Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mike's Top Ten Experiences of 2009

Well, it's about time to wrap this year up.  I'm going to look back on my defining experiences of 2009, this time in chronological order because a ranking attempt would be folly.  Then, I will look forward to 2010 and toast the new year!

There were a few negative experiences I think I can dispose of straightaway:

* Our house was robbed in August.  The experience taught us some valuable lessons, but I would gladly trade those for the bliss that comes when one does not shoot awake at night at every little noise.

* I survived a bout with pseudomembranous colitis in September.  I would be more than happy if I never experienced such a thing again.

* Some friends of mine were forced to endure a terrible ordeal due to the ineptitude, malice, and overreach of Arizona Child Protective Services.

* I finally ran into a time crunch that even good organization was powerless to overcome, and had to bid farewell to some enjoyable hobbies and interests in order to make the most of the rest.

* Finally, my right to free speech was raped, beaten, and buried by the FTC in December.

Still, notwithstanding the setbacks, I choose to focus on the positives of 2009:

1. Book #2 Sees Print

I still can't/shouldn't/won't discuss my non-fiction here on this blog because of author branding, but January 8th saw the release of my second book under my NF pseudonym, and it would end up being the best-reviewed book of my career thus far.  That is because it actually garnered one published review, and the review was positive.  Gotta love a lifetime batting average of 1.000 based on one plate appearance.

2. Las Vegas Nuptials

MLK Weekend 2009 was a huge hit, with Steph and I joining Jeff and Roxy Mink for a weekend in Sin City for their wedding at the Bellagio.  Jeff, Jay, Mark, Fred, and I reveled in a drunken frenzy the night before the wedding, bacheloring the way only Vegas makes possible.  Meanwhile, Steph took the Benjamin I gave her, the money I hoped she would make last at least the duration of the evening, and had a huge night at the card tables.  The wedding itself was broadcast live via webcam, and the reception set the Bellagio's house record for aggregate alcohol consumption by volume at a wedding event.  Steph and I got to enjoy a brisk, bright, scenic drive through northern Arizona while we were at it, and we returned just in time to watch the Cardinals finish beating the Eagles to earn a berth in Super Bowl XLIII.

3. Two Years Strong

January 27th marked our second wedding anniversary, and my parents gave us the cherished gift of watching Allie for a while so we could enjoy a quiet dinner together.

4. Texas and Oklahoma

I think my post on this blog just about sums it up!  Come to think of it, 2009 was the most I had traveled in a year since the last season I actively worked as a DCI Level 3 tournament judge, 2001-2002.

5. Workplace Upheaval

As detailed in this post, among others since purged.  The upshot was that the governor declared a rulemaking moratorium in January, which was continued by the legislature later in the year and won't expire until well into 2010, if then.  Most of the attorneys bailed on my office and sought greener pastures, which ended up working out just fine for me when the grim hand of layoffs never approached my division.  Then, in May, my boss retired!  She was a good person and helped guide my early career a great deal, but her political ambitions were at cross-purposes to my workaday approach to simple, efficient productivity.  Despite my workload actually growing in the wake of all the departures, I am actually less stressed now, because the remaining work is more in line with what I want to do as a writer, and my old boss's empire-building is no longer creating added workload.

6. Summer Nights

Despite a chronic lack of time on my part, this summer was one in which I actually got to see a great many of my friends and friends-of-friends and had fun doing it.  Aaron hosted his martial arts crew at his place for a few grillin' dinners.  Las Casas de Stenger y de Powers were the sites of fun poker games, UFC fights, and general merriment.  My friends Vince, Wade, and John, along with their significant others, joined Steph and me for couples' nights out.  Financial advisor Suze Orman wisely said "People first, money second, things third (if at all)."  I am happy that 2009 was a year in which I had the capability to put people first and really savor the experiences.

7. Revels with the Crew

In addition to all the fun I reference in the previous entry, Steph and I enjoyed an over-the-top night of drunken fun at Dangerous Dan Voigt's birthday party at the Kobe teppan grill.  Jay, Steve, and a few more of the crew were in attendance as we toasted to Dan's ever-encroaching senility.  Later in the year, we all joined one another here at home base to celebrate Steph's 27th birthday, and there was football and grilled steak and gameplay for all to enjoy.

8. Evelyn!

The clear #1 event if I had actually attempted qualitative ranking.  Evey has so far been the calm before her older sister Allie's unending storm.

