar and visualize Greg leaping out of his wheelchair and running his favorite trail up Big Cottonwood Canyon with his dog Joey, who died last year, and is waiting for him on Pandora.
I kiss him all over, hold his face, hang on to my emotions, smile, and walk out the door. We’ve said goodbye. It’s April 30th.
I get another call from Tosh. It’s Thursday, May 13th.
“Annie, he’s gone. We were all in the room with him. My brother flew in too. When my Dad saw him, he took three last breaths, and then he was gone. He died Tuesday.”
“I know.”
I tell her I went to the same place I’ve been going to on Tuesdays where the owls are always there. This time the owl was in the tree next to my car.
“What time was that Annie?”
“About 2:15, maybe 2:25 pm. It was closer than the rest I’ve heard.”
“Greg died at about 3:10 pm.”
I tell her in Mountain Standard Time, that means Greg’s last breath was about five or ten minutes before I heard the owl.
“This time Tosh, it was strange. Instead of feeling sadness, I was almost peaceful. The owl was just . . . there.”
She tells me Greg got into Harvard Medical School. They will harvest his brain and study it so they can save other lives. No one has seen someone live through all this for 3 years. He’s still a miracle they don’t understand. I tell her I was hoping for something like that.
I ask Tosh for details on a family gathering. 
“Annie, his Mom died Wednesday, a day later. She just fell down and died.”
I don’t know what to say.
"We're having our memorial for him and his Mom May 23rd. Will you come?
"Yeah, of course I'll come."
I’m thinking about my decision to move into my place in Park City. It’s the only home I’ve got left. It’s agony thinking about leaving the Bay Area. I thought it would also give me some time with Greg before he made his choice, but inside me, I knew that wouldn’t happen.
“Tosh, how’s your baby?”
“I went to my doctor. He told me we’re all spiritual warriors. He thinks my Dad and his Mom are preparing my baby for me.”
“Are you kidding? A doctor said that?”
“Yeah Annie. He did.”
The rest of Greg will be cremated. His family, some friends, and I will spread his ashes all over Greg’s favorite place, San Francisco, and both our hearts will be left there. I will have moved to where Greg was and he will have moved to where I was. We’ll trade places. 
As I finish writing, KDFC in San Francisco is playing Antonin Dvorak’s “Going Home” from the Symphony of The New World. My tears are messing up my MacBook, so I stop writing. It’s 11:35 am. Pacific Standard Time.
Greg pulled it off. He killed the tumor. The enemy is dead.
And Greg lives on and on. . .                                                                                                                     

Friday, March 26, 2010

Fit For Life. Chapter Three

Most people who know me often ask “Are you still riding your bike?”
“Yeah, sure, I went out yesterday and did the mountain. They patched the potholes so the descent was awesome!”
“Aren’t you getting a little old for that?”
“For what? Potholes?”
I still don’t understand these strange comments. They know I’ve always been an athlete, and I know I’ll always be an athlete. I don’t know any other way to be. Why don’t they ask me why I still don’t have a TV? Or is broccoli all I ever eat?
Cycling is a lifestyle for me. When I was invited on training rides with a bunch of guys that became pros in cycling, we were committed to training. No one showed up late. We were a tight social network.
When Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, it was a direct hit to our cycling family. He had ridden with us a couple months earlier, so the news hit hard. Every week in our paceline, the question was always “What’s the news on Lance?”
The cancer had spread throughout his body. Some said he would beat cancer and some said he wouldn’t. The French gave up on him by kicking him off their cycling team. During his treatments, Lance spent almost every day on a stationary bike, logging up to fifty miles. Then he got back on his bike and won the Tour de France seven consecutive years in a row.
Why did Lance survive when others didn’t, regardless of age or treatment? Why did he survive, jump back on the bike, and become the cycling legend he is today? Was it his passion for challenge? Did his brain have anything to do with his recovery, or his life as an athlete? I think it did, and now science does too.

