"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Upon Thanksgiving Day!

An interspecies act of beseeching was among the more poignant moments of my family’s Thanksgiving festivities. Grandpa’s dog, named Tiny, wasn’t having success begging for pre-Thanksgiving Dinner scraps. So I decided to double the pooch’s efforts by donning my own pathetic mug. Sadly, my mother was not moved to pity—something about wanting to make sure there was enough food for the eight adults and five grandchildren also eating. Whatever.



And gentle folk fed elsewhere now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their house pets cheap whiles any speaks
That begged with us upon Thanksgiving Day!

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Book Lover's Trivial Pursuit

Back in February, a friend talked me into joining Goodreads.com. Goodreads is a social networking site dedicated to books and book enthusiasts. On Goodreads.com, book lovers can track which books they’ve read. They can also post reviews, participate in polls, and make new book-loving friends.

One of the features on Goodreads I most enjoy is the Never-ending Book Quiz, or "NEBQ". At over 60,000 questions and counting, it is a vast collection of user-created book trivia. By way of confession, it's a bit addicting. Recently, I passed the mark of 5,500 questions answered correctly. Would you believe that answering 5,500 questions correctly on the NEBQ only ranks me 278 among all participants?

I thought it would be fun to share some insights gained by taking the NEBQ. Even if you haven't participated in this quiz, you might learn a thing or two about what happens when thousands of booklovers try to stump each other.

With that said, here is everything I’ve learned from taking the Never-ending Book Quiz. Keep in mind that all NEBQ questions are formatted in multiple choice:

On the NEBQ, if there is an option to choose “All of the Above,” that is the correct answer.

If an NEBQ question asks you to identify the setting of a novel you haven't read, guess New Orleans. (serious, it works more often than not)

If a question asks you to identify the underlying theme in a book you don't know, guess "incest." If incest isn't an option, choose C...unless "All of the above" is an option.

On the NEBQ, duplicate questions often occur. Case in point, all Harry Potter fans are apparently required to add questions about Dumbledore’s sock fetish.

Knowing Harry Potter's eye color, birthday, and right-handed dexterity will get you three questions correct out of about every hundred you take on the NEBQ.

Every Goodreads member who thinks the Bible is absurd because of its patriarchs' extreme old age has posted at least one trivia question.

In contrast, NEBQ participants who believe the Bible is God's innerant word add questions about C.S. Lewis.

Getting back to Harry Potter--as you often do on the NEBQ--simply reading the saga isn't enough. If you can't recall the first line and last word of each novel, you will answer at least 14 trivia questions wrong.

Moving on to classics--Okay!! I get it!! The first friggin' line of the book is “Call me Ishmael.” Now does anyone know any other trivia about Moby Dick?!?!

On the NEBQ, trivia about the founding fathers always has an agenda, usually aimed at tarnishing images. (For example, did you know that George Washington liked to frighten toddlers by shaking their cribs and yelling, "We don't need any more freakin' immigrants!" -- Okay, that's not exactly what GW said, or who he said it to, but you get the idea. People posting political questions on the NEBQ have an agenda.

The ability to correctly answer three random questions in a row on the NEBQ is determined by if you’ve read the Twilight Saga.

Twilight fans eager to show they also read other books tend to post questions that begin like this: “Okay, let's take a break from Twilight trivia. Now, in which book did Anne Rice…”

Wanna be super-clever? Post a trivia question with a wrong choice that looks like the right choice, but has one letter misspelled. (Haha! HugoStud24601 got 66% of respondants to mistakenly answer that the main character in Les Miserables is Jean Valjear.)

In the subgenre of political literature, Glenn Beck is never the right answer.

(Hey I'm only making an observation about NEBQ trivia. Why would you think I had a duel agenda with that last observation?)

When it comes to trivia about poets, Emily Dickinson’s fans are too busy pretending her poems make perfect sense to post trivia about them. So if you don’t know the answer to a question about a poem's authorship, guess Percy Shelley...y'know, unless it’s a question about that 'hog butcher' poem by Carl Sandburg (apparently the only poem he ever wrote.)

Please note: The above advice about how to answer poetry trivia does not apply when the question pertains to chicks with dudes' names.

On the NEBQ, if John Updike is a choice, John Updike is the answer (unless the question is about which author Bella likes to read while waiting for Edward to appear in her bedroom window).

Lastly, if you really want to excel at the Goodreads Never-ending Book Quiz, remember this: It’s not about knowing which authors committed suicide; it’s about knowing “Which of the following four authors did not?”

Monday, November 9, 2009

You Shouldn't Swear Little Boy...and you know why?

If I said I was sitting quietly in a public place, and someone nearby suddenly cried out, “Fuck!”, you might not assume I was at the library. Yet, that is where I was--the Chelsea District Library to be specific.

