Elizabeth Bourne

writer & photographer

The Creative Monster

Image result for nick nolte new york storesBack in 1989 I saw an anthology film called “New York Stories” in which three directors took on some aspect of life in New York City. The only one that has stuck with me is Scorsese’s Life Lessons. It was the story of a middle-aged painter and his tumultuous relationship with his much younger apprentice/girl friend; it was full of drama and angst. What I immediately saw, before the story was a quarter told, was that this drama was what the painter needed to create. For his entire life, he would be wrecking the lives of the people who care about him in order to do his work.

This is a pretty common male artist myth – and let me be clear, by artist I mean any of the arts, not just painting. It happens over and over again, and is part of our foundational (and false) romantic myth of the tortured artist. We like this story because it argues that genius comes at a price, and that price is stability and happiness. While I sneer at the idea that to be a creative artist, and especially a truly great one, you must be a tragic figure, there is a tiny grain there worth looking at. You do need to be a monster.

What I mean by this is that you must be selfish. You have to be driven enough to do your work that you demand sacrifices not only of yourself, but the people around you. You may not trash and burn your relationships like Picasso and Hemingway, but you will make demands that more traditional lifestyles usually do not.

Creation needs time, so you will take time from your spouse and your children and your job. You will vacation at writing retreats instead of going to Disneyland with the family. You may sacrifice a high-paying career job for one that allows flexibility, or that you can walk away from if you need to. You may miss soccer practice and anniversaries. You may not listen to your spouse when they talk to you. You might not go with them to movies or parties or dinners.

Creation needs money. You need to go to workshops to learn your craft, buy materials, do research, drink beer with other artists to talk about your art, and did I mention buy materials? You may need a separate work space outside the home, and that’s a significant chunk of change. You may need to work in a coffee shop, and those lattes add up. You may quit your job, depending on a selfless partner to support you. Money needs to come from somewhere, so it comes from family vacations and a new car and a better house/apartment and extracurricular activities for the kids.

That is easier if you’re a man. Not only is it okay, it’s admirable for a man to pursue an artist’s life. There’s a wonderful mythology for men in pursuing their genius, their muse (always a woman), their passion fulfilled by their art in ways another person can not. Throughout centuries women have been honored and flattered to serve the artist, even at the cost of their own well-being and their children’s.

I’m not here to say it’s wrong; I’m just saying it is.

Women have no such mythology, and what shreds exist are inadequate. Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of Her Own” isn’t enough. To be an artist a woman needs the same space and time as a man, and it’s much harder. There are still expectations of what a woman owes to her family that don’t exist for a man. And cultural expectations run so deep we don’t even know we have them until some obscure twinge of guilt catches in our throats.

Woman or man, it is hard to believe utterly in yourself, to manifest the kind of selfishness art requires. You have to develop an ego of steel, and a will equally hard. When I was working full time, I got up at 4:00am to write. As a single mom, I maintained a separate studio even though I didn’t have the money, and sent my son to play at friend’s houses so I could paint. Vacations were a tent in the backyard. We scavenged yard sales for toys and clothes. I would not give up my studio because that was to give up who I was. Which has never been a mom, or a wife, or a girl friend, or whatever I happened to be doing for work at the time.

If you’re a single woman, a person of color, a woman of color, you must put all your strength into getting what you need to create because the barriers are so much higher, and often have razor wire at the top. You must truly become a monster of selfishness to surmount the expectations and restrictions that seek to wall you in. You must not care what people say; you must bury your doubts; you must set aside the wounds of knowing you are just as good or better, and still not chosen; you must ignore every setback, and there will be so many of them, to move forward with your work. That’s exhausting. It’s not surprising many give up. And yet art should not belong to only the white and the wealthy. What an anemic world that is.

I sometimes feel the dirty secret of the creative world is the fact that to be an artist, you must have time, and to have time, you must have money. This is the thing that lies behind so many successful art workers. They have been able to find a way to have the money to afford the time. Maybe they have supportive parents. Maybe they are fortunate to have a partner who believes in them. Maybe they’ve learned to play the system and write the perfect grant proposal, the ideal residency request. Maybe they are exceptionally lucky to have enough money to make a life in art, even if that means living in Detroit or the middle of nowhere Oklahoma.

I look at Georgia O’Keefe, and I admire her determination. Her art was the most important thing in her life, beyond her relationship with Steiglitz, any desire she may have had for children, any attachment to friends and family. At 42 she abandoned what was for her an increasingly stifling relationship for the landscape that she made famous. I quote from one of her letters to her husband:
“There is much life in me — when it was always checked in moving toward you — I realized it would die if it could not move toward something … I chose coming away because here at least I feel good — and it makes me feel I am growing very tall and straight inside…I hope this letter carries no hurt to you — It is the last thing I want to do in the world.”

