Friday, December 31, 2010

Mike's Top Ten Experiences of 2010

Hi everyone!

I liked this format last year... I figured it made sense to use it again!  Enjoy this revery of a year now past.

There were no new babies born this year -- to Steph, at least -- and we neither moved nor reached any particular career milestones.  The year 2010, then, was all about the direct experiences.  And of those we had plenty.  In chronological order again, since why organize when you can just look it up:

1. January was fantastic.  Steph and I reached three years married, and celebrated by spending a weekend in Vegas that was paid for by our poker table opponents.  Allie reached two years alive and breathing, though little has changed with her since then.  My friends the Daltons welcomed their third child, Aitana.  Finally, the Cardinals beat the Packers 51-45 in overtime to end one of the wildest Wild Card games in NFL history.  I still watch YouTube clips of Karlos Dansby's fumble recovery in overtime that won it.  (For now, it's available here; that link may die because they keep pulling down the videos due to copyright claims -- but if you go to YouTube and search for it, you'll find it.)  I don't think I'll ever get tired of hearing Joe Buck's horrible call of the play: "Extra man on the blitz, Rodgers gets a hand to the face, the BALL is OUT, the Arizona Cardinals win it!"  In fact, every time the Cardinals got pounded in 2010 by some cream-puff team they would have shredded if Warner hadn't retired, I watched that Dansby play again and found my happy place.

2. Finally bought the dorkmobile.  Yep, minivan time.  After all was said and done, no vehicle has even close to the same utility when transporting multiple infants and/or toddlers.  I picked up a deal in February on a 2005 Honda Odyssey, and it has served us well enough that ten months later it is our only vehicle.  Not bad for someone else's castoff.  I figure once the girls get toward ages five to eight or so, I can convert us back to normal cars or trucks.  I'm still on the lookout for a cheap commuting appliance, and offers like the $99 Civic lease definitely have my attention.  We'll see.  In another positive note, I managed to improve my sleep disorder situation considerably.

3. In April, Steph and I took Evey to Dallas to see Steph's brother James get married to his college sweetheart, Danielle.  I discovered that in parts of Texas, it just rains 24/7.  I suppose there must be little demand for underground sprinkler systems in that region.  The entire trip was enjoyable, and both Steph's family and Danielle's family are excellent people, which is consolation that I missed Ray Powers's 40th birthday party in Vegas that weekend.  Almost.

4. The end of the band thing... or is it?  Aaron, Johan, and I put together "Premium Blend," a cover band project with all the potential in the world but no established lead singer and logistical difficulties galore.  The experience was so frustrating I put aside all musical attentions for the rest of the year... until December, when my muse was rekindled by the arrival of my new Ovation acoustic guitar to replace the precious axe I lost when our home was robbed in 2009.  To play my new guitar is to experience musical joy.  It is that simple.  Now I'm not sure what the outlook is.  Johan and I have the skill and discipline to perform at a high level.  Aaron and I have the trust and dedication to put together a robust project.  We may need to move a few people around on instruments, but I'm convinced we can forge a functional project out of this.  The entire experience prompted me to sort through my old band memorabilia, a process still underway as of this writing -- I have posted some of my past tourography here on this blog and I have a bevy of video that's headed toward YouTube and that will be shared here also.

5. By mid-year, we discovered that child care was so expensive that we were losing money by having Steph work instead of taking care of the girls.  The flip side of that equation was that we did not yet have the luxury of living on my salary alone (though with ramen and oatmeal, we might be able to scratch things out at that level).  The solution?  Steph came through with flying colors by doing day care for a couple of her friends on the side.  It's a lot of work for the small amount of money it earns, but the main benefit is the cost it defrays -- the cost of day care for Allie and Evey!  So, in a way, Steph makes more now than when she was working.  We just don't see the gross revenue from that.  Only the "net."  How strange is that, though?  Having to quit your job to save money?  The math doesn't lie, but that still just seems wrong.

6. Year of the Barbecue!  We kicked off the late spring with some grillin' gatherings at my place, then had Aaron and Dalton and their families over for the 4th of July, and then four monthly NFL Football Sundays at my place with an assortment of friends and acquaintances.  I got passing decent at cooking steaks, I pretty much completely mastered rolled meat (dogs, sausages, brats), and with the help of some friends I got to grill up everything from teriyaki chicken strips to filet mignon.  We have some elk steaks in the freezer... guess what's next on the agenda?  I finally outgrew the ol' charcoal griller, too.  For some future year, perhaps 2011 but perhaps later, I'll need a larger gas grill with the various accoutrements.

7. 2010 was a particularly good year for me at the poker tables.  There were times I attended the quarterly Stenger Tournament and donated to the cause, and certainly there were pickup games in which I earned nothing, but most of the games I sat this year ended up as significant wins.  Steph and I turned a few hundred dollars into around a grand in Vegas in January, I split the overall win twice at Stenger's and once at Ray's, and I did well in ad-hoc games.  In particular, my Omaha hi-lo game improved, mainly due to two pieces of advice I heeded: First, I tried to avoid playing into all-in situations.  There's no need to risk an entire tournament on most hands, even if they feel really strong.  Second, when playing Omaha in particular, I tried to play for the entire pot.  This meant I mucked hands that did not look likely to be able to play both high and nut-low, unless I had a blowout hand for potential no-low boards (something like 9s 9h 10s 10h, for example).  The results speak for themselves.

8. October brought with it the publication of my most successful nonfiction book yet.  Again, no discussion of it here as it is under a different pen name and "brand," but it's not exactly a big secret.  I am not exactly rolling in the Benjamins or anything, but it really helped us compensate for the time Steph had to spend out of work before starting day care.

9. Steph and her College Republican friends were thrilled with the outcome of the midterm elections in early November.  As an Objectivist, I did not have quite as much to celebrate, but anything that contributes to gridlock in the context of a Leviathan state is a victory for liberty on some level.  This time period added one great chestnut to my year, though, and a review here on this blog is definitely in the cards: The Wheel of Time, Book 13: "The Towers of Midnight," by Brandon Sanderson, brought the decades-spanning epic to the doorstep of its grand finale, and was Sealed Awesome In A Can the entire way through.  My rankings for the books in the series, now, from best to worst, go: 4, 13, 5, 12, 1, 6, 2, 3, 9, 11, 7, 8, 10.

10. The holidays this year were a nonstop crush, not the least of which was because I was slammed with high-profile projectry at work and ended up sick during my brief winter vacation at home.  The girls absolutely loved it, though -- so much so that they were "Christmased Out" after the toys and gifts kept on coming -- and that put a smile on my face!  Just before Thanksgiving, I finished my first run through the P90X fitness "lean" program.  Things went well -- my muscle mass increased and my sleep patterns improved further -- and I am excited to start again in January.  Also awesome during this time period was TRON Legacy.  I don't care what the reviews say: it was an excellent sequel to the original, and in the context of the original it not only made sense but was great fun.  And it looked outstanding.

May your 2011 be happy and prosperous!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tell Me a Story

When learning the craft of writing, which is really the craft of storytelling in the medium of the written word more so than mastery of the written word by itself, one begins to see the seams and joints in other works.  One begins to recognize bad writing where one originally thought a given piece of writing to be good.  It is frustrating because once the eyes are opened to bad writing, it seems to be everywhere.  The good news is that the really good writing generally stands up.

For example, when Steph and I are watching an episode of a favorite TV show, we will (both of us, now) catcall the plot developments before they happen, and predict the resolution before it arrives.  We are rarely off base by much, if at all.  This can happen for good writing or bad, of course, but when it's bad, it is a disappointment because we know it could have been done better.  I am not simply talking about creative tropes here.  David Eddings wrote nothing but tropes, and his writing was great.

The problem comes when a story is doing a bad job cutting through the useless gunk and getting to the business of telling us what happens to the protagonist and what he or she is going to do about it, and thus the story lacks drama.  We as an audience have to know what the protagonist wants to achieve, who stands in the way, and why it has to happen now.  Writers refer to these things as the Goal, the Nemesis, and the Ticking Clock.  A good story keeps raising the stakes until the protagonist realizes how he must transform to meet his goal and defeat his nemesis, all before the ticking clock runs out.  The action in the story related to those three things is known as Drama.  And so few stories dramatize well!  David Mamet correctly noted that any scene that has two characters talking about what a third character is doing is a crock of shit.  I blush at how much of my own past writing is essentially that.  If the characters are talking, exchanging information, then they aren't doing dramatic things.  People won't read or watch for information nearly as readily as they will read or watch good drama.

Think about a story like that in the film The Empire Strikes Back.  Luke's goal is to save his friends.  To do so he must defeat Vader.  And if he waits too long, his friends will (he believes) die on the torture rack in the Cloud City Security Tower.  Goal, nemesis, ticking clock.  Luke's moment of transformation comes when he lets go of the railing and falls into the shaft to the weather vane, rather than giving in to Vader's tempting offer to rule the galaxy father and son.  Luke had to make a decision that he was going to "do, or do not," as Yoda had taught him, since his "try" to defeat Vader had gone so terribly off the rails.  Luke decided he was going to believe in his ability to use the Force for good.  He rejected the quick, easy, seductive path, and instead survived to fight back another day. 

Tellingly, there isn't a moment in Empire in which we don't know damned good and well who the protagonist is and why he matters.  Luke is both the first and last person to do anything on-screen.  The villain is Luke's direct nemesis, Darth Vader, and Luke and Vader are both alike and opposite.  While Han, Leia, Chewie, Lando, Artoo, and Threepio all have minor story arcs involving some modicum of choice, mostly they just react.  Luke's arc of choice encompasses the entire duration of the film, from his tentative efforts to retrieve Anakin's Lightsaber in the Wampa Cave, to his choice to go train under Yoda, to his choice to abandon his training prematurely, and finally to his transformation.  And throughout the movie, characters rarely talk about doing things -- they just act!  Very effective dramatization.  Empire is not the most fully-realized, conceptually brilliant, or consistent science fiction story ever, but as SF stories go, it is among the most dramatic in the genre, and is possibly the best story of them all.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Looking Before Leaping

In recent weeks, I went through an unpleasant dispute with a long-time friend.  The dispute culminated last weekend with my friend erupting in anger toward me and writing a vicious, hate-filled email telling me he wanted nothing more to do with me.  I wanted so badly to reply in anger.  I wanted to show him "what for."  I had a response for every insult he hurled, every fact in my favor he was ignoring, and every juvenile behavioral affectation he was displaying.  And just as I was about to spew forth with the mighty fusillade of my reply...

