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

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!