Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Pitfalls of Perception

I received my undergraduate degree in the field of psychology. One of my favorite courses was the one that examined human perception. We experience the world around us through what we see, hear, smell, touch and taste. However, we have to process these stimuli in a way that makes sense to us. Each person constructs their own reality from these stimuli and forms their own "perceptions". The final perception may vary a great deal from person to person. This is why eyewitness testimony can be very unreliable. Five different witnesses of the same event may come up with 5 different versions of what they saw. Fascinating.

Why am I thinking about perception this week? Because this week gave us the culmination of this season's American Idol reality show. Unless you have been living in a cave, most of you are probably aware that Taylor Hicks ( defeated Katherine McPhee ( to take the crown as the fifth American Idol.

The show was a star-studded affair with many celebrities in the audience and performances by Al Jarreau, the band Live, Mary J. Blige, Meat Loaf, Toni Braxton, Burt Bachrach, Dionne Warwick, and PRINCE !!! The show's host estimated that 200 million people world-wide were watching the broadcast. It was quite a night.

Naturally, the stories about the show have dominated the media for the past several days. However, the most popular story which is being discussed over and over does not involve the winner or any of the high-wattage stars who appeared. It revolves around a young man, Michael Sandecki, who appeared on the show as one of the "bad auditions". His "shtick" for his audition was that he was going to be the next Clay Aiken.

Unfortunately for Michael, singing is not really his forte. On Wednesday night they presented Michael with an "award" as "Best Celebrity Impersonator". After presenting him with his "trophy", he was asked to sing for the audience. Michael was more than happy to oblige, and launched into a very painful version of "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me"; the song that earned Clay Aiken the Wild Card slot as America's Choice three years ago on American Idol 2.

To Michael's complete astonishment and utter delight, the curtain behind him opened while he was singing and who should stride out and start singing but Clay Aiken himself. It was a great moment. Michael's shock and joy was so evident, it was impossible not to smile at his reaction at the chance to sing with his "Idol". Clay was so gracious, extending Michael's time in the spotlight, and obviously getting a big kick out of the whole thing. Plus, he reminded everyone that he has one of the best voices of his generation, making it not just a great humerous moment, but a great musical moment as well. And, of course, he looked every inch the star.

Many, many people who were polled or interviewed after the show rated it as their favorite part of the finale. However, a great many people barely recognized him. Why? Because they still remembered the Clay Aiken they first saw in January, 2003. The 23 year old college student who worked at the Y. This guy.

Clay had a great storyline on the show. He was studying to become a special education teacher. He wanted to start a foundation for kids with disabilities. At 6'1" and 145 lbs., he was the perfect "David" for Ruben Studdard's 6'4" 400+ lbs. "Goliath". He was the skinny geek with the big voice.

A great deal has been made of Clay Aiken's "makeover" on American Idol. There have been a zillion articles with a "geek to chic" theme.

Let's get real. He got contact lenses. I think they tamed his eyebrows a bit. They highlighted his hair and gave him a spiky style to help hide his rather prominent ears. Ummmm. That's it!!!

Whether he loved it or hated it, that hairdo became a trademark. If any of you can find 5 articles about him that don't include the descriptive "spiky-haired" in the text, you are better researchers than I.

That image was reinforced over and over. The last time Clay performed on American Idol was on the Top 4 show two years ago. We got a "hybrid" Clay on that show. We got the audition glasses AND the highlights and spikes. Something for everyone.

On this year's finale show, nearly everyone but Michael Sandecki was expecting Clay Aiken to step out on that stage. Everyone knew exactly what to expect. However, Clay had something else planned for the occasion. A few months ago, Clay sent a message to his fan club telling them to "open their minds and expect something different". It seemed clear that he was talking about his forthcoming album. Or maybe not. Because THIS is the person who stepped out on that Idol stage.

This has been a pretty big week in the news, and yet what is the burning question that is being asked in poll after poll, interview after interview and article after article? The question is: "What do you think of Clay's HAIR???"

Taylor Hicks and Prince must be wondering what on earth is going on!! One would think that an unprecedented appearance by a music legend and actually winning the contest would be more newsworthy than Clay's new hairstyle. One might think that, but one would be wrong.

This drastic change in hairstyle has forced many people to take a new look at Clay, because he wasn't what they expected. Many people saw him as bigger, more handsome, and dare we say....HOT!!!

One of my favorite quotes came from Leslie Gray Streeter at the
Palm Beach Post:

"That fake Clay kid who couldn't sing even after a second chance is singing "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." Who's that behind him...Clay Aiken!!! He's almost hot. Did you hear that, Claymates? I said he was hot! Did you hear me? Are you happy now?"