I stopped, and was silent.

It took a long time and a great deal of life experience to reach the point at which I had the presence of mind to forestall an angry reply to that old friend.  In that instant, I saw myself so many times in the past as I lashed out, forced through, blasted all around me, and regretted it later.  I saw all the people who wanted to help me and were hurt by proximity to my reckless spite.  I saw all the people who were just trying to do their jobs, unable to cut me a break because I left them nowhere to go but over my ruin.  I saw all the people I hated, old enemies from grammar school, high school, and afterwards.  I saw the men (and women) who thwarted me in one way or another, for whom I swore I would never brake if I saw them crossing the street, and I remembered that after my histrionics, they got to walk away clean, justifiably believing that they were the better person. 

I still know their names.  Perham.  Frimmel.  Bauerlein.  Saager.  There are more, of course.  I don't necessarily forgive them for what they did to me, but in the moment of our parting, I was the one who was more out-of-line.  And as time went by, I learned a wider perspective.  Perhaps Perham had a bad home life about which I knew nothing.  Frimmel's aggression, in retrospect, was an obvious mask for his insecurity and low self-esteem.  Bauerlein and Saager had their own business/career interests as their prerogatives.  In each case, had I then the broadness of mind that I have now, I could have divorced myself from the situation and walked away in peace, leaving my "enemies" to their own concerns.

My long-time friend, the man who hates me now, has had his entire life turned upside down over the past year, and the frustration has to be wearing on his last nerve.  He is doing his damnedest to draw me into the fray, baiting me at every turn to open fire, while simultaneously and contradictorily telling me to go away.  And despite it all, I cannot hate this man.  Too clearly I see the source of his anguish.  Too clearly I recognize the same myopia in him that I possessed when faced with similar difficulties in my own life.  And far, far too clearly I see the chronic lack of self-esteem that has undermined my friend all his life.  To this day he is utterly terrified of the notion that somebody might get the better of him, in any context, under any circumstances.  I have seen him over and over again fleeing when his self-crafted illusion of control and superiority was threatened.  A tiny, fragmentary demon left over from junior high school torments him to this day.  Figuratively speaking, of course, as there are no such things as demons.

This man believes he stands now on the precipice of getting me to erupt at him, making his every vile insult a fulfilled prophecy.  He would be able to walk away with a complete and immutable victory, and for the rest of his life he could rationalize away any behavior, no matter how reprehensible, with the notion that at least he is a better man than Mike.

What he does not understand is that he is Mike.

He is the Mike-that-was.  The Mike that still is, and can easily be again, if I ever fail to catch myself leaping before I look, lashing out before I think.

As his true friend, I want him not to descend to those depths.  I cannot stop him; he has his free will and sufficient resources to force the issue.  But I refuse to help speed his way down.

I chose to stand and take his beating.  I replied telling him I did not hate him, and would not engage with him.  I told him to take a year or two to cool off, and if he had a change of perspective by then, to look me up.  I told him I would not seek him out. 

None of this makes me a "better man" than him.  To seek that distinction is juvenile anyway; a real man measures himself only against his own actions.  What I have done is deprive him of the clean, easy getaway that he sought, and now he will have to choose between evading his knowledge of how he behaved toward me, or facing up to it.  Unlike the adolescent wraith that haunts him, the new demon I have given him is much easier to defeat -- all he has to do is look at it, recognize it for what it is, and accept the truth.  Perhaps in banishing one of the two specters, he will find the inner strength to banish the other.

Monday, March 22, 2010

When I Write; When I Don't Write

To be successful as a writer, one must write.  This is the one unchanging truism that is repeated by every successful writer when asked what it took to "make it."  The answer is couched many different ways, but at the end of the day it sums up to: write.  Write more and more.  Write at every opportunity.  Through trial and error repeated ad infinitum, a writer polishes his or her craft.

It is easy for a writer to comment on a message board, comment on Facebook, or write a blog entry.  It is not so easy for a writer to write a novel or a screenplay or a non-fiction book.  The difference, of course, is one of scope: the deeper, more extensive projects require an order of magnitude more time. 

More precisely, and more critical to the issue of when a writer can write, the deeper projects require time available in uninterrupted spans.  It is simply impossible in a short time period to get warmed up, get the requisite info "loaded into RAM" mentally, apply the chops, and lay down text.  It is much the same when editing, where the real heavy lifting of writing is done and which most successful writers suggest should only be started once the first draft of the main body of a text is complete.

Paul Graham explains the timespan issue in his essay Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule, and though Graham is referring mainly to coding, his observations hold absolutely true for writing as well. 

Knowing this, I sometimes worry that I will never really become successful writing under my own ticket unless I am doing it full-time.  This also fulfills Portnoy's Principle that success in a creative or artistic endeavor usually requires a combination of adversity and absolute commitment.  Essentially, you don't win the campaign unless you're willing to cross the Rubicon.

As it stands, I am not in a position to quit my job.  On balance, my job is a good one, and I am afforded time throughout the day to do small amounts of writing, such as on my blog.  If I end up having to go back to commuting via bus, I will also have another hour or so in the morning and evening to write while mobile.  But the bottom line is that I am not writing full-time, so my major writing projects have lagged. 

The weekends, once a bonanza of available time, saw me diminishing in productivity as my sleep apnea worsened.  Then, we had Evey and doubled the child-monitoring workload at a time when Allie was still not old enough to play without direct supervision.  Then the economy tanked and our costs for child care and such skyrocketed, leaving us even after cutbacks in a position in which I have to do eBay work in order to make good.  As Graham explains, any interruption is likely to destroy an entire afternoon's work for a Maker.  These last few months, I have been interrupted a minimum of three different ways.  I didn't stand a chance.

There is reason to hope.  CPAP therapy is going well, so I am more awake and more primed for creativity for longer periods.  We are making family arrangements for child care that should start in a few months, and that will allow me to bail once again from eBay.  Finally, Steph has been taking the girls on outings, leaving me with precious tranquility.  We're not quite there yet, but I am confident that when the day comes that I can sit down at my computer, close the door, and not notice the passage of time until the hunger pangs come, that will be a day I make headway toward success.

Until then, I'll squeeze in a few paragraphs here or there where I can.  Fortunately, I have that luxury.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Some General Observations

The title of this post is taken from an old Cult of the Dead Cow textfile (content NSFW) that was just about the most entertaining slice-of-life I had ever read up to that point.  It's funny how some of the most out-of-the-way things can influence the way a person thinks and lives, if they arrive right at an impressionable time.  Most of what The Nightstalker observed, especially about "adult situations," was largely inapplicable to me as a socially inept 17-year-old nerd, but one item stood out:
One of the benefits of living in this backwater town is that both the supermarket and the beer 'n' wine store stash their empty milk crates outside where they are easy to get to. Needless to say, I do not lack for bookshelves and storage modules these days.
I don't remember ever consciously taking this as a lesson, but I observe that I currently possess two milk crates that have stayed with me through close to two decades of residential moves, and I could not confidently answer for the origin of either crate if I were asked.  It is possible I came by them legitimately, but I doubt it.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would suspect that I imitated The Nightstalker in a misguided attempt at appearing "cool" or "hardcore," and stole them from some place or another, sometime back in that 1991-1993 time period that was the moral nadir of my life.  I would not countenance such pilferage today, because it conflicts rather violently with my belief that an individual's right to property, like the rights to life and liberty, should be inviolable.  Meanwhile, the crates are real, and there they sit.  I committed a wrong, and there are no excuses.  Amends for my actions are due and payable.  I hope I may yet figure out to whom.

Twice in recent days, I have had "engineering disputes" with friends that fell distinctly to the unpleasant side of even.  Neither of them was related, nor were their subject matter, but each left me with a sour aftertaste.  In each case, there was behavior by the other party that I was not comfortable letting slide.  Instead, I called the other party to account, and the dust-ups worsened.  I don't think I was necessarily wrong to hold my ground.  One of the lessons I have learned the hard way in life is that a person has to hold to principles, even if the consequences are unpleasant.  Failure to do so just sets things up to get worse later.  Still, principles might serve me well, but you sure can't have fun hanging out with them.

I have repurposed this blog away from political issues, so I will not dissert on the health care bill and its impending "passage."  I think various parties linked in my blogroll are saying what needs to be said.  It will not be enough.

Recent research for one of my publications brought me to learn of a practice called "salami slicing," a consequence of the emergence of the concept of the Least Publishable Unit.  Though my writing has been commercial, rather than scholarly, I immediately grokked the concept and its associated practice.  An ebook scheme I implemented to distribute content under one of my pen names worked passably well at first, but in the end I found that the market prefers, at least in literary publishing, cohesive and wholly-contained content.  The arrival of ebooks on the publishing scene, especially with the attractive array of gadgetry available for their portable consumption (from iPad to Kindle to smartphones) suggests a vast emergence of Least Publishable Units as the mainstay of digital inventory, but my skepticism is growing.  I tend to believe digital publishing is diverging such that anything not substantial enough to publish as a "thick" standalone media module (novel, feature film, etc) is likely to show up as web content monetized through advertising.  I see the anthology as a potential casualty of all this, and there are positive and negative implications for a writer like me who already creates short stories and flash fiction.