Now, I accept that today's public libraries are essentially Internet cafes decorated with bookshelves. That is my main purpose for going to the library. It's also where I borrow DVDs, do my taxes, and plan my career. Put simply, the library does for my brain what the laundromat does for my clothes. It gives me access to routine services I cannot afford to supply myself at home. I say all that to acknowledge that today's libraries, in contrast to those of my childhood, are not places dedicated to the act of reading quietly.

Still, let it be said with a sigh of relief that a person belching out an F-bomb in the library still has a hint of stigma to it. The stigma is even greater when the vocalist in question is a young boy. Best guess? The cusser was maybe in the 4th grade, but probably younger.

I sat two computers away when he yelped, "Fuck!" With only the blurry input of my peripheral vision, I had assumed I was sitting near a speed typist in the act of transcribing a long document. Not so. This young boy was stroking the keys with incredible velocity, but he was only hitting the arrow keys. The profanity came as a result of not getting the high score on a free Yahoo Games download.

When he said the F-word, I wanted to scold him. No parent was nearby. I could have pulled it off (and have in the past). But I did not correct him. It was a one-time outburst, so I let it slide.

Still, in the seconds following his expletive release, I imagined myself scolding him. And to my surprise, this is what I envisioned saying:, “Hey kid, don’t use that word. You haven’t earned the right.” My disapproval wasn't coming from a traditional moral high ground. At that moment, I realized what really bothered me about the child swearing. At a glance I could tell that prepubescent Cyber squatter had not earned the right.

Grow another foot taller, little boy. Get your heart broken. Lose at some life quest that doesn't come with a Do Over button. Then you can use the great token of catharsis: "Fuck!"

This episode makes me think about my niece--a high school senior counting the weeks to graduation. Recently, she muscled her way through The Great Gatsby for English class. It was a book she didn’t like but still completed. It was a delight to read her e-mail to me after finishing. She accepted The Great Gatsby as a great work of literature, but told me straight out how lame the characters treated each other. A fun and cool read, the book isn't. Nevertheless, she now goes into adulthood with a literary sampling of how adults mistreat, manipulate, and survive each other. My niece earned something by finishing that book.

To be clear, I don’t ever want to hear her drop the F-bomb. But should it slip out during a stressful conversation about finishing high school, she’ll receive my forgiveness. Depending on the context, she might even witness a sympathetic chuckle. She is earning the right to cuss now and then, as all adults do.

But to that free computer-mooching suburban cherub who dropped the F-Bomb over nothing special, the only rebuke that came to mind was, “Hey kid, don’t use that word. You haven’t earned the right.”

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trying to Explain "An Evening With Kevin Smith"

**Fair warning: The Following Post Contains Profanity**

While slacking online recently, I got wind that filmmaker and slacker guru Kevin Smith was coming to Ann Arbor for a public appearance. Kevin, (aka Silent Bob) tours the nation doing these performances, which are billed simply as An Evening With Kevin Smith. The event is so popular that fans pay $40 or more per ticket. But all that the "performance" entails is Kevin moseying around the stage in a bathrobe and rambling on in a weed-supplemented haze.

Kevin gabs about writing movies, directing movies, having anal sex, working with Ben Affleck, having anal sex while high, forgiving Marvel Comics for selling out to Disney, enjoying marriage and parenthood, and occasionally joking about anal sex. Knowing that, would you believe me if I told you An Evening With Kevin Smith is worth the price of admission?

Aware that the half-dozen folks who read this blog likely would not pay money to spend an evening with Kevin Smith, I find myself searching for a way to capture the essence of my evening with him. I must try, because dare I confess, An Evening with Kevin Smith had a deep and profound effect on me.

Held at Ann Arbor's gorgeous Michigan Theatre, the performance lasted three hours. There was no intermission. There were no surprise guests or musical interludes. It was a no-frills, marathon shoot-the-shit session with a guy who had literally just woken up. And yes, it proved to be worth the price of admission: $44.50 to be exact. And that was the cheapest ticket, granting me access to the back row of the balcony. The only guy at a higher altitude in Ann Arbor that night was the hunchback Republican who rings the bells atop U of M's clock tower.

How do I explain this evening of raucous, tasteless jokes...no, I can't say tasteless. The evening definitely had a taste to it, like yummy cold pizza on a Saturday morning. In any case, the event had a profound impact on me. It left me happier to be alive. Still, in terms of intellectual content what I listened to was a three hour joke about "throwin' it in the pooper." (Jake pauses to giggle yet again.)

Really! How do I explain this joyous evening to people who weren't there, and probably wouldn't enjoy An Evening with Kevin Smith? Let's see. The last time I took in a live three-hour performance, without getting the least bit bored, I saw the musical Les Miserables.

