Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Seek the Original: Jurassic Park

98.2% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

Watching a movie doesn't feel like an accomplishment. Finishing a big book, however, does.

An ebook may contain the same words as a printed copy, but the physical copy lets me see and feel the book I have just conquered. It is, on the whole, much more satisfying to finish a real book than to reach the end of a Kindle edition.

Being in a bookstore, or a library, surrounded by all those books, gives me an inspired feeling. The sight of them all, the smell of the old paper. I'm surrounded not by books, but by possibilities, and their physical presence is invigorating.

Clicking around Amazon for a book to read is not the same. There is no inspiration or possibility. I am surrounded by nothing but ads and suggested products to buy.

They say the death of the bookstore is inevitable, but I think bookstores will always be around in some form. When people realize what they have been missing this whole time, they will flock to them again.

My recent trips to the library and a bookstore reminded me of that wonderful feeling of being surrounded by possibility, and suddenly I'm not wasting my time! For the first time in many years, reading felt good! I felt like I was exploring, accomplishing something at last!

Jurassic Park was a satisfying book to finish.

Jurassic Park
by Michael Crichton

John Hammond forms the InGen corporation in the 1980's, hires the best scientists in the world and recreates the dinosaur genetic code. After buying a company that created artificial eggs, his scientists succeed in bringing 15 species of dinosaur back from extinction.

What to do with this marvelous advance in science? Why, turn it into a zoo so you can make money off it of course!

However, something is happening off the island where the park will be located. Children in Costa Rica are being attacked by strange lizards. An American girl is bitten multiple times by a small lizard. A partially eaten specimen is recovered, analyzed, and x-rays are sent to renowned paleontologist Dr. Allen Grant for identification. He thinks it resembles a species of dinosaur.

About this time, Hammond gathers his small team of experts to visit the island and give him their opinion on how things are, and so they can see just how safe and sophisticated everything is and how there is no way anything can go wrong. All of these people gave him input on the park in some way in the past, even if they didn't know it: Allen Grant, the dinosaur expert; Ian Malcolm, the mathematician who calculated the park can never work; Dr. Sattler, an expert on prehistoric plant life; Donald Gennaro, the lawyer representing the park, whose company has a 5% stake in the profits.

They reach the island off Costa Rica. Hammond and his team really have made dinosaurs, and Hammond sees his creation as something of pure wonder, sure to delight the world. Everyone else reacts with fear. They find flaw after flaw in the systems. Proof that things are, in fact, going wrong.

The dinosaurs are supposed to be all female, but an unexpected side effect of genetic engineering has allowed the dinosaurs to change gender and breed in the wild.

On top of that, the dinosaurs have mysterious health problems, and they're faster, stronger and smarter than expected.

The motion sensor tracking system has flaws that keep the scientists from seeing they have more dinosaurs on the island than expected.

And this is only the beginning of the park's problems. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and their best efforts to be prepared for the worst prove inadequate. The dinosaurs are out of their control, and now it's down to survival.

The book is about many things. Chief among them is: no matter how precise your calculations are, something will always go wrong. Ian Malcolm gives a wonderful example of a pool table. Strike a pool ball, and with good enough measurements, you can predict exactly where the ball will go hours, days, or even years into the future. But over time, tiny flaws that didn't affect calculations immediately will gradually alter the results. Imperfections in the table, or in the ball itself, for example, will alter the ball's course, making calculations impossible. What should be a simple system turns out to be unknowable after all.

It is just so with genetic engineering. The scientists of Jurassic Park claim to know the genetic code--to know what each gene does and what will happen if it is cut, rearranged, inserted into something else, and so forth; and yet even the scientists admit sometimes a protein will misfire and they'll have to start again, analyze what went wrong and rebuild the animal.

It all sounds eerily familiar 25 years after the book was published. Especially frightening is the boardroom meeting between executives of Biosyn, a rival genetics corporation, speculating on what InGen might do with their new dinosaur creation:

If InGen can make full-size dinosaurs, they can also make pygmy dinosaurs as household pets. What child won't want a little dinosaur as a pet? A little patented animal for their very own. InGen will sell millions of them. And InGen will engineer them so that these pet dinosaurs can only eat InGen pet food.

This is creepy because it echoes what's going on today, with Monsanto and like companies doing basically the same thing with plants. Patenting life. Remaking it. Tying it to profit.

