Elizabeth Bourne

writer & photographer

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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.


Ten Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Novel Contract

I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV (though I have played the part of a judge in legal videos, and I look great with a gavel in my hand). However, reading, negotiating, and writing contracts has been a large part of my life for over fifteen years. I have negotiated contracts with the federal government, an insurance entity bigger than God, and with many major corporations. Yes, even that one.

In general, I love a well written contract. When they aren’t specific, they are from the devil. So what is a contract? A contract is a legally binding agreement between two or more parties to fulfill mutually agreed upon obligations.

A contract should promote harmony between the parties. It should be clear and specific. It should envision consequences for non-performance by either party. It should include an equitable way for the parties to end the contract if things aren’t working out.

Here is a link to SFWA’s contract page. I think these are okay examples. I think they are not specific enough, and the language is unnecessarily “legalese.” I personally would amend the heck out of these contracts before I’d sign them. But they are better than many of the contracts I’ve seen, and a good place to start. Some of you may say, “But if you won’t sign the contract as-is, they won’t publish you.”

Maybe, maybe not. Plenty of authors amend their contracts, and get published. But even if you don’t, so what? You can publish and promote yourself now. It’s a perfectly respectable thing to do. It’s not 1954 anymore. Go self publish and promote your book. Yes, it will take time. So did writing the book. If it does well, publishers will come to you. We have all heard the stories. It happens.

So here are the questions I would encourage every author to think about when it comes to contracts.

  • How long do you want this publisher to be able to publish this book?
  • Do you want print on demand to be considered the same as “keeping the book in print”?
  • Do you want them to have electronic rights, and if so, for how long?
  • Do you want them to have foreign rights?
  • Audio right?
  • Media rights?
  • What about rights to some media that hasn’t been thought of yet? Do you want to reserve all unspecified rights to yourself?
  • If you hate what they’ve done with your book, how do you terminate this contract?

For an agency contract, again, harmony lies in specificity.

  • What book or books are they representing?
  • Can they represent audio, ebook, foreign, media rights?
  • If they fail to sell any of these rights, do you want the right of representation to revert back to you within a specific time?
  • If you feel this agent has done a poor job of representing you, how do you get your rights of representation to this/these properties back?

I have several blanket recommendations.

  • Define what it means to have a “book in print”. This is, in my opinion, the most egregious way that some publishers are using to keep writers in bad contracts. The claim that as long as the book is available as print on demand, it is in print, is to me ludicrous and offensive. A book, in my opinion, is in print when it is already on the shelf. If I can’t go into a book store and pick it up off the shelf, then it’s not “in print.” Print on demand is a wonderful thing, but it is its own category. And I think it should be clearly delineated as such in contracts.
  • Think about how you want to terminate this contract. While it all may be roses and champagne now, in five years you may feel very differently. You may want all your rights to your book back. You may want to have just the media rights back. It is impossible to tell what the future holds, so there should be a meaningful, and fair, way to terminate the contract. And to be clear, if you choose to terminate a contract, it is reasonable for the other party to want compensation for their future losses. So keep that in mind. Fairness is important on both sides. Here are just a few suggestions of specifics that could go into a termination clause:
    • When the book is no longer being printed as a mass market paperback
    • When sales of the book are less than X per year
    • All rights revert to you in five years
    • Whatever seems like a good idea to you and your publisher
  • Have a contract lawyer read your contract, and make recommendations to you, before you sign it. It’s not particularly expensive, and frankly this is your writing career. Isn’t it worth investing a little money to know you’re being treated fairly? You may choose to ignore an attorney’s advice, but at least you’ll know what you’re getting into, and that it’s your choice.

Inspiration for 2016

Tomorrow begins a new year. The date is arbitrary, but we humans like to signify the importance of change.  This past year has been full of change for me. My life has altered in both extremely large and very small ways, some good some bad. But it is done now.

Like everyone else, I must go forward, and hope for the best. So rather than recount my year (which I have a hard time believing is of interest to anyone but me, and not that much even for me), I’m showing  you some of the artists who inspire me to become better. I would like to stand in the place where these images can be seen. I would like someday to be this good, at least once in a while. I hope you also find something inspiring in their work to take forward with you into 2016.