Of course she hurt him, but leaving him was what she needed to do to pursue her art. A woman who leaves her husband – not even for another man, but for herself – that is monstrous. And yet how glorious to be so focused, so centered that you become an arrow aimed at the heart of your work. According to the mythology of the artist, the rest of her life should have been tortured by regrets and guilt. It was not. She had friends, she had at least one (and possibly more) younger men in her life who may or may not have been her lovers (I’m voting yes). She died admired and yes, loved, and more importantly, having accomplished the work that burned within her.

Now that is success, and worth the price of being a monster.

The Serious Rewrite

Every hear one (or more) of these?

  • The book’s too long. You need to cut X words.
  • You’re missing scenes.
  • The pacing’s too fast/slow.

And then wondered how do you do that? How can you possibly cut X number of words, AND add in missing scenes, AND fix the pacing. While still cutting X number of words?

This year, I spent six months cutting a 170,00 word novel down to 115,000 words. That’s right, I cut 55,000 words. While adding in about 15,000 words, adding setting in places where it was skimpy, and slowing the pace of the last quarter of the book.

It isn’t easy, but it can be (for me at least) satisfying.

For the first few days, I usually fume, thinking I’ll just remove every article. Good-bye, the, an, a. You’re dead to me. Oh, what and that and which, you’re gone too. And maybe I’ll get rid of all the nouns … After I finish fantasizing turning my manuscript into a piece of post modernist trash, I get down to work.

First, you have to read the book critically to answer the structure questions.

  1. Does this scene or para move the plot forward? If it doesn’t, does it improve the reader’s understanding of the characters or setting? If the answer to these three questions is no, then I’ll delete the text. Usually into a separate file so that, if I need or want to, I can find it again. Why do I do that? I first cut this novel down to 90,000 word which was too skinny. I put back in text that I thought added, not necessarily to the story, but to the ambience of the world.
  2. Did the same thing get said or done multiple times? This, I am sad to say, happens to me often. Characters think about doing a thing, they do a thing, then they tell someone else in a tavern about the thing they did. While that may work in speeches, it’s no way to write a book. Keep the section that tells that particular bit in the most interesting way, get rid of the others.
  3. Do you really need to have all those characters? My book is an epic fantasy, so there are many characters. But even so, I thought about the tasks that certain characters had to do, and quickly realized that those tasks could be done by another character. This was possibly the hardest element because it involved a lot of rewriting, but it also saved an enormous amount of word count. If only one character does A, B, M, Q, and R, you only need to set them up once. If multiple characters do all the things, then you have to have an explanation of who they are for all of them.

During this analytical period, I also note where I need to add scenes, where setting is thin, and where the pacing needs to be faster or slower. True confession. By the time I’m close to the end of a book, I rush the ending, kind of like a horse running back to the barn. I always have to slow down my pacing. Someday I’ll do better, either that, or give in to my inner Hemingway.

After I make all the structural changes, it gets detailed. I go through the book line-by-line. The big question here is weighing between when I should trim each sentence to its essence, and when to leave it. It’s super easy for me to cut to the bone, killing words, which also risks killing the soul of the book.

What do I mean by that? Let’s take this sentence as an example. “It’s super easy for me to cut to the bone, killing words, which also risks killing the soul of the book.”

It could be changed to: “It’s easy to kill words, which also risks killing the book’s soul.”

Why aren’t I reducing that sentence to the simple version below? Because this is a blog post, and I want you to hear my voice as you read this. If I were writing an essay for money, I’d reduce most of the content to sentences that were more concise. But then, you might lose the sense (if you have it) that I’m talking to you, and hopefully we each have a glass of gin as we’re chatting.

At the line-by-line edit, I think hard about the books’ voice, and whether my changes damage the voice. If I think they would, I won’t make them. Voice is a fragile creature, easily broken. This is the moment where I am most likely to add in old text that was discarded earlier to bolster the voice.

Fixing pacing is the last, well almost last, thing on the list. What does that even mean, to fix pacing? Find your favorite thriller and look at the sentences. There are a lot of short, action-verb sentences that make the pacing fast and the book hard to put down. Pick up Virginia Woolf, whoa what a difference. Longer sentences, calmer language with a sense of rhythm.