Stephanie and I face upcoming pay cuts as state employees, along with enforced furloughs that may or may not occur on fortuitous dates.  We continue to struggle to solve "the child care cost situation," a financial bind that has defined our year 2010 so far and will continue to press upon us for at least another month or two before potential solutions can be put into play.  Down the road, there are benefits we are likely to enjoy from having had two daughters in a period of less than two years, but the costs of having done so are quite front-loaded.  If I were in my late twenties now, I think Steph and I would have taken steps to slow down the growth of the family Bahr.  As it is, though, I am about to be 36.  I'm starting to be a grumpy old man like the review narrator at RedLetterMedia.  Evey is going to graduate high school when I am 54 years old.  What good is having an empty nest if you're too old and decrepit to do anything about it?  Steph and I are not making (or at least publically discussing) any decisions for sure, but the possibility does exist that the family is now complete, and/or that there will only be perhaps one more addition to it before I consider certain medical options.  The realities of time and money are like nature: to be commanded, they must first be obeyed.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Tao of Time Off

In government positions such as mine, there is no such thing as "severance pay."  As a political appointee, I serve at the pleasure of the governor.  I can thus be summarily dismissed without warning.  In order to attract some degree of competent talent for positions such as mine without having to offer severance pay, the state instead offers a hugely competitive vacation ("annual leave") accrual schedule, 173.6 hours per year, and allows the carryover of 320 hours per year.  That's eight weeks of pay, more than enough to compare apples-to-apples with a typical severance package for comparable positions in the private sector.

Of course, most employees aren't ascetic enough to go two full years taking a total of only three days' vacation to stockpile 320 hours, so it usually takes around four years for most employees to reach that threshold.  The private-sector standard is around two weeks of vacation per year, so that is what I've been taking.  And, right on schedule, heading into my fourth year next week I will have about 240 hours in the tank.  Not bad considering I have taken two paternity leaves, a week off every Christmas, and assorted other days off for personal purposes.  If I were laid off today, I would get six weeks' pay in vacation payout.  My boss has been with the state five years and is "full" -- he is taking off for his kids' "spring break" simply because he can.  He enjoys 21.6 days off per year and still maintains a full payoff cushion.

Sick time does not count and is recorded separately: people at my pay grade get 80 sick hours per year, 40 of which can be used for self or a family member.  This is convenient because my daughters frequently succumb to whatever plague is festering in the petri dish of day care at any given moment.  The private-sector norm has increasingly been to combine sick and vacation days into "personal days," and this makes sense for various reasons.  If a state employee quits or is terminated, they do not get paid out for sick balances unless they have stockpiled a high number of hours, and at each threshold the percentage of the payout is a bit higher (but never exceeds 50%).  And none of this counts retirement matching funds or any of that.  This policy helps to discourage the issue of the "iron worker" who never takes a sick day but comes in and works through every ailment, spreading germs and sending co-workers home with illnesses while hacking up a crescendo to distract whichever hardy souls avoid catching sick.  By far the best value of a state sick day is to take it when you or your family member is actually sick.  Any policy that rewards a person for using a tool for its intended purpose is fundamentally sound.

Steph and I have long wanted to compete in The Amazing Race or Survivor or something along those lines, so it would be great if we ever built up enough spare leave time to go on such an adventure.  In the private sector, it would be very difficult to do so at the lower vacation accrual rate.  It would force us to take a hit against our severance "cushions," but it would be worth it for the experience.  Like a swine beholding pearls, I didn't really have the awareness level to appreciate some of the adventures and experiences I have had in life, mainly because I was either chronically short of money or in poor health, or both.  Even if I took two weeks off to do nothing but camp in the wilderness, I think it would be something I can appreciate much more these days than I could before.   But I can't do it yet -- not if I want to keep building up that safety net.  I like that it's my choice one way or the other, though.

I guess all I have to do is have one of my stories optioned for a screenplay and pocket six figures, then take whatever time off I want.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Conquering Obstructive Sleep Apnea

I just had the best night of sleep I have ever had.  At least for as long as I can remember, so basically since childhood.  For the first time in my adult life, I woke up feeling absolutely fantastic, brimming over with energy and relishing the briskness of the morning.

The reason for this breakthrough is that after tangling with the medical bureaucracy on and off since 2007, I finally secured last Thursday a specialized prescription for a heated, humidified CPAP with c-flex and data recording.  I managed to lay hands on the machine Friday, and used it half of Friday night (I was getting over a sinus infection) and then for the entire night last night.

I know that's a lot of jargon to most people, so I'll explain.  Dealing with this situation, I was frequently starved for good information, so now that I have secured it, I want to spread it around and spare others the same frustration.

I have a condition called obstructive sleep apnea.  What this means is that I stop breathing while I am asleep, which forces me to wake up in a gasping, sweating panic.  I weigh 265 pounds; at 72 inches of height, I am supposed to be in the 200-205 range.  The buildup of fat in my body added to the soft tissue in an already genetically narrow airway in the back of my throat.  When I fall asleep and my muscles competely relax, the soft tissue back there occludes the airway.  When sleeping supine (on my back), the occlusion is total, and I wake up after a few seconds, struggling to breathe.  I can sleep on my sides or stomach and the occlusion is only partial.  The result is loud, earth-rending snoring, but I can at least breathe somewhat.  Even then, I receive too little airflow, resulting in hypoxia.  The effect of the hypoxia is that I wake up every day feeling like I am severely hung over, even though I probably drink alcohol only twice or three times a year.

An even more serious effect of the apnea is that constantly waking due to breathing stoppages makes it almost impossible to achieve REM sleep.  A lack of REM sleep gradually erodes mental acuity, memory retention, ability to focus, and general alertness/awareness.  REM sleep is also the phase of sleep during which the body burns the most calories.  According to the sleep studies I had to undergo, I have been getting less than 30 minutes of REM sleep per night, and none at all during some nights, for the past 20 years.  I will touch upon the consequences of this later.

There are two major treatment paths for obstructive sleep apnea, and both are meant to return the sufferer to productive sleep so that the sufferer can return to an ideal body weight and (optimally) have no excess soft tissue occluding the airway.  The two paths are surgery and CPAP.

Surgery to simply cut away some of the soft tissue in my airway would have been a serious step but would have been guaranteed to work, at least in the short term.  The problem was that I would not have lost any other weight, and so it was likely I would simply build up more soft tissue and be back to square one within a few years.  The surgery is most effective on people who are already at their ideal body weight, because they are likely to maintain healthy bodies with clear airways and minimal soft tissue.

CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, is a nonsurgical, noninvasive therapy for apnea that has a proven track record of success -- when the patient can tolerate the therapy.  A CPAP machine generates a stream of air that is forced into the patient's airway via a facemask or nose mask.  The continuous pressure maintains airflow through the patient's throat, preventing the soft tissue from closing up the channel.  If the patient is able to breathe and sleep normally, eventually his or her health improves and weight loss follows, reducing the soft tissue in the airway.  Even if weight loss is slow or a patient has a genetically narrow airway like I do, a patient can safely use CPAP for basically any amount of time.  Unfortunately, many patients cannot tolerate the CPAP, as was the case for me at first.  If I had known then what I know now, things might have gone much better.

I wasted literally years seeking treatment for "not being able to sleep," and followed many red herrings and found many dead ends, on the advice of doctors no less.  First it was stress -- but my stressors went away and the problem persisted.  Then it was caffeine intake -- but I abstained from caffeine and the problem persisted.  Then it was suspected somnambulance -- nope.  At last one doc had the prescience to think to treat the snoring problem rather than the sleep problem, and that set us on the right path... eventually.  Anti-snoring masks and straps did not help, and in fact made things much, much worse.  (Stopping breathing AND having my mouth held shut?  Where do I sign up!)  Dieting, even aided by phentermine and such, brought short-term gains, but I could never keep the weight off because I could never maintain the necessary activity level.  Finally, in late 2008, I was referred to a sleep study.

The sleep study was possibly the most frustrating experience to that point.  I was ready to give up and consider more radical solutions -- stomach lap-banding and what have you -- to force drastic weight loss and hopefully make some headway against the snoring.  At my first sleep study, I did not fall asleep at all.  The monitoring apparatus was just that disturbing and uncomfortable.  I forced myself to do it again, and they confirmed for the first time that there were breathing stoppages -- but that was it.  They tested no further.  The doctor prescribed CPAP, and my insurance rented me a machine.

The next few nights, I tried to use the CPAP therapy and found it absolutely intolerable.  The air blasted into my sinuses, drying out my eyes and ears.  I gasped to talk and couldn't get comfortable in the mask.  Worst of all, the machine they gave me had no "ramp" and a poorly implemented auto-adjust, a feature since removed from most high-end CPAP machines, as I would discover.  For all that discomfort, I never made it through a complete night of therapy.

At that point, I gave up.  I returned the CPAP and resolved to find some other solution, possibly even the surgery and I'd just take my chances on a relapse.  Life happened, and I became overwhelmed by other concerns.  (And they were worse than they otherwise would have been, thanks to my constant physical and mental fatigue.)  During an astoundingly busy 2009, I decided I was going to find some way to tolerate that CPAP, whatever it took.

So I did my internet research.  I learned that there were heated, humidified CPAP machines out there that were much easier to tolerate, and that all masks were interoperable so I could shop around until I found one that was comfortable.  I also learned that some CPAP machines "ramp" to make it easier to fall asleep -- they start at a lower pressure and gradually increase it as you drift off.  I even learned of a "c-flex" feature where the CPAP drops the pressure when you breathe out and resumes the pressure when you breathe in.  That was huge!  One of the worst parts of my original CPAP experience was how difficult it was to breathe out (expire).  Because the pressure was so high, I wound up instinctively breathing out through my mouth instead, and as soon as you open your mouth, the CPAP seal is broken and your sinuses are flooded with pressured air, a painful and unpleasant experience.

I figured I could just ask for one of the better CPAPs, so I called the rental company.  No dice, they said -- my prescription had expired.  Oh well.  Could I just buy one, then?  On the internet I saw many vendors who had them for sale outright.  Nope.  It turns out a CPAP is a Class II Medical Device.  Even the internet vendors needed to see an Rx.  So I went to ask my doctor for one, and found out he had left the state and was practicing elsewhere.  Arrrrrgh!