Piper McKay. I am in awe of her work and her personal dedication to Africa.

Kevin Whitely. His aesthetic vision is a close match for mine, except he’s so, so much better. Also, I can not lie. I love his attitude.

Martyn Lucas. There is so much beauty in the cold and frozen places of the world. His images of it are the best of the best.

Carol Highsmith. I was introduced to her work in a roundabout way through Austin’s dad who is her photography assistant. I admire her work tremendously, and she has (unwittingly) been of enormous help to me in improving my own pictures.

Didier Massard. This is the stuff of dreams. Strange and beautiful, you know each one keeps a secret, and I want to know them all.

The Empire Builder

I am now on my second day on the Empire Builder, and this afternoon will disembark in Chicago for a welcome overnight hotel stay and a shower whose floor does not heave under me. I will have ridden the entire line, start to finish, from Seattle to Chicago.

MT mountains

This morning, all the Montana cowboys and oil men (everyone of whom seemed to have a hint of Jake Gyllenhall about him) had disappeared. They were lean, quiet men, though even at my age, I’m pretty enough (or they’re desperate enough) to get them talking. They’ve been replaced by families of Scandinavians in Norwegian sweaters. I have never seen so many fair-haired people in one place. There are more women on the train as well. For awhile it felt like I was the only one.

House on prairie

In summer, the Empire Builder would travel during the long, long days, taking you through the Rockies and Glacier Park in daylight. In winter, it’s dark, and the sun comes up late. What you see is beautiful but very bleak. A rancher (Jason) explained to me over a glass of wine they only get one crop of wheat, so it’s cut so there’s plenty for the cattle to graze on over the winter. They don’t want to waste a grain. And indeed many of the stubbled fields were full of black angus.field at sunset

I didn’t sleep well the first night. The bed is narrow, and the train lurches like a drunken sailor as it picks up speed through the empty places. It feels rather like trying to sleep while you’re falling a very great distance. Last night, I was tired enough I slept late, through the sunrise and through Minneapolis which surprised me for surely that generated a great deal of noise.

When I pulled the curtains, we had left the clouds and snow of Montana and North Dakota behind. Minnesota is blue skies with thin wispy clouds, lakes crinkled with ice, and the brown Mississippi runs alongside the train. The earth is sere, and the trees barren. There may once have been evergreens here. Not any more.

At breakfast, I sat with a Minnesotan family. Mom (Ingrid) was a comfortable matron in a black and white Norwegian sweater, her blond hair mostly hidden by a red hunter’s cap. Beside her sat their blond daughter (Jennie) who played Hangman all through breakfast. I sat next to her husband (George), a robust man with thinning silver-blond hair and pink cheeks. His Nordic sweater was grey and black with hints of red, and altogether manly.


Ingrid told me they’d spotted two bald eagles this morning, and that you can see fossils in the bluffs we were passing. She added that the green stones were green because of ancient lichen poop. She said this with a sideways glance at her square-faced husband. He didn’t seem to notice her indiscretion, keeping his pale, pale eyes fixed on some distant horizon none of the rest of us saw. Ingrid chatted away through the meal, with occasional interjections of “Oh mom” from her daughter. George never said a word, not even when she asked him a direct question. I gathered this was usual, since she continued her talking whether he answered or no.

And now the sky is blueing. The sun has a yellow winter light, and is turning the brown grass to gold where it pokes through the little bit of snow. We are traveling through what I would have called mountains in my younger years, but now know are rolling hills, blanketed with deciduous trees that long ago lost their leaves.

The Empire Builder is the busiest of Amtrak’s long distance trains. In summer, there are park rangers on board who narrate the section through the Rockies and Glacier Park. It’s a life line for Montana and North Dakota. Two brothers I talked with (Dan and Kerry) take the train between Havre, MT and Fargo, ND often to see their brother, who has a ranch outside of Fargo. I was told it’s too expensive to fly, “Costs as much to fly in North Dakota as it would to fly across the country,” said Kerry.

Dan is a railroad guy, Kerry is in IT, and swears that any second now Montana will see a computer boom just like Silicon Valley. They were heading to Fargo where their nameless brother would pick them up, then from there to see a Bears game, and maybe get in a fight with a Viking fan, though Dan admitted his wife told him she’d be pissed if he did. “Over the line, she said that’d be.” He said it with some satisfaction.

Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll take the Southwest Chief down to Kansas.

Why I exercise

I hate exercise. As a child, I hated team sports. Still do. For years, I ran six miles a day. I hated doing it. Every minute of it. That whole endorphin rush? I get a rush from eating cookies.

When I turned 59 I started doing crossfit. It’s the exercise people love to hate. It was great for me.  Here’s why:

  • It gave me an outlet for my grief; it was physically hard which meant there was no room to think about anything else.
  • It made me confident.
  • It made me bold.
  • At an age where my friends are shrinking, I gained half an inch in height.
  • It made me strong.

For reasons, among them moving, I stopped doing crossfit. Instead, I began taking Pilates. No one objects to Pilates. This was good for me in a different way. Here’s why:

  • It improved my balance.
  • It gave me a freaking six pack.
  • It made me flexible.
  • It made me strong.

Every year, we lose the strength, flexibility, and confidence in our bodies that we had in our youth. I’m seeing this in my son. Once, he swore he’d never stop skateboarding. At 30, his knees won’t allow him to skateboard anymore. He’s thinking of getting a bike. For years, I could walk out of the house, and no matter what, I could run at least a mile. That stopped at fifty.

I hated running anyway, so this wasn’t a problem. Except that as we age, we grow weaker and weaker until we no longer trust our body. We fear falling because our balance isn’t good. We can’t carry our groceries. We get shorter and shorter as our spines compress. Everything hurts, and we haven’t done anything to deserve it, except grow old.

And that’s why I exercise. I want to continue to walk long distances. I want to be able to climb, jump, and clamber if not like a kid, then at least not be afraid of doing it. I want to be able to run up and down stairs, not cling to the handrail because I’m afraid of falling. I can never stop exercising, because at my age (61), as soon as I take a break, everything deteriorates. I’m in a battle with inertia, and eventually I’ll lose. But I plan to put up a helluva fight.

Here’s my list of bad reasons to exercise. Yes, I think there are bad reasons. Those are the ones that guarantee you won’t keep it up.

  1. Losing weight. I’ve been exercising, between pretty hard to moderate for two years. I haven’t lost a pound. If that were my motivation, I’d quit. Any sensible person would.
  2. New Year! If you put on a few pounds over the holidays, no doubt you will lose them as you go back to eating (and drinking) normally anyway. If this is your reason to start exercising, you’ll likely stop in three months. Setting an arbitrary date to change your life rarely works. Trust me. I’ve tried and tried. Today. That’s the first day of everything. In fact today is the only day.
  3. Bathing suit! I look terrible in a bathing suit. Sister, don’t do that to yourself. You look fantastic in anything you choose to wear. Don’t buy into marketing lies. Anyone who can’t see your beauty is ugly inside.

When I’m back in town after traveling, I plan to take up kettlebells again. I’ll keep doing Pilates, because there’s a marked difference in my ability to run and jump and stand on one leg from this.  But I miss being strong, strong enough to carry 50 pounds without thinking. Strong enough to kayak for more than an hour without my arms giving out. Strong enough to move furniture and beat my son at arm wrestling.  Because I want to be able to keep doing those things. And that’s a good reason to exercise.

Nanowrimo and Me

Nanowrimo is like the fun run of writing. The goal is to write 50,000 words, a novel draft if possible, between November 1 and November 30. What you “win” is the ability to say, “Yay, I won!” and you get a sticker to put on your Facebook page. This year, I decided to give it a try.


There were several reasons for this. One was because I had just finished a first draft (more honestly, three quarters of a novel draft) that was in my first reader’s hands. The other, and more important, reason was that since I am no longer working, my goal was to be a full-time writer. I had been writing about three hours a day, but I was dissatisfied, and was looking for a way to motivate myself to do better. Nanowrimo seemed worth a try. At the same time, I also signed up for a writing workshop about which I’ll post more later. So I had my writing ducks in a row. Take the workshop, succeed at my Nanowrimo goals.