This is the point where I go in and take many of my Hemingway sentences (There was a river. The woman came to the river.) and merge them into longer sentences, paying attention to the sound of the words and the rhythm of the sentence.

After this, the final tidying. I look at my most frequently used words list and see how many I can change, or delete so that I’m not always using “frigid” when I could also use “icy,” “cold,” and “frozen.” How many “ands” can I rewrite or simply delete? Do I really need “that” in all those sentences, or just some of them?

The last thing? Read the whole damn thing aloud. Slowly, with feeling. Nothing else helps you find your flaws as well as reading it out loud. For those who care, it takes about three days and a lot of water to read aloud a 115,000 page book.

And that’s it. Easy, right? Well no, but doable, and you’ll end up with a far, far better book by the end, as well as a better understanding of your own foibles as a writer.




Define Your Win

One of the most important things litigation taught me was learning to define my win condition. As writers, we’re hard on ourselves. Here’s a short list of the ways I’ve heard writers describe why they are failures.

  • I didn’t write every day.
  • I didn’t make my word count.
  • I haven’t written a novel.
  • I haven’t sold any stories to Famous Publication.
  • I don’t have a agent.
  • I have only form rejections.
  • I can’t sell my novel.
  • My writing is awful.

The list goes on and on. We’re experts at telling ourselves how terrible we are. Some of it comes from measuring ourselves against some other person we think is amazing (and very likely she thinks the same terrible things about herself), or against some mysterious standard we believe we have to meet.

All nonsense. Writing is hard, and often feels overwhelming. To every writer.

win conditions

I recommend that instead of buying into impossible standards and tropes and measures of success, decide for yourself what success is. What do you think you – with your family, your work, your entire life situation – what can you reasonably accomplish? Define your win.

Be careful not to confuse a goal with a win condition. You might have a goal of publishing three stories in Famous Publication, or getting an agent for Novel X. These are great goals, but you have no control over them. You don’t control editor of Famous Publication’s choices, or awesome Agent’s decision. That might be something you’re hoping to achieve, but it’s not your win condition.

A win condition is something you control. It should be reasonable. Like, maybe writing one scene a week. Or maybe 300 words every two days. Or having a half-hour a day to write, and the word count doesn’t matter. (This is how I wrote my first unsold novel, a year of a half-hour a day) It should be something you’re certain you can do. If it goes well, and you think that was easy, then change it to something a little more challenging. 350 words! Two scenes! You’re amazing!

If you don’t make it, so what? It’s your win condition. Change the parameters. Maybe you missed your win because work was horrible. So this week’s win was really about not strangling your boss. Still a win! Plus, no pesky jail time. Double win!

The truth is day jobs, family, friends – all these things require time, and they deserve our attention. So be kind to yourself, and do the reasonable thing. Accept that sometimes nothing goes well. That is the definition of life: Things don’t work out as planned

As much as you can, try not to compare yourself to anyone else’s writing progress. There will always be people both further ahead and further behind. Wish all of them well, then buckle down to managing your own win conditions, no matter what they might be.

More Than Words

Writing is more than putting words on a page. There. I’ve said it. A heretic notion.

KeyboardEven more, putting words on a page, while vital in having a thing others can read, may be half, or perhaps even a third or less, of the work necessary to getting a book or story written. Because there is such a focus on word count – and don’t get me wrong, tracking word count can be a useful tool – I know that I, at least, tend to diminish the value of all the other parts of writing that are not putting actual words on a page.

For the past few weeks I have been in a hiatus between having a thing to write, and thinking about what I want to write next. It’s a deeply uncomfortable position for me, and that has made me wonder why I hate this stage. It made me realize that I don’t consider myself as “writing” if I’m not physical writing. So I’m working to revamp my notions of being a writer.

Regardless of whether you’re an outliner or a pantser, there are so many things that have to happen in order to have a story. You have to have an idea, and ideas come from the strangest places. Standing in line at a coffee shop you might overhear something that gives you the tingle of an idea. Reading a book. Going for a walk and letting your mind wander. Mulling ideas while lying in bed trying to sleep. All this is as much part of writing as typing words.

Then there’s the thinking part. Who are these characters anyway? Doing research. (Oh research. Sometimes I think being a writer is my excuse to do research.) Where does the story begin? How does it end? Making notes. Planning the emotional arc of your story. Thinking about interesting events that could happen to your characters. Considering structure. Is it three acts? Five? One? Then there’s themes and voice. So many choices!

You might think about why you want to write -this- story. What is it that makes it important, amusing, interesting to you? What about this story will keep you working on it when it’s hard and it seems like you can’t write any good words, or maybe not even a word at all. Why this particular story?