The rest of the story is simple, except that it took six months instead of six minutes because of that stupid prescription status.  I got a new doctor and had another sleep study.  At the sleep center, they fitted the better CPAP right then and there, and I felt like a million bucks when I woke up after less than four hours of therapy.  A solution was within my grasp!  After trying and failing to arrange another rental scenario, I decided to just buy a CPAP, and got my new doctor to write out a prescription so beautiful it makes my eyes tear up just to read it: "CPAP 8cm w/heated humidifier, c-flex, DR, fit mask for comfort."

Here is what that script meant.  The eight centimeters was the basic pressure setting.  Due to the prescription nature of the machine, the vendor sets the pressure internally in advance.  The heated humidifier was a must, sparing my sinuses from the beating they took from the "cold/dry" CPAP I had used before.  C-flex was the nice feature that drops pressure on expiration.  DR is for data recording -- the CPAP monitors its own pressure status and logs it, so I won't have to do a sleep study again.  I can just bring in the memory card to my doctor.  Finally, "fit mask for comfort" meant I could have any mask I wanted.  I wasn't taking any chances on a rental.  I plunked down $700 for a CPAP and mask at a local medical supplies retailer.  I'll try to get insurance reimbursed later -- for now, I wanted to get going.  Think about how adamant you get when you're weary and want to sleep and someone is keeping you up for some inane reason.  Now multiply that by 20 years and you'll have some notion of how accommodating of delays I was feeling.

I had been recovering from ear/sinus infections, so I knew my sinuses would have a hard time acclimating, and thus I only used the CPAP for part of the night Friday and Saturday -- and I still felt great in the mornings.  But last night, I was free and clear to sleep the duration with the therapy in place.  I lay down on my back, neck straight and even on the pillow, mask in place, pressure set, with six hours of quiet approaching... and it was bliss.  I never moved.  I woke up at 5:45, which is apparently a time in the morning now as well as in the afternoon (nobody informed me) and had time to play with Evey, check some computer tasks, and stretch out a bit before hitting the shower and heading in to work... almost half an hour earlier than usual.

It is far too soon to know how successful this therapy will be or what my long-term outlook is, but I have to think my focus, energy level, and therefore my productivity is about to go through the roof.  And that's what brings me to regret all the wasted time and effort for 20 years that this damned condition has cost me.

First, my severe weight gain.  Like I said, I have felt fatigued every day, similar to what you might feel if you had serious jet lag.  Toward the end of the day, my body finally finds some chemical balance, and this is probably why I have been productive as a night owl for some years now.  Now ask yourself how much exercise you would get if you felt like that all the time.  It becomes clear why I have continued to gain weight, amplifying the underlying problem in a vicious cycle.  I might have been healthy and happy years ago if I could have bought a fully-loaded CPAP like the one I have now right off the shelf.

The mental fatigue is by far the more troubling aspect, and I can only begin to guess at what sort of long-term damage I have done to my brain from 20+ years of hypoxia.  When I was a child, I was considered a prodigy and was expected to have a huge future at the cutting edge.  By the time I was 17, I had my nomination to West Point in hand and was merely waiting for the great adventure to begin.  Even when my eyesight kept me out of there at 18, I was accepted in the blink of an eye by the ASU Honors College, and I figured I would just have to charge through the ASU engineering program on my way to my ultimate destiny.  But by the time I was 20, I had failed out of the Honors College and was soon to drop out of community college as well.  Somehow, I had gained a bunch of weight and gotten scatterheaded, unmotivated, and lazy.  Now, I don't doubt that some of that was authentic indecision/angst/sloth, but those factors alone cannot explain how I fell off the rails so abruptly.  Worse yet, I struggled to move forward in classes at which I had once excelled, such as mathematics and the hard sciences.  I just couldn't focus, and I had never had to develop much in the way of academic discipline, so I had no work ethic to fall back on.

I have since learned that this is not an uncommon story for apnea sufferers.  Indeed, I had to have a work ethic beaten into me by life experiences, and once I had the study discipline as a fallback position, I was able to finish law school and pass the bar exam.  I once hated math and science out of regret at my failure to cut the mustard at those disciplines, and now I am rediscovering my love of those things -- my writing is heavily focused in the science fiction genre, and even my whiteboard at work currently features a gallery of fractals.  But the worst thing is that I hated myself, thinking I was just a lazy person, never realizing there was a medical problem underneath it all.  Now that I know the truth, I think the sky is the limit.  I think I will be able to make up huge chunks of lost ground in a very short time.  I just wish so much had not gone to waste in the meanwhile.

In fact, writing this post has me thinking that there might be some meaningful writing to be done on the topic of obstructive sleep apnea itself, and that I might be a good candidate to be doing it.  I will consider this in the days and weeks ahead.

If anyone has any questions whatsoever about apnea, CPAP, or whatever, the comments thread is open and I will try to give helpful answers.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Shift In Focus

Last week, I posted regarding the apparent functional failure of this blog.  As there have been no comments or feedback at all, I must assume that my Xanatos Gambit has succeeded.  My gambit was born from the realization that a lack of participation would prove either postulate from my previous post: that I am failing to use this blog in a productive manner and thus a change is warranted, or that I am failing to make this blog interesting in the slightest and thus a change is warranted.  Either way, a change is warranted.  (A flurry of comments indicating that things were Fine The Way They Were was the outcome that would have defeated my Xanatos Gambit.)

For reasons too varied to concisely address here, I think the fundamental problem is that my political and philosophical posts have no audience here.  There are others writing the same kinds of material more regularly and in greater depth -- why not just read their blogs?  I can't think of a reason why not.

Meanwhile, I have my own creative projects, from writing to video to music to literary analysis.  These endeavors are truly mine, and I can think of no more appropriate outlet for such creative content than my very own House of Exuberance.

This blog will also serve as the repository of my various milestone markers and memorials, and anything I would ordinarily locate on Facebook but that deserves to be featured in a medium with more longevity.  My daily personal minutiae will be confined to Facebook, and will strut and fret its hour upon that stage, and then be heard no more.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Writing: The Career With a 20-Year Internship

I sometimes wonder if there is some pathological contrariness in my brain that sways me to a difficult path where easier or less risky options exist.  Certainly, everyone can think of a person in their life, whether friend, co-worker, or family member, who thrives on melodrama and enjoys the attention that comes with living a life of one sordid tragedy after another.  It is exasperating, because you know if that person would just put down the idiot ball and confront his or her problems rationally, many would likely be solved.  I never wanted to be that person, but in finding my calling as a writer -- no, that's deterministic language -- in realizing that writing is my passion and the highest creative goal I will pursue in my life, I fear that I may have doomed myself and my family to a needless purgatory.  They don't deserve that, so I am left frustrated, grasping for an answer and wondering if it wouldn't be better to just hang up my keyboard and go be a truck driver or something.

My internships during law school lasted the length of a semester.  A physician's internship and residency last a few years at most.  In academics and the sciences, a person who has completed a graduate degree is, at that moment at least, essentially as close to the cutting edge of that discipline as its most celebrated researchers and theorists.  A writer needs more time to master the craft.  While a journalism graduate right out of college can and does often find work writing in the media, to craft the kind of quality content that will lead to a genuine literary career, decades of work may be necessary.  (Most writers will not rise suddenly from poverty to lucre like Joanne Rowling.)  Economically speaking, spending half a working lifetime learning a craft seems like a pretty lousy idea!

The situation is even further skewed toward a lengthy apprenticeship in the fantasy and science fiction genres: nearly every major figure in the field published his or her seminal work later in life, often after retiring from (or prompting retirement from) an existing, unrelated career.  Terry Goodkind was a carpenter and wildlife artist before writing Wizard's First Rule.  Dr. Michael Crichton was a physician before hitting it big with The Andromeda Strain.  David Eddings, James Rigney (Robert Jordan), and Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.) were all retired from the U.S. military, and J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor and retired British serviceman.  A few notable names such as Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein actually were journalists before finding enough success to proceed on their own tickets, while Ayn Rand was similarly a screenwriter and playwright selling smaller work to studios before breaking through with The Fountainhead, but the writer-all-along story is the exception here.  There is very little parallel in the fantasy or science fiction writing world with the doctor or attorney who grinds through half a decade of schooling and credentialing, grinds through six to ten years of heavy practice, has his or her first heart attack, and then settles back into a professional armchair to enjoy shortened golden years finally free of debt.

And the baffling thing is that people still want to be writers!  Worse, they seem to think they will duplicate Rowling's feat instead of toiling in obscurity for decades as Herbert, Rigney, or Rand did.  Writer Dani Shapiro, a professor of fine arts in California, cannily observed this seeming perversity in an article from yesterday's Los Angeles Times, noting:
[MFA grads] do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn't reward persistence, that doesn't see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn't trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: "So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?"

The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry -- always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media -- has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.
Shapiro is either wrong for the right reasons or right because of what's wrong; take your pick.  Those successful authors I named from the fantasy and science fiction genres did write "in the cold" for 10 years or however long, but they eventually succeeded on the strength of their content.  All the others who pushed and prodded their way onto the mainstream shelves with an eye toward publishing and "the market" ended up as industry roadkill just as Shapiro observed they would. 

"Trust in the process," Shapiro taught the new generation of writers, but they never grasped her lesson.  And she wasn't the only one.  Hiroshi Yamauchi, CEO Emeritus of Nintendo Co Ltd., uttered a mantra meaning much the same thing thirty years ago: "Content is everything.  We will put all our efforts into producing great content.  Then we will have something we can sell."  Yamauchi was right, and in under three years Nintendo singlehandedly brought the American video game industry back from the grave of its 1983 industry crash.  Frank Herbert himself recognized the primacy of content when Dune became a blockbuster hit:
A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You're there now doing the thing on paper. You're not killing the goose, you're just producing an egg.
Yamauchi and Herbert would laugh in the face of the person who expects there to be room in the market for his or her "crappy novel," to borrow from Shapiro's anecdote.  Why waste an instant pushing subpar material when effort, practice, and dedication can make possible an "excellent" novel instead?  Sure, Stephanie Meyer is raking in millions of dollars with pulp trash about sparkly vampires, but she is the exception that proves the rule.  Most subpar books that aren't cheap fad exploits are rejected by publishers, and of the few that see print, most languish on discount shelves until the market mercifully dismisses them.  Who would you rather be: William Hung or Garth Brooks?

