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The Princess and the Doctor: Testing the Limits of Human Potential

Not sure precise beginnings are important to record, but I became a singer at age 55 the morning of June 5th, 2002 on the Greek island of Hydra.  I have sung since early childhood but only for friends and family, and often at social events that I hosted, so validation was lacking.

But on that morning in June, there I was, practicing Leonard Cohen's song "Joan of Arc" with well-known San Francisco street singer Suzanne Holland for the second day in a row and she declared me "a good singer." I was very pleased at this "official" extension of my physician persona, but it turned out I still had much more to learn from Suzanne -- about life and human potential!

Suzanne Holland has been blind all her life, her eyes surgically removed at eight months of age due to retinoblastoma tumors. She first heard street singers as a tourist in Copenhagen. She then learned Leonard Cohen songs from Judy Collins and Joan Baez recordings while working for the South African army.  She moved to San Francisco in 1988 and resides there still today.

In my limited existence I had never met a blind woman before spending time with Suzanne on Hydra. We fell into conversation easily and it quickly became apparent that her interest in the spiritual and extrasensory was the ideal counterbalance to my interest in technology and modern communication and the human experience.  We talked of the sixth sense - something like echolocation in dolphins and whales - that blind people have.  Do we all have that?  And the merging of senses - synthaesia? Does extrasensory perception exist and do the distractions and cacophony of modern life interfere with it?  What about ghosts? Are ghosts real? Do ghosts get sick? Is it fun being a ghost?

We talked of celebrating a party with balloons and the naughty pleasure of popping balloons, something I share in the pleasure of but had not thought about for many years!

As I sang and talked with Suzanne I felt I was learning so much about facets of life previously unknown to me. What an education! It had never occurred to me that I might fail my first test! I was thinking too much about things she might not be able to do and not enough about my own limitations. She looked very fit and talked of her experiences climbing mountains and swimming in frigid waters as a member of the Polar Bear Club.
And then the test came. By June 6th we had been practicing "Joan of Arc" at her hotel for three days, attracting a happy accidental audience each time and thoroughly enjoying ourselves as the coordination and harmony between us evolved. But her partner, Michael Epstein, announced that the hotel would be full the next day and the management felt that there might be complaints from the new guests about our singing. So, we resolved to practice at my hotel instead.

Trying to be considerate, I mentioned to Suzanne that since my room was on the third floor and there was no elevator -- just endless flights of stairs -- that perhaps we could practice in the ground floor lobby. Suzanne said, "Ah hah! You think that blind people are physically limited. That we can't climb stairs like other people. Come! I want to arm wrestle you!" And so we went to the lobby of her hotel, cleared everything off one table and arm wrestled with Michael as our judge. I suppose I won in the physical event, but in the contest of spirit and intellect she clearly had won!

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So, the next day we practiced in my third-floor hotel room to a happy audience of people and birds looking in from the adjacent patio from which one could enjoy a commanding view of the town in three directions. The circling birds seemed respectfully silent while we sang, then contributed their own raucous bird call accompaniment to the applause of the human audience. The enjoyment seemed to cross species!

Wrong was I also about the idea that I could not experience what it is like to be a ghost. I was taking many pictures of the Hydra event, and Suzanne became fascinated with my digital camera. She had taken only one other picture in her life. I explained to her about the rule of nines and centering the object of greatest interest at one of the four intersection points. She took the camera, pointed it at me, and pressed the big orange button. Flash! at point blank range -- I instantly became a ghost, looking a bit like myself but much whiter and more ephemeral than usual. It was a pleasant experience and so I can answer the question: Yes, ghosts do have fun.

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On the evening of the 7th, at the performance itself, Suzanne and I became equal in sensory inputs thanks to the clumsiness of the lighting and sound technician.

As Suzanne made her way to the stage, I described the concept of Leonard Cohen Nights at her microphone, then stepped to mine to sing "Joan of Arc."  Alas -- when we started to sing together, my microphone was unplugged, then plugged, then had the gain turned up so high there was feedback. And, to add to the confusion, the artistic colored lights were going everywhere except onto the paper from which I was reading the lyrics. But by the third verse all was corrected and the third and fourth verses were quite enjoyable.  But in the beginning I had as little useful visual input as Suzanne!  Anyway, the audience liked it and seemed unaware of the initial problems.

At the beach the next day, after good conversations on the sand about doing a CD together, she rapidly became just a speck seen way out in the sea as she swam further than anyone else.  She could orient herself from our voices on the shore, and from the waves. I concluded that in life in general she is swimming farther and better than anyone else I know personally and I still have much to learn from her.  It is an educational process I look forward to very much!

The experience of spending time with Suzanne brought to mind the 1991 Wim Wenders film "Until the End of the World," the first real "virtual reality" science fiction movie which eventually describes a camera capable of recording another person's visual sense data allowing the blind to see. Later in the story, the same device is used to allow people to see their dreams during waking hours, and the images are so beautiful and mesmerizing that they become highly addictive; people want to do nothing other than look at their dreams. Somehow in Suzanne Holland one can imagine the coming together of dreams of the spirit and human achievement of similar beauty with a wonderful musical flavor!

Kim Solez, M.D.

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