If you’re a writer, there isn’t a moment that you aren’t writing. You’re always both in the world, and observing the world. Weighing what you see and experience and hear so that you have it someday, maybe years from now when you need that particular piece of coffee shop conversation – perhaps transitioned out of its current location to a space academy on Mars

How to Handle the Intestate Indigent Estate

Some day, you may get the call. Uncle Charlie’s dead. It will be unexpected. You will be shocked, and sad. You’ll wonder if you could, or should, have done something. You’ll wonder why he never said anything. You’ll feel bad about a million, million things. Some of them things that maybe you could have done better. Others will be the ways our society completely fails the working poor.

This post is not about any of that. This is about the practical things that have to happen when someone who has fallen off the map dies, and you are next of kin. So here’s the pragmatist’s guide. It comes with the warning, as always, that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. You need some of that, hire an attorney. This is about your options when dealing with an intestate indigent.

An indigent is a person who lives in extreme poverty. Frequently called disparaging names such as bum, bag lady, trailer park trash, etc. If you get the urge to use these terms – we all do sometimes – don’t. That person could be your brother, you cousin, your uncle, your niece. Given years of loss after loss after loss, it could be you.

Intestate means a person who has died without making a will.

So you get the call from the coroner, the unknown friend, the police, that Uncle Charlie died an indigent, and as next of kin, you are responsible for his body. The coroner would like his slab back.

What do you do?

First, find a funeral home in your Uncle Charlie’s locale. The coroner’s office will recommend one that is reasonably priced. Call and make arrangements for them to pick up the body. Dealing with your relative’s remains is your first priority.

Once Uncle Charlie is at the funeral home, you have decisions to make. Assuming you don’t want to spend a lot of money, these are your options. First, cremation, with the ashes handed to you in a sturdy cardboard box. This will cost around $600 most places. You then get to decide what to do with Uncle Charlie’s cremains. I’m not going to advise you on that. There are tons of internet sites full of ideas of what to do with cremains. You can find those easily.

The other thing the funeral home will do for you is order the Death Certificate. You will need this. Ask for copies, I recommend at least 5.

The other option is to donate the body to science. It’s called Whole Body Donation. This feels like calling Dr. Frankenstein, but student nurses and doctors have to get cadavers from somewhere. All you have to do is pay for the funeral home to transport the body, and the donation location will take it from there. Including, at some schools, an eventual service complete with a student minister, student chorus, and student bagpiper. The cremains are buried on the university grounds, you get an invitation to attend. They are grateful for these donations. They will treat Uncle Charlie with respect, and his corpse will be helping others.

There’s one catch. No autopsy. If there’s been an autopsy, you have to go back to cremation, standing in a field with a box in your hands, and feeling like this is some crazy sad replay of The Big Lebowski.

Here’s a link for Whole Body Donation: http://www.sciencecare.com/

Now comes the part where you have to deal with Uncle Charlie’s estate, or lack thereof. There’s only one thing you need to do here, and that’s call the public administrator’s office. There’s a public administrator in every county, and their job is to handle the legal affairs of the intestate indigent. They will talk with you about Uncle Charlie, what he had, what you can afford to do, and what you want to do.

What do you do with the car?

What do you do with the car?

Let’s say Uncle Charlie had a car, and you want to sell or give that car to someone. The PA will prepare for you, free of cost, a Small Estate Affidavit. With that, and the death certificate, you can sell the car. You do not need to take title of the car yourself. You will have to have possession of the title of the car, which hopefully Uncle Charlie left in the glove box or in a box at a friend’s house. If not, you can use the Death Certificate and Small Estate Affidavit to order a new title from the DMV where Uncle Charlie lived.

If they haven’t been sent to the funeral home, you will need to visit the coroner who will give you Uncle Charlie’s personal effects. This will almost certainly include a wallet; it may include a cell phone and car keys.

What you do from here is a personal decision. Right now, you can walk away. You are not responsible for Uncle Charlie’s debts, if any. You are not responsible for notifying his friends, or going through any storage he had in  a friend’s garage. You have done everything you must do by dealing with the body, and notifying the public administrator of his death.

If you do chose to go through his phone and notify his friends, they will be grateful. They may want to hold a memorial service for him of some sort. They may ask you for photos of Uncle Charlie for this. If you can’t, or don’t want to attend, it’s still a kind thing to help other people with their grief.

People want to keep their stuff, so there is stuff somewhere.

People want to keep their stuff, so there is stuff somewhere.

