What follows is the Eulogy I wrote and delivered at the memorial service for my Grandmother. The descriptions and science behind Transient Hypo Frontality were largely drawn from Steven Kotler"s excellent book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.
Kotler, S. (2014). The rise of superman: decoding the science of ultimate human performance. Boston: New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
“I'll be god damn'd If I am going to be beat by a woman!”
Thus ends one of my grandmother's favorite stories. She told it to me many a time over the course of our lives. Set on a national match pistol range in the 1950's during a course of slow fire, her narrative was told almost as a parable (with a certain degree of pride). These words where uttered by a Marine officer in the lane adjacent hers as he packed up his shooting box mid match.
Sometimes in the telling she would include her thoughts as she stood there sliding a full magazine into her gold cup colt 45: “Oh, honey, that's unfortunate because you just were.” But before we condemn the poor marine officer, let us just for a moment consider what he was up against.
Taken at face value this simple story is a wonderful gem for us to hold. It says a lot about our matriarch. But recently I have delved a little deeper, and what I have found exposes much more about our queen as an athlete and a leader.
This spring I was on the Alawai Canal behind Waiki turning myself inside out trying to keep pace with the local high school girls' canoe team. Their coach Zsolt yelled across the water: “Ah Peter you are trying to drive the boat too hard.” (Zsolt a former Hungarian national champion came to the islands to cultivate the deep well of Polynesian paddling talent for olympic hopes.) “U need to let go, brudda, put down the power but let the boat run, brah.... flow.”
And thus, I began looking into the details of flow dynamics. Often called the “Zone” by coaches, the “Pocket” by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, “Peak Experience” by Abraham Maslow, or simply described by surfers as “surfing,” flow's scientific nomenclature is “Transient Hypo Frontality.”
Frontal.... in this usage, the part of the human brain that deals with time, conscious thought, and one's concept of self, i.e., the part we use all the time in our hectic lives.
Recently, in attempt to understand the massive jumps in performance made in the last few decades in disciplines as diverse as backcountry skiing, tow in surfing, various olympic sports, and even elite military operations, psychologists and physiologists have begun to make huge breakthroughs in the study of the places the minds of artists, athletes, and elite warriors go when they are at their best and most effective.
Traditional thinking has been that when we are performing at our best, when we say, “Man I was on my game that day!” we must be using more of our brains. However, what has been found through advances in brain scanning technology monitoring participants that are at the top of their crafts is that when we are on that cusp of breakthrough, completely absorbed with the task at hand, these moments when time slows or we loose track of time altogether, certain parts of our brain are being repressed or in fact circumvented all together. The frontal cortex is the one of these…. it is the main keeper of our notion of self. With the frontal cortex shut down, the parts of the athlete or artist brain that are normally pushed into the background, the parts that see creative lines, that respond directly to sensory inputs, and that track kinetic position of the body are suddenly free to be in charge. In essence, when we are in these “peak performance moments,” it is scientifically proven that we are selfless, timeless, our action and awareness merge, and the be'r and do'r are one.
Does anybody see where this is going yet?
So, in late spring as I picked through all the solid science out there on Transient Hypo Frontality, I was surprised to find that what was explained as an exponential advance in the understanding of practices as diverse as free solo climbing and military sniping prompted me to say to my self “Yeah, duh, no kidding.”
Where had I come to understand this approach, not as a deliberate practical process but as a general over all way of approaching life? Soul surfers I have shared the line up with? No. The artists and activists I was surrounded with during my upbringing? I don't think so. How about the navy SEALS I have occasion to work with.....nope.
My Training began when I was five years old and my grandmother came to live with us. Re was 61 then and a practiced Hypo-Frontalist.
They say that the path to great performance epiphanies are marked by four distinct phases: struggle, release, flow, and afterglow.
When Re came to live with us in 1974, struggle was an understatement. The loss of the love of her life just the year before had been sudden and turned her world upside down. I can only imagine how intense the suffering was, but she innately knew the only answer was release, re-engage.
Hard to do after such a blow, yes, but in fact this was nothing new to her. In 1952, Re had won the National Women's Pistol Championship. She had at one point outshot the US Olympic team.... she was competing at an elite level. Her favorite discipline of national match shooting was 45caliber slow fire. Two strings of 10 shots from 50 yards at an eight inch target. For those of you that have never attempted anything like this, let me tell you that walking to a line and aiming four pounds of steel 150 feet down range at a target the size of a salad plate is A STRUGGLE.... but, our heroine had mastered that by the time she was 40. Suffer, release, flow.... Bang!... Ten ring.... How did she know?
At college age Re had made her way to art school. This was in the 30's before women in art school was cool. Wait, I take that back, it wasn’t widely accepted, but it was probably really cool. (Some of us have seen the pictures and heard the stories to support that.) I suspect that the beginning of her ability to lose her self in practice was in the form of creative application.
