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And that’s the way it was, June 15, 1984

I would be an excellent liar. Not of the small, occasional-lie type, but of the grand, that-story-is-so-amazing-she-couldn’t-possibly-have-made-it-up type. After all, intricate plots and multi-faceted characters are my strength as a writer, and if you wanted to turn a small country’s propaganda machine over to me, I know I could do you proud.

That is why I almost never lie. Falsehoods scare me. And, in the way of those who abhor people who flaunt the very faults they work so hard to control, I hate liars. I am particularity outraged by grandiose, habitual liars who create a make-believe world and foist it on others as truth. How dare they?

You probably already know what I think of our president, so I won’t go there.

Yet, there are two areas where lies and reality do blur for me. One is one right here in my blogs. The other is in my books.

I write my blogs under my own name and in first person, as though I am presenting you with hard facts. And I often am. But I view my posts as a creative endeavor, too, and I allow myself a little poetic license to make a point. Particulars can be omitted, events can be exaggerated, and timing can be altered to provide a narrative that is more succinct and entertaining. I want you start the post, I want you to finish it, and I want you to understand what I am trying to say. So reality gets a little air brushing. I figure that you are fine with it.

I write my books as fiction, and they mostly are. Like many writers, though, I have used my own experiences to craft parts of my stories. The Zeitman family looks a lot like my own, at least on the surface, and some odd details, like the family’s favorite meal of eggplant parmesan, were lifted directly out of my own life. I mean, why bother making up another entree?

I’m now finishing my first rewrite of book six (and last) in the Zeitman family stories, and am having to revisit some of the events I borrowed from my own life and then bent and shaped to meet the needs of my novels. I’m discovering something interesting. My own real memories have become shaded by the altered version that I’ve told so many times in my books. Yikes.

So here is the truth.

June 15, 1984 at 4:17 a.m. I gave birth to my first child.

About a month earlier (not the night before), I had a strange experience while falling asleep. I felt and kind of heard what appeared to be my baby’s thoughts. It lasted a few seconds. It was very odd. I have never experienced anything like it again. I have no way of knowing whether it was real or imagined.

I did make my first presentation to the president of my company the day I went into labor, and he did make an uncomfortable joke about how having sex sets off childbirth. He was right, sexual arousal releases oxytocin, a hormone that does a lot of things, including induce labor. I knew what he was talking about at the time he said it, but was willing to bet that most of the men in the room did not, even though of course they laughed like they did.

There was no gathering in the break room after the presentation, and no horrible joke told about how a busload of children of color going off a bridge “was a start”. That joke was told by a geologist at another function some months later. I was every bit as stunned and horrified as my character, and made the same attempt at an objection that she did. I got the same reaction. Everyone acted like I’d farted loudly and looked away and said nothing. This was 1984.

Thirty-three years ago I experienced one of the most significant days in my life. Yet the events of it now blend into the day Lola Zeitman gave birth to Zane. I feel like I have lost something of my own, and telling you the truth is my way of trying to regain it.

I also have a better understanding of why lies scare me and why I work so hard to avoid them. Our memories are tied to the truth. The liar, and those who hear the lie, find their recollections begin to blur, and after awhile, there is no true memory. What a horrible thing to lose.

Unless, of course, there are tapes. I used to think that the idea of having videotapes of anything and everything was the very definition of an Orwellian nightmare. Now, I wonder if a recording of an event isn’t the only way to preserve it, unshaded by forgetfulness and wishful thinking and pride.

Maybe the universe is keeping a video of my whole life; the good and bad and the embarrassing and the exhilarating. Wouldn’t that be nice? Maybe I could get to watch those tapes some day, and relive each moment the way it really happened.

I like the idea. Lordy, I hope there are tapes.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2017 in telepathy, writing

 

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Worry about those you love and write about what you know

I’m not telepathic, but sometimes I pretend that I am.

For me, it’s more than an entertaining daydream. The main hero of the novel I am finishing is a telepath, and the more I see the world through her eyes, the better I can tell her story.

Some days, I’m ready to improve the world with my psychic skills. If I could just know what my congressman’s aide was really thinking, could I convince him to recommend supporting this legislation to his boss? And then it might pass in the House by one vote? And then, and then, the course of the entire world might change?

