Of awkwardness, birds and monsters

I have a secret motto for my writing. If I put it in my blog it isn’t going to be secret anymore, so suffice to say it has to do with leaving my fears behind as I pen my prose. I believe that if you comfort zoneconstrain yourself to write only what others expect, or what you think others want to see from you, or what you think is acceptable, then you will never write anything great.

So I was happy to see this on twitter the other day, tweeted by @HeyJamie, who is really Jamie Jo Hoang , author of “Blue Sun, Yellow Sky.” I’m not a big liker and re-tweeter, but this got them both.

Which brings me to the song “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters” by MGMT. Not the song itself, which I’ve loved ever since the first time I heard it because it somehow makes me think of magic, but rather my mention of the song in my novel y1 and the scene it was used in.

y1 is the story of a young man who can reshape his body at will. This is all well and good for his solving crimes but if you start to think about it a little more, sooner or later you end up doing this.

Zane had seldom altered his shape to appear female, but except for his height there was no particular barrier to doing so. He could approximate breasts and wider hips. A wig would work wonders. He could add years, and a more ambiguous ethnicity. He would practice making himself as short as possible. The stooping of age would help. Meanwhile, he needed to learn more about a part of Penthes that he had, up till now, ignored, like most people. That was the beauty of the janitorial group. They just did not get a lot of attention.

In his office, Zane began to gather supplies. A janitor’s jumpsuit just a bit too small for Zane, women’s sneakers, and an unattractive salt and pepper woman’s wig were locked in this bottom left drawer along with an old iPod holding the brightest, shiniest pieces of electronic dance music and remixes that Zane had been able to find.

This last item was so much more than his favorite songs. Over the past months he had discovered how he could use music as a tool to push his body to new limits, with the music he loved helping him concentrate as he became ever more adept at controlling his appearance at will. He had finally, reluctantly, let himself begin to refer to his gift in his own mind as “shape shifting” and he now thought of this particular music as his cache of shape shifting songs.

He plugged the iPod into his computer and let himself enjoy the wonderful Holy Ghost remix of MGMT’s “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.” Zane savored the ocean imagery and the upbeat tempo of the song for a moment, then as he began to coax his body into another form, Zane tried to imagine how wonder itself might be shaped.

IMG_1625I don’t write erotica, so I didn’t end up taking this nearly as far as it could have gone, and yet, well, my hero’s inevitable transformation from male body to female body made me squirm a little at the fuzzy line between the genders. It was probably a good squirm for me to have, given that I live in a world that increasingly acknowledges how complicated human sexuality is and encourages every human to discover and be in the shape that is right for them.  I welcome this enlightened acceptance, but philosophical agreement doesn’t always convey complete ease with something, at least not right away.

So, as so often happens, my writing took me out of my comfort zone and I was the one who gained the most from it. My hero Zane changed his gender a few times before the book was over. I don’t know what my various readers thought of it, but by the last edit of y1, I was better off.

Back to twitter. One of my other favorite tweets came via writer Jose Iriarte, who described himself in third person as “a Cuban-American writer and high school math teacher …  [who] writes because he can’t afford therapy.”

Exactly.  Except for the Cuban-American and math teacher part, of course. Otherwise, that’s it exactly.

While pondering your own monsters and other discomfort zones, you can listen to and enjoy Zane’s favorite Holy Ghost Remix of “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.”

 

 

Shape Shifting Without Magic

The character Zane lived in my head for years before he became the hero of my book y1 and I knew exactly what he could do. He could control the muscles of his body, and particularly his face, well enough to alter his appearance at will. It seemed theoretically possible to me, and it sounded like an ability that would make for a fun story.

One problem was what to call it. It was shape shifting in my mind, but in the world of fantasy shape-shifting often describes taking on the form of an animal, with the change brought on by a full moon or by a bite from another shape shifter. These are magical changes. The physics and biology don’t have to make sense, because reader and writer have agreed to pretend that a 120 pound girl can turn into a 400 pound lioness, behave as an animal, and turn human again. This is all great fun if you are into stories like that, but it wasn’t the kind of story I was writing.

