Am I sure I’m Sherrie?

“Do you want to know what I’m thinking?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why?”

It was a trick questions, and I knew it, because we were in the middle of an argument. I guessed he was about to make the point that no, I really didn’t want to know because if I did then I wouldn’t be doing blah-de-blah.

But I was trying to diffuse the situation, for once. I’m not known as the diffuser in this relationship, but every once in awhile I have a good day. So I said ….

“I do want to know, because we are all always changing. If you don’t tell me what you’re thinking, I’ll be loving an outdated version of you, someone who used to exist. I want to love the you who is here now and I can’t do that if you won’t tell me what you’re thinking.”

Oh. We looked at each other and we both realized that, for no apparent reason, I had just spoken a fine truth. I had no idea where it came from. It did kind of diffuse the discussion, though, and we both went on about our day feeling less angry.

Later, as I sat down to work on the novel I am so, so close to finishing, I read the scene I wrote last night before dinner. It was about Zane, the shape-shifting protagonist of y1, the novel that is the basis for this blog. Zane is in my nearly finished book as well, and in this most recent scene he has been forced to assume the appearance of and substitute himself for an older businessman named Warren. Here’s the scene.

Zane woke up Friday morning and he knew that it was show time. The real Warren would be safe somewhere at a location unknown to Zane. Jerry would be in nearby room listening to Zane’s every conversation, making sure Zane behaved…

Warren had a series of appointments that day, starting with the ones that were likely to be quick and easy. First up were the non-telepathic executives who oversaw Accounting, HR, and Legal. Each needed a few minutes of the big boss’s time to approve this and discuss that and be reassured that Warren’s unprecedented absence for the past two weeks had been necessary and that the issues had been resolved. His administrative aide needed time with him as well, and Zane guessed that she would be the toughest one to fool.

But really, what was she going to say. “Are you sure you’re Warren?”

He already knew how he would answer.

“Yes. Are you sure you’re Denise?”

But the conversation would probably never happen. People saw what they expected to see.

I’ve gotten a lot of good things from my obsession with writing novels. I’ve learned facts, met people, experienced a lot of personal satisfaction. But to the best of my knowledge, this is first time part of plot has worked to supply me with the perfect answer to a question.

Am I sure I’m Sherrie? If it’s the April 14, 2017 release you’re asking about, then yes, I’m sure.

(For more short excerpts from my upcoming novel, also see Worry about those you love and write about what you know, Point of View, The Amazing Things I Get to Do, and Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know.)

Am I capable of learning to like anything?

I conducted psyche experiments on myself when I was a child. You can’t blame me. There were things I needed to know, and I was my only cooperative subject. For instance, were all my preferences acquired tastes? This was important. If they were, then maybe I would eventually like beer, which was good because this appeared to be a necessary component to getting along as a teenager. On the other hand, it meant I might eventually wear pink polyester stretch pants like my mother, which was a horrifying concept. Either way, I had to know.

teaI also drank hot tea as adolescent, and somehow ended up with a box of Lapsang Souchong tea. If you’ve never tried it, it has a strong smoky taste and the first time I had it I gagged, then realized I had the perfect tool for my experiment. Could I change my own mind, and learn to love the taste of this tea?

I made an impressive effort, concocting strange myths about the origin of the taste relating to magic creatures in the woods drying the leaves over tiny bonfires and telling myself the burning embers imparted unknown powers to the daring humans willing to sip the strange potion. It worked. I slowly convinced myself that the taste was mysterious and intriguing, and once I began to enjoy it I could acknowledge that the myths were hogwash and it just plain tasted good to me. I still like it to this day, and story of how I came to do so makes me smile.

bonfireMy twelve-year-old brain didn’t think to take this to the next step, and I’m glad it didn’t. Lapsang Souchong tea is all well and good, but could I have forced myself to like, I don’t know, human blood, or, well, fill in any number of things for which I’m glad that I don’t have a yen. I was happy finding out that I could convince myself to like something if I worked hard enough at it. The question I didn’t ask was: could I get myself to like anything?