Other days, I sink into banal curiosity. Hmmm. That man looks interesting. I wonder what he’s thinking.

But more often than not, me-the-pretend-telepath pretty much acts like me, which is a person who tends to worry about all sorts of things. The crux of the problem is that I’ve always had a what-if sort of mind. What if the engines on your boat quit? What if the subway isn’t running? What if the wind blows that thing over? I make up scenarios the way some people flirt, or snack, or scratch themselves. It’s just what I do.

The result is that I tend to be better prepared than most, and if you’re traveling with me you might appreciate that. The downside, as you might guess, is that I can be a pain in the ass.

Every so often someone attempts to correct my personality by telling me to relax.This is an important aside to those of you who have friends or family like me. “Relax” and “calm down” are not useful instructions to give to a worrier. In fact, they are probably not useful to anyone.

Last week, someone surprised me by finding the perfect thing to say instead.

It was April and I was visiting Boston. I had ignored weather reports of possible snow because, well, for once I was trying not to be that person who brings the down parka because of a 40 per cent chance. So I had on leaky tennis shoes with soaked cotton socks, a coat with a broken zipper, and no other cold weather or rain gear. It was pelting wet sleet and the temperature was dropping  as the sun set. Yes, I had succeeded at not over-preparing for the situation.

I did tell you this was April, right? Oh, and we were about to embark on a pub crawl. We were carrying stuffed animals we had just bought at the science museum because they were on sale and now mine was getting soaked, but that was a minor problem. I was cold and wet and miserable most of all because this never happens to me. I’m the one you can count on to pull three collapsible umbrellas out of my purse to help everyone else. I have had very little practice at being the doofus who thought everything was going to be fine, and I learned that it isn’t a role I enjoy.

So I went and stood under a one foot overhang and tried not to cry. Then, someone in my party walked up and did something magic. He said –

“What one thing can I do to help you?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“Okay I’ll pick one. Take either my hat or my scarf.”

“No, I can’t do that. You brought them both, you should have them.”

He ignored me and put his hat on my head. Normally that would have been annoying but, you know, the hat was really warm and dry in the inside.

“Okay, just the hat.”

The hat worked pretty well. A little comfort can sometimes make a big difference and I calmed down without anybody telling me to. Go figure. We had a great time visiting bars and drinking beer and hearing stories about Samuel Adams that may or may not have been partially true and the next day the sun came out and all was well. I’ve noticed that tends to happen.

I got two things out of the experience. One was a better sense of what to say the next time I’m with someone who needs to get a grip. “What one thing could I do to make it better?” is a brilliant question.

The other? I’m better off being me. I turns out that preparing for the scenarios I imagine doesn’t bring me down or keep me from enjoying myself. It’s my own way of flowing through life. Like any other personality trait, there is such a thing as too much. But in my case, there is also too little. I’m fine like I am.

Ditto for my ongoing concern about those I love. I don’t get to drive them crazy, but I do get to love them in my own way.

When I got home, I wrote the following scene in my book. My protagonist Lola is boarding a flight to Antarctica, fleeing all sorts of evil and mayhem. But when she gets a few minutes, she worries about the others in her family, and she uses her telepathy to check in on them. It’s what I would do if I was a telepath.

They had been warned that the flight would be long, cold and uncomfortable, and had been given ear plugs for the noise and medication that would calm their stomachs and make them drowsy. Alex and Maurice took their pills without hesitation, but Lola held off. She hadn’t had an awake minute to herself in days, and she just wanted to savor the solitude brought on by the engine noise as she checked in on the rest of the family.

She squirmed in the thick parka and uncomfortable jump seat buckle, but finally managed to settle in well enough to relax. She found her two daughters and friend Vanida sipping rum drinks on a beach in Brazil. What? Where? And wasn’t it kind of early in the day for rum drinks? Well, at least they were safe. But what were they doing there? She got that they were part of a plan to rescue Zane and Nell and Yuden. Not a plan, the plan, the one that Maurice and Alex were not telling her about and which was going to happen tonight. Tonight?

That meant she better leave this alone. She tiptoed back into her own mind and let her consciousness settle back into the rough vibrations of the ride.