If you do learn that he had things stored around town, and you meet with his friends to go through his possessions, and then help them clear Uncle Charlie’s things out of their garage, that is a mitzvah. They will think well of you and appreciate the help.

If you contact the bank (with the Small Estate Affidavit and Death certificate) to close out his accounts, they will appreciate it. Also, if it turns out he was secret a millionaire and you are the next of kin, all that is yours. Though honestly, you have a better chance of winning the lottery.

I give you the advice that the public administrator gave me. Do not pay Uncle Charlie’s debts. If someone tells you Uncle Charlie owed them money, tell them how sorry you are, but do not pay it. As soon as you accept one debt, you’ve accepted them all. You do not want that. Neither do you need to file his taxes. You are not responsible for them.

Double wide with a million dollar view

Double wide with a million dollar view

Intestate indigents, in general, do not have houses, apartments, electric bills, cable bills, or any other bills. Because they are living on the street, or in their car, or if they are fortunate in their friends like my “Uncle Charlie “was, in the spare bedroom of a buddy’s double wide. You won’t need to worry about canceling any utility services.

You may choose, if Uncle Charlie left personal possessions, to go through them before donating them. Be prepared to be shocked, surprised, and saddened by what you learn. Uncle Charlie did not become an intestate indigent because the last five years went well for him. It’s entirely possible you will learn things that will break your heart. Be prepared for it.

I hope you don’t have any Uncle Charlies, and that everyone in your family has done well, and is successful, and happy. But if you do, and honestly most of us do somewhere, even if we don’t personally know about it, I hope this is helpful, and I’m sincerely sorry.

Iceland in Winter

Iceland is lovely every time of year, but I find it particularly beautiful in winter. The landscape is pared down to its bones, and what magnificent bones they are. White snow, black and red lava, turquoise glacial rivers. It’s truly a winter wonderland. And it’s completely safe – as long as you’re not an idiot.

Clear roads straight ahead

Clear roads straight ahead

Almost a million people visited Iceland in 2015. Three times the number of Icelandic citizens. And in the years between 2000 and 2015, 138 people have died in Iceland, most of them in traffic-related incidents. That’s combined Icelanders and tourists. Washington state has 450 traffic deaths a year. California has around 3,000 traffic deaths in a year. That’s bigger than most Icelandic towns.

While I was in Iceland, a tourist drowned.

80 mph winds off Eyrarbakki, waves over 10' high

80 mph winds off Eyrarbakki, waves over 10′ high, photo taken from the sea wall far away from the actual sea

The winds blowing off shore were 60-80mph. Sneaker waves were announced as a public danger on the Icelandic travel sites, and at road.is which gives current road conditions for all of Iceland. Is it sad? Yes. It was also stupid.

Last year, 100 people drowned along Washington beaches. I’ve lived most of my life in the west, close to the Pacific where not only are sneaker waves common, but the ocean will throw entire damn TREES at you to crush you and pin you down so it can drown you more easily. Walking near the waves in a gale force storm is stupid. You never turn your back on the ocean. It has nothing but contempt for your puny human swimming skills. Fortunately, where I live and in Iceland, the sea water is so cold, likely you’ll die of hypothermia first, so small blessings, eh?


4WD Dacia Duster by side of road

4WD manual transmission Dacia Duster by side of road

If you’re a tourist, have respect for your environment. In a place like Iceland, rent a 4WD. Even in summer, because some roads are more like guidelines. If the sign says the road is impassable, believe it. Familiarize yourself, as best you can, with Icelandic road signs. They are not the same as US, and it helps to know the difference between DO NOT ENTER and PEDESTRIAN CROSSING. Check out road.is which tells you all the road conditions in Iceland, and updates them every 4 hours. If it says there are hazardous conditions, believe it. I love that website. It became my night time entertainment watching as roads went in and out of drivability (at least for us foreigners).


Gravel road winding into mountains

Gravel road winding into mountains

To be fair, Icelanders are far more phlegmatic about their roads than I. Although the maps indicate two types of roads – paved and unpaved – really there are four. Paved, used to be paved but not so much anymore, gravel, rutted track or maybe it was really a stream bed hard to tell. On our way to Gullfoss we saw a 2WD off in a ditch on a road that a 2WD car had no business being on. Perhaps they thought that because it was part of the Golden Circle, the road would be clear. They were wrong. They were in that situation because they were dumb. When they reached the point where they should have turned around, they didn’t. Instead ending up in a ditch with three cars trying to haul them out. When we came back from Gullfoss several hours later, they were still in the ditch.

Nothing in Iceland is interested in hurting you.