Producing an excellent novel, of course, means mastering creative tropes, mastering characterization, mastering plot and pacing, and sharpening technical writing skills to produce compact, vivid prose.  It means having a broad imagination and enough patience and discipline to craft the entirety of a story and see it through to completion.  It means spending so much time developing these skills that an entire secondary career can come and go in the meantime.  Chuck Jones, the artist who brought you Bugs Bunny, once joked that every artist has 20,000 awful pictures in them -- best to get them out of the way early and get on to the good stuff.  What Jones meant, of course, was that through constant devotion to the craft, the artist's pictures improve to the point that he or she probably will be producing good material well before closing in on 20,000.  By immersing himself or herself in the craft, the artist accomplishes true and measurable improvement, and eventually reaches the point that his or her content is so good that sales seek the artist and not the other way around.

Jones' truism could be adapted for writing by saying that every author has at least three dozen novels in them that are absolute trash -- might as well get them written and over with and move on to the good material!  That is the position I am in now.  The few publications of mine that you see linked at the upper left of this blog are just a tiny fraction of what I have written, and are generally the best of it that I have managed to complete.  These, still, are not written at the capability level I know I can one day reach!  I also have a torrent of crud that I won't be publishing anytime soon or perhaps ever, and I have quite a few tasty morsels that are better but that I haven't managed to finish yet, so there is still more work to do.  I have been writing since 1992, and I have been writing with a serious notion of mastering the craft since 1999.  I expect it may take another decade before my writing is finally good enough to produce content that pays a livelihood all by itself.  And that's if things go well.

Is it fair to subject Steph, Allie, and Evey to such a waiting cycle?  Is it fair to put my daughters into a position where they may not be able to attend the best college that accepts them because the money simply isn't there?  Is it fair that my wife has to spend time working for middling wages instead of raising my daughters and having dominion over my household, as she will tell you she'd greatly prefer?  No, it really isn't fair, and that's why I still grind out a commute to produce documents for the government for a salary that serves as the Bahr family lifeblood.  One day I will either set it aside or actually reach retirement, and from then on it's going to be writing until the day they nail my coffin shut, as Robert Jordan famously quipped.  It would be so much easier if I were content to punch the clock every day until I walked away with a gold watch, and spend every night in front of a television set being told what to think.  It would be easier -- but that would deprive me of creative experiences I am unwilling to forego.  I guess all those other career opportunities will just have to wait for the resume of someone else.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Will MegaCorp Own Your Grandchildren?


It is understandable that you might laugh at such a question, given that the question of "ownership" of a human being in the United States became terminally moot right around 1865 -- or so we thought.

Anyway, you've seen Gattaca, right?  Without spoiling anything about that particular cinematic science fiction masterpiece, the setting is a near future in which embryos can be genetically engineered to produce children who are strong, intelligent, and free of hereditary diseases or disadvantages.  Within a short time, the engineered children, "Valids," become society's elite, and create a glass ceiling that is all but impossible for normally-born children, "In-Valids," to break.  Only Valids are professionals; all In-Valids are menial laborers.

The genetic engineers in Gattaca, the "Eighth Day Center," have tremendous power in that society.  The film presented their work as selective and not directly creative -- they did not actually make embryos, but selected from among the billions of sperm donated by the father and the eggs of the mother to find the few optimal matches.  As the Eighth Day doctor says, "These babies are still you, just the best of you."  Without a doubt, Eighth Day would have a patent on the filtration process, but they create no new material and thus could never have an interest in the subsequent issue (unless by some contrivance of contract).

The ominous questions arise when Megacorp figures out (or buys from some inventor or university research department) a process to actually engineer an embryo -- most probably taking an existing filtered one like in Gattaca and grafting on additional code.  Some possibilities:
  • Enhanced physical strength, for many obvious applications.
  • Enhanced eyesight, possibly crossing into areas off the normal human spectrum such as ultraviolet or infrared.  Your child could see in the dark, and would probably make an amazing soldier -- or assassin.
  • Slowed aging, using genetic code to create the antithesis of progeria.  Combine with "enhanced beauty" for an attractive movie star that could be "in his/her prime" for decades.
  • Additional body parts.  Gattaca hinted briefly at this with a 12-fingered pianist.  I won't explore this too deeply here in order to keep this speculative and not squicky.
  • Bloodstream or dermal augmentation, granting high resistance to heat or cold (but probably not both, due to the limitations of physics).  Uninhabitable wastelands in Siberia, Greenland, Nunavut, and Antarctica could suddenly become the trendy exclusive neighborhoods for the rich -- no need to worry about the "riff-raff" moving in, because they can't tolerate or even survive the climate!
  • Enhanced intelligence -- the sky is the limit.
Ah, but even a genetically enhanced human with created code in DNA wouldn't necessarily be owned by MegaCorp, you might argue.  Well, first let's look at the genetic code itself.  Current common law suggests that MegaCorp would have the right to patent their code and protect it accordingly.  In the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980), the Supreme Court held that living, genetically engineered material is patentable subject matter.  The modified organism, due to human intervention, was not a product of nature and fell within the definition of "manufacture."  This was at issue because laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not protectible as intellectual property.  To be patentable, one must develop a machine, composition of matter, or manufacture.  In nature, there is no "invention" -- only "discovery."

OK, "So what?" you might ask.  "So MegaCorp has the patent on how they engineered my grandson's embryo.  I wasn't planning to go into the fertility business, so what do I care?  Their competitors can develop their own processes if they want in on that action."

The problem comes with adverse conditions.  Specifically, the problem exists because adverse conditions give MegaCorp a back door through which to introduce revenue mechanisms to the extreme detriment of consumers -- who might not have any choice in the matter.

Andrew Carnegie's "secret of wealth," paraphrasing from Napoleon Hill's classic self-help book Think and Grow Rich, is to make something that everybody wants, that nobody can make themselves, and that gets used up and must be replenished.

Imagine, then, if the genetic code of the engineered children came with a built-in trigger: every ten years, the enhancements naturally decay until the individual is left no better than a "normal" human being.  That is, unless a person purchases from MegaCorp an individually-customized genetic code "patching" pill that halts the genetic decay for ten years.  MegaCorp could charge anything they wanted for that pill... $10K, $100K, $500K... and "Valids" would pay it.  (In the world of Gattaca, Valids had extremely high-paying jobs.  It stands to reason that if this societal construct came about in real life, banks would probably be willing to lend $500K for a booster pill knowing that the Valid debtor would be able to retain a seven- or eight-figure job.  For example, virtually all professional athletes would be Valids.)

Oh, and it gets better: MegaCorp could engineer the booster pill to contain their patented and copyrighted genetic code, and it would be illegal for anyone to attempt to create a work-around, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998.  It would not be illegal for someone to reverse-engineer a booster pill or someone's genetic code "in the wild," but the realities of economy of scale and the fact that the reverse-engineering could not make use of any patented or copyrighted code make it likely that creating such a substitute would cost more than just buying the booster pill normally.

Importantly, MegaCorp is not visiting any specific harm on its client or "creation" -- they are simply imposing a time limit on their product or service, as it were.  Once the time is up, the client is no worse off than if they had never utilized MegaCorp's genetic enhancements.  But in the context of a society that could very quickly be polarized by "genoism" into a world of Valids and In-Valids, MegaCorp would be the gatekeepers to health and prosperity. 

While the parallels to drug addiction are fairly obvious, this concept, taken to the Nth degree, more closely parallels the modern conveniences of refrigeration, air conditioning, and easy access to personal motor vehicles.  Sure, we can survive without any of those things, but does anybody really want to?  And so we pay.  We pay loans and interest (usually) to own houses and cars.  We pay cash for appliances.  We pay for upkeep and repair.  And to some degree we're already experiencing the MegaCorp scenario with "disposable" cars -- vehicles engineered to work well for a few short years and then be replaced.  Anecdata in point: Steph's Mitsubishi Mirage is on its last legs despite being two years newer than my 1999 Honda Accord, which still runs beautifully.  Your Money or Your Life, indeed.

So your granddaughter, a physical and intellectual specimen the likes of which would have been one-in-a-million naturally, learns upon finishing graduate school at 19 that she is going to be doomed to a lifetime of janitorial work or prostitution unless she mortgages herself every decade to pay MegaCorp an exhorbitant retainer to maintain her Validity.  MegaCorp dominates the economy, because they have made a product that everybody wants, that nobody can make themselves, and that gets used up and must be replenished.  Nothing MegaCorp has done is technically illegal -- man is mortal, and no mere product or service will reverse the chains of time and decay -- and yet the state of society creates an adverse landscape in which your granddaughter is an irrevocably indentured servant.  And so is everybody else of her generation and those that follow.

In fact, the only way to make this scenario any more frightening would be to substitute "MegaCorp" with "the Government."

Perhaps I should cash in on this dire prophecy while I still can.  After all, it seems like there may exist here the raw materials for a classic science fiction story.  We may hope that it never comes to pass, like Anthem, 1984, or The Handmaid's Tale, instead of growing more plausible by the year, like Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, or Neuromancer.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Escapism, Then and Now

Steph and I are headed to Las Vegas this weekend to celebrate our third wedding anniversary.  Naturally, Allie and I got sick, we have a million things to do around the house, and I'm grinding through an unusually busy time at work.  Saturday can't get here soon enough, and Steph and I will indulge in two days of paired aces, buffet dinners, and the whimsy of shiny, colorful lights everywhere.

We know, of course, that Las Vegas is the epitome of artifice.  Without the Hoover Dam, it would be physically impossible to support such a desert oasis without mandating the use of stillsuits.  The casinos have no clocks and no windows, because while a tourist is spending time in Vegas, the party never ends.  Well, not until the tourist's wallet runs bare, anyway.  Steph and I know and recognize these things, and we aren't looking for health, meaning, or intellectual development while on this trip.  We are going to blissfully evade reality for a weekend.  When we return, we will thank my parents for watching our daughters for the duration.