I suppose you could compare An Evening with Kevin Smith to Les Miz. Just imagine the brawny Jean Valjean a foot shorter and 40 pounds heavier. Also eliminate the other characters and the music. And instead of that touching scene where a saintly Bishop convinces Valjean to dedicate his life to God, picture the Bishop rolling Valjean a joint and saying, "Dude, your freakin' out. Just smoke this, be nice to girls and, y'know, try not to deny God's existence, cuz doing that is like...wasted energy, dude." Finally, instead of that beautiful Act Two aria "Bring Him Home," picture Valjean telling a 20-minute anecdote about the time a Wayne Gretzky documentary made him cry.

Okay, maybe comparing An Evening With Kevin Smith to Les Miz isn't the way to go. Perhaps a more playful, carefree musical will do, like Cats.

But again, the show only has one character. And it's not a dancing cat. This is one of those chubby cats that only moves fast when it hears food packages being opened. And instead of that elaborate, mystical junk yard set, the stage is empty save for an easy chair and an ample supply of bottled water and towels. Did I mention this cat sweats alot? Plus halfway through the soaring show tune "Memory", the cat stops singing mid-phrase. He pauses for a moment, then corners a U.C.C. pastor in the first row and says, "Shit. What the fuck was I just singing about?"

Okay, the Cats comparison has its limitations too. But since I'm doing the musical theme I guess I should try comparing An Evening With Kevin Smith to The Phantom of the Opera.

But in this reimagining, the Phantom doesn't haunt the opera house. He's too chubby for crawl spaces. So he just hangs around Box 5 selling pot to opera patrons. Halfway through the love duet "All I Ask of You", picture the Phantom leaping onto the stage and beating the crap out of Raoul with a hockey stick. Christine, already charmed by that one time the Phantom got stuck trying to squeeze through the magical mirror in her dressing room, finally succumbs to his advances. The Phantom proceeds to knock her up on the opera house roof. And the shaking from their rooftop lovemaking causes the chandelier below to crash down on an audience of snobs. The Phantom and Christine decide to quit opera performance, instead taking over the lobby concession stand because it's a stress-free job with easy access to comfort food.

You know what? That's not really a comparison so much as a rendition of what The Phantom of the Opera would be like if Kevin Smith wrote it.

I guess I'll dispense with the comparisons and attempt to sum up why An Evening with Kevin Smith had a real impact on me. By way of confession, I've been in a funk of late. Said funk could best be described as my early 30s. No pity requested. It was my fault for assuming that since I learned so many lessons in my 20s, my 30s were bound to be great. Still, the funk has been substantial enough that it took the ramblings of a super-charged, fearless, pottymouth to jar my psyche free.

For the first time in awhile, I allowed myself to become somebody's fan. And being a full-tilt fan is damn fun. You should have seen my glow as I scurried across Liberty Street after the show and bought the last copy of Clerks a minute before Borders closed. Moreover, being a Kevin Smith fan gives you regular chances to laugh, and I mean really laugh at this carnival called life.

That's what Kevin Smith's movies are all about. Beneath the raunchy humor in each film, there is a life-affirming message born of Kevin's fulfilled dreams. As he put it to our sold-out house, and I paraphrase: My movies are about getting people to giggle and take their minds off the fact that they're going to die someday.

My 20s taught me to "rage against the dying of the light." Yes, Dylan Thomas is correct. Sometimes rage is the way to go. But a few evenings past, Kevin put his arm around me, and 1,699 other folk, and said in essence, Dude, sometimes you gotta just, I dunno, fuckin' giggle at the dying of the light.

That's the effect An Evening with Kevin Smith had on me. It gave me permission to fuckin' giggle at the dying of the light. Such may not be my usual lingo, but wisdom is wisdom, and ever well-taken it should be.

P.S. In keeping with new Internet regulations, the blogger declares he received no gifts from Kevin Smith in exchange for this tribute.
P.P.S. But he totally would have accepted such gifts. Just sayin'. (Jake giggles at having bolded "P.P.", and though he knows he'll feel foolish later for having done so, clicks POST with his mouse cursor.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

If I was NASA, and Dad was Congress...

Here's a bit of useless trivia: how many fax pages does it take for NASA to place a small supply order?

Thanks to my day job at a scientific supply company, I have seen and hefted the answer. It recently took 16 pages for NASA's Glenn Research Center to fax a modest supply order. Put another way, had the items NASA requested from my company been available in a grocery store, the agency could have put them in a handheld basket and checked out using the express lane.

Why so many pages for a small order? The actual order comprised only three pages. The remaining 13 were so-called Terms and Conditions (read: legal mumbo jumbo). It got me wondering. What would childhood have been like if I had to petition my dad each week to maintain my allowance (let alone get an increase)? Here’s how that order might appear rolling off a fax machine.

Page 1: Request for funds to purchase a Transformer.
Page 2: Itemized list: Item 1—Transformer; Item 2—Batteries; Item 3—Milk shake on the way home from toy store.
Page 3-4: Instructions regarding storage, maintenance and use of Transformer.
Page 5: Approved methods for "green" disposal of toy/battery packaging; also, a summary of active ingredients in milk shake.
Page 6-9: Verification of OSHA standards at all factories where Transformer components are made, assembled and packaged.
Page 10-12: Detailed explanation of why I couldn’t opt for a homemade toy.
Page 13-16: Legal indemnifications should a barefoot parent step on said Transformer while visiting my bedroom.