Jurassic Park is about how scientists think the more they know, the more they can control, and yet there are always unintended consequences. Something always goes wrong. Something you could not expect, and what you don't know will undermine everything. It is a near-future glimpse into the world gene manipulation will create, and how it will eventually get out of control because control is impossible.

The book is full of details about the park itself, how they created it, and even why and how it came to this point. Science is no longer a purely academic endeavor, but done for profit. Profit ahead of safety or caution. The rest of the book is pure action as the people try to fend off the dinosaurs and escape the island, peppered with science-philosophy-mathematical monologues from Ian Malcolm, who spends the whole book lecturing people about how everything is hopeless. The power science has given man has outpaced man's ability to handle it. Man has a lot of knowledge, but no idea what to do with it. In time, Malcolm argues, something new will have to come along to replace science.

The visuals are sometimes difficult to grab, and the dialogue often feels too clean and unnatural. Malcolm's monologues are especially contrived. As in, there's no way a man under morphine would rattle this stuff off the top of his head. But damn it they are fascinating to read, and they pose an interesting way of looking at things.

The counterarguments other characters give are just as thought-provoking. There are always problems, but you solve them. How else can advances be made if you don't try? Problems are inevitable, but you don't run from them. You fix them. We didn't abandon the train, or the automobile, or the vaccine just because of the possibility something may go wrong, so how is Jurassic Park any different?

Malcolm's view of the world seems to be that people shouldn't try anything new because everything is doomed to fail anyway. It give's Hammond's point of view some credence. There are problems, but problems can be fixed.

Or can they? Is it all hopeless? Can we really control anything, or is everything we do--no matter how good our intentions--going to lead us down an unexpected path to ruin? That's what the book is about. Not dinosaurs, but science.

The strong points more than make up for the weak points. It's vastly different from the movie in how it turns the island into an object lesson regarding the illusion of control.

compare that to

Jurassic Park (1993)
starring Sam Neil

The movie trades the book's dire warning for visual spectacle. It works. Damn, it works. The movie's special effects were cutting edge for the time. Hard to imagine the filmmakers had to scale back the story because of the limits of computer animation and animatronics back them. They could not do Grant's and the kids' raft trip down the river to reach the visitor's center. They could not do the aviary at the time, with the pteranodon attack. They could not do the T-Rex swimming across the lagoon like a crocodile and pursuing them down the entire river. It would have been too expensive, and the special effects were so new at the time.

Almost completely gone is the warning of the dangers of genetic manipulation, and the state of science advancing purely for profit at the expense of safety. It touches on all of this, but when the CGI dinosaurs appear on the screen, it's easy to forget about the warning. The book makes sure we know what's going on here--that there is no such thing as a controlled system. The movie tries, but at best it only makes a couple clich├ęd lectures about the illusion of control. The book practically gives a logic proof!

The characters are all different. The lawyer, for example, is turned into a stereotype and is one of the first to die. In the book, he isn't exactly a hero, but he helps everyone fight for their lives, and he survives!

Then there are the kids. In both the book and the movie, Hammond brings his grandkids to the island at this critical moment because, first and foremost, he made the island to delight the children of the world. The kids are about useless in the book. Lex especially. She's supposed to be a sporty girl who's into baseball, but she spends the whole book whining about how hungry she is and she's afraid to do anything. It's Tim, her brother, who knows about dinosaurs and computers. He figures out the computer and brings the systems back online. It's Tim who baits the raptor in the kitchen and locks it in the freezer. Lex doesn't do anything but whine. Sure, she's young, but so is Tim! In the movie, the girl is much older, she's the computer nerd, and Tim is the useless one.

Grant hates kids in the movie, but he loves children in the book. Of course he would. It's always the kids who are so fascinated by dinosaurs, and he would be eager to feed their sense of wonder. It doesn't make sense for him to hate kids, and I have a feeling this was done just to have some character development. Character development is absent from the book, so the movie needed some sort of emotional center, even if it is tacked on.

John Hammond is the most different. In the movie, he's a warm, grandfather-like character with the best intentions. In the book, he's a frail old man who builds the park to make money. He's stubborn, refuses to accept the idea that something has gone wrong with the park, and it's not as simple as just getting a better team next time and preventing these mistakes next time. Malcolm tries to convince him that it's an inherent problem in the idea itself, and no matter how many times he tries, it will end up the same way. In the movie, however, Hammond does see that chaos was inevitable. He's not likable at all in the book, but in the film, he's the man I want as my grandfather! He has the best intentions, and he seems to want to delight people with what he's made.