It occurred to me while contemplating our Las Vegas trip and watching the Cardinals' harrowing 51-45 victory over the Packers in Sunday's wild card game that escapism has shifted in meaning over the last few decades.  During one of the game's commercial breaks, the network showed a commercial for Tooth Fairy, an upcoming box-office turd starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a skeptical hockey player whose nickname is derived from his habit of knocking out the teeth of opposing players.  He tells his daughter that there is actually no such thing as the tooth fairy, but for his sin of skepticism, he is transformed by some mysterious intervention into a life-sized tooth fairy, tutu and all.  The trailer goes on to spoil that there is an underground secret society of tooth fairies spreading their magical pixie dust or whatever all over the world; essentially, a Men in Black for kindergarteners.  And I couldn't help but realize as I watch that commercial that Tooth Fairy would never have flown back when I was young.

When I was growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, society's eyes were fixed on the stars.  For escapism in that era, we had not only the original Star Wars trilogy, but the first several Star Trek movies, lesser works such as The Black Hole, The Last Starfighter, and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, and cartoons such as Transformers and Voltron.  Video games ruled the universe until the crash of 1983, and the fundamental video game scenario had player piloting a spaceship and blasting enemies of some sort ad infinitum -- Asteroids, Space Invaders, GalagaTempest, Scramble, and so on.  Girls had mostly pony-related toys and Barbie dolls, true -- but that's because the boys' side of the equation was so mainstream it included everybody.  There was no more glittering escapist dream than the thought that we were luminous beings, as Yoda said, not this "crude matter," and would soon leave our Earthly chains behind and ascend to the great unknown.  It was the classic adventure/exploring motif dialed Up To Eleven.  Adventure is Out There!

Fast forward to today, and escapism wears a different face: technology and the brilliant future have been cast aside in favor of magical lands of make-believe.  The best of these make use of the Magic A Is Magic A trope; the worst turn instead to And Man Grew Proud, All Myths Are True, and Clap Your Hands If You Believe.

The clear champions of the fantasy escapism era are the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings.  Remember, Rings was not popular in the mainstream in the 1980s -- this was before the ascendancy of nerddom as "cool."  In both stories, Magic A Is Magic A.  That is to say, the magical effects are part of a consistent system of magic where doing something a specific way produces a specific result.  When Magic A is Magic A, the story is more plausible and better suspends disbelief, because the magic is really just a thinly-veiled metaphor for technology.  The story is left free to develop plot and character without the reader or viewer wondering whether Gandalf is going to "go blind if he keeps doing that."  In the end, Harry Potter is the hero, not Expelliarmus.  The latter was merely a tool.

Unfortunately, such excellent fantasy escapism is outnumbered by a deluge of lesser works in which the other tropes are used.  Without seeing Tooth Fairy (and I'm not likely to do so), I can't say whether it uses All Myths Are True or Clap Your Hands If You Believe, but its director's previous films, the Santa Clause trilogy, suggest the former.  Magic is not a stand-in for technology, but for divine, capricious anvil-dropping morality.  The protagonist in both is forced to don the mantle of the titular mythical character as punishment for the grievous sin of being rational and intelligent enough to know the myth is make-believe.  How dare he!  The Polar Express (2004 adaptation) is an example of the latter trope: only those who believe in Santa can hear the Christmas bells.  This sort of story is probably pretty harmless for young children, who were the original intended audience of fairy tales in the first place -- part of growing up is learning the difference between fiction and real life. 

There are people, however, who choose to continue to believe deep down that maybe fairy tales are secretly real -- or who wish they could be.  These make up the target audience for execrable works such as the Final Destination films, in which a mystical vision prompts the protagonist to avoid dying in some squicky fashion, thus "ruining Death's design."  And Man Grew Proud, audaciously insisting upon continuing to live, angering a pseudo-anthropomorphized Death who does not take such insults lightly.  The protagonist is doomed to spend the remainder of the movie scrambling to escape a series of deadly contrivances.  If only he would just give up and die like he was supposed to, Death would be appeased and the ordeal would end!  Once again, magic is a stand-in for divine will or caprice.  As with the fairy tales, this makes the characters tools of the magic, marionettes on strings, rather than making magic a tool for the characters to use as they Go Forth and Commit Great Plot.  Mature readers/viewers have little tolerance for a story in which the writer has prevented the protagonist from protagonizing!

The meaning of escapism was once, not so long ago, a celebration of an eventual ascendance above the dreary present day.  Faced with a cold war, economic variance, and an increasingly toxic political culture, escapists of that time turned to romantic, hopeful notions of what might happen if we humans ever harnessed the best within us.  Two decades later, faced with a cold war, economic variance, and an increasingly toxic political culture, escapists turn to pure absurdity as an intellectual analgesic, and a diminishing minority of works display any recognition of the romantic, heroic ideals that sustained the previous era.  It is comforting to realize that the most successful fantasy is of the latter type, but what changed in the interim that wrought such upheaval of the rest of the landscape?  Whoever finds the answer to that question will be the one who leads the way forward into Whatever Comes Next.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Play's the Thing: Creative Tropes Revisited

Tropes, the creative tools that are used to tell stories that readers and viewers will recognize and understand, are hardly limited to modern-day examples like the one I explored in Wednesday's essay.  Indeed, some tropes are Older Than Television, Older Than Radio, or even Older Than Steam.  A trope such as "sibling rivalry" can be classified as Older Than Dirt, thanks to the myth of Cain and Abel.  Centuries ago, the greatest playwright known to history used tropes while penning his stories just as modern-day authors use tropes while tappping at the keyboards of their Macbooks.

Part of what made William Shakespeare's plays timeless is that the Bard wove compatible tropes together in beautifully seamless combinations theretofore unseen.  The resulting tapestry created rich, interesting stories with characters from every level of the complexity scale.  One affirmation of the versatility and accessibility of Shakespeare's stories is the success of modern works that are recognizably adaptations of the Bard's plays.

A few of the better-known examples:
  • 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • Forbidden Planet (The Tempest)
  • Get Over It (A Midsummer Night's Dream)
  • The Lion King (Hamlet)
  • She's the Man (Twelfth Night)
  • Strange Brew (Hamlet)
  • West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)
Each of those works reimagined one of Shakespeare's original stories in a new setting and era with genre-appropriate characters and social conventions.  This is possible because of the power of creative tropes as tools: the trope is an abstract, and the range of concretes that can be used to express that abstract is limited only by an author's imagination.  Even the Bard's complex combination of creative tropes can still be adapted whole cloth (to stretch the "tapestry" metaphor) into an entirely new expression.

As a consummate game player, naturally, I have figured out a way to make a game out of this.

I am going to perform a writing exercise in this article recasting a work of Shakespeare in the present day.  I will present an excerpt from the opening scene.  It is your job to guess which work I am adapting, and put your answer in the comments section.  First person to get it right gets bragging rights and a cold drink on me next time we meet.  Every work of Shakespeare, including those used in the examples above, is potentially in play.

Go North from 174th Street (excerpt)
by Michael Bahr, 2010

The thump-thump of a bouncing basketball punctuated the white noise of late Friday afternoon in the upper Bronx.  Four men sweated and struggled, two against the other two, while dozens of others watched and waited their turns.  Two of the ebony-skinned men would walk away from the contest twenty dollars richer.  Men had come to blows on that court for smaller stakes.

A newcomer arrived.  Derrick Wilshire thundered along the side of the court, his white sneakers matching the white teeth in his smile.  The newcomer shouted to his companion, a taller man queued up to play.

"Hey yo, T-Bone!  She called me back!"

The taller man shook his head.  "Man, D, you got to be the luckiest brother on this block.  I bet if any other guy here's high-school sweetheart won the lottery, she wouldn't give a brother the time of day."

Derrick grinned and shrugged.  "Brother, I told you, that chick loves me!  Lisa played her v-card with me back when she was 16, man.  She told me come right on out and see her!"

T-Bone raised an eyebrow.  "So what you still doin' here, D?  If I had a millionaire girlfriend, I wouldn't be wasting my time playing basketball."

Other men watching the basketball game chimed in their agreement with T-Bone.  "You damn right."  "Sho'nuff."  "You know it, brother."

Derrick took a deep breath.  "That's the thing, T-Bone.  I'm ready to go right now, but she's at her new place up in Nanuet.  I ain't got no money to get up there."

The taller man snorted.  "What money?  Who gives a flip about money?  Your girlfriend rich, dawg!  Tell her send you a couple hundred for a limo!"

"That's the thing, T-Bone.  My sister heard from her friend Stacey, she's tight with Lisa, and Stacey said Lisa is calling up all her old boyfriends and she's gonna pick one and kick the rest to the curb!  I can't ask for no money or else I look like that's all I want, instead of wantin' the chick!  And if I don't get up there before some other brother work his way into her bed, I blown my big chance!"

"So you out of luck, then," shrugged T-Bone.

"No, man, T, I need your help, man.  You got to spot me $500 so I can rent a nice car and go up there and spend the weekend.  After I get with Lisa, you know I can totally pay it back."

T-Bone laughed out loud.  "Five hundred dollars!  You crazy, dawg!  What makes you think I got that kind of money!  Get out of here, D.  Jump the subway or something.  I'm sure you'll find some way to get up to Nanuet."

Derrick tugged on T-Bone's shirt.  "Look, man, can we talk for a minute?"

T-Bone looked back at the game in progress.  The score was tied at eight; it would end soon.

"I better not miss my turn, D."

The two men stepped aside from the line of basketball players and strolled to the corner of the playground.  They spoke in hushed voices.

"Look, T-Bone, you know I wouldn't ask you if this wasn't important.  Can't you cut me a little action off your... business... just for the weekend?  Back when you got picked up that time, didn't I spend my whole welfare check bailing you out?"

T-Bone blinked and exhaled.  "Yeah, D, you did.  I guess I owe you one.  Business ain't been so great lately, though.  The cops are gettin' a lot more aggressive.  I don't know I can be sure about sparin' half a grand.  I got rent to pay.  Child support.  A brother like me get picked up for driving while black, you know if I ain't current on my child support they'll throw me in the lock-up fast as that."