Yup, 16 pages sounds about right.

Now, I say this with complete sincerity. The company I work for loves getting NASA's business. Customers like NASA tend to be reliable. It takes them a heap of trouble to get their funding, and another heap of trouble to obtain permission to spend it. By the time I pulled the NASA engineer’s order off the fax machine, she was an eager buyer with money in the bank.

Unlike cynical fools who say NASA should be done away with, I didn't look at that 16 page fax and say, "NASA is a waste of money." I did imagine the hapless employee on the other end of the fax line feeding page after page through, doubtless caring as little about the fine print as I did. I assume NASA's best and brightest are equally annoyed by all the red tape. They tolerate it in the name of making a living, and living a dream.

The cumbersome forces that keep NASA on a short leash are not all internal. These days, nothing of any fiscal size or consequence exists without accompanying reams of legal protection. What is worse, the Congress that gives NASA its allowance is strung out on alternating years of running for office and attempting to make good on promises made to corporate donors.

Into this often self-defeating mix, enter the Obama administration. Earlier this year, they appointed a commission to study the future of human space flight. This group, known as the Augustine Committee, includes past astronauts, academic scientists, and leading corporate aerospace figures. In short, it includes people who know what the hell they are talking about. After carefully scrutinizing NASA for months, the committee concluded the agency is on an unsustainable path. To be clear, the committee didn’t say NASA is unsustainable. They said NASA's ambitious goals in relation to their current budget are unsustainable.

I read the summary of the Augustine Committee. Notwithstanding various bleak statements, it infected me with a well-grounded optimism for a meaningful future of human spaceflight. Go figure. The Augustine Committee's refreshingly frank appraisal includes no less than four practical pathways for NASA to press forward with missions beyond Low Earth Orbit. In principle, all that stands in our way is a continued tolerance of the status quo.

A last thought should anyone at NASA happen to read this: thank you for your recent order! I love the new Hubble images you helped make possible. Keep up the awesome work!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Sound Bite I'll Never Forget.

Thanks to working two part-time jobs, I sometimes get to catch NPR during the middle of the day as I drive from one job to the other. Midday programming is generally longer and more in-depth. So when you catch a topic of personal interest, it’s a real treat to listen in.

Jason Bateman was interviewed today on Fresh Air. From early stardom on Little House on the Prairie and Silver Spoons to a successful adult career in film and television, Mr. Bateman has accrued three decades of perspective on professional acting. It was a marvelous interview.

During the broadcast, Mr. Bateman gave one of the most intelligent, to-the-gut quotes I've ever heard about childhood stardom. Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air asked if he'd been worried about losing his career after adolescence. Discussing the trap that catches both child stars and their parents after tasting success, Mr. Bateman said this:

"You sort of end up buying the confidence and the attitude that you really need to be renting."

The quote struck me with its astuteness, wit, and undeniable wisdom. It applies well to one-hit wonders of any age group. He went on to discuss the challenge of mounting a career in professional acting:

"It's a very tenuous position. It's a very fickle business. And to think that it's going to last forever is naive at best. ...I've acted pretty consistently for thirty years now, and even with that there were some very painful, confusing dry periods. You don't know when, or if, you're ever going to come out of it...There's only so much you can do to regenerate that relevance in the industry."

Mr. Bateman went on for several more minutes, offering thoughtful observations about his career and the acting process. This is the second time I've heard him on NPR. In the extended interview environment, where intelligence and maturity can't be faked, he does very well.

If you are a Jason Bateman fan, or even if you just appreciate hearing successful performers discuss their work intelligently, this is a great interview to catch.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

C'mon Ladies, Rebuff Me Now!

I'm not saying this makes me sexy(er) or more cool, or for that matter cool at all. But I would be denying myself a fit of silly vanity if I didn't announce the following:

Goodreads, a website for people who love reading and discussing books has named me their #8 Top Reviewer this month. And I did it the hard way with 155 original reviews-- each a thoughtful take on a book I've read in its entirety. (Okay, so I mostly recycled one review for each of Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, but that was my whole point. My thesis was you have to read all three novels to fully enjoy even one).

Anywhooo, I invite any remaining friends who don't pray to the Oracle of Facebook via heave offerings to the demigod Twitter to try out Goodreads.com. It's a great way to catalog your lifetime of reading.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Some NPR-related thoughts, but first…

…the woman at the public computer station next to me is noisy. More annoying than people who chat on their cell phones while checking Facebook. She sighs, puts fingers to her lips, sighs again, then reads half of a sentence in a whisper. She can't be aware she is making any noise at all. A benevolent God protects such whippersnappers from self awareness.

