Neal Stephenson: Keep Killing My Plants

Neal Stephenson is great. His books are concrete block-dense worlds that are the physical embodiment of that snake that eats its own tail – they can swallow you whole even as you devour them. I’ve read the near-1,000 page novel Cryptonomicon at least 4 times since 2003, and each time I still get so engrossed that my house plants die.

I recently read the cleverly palindromic Seveneves and had my mind blown. So here’s my horribly incomplete & inadequate summary that some super fan will no doubt take issue with.

The basic premise from a layperson – asteroid strikes the moon, creating seven smaller moons. Nerd does math, showing Earth has ~22 months to launch a giant space-faring RV (bigger than this one) before all those mini-moons start colliding with each other & start a ‘white rain’ that will drown human society in tidal waves & steam. All countries of the earth unite to mount an exodus-capable vehicle, each with space for only 2 candidates from each country. They also take a bunch of samples of all living things & store it in a giant cooler for transport & eventual cloning. Once in space, everyone hangs out at an enlarged International Space Station, where there’s a lot of drama & shit starts to get real.

The moon thing & the nerd math take up the first act & get out of the way pretty quickly. He spends some time dealing with the emotional up-fuckery that happens when 0.0000001% of a population leave behind everyone else, though – which keeps it in the realm of human existence, rather than becoming just a space romp. Me likey.

The book’s second act is basically what I think Star Trek really should have been like – a bunch of humans float in space & are unsure, like, what the fuck is happening, and basically trust a baker’s dozen of experts, experts’  robots, experts’  open-source software, not to totally, like, end the whole fucking race with a fat-fingered 1 instead of a 0, or to accidentally create sentient AI. He actually explains the tech they need to rely on, and spends a lot of really interesting sections playing out the failed experiments, the dangers of deep space exposure… and I SWEAR, I think he helped me understand rotational inertia in zero-gravity six-dimensional space-time.

I know, right? Khan Academy it ain’t.

There’s also a Richard Branson-esque dude who, while the rest of civilization grapples with rudimentary interplanetary travel tech, just hops a ride on his own rocket into space to meet these other folks at the Space Station. He’s the most macho alpha-male type in the whole book, evidenced by his actions: he lands at the Space Station, spends all of 17 minutes getting opinions from the experts as to how to make humans space-capable, and then takes off again to the Kuiper Belt with just his two best buds, leaving the rest of humanity behind. He saunters into the story in spurs, and then… Neal basically sends him into space for half the book.

So he can prove his entire life’s work is valuable enough to accomplish a hyper-important mission: to get some ice.

Well played, Neal. On behalf of nerds who have no chance of birthing a unicorn & being able to afford our own rocket, we salute you. There are many, many people I would love to send to get ice.

By the end of that act, it’s down to seven ladies & their various approaches to the world, vying for… viability. Then the 3rd act totally fucks your brain by leaping forward several thousand years, and creates technologies and sciences that even Roddenberry & Lucas are reported as saying, “Whoa… that’s pretty cool.” He depicts a completely interstellar existence, in which humans spend all their resources manufacturing a ring of tiny bubbles suspended in space & fighting through their own class-warfare evolutions.

You know, just like all those poor schmucks from 4,000 years before, except now there’s no real reason for it because all the resources are limitless, and they’re LITERALLY just arguing over who’s nirvana is most morally corrupt/least likely to repeat the mistakes of human history.

Just by arguing about it, though, they kinda seal their doom to repeat them, in my view.

It’s a totally mind-blowing concept to begin with – and then the amount of detail & science that Neal puts into it is just incredible. He exposed me to heavily-researched concepts in astrophysics, women, materials science, mining, more women, fusion reactions, the difference between the Moon’s orbit (Moon Town), low-earth-orbit (Satellite Town), Mars (Snickers City), and then showed how everything beyond that literally cannot be reached AND returned from in a lifetime using today’s travel technologies. Even by women. Oh, and not to mention that the whole idea of the moon being hit by something big enough to shatter it into pieces IS COMPLETELY FEASIBLE and someone at NASA & the ISS is responsible for looking for those things every day. And that’s just the moon – there are an uncountable number of objects out there that could be big enough to ‘kill Earth’.