Yup. Welcome to the club, Leslie!!

How is it possible that a new hairstyle can cause so many people to "see" Clay Aiken with fresh eyes? He has a new haircut and color. He is 3 1/2 years older. He has (thankfully) filled out his previously skinny frame. He has the confidence that only sales of 4 million albums, 1.5 million singles and six concert tours in 3 years can bring. That's about it. As Clay himself has said, "the wrapping is different, but the gift inside is the same". Well, we're back to perception again.

I was so fascinated by this whole phenomenon, I went looking for some professional input. The most interesting thing I found was a book called The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Hueur, Jr. It is a training manual used to teach observational skills by the C.I.A.!!

Chapter 2 is titled: "Perception: Why Can't We See What Is There To Be Seen?" The author states that what people perceive is strongly influenced by their past experiences, education, cultural values, and role requirements, as well as by the actual stimuli recorded by their senses. He makes several points regarding perception.

1. We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive.

We are conditioned by our experiences to anticpate when presented with new stimuli. The author shows the following example to demonstrate this point. Take a look at the following illustration:

The triangles contain 3 little homilies that are very familiar to most people who see them. So how many of you realized right away that each triangle repeats the "article" in the saying (the/the, an/an/, the/the)? I sure didn't see that. I saw what my prior experiences caused me to expect.

2. Mind-sets tend to be quick to form but resistant to change.

This principle emphasizes why "first impressions" are so important. Once that impression is formed, it is going to be very difficult to change. Remember that on your next job interview!! Try this next little test:

Researchers found that if someone was shown only the picture on the upper right, they tended to see a woman kneeling. However, if they saw the whole series, it depended on where they started. If they started on the upper left, the image of a man's face persisted until the last 3 images. It worked the same way if they started with the woman's image and worked through the pictures in the opposite direction. As it says in the drawing, impressions resist change. To paraphrase Mr. Hueuer, once someone has formed a mind-set or expectation for something they are observing, that mind-set will color all future perceptions of that same object...or person.

3. New information is assimilated to existing images.

This principle explains why gradual changes frequently go unnoticed. Have you ever had the experience of working on a puzzle or perhaps trying to assemble one of those frustrating pieces of Ikea furniture and getting "stuck" somewhere along the way? Then someone else comes in and immediately fits in the missing piece, or points out the error in your assembly process. Maddening, isn't it? Clinging to your first impression even as the project evolves can lead you in the wrong direction. How long do you stick to your original impression, and how slow are you to see other possibilities? Try this last example. What do you see in this picture?

The picture is of a woman, but do you see a young woman or an old woman? Most people will immediately form an impression of one or the other. Whichever woman you see, how long did it take you to see the other woman? Still working on it? The young woman has a smaller face and is looking away from us. The older woman has a larger face and is turned a bit more in our direction. It can take quite a while to make the shift from one image to the other even after you can see both of them. We assimilate the details into our previous impression, such as interpreting the older woman's mouth as the younger woman's necklace. Interesting, isn't it?

4. Initial exposure to blurred or ambiguous stimuli interferes with accurate perception even after more and better information becomes available.

What this means is that people will cling to a vague impression of something for quite a while, even when they get more data to clarify the picture. Experiments have shown that someone can be shown a blurry picture of something very familiar, like a dog, and it will take a long time to identify it, even as the picture becomes more focused. It also seems that the blurrier the original picture, the longer the process will take. Mr. Hueuer points out that people will cling to their original perception, incoporating new infromation into that image "until the contradiction becomes so obvious that it forces itself upon our consciousness". Sort of like this:

BLAM!!! Clay blasted those previous perceptions to smithereens!! Hey, if you are going to introduce a new look, you might as well hit 200 million people all at once.

The range of reactions has been amazing. From "I LOVE IT!!" to "Who is that guy and what has he done with MY Clay!!" to the hilarious "Hmmm...Clay looks good! He must have gotten a nose job/dental veneers/cheek implants/chin implants or be on steroids". HA!!! Some people are definitely more resistant to changing their perceptions than others!!

OK people, I'm going to help you out here. It's all about the bone structure. In case there actually is such a thing as reincarnation, I already have my request in for Clay Aiken's cheekbones in my next life. Seriously, he has always had those cheekbones, a nice straight nose, beautiful eyes and a great smile. It makes it a joy to take pictures of him in concert, when the passion he feels while singing is reflected in his face and his whole being.