My favorite shape shifter of all time took the process a step further.  Actor René Murat Auberjonoi’s wonderful character Odo on Star Trek Deep Space Nine could actually turn into a silver liquid at will, slither under a door or through a crack in the walls, and emerge on the other side as a solid of any shape. Shape shifting doesn’t get much more versatile than that. In fairness, Robert Patrick’s Terminator T-1000 in Terminator 2 could do much the same thing, but with a decidedly more villainous twist. Both were fabulous to watch, but Zane had to stay solid and keep his human body.

normal 1Lucky for me, the Earth we live on is full of creatures who really can do some variation of what I wanted for Zane.  Cuttlefish, octopi and chameleons head this list, as this wonderful TED video on shapeshifters in the real world shows. My version of shape shifting was destined to be less eye-popping, but I hoped that the trade off would be that my reader might wonder if maybe, just maybe, a real life Zane could exist.

Here is an excerpt from y1 which explains much about Zane’s unique talents:

Lack of time was one reason why Zane had never tried out for a school play. Tennis, the sport he had finally settled on in high school, kept him busy, not to mention the real time killer for the college bound of studying for standardized tests, taking standardized tests, and the visiting, applying for, and getting into college routine that has become almost a full-time job for today’s aspiring young person.

There were other reasons as well. His father would certainly have winced. Zane wasn’t all that keen himself to be identified with the theater crowd, mostly because they tended to be a flamboyant bunch, and Zane preferred keeping a low profile. Blending. Which was why, in his own way, he had become a rather good actor even if his style was not particularly well suited to the stage.

He sounded more Texan in Texas, more East Coast at school, more educated on campus, and less educated in a bar. He could carry himself like a preppie, gesture and stand like a rodeo kid, walk like he was from the inner city. He never consciously mimicked people; it just happened. He’d known from early on that his mind was a precious thing. It gathered input, deduced quickly, and remembered well. Therefore, his body’s main job was to protect his mind from harm. He figured that his body had found and developed all the skills it could to do that.

Over the years Zane had been able to find many examples of physical mimicry in the animal world, and he had long since satisfied himself that while he had developed some unusual capabilities for a human, there was nothing magical about him. As an adult he didn’t even believe in such things. He figured that he just had a better mind-to-body link than most and had been gifted with particularly adept fine muscle control, which he himself had worked hard to hone over the years. In the end, there had been a lot of time spent in front of mirrors playing around to get good at what he could do. The results would have astounded his friends and family.

Zane knew that there was one peculiarity about his skills. When the male cuttlefish turns its skin from brown to white to warn approaching males that it is going to fight, the cuttlefish, as far as we know, does not give the process a lot of thought. Perhaps no more so than the man who places his hands on his hips defiantly. But the difference is that the man can choose to do something else with his arms while no one is sure whether the cuttlefish chooses anything. So here is where it got confusing.

Zane did, after all, have a human brain, and making choices was one of the very things his brain had evolved to do. So while his abilities in biological mimicry would often occur without his conscious choice, like a reflex, other times he could and would choose to control them. He could stop changes he felt starting to happen and had gotten better at that with practice. He could undo changes which had already happened, and that seemed to be a little easier. Finally, over the last few years, he had gotten significantly better at learning how to instigate changes of his own conscious choosing. That last ability turned this whole thing into way more than a reflex, he thought, into way more than what the octopus or chameleon could do. It was no longer just a quirk. The things that Zane’s mind could make his body do were a gift.

Certain things of course could not be altered. Clothes, obviously. So Zane often carried a second shirt in his backpack in case he wanted to disappear. Hair of any kind was a problem, made up as it was of dead cells with no ability to respond. So Zane kept his medium brown misbehaved mop cut short and wore hats a lot. Sometimes he took alternate headgear with him as well.

His size could be altered a little, but not as much as he would have liked. Zane guessed maybe plus or minus ten percent. He’d learned to modify his shape mildly. For instance he could make his chin recede more or his shoulders appear broader. But he couldn’t make himself have a third arm coming out of his back. At best, he’d managed to produce a short lump that looked like a tumor between his shoulder blades. He kept working on it on though.

He had always been good with color, as long as it involved pigments contained by his cells. There was no turning turquoise. But it was sometimes convenient to change ethnicity, and occasionally still convenient to turn his skin toward the color of his surroundings if he could manage to get the clothed parts of him otherwise camouflaged.

