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Second Life and the Future of Virtual Worlds

Since the recent massive layoffs at Linden Lab, many people have asked me for my opinion on Second Life’s future. Is the platform in immediate danger? What is the long-term outlook? What alternatives to Second Life exist? What is the future of virtual worlds?

I won’t claim to be an expert on any of this. My decision to invest tens of thousands of real-life dollars on virtual islands hardly makes me qualified to give smart investment advice. However, since a lot is at stake for me here, I have spent nearly all day, every day, since this news reading everything I can and seeking opinions from people far more knowledgeable than myself. I’ve explored other virtual worlds, with an eye towards if, or how, they can replace Second Life, particularly as a venue for live entertainment. And while my experiences were fairly brief and hardly definitive, I’d like to share them with the community, to get your feedback and thoughts. Those of you more experienced with these other platforms, please chime in and let me know if any of my facts are incorrect.

Before I go into specifics, let’s look at what makes Second Life such a unique and powerful way of connecting to other people. Mitch Wagner, in his excellent commentary on the recent layoffs, says SL has the following qualities that are not found or not common in other forms of social networking:

– A rich, 3D graphical environment.

– The ability to have a shared, realtime experience involving more than a half-dozen people.

– The ability to meet new people serendipitously.

I agree with all of these, but feel that they need more detail to better express why SL is truly unique. Here is my revised list, with a couple of additions:

-A rich, 3D graphical environment that is user-created, interactive, and endlessly customizable. Many popular games feature 3D graphics, but none are as user-controlled as Second Life. The ability to create environments from one’s imagination gives SL infinite potential and opportunities for architects and artists to express their creativity.

– The ability to construct one’s identity completely independently of one’s real-world name, age, race, cultural background, physical ability, etc. I’m not so much talking about anonymity/pseudonymity, I think that’s overrated, but the ability to look, dress, and act the way we feel INSIDE, without the limitations of our physical bodies. The role-playing games within SL also allow people to “try on” different identities, like actors in a play, or to express aspects of a self, such as identification with an animal, fictional character, or lifestyle/sub-culture. The customizable avatar is available to, and embraced by, every user in Second Life, including those who do not or cannot create content themselves.

– The ability to have, and create, a shared real-time experience involving a larger group of people. This is not a feature unique to SL at all – many text based chats and web conference applications provide this – but they do not provide a sense of being physically present with others, due to a lack of avatars. Since avatars are a powerful form of self-expression, we can learn a lot about a person without even speaking to them, just by studying their avatar.

– The ability to meet people one would be unlikely to meet otherwise, due to geography or differences in culture, values, socioeconomic background, age, career path, and similar factors. Although imperfect, SL provides many ways to connect and find people with similar interests, including groups, the world-map and mini-map, event listings, and a relatively effective search function.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of SL’s best qualities, but it’s a good start. Let’s now examine some of SL’s biggest problems, so we can see how other virtual worlds stack up.

-Poor customer service and relations. It’s rare to see customers of a popular product expressing such vitriol towards its creators. Internet forums always have a few chronic complainers and tinfoil-hat-wearing crazies, but when the average user holds an extremely low opinion of a company, there is a problem. Linden Lab’s relationship with its customers has been badly damaged by sudden price increases on popular services, arbitrary policy changes, and technical difficulties that go unaddressed. There is a perception that management does not care about its customers – including and especially those who operate businesses on the SL platform.

-High system requirements. While realism is an important aspect of virtual worlds, the current popularity of mobile devices and low-end laptops render SL inaccessible to many people. The promised browser-based SL app is at least a year away from being possible, according to my technically-savvy contacts, but a 2.5D or simple 3D “light” viewer would be faster to develop and release, and make SL usable on low-end machines. This would in no way replace the standard viewer, but serve as another option that would increase the potential userbase.

-Problematic new user experience. For years, the public welcome areas for new users have been plagued by griefers and spammers. These problems could be minimized by setting up a network of volunteers with the ability to page Linden Lab staff for immediate assistance, but instead, Linden Lab eliminated its official mentor program. SL has a high learning curve, and while there are UI changes that would make it simpler, Viewer 2 missed most of them and actually made some basic functions more difficult, such as managing multiple IM conversations, and giving an item to another avatar. Meanwhile, the user-created Emerald viewer has greatly surpassed Viewer 2 in number of users, and adds new and helpful features with each release.

In evaluating each of these virtual worlds, I’ve tried to consider all of the above factors. I’ve done my best to be objective; aside from SL, I have not invested any money in any of them, and approached each one with an open-minded attitude. I remain open to learning more about them all, and welcome fact checking and alternate viewpoints.