What about Xuha? Was he okay? Eggs. She smelled eggs. Xuha had ordered a late room service breakfast and at this moment he was delighted with the sunny side up concoction into which he was dipping his toast. Okay. What about Zane? He was being served food as well, by a friendly older man who was, oh my, the co-pilot of the private aircraft which Zane had boarded a few hours ago which would ultimately take him to New York.

And why was he going to New York? On a private jet? He wasn’t thinking about that right now. She felt her son recline into the plush, roomy seat and sip his very hot, very tasty coffee, which he was enjoying a great deal.

Lola sighed and reach a heavily gloved hand into the knapsack her hosts had given her. She took a sip of her water and found one of the energy bars they’d provided for the trip. She tore the wrapper open and chewed the sawdust-like contents, wishing she had eggs and hot coffee. Maybe even coffee and rum. Reluctantly she took one of the airsickness tablets and swallowed it. With any luck she wouldn’t wake up for another thousand miles.

(For a companion post see Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know. For more excerpts from my new novel visit Am I sure I’m Sherrie?, Point of View, and The Amazing Things I Get to Do.)

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in telepathy, writing

 

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The trouble with telepathy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problems with telepathy. Writing about it, understanding it, using technology to develop it, and how humans would respond to it.

My recent fascination was prompted by an article in Popular Mechanics called Brain-to-Brain Communication Is Closer Than You Think. Lest you decide that Popular Mechanics has taken an unexpected new age turn, let me point out that the subtitle of the article is “Don’t call it telepathy, but call it very cool.”

The article describes a successful experiment in which a video game player wearing an electroencephalography cap (which records brain activity) decides when to shoot, and a second player in another room wearing a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil (which emits a focused electrical current) over the part of his brain that controls finger movement, does the actual shooting.

Researcher Chantel Prat at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and one of the designers of the experiment cautions that “This is not the X-Men version of telepathy where you hear a disembodied voice. … Whatever shape [this] takes is going to be very different than listening to someone’s thoughts in your head.”

magicYes, it may not be the classic telepathy of fiction, but we are talking about direct brain to brain communication here, aided by modern technology. The article goes on to address possible real life uses including already successful work on adapting a brain-to-machine interface to help paralyzed patients walk by using their brain signals to control prosthetic devices. This is cool, and it is really happening.

It reminded me of an article I read a while back about how neuroscientists have recreated movie clips by looking at a person’s brainwaves. It also reminded me of the waves made by Mark Zuckerberg in 2015 when he wrote “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too.”

He was referring to an advanced form of this sort of brain-to-brain communication, using something like a VR headset to encode brain signals into bits and send them to another person for decoding and playback. You can read more about this in my post Telepathy and Technology, where I quote The Washington Post as responding with “even if Facebook isn’t leading the charge toward telepathy — a worrying concept in itself, given the site’s past indiscretions re: research consent and user privacy — the field poses tons of ethical challenges.” True. Cool things like this tend to have a ton of implications that we haven’t considered.

The second thing to set my synapses firing about mind reading was hearing about Connie Willis’s new book Crosstalk. I haven’t read it yet for a few reasons, one of which is that I’m not that big a fan of her writing based on To Say Nothing of the Dog, her one book I have read. But that was written twenty years ago and it’s time to give this science fiction great another chance.

ganzfeldThen I read an interview with her in Wired. The quote that got me was “Willis does enjoy writing about the paranormal, but as far as she’s concerned it’s pure fiction. For her new novel Crosstalk, a romantic comedy about telepathy, she did extensive research into the history of psychic claims, including the notorious Rhine experiments. ‘I found no evidence at all of actual telepathy,’ she says. ‘I don’t buy it.'”

A lot of people would agree with her. However, I was put off by her tone. How odd to write a book about an ability and yet to harbor no feel for how it could be possible, and no sense of “maybe, if ….” to help bring the magic to life. I probably will read Crosstalk eventually, but now I’m in less of a hurry to do so.

However, Ms. Willis does make an interesting observation in the interview. She says “Let’s say telepathy became the norm … the first thing that people would begin to do would be to attempt to stop that, for themselves at least. They would try to build barriers, mental barriers or physical barriers—I don’t know, tinfoil hats maybe or something—that would prevent other people from being able to read their thoughts … I don’t think most relationships could survive if you knew virtually everything that flitted through the head of your partner.” Good point, In fact, a very good point.