The movie never establishes why Ian Malcolm is on the island. What possible use would a mathematician ("chaotician") be? The book explains he's the one who calculated that Hammond's park could never work because the tiny flaws in the various systems he created would become more pronounced as time went on and eventually cause the whole thing to fail. He's not very likable in the book or the movie, but in the book we understand why he's here, and what chaos has to do with anything. The movie doesn't explain this, so he's essentially useless to the plot, too.

Then the raptors. It's pretty well-known Spielberg doubled the size of the raptors in the movie to make them more terrifying on screen. In the book, as in real life, velociraptor was only about the size of a leopard. The raptors are huge in the film, and it's quite effective.

Then, during production, a fossil named Utahraptor was discovered that matched Spielberg's giant raptors. In the book, there is one raptor described as 6-feet tall, the one in the kitchen chasing the children.

The jury's still out on whether these dinosaurs had feathers, but both the book and the movie predate that idea.

The movie is a visual spectacle that oversimplifies the story into a basic monster flick. The special effects saved it then, as they do now. Nobody had ever done computer animation like this before, and it took our breath away in 1993. The effects still look good today, but strip away the special effects and you have the same basic monster-movie plot we've seen a hundred times before.

The book has a lot more to say about what went wrong with Hammond's plans. We may think we understand something, but we can never foresee the long-term effects.

So does this mean we should stop experimenting? Ian Malcolm would say, no, of course not, because we can't change the direction we're headed. Eventually, science itself will be out of control, and something else will replace it. Like him, I can't imagine what. I hope it's something that gives man more discipline for what to do with the power he gains.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seek the Original: Mrs. Doubtfire

93.2% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

Madame Doubtfire
by Anne Fine

Daniel Hilliard has been divorced from his wife, Miranda, for a couple years. He's an actor, so he's frequently unemployed. He just got a job doing nude modeling for an art class, but that's been his only regular job for some time. His wife, meanwhile, runs a business, and is always at work. He only gets to see his children every other weekend, and every Tuesday for tea.

But lately, Miranda has been passive aggressively shaving time off his visits. Showing up early to pick up the kids from their father's apartment. Showing up late dropping them off, robbing Daniel of precious time with his children.

So Daniel does something drastic: he responds to the ad his ex-wife takes out in the paper for a housekeeper. Disguising himself as a woman named Madame Doubtfire, he applies for the job, and Miranda is so impressed she hires him on the spot.

Before he's even hired, he tells his three children who he is, and now he gets all the time with his children he wants.

I thought this would be so much more interesting than it is. I was surprised the story takes place in England. After that wore off, I was surprised again when I found out it's actually a young adult book. And then when that shock wore off, I was surprised at Daniel's lack of motivation to take such drastic means to see his children.

Daniel doesn't lose custody of his children. He still sees them often enough, so why does he feel the need to disguise himself as a woman and take the job as his ex's housekeeper? All because Miranda is shaving a few minutes off his teatime and weekend visits? He needs child support money? That's not a big enough of a problem to merit such an extreme solution.

Furthermore, once he is Madame Doubtfire, working in his ex-wife's home, it's not really that big a deal. It makes sense he would let his children in on the act so they really could spend time with their father, but nothing of consequence happens because of this.

There are a couple seeds of ideas for how his disguise as Madame Doubtfire could have become a crucial plot development. Only once do we hear Miranda talk about Daniel and the horrible things she had to endure since the day they were married, and this could have been interesting. Daniel could have used Madame Doubtfire to figure out why their marriage fell apart, gaining a new perspective on things and finding a way to turn things around. That would have been a perfect way to use this disguise!

But this idea is unused. In fact, it succeeds in making Daniel look like a real jerk. For example: on his and Miranda's wedding day, there was a girl out in front of a grocery store giving away kittens, and she only had one left. So what does Daniel do? He cuts away from his wedding, fetches the litter his own cat just had, dumps the whole box on the girl and flees. He just gives her another litter of kittens to try to give away. In the rain. That's not funny. That makes him a real asshole.

Daniel is not a very likable person. Neither is Miranda. One has to feel for the children, caught in the middle of this, and that's what the book is about. Digging up these buried fights and bringing them to the surface. Nobody had the courage to outright say these things before, but somehow discovering her husband is Madame Doubtfire gives everyone the courage to speak these things aloud. Once the anger and resentment is out in the open, peace is possible.