InWorldz is in many ways the most promising virtual world out of all those I visited. It is OpenSim based, so its interface and operation are identical to SL. That might bias me in its favor, but it also makes for an easy transition for everyone in the event that SL falls apart. People will naturally gravitate towards the familiar, and InWorldz is well placed to capture that market of disaffected SL users who have virtual lives to re-establish and content to sell. Unlike most fledgling grids, it already has a working currency that can be exchanged for USD – businesses can move in now and start making money.

Bugs and crashes are more common than in SL, but it runs well considering the small size and newness of the grid. Sim rentals are a steal at $75/month for a 30,000 prim sim! The owners and management are friendly and clearly committed to listening to users’ needs and concerns. If they have the business savvy, technical skills, and funding to fully develop this grid, it could be a worthy competitor or replacement for SL. If you are a SL user with a little extra time or cash to invest in a worthwhile project, I recommend joining InWorldz.

Heritage Key

Heritage Key is a small OpenSim-based grid owned by Rezzable LLC – creator of Greenies and various other well known SL projects. Heritage Key has an educational focus and features stunning historically-based builds such as the tomb of King Tut, and interactive exhibits. They host a weekly lecture series and live music events a few times per week. All content on HK is created by Rezzable; there are no homes to rent and limited avatar customization items available. It is not aiming to be a SL replacement, but rather an alternate use of the technology. So don’t go there looking for a home or a life, but the events are top-notch and worth attending, and the builds fun to explore.

Blue Mars

This much-hyped new virtual world has a lot going for it, but some problems as well. It is visually beautiful and the basic avatars are more sophisticated than SL. There is a working currency system, and great potential for live events, as the cities can hold far more avatars than a SL sim. They are also larger than a sim, making large-scale builds more cohesive and cost-effective to operate.

Cities are downloaded before visiting them, which does mean that you have to spend time staring at a download screen – however, the process was fast over my cable connection. After it is downloaded, the city is ready to explore, with no lag or blurry objects that haven’t rezzed yet. The world uses meshes instead of prims and sculpties, making for a far superior visual experience. User-created content is encouraged – you have to sign up for a free developer account, but it’s open to anyone and IMO that process will reduce content theft and griefing.

The viewer is simple to use, but also very limited. There’s no search function, events directory, or map to see if there are others near you. I found it difficult to locate others to talk to, and the cities felt big and empty. Avatar customization is very limited so far – there’s no way to be a furry, dragon, or robot. Although I’m generally human, I love the freedom that SL offers, to be anything for an hour, a day, or a year. If Blue Mars can’t provide that opportunity, they will not attract the many dissatisfied SL users who might otherwise flood in.

I have a pretty good graphics card, but I crash and freeze often in BM unless I log in right after a fresh computer reboot. The system requirements are higher than SL’s, which will greatly limit adoption of the platform. Oh, and the lack of a Mac viewer is epic, epic fail. That said, the minds behind Blue Mars development seem to be superior to those at Linden Lab – start developing a browser-based or light viewer, BM, and beat them to the punch!

I don’t know much about Avatar Reality, the company that owns BM, but from the little I have seen, they are friendlier and more responsive to customers than Linden Lab. For that reason, more than any other, I believe that Blue Mars has potential. Right now, they don’t have a lot of what they need to become a mainstream virtual world, but if they look at the market trends and take a quick shift in direction, they could find themselves in a position to dominate the market and take us beyond OpenSim-based worlds into the future. I’ll certainly be checking in there regularly to see how things evolve.


Twinity feels like a cross between Blue Mars and The Sims. It’s visually superior to SL, but runs better on my computer than Blue Mars. The avatars remind me of The Sims 2 and 3, and are fairly realistic but have limited customization options, comparable to Blue Mars. They have a working currency, and you can shop for new content from your inventory window.

The concept behind Twinity seems to be to replicate real-world cities and locations. Their promotional material does not emphasize creativity or fantasy, and indeed, what exists there so far is rather bland. The potential is there, but the proper marketing is not. The viewer is simple to use, but fairly limited and lacks the options of the SL viewer. It has a working search and it’s easy to find places to go.

I noted that Anshe Chung has a presence in Twinity. An event at one of her sims was advertised via a small pop-up at the bottom of the viewer. While I’m no fan of Anshe’s, I liked that Twinity promoted the event to users. It made it easy to find people to talk to and something to do. I wish Linden Lab would do something like this – although every club owner with a crappy “Best in Blue” event would howl and cry, if they chose quality events like live music, plays and gallery openings to pop up in the viewer, it would do a lot for new user retention.

Overall, I’d say that Twinity has a lot of potential, but it is mostly wasted thus far. I simply did not find it a compelling experience. That could change, but for now, I won’t be investing much time or energy in Twinity.