Afi had asked him if he had ever tried modifying his texture. He hadn’t, but he liked the concept and so had practiced it a little, with some minor success. He smiled at the memory of Afi, a little surprised to notice how thinking of Afi generally made him smile.

For all that Zane had enjoyed the challenge and simple entertainment of learning to better control his gift, tonight would be the first time that he had ever contrived ahead of time to use it to purposefully mislead someone. He recognized that another person might have gone there years ago and done so often. What an ability for a con artist to have. But to Zane, well, misleading was lying. It didn’t feel comfortable. He had neither the need for nor the interest in it.

But tonight he was armed with dual justifications. He had convinced himself that Peter Hulson’s quest for information before he died was something of a noble cause. He recognized that it probably provided a much-needed distraction for a man in a good deal of emotional and physical pain. So he had already resolved to make his reports accurate and frequent. If a little subterfuge was needed to achieve that end, he had decided that he was okay with that.

Then a second incentive presented itself. Earlier in the week, Chloe had invited him to join her and Raven for drinks after work again today and he was kind of looking forward to it. Then yesterday she had postponed the outing. “Raven will be having drinks there without us,” Chloe had volunteered with a shrug, “doing what a girl’s gotta do.”

“What’s that?” Zane had asked a little puzzled. Chloe rolled her eyes.

“When the great and powerful COO of a company wants to take a lowly sales rep out for a drink and stare at her tits for an hour, she goes. I just hope he’s content with staring and doesn’t try to strong arm poor Raven into more. She’s had trouble saying no to powerful men before. I think it’s daddy abandonment issues myself.”

So Zane had come into work today with a backpack containing a shirt he would never wear out in public himself, a hat that classified as the same, and plans to go to the nearby bar and try to sit as close to Neil and Raven as possible. He was thinking he’d go for being a little smaller and darker, with considerably more Asian features. Given his good hearing, he should be able to listen in just fine.

And what if Neil started to pressure Zane’s friend who was a little easier to push around than she should be? The time for assertiveness training for Raven would be later, Zane thought. If he heard anything he didn’t like, Zane was planning to find a way to accidentally knock an ice cold drink on Neil’s lap.

For more information on this subject see:

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus
Chameleon changing colors http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=060YXITlyOE
TED’s David Gallo http://youtube.com/watch?v=YVvn8dpSAt0

Am I a shape shifter now?

I never expected to be able to reshape my body the way my characters Zane and Nell do. I’m not planning on sneaking into executive offices after morphing myself into an indistinguishable cleaning lady and I’m even more unlikely to stop a killer his in tracks by taking on the appearance of his latest victim.

shutterstock_33520513However, I’m discovering a mental sort of shape shifting and it has its uses. As I see my extended limbs become glowing rivers of light that stretch for miles out into space, the kinks in my back evaporate with the image. I have an excellent yoga studio to thank for this. I relax my muscles, my brain and even my soul as I become a happy baby or a resting child. I can be a tree, a cobra or a pigeon as I improve my balance and my flexibility.

I might not take to all this so easily if I hadn’t been lucky enough to find an excellent qigong instructor a couple of years ago. He has a knack for taking a secretive and sometimes indistinct discipline and making it come alive to twenty-first century Americans. My whole sense of balance changed when he shared the concept of “bottom heavy, top light”. My brain now sees my rooted foot or feet as made of iron, or as being a strong plant with roots that twine deeply into the earth. My reaching arms become gossamer wings, lighter than air as they stretch into the heavens.

Psychedelic 15You might think this is just a mental game, until you watch me change a light bulb. I mean a real light bulb, in my real living room. Or watch me paint the top of the wall next to the molding. “Wow,” my husband remarked. “Has your sense of balance improved. How did you reach that?”

Do you have any idea how much easier it is to do yard work when you can lower into an easy squat and stay there till the task is done? I’m not doing yard work, of course. I’m a Hungarian archer riding a wild horse, thanks to the qigong exercise called “riding a wild horse”.  I admit that the shape-shifting is entirely in my mind. The resulting physical prowess is entirely real.

Have I turned into a shape-shifter? Or should I keep trying?