But again, the whole Madame Doubtfire thing is barely necessary. Daniel says he never would have been driven to such an act if not for Miranda robbing him of his time with the kids, but it's totally uncalled for. He still sees his kids. There were a thousand better ways to deal with it. The whole business of disguising himself as Madame Doubtfire is underplayed for the absurdity of it all. The whole idea is so drastic, and it serves such a small role in overcoming a problem that is so simple.

He could have used Madame Doubtfire to understand why the marriage failed, but he doesn't, and hearing what his ex really thinks of him has no impact on him. One would think gaining a new perspective on himself would stimulate him to try to curb these behaviors, but he does not.

So much more could have been done with this idea. It needed a bigger reason to justify it, and it needed to draw more attention to the consequences.

speaking of which...

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
starring Robin Williams and Sally Field

A lot has changed. Some for the better, some for worse.

Instead of opening a couple years after the divorce, we now see the divorce as it happens. Daniel has a much better reason to disguise himself as Mrs. Doubtfire: his wife convinces the judge that he is an unfit parent, and can't see his children.

He loves his children so much he can't stand to be apart from them, so he gets his makeup artist friend to make him a disguise so he can take the job as his ex's housekeeper. He gets the job, and now he has to deal with close-calls, the hazards of being a woman, and staying in character for weeks at at time, plus holding down a day job as janitor at a studio.

Daniel is now a voice actor, but he isn't as mean with his humor, which makes him much more likable, but he makes a questionable decision in the movie that he does not make in the book: he does not tell his children that he's Mrs. Doubtfire. They have no idea until close to the end that she's him, and this makes no sense. If his goal is to spend time with his children, why shouldn't he let them in on the ruse? If his kids don't know it's him, how is that spending time with them? The book makes more sense in this regard because they're in on it from the beginning, and they really do get to be with their father.

In both the book and the movie, the ruse falls apart when Daniel tries to be two people in the same place at the same time. The movie's reveal is much more interesting than the book because it happens in a public place. The consequences are bigger, and that's as it should be. Something this drastic deserves to have a huge impact. In the book, it barely changes anything.

The book ends with Mrs. Doubtfire's clothes in the trash, gone forever. The movie ends with Mrs. Doubtfire being used as a character of a new children's show. That'd kinda cool until you think about it. It would be like if Mr. Rogers turned out to be a woman dressed as a man. Would that sit right with any parent once word gets out? Would a studio take that risk? I doubt it, but it's a cute idea.

The movie ends with the possibility of the family getting back together. It's a nice ending note, but as someone who has seen that tried, I know it rarely works when two people get back together after a split. You think things have changed, but they never have. I actually prefer the book's ending. There's no hope of Daniel and Miranda getting back together, but there is hope things will be more amiable.

Overall I think the movie is better than the book. It takes the idea and gives it a bigger reason, with bigger consequences. It's the focus of the story now. But even the movie makes a few changes that hurt its case. Robin Williams' performance sells the whole concept, and it's worth seeing for that alone.

(Thanks to Renee Carter Hall for letting me have her copy of the book.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Author's cycles

I'm tired of thinking I should be doing something productive. Always should be doing something else--no matter what I do, it's never the thing I should be doing right now.

I always get like this right before I'm ready to write again. Can't give attention to anything. Even when reading I feel like I should be doing something else. Reading, playing games, watching TV or what have you, I always get the feeling that I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing, so I tend to bounce from one thing to another, unable to commit to any one thing for very long. Everything I do, except writing a novel. Writing novels is the only time I don't feel like I'm wasting my time and I need to be doing something else.

Just have to wait it out. My head will clear up eventually and then I'll be ready to do things again. It hasn't always been this way. Just the last few years I get like this. I binge for months on a project, then take a few months off and start again. But in the last few years, I started to grapple with this new feeling. I miss the days before I started feeling like this. More than ever, I want these cycles to end.

If there's a name for this feeling, someone please tell me. I look forward to the other side, when it passes and I'm ready to focus on things again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Seek the Original (abbreviated): The Lawnmower Man

Not much to say about this one. How many people even remember this??

The Lawnmower Man (1992)
starring Jeff Fahey, Pierce Brosnan

For some reason this movie popped in my head a few weeks ago out of the blue. I only caught the last fifteen minutes of it as a kid, and back in the early 90's, this was cool:

The computer animation mesmerized me. Nowadays it looks cheesy, but I remember when CGI like that was the cutting edge. It was new--nothing looked like that!