Derrick grasped at emptiness, gritting his teeth.  "Aw, man.  You were my best hope, T.  My mom and sister ain't got no money or I'd already be gone.  Ain't no one out there we can hit up for the funds?"

A glint of gold flashed in T-Bone's eye from one of the men at the side of the court.  The players exchanged money; the game was over, and T-Bone had lost his place in line for the next game.

"Gold.  That's it, D."

"What's it, T-Bone?"

"You got a suit and a tie, man?"

"One of my dad's should fit.  He's still at Riker's.  He ain't gonna be needing it."

T-Bone nodded, his eyes focusing on the glint of the player's gold chain.  "Go put it on and meet me back here in half an hour.  I can't get you half a grand, but I know a guy I can press for a favor.  I can get him to lend me his Humvee for the weekend, and then I'll lend it to you."

Derrick's face burst to life.  "Really?  Oh, man, T-Bone, that would be perfect!  Lisa would think I had it goin' on!  She'd know I was there for her and not just the money, y'know?"

T-Bone held up his palms.  "Calm down, D, calm down.  All right.  We're gonna do this.  Half an hour.  We're gonna go see a gold dealer named Hanoosh.  He's a few blocks down, in Little Dubai.  This guy is serious, so no joking around and no brother-talk.  You call me Timothy, and you call him Mr. Hanoosh.  Do not forget the 'Mister'.  He did my grill and he still owes me a few more caps, so if we play our cards right, you'll be driving his Hummer out of town by sunset."

-
And there you have it, folks.  What Shakespearean play am I adapting?  The game begins... Now!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Creative Tropes in James Cameron's "Avatar"

[Spoiler alert: This essay contains spoilers for the movies AvatarLawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and The Empire Strikes Back, as well as the novel and movie Dune and the five-book fictional epic The Belgariad.]

James Cameron's Avatar has, as of this writing, grossed over $1 billion worldwide, and has clearly set a new bar for science-fiction special effects and cinematography.  Cameron has proven himself in the past to be a master of delivering believable military sci-fi even when incorporating obvious fantasy elements -- see Aliens and Terminator 2, for example.  Cameron wrote and directed Avatar.  It is now very clear that direction is Cameron's true strength, because Avatar's story fails on multiple levels despite using rich, versatile tropes.  In this essay, I will illustrate in greater detail some of Cameron's creative trope failures in Avatar and provide examples of the same tropes executed better in other works.

Tropes are not bad things to have in a story.  To the contrary, tropes are tools for the crafting of stories, and the quality of a creative work often depends on the author's skill in using tropes to build an engaging plot and vivid narrative.  A trope is a well-defined concrete or combination of concretes that can be used to convey a complex abstract idea because a reader is likely to recognize the concrete and draw the "right" conclusion about its abstract meaning in the story.  For example, there is a trope called "Kicking the Dog."  If a reader must learn that a character is evil, the writer can convey that understanding by showing that character kicking a dog.  Only evil people kick dogs, therefore that character must be evil.  It takes seconds and requires no dialogue, making it an effective and efficient trope.

The power of tropes as tools is that a writer using them to convey abstracts using those simple concretes is able to make an entire story "connect" with the reader on a familiar and emotional level even on a first reading or viewing.  For example, the Boy Hero is a trope, and so is his adversary, the Dark Lord.  Entire forests have fallen to produce pulp of the worst sort imaginable to tell stories of Boy Heroes opposing Dark Lords.  The creative works that used the two tropes well, however, have been very successful.  Luke Skywalker opposes Darth Vader.  Frodo Baggins opposes Sauron.  Harry Potter opposes Voldemort.  Belgarion opposes Torak.  Good execution sets those works apart from the slush pile.  This good execution comes from clear, flavorful prose, well-realized sympathetic characters, well-developed settings, and the adept use of supporting tropes such as the Quest, the Talisman, the Wise Old Mentor, having the Boy Hero fight some Minibosses, and finally having the Boy Hero's Five-Man Band infiltrate the Dark Lord's Evil Hideout and destroy the Dark Lord once and for all.  (There are even humorous tropes to explain why the Evil Hideout sometimes collapses when the Dark Lord dies: apparently, the Dark Lord was a "Load-Bearing Villain.")  Because the tropes are well-executed, we as readers care about Harry Potter surviving Voldemort's machinations.  We feel the despair when Luke Skywalker learns that Darth Vader is his father.  We exult in Belgarion's Flash of Insight that leads to his victory over Torak.  In essence, well-executed tropes make a story enjoyable.

Avatar uses some of the most versatile tropes in existence to tell its story.  The overall plot is an omnibus trope called the "Mighty Whitey" story.  In that trope, an everyman hero (which is itself a trope) from a civilized society journeys to the frontier (also a trope) and encounters peace-loving natives (another trope), wins them over by his bravery and good-heartedness, and eventually becomes their leader.  Often, the hero marries the chief's daughter (another trope), who comes to love the hero despite being promised in an arranged marriage (another trope) to another man in the tribe, typically the tribal tough-guy (another trope).  The antagonists are usually imperialist/colonialist exploiters (another trope), the society from which the hero hails.  The natives reject imperialist technology, instead adhering to timeworn customs and traditions (another trope).

In Avatar, our everyman hero is Jake Sully, a disabled ex-marine.  The frontier is Pandora, a moon orbiting a planet five light-years from Earth.  (Obviously in the Centauri system.  That would have been nice for them to mention at some point, considering an Earth-like planet could plausibly exist there in reality.)  Jake works for RDA, a mining company that has built a base on Pandora to mine "unobtainium," a room-temperature superconductive mineral native to that moon.  The native blue-skinned alien Na'vi live in a village situated atop "the largest unobtainium deposit for 20 clicks in any direction."  Jake's science group operates artificially-grown Na'vi bodies called "avatars" by a wireless mind connection otherwise similar to what we saw in The Matrix and Surrogates.  This allows the scientists to walk among the Na'vi as though they were the same species.  It is up to the science team to talk the Na'vi into moving away from the mining site; if they fail, the mining company plans to destroy the Na'vi.

On a mission to the dangerous Pandoran jungle, Jake encounters Neytiri, the Na'vi chief's daughter.  Neytiri knows Jake is not a true Na'vi but an avatar driver from among the Sky People (the humans).  She berates Jake for his ignorance of how to live in harmony with nature, but is secretly impressed that he faced the perils of the wilderness without fear.  The other avatar drivers are scientists, so the Na'vi tolerated them but never accepted them into Na'vi culture; since Jake is a warrior, the Na'vi embrace him as a brother.  Neytiri falls in love with Jake and marries him, casting aside her former betrothed, Tsu'tey.  Now that Jake is "in" with the natives, mining company security chief Colonel Quaritch promises Jake an expensive spinal restoration if Jake delivers enough recon intel on the Na'vi village Home Tree to ensure that the mining company's attack will succeed.  Jake complies, and the attack works -- the Na'vi are forced to retreat to their ancestral home valley beyond the Floating Mountains, and they reject Jake for betraying them.

For no explained reason, that isn't good enough for the mining company, and Colonel Quaritch launches another attack to wipe out the Na'vi once and for all.  Jake's science group splits from the mining company and sets up shop near the Na'vi hideaway, and Jake subdues a Pandoran dragon, fulfilling an ancient prophecy and regaining the trust of the Na'vi people.  Jake learns that the Na'vi religion actually works (it is based on a series of bioneural bonds between sentient organisms everywhere on the moon) and uses it to rally the very wilderness to fight for the Na'vi.  Among the floating mountains, the Na'vi and the Sky People do battle, and the Earthicans are soundly defeated by the combined natural might of Pandora.  The Na'vi permit the science group to stay, but expel the miners.  Jake becomes the Na'vi chief.  And... curtain.

The tropes used in Avatar should immediately evoke parallels to their usage in other (and often better) stories.  Lawrence of Arabia, Dune, Dances With Wolves, Disney's Pocahontas, and The Ghost and the Darkness are all examples of essentially the same story told better.  A closer look at the tropes in play and how each story executed them makes this clear.

First, the use of "unobtainium" as the name for the superconducting mineral is particularly grating.  Unobtainium is the name of the trope!  In a story, Unobtainium is whatever rare or valuable substance is needed to make the story world's Applied Phlebotinum (advanced technology, magic, faster-than-light space travel, whatever) work.  The archetypical example of the Unobtainium trope executed perfectly is the "spice" from the novel Dune.  In Dune, the spice is necessary for faster-than-light space travel, giving rise to the in-world saying "He who controls the spice controls the universe."  The entire Dune plot is concerned with which faction will win control of the planet Arrakis, the only known source of spice.  For Avatar to actually use the word "unobtainium" to name the story's Unobtainium is as though a writer named the Dark Lord something like "Darkus Lordius."  It is as though Cameron's writing staff, adapting his broad ideas into the final screenplay, did as many writers do and used "unobtainium" as a placeholder on paper for an actual flavorful name to be invented later, but Cameron never got around to naming it and the editors didn't notice.  Leaving it as "unobtainium" would have been fine in a comedy or deconstructive/irreverent story, but Avatar is a "serious" story.

Second, Cameron fumbles the Evil Imperialist/Colonialist Horde trope.  Back in the days of the Virginia Company, sure, with the limitations on oceanic travel, it might make sense for a private corporation to be the first to encounter and make political overtures to a native population.  But 150 years in the future, it strains credibility to suggest that there would not be any governmental presence handling the diplomatic side of the equation and ensuring that the mercenaries under Colonel Quaritch do not simply commit genocide and have done with it.  At a bare minimum, public officials would entreat with a sentient alien species as a means of assessing the degree of likelihood that the aliens will attack Earth!  Maybe there is some reason the mining company is operating free of restraint -- perhaps the Earth is embroiled in civil war, or has an imperialist regime in power, or perhaps the Pandora mining is a criminal enterprise and Earth is looking the other way because it needs unobtainium so badly (at $20 million per kilogram) -- but we do not know, because the story never says one way or the other.  Even if the story won't feature these things as central plot elements, proper worldbuilding demands that they be answered one way or the other, and when they are, it becomes trivial to include enough fine detail in the story that an observant reader/viewer can deduce the big picture.