Three things that have changed in my life as a result of reading this:
1) I’m now glad that Bruce Willis is not dead, and that Ben Affleck still has a career, and that nukes are still a thing. (Previously I was ambivalent about Mr. Willis, and very much anti-Affleck / anti-nuke.)
2) Elon Musk don’t look so batshit crazy now, does he? (BTW: kudos to him & the SpaceX gang for the vertical booster landing in Florida. It’s kinda a big deal.)
3) I’m open to reading things called “space operas”. Previously I was quite anti-opera of any sort: Italian, space, or soap – didn’t matter. But I am now solidly in the “I can learn from space operas so they must have some value” camp. We have our own t-shirts. They’re HYPERCOLOR, tie-dyed, and awesome.

I love books like this. Books that expose me to new concepts, and then back them up with the actual science from which they’re extrapolating. Books that create a just-outside-the-believable-spectrum world, show me how they think it would work, and explain why along the way.

Books that give me a great cop-out when asked why all our plants die. “It’s dead because I was too busy reading about the end of the Earth, MOM! Geeeez!”

Buy it or get it from your library (I know, who needs help finding a library? … well, millions of people still spending money on books, I guess. Although to be fair, I will soon procure my own copy of Seveneves in my very small home library. Right, Santa?)

What are you reading these days?