So what's it about? The plot is basically the same as any other science-gone-awry story: man invents something for the good of mankind (virtual reality), military wants to turn it into weapon of war, something goes wrong, project is suspended, scientist goes rogue and experiments on a human (Jobe Smith), the human turns into a monster and plans to take over the world.

In this case, experiments with virtual reality lead to a man having telekinetic power over the real world. Or something… I get the feeling the filmmakers struggled to justify why all this was happening. It's supposed to be about virtual reality, and yet they have to inject Jobe with mind enhancing drugs. So what's doing the trick? Is it the drugs, or is it the virtual reality? What military application does this have?

Forget it. It's a special effects movie. The whole thing is an excuse to showcase that newfangled computer animation stuff, and for the time, it looked incredible. These days video games have better visuals, but once upon a time, this was the shit!

The movie never feels like something real is going on. Everything looks like a set, the actors all act like they're acting. It's pretty forgettable save for the CGI effects time capsule. For that reason alone this movie needs to be preserved. Our children must be educated about where we came from.

But wait! This is allegedly based on a story by Stephen King! King wrote a story about virtual reality invading the real world??

Well, apparently not. Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man begins with a man named Harold who has let his lawn grow a little too long. So he hires someone to cut it for him. After a few beers and trying to understand the Wall Street Journal, he looks at the fat man who is cutting his lawn. Not only does he have a monster of a lawnmower, but the man himself is crawling behind the mower, naked, eating the grass clippings. The man seems to have cloven feet, and he says he works for Pan.

Harold calls the police to report indecency. That's when the lawnmower man releases his mower on Harold through his house. Since this is a Stephen King story, you can guess how it ends.

No wonder King sued the filmmakers to take his name off the movie. Maybe the screenwriters started off turning this story into a movie, but they did not finish with it. The only part of the movie that resembles King's story is when Jobe telepathically sends his own lawnmower into a neighbor's house and grinds up his friend's abusive father. It's pretty lame and out of place, but now I see where it came from.

I gotta wonder how they went from this story to the movie's concept. Don't think there's enough material to make King's Lawnmower Man into a feature film, and the movie we got didn't fare too much better in the plot department, but man, the special effects are a joy to behold. I guess I'm a sucker for those early 90's CG effects.

Now, back to Reboot.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Seek the Original: Mary Poppins

90.7% of everything Hollywood does is adapted from a book, or short story, or comic. Never settle for an adaptation. Seek the original!

Mary Poppins
by P. L. Travers

In early 1900's England, Mr. and Mrs. Banks endure a most difficult circumstance: their nanny has quit, and now there is nobody to tend to the four children (because in polite British society, it is socially unacceptable for the parents to have any part in raising their own children). But the wind brings a new nanny, Mary Poppins.

The book is episodic, with each chapter telling an adventure that happens when Mary Poppins is around. The first adventure concerns her day off, without the children. She meets Burt, the man who sells matches on the street corner when it rains, and makes chalk drawings when it doesn't. He wants to take her out to tea, but doesn't have enough money, so Burt takes Mary Poppins into one of his chalk drawings, where they are served tea and don't have to worry about money. Burt and Mary go way back, but we're not told anything else.

In another adventure, Michael finds a compass, and Mary Poppins uses it to take them on a brief trip to all four corners of the world. They speak to a Panda in the East, a dolphin in the west, and so forth. Everyone knows and respects Mary, even the animals, and Jane and Michael ask how it's possible, but Mary never tells.

Another adventure is about the baby twins, John and Barbara. Mary Poppins can speak to the animals and understand what babies say. She sternly tells the twins that someday they will forget how to understand the wind and the starling. Everyone does, except Mary herself. This is the only hint we get as to who Mary Poppins is. This adventure is actually a little heartbreaking. I think every adult has a sense that they lost something when they grew up, though no one can quite put it in words.

My favorite adventure takes place on Mary Poppins' birthday. They take a trip to the zoo, and on this day, the animals are free and the people are in the cages, yet they don't seem to know it. For some reason, the king of the animals has a great deal of respect for Mary, treating her like a royal guest on her birthday. Why? She'll never tell.

Everybody in England must have been no fun back then. One of my favorite exchanges is at the end, when Mr. Banks has lost his black bag, and finds it in the study when it should have been by the umbrella stand. He asks whoever would have left it there.

