When is it time for “More”?

I’ve spent the last couple of years downsizing, and trying on the idea that a simpler life can be a happier life for me. I’ve turned to finding small pleasures and treasures to be thankful for, and to not basing my actions on always wanting more. This flies in the face of much of my upbringing and culture, so even with this conscious effort I am still far from ascetic. But in spite of the ways that this change in outlook have challenged me, I have to say it has been a joyful journey.

But is it always bad to want more? How about more love? More kindness? More simple decency? More popcorn?

Image result for more usherI’m in the process of looking at the last song referred to in each of my books. y1 is largely a book about finding joy, and the last song is “More” by Usher Raymond IV, an American singer, songwriter, dancer, and actor. This has got me me thinking about the idea of how “more” relates to happiness, or if it does at all.

Over the past few months I’ve also been writing about a survey of world happiness and my fascination with the fact that six attributes appear to determine how happy a large group of people is, on the average. Groups that are basically healthy, wealthy enough, have social connections, are free to make their own choices, live in a fair society and are surrounded by those who generally behave kindly are — no surprise — happier than those who live in societies that lack one or more of these attributes. Individual mileage does vary; we all know those who can manage misery in the best of circumstances and others who smile through the worst of them.

growing-bolder-10So what about more? In another post I talked about how money only adds joy up to a certain point. After basic needs and some wants are met, more cash has little to no effect on a person’s happiness, no matter how much they think that it will.  One can argue about having too many social connections, or too much individual freedom, I suppose. One can even argue that a society can be too kind. But can you be too healthy? Have a society that is too fair? Is there always a point where enough is enough? The science fiction writer in me is having no trouble at all imaging a world where any one of these “happiness builders” is taken too far.

But sometimes, we do need more. I’m going to argue that we don’t need more fast food chains, but we could do with more locally grown produce. We don’t need more years added to our lives, but we do need our later years to be more healthy and happy. More fairness and kindness would be wonderful; we’re a long way from overdoing either in our society.

y1 is the only novel that I ended with a song. After all the adventures of the book have concluded and before the epilogue starts, the foursome of main characters gather for one last walk on the beach …. over flaming coals. Yes, that is something this group would do to celebrate.

After an uneventful week and a half at sea, they reached Toby’s island a little after dawn and happily stretched their legs with a long walk on the beach. Toby had decided to keep the place, but he thought it wise to scale back the island’s processes so he did not have to visit so often. Zane, Afi, and Joy spent the day helping him dismantle the hydroponic gardening apparatus and securing the house, and its energy and water gathering capabilities, to better exist without a caretaker for longer periods of time.

As the afternoon wound down, they prepared for a feast out on the sand. The coals glistened while the fish were cleaned and cooked. Wine was poured. A salad was made. Amid stories and jokes, they ate the last of the food.

Then Afi turned on his favorite new RedOne Jimmy Joker remix of Usher’s recent dance floor hit “More.” As the pulsating sounds began to capture the group, Afi gave them a questioning look.

“Like the man suggests, is now the time to bring fire to our dance floor?” he asked.

“Definitely.”

“Of course.”

“Why the hell not?”

A stretch of clouds in the west provided a flame like show of color while Afi arranged the embers carefully into a small orange and grey rectangle in the sand. Then one by one, each member of Miss Demeanor’s crew stood up, improvised a jolly bow to the others, and calmly, yet purposefully, walked over the glowing coals.

For each of the songs I refer to, I seek out a live performance to link to in the electronic version of my novels. This amateur video of “More” shot in Rotterdam in 2011 manages decent audio quality along with a nice mix of close ups of, crowd enthusiasm, and panning out to capture the dancing and gymnastics on stage. Great fun. Enjoy it, and think of the times when we all need more.

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”, Some Kind of Kindness, and The fairest of them all?)

Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”

Reason number one: Love makes us happy, and happiness is wonderful.

Several times now I’ve posted about a report on which countries have the happiest people. I’m intrigued that six attributes account for most of this variation, and I summed them up as health, wealth, freedom, love, fairness and kindness. I’ve already written about the first three and today I’m thinking about love.

life lessons6Now, the people doing this survey were not asking questions about romantic love, wonderful as is it. They used a broader definition, by asking something more like “do you have people in your life that you care about and can depend on?” This careful wording included family members and close friends along with intimate partners, and as far as I’m concerned it covered every type of love inclined to bring one happiness. (Unrequited love for someone who does not know you exist doesn’t exactly bring a lot of smiles. A spirited discussion could be had as to whether it is love at all, but that is outside the scope of this post.) Suffice to say, if you have people, or a person, you care about and who care enough about you back that you feel you can count on them, then you have love. Lucky you.

love wins2. “Love Wins” has become associated with the LGBTQ community’s struggles for marriage equality and other rights. I’m a heterosexual woman with a 34-year traditional marriage, and an avid supporter of equality in every sense for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Zane, the main character in y1, is gay, and I did my best to present his love affair with Afi as a beautiful thing to be cheered on by anyone with a heart. In the real world, friends, relatives and co-workers of mine are LGBTQ, and every time “Love Wins” it makes me smile too. Love is funny that way. It likes to see more love.

