Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sinkholes and Wellsprings

Only three weeks are left (as far as anyone knows) in Steph's pregnancy, which means it is almost time for us to double our "fun" by adding Evey to the family Bahr and giving Allie the little sister she so sorely needs. This means that, with already-scant free time for Steph and I becoming even rarer and more precious, I have to reevaluate how we invest money and time with an eye toward maximizing the value of our time with each other and our "family time" with the girls. This is an integral part of our ongoing "decluttering" effort, and today's post focuses on evaluating "things" by cost and time investment and seeing how they compare.

First, it helps to set some parameters. I grew up as a classic nerd, so I spent a lot of teenage time playing Dungeons & Dragons. Pen-and-paper role-playing games are a perfect example of an indulgence for people who have plenty of time to waste and a severely limited money supply. Adult indulgences, like tropical vacations, thrill sports, and Vegas weekends, are the opposite, and are perfect for people who have plenty of money to waste and a severely limited time supply. As you might expect, "the truth" for most of us lies somewhere between those extremes. There are differences, however, in the time and money equations for those of us who are single, those of us who are "spoken for" but childless, and those of us with children. Today, I am sharing a look at our time-money value exercise. As you read, see if you agree with whether I have accurately forecast a sinkhole, or its opposite, a wellspring. In the comments, feel free to share your own time-money value analyses.

1. Video games
I enjoy video games tremendously. I grew up with video games, and video games grew up with me. I saved the Princess in castle 8-4; I recovered the Triforce; I outfought both M. Bison and Mike Tyson; I destroyed the Space Pirates; I built a Megalopolis; I defeated the Dragonlord. But these days, playing a "story" video game just isn't happening. The time simply isn't there. When we were robbed in August, in addition to taking our Xbox 360 and Wii, they took an entire shelf of video games I had never found time to complete: Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess; Super Mario Galaxy; Metroid Prime 3; Halo 3; Lego Star Wars Complete; and on and on. We did seem to get good use out of video games that are either "arcade-ish," party/group-oriented, or both. Accordingly, when it came time to rebuy with the insurance money, we chose only to replace the Xbox 360 (partly because it is a Netflix device) and to replace Rock Band 2 and the Xbox Live Arcade titles. As for the rest? Sinkholes.

2. Movies
Here's the thing: unless we go to the movie on our own (with friends, etc, and not with each other), we have to either "use up" a babysitting favor or take the baby with us. Those favors are as good as gold, so we don't like wasting them on a movie unless it's a really, really highly-anticipated flick. Taking the baby to the movie is pointless because you really won't get to watch the movie. You'll be stuck tending the kid. The only way to really enjoy movies once you're a parent is to bring them home. Spending money going to the movies, then, is a sinkhole.

3. Music
I love music and enjoy playing in bands, but the time commitment varies heavily, sometimes crossing the line of unfeasible. With the right band project, it's a wellspring, more than overcoming the cost of equipment and time. With the wrong one, "sinkhole" is an understatement. Unfortunately, it's hard to know which kind of project you're in until you've already invested a lot of time and work, so I think I'm going to be mostly avoiding these for a while.

4. Card games
Magic: the Gathering has been very good to me, serving as a source of income from time to time in addition to being the most fun tabletop game I have encountered. As such, I have been able to play at relatively low cost. The time investment has continued to bother me, however, and with the arrival of Evey, cards might be the latest casualty of the value equation. I already got out of the Star Wars CCG because of lack of time, despite enjoying the local player community. I have passed up chances to buy into other games heavily. Even now, I'm clearing out a Lord of the Rings TCG collection for a friend, and I look at the cards and think, "This seems like it might be really fun! I could buy out this collection and play!" But then I realize it's just a non-starter. I have nobody to play against. (Steph isn't into the TCG hobby.) As it is, I'm lucky to play Magic once a month. I miss playing Netrunner, the best "bluffing" CCG ever made, but it plays best as a sealed-deck game and it's too hard to get product anymore for it. Much as I hate to face the reality of it, card games are in fact becoming sinkholes. Once I finish selling off some collections I'm working on, this will become even more pronounced. I think some small investment in the game can be a wellspring, though, so I am seeking that balance. Something where I have decks built and ready to go, without having too much value sunk into them and thus "money clogging the closet."

5. Computer time
Obviously none of us are going to "quit the internet," least of all me. This will be something I keep my eye on, though. It's probably possible to scale back on sites one surfs and just spend less time overall on it. If were one of those who play World of Warcraft, I think it would be very clearly a sinkhole. I can't figure out what it is that keeps people addicted to that game now that they know it's just an item grind. I mean, isn't that kind of like work?