And this brings me to the third reason why telepathy is heavy on my mind these days. I’m finishing a book of my own, the sixth book in 46. Ascending, and it is revisiting my hero Lola and her organization of telepaths. Obviously new problems have arisen, including the discovery of non-empathic telepaths, once thought to be impossible. As my heroes and villains go to increasing lengths to keep each other out of their heads, I’m forced to confront just how difficult day-to-day life would be in a world where telepathy is common. It’s forced me to revisit my own world-building, and to better define my own fictional ideas about what telepathy is.

I’ve had to conclude that while technologically aided brain-to-brain communication is cool, is likely, and poses dangers, it is not what I am writing about. I’m also trying not to write about X-men style sentences popping unbidden into the heads of others. Rather, I’m playing with the idea of extreme empathy. I postulate emotional connections between skilled receivers that enable the exchange of ideas without words or machines, and I’m having some fun finding the charms and the limits of my particular theories.

Do I believe in them? I tell people that I’m a scientist first, and a writer of science fiction second. To me, being a scientist means believing that any thing is possible. It also means knowing that while many things are highly improbable, the universe has a way of surprising us, no matter how much we think we already know.

 

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2017 in telepathy, writing

 

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Telepathy and Technology

magic

Telepathy is direct brain-to-brain contact. In x0 it is a poorly developed human sense somewhat like touch or smell but understood far less well. It is most often an emotional feeling received from someone else which is sometimes accompanied by a mental image, or sounds or words heard in one’s head including tunes or songs. It can also involve a physical sensation such as falling, nausea, or cold, or the memory of a smell, touch, or taste.

After I writing x0 I began to occasionally search for news about telepathy, and I noticed an increasing number of stories about using technology to achieve the same effect as psychic powers. In 2013 I described a story in Science about lab rats who had their brains wired together such that what one rat learned could be transmitted by direct wire to the other. Turns out that the other rat listened better if he got a treat for doing so (big surprise) but basically they communicated pretty well with what the researchers call a BTBI (brain to brain interface).

A couple of months ago Mark Zuckerberg made news by saying that the future of communication is telepathy. In a Q&A session with site users, he wrote “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too.”

The Washington Post responded with a well done article analyzing how this could work. They talked about the linked rats, as well as a University of California at Berkeley study in which a team of cognitive scientists managed to reconstruct clips of movies their subjects were watching, based solely on measurements of their brainwaves. They described how in another experiment involving a noninvasive technique called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” test subjects in India were able to think words to test subjects in France. The Washington Post added that “the process was painfully slow, however, and the words weren’t sent in their entirety — they had to be encoded as binary digits, uploaded to the Internet, sent, downloaded and then decoded as flashes of light.” Yes, painfully slow.

horseThe article quoted Mark Harris at the MIT Technology Review as saying “‘Telepathy’ technology remains so crude that it’s unlikely to have any practical impact.” It concluded by noting that “even if Facebook isn’t leading the charge toward telepathy — a worrying concept in itself, given the site’s past indiscretions re: research consent and user privacy — the field poses tons of ethical challenges” which, lucky for us, “is many breakthroughs and advances away.”

Yes, it is. But it is worth remembering that most big advances began very slowly, at first, and their use and their impact were poorly understood. For decades, many people laughed at the idea of a fancy machine replacing something as reliable as a horse. We all know how that one worked out.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2015 in telepathy

 

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Who’s in charge of this body?

I do tend to latch on to things and get enthused. My latest fixation is a blog called This Gives Me Hope by Cathryn Wellner. She is a woman determined to locate 1001 things that, well, give her hope, and then to tell me and you about them.

Thing #585 doesn’t sound terribly hopeful at first. Cathryn had a friend tell her that folks with multiple personality disorders sometimes have better or worse eyesight depending on which personality is in charge. That seems odd. She did further research and [I quote directly from Ms. Wellner’s wonderful blog]

“Her comment about visual acuity and MPD sent me on a search. PubMed has a link to research that appeared in the 1996 Journal of the American Optometric Association. The New York Times still has a copy of a 1988 article online that says, in part:

For more than a century clinicians have occasionally reported isolated cases of dramatic biological changes in people with multiple personalities as they switched from one to another. These include the abrupt appearance and disappearance of rashes, welts, scars and other tissue wounds; switches in handwriting and handedness; epilepsy, allergies and color blindness that strike only when a given personality is in control of the body.”

raising 2The very idea of rashes, welts and scars appearing at the mere behest of the personality currently in charge has an almost eerie feel of demonic possession to it, until you think about it more. What this tells us is that the human mind is a powerful thing, certainly in terms of the control it wields over the body to which it is connected .