Or maybe the better question would have been: could I get myself to want to get myself to like anything?

I’m writing this blog on January 20, 2017, the day of inaugurating a president for whom I have no respect. In spite of my Midwestern working-class roots, I do not identify with his supporters. I consider my experiment with Lapsang Souchong tea, and wonder if I could feel differently?

I realize that there are three very different things are going on.

One, there is politics. I mean actual policy preferences. Mine are the result of a lifetime of observation and analysis and they reflect my core beliefs. I’ve agreed with some U.S. presidents more than others, and none of them completely, but I have respected that every single one of them was trying to do what he thought was best. But I don’t even know what this president believes in; he’s been conducting a reality show for over a year, not sharing his vision. I do dislike most of his choices in advisors, but I realize that is not the real source of my disrespect. I may not agree with his selections but these men (they are mostly men) are entitled to their world view. As an adult, I can hold a certain amount of understanding for the opinions of others.

barbecueThen there is style. Not his style; he acts like a flashy rich guy who is full of himself and I don’t think anyone actually likes that. I mean the style of his supporters. I don’t feel commonality with them because mostly their tastes aren’t mine. But they could be. I can teach myself to like a lot of different things and I still am. I could enjoy country music and barbecue instead of yoga and wine and I would be every bit as happy and fine a human being. That’s what Lapsang Souchong tea taught me. Taste is taste. Mine isn’t better than yours, and no one’s taste is unworthy of respect.

But it’s the third component that is the driving force behind my lack of regard, and that is trust. I don’t trust this man because he has raised saying anything he pleases to an art form. Half-truths, quarter-truths and complete falsehoods are trotted out as needed. People are insulted and belittled to serve his quest for popularity, much like in the world of an adolescent. Slights are responded to without reflection on the consequences, to him or to his country. And I don’t think you can teach yourself to like being led by, or being at the mercy of, someone you cannot trust.

Picture3Forget the politics, forget the style. The heart of the matter here is the heart. There is some inherent core decency, a certain regard for truth and a desire for kindness that I cannot define in words so much as I can feel in my heart, and no amount of effort will get me to want to embrace a lack of this. In fact, nothing would make me want to make the effort to do so.

Looks like it took a few decades for me to finish answering my own question, but I finally did.  No, I cannot get myself to like anything, and I’m glad that I can’t.

Do the kids stand a chance?

As you get older it’s tempting to conclude that the world is going to hell. Evidence for this has never been hard to find. I remember my own parents’ complaints and my grandparents’ as well. I think that as you become an adult, you need to fight the temptation to believe that change is bad. Remind yourself that along with more chain restaurants we also have more tolerance. Global warming and an increasingly skewed wealth distribution are at least partially offset by more fairness and globally available information. Right? At least partially right.

vampire weekendI’m checking the links for the music in each of my novels and I’ve gotten as far as song four of nine. In y1, it’s not until the fourth song of the novel that we get to sample the musical tastes of a grown-up Zane. As an adult, he has discovered that certain songs help him alter his appearance. As he concentrates to morph his shape slightly before he enters the teen boot camp that has held Afi prisoner, he turns to the song “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” by Vampire Weekend.

So today, I listened to several videos of the song and I just spent time at a few sites that analyze the lyrics. A break of several years has served to make the message more stark. When unlimited comfort and entertainment is dangled in front, not to mention Egyptian cotton, who can resist?

Some people can. The intervening seven years since this song came out has seen the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the re-election of a president more in favor a social fairness than most, and several changes by law and court ruling that promote a more just society. Yes, there is plenty on the other side of the ledger too, and I’m not going to start listing that here. Suffice to say, at least doom is not the clear cut winner.

I also noticed something else. Every version of the lyrics I could find online today referred to the “pinstriped men of morning” who are “coming for to dance”. Yet I distinctly remember words that sounded something more like “the bitch of manamomith is coming for to dance”. Can’t find that version anywhere. Also there used to be something about a hollow embassy which seems to have been replaced with the verse about a soft pillow and the need to advance.

