Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Unexpected End of a Weblog

Well, crap.  I guess this may finally spell the end of my happenin' blog here on Google Blogger.

Oh, not due to lack of interest.  In fact, I have enjoyed maintaining this blog in an "infrequent" status and having it serve as something of an archive of my own creative projects for the furious or curious.

No, the problem is that I recently moved to IMAP-based mail, after getting a smartphone that supported it (an iPhone), and since Windows Live Hotmail supports only POP and not IMAP, I have migrated to a GMail address.  I have been going through the usual process of updating all my web accounts with my GMail address, and discovered that Google will not permit a GMail address to be associated with this account.

How strange is that?

This blog predates Google's changeover from Blogger Beta to just Blogger, and as a result it has been semi-crippleware for some time -- a number of functional upgrades that work just fine on my other blog (that I maintain for my non-fiction pen name, which DOES use a GMail address exclusively) are not available on this one.  It looks like Google is just not letting anyone cross that threshold, or perhaps just not anyone who has already associated their Google account with a Windows Live Hotmail email address; I have no idea.  They just want the Beta blogs gone, or something.

Whatever Google's reasoning, the whole blog situation just crossed the line from "no worries" to being "more bother than it's worth."  My connected YouTube account with my band videos is easily enough rebuilt with a fresh account linked to both my GMail AND Google Plus.  I don't want to leave legacy web logins out there that are associated with my old email address -- that's just begging for security issues down the road.  Even worse, in order to log in to this blog at all, I have to log out of everything Google, which is a bother.

Thus, it appears it's time to wrap this up once and for all.  I will leave these pages static until I have had time to archive the blog's complete contents (or as much of those contents as I care about), and then I'll be deleting it at long last.  The final cog in the engine will probably be when Google Plus gets out of beta, because there's a fair chance I can just export the blog contents to that, and I'm willing to hold off just long enough to find out.

At some point, I may migrate over to WordPress.  We'll see just how necessary or relevant that becomes.  If I don't have a project underway that benefits from it, I won't have anything prodding me to get on with it... and as busy as I have been lately, anything unprodded is very likely to be left unaddressed.  Priorities are priorities.

For the few who will read this before it goes away:
  • Late this November, my third child and first son is due!  The name is as-yet undecided, but I'm super-excited about it.  I love my daughters dearly, but there are some experiences that are meant for a father and son to share, and now I get to have those.
  • Congratulations to various of my friends: Jay and Katie on their wedding, Pat and Suzanne on the arrival of their second son, Ben and Kristin on their upcoming wedding, Jer and Melodi on their upcoming wedding, and new jobs for Jay, Brent, Mike G., and hopefully soon Aaron.
  • Here's hoping for the Cardinals to put together a good season in 2011 and reclaim the NFC West throne!
Thanks, all!
-Mike

Friday, June 10, 2011

Rush: Theme in Writing and Composition

Greetings all!

Next week, I will be attending the Phoenix performance for the 2011 leg of Rush's "Time Machine" tour.  I have been a Rush fan since grade school, so I consider any occasion to nerd out and listen to the virtuosity of Lee, Lifeson, and Peart to be cause for celebration. 

Though time has been kind to Rush in a commercial sense, the band was never truly mainstream, and part of that is a simple consequence of genre.  Progressive rock music is less accessible to the casual listener than simpler forms of pop music.  Simplicity is not necessarily a defect; certainly the beautiful and elegant utility of Apple products vindicates simplicity qua concept.  Conversely, complexity for its own sake is not necessarily appealing even to a dedicated listener; one need only look at the impressive but compositionally marginal work of DragonForce to understand that.  However, with complexity there is room for more meaning, should a band find a direct enough voice with which to express it.  Rush are masters of filling this room with consistent and unifying themes throughout their albums.

As veterans of the "prog '70s," Rush is known for lengthy, epic songs as much as for having that "classic rock feel."  And yet by some astonishing turn of fate, Rush has never produced a concept album!  I know it sounds impossible, but it's true: 2112 only filled one side of the record; Hemispheres likewise; Jacob's Ladder but half of that.  Perhaps it is because of Rush's consistent strong thematic approach to albums that their lack, thus far, of a concept album has largely gone unnoticed.  That will finally change with Rush's forthcoming album, "Clockwork Angels."

Two tracks from Clockwork Angels were released as an EP last year: "Caravan" and "BU2B" (Brought Up to Believe).  Both are excellent and explore new ground while bearing the trappings of Rush's authentic voice and sound.  Beyond those, however, nobody knows quite what Clockwork Angels is going to sound like or precisely what story it will tell, or whether it will turn out in time to be counted among the best progressive rock concept albums.