Impassable road, we didn't try it

Impassable road, we didn’t try it

I’ve been stalked by a cougar in the North Cascades (because I had Kai with me – tasty, tasty dog, so my fault entirely). I’ve taken pictures of grizzly bears salmon fishing, and been deeply glad I was at the top of the waterfall, and they were too busy to check me out. Sea lions have threatened my kayak hoping to frighten me into giving them my non-existent fish. Raccoons have chased me off the sidewalk. You think raccoons are cute? Wait until it’s night and two of them are lumbering along the sidewalk like a couple of Mafioso. You give them the road. Trust me.

Icelandic horse who could not be bothered

Icelandic horse who could not be bothered with us

Every animal I took pictures of was either uninterested in us, or ran away. Sheep, horses, swans. Mostly they wanted to be left alone. If I’d been an idiot and chased the swans, maybe one of them would have flown at me, and I’d have bruises. But I’m usually not that particular kind of idiot.

Reykjavik is the safest city I’ve ever been in. From my US perspective, no crime at all. Drivers drive pretty slowly. People are nice. It’s not like Paris, where pick pockets work in teams to size you up and seize what they can. It’s certainly not like any US city where if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you may be physically harassed or attacked. Maybe killed.

Single lane wooden bridge over geothermal pools

Single lane wooden bridge over geothermal pools

I love Iceland. It’s the safest place I’ve ever traveled. I love the landscape, and the people, and the food (but not the fermented shark, no). Next year I hope to go in a different season, and travel more extensively. And I promise, I won’t do anything obviously stupid.

What We Do With Our Dead

As the baby boomer generation (of which I am the trailing edge) marches off to the glorious unknown, their survivors are left with their remains. That is a lot of remains. And so an industry has grown to meet the needs of the 80 million who embraced their individuality while alive, so that they can embrace it in death as well.

This is not about the funeral industry which is huge (Walmart is the largest purveyor of coffins and funeral urns in the country), but about the quirky ways people choose to memorialize the dear departed.

You can have your love one processed into a synthetic gemstone – the average human ashes can be refined into graphite, and then turned into approximately 50 one carat gemstones. That is a marvel. My big disappointment here is that Superman is not doing this work. I thought it’d be a fantastic retirement gig for the Man of Steel, but apparently it is done with a heat process that takes three months for a yellow diamond, and up to nine months for a blue diamond.

Blue diamond

I find the notion intriguing. I find it less intriguing that there is a movement afoot to “diamondize”, and then sell the gemstones made from the ashes of celebrities. I shit you not. The first one was the Beethoven Diamond, created from Beethoven’s authenticated hair, then auctioned off for $1,000,000. The proceeds going to charity in this instance.

Perhaps it’s the ex-Catholic in me that finds this creepily like selling the relics of saints, and about as reliable (You can buy relics on eBay. No lie.). After all, how do you know whether or not your beautiful synthetic blue diamond was made from the revered Bowie’s remains, or from the leftover ashes of a beloved golden retriever named Lucy?

And it’s not cheap. You could buy a real diamond for what you’re going to pay for those ashes to be processed into a synthetic. Although, a friend of mine did mention that this would allow the surviving spouse to have an engagement ring for their next spouse made from the prior spouse. Creepy or charming? You decide

But that’s not all. Perhaps a gemstone doesn’t appeal. I get that. It wouldn’t be my choice either. If you’re more of a gun aficionado, you can have your loved one’s ashes packed into as many, or as few, bullets as you wish. So you can use them for special occasions. This leaves me a little bewildered. The love of my life is dead, so I’m going to shoot a deer with her ashes. What?

Those who favor this method use the bullets for special occasion shootings, and of course, bullet jewelry. It seems to me disrespectful to use grandma for target practice, so maybe game hunting? But I don’t understand that either. What exactly is a “special occasion” shooting? I’m not sure I want to know.

Less weird to me, but probably more weird to others, is getting a tattoo made with your loved one’s cremains. Finally that “Mom” heart tattoo has real meaning when it’s made with mom’s ashes. But honestly, if you want to have your loved one be part of you, just bake some brownies, and add remains to that. It will be pleasanter, cheaper, and well, some of the ashes might stay with you.


Honestly, the list of things you can do with your loved one’s ashes is pretty much endless, and limited by – it’s not limited at all. If you can think it, someone is happy to do it for a price, with human ashes, or your pet’s ashes, or probably your fireplace ashes if you wanted to pay for that.

There are so many options, I really have to give you a list.