Now she cocks her head forward, as if the key to understanding the text on her screen is to head-butt it. Fidgety fingers run the length of her necklace chain. Suddenly she huffs. A second later she sits ultra-upright--her back so straight that her butt juts out. No, I’m not staring lustily. Even if she was a knock-out, she'd be too damned much of a sonic nuisance to be attractive. What on earth is she reading on the screen that is causing such urgent audible responses, amplified by constantly shifting body language?

She proceeds through a dance of postures that say, “I am reading something that may significantly affect my life expectancy!” She hums ponderously and then leans over to rifle through her purse. I fantasize about applying foot to chair and sending her careening into the adjacent library classroom.

Confession: the only thing stronger than my annoyance is my curiosity to know what she is reading. It must either be a life insurance policy with terms in dispute, or a recipe for Sheppard's Pie that audaciously suggests substituting mashed yams for potatoes. I must know what she is reading.

I trundle behind her, casually en route to the water fountain. A quick peek establishes only that she is checking e-mail. I’ll never know what she is reading, but it causes her to experience what I can best describe as an epileptic fit of pensiveness. Now she is composing a reply, punctuating each sentence she types with a mulling-induced spasm. If it is in regards to a Sheppard's Pie recipe she disapproves of, I pity the chef who checks his e-mail later.

Before fidgety-whispering woman ruined my evening, I was going to blog about volunteering at the Michigan Radio Tent during the Ann Arbor Art Fair. It was very breezy both days, so few people took the giveaway fans like the one I am holding in the picture. But all things considered, it was a fun volunteer gig, boasting fresh air and live music.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Stumping for Space: Three Vignettes from a Layman

Below are three recent experiences of trying to pass on my enthusiasm for space exploration. I offer them for perspective’s sake.

Vignette One: My Good Neighbor

As Judy took the magazine from my hands, she looked at the glossy photos and faltered a little. She found the images unsettling, verging on overwhelming. Judy sat down, took a breath while shaking her head, and then said, “Boy. This…” Her voice cut out. She wasn’t about to faint or cry; however, the photos I’d placed before her were having a disconcerting effect. What were these photos of? Stars, galaxies, and nebulae, all taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

For space enthusiasts, Hubble’s photos are generally inspiring. So I was taken aback to watch my neighbor regard them as upsetting, even a bit disturbing. In hindsight though, I wonder why I presupposed that a galaxy mosaic would surely produce an uplifting response.

For Judy, life has included steady doses of struggle, tragedy, and poor health, underscored by recently being laid off from a factory job. Why did I assume she would enjoy pictures of an impersonal universe where everything is frozen, burning, or subsisting perilously between these extremes? In case you are wondering, I never got around to plugging Mars Direct.

Vignette Two: My Astute Acquaintance

I’ve known Jim for roughly three years. He is a practical man of the earth. Though quite successful in his dual career as an actor and tree care specialist, Jim is neither rich nor famous. He is, however, well read, sharp-witted, and he has no tolerance for arguments that smack of bull crap or wishful thinking.

On July 4th, I found myself visiting with Jim at a cookout. After some enjoyable discussion of Ernest Hemmingway’s short stories, Jim asked what I’d been reading lately. At the time, I was halfway through Buzz Aldrin’s new memoir Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.

Jim decided to quiz me on the merits of human space travel. Given the incredible expense involved, why did I think human space flight was a justified use of tax dollars? I opted to try selling Jim on the idea of building an observatory on the far side of the moon. This merited a slight nod, but I could tell I hadn’t won him over to pursuing human space settlements.

I retreated to the only program that has always made complete sense to me. “We need to develop and test spacecraft that can reach objects crossing Earth’s orbit. And we need to be capable of altering their orbits to avoid collision and disaster. Long term, a Moon or Mars base could be an excellent jumping off point for such missions.”

Jim began nodding in sincere affirmation. “Now that makes sense to me, Jake. I can see the benefits of doing that.” I’d gotten him onboard, but the conversation was a bummer for me. I hate relying on apocalyptic argument to make my point. Still, if it gets the door open…

Vignette Three: My Wonderful Nephew

Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited family in Kentucky. One of my relatives is an inquisitive four-year-old nephew: Hayden. Ever curious, Hayden’s favorite question is “Why?” Recently, Hayden and his mom enjoyed a picture book about space. Sensing a chance to foster some uncle/nephew bonding, my sister told Hayden that I like space. Thus prompted, Hayden asked me a question. “Uncle Jake, what’s your favorite planet?”

“My favorite planet is Saturn,” I replied. From his mom’s lap, Hayden sat sideways, furrowed his brow, and fired off his favorite question. “Why?” I had to think. What fact might interest a four-year old? Turning to my nephew, I asked, "Hayden, how many moons does Earth have?” He looked down at his little fingers for help, but fell quiet and uncertain. With a little help from his mom, Hayden answered. “One.”