In my novel x0, I join countless others in postulating that our minds are capable of far more than we generally acknowledge. A brain that can create a scar can also reduce one. If a rash can be created, a rash can be eliminated. And so on. If you think about it, there is tremendous hope in this message.

The wonderful poster above is from the Facebook page of Raising Ecstasy, and it makes me wonder if what weighs us down the most is often the negative thoughts that we foist upon ourselves. Thanks Ms. Wellner for passing along the hopeful message that  research and observation support the theory that each one of us is in charge of our own bodies, and we can do far more good for ourselves than we realize.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in telepathy

 

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What did I say wrong?

The process of writing a book about telepathy gave me plenty of opportunity to think about how we as humans provide comfort and support to each other. Or not. In my book I treat empathy as a sort of “baby telepathy” in which the truly empathic can feel the pain of another, as they live one step away from reading another’s thoughts.

heartIn real life, we all know people who are kind of like this.Yet even these concerned, caring types don’t always say the right thing. In fact, sometimes they come out with awful responses, in spite of their obvious empathy, and they often expect to be excused because their heart was in the right place. It seems like it’s not always enough to have a caring open heart. Why? I think that even the most empathic people feel the need to express their own fear, anger, and sorrow or just to make observations or share what they know. Being empathetic doesn’t make you any less human.

ringsI was delighted to come across an article in the Los Angeles Times called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. It describes an approach for how to share your own observations and feelings in a crisis. It’s called “comfort in, dump out”. Basically you getting out a piece of paper and literally drawing rings around the name of a person having any kind of a crisis. Closer rings then get filled in with the names of those closest to the person: immediate family and best friends. Then, coworkers, friends and acquaintances, and distant family members all go in increasingly distant rings by name or in groups. Finally you put your self in the appropriate ring, whatever it may be. Now, the way to avoid unintended ghastly behavior is to say nothing but comforting things to those inward from you. Period. Nothing more. Just comfort. On the other hand, you can rant and rave, or share your fear or knowledge on the subject involved all you want with those in rings further away than you.

This is brilliant. I really like these people.

I came across this article by way of one of my favorite blogs, called Otrazhenie. Please check out the blog article here. There is a lot of interesting embellishment, and the site is well worth a visit!

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2013 in empathy

 

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What if I really do know what you are thinking?

scallopsMy husband and I had a telepathic experience the other night, the kind that couples frequently have. Something special was needed for dinner and the cupboard was bare. “Wait we could have…” he began.  “We sure could,” I agreed. Dinner was prepared without either of us once mentioning the wonderful Nantucket Bay Scallops we’d frozen at Christmas. It was a warm, fuzzy mental exchange.

But do I really want to know everything he is thinking? Everything you are thinking? Worse yet, do I want you to know everything I am thinking?  Recent discussions about privacy and national security have bought up the argument that those who have nothing to hide should not be alarmed when their innermost secrets become known. Deep inside, no one I know agrees with that.

mindI do very little if anything that is illegal or even unethical. But some times I do or think things that embarrass me. Or things I think can be hurtful. If I sneeze too hard I pee in my pants. I think you’re kind of cute. I called a person in another car a “fucking asshole” on the way to work today. Whatever. I’m not perfect and yet I care that I’m not and therefore I don’t want you examining every flaw of mine. I don’t even want you to have the opportunity to do so. And frankly I don’t want to examine your flaws either.

In the novel x0, telepathy is a gentle skill, usually conveying emotions and seldom conveying specific information. Telepaths are considerate, they mind their own business. And even the unaware can put up walls to protect themselves.  It’s telepathy the way I’d want it to be.  Not very invasive.

As to everyone’s increasing ability to use technology to follow my behavior, and even perhaps to misinterpret my actions or my intents? Sigh. ….. A world with telepaths is starting to look like it would be the least of my privacy issues.

For more thoughts on “what if” check out my z2 blog post on what if this could last forever?  And see my y1 blog post on what if you could look like anyone?

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2013 in telepathy

 

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