Steve Carell

It’s late on a Monday afternoon when I catch the train; I’ve got a great date night planned ahead of me – a quick dinner, a glass of wine, and two seats for a one-time-only show in New York. Except I’m the only one on this date, and my head is heavy with chagrin about how much I’m looking forward to this. My wife is not with me; she’s at home in NJ taking care of our 5-year-old daughter, and the show she convinced me to get tickets for starts in 2 hours.
How could I do this to her, you ask? Because she told me to.
Four days ago I’d gotten an email letting me know this show was going to happen, and that tickets would go on sale at 1pm on Thursday. At 1:05pm, I called, hoping I could still get two tickets; it went something like this:
Can I still get two tickets for Monday night’s taping?
“Sure, we can do that.”
Great! How much do they cost?
“Well, sir, each admission is granted for a donation of $100.00.”
Wait, what?
“We aren’t selling tickets, but we’re giving tickets to donors in exchange for their $100.00 tax-deductible donation.”
So… for a price of $100, I get a ticket?
“Yes sir.”
And that’s not selling tickets?
“Sir, would you like to make a tax-deductible donation or not? Other donors are waiting.”
… I’ll call back – I’m a little chagrined by this.
“Okay sir, keep in mind this is a very popular show & grants for admission are going fast.”
I appreciate that, but this is chagrinning.
As most real men do when chagrinned, I called my wife. I’m not entirely sure what this is about – a donation at a set level in exchange for entry? How many other arts institutions operate like this? I’m very comfortable in sliding scale & pay-what-you-will sorts of shows, but this was my first run-in with this type of potential moral turpitude in the arts, and I struggled long and hard with the ambiguous patronage.
I told her those details, combined with the difficulty of Monday night child care services & the time requirements – the ‘granted admission vouchers’ had to be picked up from Will Call at 6:15p – were all leading me to conclude that the costs of this whole thing were huge, and it would be hard for the benefits to outweigh them. What time could the sitter be there? Could we get into the city by 6? What about dinner? Do we have an accountant?
I was ready to bail. But Renee was committed to the idea of this event, and wasn’t about to let questionable write-offs stand in the way of a cool experience and a solid date night. So she convinced me to call back & exchange my patronage for admission vouchers.
But of course, the childcare plans we intended to make never materialized. In-laws unavailable, and since the show had no determinate endpoint, we can’t let the sitter be waiting around on us until midnight.
Damn! I knew it was a bad decision! See, honey? Too spontaneous. This lack of foresight & planning just cost us $200, and I’m certain I’ll have to explain our ‘donation’ on Form-1040WTF! It’s all your fault!
Because she’s awesome, instead of wailing the woes of our lives of parents & cursing the logistics of living in the suburbs, she gracefully, thoughtfully tells me, “You should still go. Call a friend & find a date. I’ll watch Kate.”
Because she’s awesome, I’m here on the train headed to Pace University to see the live taping of Inside The Actors Studio with Steve Carell as the guest.
Botched date night notwithstanding, I’m ecstatic about my dubious donation because Michael C. Scott is one of the best comedic characters I’ve seen on TV, because Stephen v. Steven was one of the best-executed sketches I’ve seen on cable, and because the same guy that played in both of those roles ALSO became the creepiest low-key psychopath rich guy I’ve ever seen on a screen in Foxcatcher. It’s my personal opinion he should have won the Best Actor Oscar; Keaton was also amazing in Birdman but in large part he was just Keaton, and while I didn’t see Theory of Everything & have no idea what Eddie Redmayne brought to life as Hawking – but I saw Steve Carell create a complete character with a lot of complexity in Foxcatcher, and I think they ended up giving weight to the more prominent physicality of Hawking.
In any case, for the range I’ve now seen Carell operate in, with such a high level of commitment, I don’t think there’s an actor out there that I’d rather attempt to emulate. So when life emailed me the opportunity to get inside his brain alongside James Lipton, I was in – shady ticket sales or not, I “donated” the money for two “grants of admission”. Charming date with my wife or not, I intended to make sure someone else got to enjoy that second grant.
On Saturday I emailed 18 of my (geographically) closest friends, certain I’d find a taker within hours & could continue trying to figure out where to grab dinner in the Financial District without having to buy sheep’s clothing. But out of 18 people asked, I only got five responses, and of those five, three people of not-insignificant means tell me that the donation of $100 was too rich for them. Two of them, from fellow actors, included the classic “saving my extra cash for Christmas gifts because I just quit my day job”, the urban “don’t have the extra benjamin lying around”, and the third (from a corporate bigwig at a firm of bigwigs that gets hired by lots of other bigwigs) was along the lines of “$100 is a lot of money to part with, no?” I assume the other 13 non-respondents had better plans already, because assuming they didn’t respond because they just don’t like me hurts more.
To my chagrin (which at this point in the story is at near-record levels), perhaps I valued this particular experience much higher than my peers. Saturday passed with no takers.
Was I out of line? Could I really not find a taker for such a unique opportunity to see a really cool dude talk to an older but almost as cool dude? (Lipton is one interesting cat; if you haven’t read Inside Inside yet, I highly recommend it.) HOW WAS NO ONE AS EXCITED ABOUT THIS AS I ALMOST WASN’T?
Sunday is the Lord’s Day, so everyone must have been catching up with The Big Guy, because no one emailed This Guy. I went to work Monday morning, still hopeful.
Monday at 3pm I still had no solid leads. Chagrin rising… RISING… maybe this was The Big Guy paying me back for capitalizing myself as ‘This Guy’ in that last paragraph.
So I dropped my price. For the price of just dinner & drinks, a former colleague agreed to buy the ticket; as I don’t have tax-exempt status, or a lawyer, I couldn’t rightly call it a donation. My colleague’s great people, and at 90 minutes to show time, I was quite happy to think she was as excited to do this as I was – all she needed was a little discount. So we met for a quick quaff & a bite, and headed to the theater, looking forward to a great show.
As we got seated & settled in, with the stage crew bustling about like shadows of a fluttering flame, she turns to me and, in all sincerity, says “So what’s this Inside The Actor’s Studio?”
My chagrin exploded everywhere.
Not only did I take a hit on the price of the ticket, but I had managed to give it to the ONE person I’d invited that HAD NEVER SEEN THE SHOW BEFORE.
Touche, Big Guy. Well played.
As schadenfreude-edly funny as you may find that (it’s okay – I too would laugh), I’m happy to report that was not the funniest part of my evening at Inside The Actors Studio.