Turn your loved one into pencil lead, then give away pencils with their name, birth and death dates, and maybe a sweet quote, engraved on the pencils. You can keep them in a special memorial pencil box.

Mix them with paint, and have a portrait of your loved one done with their ashes.

Have the ashes inserted into an hourglass, with the caveat that ashes are not the same as sand, and this is not going to be a very functional hourglass, but it does make a certain point.

Music aficionado? Your loved one can be pressed into a vinyl record that will play, complete with cool album portrait cover of your choice. R.I.V., sweetie!

Turn your loved one into a snowflake! There are companies that will send the cremains up into the stratosphere where they will be released so they can return to earth as the nucleus for raindrops, or snowflakes. What could be more natural? Though personally I’m not sure how cool I am with being rained on by cremains. Though it does explain why rain makes my car so filthy.


If the stratosphere just isn’t far out enough, your loved ones can be put into Earth orbit, dropped on the moon, sent into deep space. If this helps your grieving process, and you can afford it, why not? Pricey, but certainly do-able. They even offer tracking so you can follow your loved one on their journey through space.

Honestly, the list is endless, and after awhile begins to read like the inventory of a tacky souvenir shop on Cape Cod. Key chains, wrist bangles, glass ornaments of every kind, pressed ash trays (pardon the pun), fireworks – if you can think it, someone is doing it with human (and pet) remains.

Me, I’m a traditionalist. I scatter ashes, a little at a time, in the places I love. I don’t begrudge anyone how they choose to remember their loved ones. Though I do reserve the right to maybe raise my eyebrows a little.




Life: Not for the Faint Hearted

Several years ago my recently deceased brother Paul reported this conversation with his doctor.

Paul: Doctor, my friends keep passing away. This is really hard and I miss them. Isn’t there anything I can do?

Doctor: Die first.

In the past four years my beloved husband, my two brothers, and my dear, sweet Kai dog have all died. So far no friends themselves have passed away, but the spouses and family of friends have gone leaving them bereft, and me bereft for their loss. I would like it to stop. I know it won’t. Time keeps ticking. My generation, and the generation before it, are leaving the room.

Vintage intruments

This is the way it should be. Yes it’s hard, but it’s right. I want my son’s generation, and those before and after him, to have the space to live their lives without me holding on, frightened and crabby, demanding their attention.

In my ideal world I’d live fit as a fiddle in approximately the same physical condition I was in at 35, and then suddenly hit my expiration date. Done. Bang. Outta here. That won’t happen. No matter how much I exercise and how well I eat, things wear out, either fast or slow depending. Then I will die. Here’s the great thing about death. It’s not a test. We all pass.

So what can you do? Well, as the doctor said. You can die first, and skip the grieving. But then you miss everything else, and there’s a lot of everything else. Life is a gaudy parade, a perpetual Mardi Gras. True, some people go back to their hotels earlier than others, but that’s no excuse for us not to dance.

My advice is be kind. Be brave. Take risks. Tell those you care about that you love them. Seriously, don’t put that one off. Do something, anything, to make the world we leave a little better. And while you can, be in the parade.

Plant Invaders from Outer Space!!

I have now watched all the “Invasion of the Body Snatcher” movies, including the 2007 release “Invasion” with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. (The best thing about this one to me was you get to watch Kidman and Craig, never a bad thing.) Despite my abiding fondness for the 1956 original, set in the small (non-existent) town of Santa Mira, and what most people consider the definitive remake, the 1978 version set in San Francisco starring Donald Sutherland, I agree with my movie-watching companion Jack that the story ultimately isn’t believable.

Oh, and here are Jack and I practicing being pod people, offering a pure, emotionless existence to Jack’s wife Nancy and their little dog Cosette. Neither Nancy or the dog accepted our offer.

Pod people

Unlike the “The Thing,” where people on an arctic (or Antarctic) base are taken over by an alien plant from outer space (a space carrot is the most common description), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” plays out on too broad a stage to generate the same kind of intimate paranoia. The Thing also has a satisfying, and believable to me, ending — whether it’s the original “The Thing” where the creature is killed, and humanity saved, or in Carpenter’s excellent version where everyone dies, and humanity is saved. Because of the narrow scope, I found both solutions convincing.

While most of the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” opt for a ‘we are all doomed ending’ (except for “Invasion” where a vaccine is developed against the pods), the original has two endings. In one, Dr. Bennell screams his terror along the highway as trucks carrying pods for other locations drive by. The standard bleak ending for this film. In the second ending, he is rescued, examined by a psychiatrist who has doubts about this crazy story, but a truck carrying pods overturns, and Dr. Bennell’s story is proven.