Greg. Another Miracle
I have a close friend in Utah who is an athlete. I met Greg when I experimented with internet dating sites gaining popularity on the web. I tried it once, just for fun. When I saw Greg’s profile pic, something stopped me after dozens of “I don’t think so’s”. I sent him an email. He sent one back. Then I did something crazier than hitch-hiking Europe for a year by myself. I drove nine hours to Salt Lake City to meet him, and I didn’t know why.
Greg and I sat on the lawn of a shopping center parking lot for twelve straight hours talking. This guy had the winning combination of being an athlete, a brain connecting dots like a supercomputer, and a passion for challenge. It was like we had finally tracked each other down. We just picked up where we left off. You hear stories like this, and you always wonder how they play out in people’s lives.
Greg and I shared athletic adventures. We skied every steep chute Utah had to offer. He took me on his grueling four day Kokopelli mountain bike tour in Moab with a bunch of his friends and family.
All athletes.
Greg is known all over the Salt Lake City area as an elite competitive mountain biker and skier, and he’s also been fighting a malignant tumor in his brain for three years. Greg’s surprise tumor grew until it left him on the floor, paralyzed on most of his left side. Amazingly, his brain function was spared. He was given the same dismal prognosis Lance was. He was told he had a three percent chance at survival and three weeks to live. He started aggressive radiation plus drugs three times a month for three months, infusions of drugs for six months, and another round for four months. Repeat.
Through it all, no one could challenge Greg’s fighting spirit. If anyone was foolish enough to try (including me), he was in your face demanding why you would give up on him (and even yourself). His tumor had stabilized, and he wasn’t kind to pessimists. He wasn’t reluctant either to describe his treatments and what they were like. “They take you this close to death and hope it kills the cancer first”.
Greg’s had more treatment rounds than his doctors have given to any patient. Every time, they took him close to death hoping his cancer would die first.
Through it all, Greg got on his stationary bike for as long as he could stand it. He was awarded miracle status by his medical community. And his tumor stabilized. Greg was ready to get his left side working, get back on the bike, and on to life.
Then late in 2009, Greg took another direct hit. He lost his balance, went down, and broke his hip. He had no muscle to protect and support his bones. And just a week before that, his MRI showed the outline of his brain tumor growing again, which probably affected his balance. He had another intensive round of treatments a couple months ago that required three days in the hospital.
Now in a wheelchair, he’s starting to lose faith he’ll ride again, because he can’t get on his stationary bike. As an athlete he knows if he can’t get a workout that gets his heart rate up and builds muscle, his chances at recovery become slim.
When I talked to Greg last week, I asked permission to write about him and use his name. He finally agreed. I’m not sure he wanted his investment clients to know what had happened to him. But now they all know what he’s fighting, and I’m surprised by their support. They have not abandoned him. They know he’s one of the smartest in the business, and they’ll take Greg’s brain any way they can get it.
I asked Greg what he thought the most important factor was for his miraculous long-term survival. Why had he made it for three years when others didn’t, like Ted Kennedy and Robert Novak? I asked him why his numerous oncologists and radiologists remain amazed. Why did they give up on him so easily before? Why . . .
He didn’t even let me finish. He told me he had been an athlete for life, and that was at the top of his list, because he knew. I was not surprised, but I needed to hear it for myself.

Cancer is not a disease
David Agus is a medical doctor and professor of medicine at the University of Southern California. His studies in proteomics have changed how cancer is treated. Instead of the reductionist approach, a systems approach has become highly effective. Like a plant, changing the soil may not save the plant, but changing its environment will, if changed soon enough. If a seed is given a sustainable environment that’s maintained, it’s less vulnerable to insects throughout it’s life span.
At his TED presentation, Dr. Agus stated the reductionist approach promoted by the National Cancer Institute is just “all wrong”. Cancer is not genetic, nor is treating a body part effective. He defines cancer as a cell no longer in control and regulated by it’s environment. He measures cancer dynamically as a system. His input is similar to diet, environment, stress, and physical fitness. His output is cancer and symptoms that may be hidden from detection, making target treatment very difficult. He targets all cells in the body as a systemic whole. He doesn’t shrink a cancer growth, he controls the body’s environment.
I think Dr. Agus “all right”.
One example of the body as an environment is a study he completed mapping global countries with the highest obesity rate. Interestingly, these countries also had the highest cancer rate, dramatically higher than a decade ago. Another recent web post by doctors in Barcelona claim their research and statistics indicate one-third of all breast cancer victims could have avoided this systemic malfunction with vigorous exercise and weight loss.
Now, Dr. Agus predicts rather than going to a breast or brain cancer clinic, you may go to an EGFR clinic (epidermal growth factor receptor). You can learn more about this by web searching EGFR, or watch Dr. Agus’ TED video.
What if we controlled the environment of our bodies? Would we be more resistant to “cells gone wild” or other invaders?