Since theme is an important aspect of writing and composition alike, I figured that revisiting Rush's album themes would be a useful exercise.  They are:
  1. Rush - no theme (or: It's Our First Album)
  2. Fly By Night - Experience
  3. Caress of Steel - Life
  4. 2112 - Volition
  5. A Farewell to Kings - Progress
  6. Hemispheres - Balance
  7. Permanent Waves - Force
  8. Moving Pictures - Perspective
  9. Signals - Interaction
  10. Grace Under Pressure - Conflict
  11. Power Windows - Motivation
  12. Hold Your Fire - Time/Instinct*
  13. Presto - Expectations
  14. Roll the Bones - Risk
  15. Counterparts - Duality
  16. Test For Echo - Socialization
  17. Vapor Trails - Persistence
  18. Snakes and Arrows - Belief
  19. Clockwork Angels - to be discovered...
None of the above is my interpretation; the members of Rush have identified the themes of their work explicitly in interviews and in books like the circa-1988 band biography Visions by Bill Banasciewicz. 

In retrospect, like the answer to a riddle, once you know the answer, it seems obvious and you wonder how you didn't recognize it without being told.  What do you think about the themes?  Is there an album where you don't think the theme held up cohesively throughout?  Or is there an album where it is so pervasive that there is something of a narrowing effect taking away from the scope of the work?  (I'm looking at you, Roll the Bones.) 

Whichever way you interpret it, I don't think there can be any denying that Rush's themes are at the very least identifiable and distinct.  Contrast that with pop music, most of which conveys only the general theme, "Hey, baby, I want to get into your pants."  That is certainly a laudable purpose, but one would think after a while that the subject of sex is getting adequate artistic coverage, and that there are perhaps other topics worth examining.  You know, for a little while.  And then we can go back to sex.

*Peart specified that Hold Your Fire was a dual-themed album.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Five Haiku for My Daughters

Five Haiku for My Daughters
by Michael Bahr, 2011

Spring is in the air
Endless wells of energy
Let's go to the zoo!

Early season's lunch
Sweet banana chocolate pie
Smear it on my face!

Shining sun above
Dora roams the grassy field
"Swiper, no swiping!"

Sunrise comes so soon
Waking up before the dawn
Surely Mom won't mind.

Seasons come and go
Mommy loves and Daddy smiles
Future, here we come!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

At Some Point Preparation Must End

I haven't had much to write these last two months due to being busy with one thing or another (or one of six or seven other things).  That's a positive problem, as I see it.

I have a non-fiction book wrapping up this week.  Following that I have another one on deck that's much smaller in scope and should only take forty or fifty hours to write, which means evening and weekend work spread out over a few months if I want to take my time with it, and I do.  Other than spending some time doin' the taxes and finding a way to fit some actual "free" weekends in there somewhere, that's the story of the first half of my 2011, at least as it projects out from here.

Once the second nonfic is done, I'm actually going to take a hard left.  We'll see how this works.  I have decided it is time to finish Space Dudes (working title).  I've been writing (and rewriting, and then scrapping, and restarting, and writing again, and rewriting again) that book since 1999.  Twelve years is enough.  By this time, even Tolkien had finished his worldbuilding.  By this time, Rand had gone from Anthem to The Fountainhead and was halfway to Atlas shrugging.  Come hell or high water, Space Dudes needs to be finished.  I don't know whether it's going to take half a year or two years or five more years or what.  But I need to do it, and it will be published (or rejected) under my real name, not my nonfiction pen name.

I've been studying the craft of fiction in greater depth in these past two years than in the first 34 years of my life and certainly since the first 17 years of the start of my writing "career" at 19 (see links at left).  I think I finally understand enough to roll with it, though of course I am always seeking to learn more every day.  And I think I've finally "broken" my story for Space Dudes.  "Breaking" a story is the writer's term for finally grasping/determining/asserting the essential structure of the narrative that will carry the story from It Was A Dark And Stormy Night to And They Lived Happily Ever After.  And in terms of the craft, I have arrived.  I finally appreciate conflict as the glorious tool it is, and I have finally (I hope) overcome my fear of probing into the uncomfortable, the forbidden, and the unsociable in order to reveal the truth those conventions are used to evade.  I've never been sharper at exploiting tropes.  I'm obnoxious enough to stomp on the boundaries, but humble enough to know I'm better off leaving those boundaries intact and relishing the way they force my creative focus.

Nothing left to do but get on with it.

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.