9. Christmas with the Girls

I reached this topic here on the blog as well.  Christmas was exactly as I had hoped... though Evey didn't participate much except to make lots of people gush over her cuteness, Allie ran around for three straight days like she was trying to avoid incoming fire.  I truly can't wait until Christmases with both girls (and perhaps future children) old enough to fully take part.  Finally, and definitely not least, Steph and I were overwhelmed by the generosity of our families.  Truly unexpected and most welcomed.  We are very grateful.

10. Three Days of Indulgence

My friend Jason (RJ) Harris has been doing law school, National Guard, and campaigning for Congress nonstop for most of the year, and he finally got a respite for the holidays with school out, no military shifts, and a campaign hiatus.  Wade let me borrow his Humvee truck, and I picked up Jason at the airport with a nice slowroll, suggesting that I had bought the truck after selling a screenplay to Paramount.  (I told him the real story after enjoying his reaction.)  We went to the Cardinals-Rams game, complete with tailgating, and watched our beloved redbirds crush the hard-luck goats 31-10 in a game with four different players scoring touchdowns and three beautiful interceptions by our defense.  Far from sated, we headed out with Steph and Christina to Benihana for "dinner and a show."  We went and saw Avatar 3D and Sherlock Holmes, the former of which looked better and the latter of which told a far better story.  We tooled around town in the truck, visiting game stores (and playing the same slowroll about my screenplay) and meeting with friends and such.  Jason's final night had us joining Jay and Katie for some MNF and pizza, and then it was all over.  But what a vacation!

And now, 2009 is dead.  Long live 2010!

I am looking forward to seeing my girls grow up just a little more.  By the end of next year, Allie will probably be talking in complete sentences, among other things.

I will probably get a minivan at some point.  With Steph and I commuting together, we have a rare chance to continue consolidating our assets and turning that into hard savings.

After spending most of 2009 not publishing new material, I expect 2010 to be a veritable outpouring of content.  With no more eBay work on the horizon, time is a little kinder to me, and perhaps I will find more opportunities to develop material.

Mostly, I just hope all of you whose lives have intersected with mine are healthy, prosperous, and happy.  May your goals be within reach and your strides be firm and straight.

Cheers to 2010, the year we make contact!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Situational Comedy As It Should Be

[This is a spoiler-free article.]

Steph and I picked up the blu-ray of The Hangover, released yesterday, and enjoyed a little mommy-daddy movie night with the bawdy and hilarious film.  The story of four men who storm Las Vegas over a weekend to enjoy a bachelor party and wake up with no memory of what happened is truly a worthwhile watch, and is probably the second best movie of 2009 after Pixar's Up.  There are a great many f-bombs, sexual dialogue, and brief breast nudity in The Hangover, so it is certainly not a movie you would want to freely show the young'uns, but mature (relatively speaking) teenagers can probably handle it.  If you haven't yet seen, I strongly recommend.

The typical Hollywood comedy delivers its laughs by having the characters tell jokes or zing one-liners at each other and/or by employing slapstick or bathroom humor.  This is forced and more like the performance of a skit or stand-up routine.  The audience can laugh at it the first time around, but the comedic impact diminishes after that.  (In some cases, it diminishes a great deal after that.)  It is no accident that many actors in that kind of movie are former comedians.  They are simply doing what they know.  Hollywood has figured out how to execute such films and make them profitable, and there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying a chuckle or two at American Pie or Deuce Bigalow.  But those never become truly timeless movies that can be watched again and again.  After a few slices of Pie... you're basically full.

Part of what made The Hangover great, aside from excellent casting and pacing, is that it followed the comedic principle that the context has to create the premises for the humor.  This kind of comedy is in evidence also in film such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Big Lebowski.  None of the characters "tell jokes" or "zing one-liners" at one another, and physical comedy is generally developed instead of being slapstick.  The comedy is delivered by the characters' actions and reactions to the context of the story developing around them.  Usually, this is accomplished by writing a character to have certain attributes and history, and then straining at the edges of that characterization and testing the limits of what the character might do if he were pushed just a bit too far.

For example, it's audacious, cringeworthy, and brilliantly funny to watch Ed Helms' cuckolded dentist Stu in The Hangover desperately trying to convince his friends that his girlfriend's illicit affair with a bartender was nothing to be concerned about.  (Not a spoiler; this happens during exposition.)  Watching, we laugh at Stu's explicit take on the physical implications of the act, cringe at how pathetic and wussy Stu's rationalization makes him seem, and feel a twinge of pity for Stu as we begin to understand his underlying naivete and good-heartedness.  At no time did Helms crack a joke -- all we viewers needed to laugh was to see in context Stu's completely believable dialogue with his buddies Doug and Phil.  Royal's audacious hospital set-up in Tenenbaums and the Dude's pining to the policemen for his Creedence tapes in Lebowski are perfect examples of this kind of comedy.

