Forcing the Balance, Or How I Learned to Stop Worshiping Star Wars and Understand Myself

Contents

Episode II: The Power of the Dark Side

After college, I didn’t go out to California. I went home. I lived with my parents for a year and a half while I worked a relatively low-paying job doing desktop publishing for the advertising department of a newspaper. Definitely not what I’d expected to be doing as a lifelong overachiever and Phi Beta Kappa Ivy League graduate with dreams of greatness in completely different fields. I would continue for years to write musicals and screenplays, and I’d actually end up with agency representation, twice, even landing a meeting with Home Box Office. But nothing would really pay off. It’s a hard thing to get into, especially if you’re not courageous enough to give it your all, which, admittedly, I never did. And it’s even harder when you get distracted by a massive shift in your worldview.

That shift came, somewhat poetically, right in the middle of a significant filmmaking pursuit. In February 1993, I’d gone to New York City to take the written exam that begins the selection process for the Directors Guild of America’s trainee program. I’d brought along with me a book lent to me by Bill Giruzzi, a good friend who’d lived next door to me for three years in our college dorm. The book was Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. Subsequently making it to the next phase of the trainee program’s selection process, the personal interview, I would sabotage my chances by admitting that what I really wanted to do was sit quietly at home writing screenplays as opposed to spending long days assistant directing films. But that initial trip to New York proved pivotal for me nonetheless.

Talking about Quinn’s book and the effect that it has had on me would take far too long and be far too big a distraction from this already long piece of writing. Yet in a sense, it’s exactly what this whole piece is about. Suffice it to say for now that the book changed, or at least crystallized, how I saw the world. It provided a way of looking at the world that could be called ecological, evolutionary, holistic, systems-based. Through this lens, Quinn was able to question most of the things that most people believe about the world and their place in it, and also to come up with alternatives that made more sense. Naturally, the book would start me questioning things, too. The obvious things get questioned first, the big picture things, the things out there in the world that are most visible. It takes time to even see that which isn’t obvious, much less question it, and the least obvious and most important is what’s most internal. That would come much later. But for now, the impact was nevertheless huge.

This shift in worldview colored everything I did — discussions, ideas, writing, my understanding of everything. But I nevertheless remained on my years-long track. Indeed, in 1996, I moved to New York City under the pretense that I needed to get closer to the entertainment industry. Even with the change of residence, though, the task was difficult. After nearly a year of temping and trying to make some opportunities, I felt a little lost and lazy in my search for a way into show business.

In 1997, though, I had a strange epiphany. My then-girlfriend-now-wife Jennifer Norris and I were visiting her family at their cottage in Mystic, Connecticut, as we so often would. I was in the middle of reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
, one of three books for three bucks I’d gotten through the Quality Paperback Book Club because, well, it sounded interesting. It turned out to be as interesting as it had sounded, describing the conditions under which accomplished people in various fields do their best work and achieve flow, the sense of being “in the zone” one has when totally engaged in an activity one is good at.

Among many other things, the book mentioned how people working on tough problems often need to incubate on them, to set them aside and let their subconscious work on them for a while. In the meantime, certain kinds of distractions could actually foster the incubation process, and one of the distractions noted was venturing off to see beautiful scenery.

On the last day of this particular visit to Mystic, we took a trip, my first and so far only, to nearby Bluff Point State Park. After a long walk along a path through woods, we came out at an incredible overlook. The Long Island Sound stretched out to our sides. Westward down the coast, we could see the Avery Point Campus of the University of Connecticut. It was a gorgeous day, and the views were stunning. There was something about being at this point on the edge of land and water that I couldn’t describe but that was clearly inspiring.

As I stood there looking around, I gazed at Avery Point. The Cornell campus was certainly beautiful — indeed, it was renowned for its stunning and varied terrain. But to be high up overlooking the Sound and these cliffs, that seemed somehow transcendent. I thought, how lucky the Avery Point students are, to be going to school in such incredible surroundings, to have that environment fostering their studies.

And it suddenly occurred to me, hey, I could go back to school and study something inspiring.

It seems a little ridiculous now. The Creativity
book hadn’t said that the solution to a problem is the beautiful place itself, and it wasn’t like I even felt that I’d go to school at Avery Point. But I immediately had a strong sense that something very meaningful could come out of my returning to school.

Daniel Quinn had said a number of times that nobody should take his word for anything he said, that it all could be gleaned by looking at the books on the shelf at one’s local library. I decided that I would take on the task of going through those books and putting together a well-researched, well-referenced paper that presented the scientific evidence supporting Quinn’s arguments. Where I’d applied to and been rejected from graduate programs in screenwriting a few years earlier, I was now accepted into several programs to pursue an interdisciplinary study of the various fields whose knowledge I needed to learn for this new project. The biggest direct result of these studies was my masters thesis, The Unsustainability and Origins of Socioeconomic Increase. One of the proudest moments of my life was when Daniel Quinn himself, with whom I attended a weekend-long seminar which led to ongoing correspondence, praised my thesis in about as strong as way as I could have hoped for or imagined.

Another direct result of my studies was that I more or less took myself off the path of pursuing the arts. I still dabbled, I still came up with ideas and noted them down, wrote the occasional song, but most of my energies were suddenly being put toward something else. That something else, though, seemed more important than the arts, at least for the time being, so I told myself I’d get back to the arts once I’d reached a sufficient level of achievement with these new pursuits. The power of this shift in worldview was obviously great if it could send me along a path away from what I’d always thought my life was going to be about.

In the meantime, I found a small way to join the two pursuits. During my graduate studies, I’d started to apply the systemic view toward the interpretation of works of arts, mostly films. Over time, both in and out of my classwork, I attempted a number of these analyses. I enjoyed doing it, and I thought they were worthwhile, providing good opportunities to impact others by talking about important ideas in the context of familiar things like mainstream entertainment.

Also during my graduate studies, though, a familiar friend returned. George Lucas had resumed his Star Wars saga, beginning to produce a new trilogy of films. When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, I was as eager as ever to be part of the audience. Opening night for the first Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi 16 years earlier was a downright giddy, thrilling experience. That experience was tempered, for many, by the fact that the movie wasn’t all that great compared to the originals. For me, though, there was an unexpected treat — the inkling of some thematic material that seemed relevant to the systemic worldview.

Even the original trilogy had some resonance in this light. After all, one of the significant themes in the whole series is that of the Force, binding together all living things in the universe. That sounded like a nice symbol for the interconnectedness ecology teaches us is present in the web that weaves all living things together. But the new film hinted at more. Three years later, when Attack of the Clones came out, I once again attended on opening night. There was a wealth of new material that gave me even more fodder for a systems-based analysis. I had so many thoughts, I felt compelled to write an essay.

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