Mrs. Banks replies: "You did, my dear, you when took the Income Tax papers out of it last night."

Mr. Banks gave her such a hurt look that she wished she been less tactless and had said she had put it there herself.

Because in polite English society, one does not actually say anything to anyone. Why, the very idea of stating the truth so directly, especially a wife to her husband! The very idea!

Did people really talk like this, or is this storybook dialogue, or parody of British politeness? I fear I shall never know.

Mary is always stern, vain and apparently no nonsense, but she can make anything happen and when she's around everything seems to be better. There is no story going on to tie the chapters together. It's simply the wonderful and amazing things that happen to Jane, Michael and the babies while under Mary Poppins' care. The episodes are imaginative and fun, and Mary herself is a complete mystery. A nanny who is wonderful and amazing, even if she is closed and stern.

Compare that to:

Mary Poppins (1964, Disney)
starring Julie Andrews

I watched the movie a while ago and I'm happy to announce I enjoyed the book, too. The book gave the filmmakers an awful lot of material to work with.

The big change was the filmmakers added a story to tie these adventures together. Something about Mr. Banks doesn't like all this whimsy Mary Poppins is allowing his children to experience and instead wants them raised to be serious, productive members of British society. Yeah, it's pretty weak, but it tries, and I suppose for a movie, something had to hold everything together.

This is not done in the book at all. Mr. and Mrs. Banks are barely in the story. No Votes for Women, no big commotion at the bank, even Burt is only seen in one chapter. The book is all about the adventures that happen to the children while Mary Poppins is around, and it doesn't need anything else.

I always thought the movie's attempt at a story arc was weak at best, but it hardly matters because Julie Andrews nails the role so perfectly. She looks the part, she talks the part, and she acts the part exactly as Travers wrote in her book. She is definitely less stern in the movie. In the book, one wonders how anyone can like this woman. She's arrogant, vain, closed, no fun. Every time the children express even the slightest sense of adventure or imagination, Mary is first to say don't be foolish, now come along.

In spite of that, she still manages to be likable. It's the mystery of her character. The way the animals treat her, the way other people treat her--like a queen returned for a visit after a long absence. Everyone seems to know her, and you can't help but be drawn into their reverence.

The film keeps the spirit of the book in tact, although it minimizes Mary's sternness and focuses on the adventure. This makes the Mary Poppins in the movie seem like some magical creature visiting the Earth, while the Mary in the book is more like a real person who has some extraordinary knowledge she refuses to share.

Every day with Mary is a day full of wonder and adventure. In the book, Mary is with the children for nearly a year, which emphasizes that her job is to care for the children. She'll be out on an errand with the children, and just like that an adventure begins. Adventures happen out of ordinary, everyday life with the nanny, whereas the movie is about these adventures replacing everyday life. It's not what Travers intended, but it does work on its own.

I like both. The movie is a fun spectacle, and the book is about adventure coming out of everyday life. Check it out sometime.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

New story published: Beneath a Sponsored Sky

New short story is published, and the issue is released. Fictionvale volume 2. My story is Beneath a Sponsored Sky. Though the issue theme is "space western" my story is not a space western, rather general science fiction.

The old man sat on a chair on his back porch, rocking back and forth, staring at the grass. He would have liked to look at the stars, but there were none to see. He refused to look at the animated images and logos in the sky. Decades ago, he convinced himself that turning his head to the ground was an act of rebellion, like the mute button on the TV once was.

So the old man watched the plain, motionless grass while above him, behind the sparse clouds, animated cartoon characters danced, company logos flashed and rotated and flipped, dramatic text scrolled and zoomed in and out. Five hundred individual regions in this hemisphere, each displaying its own animation against a black background that simulated the night sky of old. Some sequences were as long as five minutes, others as short as a couple seconds, looping again and again and again from sundown to sunup.

As a boy, the old man clearly remembered sitting on the porch with his father under a cloudless night sky and the land would be pale white under the moonlight. The Earth was no longer illuminated by the moon at night. Now the trees and grass glowed faintly red from the light of a corporate logo above. The old man sighed, as he did every night that he pondered it.

Movement out the corner of his eye caught his attention.


It's been a long time coming and I really like how this story turned out. Check it out on Fictionvale's official site!

or if you prefer Amazon, check it out there, too.

Monday, March 3, 2014

My experience with the ACA

a followup to: Health insurance cancelled

I called the third party agency my job recommended to sign up for new insurance. At first I was frustrated that I waited all this time to call this third party when all she's gonna do is hold my hand while I move through the website. I almost hung up on her and just did it myself. Almost.