“Well Hayden,” I continued, “Saturn has lots of moons. Some are icy. Some are rocky. Some are big and some are small. But they are all really neat!” Hayden’s young attention span soon left me behind, but for a moment I believe I had him. Hopefully, I nurtured a seed of curiosity that will keep him fascinated with space as he grows up.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Ink in "The Planetary Report"

Below is a Hubble Space Telescope photo that I wrote a blurb about. To my delight, my paragraph accompanies this photo in a tribute to Hubble published in the current issue of The Planetary Report. This magazine is published by The Planetary Society. As a struggling writer, this was a sweet little victory for me.



In my caption, I briefly explain how this photo offers perspective through juxtaposing an asteroid with the vast universe. It also offers a bit of comedy. When I first viewed the photo, I literally chuckled at this little fellow crashing Hubble's attempt at a panorama. Anyhow, it was a thrill and an honor to see a bit of my writing make it into such a wonderful publication. To read my actual caption, you will need to peek at a society member's copy. Or better yet, join The Planetary Society!

July 20th approaches folks. Hope you will join all space enthusiasts in remembering and celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Small Fieldtrip for One Giant Space Enthusiast

As the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaches (July 20th), I took advantage of the July 4th weekend to visit the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Ohio. Below are some photos and thoughts from the enjoyable afternoon I spent at this small but well-conceived museum.


The two-story venue includes a domed theatre, star-field display, and exhibits. It is both a tribute to the first man to set foot on the moon, and a celebration of the many Ohioans who have contributed their talent and industry to space exploration.

Below is easily the coolest exhibit: the Gemini VIII capsule flown by Neil Armstrong and David Scott.


Gemini VIII saw the first successful docking of two orbital spacecraft. Standing 6’2”, I took the above picture at eye-level. That means I would have been two inches too tall to even be eligible for the 1960s astronaut program. Of course, they weren’t looking for chubby English Majors anyway.

Next is a snapshot of my foot and a B.F. Goodrich tire. It becomes a novel photo when you consider the tire was used on the shuttle Endeavor (STS-68).



Below you see me posing Right Stuff-style next to the only existing F5D Skylancer.


The Skylancer directs my bold, envelope-pushing gaze toward a nearby Waffle House. In a sense, the single-seat jet is a predecessor of the space shuttle. Armstrong flew it as part of the short-lived Project Dyna-Soar. (With a name that tacky, the program probably never had a chance.) Predating the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo flights, the Skylancer was used in early testing to develop a winged reentry vehicle.


The above plaque, a touching gesture by NASA, displays two flags and a mission patch belonging to deceased astronaut Judith Resnik. They were recovered from the ill-fated Challenger (STS-51-L). Above the patches are portraits of all seven brave astronauts who perished aboard Challenger.

The Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum suffers from a somewhat remote location. But it is right off a major freeway (I-75), and can be combined with visits to other Ohio attractions, including some aerospace ones. The meaningful sampling of significant artifacts makes for a worthwhile trip for any space enthusiast.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Anniversaries that is)

A Good Anniversary:
“July 20th 2009 is the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. July 20th is also Space Exploration Day. After 40 years of space exploration it is time to begin space settlement.” That announcement comes from the National Space Society blog.

NSS is asking bloggers to post about space settlement on July 20th. For me, it’s an excuse to reminisce on my lifelong fascination with space exploration and (dare I presume) offer an informed opinion. More on this to come.

The Bad Anniversary:
Have you ever rented a movie expecting it to be shallow and idiotic, only to wind up really liking it? I mean REALLY liking it. About a year ago, this happened to me. (Yes, I’m reaching with the anniversary theme on this one.) The movie was Reno 911!: Miami. Oscar-worthy? No. Great farce? Yes. It had me laughing the whole time.

Well, it has happened again. Last week I finally caved and borrowed Zack and Miri Make a Porno from the library. Zack and Miri is a comedy by writer/director Kevin Smith. The title is the plot. I expected a few good chuckles, maybe even a couple belly laughs. What I did not expect was to be charmed, entertained, and completely taken in by the love story. Ask around. When it comes to romantic comedy, I’m nigh unto impossible to please. So if you are in the market for a heart-warming love story and some shameless laughs, I recommend Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
**BE AWARE. This R-rated movie is full of strong sexual content. I am sure it would have been rated NC-17 prior to the MPAA’s measurable lowering of its standards in the 1990s.**

The Ugly Anniversary:
Switching gears to something sobering, this year brought the 10th Anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School. With the anniversary comes a new book offering in-depth examination: Columbine, by Dave Cullen. For me, the tragedy at Columbine was shocking. Yet, I remember moving on with my life relatively unaffected, perhaps a bit more pessimistic and cynical. So I was surprised when I felt an irrepressible need to read Mr. Cullen’s Columbine. It’s my kind of non-fiction: comprehensive, well-vetted, and largely free of sensationalism. I binge-read the book over two late nights. Because of its disturbing content, it’s not an easy book to read. But it is an even harder book to put down. For me it’s been both haunting and helpful, offering reckoning and hope. Quote me: Columbine is Pulitzer material.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Jake and The History Channel...which is to say

The first line of my acting bio now reads as follows: Jake Christensen recently made his world radio broadcast debut.