Third, Cameron bungles the General Ripper trope.  Colonel Quaritch, an evil and bloodthirsty villain, moves forward with his attack on the Na'vi village, destroys it, and then moves on to further attacks against the Na'vi even though the unobtainium deposit is free for the taking now and the Na'vi have moved like the mining company wanted them to do!  War is much more expensive than mining -- no rational corporate decision-maker would have approved the attack on the Na'vi ancestral valley now that the critical deposit of unobtainium was available to be mined.  So who was supervising Quaritch anyway?  Not the corporation, and clearly not a government.  One individual seizes unchecked power, endangering a trillion-dollar enterprise, and everyone just goes along with it?  Even hardcore trained soldiers know that they are oath-bound to refuse an illegal order, yet only one of hundreds does so.  Gregg Easterbrook cannily observed, in explaining Cameron's fumble of this trope, "I find the colonel with absolute authority a lot more unrealistic than the floating mountains."

Speaking of which, fourth, Cameron bungles his worldbuilding even as he "gets the science right."  If unobtainium is a room-temperature superconductor, then it actually does make sense that mountains veined with the mineral and located in a region of magnetic turbulence could float.  So why did Cameron not just have the mining company mine unobtainium from the floating mountains, where no Na'vi live?  Because then there would be no plot, of course.  A viewer is meant to infer that the mountains are too far from the base, because the original deposit the mining company wanted was the only one "for 20 clicks in any direction."  The mining company can travel five light-years and spend trillions of dollars but won't send a drill more than 20 clicks away to get what they came for?  Unopposed, and in staggering quantity?  Those floating mountains would be worth more than the cash value of all other human wealth combined.  The mining company should have been more than happy to pull up stakes and go gorge on low-hanging fruit.

And speaking of wealth, fifth, Cameron's corporation badly carries the Idiot Ball by fighting for access to a deposit of unobtaininum while ignoring their own science team's discovery of the workings of Pandora's bioneural technology, a prize likely to be worth orders of magnitude more, in the long run, than the rocks!  Even the most fungible ore is only a raw material resource, while applied technology is an end product of resources, design, and labor.  Commercially speaking, it isn't even close.  That bioneural technology would have changed the human condition forever.  The script fails to explain in layperson's terms why this is important, instead giving Sigourney Weaver's scientist a few throwaway lines about the bioneural data transmission capability of the ecosystem.  The viewer is left watching scenes of the Na'vi praying to "Eywa" without understanding the impact of those scenes until much later, if ever, when the viewer realizes (or reads in an essay like this one) that Eywa was a real biological being who communicated through the bioneural network with most of the plants and animals in the area of the Na'vi homeland.  The story instead suggests that there is divine magic in play, instantly breaking suspension of disbelief for even moderately skeptical viewers, and leaving the viewers identifying the wrong Idiot Ball carriers.

Sixth, why did Cameron even include Tsu'tey in the film, if not to blindly conform to the arranged marriage / tribal tough-guy trope?  There is virtually no plot interaction between Tsu'tey and Neytiri and Jake -- Tsu'tey is merely there to show Na'vi looking badass and riding their hexahorses and soulbirds.  When Neytiri marries Jake, Tsu'tey isn't happy about it, but there is no real plot consequence to Tsu'tey.  He ends up dying in battle the same as if Jake had never shown up.  This is a clear trope fumble.  Dances With Wolves is the perfect execution of the tribal tough-guy side of the trope, because Wind In His Hair would never have rescued Lt. Dunbar from the brig if Dunbar had not earned Wind In His Hair's respect as a Sioux and a warrior.  Wind In His Hair is hostile to Dunbar at their first encounter, but ends the story shouting to the mountaintops that Dances With Wolves (Dunbar) is his friend, and will always be his friend.   Pocahontas did well addressing both aspects of this trope on a simpler level: the jilted Kocuom's jealousy at losing his betrothed to John Smith was the impetus for Kocuom's anger during the final confrontation.  What could have been a stare-down became real peril, and Kocuom made the danger credible.  Further, the English settlers did not fully respect the natives until they recognized Kocuom as the tribal analogue of Smith.

Seventh, why was Neytiri the chief's daughter?  She could have been any Na'vi tribeswoman and the plot would have changed little.  Cameron made her the chief's daughter because the trope said so, but he failed to understand the storytelling purpose of the trope.  Throughout human history before the Enlightenment era, an individual's rank in society had a tremendous impact on what the person was able to do or say in virtually any social situation, and whether that person's role would be credible at all.  Where mating and social relationships were concerned, the ranks of the individuals involved resonated with one another, accruing those individuals prestige or reducing them in shame, as applicable.  This trope was used perfectly in Dune, when Paul Atreides chose as his lover Chani, who was daughter of Liet-Kynes, the Imperial Planetologist and "Father of the Fremen."  Paul is the scion of House Atreides, and the standing of the House among the other Houses of the Landsraad depended on his marriage.  Paul enters into a political marriage with Imperial Princess Irulan, highest-ranking woman among the Landsraad, accruing House Atreides much prestige.  Thus, in order for Paul's love story with Chani to matter, Frank Herbert knew he would have to make Paul's Fremen lover somehow outrank Irulan in some non-overt but relevant way.  Though Chani's rank means nothing to the Landsraad, it means everything where Paul and the Fremen are concerned, leading to the novel's brilliant final passage.  In Avatar, Jake Sully's conquest of the dragon, a feat accomplished only five times in Navi history, was what made him the Na'vi leader.  Earlier, when Jake first tried to warn the Na'vi village of the impending attack, they barely acknowledged him despite his having mated with the chief's daughter a short time before!  Marrying the princess doesn't cut it anymore with the Na'vi; one has to fulfill a historic prophecy to earn their regard.  Tough room!

In fact, eighth, those demanding Na'vi are depicted as peace-loving natives in harmony with nature.  This particular trope shows up everywhere in fiction lately, especially with the ascendancy of environmentalism*.  Reality disagrees: most civilizations at the tribal stage throughout history have been violent, despotic, warlike, intolerant savages.  For every Sioux or Navajo that are sedate enough to entreat, colonists encounter a dozen Apache, Comanche, Zulu, Maori, or Aztec tribes full of skilled, agile warriors more than happy to slay the newcomers and, in some cases, dine on the remainder.  The environmental aspect is even more laughable, as indigenous tribes' impact on their environment has historically been extensive despite not including iconic talismen of modern pollution such as diesel fuel and nuclear waste barrels.  Animal excrement, skinning/slaughtering offal, and fire often despoiled the land around a tribe's encampment, while human filth and overfishing despoiled nearby waterways.  Tribal camps moved constantly because the buildup of detritus served as a breeding ground for disease.  None of this happens in Avatar.  The Na'vi live in literal harmony with the surrounding nature, communicating bioneurally with it via the bonding receptors.  The great Na'vi stone structures at their ancestral homeland exist with minimal impact upon the countryside, while the Earthicans strip-mine everything they can reach down to the dirt.  Cameron's failure to Do The Research takes a world where he Got The Science Right and ruins it with a bunch of environmentalist make-believe.

Ninth, the name of the trope is sufficiently explanatory: What Do You Mean It's Not Awesome?  I will quote Easterbrook once again:
What does "Avatar" build up to? Watching the invading soldiers -- most of whom happen to be former American military personnel -- die is the big cathartic ending of the flick. Extended sequences show Americans being graphically slaughtered in the natives' counterattack. The deaths of aliens are depicted as heartbreaking tragedies, while the deaths of American security forces are depicted as a whooping good time [...] Films that criticize the military for its faults are one thing: When did watching depictions of U.S. soldiers dying become a form of fun?
As Easterbrook correctly notes, it is definitely Not Awesome.

In fairness, Avatar gets some things very, very right.  As mentioned above, the floating mountains are scientifically plausible, and Pandora's location is reasonable conjecture and not mere fantasy.  The special double-rotary-winged craft flown by the Earthicans, as well as most of the military hardware featured, are realistic and well-imagined.  Cameron was already known for eschewing such fantasy tropes as death rays, laser blasters, and lightsabers, relying instead on good old-fashioned bullets.  Similarly, Avatar's characters travel to Pandora in stasis in a journey that spans five years, a plausible development used in place of Applied-Phlebotinum-enabled faster-than-light travel, warping, "folding," or similar devices.  The actual "avatar" technology is entirely near-fetched.  The "USB organ" is a bit off-putting, but it is not pure fantasy magic -- the viewer is shown it in a way that plays off known understanding of the brain-stem and the outer limits of conceptual biology. 

Even small details are, at times, excellent: When Jake first lands with the science team to serve as their bodyguard, he sweeps the perimeter with rifle in hand, and his finger is not on the trigger but on the side of the trigger guard.  This is precisely what is taught by firearms instructors as the correct way to carry a firearm.  Putting one's finger on the trigger while walking around is a good way to risk accidentally firing unintended shots.  It is clear, then, that Cameron has the capability of getting even small details right.  This supports the disappointing hypothesis that when Cameron fails, he fails due to incompetence, not apathy.

Avatar is planted thick with tropes, and an attentive viewer will notice many more than this essay addressed.  Cameron evokes viewer familiarity and emotion through effective direction, but more often his literary tropes weigh down the story enough to leave a savvy viewer disappointed.  If Cameron had simply directed the film and a competent screenwriter had provided the nuts and bolts, Avatar might have been the defining movie of a generation.  Instead, it is merely a new high-water mark for special effects and concepting, forever limited in its reach by a mediocre narrative.

*As a child of the scientific age and a person who understands research methods, I believe the data show that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) probably is happening.  However,  I oppose the unprecedented power-grabbing and regulatory intrusion into the personal lives of individuals that is being perpetrated right now by the government using AGW as the excuse du jour.  The private sector always adapts, and the scientific community will find a way to work in accord, though this may not happen in earnest until the eleventh hour.