Additional evidence of Re as a fierce competitor can be drawn from her daughter's recollections of her going about housework all the while holding a coke bottle filled with sand straight out at arm's length. So on that windy Quantico range, as she fired her first shots, hyper beta brainwaves of struggle gave over to the relaxed yet alert alpha waves. Nitric oxide flowed through her veins flushing out the nervous jitters of adrenalin and cortisol. For our poor Marine officer not so much....
I can tell you now, that becoming a flow guru does not explicitly lend itself to the nine to five grind or a stable family life. Lucky for me (and I would dare say many of us here) and due to the legacy of her true love, our matriarch was never so encumbered. She was free to roam as she saw fit.
It is said that the chase of the peak experience, the lure of the loss of self to task, if only for a moment, is addictive. I do not contend that my grandmother was not a flow junky, but in her post competitive days, the form of her practice became the gift to all of us of herself, her creativity, and, yes, her appetite for adventure. She was ALWAYS available for any creative project, any undertaking, no matter how extreme....sailboats, cars, jeeps, horses, fishing, hunting, skiing, gin, beer, wine, storms, fires, explosions!! and on down the line.... Everyone here most likely has a story or five in which our matriarch is somehow complicit!
When I was in my teens, grandmother or “gram” to the Maryland crowd, recognized that I should have some sort of siblings in my life, so we regularly took the trip together down 95 to visit my cousins Patrick, Molly, and Caitie. At some point in this era, I started to ski with them. While Re was my ride, sitting in the lodge was not to be for her. She began to ski also. I remember sitting at her kitchen table as she explained to me that at night she imagined she was skiing, feeling every turn, the condition of the snow, the coldness and force of the wind, the sound of the edges carving. Sounded logical to me at 14. Years later I realized that my 68 year old grandmother had introduced me to the value of visualization in kinetic sport. I have learned since that the brain knows no difference between doing a thing and good detailed visualization..... that the imagination of perfect practice creates the same neuropathways that ACTUAL practice does.... but this was old hat to her. Re had the ability to tap flow all around her. She rejoiced in it as she watched Patrick ski perfect parallels down a mountain, she felt the muscles of her beloved horses as her paint brushes traced their likeness onto fabric, and she knew the exact quality of touch and tone that could sooth a being in distress.
Back on the range. Re has reloaded for the second string and reengaged; now she is in a deep flow state. Her brain is operating in the theta and gama wave lengths. This is the realm that many only experience in the precious moments just as they fall asleep. The loss of inhibiting notions of self, and the ability to quite literally bend time, she is now watching each fired bullet slowly make its way down range and through the X ring. Flow is the ultimate performance enhancer and on a windy range in the crucible of competition among professional military and policeMEN, my 40 year old grandmother had learned to hack directly into it. Bang.....Bang......Bang..... it was too much for the Marine to take, he packed up and left uttering his immortal words.
She broke him.
Caitie, where does Caitie fit?
In my experience, Katrina, the baby, the youngest of the cousins, was the second great love of my grandmother's life. The bond that they shared was intense. I believe now that while her love for all of us helped Re to recover from the loss of Poppy, Caitie was the key factor. But Caitie was a challenge. As a child Katrina had the ability to present a relentless string of questions that defied answer without the conscious and soul wringing introspection of self: “Gram, how do you know there is a god? Gram, why can't you live with us? Gram, are you mad God took Poppy? Gram come ski the intermediate slope with me--or--Gram when are you going to die?”
But Re was a pro.... and usually these interrogatives were met with a chuckle, “Oh Katrina.” The covers where lifted up, Caitie would crawl in bed with her grandmother, and the blanket pulled around both of them.
It was after Caitie's memorial service that Re asked me to “say nice things at hers.” I don't think either of us imagined I would have this long to prepare them.
My mother confided in me during the last few months of Re's life that while she could be here in our world quite lucid and content, as time went on, more and more she seemed to go to a place that was not of our world. She displayed no fear, and she seemed quite happy. My mother wondered aloud where this was, what was there.
But I know, I know it quite well; my grandmother had been leading me there by the hand since I was five years old.
Base jumpers, free soloists, extreme skiers, snipers, great artists, and true caregivers talk of how in the moment of elite performance--after the trials, the suffering, the giving over--focus on the task at hand is no longer necessary. The task, the practitioner, and the results have all merged; in this merge, the practitioner has ceased to exist and also exists in eternity. It is a death of a sorts.... and it is also immortality.
My grandmother dreamed of death as long as I knew her; she told me about these dreams all the time. Remember, we began to share a house at the point of release after a devastating loss, and I believe, in essence, she was living in a perfect state of flow the entire rest of her life. All the creativity, the gifts of time, love, humor, and faith to all of her family and friends was a result of her practiced ability to lose herself to the part of her spirit it is very hard for many of us to routinely call upon.
I think that in those last few months, she often went with Poppy and Caitie. I would also guess that she revisited a few places that none of us have ever known. But I know that at least a couple of times she was out on that windy range in Virginia.
On November 24 my grandmother shot a perfect match, and now we sit recovering in the afterglow.
I may be my father's craftsmen, I might be my mother's writer, but Ill be god damned if I won't be my grandmother's flow hacker.