Exceeding my expectations, Carell was whip-smart, spot-on with his timing, and amazingly, genuinely self-effacing. The parts of his life, career & philosophy that he divulged over the course of the next 3 hours rang quite true with this particular audience member. In short, by 10:30pm, if they had given me a mic to ask him a question in the classroom section, the only serious question in my head was, “will you be my adopted father?”
Maybe many actors have this ability to ask others questions that are really more about them, and have issues with their pater familia, but I’m certain mine is a rare hybrid. Here’s why, after less than 3 hours of hearing from the real Steve Carell, I was ready to call him Dad.
The interview started as it always does, and it seemed to me that Steve was fine talking about family & growing up to the extent that Lipton felt it warranted, but it seemed like a witness on the stand – whether the subject matter or his interrogator, Steve sat still, answered questions, and continued sweating. It wasn’t until they reached the beginning of his performing career & his all-too-close brush with law school that he appeared willing to dig in; he tossed off his too-hot, poorly-chosen blazer (the blazer was wool & intended for a 30-degree New York December evening, not the spots & fill lights of a stage) and really seemed interested in explaining to Lipton that it was as much luck as effort that brought him to where he was that night.
The first note he hit that resonated so crystal clear with me was when they landed on Steve’s improv background, where Lipton elicits from Steve that what that foundation gave him was “freedom to fail”. Aside from being a great thing to learn, it also happens to be the greatest thing that I’ve learned from improv, and is the one lesson that has enabled me to do EVERYTHING I’ve done artistically since 2006. My first improv class, at Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS), had me celebrating failure in the first 10 minutes of class, with a simple game called “Ball!” Basically you volley a large beach ball around the circle of improvisers; when someone misses a return & the ball hits the ground, you’re all asked to celebrate – literally, “Wahoo! We Failed!” – and just pick up the ball & start again.
It’s a simple game, with a simple lesson – but that’s not to underscore its significance. Steve Carell himself just said that freedom to fail was the biggest lesson he learned – and this guy’s movies have grossed >$1B at the box office, and he’s been nominated for Oscars & won Emmys. Simple or not, he let that willingness to embrace failures lead him to great heights. Mainly, this is because the low points, like Evan Almighty & having The Dana Carvey Show canceled after only one (and a bit) season, didn’t fall on him as weights. They fell in front of him, as steps toward the next thing. Pick it up & start again.
Another mind-tickling moment came up as he discussed his start at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Interestingly, he almost walked away from The Daily Show when he was asked to join it in 2000. When he was first on that show as an assignment reporter, his segments were interviews of folks with somewhat-askew realities. He described one of his first assignments, interviewing “someone that thought aliens had invaded one of the underground lairs at Disney World,” but said that the tone of that segment was making fun of “people who clearly aren’t well.” My spider-sense tingled then when he described himself as someone who “tends to over-empathize with people”.
You may not know this about me, but I get choked up with joy watching an Olympian set a new world record – but I also get a wee bit weepy just watching the end of Home Alone (when Old Man Marley hugs his no-longer-estranged son as Kevin looks on from his window). Gets me every time. I get so caught up in what I imagine the emotions are for that person – good or bad – that I tend to become a blubbering mess. So I tend to run away from conflicts, because I’m not interested in feeling my own empathy about the pain coming from the other party – including the mild discomfort that can arise when I’m on stage doing a stand-up bit that goes too far or too dark.
This level of empathy makes it nearly impossible to stand & ask for what you want, by the way. For me it works something like this:
1) I want something different than what’s in front of me – I want to tell jokes that get a little angry at life, for instance
2) I imagine that in order for me to get what I want, someone else has to give up some piece of what they have/want – audiences might not be up for that level of anger; they want jokes about boobs, babies or bacon
3) I realize that they probably don’t want to do that, because if they did, they already would have done so – I’d already be famous if people really liked angry life jokes
4) for me to ask them to sacrifice something will cause a bit of difficulty for them while I get what I want – they’d have to filter through all my crap & worry about whether I’m funny or just angry, which is not why they came to a comedy club
5) more often than not, I decide that empathizing with their pain is a higher cost than I’m really willing to pay for what I want – in our example, this is where I realize that convincing them I’m okay while still being angry is WAAAAAAY hard, and even if I succeed with 80% of them, the other 20% will be upset… they might even send me a mean tweet.
6) I run away, looking spineless, AND not getting what I want AND I feel bad for having asked – I say something like “Stand-up is hard, let’s just talk about you now.”
When Steve Carell was doing those not-so-nice segments, he almost ran away too, going so far as to talk to his representation about considering his options if he bailed; luckily Jon Stewart, who had just recently taken over the show, started charting a different course at that point. Jon & the writers decided they could keep the segments going, but they would “turn it around and make [Steve] the butt of the joke,” which made it all the funnier, and kept Steve Carell interested in doing the show.
Had he not gotten lucky with Stewart’s intervention, we might not have seen his turn as Evan Baxter in Bruce Almighty, someone else would’ve played Anchorman’s Brick, and we might have ended up with a fake CG version of the chest-waxing scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin. Oh… and Michael C. Scott might have been played (brilliantly, perhaps) by Ben Falcone or Alan Tudyk.
This is why empathy is good, but while you’re busy preventing someone else’s chagrin, you might also be busy preventing your own success. (Go ahead Jon Kabat-Zinn, email me for the rights to that one.) You need people around you that are willing & able to prevent you from fucking up your own destiny. Good people. Like Jon Stewart. Or my wife.
There might be many other actors & comedians who’ve learned the freedom to fail, and there might be plenty who empathize in a deep way, but to be in the middle of that Venn AND to have managed to achieve the level of success that Steve Carell has without an inflated ego… well, if there’s a pedestal, he’s earned a spot on top of it in my book.
That pedestal has been empty for a while. It may have cost me some chagrin, it may have cost me some moral quandaries about ‘donating’ to the arts, and it may or may not ACTUALLY be tax-deductible, but I’m lucky my wife intervened & made sure I didn’t let this opportunity pass me by.
If the IRS comes for me, tell them it was all her idea.