The Top Ten
William Evan’s book “Biomarkers” defines ten metabolic functions of our bodies that promote disease resistance, longevity, and vitality. Based on his research, building muscle mass and vigorous sustained aerobic activity positively affects all ten. Yoga affects three, and jogging affects none of them.
I was really surprised by the jogging statistic, so now I need to read the book, which also offers recommendations about diet and motivation. Exercises are recommended, but “may appear a bit daunting for the over-50 group who may never before have participated in a regular exercise or fitness program”. This is not good news for “Boomers” concerned about affordable health care that have lived a sedentary life. They risk further debilitating effects of sarcopenia in old age, which is an overall weakening of the body in favor of fat at the expense of muscle.
Satchel Paige, the “ageless” baseball pitcher, views biomarkers as an indicator of how old you would be if “you didn’t know how old you was”, which he doesn’t. Many of you already know my opinion on “doing the numbers”. Buying into a date an obstetrician wrote down on a piece of paper when you popped out seems arbitrary when you think of all you can do to define your real age, doesn’t it?
It’s known athletes grow new neuron connections in their brain that sedentary humans do not. This reduces the chance of memory loss, and my friend Greg is no exception.
Now I know why I drove nine hours to meet a stranger. Greg wasn’t a stranger at all. He was my next mentor.        
I’ve been asked to post updates on Greg’s progress. No science data yet, maybe tomorrow, but apparently a bunch of people offering up prayer works. Send yours his way through any power source you choose, including yourself.
You can also get out there on your bike today, and hit the gym while you’re at it. It’s a good way to pray.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Broccoli Wars