Glad I didn't, for the website wouldn't let me past the identity verification part. My appointment was on a weekend and the website still gets bogged down on weekends. Thanks to Ohio for not setting up its own exchange. So she did a three-way call with their helpdesk, and they answered some questions for me. Two different agents at the same time, but I got through. My application is processing right now.

This Blue Cross plan would cost $291 a month without my income-based subsidy. With the subsidy, it costs $73 a month. Total deductible is $1,150, and then the plan pays 90% of just about everything after that.

It's better than what [retail] offers, which has a $2,500 deductible and 80/20 coverage after that. What made [retail]'s plan seem cheaper is the HRA dollars [retail] contributed every year, which was usually about 500 dollars, and they carried over from year to year if unused. All medical costs were deducted from those dollars up front until they ran out, which applied to the deductible, after which I had to pay the rest. It gave the illusion of cheap health coverage because for a while I paid nothing out of pocket with all the HRA dollars I had saved up over the years.

Overall, it is better, and more affordable. This plan offers better rates, though without the HRA dollars, I still have higher up front costs. (This is also why [retail] is actively reducing the number of covered employees, like me. The less money [retail] has to contribute to those HRA plans, the more profit for shareholders.) I don't like that it comes with more up front costs, but really [retail]'s insurance was no better--it was only the HRA account that made it seem better.

Now the catch is that if in the future I get more hours and do qualify for [retail]'s healthcare plan again (and if it costs less than 9.5% of my annual income), I must sign up for my employer's plan, or lose the subsidy that reduces my monthly premium. This is regardless of how much money I actually make.

Furthermore, that subsidy depends on my income for this year, so if I make more money than anticipated, I could end up owing more federal income tax next year. On the other hand, if I took less than I qualified to receive, I'll get a bigger return, so it works both ways. I have the option to adjust my subsidy credit any time during the year, either through, or by calling, to prevent a tax shock next year.

I don't like that I had to do this at all... I mean, what if a book succeeds and I end up making quite a bit of money? I don't want to be hit with a penalty for unexpected success.

I don't like the idea of possibly having to bounce back and forth between different insurance plans as my hours fluctuate, or getting hit with a tax surprise next year if I unexpectedly make more money than I anticipated this tax year. I don't think we should be penalized for turning down our employer's insurance plan if the one we get on the marketplace is better.

Wouldn't it be better to stay on the same policy than have to jump back and forth between my employer's plan and one on the marketplace as I qualify? It doesn't seem like a good thing for the insurance market if people have to keep switching or else lose the subsidy.

(I don't think [retail] will ever let me work enough to qualify for their benefits again. I'm betting on that.)

This is certainly not perfect. What if I get a job that pays more? Or a job that pays less, but offers health insurance that isn't as good as the one I signed up for on my own? Why should I have to switch insurance plans if I like the one I got on the marketplace? The longer you're on a plan, the better, and just because I'm employed full-time doesn't mean my employer's plan is worth taking, or I can now afford the marketplace insurance plan without the subsidy. Shouldn't eligibility for the subsidy be based on income alone, and not on whether your employer offers a plan? I think our insurance should be independent of our job. I really do. The ACA could have made that easier.

According to the website (, if my employer's plan requires me to pay more than 9.5% of my income, I can still sign up for a plan on the exchange and receive a subsidy. I'll cross that bridge if I ever come to it.

I suppose the ACA will do until America gets with the rest of the world and cuts out the complications. The copays and deductibles and coverage traps and gaps and tax credits and qualifications. I yearn for that day when corporations do not control everything, healthcare among them, and America switches to a national plan. It's refreshing that the government is giving subsidies to the people for once, and not to the corporations, but I'd rather not be forced to take my employer's insurance plan. What is the point of that?

All things considered, this is better than the alternative. Before the ACA, an insurance company would turn you down for any reason. People wanted insurance, but these companies denied service if you were so much as prescribed depression medication in the past. This is a health plan I would never have been able to afford otherwise, it's better than [retail]'s current coverage, and I have Obama to thank for it.

Healthcare is still ridiculously expensive, but now it's within reach. I hope for these finer points to be adjusted soon. In the distant future, I hope a national plan comes along to replace it, but the ACA is still rolling out for now. It hasn't "failed" yet. I'm willing to give it a chance.