Actor Steven Seagal Not Dead. Also, Not An Actor.

You know how they say a key step to having a successful blog is to write haphazardly & on a catty-wompus schedule for several years, and then go COMPLETELY DARK for almost two years while you go off and actually live a more interesting life? And then when you come back to the blog you’ll try to write about the goings-on of the extended hiatus, but then you’ll sit down and have no clue where to start? And that this all makes your blog the Most Awesome Blog?

You know how they say that, right? They do. I heard ‘em. They talk loudly in small spaces.

It works just like in the movies. They do an amazing first run of something, then go completely silent with no rumblings of ever coming back … and then, when they surprise everyone with a sequel, it will be even more amaze-balls (to wit: Rush Hour 2, City Slickers 2, Look Who’s Talking Too, You’ve Got Mail (c’mon, that was basically Sleepless in Seattle 2: Sponsored by America OnLine)… but somehow the sequel ALSO makes the first one that much more enjoyable?

So… welcome to Most-Awesome-Blog: Back From Action And Back In Action!

… we’ll be right back, after we’ve written a decent treatment for what may sort of be good enough to at least be the first eleven minutes of the first act, including one exciting incident.

Let’s All Go To The Lobby!

Psssst… you just missed the exciting incident! Now it’s all just exposition & deep background! Hope those nine dollar Twizzlers were worth it!

As I was saying.

I spent 9 months in action, completing the exaggeratedly-named One-Year Program at the American Comedy Institute. Over the course of those 9 months, I finally did stand-up. Several times. I co-wrote & co-starred in a pilot for a web series. I co-wrote & produced a spec episode of a late night talk show. I performed in three scene nights & three improv shows, and a sketch comedy showcase. I learned audition techniques. I learned on-camera techniques for commercials. Oh… and did I mention that all of this took place outside the ol’ day job? and in New York City? while also still being a decent-but-with-room-for-improvement father to a five year old & husband to a three-peat entrepreneur?

In short, while the hiatus was long, it was nothing if not action-packed, and I’m certain this is the place to return to for an in-depth analysis. Like when Steven Seagal took a hiatus from being Buddhist – he made a shit-ton of amazing (for their time, for my adolescent perspective) action films with the perfect amount of gratuitous nudity, but when he was done, Buddhism was so glad to have him back. Buddhism was like, “Okay, did you get all that out of your system? I sure hope so because your pillow is getting cold & the monastery needs a good sweeping. Yes, yes, we all want to hear what you learned, but you’d better have a push-broom in your hand the whole time, Brother Ponytail!”

Over the next umpteen posts, I’ll try to explain the what & the how of all that action, as well as try to summarize it in some scholarly fashion so that my kids (both of them – R is due in Feb with a baby boy) can learn from it before my still-nascent-but-looming dementia robs them of the whole shebang.

But for now, let me leave you with this: I spent a year exploring various comedic pursuits, and while I still don’t know what the future ahead will look like, I do know that it’s highly unlikely that any one thing, role, or job is going to define that future. The number of people that can fill a lifetime being only one thing is ridiculously small… and the ones I’ve met that have relegated themselves to that goal are mysteriously unfulfilled and SHOCKINGLY UNINTERESTING.

Along the way I’ll try to weave in other source materials – as much content as I’ve created since my last post, I’ve also consumed a whole bunch – to fill in some holes & round out some analogies. In essence, then, the blog itself will cease to be ‘just’ a door found on your way down a rabbit hole, but it will become a rabbit hole itself.

… Okay, okay, I hear the pretense. I’m just saying there’s a shit-ton of stuff that I’m going to shoehorn into your peepers, so if you’re here with the expectation that this is the same blog it was two years ago, well, think again, Watson. More info, more insight, but still the perfect amount of 90s pop culture references and 80s-level gratuitous nudity.

Because boobs.

But up next will be a post on tonight’s show at the Schimmel. I will be in the audience. Will you?