The nanowrimo experience is interesting. There’s a lot of cheering you on, meetings set up to write with other participants, the ability to have writing buddies, and similar ways to motivate yourself to keep writing. None of which I need. I’m a self-motivated individual as it is, so I found the cheering and constant stream of encouraging emails more of an annoyance than an encouragement. But this is me. Nanowrimo exists because it helps people, and if it didn’t help me in that way, that doesn’t matter. It does a lot of good for other people.

What it did accomplish for me was giving me the goal of getting a first draft done in a month. My intent was a first draft of 90,000 words, but any complete first draft would do. And in that it worked perfectly. I modified my activity so that I wrote every day, seven days a week. In the mornings, I walked two miles to a coffee shop chosen specifically because it was two miles away. So writing plus exercise, a win/win! I now call that coffee shop my office, which I rent for the price of a latte a day.

The habit I set myself was to spend ten or fifteen minutes writing longhand setting the goals for the next scene. Longhand matters, because it changes how I think, and lets me be more free-flowing. After that was done, I wrote. Generally between four and five hours, until I completed that scene. Then I would walk home, have lunch, and then spend the next three hours writing until I had another scene done, or close to done.

The results: I achieved my goal of turning into a full time writer. I continue to spend mornings (except for Wednesday, which is my errand day) working at the coffee shop, then coming home to write after lunch. During Nanowrimo, I wrote between 3,500 – 4,500 words a day. One day I wrote over 5,000 words. That was exhausting. I had to go take a lie down, and I’m not even joking.

So I achieved both my goals. A first draft in a month (a 60,000 word first novel draft was completed November 23), and developing the habit of truly writing full time. While I think it unlikely I will participate again, for both of these things I am truly grateful. And to all my fellow particpants, you rock. No matter whether you hit 50,000 words or not, whatever you wrote is more than had before.

The Wonderful Microbial Cruise Ship World

I have just returned, mostly unscathed, from a two week trip that consisted of a week of land travel and a week of cruise ship travel. I’ve never been on a cruise ship before.  What struck me most (other than the constant pitches to buy tanzanite) was the barrage of information about norovirus and the hectoring to constantly wash one’s hands.

I had no idea that cruise ships were gestation grounds for illness, but apparently they are.  The thing that they mostly talk about is norovirus. A pesky virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea and is more commonly known as “food poisoning.”

https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/530380355019104256/gxBOGdKA.jpegHundreds of people come down with this ailment on cruise ships every year. Indeed, rumor has it that 50 people on this cruise were quarantined due to noro. It can spread rapidly and will certainly put a damper on one’s enjoyment.

What’s less talked about is the fact that if you’re going to get sick on a cruise ship, what you’ll most likely get is a respiratory illness, primarily influenza. Or maybe Legionnaire’s disease, or maybe some unspecified bronchitis, or perhaps (like a family member traveling with me) you’ll get pertussis, aka whooping cough.

Take me, for instance. Two days before the end of the cruise, I woke up with a cough and aching joints. When I checked in with the medical staff, their tests diagnosed “unspecified flu” which means that it was a type of flu that my flu shot couldn’t protect me from. I wasn’t the only person I knew who came down with flu. A women I’d become acquainted with also got flu, but a different variety from mine.

So likely we were infected by two different sufferers, and probably at meal time at the forced shared tables. We were both grateful for tamiflu, which as far as I’m concerned is a miracle drug. Two days “isolation” and I was fine.  My brother-in-law, however, was less than fine. He acquired a severe case of pertussis. My sister, a mild case of norovirus. So out of a traveling group of four, three of us acquired unrelated illnesses on the cruise ship.

There was a lot to enjoy about the cruise. But I won’t go on a panamax ship again, and one of the reasons is the wonderful Petri dish a cruise ship is for diseases. Lots of people, recycling air, warm and cozy environment.  What more could a bacteria or virus want?

Go, by all means and have a great time.  But be sure you wash those hands every chance you get (for at least 20 seconds) and you might want to bring your own personalized face mask.





To Die Historic on the Fury Road


Like much of the dialog in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” just give Nux’s famous quotable line, “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the fury road” a little twist, and it’s the beginning of a epic poem about the 300 at Thermopylae. Surely those few Spartan soldiers were thinking thoughts similar to Nux.

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