6. Books
Books are undeniably a wellspring. They don't cost much, and they can sit on a shelf for years and still be perfectly functional when you pull them down to read. I am enjoying a re-read of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series in anticipation of the 12th book, The Gathering Storm, that comes out October 27th. I hadn't read so much as a page of that series in four years, but it's working out fine now. While the reality of having Allie and Evey might reduce the total time and money Steph and I put into books, this is unlikely to be a long-term reduction.

7. Television
Television was once clearly a sinkhole for me. I had no interest in watching the networks' prime-time skits so they could sell advertising time, and if I really wanted to watch a sporting event, well, there's a reason they call 'em "sports bars." This value equation has been entirely flipped on its head. Television has now gone from sinkhole to wellspring for us, all because of the dynamics of taking care of children. A TV can function unattended, and a TV can entertain anyone in the family. Allie loves to watch The Wiggles and Baby Einstein either on DVDs or through the Xbox 360 Netflix instant queue. Steph and I can finally pick and choose interesting shows to queue up on the DVR, in addition to watching movies via Netflix. When you have children, you spend a lot of weekend time at home -- all the better to have the TV showing football games while you clean house or have company over. Accordingly, I used the insurance payout money from the video games we didn't replace, added in some card sales income, and bought two things: a subscription to DirecTV service with the NFL Sunday Ticket, and a new Samsung LED TV. So far, both are delivering an intense and fun experience at an acceptable cost. Even when the football season is over, both will continue to be useful just about every single day. That is what you hope for in a wellspring -- something that more than pulls its weight in the time-money equation.

Not much else has changed. There is no reason to look at a time-money value equation for household goods or sundries, and it goes without saying that the top priority for money needs to be aggressively attacking debt if you have any. But once you get past those steps, you have some decisions to make. You can get more out of your free time, as Steph and I hope we will, by discarding sinkholes and seeking wellsprings.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Aftermath of Lake Mediterranea

I happened across this image somewhere on the Interwebs a while back and saved it to my flash drive, intending to write a blog post about it. Well, better late than never.

Indeed, there appears once to have been a time when a person could walk from north Africa to Italy without getting his feet wet. (Granted, the journey would take a while.) I think there is a deep well of setting material for the writer who is willing to do research on Earth's geologic history and craft a story that makes that setting significant. For example, using the map above, I imagine an epic tale involving a teeming city at the lower shore of one of the two halves you see of Lake Mediterrania. The city could be home to heroes and villains, a seat of power and political intrigue, and a thriving hub of commerce. Centuries could pass full of intense battles, heroic quests, strange visitors, mysterious guilds, and dynastic succession. As the ice age ends and the glaciers melt, the city could be swallowed by the sea. It could take on an historic, even legendary aura -- people might tell tales of this city, and boast of the treasures it holds, resting in ruins deep underneath the waves. It might be called... "Atlantis."

Okay, obviously you saw that coming. But what you might not have seen coming is just what becomes possible once you take that kind of story and make it the backstory instead.

Imagine another story. An empire has fallen and its former glory has faded. Great cities lie in ruin, broad fields grow wild and untended, and vast mines echo with emptiness. Pirates roam the coastlines and rivers, barbarian hordes rule the hills and barrens, and the wisdom of recorded history is preserved only by a few cloistered, sectarian groups. The only tantalizing signs of "the world that once was" exist in the form of eroding statues, abandoned bridges, and fragmentary monuments. The nation of Gondor is but a shadow of its former self, and the underground nation of Moria has long since gone silent. The Seat of Seeing in the hills of the Amon Hen sits empty. Mighty statues at the Falls of Rauros guard only untamed wilds. Majestic Ithilien in the forested eastern heights has all but disappeared, its capital city at Minas Ithil turned to a decaying Minas Morgul by the hordes of Mordor.

Of course, you know by now I am speaking of the fictional land of "Middle Earth," the setting for the epic story Lord of the Rings. Notice that I did not make even one mention above of the titular ring, or the Numenoreans, or the ageless Elves; of Saruman's betrayal and the rise of Isengard and the Uruk-Hai, or of the essential Hobbits and their daring quest. The major plot points of the book are driven by characters and action, as they should be. But look at the sense of wonder that the setting communicates all by itself, before any of the action even begins. Tolkien's intricate linguistics formed the basis for the characters' backgrounds and ancestry, but the setting is gave those characters a place to be; it gave those languages a place to live.