This virtual world of sorts is the only one that rivals SL in number of users. Although it has the reputation of being teen-oriented and cartoonish, there are avatars that are more realistic. The options for avatar customization are nearly as extensive as SL, and the in-world shopping catalog is very easy to use. I love that you can try all items on before you buy them. The currency can be purchased at major retailers such as Best Buy, something SL *really* needs to offer to expand their market and make L$ easier to buy for people without credit cards.

The interface is simple, and movement options are limited, but you can sit, dance, and cuddle, with lots of custom animations available. I think IMVU would run well on lower-powered computers that can’t handle SL, and it would be easier for less computer-savvy people to learn.

Overall, I really liked IMVU, except for one enormous, deal-breaking problem: rooms are limited to 10 avatars. This makes it completely useless for conferences, live music, or any other sort of large group gathering. I was so incredibly disappointed when I found out. If anyone knows of a way around this, please let me know


I remember visiting ActiveWorlds back around 1997 and being fascinated. I even got an idea for a novel from it, which sadly I never got around to writing. It didn’t run well on my computer, but ever since then, I dreamed of virtual worlds and all that they could make possible for me and many others. So naturally, when I found out that it still existed, I had to check it out.

AW has had upgrades since then, and the 3D graphics are pretty good. It is a user-created world, and from what I can tell, the building tools are more sophisticated, but not very user friendly. The avatars are awful – the free avatar for unpaid users looks like a bad SL sculpty mannequin. Paid avatars are slightly better, but limited. The viewer is not user friendly, however it has a very comprehensive help section that is easy to consult while exploring.

AW has no economy or money system. I am not sure if there is a way to set a music stream, or how many avatars can be in a sim. Overall, it feels dated, but it might be a good base on which some great coders could build something better. It is definitely not a SL replacement or alternative.


In summary, I am sorry to say that there is no perfect SL alternative. If SL were to go under tomorrow, my worst fears would probably come true – we’d all be scattered to the winds, some giving up, others trying desperately to replace something that can’t be replaced. You see, it is not the money I worry about losing should SL fail, it is the people. Friends, friends who are like family, brilliant businesspeople, talented musicians, creative minds making beautiful places spring from their imaginations. We cannot lose all of this. We must not lose all of this.

We must find a way. For now, OpenSim is it. Back up your content. Copybot your sim if you have to – NOT for profit, not to hurt anyone else, but to hold on to what you’ve made, and what you’ve paid real money for. Choose a virtual world, or two or three, and spend a little time in them. Choose one that cares about its customers, and tell them that’s why you chose them. Bring your friends along, too. SL may crash and burn, or it may pull through this and thrive. Either way, there will be changes. Let’s try to get through them as a community. Someday, everyone will be in virtual worlds. We are the pioneers, and that’s never an easy road – but the avatars of the future will thank us.

Good Enough: “Glee”, Susan Boyle, and the Voice Inside

“Oh you’re good enough. You’re very good. But what would we do with your wheelchair? It would be in the way.” Fifteen years later, those words still haunt me. Never underestimate the power, the influence a teacher can have on a child. In some ways, he broke my spirit that day.

I learned too many terrible lessons, too fast. It doesn’t matter how good you are. It only matters what they see. And even if you do manage to extract some measure of justice, the words will still be there, whispering, creeping up on you even after the high note echoes and the crowd cheers. Give up this path, for it will only lead to pain, and choose another.

Who would I have become, were it not for those words? Would I have simply heard them from someone else, or learned their truth the hard way? So many have been chewed up and spit out by the machines of New York, Los Angeles, and for far less than using a wheelchair. Would I have overcome the odds, and be blogging now from my mansion with a Tony or Oscar resting on my shelf? Not likely, but on that day I stopped believing that it is truly possible for people to succeed or fail on their own merits, if they don’t look the way society demands that they look. I took that part of myself and locked it away, hoping I could forget. The world is what it is, and I have other interests, other talents. Over the next few years, I sang less and less. I chose another path, and I tried not to look back.

I’ll never forget when a friend sent me a link to Susan Boyle’s debut on Britain’s Got Talent. Halfway through, I was in tears. There she was, middle-aged, overweight, perhaps not the brightest bulb in the lampshade, but it didn’t matter. She has the voice of an angel, and a soul to match it. If she could be heard, have her chance at long last, perhaps there was hope for the rest of us.

That was the first day that I let the little voice out to play. There wasn’t much left at first, not many years and 40 pounds and a pretty bad case of scoliosis later. Still, it was mine and mine alone. With it came so much more – memories, dreams long lost, emotions long hidden. I began to truly listen to music again, to let it take me to the places I didn’t want to go, but needed to go.

Then I heard about Glee. All of my friends with disabilities were blogging about it, some praising it, some complaining about various aspects of the show – but all that politics and hair-splitting became background noise as I discovered the premise of the show: an awkward teenager in a choir, singing his heart out from a wheelchair. It took me a few weeks to bring myself to watch, afraid it couldn’t possibly be all that I could wish for. It was more.