I’ve got three regulars who want to eat off my usual plate of broccoli and spinach with extra garlic. This doesn’t include the occasional audience to my order that stares the greens down and just has to compliment my choice. The bartender is on to this, so he negotiates with the kitchen to serve me a bigger plate of greens to share. Two of my poachers earn their free veggies by talking to me instead of texting, and one gives me hot tips on software.
It’s nearly impossible to get veggies in a restaurant anymore, anywhere in the country. Why are veggies, fruit, and even flowers shipped here all the way from South America? Is it cheaper? Have we run out?
But wait. We have plenty. At local farmer’s markets last season, I was amazed when vendors told me they packed up all the kids, fruit, veggies, and drove four hours from the California Central Valley every week. Booths loaded with macramé plant hangers had mercifully expired to make room for a street full of food growers and customers hauling it all away.
Why are food growers driving so far? Is it possible they have enough customers to be worth it? A healthy salad in a good restaurant now comes in a midget version disguised as an art form, thoughtfully composed of a dozen green leaves surrounded by six lima beans and a shallot-reduction-basil-fusion-virgin olive oil balsamic-vinaigrette served on a 15-inch dinner plate. And for veggies, now it’s wax beans and potatoes. 
These new developments just take all the fun out of my dining experience. My suspicion is restaurants are fed up throwing away veggies. They cost more to serve too. All that washing and scraping and tossing and choppin’ broccoli takes a bite out of restaurant profits, only to have customers leave it on their plates. The remains are sentenced to the dumpster.
When an upscale restaurant featuring trendy fusion vegetarian cuisine opened, a friend took me there for dinner. I walked in excited. I was prepared to Power Graze. Instead, I got another art piece on an oversized dinner plate. Amazed at the fattened-up tab and still on empty, I raided the fridge when I got home. 
I started walking into restaurants irritable before I even sat down. “Gimme those veggies” I demanded. “I know you’re hiding them back there”, not realizing if I got lucky I would also pay a premium for what lands in the dumpster most of the time.
I decided to alter my strategy. I shopped hard and found a restaurant that served sides of veggies and a personal trainer tending the bar. Surely, I had found one of my tribe. I thought I was winning with my broccoli and spinach order until I got a serving of some kind of genetically engineered species  so bitter I couldn’t eat it called “broccoli rabe”, which is mostly a cellulose stalk with tiny buds at the end.
“They usually mix those with olives, capers, and garlic”, he told me. 
“No kidding” I said, and asked if they had real broccoli with fat sweet verdant heads back there. 
“Yeah, but I have to leave the bar and negotiate with the kitchen. It’s a real pain”. 
I assumed the Irritated Position. “This rabe stuff will turn me into a Cyborg! Who are they saving the Real Broccoli for?” He laughed, made a trip to the kitchen, and I got RB. 
“Don’t expect this every time you come in here. Maybe when it’s slow”.
The next time I walked in, since Dana Carvey eats there too, I started singing his broccoli bit. This was good, the bartender cracked up. I refined my comedy routine some more. I told him I priced out bumper stickers and it wouldn’t cost much to print a pile and hand them out - 
“Free The Vegetables” 
After a few months of being an entertaining customer, I was scoring authentic veggies I could recognize. The kitchen knows me. 
“She’s out there again. Free The Broccoli.”
I walked into the local Vitamin Shoppe today. John is there and he’s very smart about everything in his store. 
“Hey John, have you noticed you can’t even find red colored fruit or blue colored berries in cans to stockpile for the End of the World without all that bad stuff in it for pies?” 
“Yeah, actually I’ve noticed that. We’ve got concentrated blueberry and pomegranate juices, about $15 a bottle. Lots of anti-oxidants and resveratrol.”
“What? That much for juice concentrate? What’s going on?”
“Darn if I know.”
I wanted to finish this blog entry weeks ago, but something stopped me. When this happens, I know there’s more out there worth waiting for. I decided to take a break. A local restaurant makes a salad worth ordering and fills the big plate. I waited until 9 pm to get a seat at the busy bar. On one side, a woman checks out my monster designer salad several times as she tries to finish a slab of meat with mashed potatoes. On the other, a man of “a certain age” is hunched over and stabilizing himself on the counter with both elbows as he finishes his halibut. Left on his plate is a nice pile of organic greens, looking good. He folds his napkin. He’s done.
I can’t watch this. “You’re not eating your veggies?”
“No, I’m full. You want them?” I tell him thanks, but I’ll pass. 
“Take them with you” I suggest. “They will keep you out of the doctor’s office. Works for me.” 
He says nothing. Maybe I need to speak up, so I say it again.
“I heard you. I don’t want them”.
The week after this, I was rewarded with a herd of incoming web posts piled into a couple days. Jamie Oliver decided to take a video cam to the streets like Morgan Spurlock in “Supersize Me”. He targeted Huntington, West Virginia, where half the population is considered obese. The video viralized on the web immediately. I found it on Youtube. Then Jamie was invited to the TED conference. Now his video has taken over Facebook.
I heard Dan Buettner on NPR in my car a day before Jamie, claiming longevity is only 10% genetics. Dang. I was living on empty hope. My grandmother lived to be 104. So now I’m paying attention.
Dan identifies “Blue Zones” as locations where people live longest. In Sardinia, it’s mostly men. Their secret is a plant-based diet and their treatment of older people (who knew?). The special wine Grandmother makes has a positive effect on the grandkids too.
In Okinawa, it’s the women. Again, a plant based diet and undernourishment. They stop eating when full. They’re on the skinny side. They have no word for "retirement".
In the US the Blue Zone Award goes to Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. Their plant-based diet is from the Bible. Their social network is their live community. They do lots of nature walks. They move “naturally”, constantly motivated into daily activity. Their body is always in motion.
All these Blue Zone people have something else in common. They share a common outlook on life. Prayer, veneration of ancestors, a sense of belonging to the right tribe, a faith-based community, and social networks. They surround themselves with the right people to hang out with. Friends are long-term adventures that are “the best thing you can do to add life to your years and years to your life” Dan comments.
My experience starting up and living in what is now labeled “green” communities verifies what Dan says. We were also committed to diversity. Members of vast age differences contributed variant views and skills, were well informed, and sources of boundless information. A passion for expression was considered a gift to the group, not a platform for debate or a smack-down opportunity.
In my view, as well as others like Hans Selye, tolerance for differences removes the acrimony of constant bickering over perceived truths. Medical science has proven this can elevate stress hormones and cause premature aging.
The next day, Extropist Examiner quoted a study walking barefoot activates your soles, sending signals to the brain to grow more neuron connections, which can prevent Alzheimer’s in older adults. Another post on Yahoo claims people who sit all day are prematurely killing themselves. Sitting is apparently leading to an explosion of non-ambulatory status in older adults. I believe it because I have to jump out of the way more often on a public sidewalk to avoid a battery operated wheelchair exceeding the speed limit.
What’s this surge in the news all about? And why is there no backlash over all this claiming discrimination? Could it be the health of Americans, regardless of age, is costing all of us a pile of money? Maybe its time to realize it’s up to each of us, with freedom so far to eat when and what we want, to eat our veggies. I cling to hope that soon I’ll see a picket line in front of a school by trim and athletic looking Mothers Against Disgusting Deprivation of veggies taking it to the next level.
If I sound opinionated, maybe that’s good. Veggies hurt a lot less than the alternative. And people are stealing them off my plate.