(For more about my recent adventures, metaphysical and otherwise, see my posts Wise and Quiet, If You’re Going to be an Old Car and Greener Grass.)

It’s all about who you are

When I created Zane, a character who could alter his appearance at will, I realized that I needed to make him someone who would not be obsessed with using his special gift to merely look more attractive. He needed to be smart enough to not complicate his life by running petty scams. He needed to be shy enough not to want to draw attention to himself by showing up at parties appearing to be a celebrity.

Think Real 1How many ways could you make your life easier, or even just more interesting, if you could look like anyone? I spent a good bit of time trying to devise the possibilities that might occur to a real life shape shifter.

Then I considered the many ways that using such a talent could leave you embarrassed, without friends, or in even trouble with the law. In order to contain my story, I had to figure out reasons that Zane would chose to use his gift sparingly. I decided that, in essence, he needed to be a twenty something who was wise well beyond his years.

But does age equal wisdom? I’ve known too many people in their sixties, seventies and eighties who are obsessed with petty concerns. They may be more focused on their own back problems than they are with partying, but the focus is still on self and their grasp of the consequences of poor choices is weak. I’ve also been privileged to know a few far younger who appear to carry wisdom as part of their very nature.

One would think that more experiences, and more mistakes, would give a human more chances to learn the important lessons in life. But it doesn’t always happen that way, which makes me think that just because you are given a lot of opportunities to learn something, it doesn’t mean that you will.

Then I realized that perhaps my character Zane had an advantage in the early gaining of wisdom department. If you could look like anyone at all, wouldn’t you figure out pretty quickly that a human is not defined by what they look like, but by what they are like inside? I think you would.

(Please visit the Facebook page of Think it Real and drop off of like for the image shown here.)

What if you could look like anyone?

facesDo you like the way that your face looks? If you had the kind of fine muscle control that Zane has in the novel y1, you’d be able to make some subtle alterations, without the expense or pain of surgery. In fact, you could try out different ideas. One day, a shorter nose.  The next day, fuller lips.  Keep going until you get the face that you like. How close do you think it would be to the face that you started with?

Zane guesses that there are three types of people in this regard.  Those who could care less what their genetic material is and would happily alternate between Brad Pitt and Barack Obama and would throw in a day or two of looking like anyone else that would gain them what ever advantage they could get.

surgeonAnother group would go for subtle improvement, like a glamor seeker with deep pockets and a cooperative plastic surgeon.  “Did you lose weight? You’re looking good these days?” “No, not really.  Just a little tanning and working out.” Right.

And then there are the purists, like Zane, who would choose to only alter their appearance when circumstances require it but who day to day would rather look like themselves. Some might say that Zane’s unique appearance altering talents are wasted on him. It raises the question — to what extent is your appearance, for good or bad, an essential part of you?

For more thoughts on “what if” check out my z2 blog post on what if this could last forever?  And see my x0 blog post on what if I really do know what you are thinking?

How is that even possible?

Nature is filled with creatures that challenge our definition of normal and even some that push our definition of possible.

y1 hero Zanstock-photo-chameleon-48221917e Zeitman forms a childhood friendship with a chameleon he names Balthazar. Lest you think a creature that turns bright orange in your hand is make-believe, please check out the video below. Of course, if you are interested in developing a friendship of your own with a chameleon,  please consider buying yours from the person who posted this video.

The music may not be to your taste and need to be turned down, and if the informative text at the start of the video does not interest you, just skip ahead to about the half way point to see the chameleon do his thing. It’s very, well, very orange. You would be truly astounded if the neighbor’s cat did this.  And probably even more astounded if the neighbor’s kid did.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaKk5dDWo-U

 

Bruce Willis with boobs

Click here. Then scroll down and check out the post right below my interview for a  fascinating discussion of what women want in science fiction and life in general, complete with a well done Bruce Willis with boobs photo to make the point that, well, gender identity and preferences are complicated. Male science fiction writer Rob Lopez gives thought provoking arguments about women and if you don’t agree with him, he welcomes intelligent comment back. (Yes, I’m working on my response.)

Oh, and when you finish with Bruce, please do scroll back up and check out the  short write-up and interview with me that Rob was kind enough to post.