I think the second, optimistic ending is the most realistic, and here’s why. Nothing goes perfectly. Accidents happen, and the bigger the project, the more that can go wrong. I simply can’t make the leap of faith that this alien invasion will proceed flawlessly, or successfully. War of the Worlds, people! And for the alien pods, what a nightmare planet they’re trying to invade. We’ve been destroying plants for thousands of years, and have become extremely good at it. If I were the pods, I’d launch back onto that solar wind and try again.

Finally, my roommate grew up in Mill Valley, CA, the original setting for Jack Finney’s book, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” I’ve been observing him carefully for the past few days, and while he does occasionally exhibit pod-like emotionless behavior, it also happens most commonly around 6:30 am when he gets up. Honestly, I can’t fault him for that, and have come to the conclusion he is not a form of plant life. Yet.






What I learned about privilege this week

It has been a long time, a very long time, since I have been without economic privilege. Because it is easy to forget what it’s like to be poor, and it’s a short step from there to believing that some how a person without economic advantage is in that position because they deserve it. That is not only untrue, it’s a pernicious lie. This post is specifically about the difficulty in finding a safe place to live. While the context is Oakland, I think it’s reasonable to assume it’s like this to a greater or lesser degree in any major city. So here’s the list.

You have to have enough cash to pay a first and last month’s rent, a deposit, and if you have a pet, a pet fee. That means a minimum of $3,000 for most places. If you’re a woman and want to live somewhere you feel safe walking home from work at night, it’s going to be closer to $4,000 because those places cost more. In some places it will be more than this, in others it may be less — but in these locations the salaries are less too so it still can be very tough to do.

It may take thirty days or more to get back the deposit paid on your current apartment, if they pay it back. So you can’t use that money for a new place.

To find a place you need to have transportation and time.  Transportation because the apartments you can afford may be distant from each other, so a car really is the easiest way to get around. A bike is less desirable because you can’t look sweaty and unkept when you meet the building manager or s/he will put your application on the bottom of the pile. Public transportation is iffy because of the time constraints. And time matters because viewings are limited. Some places may be open for viewing for just a half hour. You may need to race from place to place to see them because, after all, you have to do this on your day off.

If you work a job that does not give you a standard weekend off, you must take the time off, frequently without pay, to find a place.

If your credit score isn’t good, getting a safe, affordable home becomes more difficult. Most places we looked at told you they wanted a credit score of at least 650. It’s easy to get a bad credit score. Maybe someone stole your ID. Maybe you were late on one credit card payment two years ago.

Do you have a criminal record? Yeah, then you’re just fucked. It doesn’t matter what the crime was. Maybe you sold some weed once, and got caught. Maybe you had a DUI when you were 28. Your application is now set aside. Maybe if they can’t find anyone better they’ll call you and ask for an explanation. But most likely they won’t.

The landlord has to believe that your job, whatever it is, pays you enough so you can afford the rent. So you have to have a sheaf of paperwork with your application. Pay stubs. Banks statements. One place asked for a copy of last year’s W-2. Which brings me to…

You have to have a way of getting and printing out your credit score, your paystubs, your bank statements. So you need computer access, you need a copier. And if you don’t personally have these things because they are expensive, you have to pay for their use. It cost us $40 for the use of a computer and printer and copier for an hour at a FedEx “Office.” Libraries are cheaper, but they are more crowded and may not be conveniently located.

Take all of the above, and double the difficulty if you are a person of color.

These are a few of the people I met in our search for someplace to live. A young woman, single, who works as an office clerk. She’d looked at four places on Saturday, we met her Sunday at a studio in Emeryville, where she had come a half hour before the viewing so she could be first in line. She told us if she didn’t get this place, she’d be at risk of living in her car because her lease was up, and no one had accepted her application. This was for a $1,500 studio. I hope she got it.

A couple, “bridge people” the building manager called them, who were moving from SF into Oakland. He’d just lost his high tech job. She was a teller. The manager looked at the application and shook his head. The guy might get a new job soon, but he didn’t have one now, and her income as a bank teller wasn’t good enough. This was for a $1,600 one bedroom.

An older black woman. We talked with her while waiting to cross the street after looking at a studio in West Oakland. This was a $1,595 studio. Her husband had left her and she’d been living with her son. But they have kids and she wanted to get her own place. She had just got a job as a waitress, but had no work history. She’d been a stay at home mom. Her kids said they’d help out with the rent until she got her feet on the ground. She said, “They won’t give it to me.” And all I could say was how sorry I was.


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