I am not the sort of person whose life is often reflected in TV or movies. Hollywood (and Broadway) tend to reduce people like me to objects of pity or maudlin inspiration. They trot out the old miracle cure story line, the scarred and deformed villain, the brave and innocent soul trapped in the broken body, or some other tired stereotype. Rarely can a show manage to be something more. Glee is not perfect, to be sure – yet in so many ways, it is real. Artie is a regular kid, with normal teenage problems, who also happens to have a disability. The other students’ indifferent reaction when he is discriminated against by the school, the wake-up call of spending a few hours or days in a wheelchair – I have seen these things with my own eyes more times than I can count.

Then there was the defining moment, when the teacher has to make a choice between what is easy and what is right. Are the Arties of this world worth fighting for? Do we have unique talents and gifts to share? Can a wheelchair become a beautiful part of the music and the rhythm and the story, instead of an inconvenience and an eyesore? In front of millions of people, Glee set right what was once done wrong to a teenage girl in a small Indiana town. I took that moment and cradled it against my heart, letting it heal my wounds as it taught a new generation a new message. Ability is what matters, not disability.

The little voice is growing now. It may never be all that it could have been, but no one can take it from me again. Whatever path I choose now, I choose freely, without regrets.

Musician of the Week: Tamra Hayden

I’m starting a new feature on my blog. Each week, I’ll be spotlighting a musician whose songs hold meaning for me, usually an independent or lesser known artist who needs to be heard by more people. This week: Tamra Hayden.

In Second Life, she’s Tamra Sands, a popular live musician who sings at ballrooms, concert halls, and charity events throughout the virtual world. In Real Life, she is Tamra Hayden, star of such musicals as Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Cabaret. She is also a singer/songwriter and independent musician who has just released her second album, I Believe In The Fire.

Tamra is incredibly versatile as a performer; from showtunes, to haunting self-penned folk melodies, to rock with collaborators such as the band Angus Mohr, she can sing it all – and often does so in the same set! (at least in Second Life). No matter what she is singing, she brings warmth, honesty, and true emotion.

I was in Second Life for more than two years before I discovered the live music scene. I was busy running Solace Beach and had no idea of the level or extent of musical talent present in SL. When we decided to start including live music in our events, I began to read various SL blogs looking for performers, and found an article about Tamra. I have always loved musical theater, and the Phantom of the Opera holds a particular place in my heart, so I knew I needed to attend one of her shows as soon as possible.

I will never forget the first time I heard her sing, at a memorial concert on 9/11. I didn’t lose anyone I knew on that terrible day, but it always makes me think of my mother, who grew up near New York City. She would have been devastated to see what happened to the city she loved so much. I felt it was important to go to a memorial, and I’d just heard that a former Christine from Phantom was a singer in Second Life and that she would be there. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but by the second song, I was in tears, touched by the beautiful voice traveling through the wires, the beautiful person who was crying herself as she sang of love and loss and hope. Then she sang “Song for an Accident” and memories came flooding back to me. I wished I could send it back in time to my younger self, who so badly needed to hear those words of acceptance and love.

Since then, I’ve attended many of Tamra’s shows in SL, and been lucky enough to have her play at Solace Beach on a few occasions, too. In addition to her solo shows, she dual streams with violinist Xander Nichting and piano player Zachh Cale, two outstanding musicians. She has two albums available, A Day At the Fair and the brand new I Believe In The Fire, which you can listen to excerpts from here. (Sadly the music player widget and WordPress don’t seem to get along, so I can’t embed it on this page).

Do yourself a favor and buy Tamra’s albums, and catch one (or a few!) of her live shows in SL. You won’t regret it!

Avatar vs. RL

In case anyone cares, that’s me hehe. Hmm, I look more like my avatar than I thought! My hair is much longer now than in that RL pic, too.

Anonymity and Second Life

Second Life. Even the name conjures up the idea of anonymity. A place where you can start over, be someone else,
truly live a life that is completely different from your own. You can be a vampire, a dragon, or an elf. You can also be a different gender, a different race, a different weight. You can be a dancer, when in real life you can’t walk. If you can imagine it, you can be it.

SL is different from other online communities, and it has evolved to have its own unique culture, with many sub-cultures within that. Whether some or all of these are healthy could (and no doubt will be) the topic for a dozen blog posts, but in this one, I want to focus on the subculture of anonymity. There are many SL users who insist upon, are even obsessed with being anonymous. They say “what happens in SL stays in SL” and won’t tell even their friends their real name or location. They refuse to use voice, and they attack anyone who likes it whenever the topic is brought up on forums. They have entire relationships in which neither partner knows the other’s real life name or even gender.