With a sufficiently well-developed context and plotline, a comedy like The Hangover has the freedom to engage in absurdist humor without having it fall flat or look forced.  When Our Heroes wake up after the party (again, not a spoiler; this happens during exposition) and see their hotel room in shambles, there are some "unexpected guests" that are completely over-the-top, but since the movie earns it by expositing realistically and confining the comedy to action/reaction and not jokes, the "unexpected guests" are funny to the point of sideache.  The punchlines later in the film when their presence is explained gain additional impact and reach almost legendary status -- and that is how a "classic scene" is born.  Our Heroes return at one point to their hotel room to hear Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight playing over the room's sound system, and a Crowning Moment of Awesome ensues.  Tenenbaums and Lebowski earned and cashed in on absurdist scenes as well, from Walter Sobchak's amazing "This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!" scene (citing the television-edited dialogue), to the scene in which Royal takes his grandsons Ari and Uzi out for a night on the town.

Despite the clear effectiveness of following the contextual, situational comedic method, writing for actual so-called "situation comedies" or "sitcoms" remains generally of the jokes-and-one-liners variety.  In some respects, this is an artifact of the necessity of fitting a plot into a 21-minute skit with two intermissions breaking continuity.  However, it is telling that some of the most successful sitcoms of the modern day were the ones that took the time and effort to develop context and deliver comedy from action and reaction instead.  Great examples of this are Seinfeld, Friends, and That '70s Show, and it is no accident that all three cashed in on contextual development with brilliant absurdist turns.  Cue Joey's matter-of-fact explanation that he did, in fact, mean that something was "a moo point," not "a moot point": "You know, it's like a cow's opinion.  It doesn't matter.  It's moo."  Or perhaps Red Forman rescinding half of Eric's punishment when he learns that Eric sneaked out on the town in his Corvette "in order to impress... this... girl."  In full absurdist regalia, we have the hilarious "Reefer Madness" spoof that started That '70s Show's third season and the early concession of Seinfeld's Kramer from the wager to see who could be Master of (his or her) Domain.  If you know anything about the characters, you can appreciate why those scenes were funny... but neither is ever as funny in the abstract as it is when you see it delivered while watching the entire episode.

Come to think of it, I hypothesize that the reason The Simpsons has never been as good in recent seasons as it was in seasons three through eight is because the writers largely abandoned contextual humor for, yep, jokes and zingers and farts and Homer getting beaten up a different contrived way every other week.

I have my doubts that any of this will change in practice anytime soon -- it takes more time and better writing skills to deliver contextual comedy, and Hollywood already knows how to profit just fine off the other, cheaper, faster kind.  Still, if we as consumers understand the difference, we will be in a better position to gauge from the promotional material whether a comedy movie or TV show is worth our time and money, and perhaps will experience more "hits" and fewer "misses" in the future.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Michael Bahr's Disclosures Unjustly Compelled by the FTC

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has imposed new rules pertaining to bloggers (and others) that took effect December 1, 2009.  This post contains my disclosures as compelled by the rules.

As blogger Ari Armstrong ably explains in this blog post,
[T]he FTC has no legitimate authority to issue such rules, which defy the First Amendment and constitute censorship and the chilling of free speech. The rules are extremely broad, ranging from free review copies of books to Twitter posts. The rules are arbitrary and ambiguous, such that their precise requirements and penalties cannot be determined in advance. The rules thus open the door to political abuses. The rules are discriminatory in that they subject bloggers to different standards than print journalists.

Even though it is inherently impossible to confidently comply with the FTC's ambiguous rules, this document represents my best attempt to comply. I wish to stress that I believe the FTC's rules are illegitimate and a violation of rights, and that the FTC should be abolished and its rules rescinded.
That said, I have neither the time nor the budget to face the onslaught of our government's ability to nakedly assert power under these unjust rules, and thus I make the following disclosures:

1. I am a political appointee for the Arizona state government, working as a legal analyst, which means most of the time I develop and draft laws and regulations.  I will not be too specific here because I do not want anything I say or write to be construed as being under color of my official position.  My writing is my sole and individual opinion and does not represent the position or opinion of the State of Arizona in any way.