Did the band decide to chance the lyrics? I’ve no problem with that; the new words might present a clearer image. But why wouldn’t a famous band changing the words to a hit song have provoked a few articles on the internet?  If it did, I can’t find them, and I am pretty good at looking.

Well, whatever the story is, the song remains one of my favorites. Enjoy the excerpt from y1 below, and then the Miike Snow remix. But listen carefully to the words.  Drop me a comment please if you can solve the mystery.

Toby offered to be Mr. Zeitman, thinking that might work better, but Zane brushed him off. “No. We’ll both look up when they say that name and they’ll know something is amiss.” Then he added in a mumble to himself “I can handle this.”

So as Zane changed into his best dress clothes below deck, he concentrated on trying to force his face to age slightly. Music had always helped him work with his body, much the way music helped him exercise, so he searched his iPod quickly for a song that would be just right. He laughed when he found Vampire Weekend’s November 2008 tune “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”. Perfect. He picked the Miike Snow remix because he loved that way that the ominous lyrics intertwined with the twinkly sounds. The contrast made a sort of hot and sour soup that swam through his head, helping his body to make its subtle changes while he dressed.

At a few minutes before nine, a canoe with a small outboard motor came out of the cove to the left and approached Miss Demeanor’s port side. The sailboat had dropped anchor and Joy had the helm. Afi was below deck nowhere to be seen. Toby had donned his cleanest shorts and only collared shirt, the best he could do. Zane, in the khaki pants and dress shirt, looked more like the guy in charge. Toby could have sworn that the illusion was helped by the fact that Zane seemed to have put on a few pounds, and, now that Toby looked at him, that his face looked older as well. Were those fine lines from just a week of sea and sun? They say the ocean ages one quickly, but…

The Samoan man lowered the throttle on his tiny engine, then introduced himself as Va’iga, an assistant headmaster of the school. He pulled up alongside Miss Demeanor and helped the two men climb down its ladder to board the little transfer boat. After his greeting, Va’iga was quiet for the duration of the short journey, leaving Zane to stare at the water and think about the backstroke as the lyrics to “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” continued to play in his head.

After they climbed off the canoe and onto a small dock that was well concealed by shrubbery, it was only a short walk to the school’s simple wooden office. Toby noticed the state-of-art burglar alarm as they entered. They learned that the headmaster Dick Stafford lived in this sturdily built and well-secured house, which also had a guestroom for Mark when he visited.

They were greeted by Mark Hadley himself, who turned out to be an attractive, well-groomed man with a full head of silvery-blonde hair, and a smile that turned off and on in an instant. He apparently liked to gaze straight into a person’s eyes while asking rhetorical questions such as “Don’t you think we have no greater asset than our youth, our hope for tomorrow?” After a few such questions to both men, he focused on Zane as the decision-maker, and the one most likely to answer “Absolutely, no question” to Mark’s satisfaction.

Toby enjoyed playing the part of the accompanying aide, and watched with some marvel while Zane seemed to grow into his own role. The boy not only looked older and fuller, Toby was also willing to bet that he was taller. Dress shoes and standing up straight? Incredible.

The meeting was short, and the tour even shorter. Mark mostly spoke with pride about how he had personally built his chain of academies from nothing over the past ten years, helping hundreds of youngsters through his sheer intelligence and hard work, and how he now had great plans to expand in the next decade. Toby thought that the man sounded like a walking infomercial.

They briefly met with Dick, the headmaster, who turned out to be a short, stocky American with a military haircut and a curt demeanor. They were only really allowed to see the eating facilities while not in use and to view a few students from a distance. Toby tried to memorize everything he could about the place while Zane continued to make nice. After a final exchange of platitudes, during which Mark announced that he would see to it that he was personally present to show the visiting doctors around in January, they were taken back to their boat. Toby could tell from fifty feet away that something was very wrong. Joy was sitting at the helm crying.

The following YouTube video really has no video to speak of, but it is a wonderful way to listen to the twinkly, fun Miike Snow Remix of this great song.

Buy the original song at Amazon.com.

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

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?