My experiences with these sorts of people have been mixed. Certainly, the intelligent ones who have carefully thought out their decision can be fine to interact with on a professional level. They may be anonymous, but they still treat others with respect. However, most of the conflicts I have dealt with personally and as a SL business owner have involved at least one “anonymous” person. Many SL relationships fail because one partner finds out that the other was hiding his/her real gender, age, or marital status. Friendships and business connections are damaged because a person won’t use voice. People who have chosen anonymity may want to be more honest, but fear that they’ll be rejected or judged if the truth came out.

I won’t pretend to have never faced these issues myself. In real life, I am disabled and use a wheelchair, but my avatar does not. I have many reasons for this, which I’ll go into in another post, but none of them are because I don’t want the people I care about to know the truth. Am I still being dishonest? Is it different from having an avatar that is 10 years younger or 20 pounds thinner? What does it mean that I worry sometimes how new SL friends will react when they find out, even though I say I’m not trying to hide anything?

While keeping all those questions in mind, I think it is fair to say that the culture of anonymity in SL has often been taken to negative extremes. While the loud anti-RL, anti-voice folks may consider themselves innocent of blame, I do believe that they help to feed the more abusive element, those who believe SL gives them a license to treat others with disrespect. Never before SL, and never since, have I encountered so many rude, hostile, and disturbed individuals, who have no regard for their fellow human beings. I’m not talking about griefer kiddies, but residents who seemed nice at first and then showed their true colors when they didn’t get what they wanted.

I’ve been a part of online communities since 1995. They’ve ranged from musical theatre to women’s rights to politics to virtual worlds, and all of them had their own controversies and dramas. I’ve never been shy about my opinions, so naturally I’ve pissed off a few people over the years. I’ve received a few rude e-mails, been flamed more than a few times in discussion forums, and written the occasional flame of my own. I never felt the need to hide my real name or the city I lived in. I never felt seriously harassed or threatened…until Second Life. About eight months ago, an angry former tenant got my address and satellite images of my home, and posted them on a SL message board along with threatening remarks.

Why did this happen to me now, after 14 years of basically uneventful online social networking? I believe that the anonymity of SL’s design and prevailing culture leads people to think they can get away with actions of this nature. I used to run e-mail lists and forums with hundreds, even thousands of members. Maybe twice a year, I’d have to deal with someone stalking another member. In SL, I get tenants approaching me for help a few times a month. People don’t use their real names in SL, and there is no easy way to find out who they are and hold them accountable for their behavior.

This is one of many reasons why I would like to see Second Life tied more directly to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Adding expanded social networking tools to SL would help to change the culture of anonymity, in favor of one of openness and honesty. With profile tabs for things like professional/business information, roleplay character bios, etc., residents could define various aspects of their identity in a more meaningful way. Trust can be established more easily when real information is shared, and it will change how social groups and networks form. For example, I might be more likely to hire someone to work for my company whose real-life profile fields are detailed. (This is already true…and all my estate managers use voice, it’s a job requirement). On the other hand, a roleplay group would care more about whether someone’s character(s) were well developed.

When I was threatened on the message board, it frightened me, to the point where I considered calling the police. My first instinct was to consider being more closed-off, more careful who I gave my personal information to, but I realized that if I were to hide my identity, I’d miss out on real friendships and business opportunities. He would have won, and I wasn’t about to let that happen. In fact, since then, I’ve done the opposite of hiding – I’ve tied my SL name to my real name in several places, including this blog. I realized that being open and honest puts ME in the power position. It establishes me as a professional, someone who takes this platform seriously and expects others to behave in a mature manner. Exposing or threatening to expose my identity has no effect on me, because I’m already open about it. Instead, the spotlight is turned back on the other person, the anonymous one making the threats. The question becomes, what do THEY have to hide?

I am not suggesting that everyone should put their home address and phone number into their SL profile – I certainly haven’t! I understand that some people are in SL to explore aspects of themselves that they can’t talk to anyone about in RL. I certainly don’t expect anyone to create an avatar that looks exactly like their real self. Where would be the fun in that, the creativity, the freedom? For some of us, SL allows us to be more “ourselves” than we can be in real life – whether it be due to family, finances, a disability, age, or some other reason. However, that doesn’t make it acceptable to use the platform’s endless possibilities to deceive others, especially when feelings are at stake or when professional behavior is required.

Most people on SL enjoy being different from their real-life selves. It’s fun to put on a fabulous gown, or fly, or explore outer space. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be yourself, your personality, your soul. The sooner people realize it is possible to be a virtual person, and a real person, and have them be one and the same, the better a place the grid will be.

A very interesting article: Using Virtual Worlds for Community Therapy

I have 2L$ to toss in on this, as someone who is trained as a therapist (though I don’t practice at this time), and who is disabled in RL.

