chameleon

Would you rather be a chameleon? A little master of chamo— er, I mean camouflage? A lizard that comes with a million colours, and slips into whatever hue and pattern the situation demands? A smooth or rough operator, as needed? Crawling through the fruit garden of society, matching each lemon and each melon, sometimes a meh clone and sometimes taking a helm once and again, aiming to claim a meal and not become one?

A chameleon is not truly a master of disguise, I should say. The true master of disguise is the octopus, feeling its way through the marine environment, shifting to match coral, rocks, seaweed, by texture and pattern, or suddenly changing to startle – eight legs, thousands of sensitive suckers, tasting and tickling as it goes: smart. (Also delicious, just by the way.) See this and believe.

The chameleon, by contrast, does not shift shape, does not shift texture, and has a limited set of hues – though they can be vivid and vibrant. It changes colour as much by mood as by surrounding, and the changes take a little time, not a fraction of a second like an octopus. It shifts not to be invisible but to be appropriate or inappropriate, as the occasion demands, or just to suit its mood and never mind what’s around it.

And the chameleon always know what’s around it. Its eyes can see 360 degrees and rotate independently, ever on the lookout for what interests or threatens it, ready to focus accurately on a subject of interest. It can grasp and tickle with not only its feet but its tail, that famous curl. And its tongue! No other animal has such a tongue, capable of darting out twice the length of its body, capturing prey in an instant and retracting again. The only thing the chameleon is not so good at is listening.

So a chameleon can be the life of the party or a dark horse, a person who can be put into a place, scope it out, grasp the surroundings, snare prey with the tongue, catch the interest of others or pass relatively unnoticed as desired. Not necessarily an éminence grise; quite possibly a Boy George, a Karma Chameleon. Appropriate or appropriately inappropriate. Sometimes ambiguous and difficult, too, like the ch at the beginning of chameleon: you need to learn that in this case, as in chimera, it is hard and kicking as “k” and not catching as “ch” or soft and quiet as “sh.”

But a chameleon is not the dominant force anywhere it goes. It may be what the Greeks called a ‘dwarf lion’ or ‘ground lion’ – χαμαί khamai ‘on the ground’ or ‘dwarf’ plus λέων leon ‘lion’ – but the largest of them are not more than a foot, and the smallest can cling to your fingertip. A chameleon is not meant to be the leader, certainly not, but it is also not meant to be a minister or myrmidon. No, a chameleon is better suited to be a fine ornament of something – or someone – beautiful and captivating: like a flower, but much more fascinating.

And you know the ladies will love a chameleon, while few want to find themselves on a date with an octopus.

La Dame aux Chameleons

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