For those who are struggling with the transition, I am providing these pictures taken at concerts I attended between August 2003 and December 2005 as visual aids:

Does that help? Be sure and catch Clay in person on his next concert tour. Trust me, you won't have any trouble perceiving him more accurately, and you will be incredibly entertained to boot.

An incredibly talented fan put together the following montage of the four times Clay Aiken has sung "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" on American Idol. The first two clips are from the Wild Card performance and results shows in March 2003. The third clip is from the Final 2 Special in May 2003. The last one is from his AI5 appearance in May 2006. You will notice that in addition to the new look, he has changed the key of the song to make it a bit lower. Another sign that the geeky late-bloomer has been busy maturing over the past 3+ years. Check it out.

Although I am not always a big fan of change, I have no problem with Clay's new "wrapping" because I know that "the gift inside is the same". He still has that great voice. He still has that great heart. He still has that great sense of humor. Works for me. I'm ready for whatever new surprises are in store.

Bring it on, Clay!!!

For a great compilation of reactions of Clay's appearance on American idol, vist idle-wandering

For some amazing high definition visuals of the performance, check out The Clay Blog

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Building Communities

I have been thinking a lot lately about the idea of "community". When I was four years old, my family moved into a brand new home. It was a "tract" home in a Southern California suburb; the type that were built in the millions during the baby boom period. Everyone moved in at once. All of our neighbors were young families with 1-3 children. All of the men had been in the military. All of the women stayed home with their children.

I can remember all of the men getting together to build fences around the yards, and to pour cement patios for neighborhood gatherings. The whole neighborhood got together every weekend for barbeques and bridge games. The kids played together after school or during the summer every single day. One unfortunate afternoon I managed to pass the mumps to 10 other children who shared the same caramel sucker the day before my face started to swell. I think my mother was afraid we were going to be driven out of the neighborhood for that little episode. Each sick child on our block gave the mumps to their brothers and sisters, and everyone was homebound and miserable for about a month.

Our neighborhood was a real community. Today, I don't see that same type of community in my area of SoCal. There are many single-parent families. Most women work outside the home. Unfortunately, land is at such a premium that most people don't have yards for large gatherings. Kids are in day care and participate in organized activities like dance or sports.

However, the need for "community" seems to be as strong as ever. We are just finding new and creative ways to build them.

My introduction to this movement was when I became a fan of Clay Aiken. During his run on American Idol, I "googled" his name to get information about him. Not only did I find a wealth of information, including links to demo songs he had recorded, I found new virtual communities springing up everywhere. Clay is widely recognized for having a large, ardent and active fanbase, and a great deal of that phenomenon can be attributed to the message boards. Instead of grabbing a cup of coffee and heading for the neighbor's house, thousands of fans head for the computer and log on to check up on Clay and all of their virtual friends.

These communities have expanded far beyond cyberspace. These virtual friends get together for parties before and after concerts. They have banded together to raise money for charity. They have collected funds to send members to conferences, purchase baby gifts, support members affected by Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. A week ago, I went to a SoCal barbecue 2 hours from Los Angeles and found over 50 other Clay fans having a great time. I regularly get together with a group of 10-12 fans and go to other concerts, day spas, plays, brunch, and roll out my sleeping bag for parties that last all weekend. These are groups of like-minded individuals that meet all the criteria for a community. We are diverse in many, many ways...except that we all love Clay Aiken.

There are other creative ways that people are finding each other to form communities. A few months ago one of the Clay Aiken communities that I frequent decided to try a book discussion. We picked a book and once a week we all logged in at the same time and discussed a list of questions on that week's reading assignment. I really enjoyed myself, and started looking online for another book club opportunity. There are a number of different online book discussion sites. I found this great site that gives links to a lot of diverse online book clubs. If you love reading and discussion of books, be sure to check it out here:

I joined one of these clubs, but found that I really disliked their discussion format. It was really cumbersome and confusing. So I went back to my search and came up with something completely different. I found this amazing site: has formed communities all over the world centered around nearly 5,000 different topics. By using their search tool, you can find a number of groups near where you live that get together to enjoy favorite interests. Because of my great experiences turning virtual friendships into real friendships in the Clay Aiken fan world, I was willing to take a chance on a couple of these groups. Just another example of how my universe has expanded thanks to Clay Aiken!!!

I joined a local knitting group, which have not yet attended. I'm hoping that it will help me to get support on actually completing projects, instead of having 50 started that never turn into anything. I'll let you know how that turns out.