I am mixed on the idea of therapy in SL. The internet sometimes allows people to be more open and honest about their emotions. There is less fear of rejection and judgment. I can personally recall several occasions where I told an online friend something that no one in RL knew – for example, the first person I came out to as a lesbian was an online friend. I have also helped a few friends who were suicidal, and no one in RL knew how depressed they were.

On the other hand, there are serious limitations to online therapy. You can’t see the person’s facial expressions or reactions. Voice helps, but is still not as good as in person conversation. It is also more difficult to see the person’s life in the context of their family and community – both of which are important for coping and healing.

I believe that support groups are an excellent use of SL/the internet – particularly for people with rare conditions and/or those who cannot connect in RL due to physical limitations. However, online therapy of any kind is not a substitute for RL counseling, especially for people with serious and/or complex mental health needs.

As for how SL as an experience can be therapeutic: the Internet and virtual worlds have opened up new opportunities for people with disabilities in terms of constructing our bodies and identities. We are not limited by what real life has given us. Some people may like having an avatar that is 20 pounds thinner than their real-life self – I enjoy running, dancing, and simply doing the exact same things every other avatar can do without thinking about it. I am not trying to hide that I have a disability (though others may and do make that choice) but rather to experience the world in a new way. Sometimes when I jump or dance in SL, I actually feel it in my RL body – it gives me at least a idea of how it must feel to do those things. Not everyone can feel that immersed in SL, but for whatever reason, I can, and it makes the experience so much more powerful for me.

SL needs a Credit Bureau

I have an empty Homestead sim to fill. *sigh* seems like lately it’s one step forward, two steps back. I’m going to try to rent this one out as a whole, though that’s always risky. I’ve had so many occasions when a person rents a very large amount of land from me, is a great tenant for months, then suddenly stops paying or disappears. Since they’ve been a good long term tenant, I give them extra time beyond my customary two days, offer to try to help them work things out, etc. They never come through and I ultimately have to evict them. Now I’m out a bunch of money, with no way of getting it back, PLUS I have to spend hours re-cutting the land and putting it back up for rent. With how things are going right now, it takes weeks to fill up again.

Of course I’ve heard of the opposite situation happening too – a tenant pays, the estate goes belly up, and the tenant is screwed. But either way…SL needs some way to offer secure/guaranteed payments or a way of alerting the public that someone is a poor risk as a tenant or as a landlord. For example, an approved merchants and customers program, and then we can rate each other and it’s listed in our profile. Disputed ratings could be resolved by volunteer arbitrators.

I know, LL can’t even handle stopping content theft, let alone fraud…but there must be some way of protecting oneself and creating a system where bad business dealings have consequences. And good business dealings should lead to a positive record, as well!

Found this little piece buried in a file

This conversation took place several years ago, but it’s still as true today.


A very wise friend once told me that when people look at me, they see a single rose in a glass vase. Although the rose is beautiful to them, they’re afraid to touch it, let alone pick it up, for fear that the vase will accidentally slip through their fingers and shatter.

I thought about this for a long time, then replied to her that yes, the glass breaks easily, but the flower can be stepped on and deprived of water and left alone on the windowsill for far too long and yet it will still bloom. And if you don’t take a chance and pick it up, you’ll never see that it’s a damn strong and beautiful flower. It will not wilt with or without you, but it will thrive and grow in your hands.

Notes on Beauty

I wrote this in 2002, but this is the first time I’ve published it anywhere.


Notes On Beauty

I’ve just finished reading For the Time Being by Annie Dillard, a series of short, interconnected essays exploring spirituality through the everyday, the extraordinary, and the horrific. I managed to read it despite being immersed in an intensive quarter of graduate courses, because someone I know told me that it contained an essay about children with birth defects. I am drawn to such writings even though I should know better; inevitably, they anger me with their ignorance and prejudice, yet I still seek them out.
Dillard’s writing does not make me angry. Much of what she says resonates strongly within me – her spiritual eclecticism, her ability to see the divine in the mundane, her writer’s eye for that perfect, evocative detail. Still, she is a product of our society, and remarkably unaware of the blinders she wears – blinders that prevent her from seeing much that is beautiful in the world.

Dillard describes a number of genetic defects in For the Time Being, but there are two she focuses on, so-called “bird-headed dwarfs” and children who are born with extremely short legs. Why would a loving, all-powerful God allow these terrible defects to occur? she asks. Yet that question is based on an assumption – that these defects are terrible at all.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve known people with twisted limbs and brilliant minds, who drooled when they spoke but whose words could make you laugh or cry or do both at the same time. At first, I divided their identities that way, disabled but intelligent, “ugly” but talented. I did the same thing to myself. Yet the better I got to know them, the more I realized that they were beautiful, inside and out. I have seen bodies twisted into shapes as elegant as any Rodin sculpture, hands that create eloquent music for ears that cannot hear, birthmarks like watercolor paintings on skin. If God did make these things, I am sure S/He meant for them to be beautiful – it is we, in our terrified mortality, who do not see it.