SPLC3. Love wins every time that hate does not. I’m also an avid supported of the fine work that is done by the SPCL (Southern Poverty Law Center) even though donating to them means that I get a lot of letters from them asking me for more money. It’s okay. I glance through them all and give when I can. Recently I got one such letter that moved me more than usual. It discussed the nine people killed a year ago in the white supremacist attack at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and noted that “Hate won’t win” were the brave words Alana Simmons spoke to her grandfather’s killer in Charleston.

Yes,“Hate won’t win” are brave words coming from someone who has been grievously wronged, and the words brought a tear to my eye. I know that love wins every time that hate does not.

cosmic conduit 24. The last reason has to do with music. I’m fixing up the music pages on each of my blogs, and today I was expanding my post about David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love.  As the lyrics to One Love say …. “if we stand together than we’ll be okay.” You know, more love wins kind of stuff… and it’s what got me started on this post.

Think of how many great songs there are about love. Luckily, far more than those about fear, hate and hopelessness, although I will concede that there are a few great songs about those emotions too. Yet in the grand overview of musical topics, love wins and I’m glad.

I’d forgotten about exactly how I’d referred to the song in the book, and when I found the excerpt it made me smile.

Joy felt like she was living two lives at once. In one life, she taught Samoan third graders by day, dressed demurely in lightweight long-sleeved tops and loose colorful skirts to her ankles, and pretended to be Afi’s wife by night. Given the vast number of options open to humanity in 2010, it wasn’t a bad life. She wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t hurting, she had a friend nearby, and she was doing useful work. Life came a lot worse.

In her other life, she sailed the ocean, barefoot in a tank top and gym trunks. Her hair blew free while her body moved softly with the thunk of the boat hitting the waves and with the rhythm of her latest favorite song. For the past few weeks David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love had been about every third selection on her MP3 player, and when she wasn’t listening to it she was generally singing the song in her head while she imagined Toby’s hand on her thigh as he sat at the helm of Miss Demeanor. She would see his hint of a smile as his fingers started to rise higher up her leg and then each time he would turn to her, with his soft brown eyes asking her a question. As the song picked up tempo she felt herself smiling her answer back to him and then he always set the sails and they went below deck where the song was playing loudly and life was very, very good.

Of course, that other life existed only in her mind. But anyone who had ever been in love would know that it was the more important of her two lives.

Ah, yes, that romantic love stuff does bring us joy, even when it is just in our imagination.

I confess to having a weakness for amateur videos that make me feel like I am standing right  at a concert and this simple and seldom viewed video of One Love being performed at Electric Zoo in 2011 took me in with its tag line of “right place right time last song.” I’ve had that feeling and it’s a fine one. Go ahead and sing along with the audience, and enjoy letting love win in one more way.

 

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Some Kind of Kindness, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)

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.”

 

 

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.

Fie… errr…

fireIf there are two things sure to mesmerize humans, it is crashing waves and a dancing flame. There was no realistic way to bring the thundering sea into our cozy new mountain home, but we could definitely do fire. So, a chunk of our budget for moving here was diverted to replacing an existing small gas stove with something we could sit around and watch. We figure that you’ve just got to indulge some of those primal instincts.

Initially, I wanted to burn wood. I’ve always had a “real” fireplace and the sound and smell is part of the joy. But last winter we spent a week in a snowstorm with a well-designed gas fireplace, and I had to admit that the lack of chopping, hauling, and cleaning was a joy, as was the almost instant on and off that allowed us to experience flame for just a moment here and there anytime we wanted.

So gas it was. But I balked at the fake logs. I just don’t like fake flowers or foliage and I wasn’t any more fond of watching my flames dance through simulated bark. Lucky for me, modern times have brought better alternatives. I could have glass beads or tumbled marble or river rock. Wait, real rock? That worked.

Three months and more-money-than-we-expected later, we have it and it is a joy. Something deep in our collective unconscious takes comfort from the flame, as it draws us closer.

I used both the sea and fire a lot in the novel y1, as I let each draw my disparate characters together. Fire gets its first use in the story by way of another primitive glue, music. The book mentions and links to nine different songs; most of them are contemporary and from the broader electronic dance music genre. This one is a throwback, however, as one of the older characters in the book reaches out with “Fire” to the young man who has stowed away on his sailboat. Enjoy the excerpt and song below.

tropical-sunsetAs Toby’s much-loved sailboat Miss Demeanor finally made her way through the Nanuku Passage towards Fiji’s main two islands, Toby radioed ahead to ensure that a health inspector would be available to clear the boat so they could proceed out of quarantine anchorage with minimum delay. As he spoke with port control, he watched Afi expertly use the sails to turn the boat to pass to the north of Koro Island, and Toby decided that Afi made a great crew. Perhaps he would let the boy work on board until he turned twenty-one. In which case he should learn more about him after all.