I also joined a local book discussion group that I have now attended twice. This group was a bit of a stretch for me because most of the members are younger than I am, but I went anyway and I love it. They pick a really wide variety of books to read, and the discussions are lively and interesting. I have enjoyed all three books picked so far, and encourage the book lovers out there to check them out:

Best Food Writing 2005

Stiff: The Secret Life of Cadavers

The Time Traveler's Wife

The last one is especially superb.

This is the link to my group, The Long Beach Book Club Meetup Group: The group meets in a small art gallery once a month. They bring snacks and beverages, and there is usually some type of ice-breaker activity since there are usually new people at each meeting. The discussions are great, with amazing input from the teachers, veterinarian, firefighters, students, artists, medical personnel and others who attend. We take advantage of the art gallery. This month we had a collector talk about the 3 paintings he had loaned for the present exhibition. There was an exhibit that had an interactive video component. Another contained the first Atari video game system, which we tried to master. Last but not least, there was a kareoke system. Yes, these serious bibliophiles got up there and belted out painful renditions of many popular oldies. If you must know, I may have lent my voice to group renditions of "Summer Nights" from Grease and "Take My Breath Away".

Alas, the moment came when a poor misguided man decided to commit a great sacrilege. He sang "Solitaire". Well. Any person who has not been hibernating for the past 3 years knows that Clay Aiken sings the definitive version of "Solitaire".

Neil Sedaka said so himself when Clay sang it during the AI2 competition. He had tears in his eyes as he announced that he had forever lost his song to Clay. Many people were convinced on that night that Clay Aiken was destined to be a star.

That rendition of "Solitaire" was so remarkable, Clay recorded it and it was released as a single in 2004. He returned to American Idol 3 that year and sang a short version of his recorded song. I was lucky enough to be in the studio audience that night, and he just blew the whole place away. The clarity and power of his voice was absolutely awe-inspiring. Plus he looked every inch the returning STAR!!! See???

The song became so popular that Clay included it as the encore for his 2004 Solo Tour

He also included it in the 60's set for the 2005 Jukebox Tour.

Clay's performance of "Solitaire" is not to be missed. If you have never seen it...or if you haven't seen it for a while, here is a performance from the Solo Tour.

Just a word to the wise. It's OK to hum or sing along with Clay in the privacy of your home or automobile, but just step away from the kareoke machine.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

How On Earth Did I Get Here???

If anyone had told me a few short years ago that I would be blogging on the internet, I would have had them committed for psychiatric evaluation. I used the internet regularly in my work, of course. In fact, I had been on the development team for a disease management program for asthma that was internet based. However, I could not really see myself utilizing the internet for communication or entertainment in any regular fashion. Which just goes to show that I have no future as a seer. Clairvoyance evidently is not my strong suit!!

So what happened? Well....this guy did.

My daughter had bugged me all through the first season of American Idol to watch the show. I must admit, I sneered at her. This was not a serious music competition, for Heaven's sake. It was a TELEVISION show. On Fox, no less. I must humbly confess that I sneered at the possibility that any real talent could be found on such a show. I was pretty darn smug about the whole thing.

However, I love my daughter dearly, and one night I grudgingly tuned in to watch an episode of this show that she liked so much. As it happened, it was the Wild Card episode of the 2003 season. Well, just like so many, many others, I heard a voice that completely blew me away. I come from a musical family. I have been singing since I was a toddler. My life has been full of choirs, solos, voice lessons, master classes, concerts, musicals....lots and lots of music. I have heard many wonderful voices. I have loved many very talented singers. But on that night in 2003, I heard something incredibly special. A voice that comes around once or twice in a lifetime. A voice that is a true gift. The voice of Clay Aiken.

My life has been one fun adventure after another since that night in March, 2003. It has been full of laughter and friendships, caring and community, and a new awareness of the world I live in and the lives of those who inhabit it.

Clay Aiken has a magnificent voice, and he uses it beautifully in song. However, he has also used his voice to bring attention and commitment to others. He started his own foundation, The Bubel-Aiken Foundation, to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities with their non-challenged peers. He has been the national spokesperson for a national reading program, Toys for Tots, and Trick Or Treat for UNICEF. He has traveled the world and testified before Congress in his role as a UNICEF Ambassador. He has lent his time, his voice, his talents, and even the clothes off his back to help so many charities that I can't even begin to list them all.

I have worked non-stop since I was a teenager, but he makes me feel like a sloth!!

As I said in the comments under the title of my blog, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to meet Clay Aiken before a concert this past year. His message to me, and to many others, was to "Use Your Voice". I'm trying to do that in many ways. I hope to speak about many things that touch on my life.

Clay, just in case you're listening....I'm Using My Voice.