When I was at Stanford, there was a woman working in the Disability Services office who had an unusual condition. The skin on her body was constantly peeling. Thick, yellow crusts of skin covered her hands, dangling from her long white nails, and everywhere she went, she left flakes of skin behind. She smelled of death, stale skin that was supposed to be pink with life but instead clung to her body and stiffened her like a corpse – but she was very much alive, a brilliant lawyer and activist.

I could not look at her for too long, this woman with the peeling skin, and although I knew her for four years, I never shook her hand. I can look at photographs of bird-headed dwarfs and be amazed by humanity in miniature, I can hug my friend whose bones are slowly fusing together and appreciate the uniqueness of her body’s shape. Why could I never see this woman’s beauty? I know now that it is there, in the way the flakes fall around her like snow, in the cracked patterns of yellow skin on her bare back as she lies crying with her peeling face buried in a pillow, as I am sure she sometimes does. I hope that when she does, there is someone beside her who sees the beauty in those cracked patterns.


I am sitting at the kitchen table with my two best friends. We’re all somewhat drunk. They are telling me about their friend, whose girlfriend has Borderline Personality Disorder. The other night, his car stalled a few blocks from her house, and he couldn’t get it started again. Furious, his girlfriend stormed out of the car and ran home in the pouring rain. He tried again and again to start the car, to no avail, and finally, in desperation, ran to her apartment and rang the buzzer. He called again and again, but she hung up on him every time. He begged her to take him home or let him in to call a cab, but she screamed at him and called him worthless. She left him there in the pouring rain. He still loves her.

My friends call her a bitch, psycho, cruel. I am trying to find something beautiful about her, as I can with the bird-headed dwarf, the drooling genius, the woman with peeling skin. I cannot. Her boyfriend can. It is his blessing and his curse.


Annie Dillard likes to write about bird-headed dwarfs. The name has a shock value that any writer would seize upon immediately and use to maximum effect, as she has. What a terrible thing it is that one gene can go awry and create such a being, a creature so bizarre and disturbing that it is called a bird-headed dwarf. But the bird-headed dwarfs have it easier than the children with shortened legs and average intelligence, she claims, because they are mentally retarded and don’t fully understand their condition. She is arrogant in her ignorance, and I bet she has never met a bird-headed dwarf.

I have never met a bird-headed dwarf either, but I have met people with Down Syndrome and other mental disabilities. They know that they are different, and they know that people treat them unfairly because of it. But all too often, they have no way to defend themselves, because they cannot speak or because no one wants to listen to someone who is retarded. They are stereotyped as eternally happy, their attempts to communicate are dismissed as cute meaningless babbling, and they are treated like babies long after they grow into adulthood. “[They are] friendly and pleasant,” the birth defects guidebook says of bird-headed dwarfs’ personalities. Bullshit.

By the way, the condition that “bird-headed dwarfs” have is called Seckel’s Syndrome, or primordial dwarfism. It’s a far less fear-inducing description, and I’m enough of a cynic to realize that Dillard knew this and therefore chose to use the more dramatic “bird-headed dwarf,” as did the sideshow exhibitors of generations past. They do not have the head of a bird and the body of a human, as the term leads one to imagine, and they are not all mentally retarded. They’re simply very tiny people with somewhat large noses. As a friend said, and I had to laugh, “They just look really Jewish.” What a horrible thing it is that because of one gene gone awry, we call people “bird-headed dwarfs” and treat them as subhuman.


I have been looking at “pro-anorexia” websites this afternoon, because a friend posted the link on a discussion board we run. On these disturbing sites, teenage girls (and a few boys) claim that anorexia is a valid lifestyle choice, trade pictures of emaciated models they idolize and discuss how to eat almost nothing while hiding their disorder from parents and friends. There is a façade of empowerment, but underneath the self-hatred runs deep. One girl wishes to be thinner and thinner until she becomes invisible.  Another writes, “i am not starving, i am perfecting my emptiness.”

I have never gone on a diet. I am probably one of very few American women who can say that, but it is by no means evidence of my healthy self-esteem. In high school, I hated my body too much to think it could ever be beautiful, no matter how much I weighed. I had thin, spindly arms and my ribs showed, but my lower body was curvy. I looked like two different people stuck together. Maybe I still do. My body was alien to me, a shell that doctors would poke and prod and physical therapists would stretch and straighten while my spirit screamed for them to just let me be. Finally, they did.