It didn’t take much prodding to find out that before being whisked off for unnamed crimes, Afi had a hobby, of sorts, in that he aspired to become proficient in the Samoan fire knife dance. Apparently Afi had practiced a lot and on occasion performed for friends and family, and even for profit. His unusual flexibility had enabled him to perfect a few unique moves that other dancers could not even attempt. Toby wondered if wanting to fire dance in the South Pacific was a little bit like wanting to play baseball in U.S.

Years ago Toby had installed a high-end J.L. Audio marine sound system on his boat, and it was one indulgence he had never regretted. He prided himself on maintaining an immense collection of music on the best MP3 player he could find. Sometimes the quiet at sea was soothing. But often, whatever music suited his mood was far better. He had genre days. One day, nothing but classical music. On another day, it was all reggae. He had theme days, like days when no song would be played that didn’t have a word describing weather in the title. On this journey he had played mostly classic rock and roll, which Afi had seemed to enjoy well enough.

51R-CmnG45L._SL500_AA280_Once he learned of Afi’s love of fire dancing, though, he decided to find a couple of fire songs as they approached Fiji. With a smile of satisfaction he selected a few oldies from the fifties and sixties that referred to fire. When he played Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”, Afi smiled in recognition. But when the speakers began to blare the Doors 1967 hit “Light My Fire” Afi grinned at this one and started to sing along. Pretty soon both men were belting out the chorus. “Fie… errr…” drifted out over the waves of Savusavu Bay along with their laughter.

“What to do you think?” Toby asked.

“I think you have a great sound system.” Afi was honest. Toby waited.

“I think you found fire songs for me, which was nice.” Toby waited more.

“I think your music could use a little updating?”

Toby laughed. He had been expecting that remark for days.

Afi continued. “There are a lot of great new songs about fire too. Maybe in Fiji we can download some? And we can make a bigger collection, with the old and the new?”

“We absolutely can. Music is one of the supplies I continue to stock up on, even if I don’t need anything else. I usually just add more oldies, but we will see what we can find from the last five years. I promise.”

Listen to the Doors perform their biggest hit live in New York in 1968.

You can buy this song at Amazon.com.

Party like it’s ……

fireworksWho can’t fill in the blank on this one? In the introduction to y1, the millennium nears it end and thirteen year old Zane waits for the year 2000 while singing “1999” by Prince.

While Zane struggled to flex his orbicularis oculi, a small but industrious segment of the world’s population was spending much of its time confronting the possibility of chaos and doom. These computer programmers, mostly aging geeks who knew machine code and legacy programming languages like Fortran, Basic and C, found themselves hired by companies the world over to fight small personal battles with ancient (that would be 1950 through 1980) software. Their mission? To see that computers, and all the myriad of utilities, finances, government records, shipping, and communications now largely run by these machines, would not all come to a grinding halt because decades ago well-meaning programmers just like themselves had told computers that years only had two digits.

As the year 1999 neared its end, another segment of the world’s population wrote increasingly horrific articles about this villain, dubbed Y2K, telling of confused computers leading to the end of modern society. As the end of December approached, security forces the world over went quietly on the highest of alerts. Just in case.

Prince’s 1982 hit “1999” was re-released again in time for year’s end, and at least seven other recording artists did timely covers of the song, leaving much of the world’s population singing that they personally intended to start partying like it was 1999. It was an exciting time to be alive, this end of a millennium.

But wait. It wasn’t actually the end of the millennium, and everyone past the age of four knew it. Because the Gregorian calendar, based on a perceived date for Christ’s birth and now in common usage the world over, had begun with the year one, not the year zero, everyone knew that December 31, 2000, not 1999, would mark the real end of the millennium. And no one cared. December 31, 1999, was the big day. It was the day on which the odometer turned over, the day on which all the nines rolled into zeroes. It was the day that everyone cared about. It was the day on which the world might end. It was the day on which everyone wanted to be somewhere safe. Or somewhere special. Or both.

20121101_215834If there is one thing harder to find on the internet than videos of performances of Disney songs, it would have to be videos of performances by Prince. Click on 1999 below to see this wonderful one from France that captures the energy of this great song. Enjoy!

1999

(You can buy this millennial hit at Amazon.com.)

With the second song of each book, I pick up on the intensity of the theme a little more. Click on to read about x0’s “We are the World“, z2’s “Only the Strong Survive“, c3’s “Heads Carolina” and d4’s “I Follow Rivers“.

Joy?

Ode To JoyviolinJoy!  If this doesn’t make you smile, check your pulse. This video might even tempt you to sing, dance or play along.

Click here to enJOY it.

Thanks to Amazing Oasis and Flowing Zen for sharing the joy.