…which is to say I was a listener contestant on NPR’s news quiz Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! Many of you have asked, and by many I mean Lexi, “How has winning on NPR’s hit show changed your life?” Well, here’s how. Recently while I was out walking, an acquaintance passed by me on the sidewalk. He asked, “Jake, did I hear you on NPR a couple Saturday’s ago?” I replied, “Yeah, it was fun!” “Cool,” he said while continuing up the street without stopping.

Okay. To be honest, I paraphrased Lexi’s question.

…which is to say she asked, “What did you win?” The answer is that I won Carl Kasell’s voice on my voice mail. (If you don’t know who Carl Kasell is, you probably stopped reading this blog nine sentences ago.) Not only did I get Carl’s voice on my answering machine, I even got to write what he said. And in fine Jake fashion, I crafted a blasé message that only an English Major could love. Oh well, at least I also got to make Carl say, “Peace Out.”

On a different topic, I think The History Channel has strayed from its core mission.

…which is to say, The History Channel may be the first entire network to ‘jump the shark’. On Memorial Day, The History Channel ran a marathon of “MonsterQuest” episodes. The station spent a good ten hours, including primetime, detailing the poorly documented history of creatures that likely don’t existence. And they did it on Memorial Day!?! What is more, on Memorial Day Eve The History Channel ran a program about what Earth might become like if humans go extinct.

…which is to say, The History Channel is now producing original programming about the future. So I’m using the remainder of this blog entry to stage an intervention. Picture me sitting History Channel down on a sofa. Spike TV and ESPN stand on either side of “HC” in case the channel gets violent or tries to run away. And now, I speak:

History Channel, I looked the other way when you started broadcasting guns n’ ammo documentaries—a shift from documenting horrific war to showcasing cool weapons. And hey, most channels have learned a thing or two from VH1 about how to make the banal look sexy. But HC, you have gone too far in your attempts to be hip.” At this point HC stammers, “I’m fine. I don’t need help!” I look deeper into this insecure channel’s eyes and say, “HC. You are never going to be The Discovery Channel. And that’s okay. Just be yourself. Do programs about history, or y’know, become it.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reflections from the Midwest

I was tickled to find that some of my writing made it into a new play titled Flyover USA showing at Williamston Theatre. Last Sunday I caught a matinee at this excellent professional theatre in central Michigan. If you can see it, Flyover USA is a delightfully feel good slice of life in the Midwest. It focuses on the experiences of men living in this sometimes maligned region.
Several reflections I wrote were not selected. Given the abundance of wonderful material included from many men, I'm thrilled two excerpts did make the cut.
Below are some selections not chosen for the show:

My first car: To be frank, I don’t remember the make or model of my first car. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. It ran fine and got me and my buddies where we needed to go. And I was grateful to have that car right up until the day I totaled it, two months after getting my license.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be an astronaut. I also wanted to be a major league baseball player. And then I wanted to be a movie star. Lack of discipline kept me from the first two. And a growing distaste for the acting lifestyle will almost certainly keep me from the movie career. That will be okay, as long as I never give up on my greatest ambition: writing.

When you’re stressed or frustrated, what do you do to relax?
I eat high-end frozen pizza and watch reruns of my favorite TV shows on DVD.

Tell us about who your idol was while you were growing up:
My idol growing up was Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy. I got interested in him because we were members of the same church. But he became my hero for other reasons. He was modest and mild-mannered everywhere except the batter’s box. He had a beautiful wife, an awesome career, and was known to everyone as a genuine good guy. And I’ve always been fascinated with men who become rich, famous, and world-class without getting divorced along the way.
Bottom line: as a teenager I wanted to be like “Murph.” In the mid-80s, I watched every Braves game I could catch on TBS. And I still remember seeing Murph hit his 300th career homerun: a line shot over the right-centerfield fence at Fulton County Stadium. He specialized in hitting homeruns to the opposite side of the field. After he retired from baseball, I pretty much stopped following the sport. My hero moved on. So I did too.

If you could tell your son one thing about what it means to be a man, what would it be?
Dear Son,
The reason you have not been conceived yet is your mom plays hard to get. Plus I hate jumping through hoops. For what it’s worth, you’re not missing much. The economy sucks right now. Love Always,
Your Bachelor Dad.

Information on the play Flyover USA is available at http://www.myspace.com/williamstontheatre or http://www.williamstontheatre.org/.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

If 'Hamlet' had been written by...

I've been imagining what the play Hamlet would look like if it had been written by someone other than Shakespeare. What I've imagined is not pretty. Take that famous monologue for example, "To be or not to be..." What if that speech were penned by Hemmingway? It might read as follows:

Hamlet enters. "Suicide's a bitch!" Hamlet exits. End of Scene.