It has been five years since I last had physical therapy. My hip hurts the next day if I sleep in the wrong position, and my side aches sometimes, but it reminds me that I am alive, that this body is mine and not someone else’s to poke and prod or stretch and straighten. It is mine in all its crooked glory and mismatched parts, and I will not change it to fit the world’s idea of normality. I will not starve myself of a full life by spending thousands more hours trying to “fix” what was never broken. It has taken me five years to be able to say these words and believe them.

The anorexic girls believe that they are broken, and so they break themselves, brittle hair on hanging skin, bodies so frail it seems a touch could shatter them. The woman with Borderline Personality Disorder also breaks herself, trying to drive away the person she loves most because she doesn’t believe she deserves his love. They do not see that they are beautiful, and so they make themselves ugly.


I am looking at a photograph of a man who was known as “The Skeleton Boy.” He had a condition that impaired his digestive system’s ability to absorb nutrients, leaving him permanently emaciated. He could easily be mistaken for an anorexic, yet there is something that sets him apart from them. He stands upright, wearing only a pair of white shorts, staring defiantly into the camera with his head held high. He is not a man who wants to shrink into invisibility.

During his lifetime, which was probably early in the last century, he made a living by touring with the circus as a freak. He displayed his body to the gawking crowds, perhaps after a song and dance by “Koo Koo” the bird-headed dwarf, or while standing beside the “Alligator Skin Man,” whose skin peeled and fell in flakes. The banner hanging above the tent proclaimed them “Nature’s Mistakes,” and the audience hurriedly handed over their dimes, then gasped in amazement that such creatures could be alive, or whispered that perhaps it would have been better if they were not. Yet the freaks still stood proudly.

The days of the sideshow are long past now, and in some ways, the world is a better place. Disabled people have choices beyond the institution or the circus; an alligator-skinned woman can become a lawyer, and a bird-headed dwarf child can attend school with average-size children. But the guilt and fear those dime-paying patrons felt is still with us, in the operating rooms where Siamese twins are separated even if it will leave them both vegetables, in the physical therapy clinics where disabled children are forced to stumble along painfully instead of flying free in wheelchairs. Anything that is different must be fixed, no matter the cost, so that everyone else can forget that with one accident, one illness, one gene gone awry – it could happen to them, too. They need to forget, because they do not realize that they would still be beautiful.

Funny stuff from the archives: Car ad for Craigslist

I was looking through some old files and found this hilarious ad I wrote in an attempt to get rid of Kristi’s old car. Sadly, we failed to either sell the car or make Best of Craigslist, but I still think it’s funny.

1995 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera – a truly craptacular car

We won’t deny it, when Adam Sandler did that lovely song of his, “Piece of Shit Car”, he was singing about this vehicle. It is a real pile of crap. But despite this, we think someone might want it, and we’re sure our yuppie neighbors with their Beemers are sick of seeing it in the building garage. So this is your chance to own a stinky, leaky, moldy, ugly car that actually DOES run.

First let us tell you the things about this car that suck. It was originally purchased as a salvage title, which means it was totaled and should have been in the scrap yard, but some enterprising individual decided to “fix” it and sell it to whatever poor soul decided it was worth buying. In this case, that poor soul was my girlfriend, who could not afford anything else at the time. It is a 4-door vehicle, painted in a shade of gold that no self-respecting drag queen would be caught dead wearing. It has A/C and cruise control, but they don’t work, and neither do the anti-lock brakes, so you’ll be sweating, stinking, and pumping the brakes. You’ll also speed up the Oil Crash by a year or two because it leaks more oil than Dick Cheney at a Halliburton shareholders meeting. Now if you’re feeling disappointed, just wait, it gets worse. The windshield is cracked, and since it was parked outside during the winter rain, water leaked in. This means that we are including, at NO EXTRA charge, your very own supply of mold! Can you get high off of it? Develop a strange and rare disease? Or is it merely a stinky, green growth on the ceiling fabric that you can rip out leaving the car looking even more ghetto than it does already? We’ll leave that to you to decide.

So by now you are probably wondering, does this car have ANY redeeming qualities, or is she just trying to write a really funny ad to get some dumb sucker to buy the thing? Well, there are a few things on it that actually work. The car does run – in fact, my girlfriend used it to commute from Pomona to West LA for over a year, until she left her evil ex and moved in with me. The CD player also works, so at least you can blast the tunes while you limp your way around LA. If you wanted to give it to some teenager as a first car, it would probably be OK, although he/she might get beat up at school for driving such a geeky junker. There are definitely lots of good parts on it if you wanted it for that. Or you can buy it and try to write an even funnier ad and re-sell it for a profit. We don’t really care. We just want it the hell out of our garage before the Yuppie Police come for us.

To sum it up, if you’re looking for a nice car, you read the wrong ad. If, however, you are seeking a vehicle that is dramatically, uniquely craptacular, send me an e-mail and make us an offer we can’t refuse (which in this case, will be pretty much ANY offer.)