J.R.R. Tolkien built a world, and he did so by first setting the stage for how that world became what it was. It was a mammoth undertaking that consumed literally the whole of his life, as his son Christopher Tolkien has continued cataloguing the late master's notes and histories into new publications even today. It took Tolkien almost two decades after The Hobbit to publish Lord of the Rings, and apocryphal stories from the publisher say that Tolkien stopped dozens of times and began rewriting the entire saga from the beginning every time he realized he had not captured the essence of some facet of his story's world. Clearly, a compelling setting is a critical underpinning to a worthwhile story. In essence, if a writer cannot make a setting interesting, that writer has given the reader no reason to care about the fate of that settings' inhabitants. And now, it becomes clear that a compelling setting doesn't exist in an vacuum; a compelling setting requires a sufficiently-realized backstory.

I have a number of fictional works "in the oven," and have for years, and one thing I notice myself doing is going back for substantial revisions (or rewrites) every time I have a breakthrough about an environment through which I can send the characters and propel the story. And inevitably what I discover is that it's not enough to just send the characters to a place where the environment happens to be whatever is necessary to accomplish a plot point. It's not enough to send them on a trope roller-coaster to Vulcan or Hyrule -- or, worse, to such heterogeneous locales as Hoth, Dagobah, or Tatooine. A good story requires more. Not only do I have to send my characters (or birth and raise them, or see them die) in an interesting setting, but I must give that setting its due development to turn it into a place that lives and breathes on its own -- that imbues in the reader a sense of wonder -- so that my hero's journey and struggle against the vile overlord will paint itself in vivid hues across the broad canvas of my readers' imaginations. And this process will probably start with a map of Lake Mediterranea -- and I'll see where I can go from there.

Welcome, Reader! Turn the page, and the tale begins...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Burgeoning

This photograph of Tempe, Arizona, courtesy of the ASU library, was taken in 1935 from the south slope of the Tempe Butte, which is better known today as the "A" mountain that cradles Sun Devil Stadium. The photographer is facing almost due south.



The road that starts at the lower left corner of the frame and continues through the middle of the picture is College Avenue. You can see the back of the old Mt. Carmel church right about in the center. Today, it is the "old building" at the ASU Newman Center, and thus is still a Catholic church facility, but that particular building is now only used for weddings and special events. Just after and to the left (southeast) of Mt. Carmel, on the left side of College Avenue, is ASU's Old Main building. (Was it called the "New Main" building at the time of this photo? Inquiring minds want to know.) In 1935, Arizona State University was still called the Arizona State Teachers' College, and its president was Grady Gammage.

The north-south road to the west (right) of College Avenue, traversing the middle of the photo, is Forest Avenue, which is much smaller now and has been converted to a pedestrian mall through most of campus. The east-west road closest to the photographer is Sixth Street, which is not a major arterial today as it does not occur at a square-mile interval with other arterial streets. Seventh Street is barely visible; you can tell there is an intersection with it at Forest, but the angle doesn't allow for much more.

Running between the church and the Old Main is the street now known as University Drive, but at the time it was better known as the Atlantic-Pacific Highway. Yes, it was the "main drag," all two lanes of it -- not that many people had cars then, in the depths of the Depression -- and it ran from Los Angeles to New York City. The highway curved slightly southward and eventually met and followed the SR-87 alignment to Tucson. Pieces of this highway alignment are still visible in Tempe -- that's why Eighth Street is off-kilter and follows the old railroad track line as it slants past the Four Peaks Brewery.

The U.S. Highway 60 had been commissioned but not yet built; by the end of the decade, it would follow Apache Boulevard through Tempe. Apache is visible among the vast, empty lots south of Old Main, after the grassy square on the left side of the photo and where that clump of trees and small buildings meets College Avenue. Straight ahead to the south in the photo, what was then county land consisted of rural properties and empty meadows as far as the eye could see. Tempe ended at Apache Boulevard.

This land is now among the densest in the entire Phoenix metropolitan area. Tempe was the first suburb to be landlocked when every city in the Phoenix area raced to annex developable acreage in the 1980s. Mesa and Scottsdale cut Tempe off to the north and east, Phoenix borders to the west, and Chandler galloped across a two-mile-wide sliver south of Tempe until it closed the square.

My parents moved to Tempe in 1978, and I lived there until 1993, from 1999 to 2001 while I ran the Arizona Gamer's main location, and then again from 2003 to 2007 while I finished my undergraduate and law degrees. The thing that strikes me the most about the area's phenomenal development isn't that my former home, which is smack in the middle of Tempe now, was remote enough in 1935 that its location is not even discernible along the horizon of that photograph. No, the thing I find most striking is that I can imagine a day when my current neighborhood in Chandler, which is twice as far from downtown Phoenix as the area depicted in the photo, will have been so much further eclipsed by growth that it will be considered too dense an area for new development.