2. My wife Stephanie is an employee of the Arizona state government.  Nothing I say represents her opinion or that of her office either.  For anything she ever says, the same applies as though I said it.  This should all be obvious, but the FTC demands that I spell these things out for you, as though you were a child incapable of figuring it out for yourself.

3. I am honored to count myself a close friend of Richard Jason (RJ) Harris since 1998, and I have been an outspoken supporter, both verbally and financially, of his candidacy for the 2010 U.S. Congressional seat for Oklahoma's 4th district.  It is possible that I may serve on RJ's congressional staff if he is elected, given that I will bring to the table four years' experience and professional expertise in the development and drafting of laws and regulations, which are activities Congressmen dabble in from time to time (or so I've heard).  Even if RJ is not elected or if he does win but I never serve on his staff, you may expect that I will have good things to say about him and/or his political positions.  Accordingly, for future reference, the FTC would like you to know that I am an evil, fraudulent, paid astroturfer seeking a plush cronyist appointment and not just an experienced legal analyst who supports his long-time friend's political aspirations and already agreed with virtually all of his friend's political positions anyway.

4. I was awarded a Bartels Scholarship while a law student at Arizona State University.  This public interest law scholarship, for which I am very grateful to Professor Bartels and the scholarship committee, was enough to pay for my books for my final two semesters of law school.  This was very welcome assistance as the expense of law school had me pretty far down to the cloth during that time.  You can expect that I may have good things to say about Professor Bartels, his projects (such as the Innocence Project), the ASU College of Law, and related entities or endeavors.  Of course, there is a strong chance I would have spoken or written positively about those entities regardless, but the FTC doesn't give a lick about things like "respect" or "admiration" or "Sun Devil pride" -- to them, I am merely a paid shill, and must identify myself as such.

5. Amazon (and the Amazon affiliate program, such as sells copies of my books, including books I have written under a pen name and do not wish to reveal for market reasons.  (The necessary proofs are easily established in the event of litigation).  I may have in the past, and may in the future, link to Amazon to promote my books or to promote books that I have read and wish to endorse.  At the time of this writing, no other author has provided me with any remuneration for reviewing or endorsing any books.  I do make money when my own books are sold to consumers, as you might imagine.  I may at some point be an Amazon affiliate myself and earn money through links to book sales offers.  Accordingly, the FTC would like you to know I am not only a paid shill but a dirty, evil capitalist.

6. I am an outspoken Objectivist and support Objectivist organizations and causes.  At the time of this writing, no Objectivist author, organization, or cause has provided me with any remuneration for any reason, including whatever I may have written about them or may write about them in the future.  The FTC would rather those organizations not exist at all, so you can imagine how they view my support of same.

7. Finally, my parents adopted me in 1974 with the help of Catholic Adoption Services, and this event basically defined the remainder of my life.  (It's difficult to put into words how important that assistance really was without sounding glib.)  I have since been a strong supporter of various adoption charities both verbally and financially.  While I advocate private voluntary charity as the best means to support such charities, my advocacy can at times take on a political tenor.  For future reference, the FTC would like you to know that any time I speak or write on adoption issues, I am a filthy paid astroturfing shill and not just a grateful adoptee who hopes to improve the lives of orphaned and disadvantaged children around the world.

I will conclude by borrowing once again from Ari Armstrong, his words expressing my sentiments exactly:

As should be obvious, the creation of this document, as well as the continuous need to attempt to comply with the FTC's ambiguous rules, is a complete waste of my time. I resent the FTC for forcing me to direct my valuable time away from essential projects to note distant, minor, or already-publicized financial connections to things I may on occasion speak well of.

I don't need the FTC to tell me when and how to note financial connections. Moreover, the FTC's presumption that my views are influenced by financial connections is ludicrous and insulting; the fact is that my financial connections are either unrelated to my views or a distant by-product of my views.

I also resent the FTC for forcing me to comply with ambiguous rules that may give my political opponents opportunities to lodge bogus complaints against me over alleged technical violations of the FTC's rules, threatening to waste yet more of my time.

I do not expect that the FTC's rules will be ambitiously enforced in the short-term. Many bad laws (and authorized rules) have no noticeable impact when they are first implemented. Often such laws and rules remain on the books for years before bureaucrats and prosecutors take advantage of them to actively violate people's rights. That does not make their existence more comforting.

Again I wish to stress that the FTC's rules are in blatant violation of the First Amendment, they constitute censorship, and for this the FTC richly deserves to be abolished.
Damned right, brother.