Well, I've brewed up a couple other possibilities. Like I said, they aren't pretty. Read on if you dare!

Dan Brown’s “The Yorick Will”:

Professor Langdon stood over the grave. The long kept secret was almost in his grasp. Standing next to him was the courageous, yet sweetly vulnerable Italian chemist, Illaya.
“'Alas, poor Yorick.' 'Alas poor Yorick.' What did Hamlet mean by that?” Langdon asked while examining the skull in his hand. His gaze kept drifting off the skull and onto Illaya.
“Were they ever associates?”
Langdon noticed the glisten on her lower lip as she spoke. Damn! He needed to focus on the mystery of Yorick's Will. And even worse, the ghost of Hamlet's father was actually a radioactive hologram threatening to contaminate all of Denmark at sundown.
“Alas.” Langdon thought deeply. “A…lass?”
“A Lass!” Her emerald eyes began to sparkle. Langdon’s mind burned urgently, the way it did after a good lecturing.
“’A lass. Poor Yorick.’ That’s it! Yorick wasn’t a man. He was a woman!”
“But Robert, what does this mean?”
“It means we need to find the rest of Yorick’s skeleton.”
“That would be at the Lendurbee Chapel,” said the grave digger nearby.
“The Lendurbee Chapel? Lendurbee! Neither a borrower nor a Lendurbee!. Don’t you see Illaya? Polonius wasn’t giving a trite lecture to Hamlet. He was trying to keep Hamlet away from the secret location of Yorick’s skeleton!”
“Which is buried beneath the Lendurbee Chapel!” He loved it when she completed his thoughts. Together they would solve this sacred and holy mystery. A tear rolled down Illaya’s olive cheek. Robert, defying all of his professorial instincts, wiped it away. She cast him a grin and said, “Robert, when this is all over, perhaps…”
END OF ACT III

Or imagine 'Hamlet' in the hands of J.K. Rowling in her next novel “Hamlet and the Mystical Thumbs of Notyetland" ACT V (Abridged)

The poisoned sword fell from Hamlet’s hand and he collapsed. Horatio knelt beside him, watching for what would surely be Hamlet’s final breath. Hamlet, so near the end, wished he and his buddy could enjoy one final picnic together, complete with a hearty serving of Extra-Sharp Cheese Danishes and Holland Daze Punch. But it was...not to be. Hamlet's heart was most certainly taking its last beats.
“I die, Horatio.”
Horatio heard Hamlet’s harangue, but his mind was elsewhere. Nearby in the stables, unaware she could be heard, the castle's one-eyed cook was talking to Hamlet’s horse Barrybodkin.
“Ophelia is still alive old steed. Gallop fast to the river! But whatever you do, don’t let Horatio know I told you.”
“I heard them too,” said Hamlet. “Go Horatio! Save Ophelia!!”
Just then the ghost of Polonius drifted over to Hamlet and looked gravely down at the forlorn Dane. “Hamlet, before you die I have seven pages of things to explain to you. Can you hold on that long?”
“Uh, I think so,” Hamlet replied.
“Good, let’s begin. Long ago your father had a thumb wrestling match with your uncle. Now you have always been told that your father lost the match; however, we musn’t forget your father had two thumbs. Two thumbs, my boy! And there was second match!! Now your mother…”
End of Volume 1

Well, there you have it. If I come up with any others, I'll try to avoid letting you know. Or if you come up with any, feel free to leave a comment.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Once Upon Some Bull Crap...

Many of the movies we love are fantastical: Star Wars; Lord of the Rings; James Bond, to name just three franchises. These stories require great suspension of disbelief. And suspend belief we do, liberally and often...but not always. Within the context of a far-fetched tale, we sometimes find certain elements implausible.

I watched the new Star Trek movie yesterday. Almost every frame of this movie is, strictly speaking, implausible. Most of it didn’t bother me, but occasionally I felt the story trending doubtful. Consider this scene: Character A’s escape pod crashes on a remote world. Okay. Then Character A gets chased into an ice cave by a gigantic insect. Cool! Once in the cave Character A runs into important Character B, who happens to live in this particular cave on this particular remote world. Gimme a break.

Here is another example. I’ll accept light sabers, telekinetic power, and lasers that can explode planets. But if Luke Skywalker were to “beam up” or time travel, that would seem hokey and improper to me. Why?

The same thing goes for James Bond’s gadgets. When Timothy Dalton’s Bond was issued a skeleton key that opened 90% of all locks on the planet, I found that reasonable. But when Pierce Brosnan’s Bond hopped into a car that became invisible, I thought, “Bull Crap!” Even when a character in the film explained the car's technology, I still found it ridiculous.

How do we determine what is and isn’t plausible in our fantasy films? I’m not sure. But we do. And if we employ such subjective decision-making when watching movies, where else in life are we making similar non-empirically based judgments?