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Sunday, August 2, 2009
The Golden Carrot
It seemed like a good idea at the time...
(photo courtesy of Woodhow Farms)
In a brilliant (but sadly, no longer available post), the Film Industry Blogger’s “Hollywood Development Executive” opened up with a basic fact of life in the biz:
“Our whole industry is based on a Bugs Bunny Cartoon. That silly wabbit was constantly being led around by a carrot on a stick placed strategically just out of grasp, though it seemed so close. This is the very essence of Hollywood and why thousands of people – from the homecoming queens to the techie geeks – swarm towards Los Angeles every year.”
HDE was right – many of those lured to LA by the prospect of an Industry career arrive with big dreams that great things will come their way down the road. Most play it coy at first: reluctant to hex their ambitious career goals by angering the Gods of Hollywood (sometimes pride really does goeth before a fall), they avoid trumpeting such big plans to the world, but the vast majority of wannabe writers, directors, producers, and actors have already envisioned their names in lights. Some below-the-liners harbor their own lofty ambitions, which a very few actually do manage to achieve, lifting themselves out of the oily Swamp of Toil in which the rest of us shall labor until retirement finally drags us back onto dry land.
If we live that long, at least -- an image of all those saber-toothed-tigers and mammoths sinking to their doom in the La Brea Tar Pits suddenly comes to mind, but this is not a comforting thought...
There’s nothing wrong with ambition. Dreaming big is often the first essential step towards achieving truly big things, and those with the fire burning inside are destined* to walk that path, win, lose, or draw. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking small, either, although people in this town tend to give a double-take of disapproval to anyone who openly admits a lack of personal ambition. Our culture pays lip service to the “whatever makes you happy” philosophy of life, but most people who take that road-less-traveled don't come to Hollywood. Those who do choose to walk these smoggy streets without Big Plans in their back pockets are often viewed with a puzzled suspicion.
If you don’t want to BE somebody and DO big things, then why the hell are you here?
That's a good question, but it's useful to remember that nothing comes free in life. Big ambitions come with a very high price, and that assumes you've got what it takes to succeed. But if for whatever reason you aren't able to fulfill those career dreams, does that make you a failure? Can you live with achieving – in the immortal words of then-President Jimmy Carter – such an “incomplete success”? And even if you do hit that highest of notes, what then? Where do you go once you've finally caught and eaten that indigestible golden carrot? How do you fill the suddenly yawning void within?
Strange mystical/crackpot religions?
The wild-eyed, dead-end hedonism of all the sex, drugs, and booze money/fame can buy?
Yet another trophy wife or boy-toy, depending on your personal predilections?
Serial adoption of foreign babies?
All of the above, I suppose, if the behavior of so many past and current Hollywood A listers is any guide. Not that a mere juicer would know anything about such outlandish success, mind you, but I can tell you from personal experience that although the carrot-on-a-stick works well as metaphor, it doesn't always translate to the real world.
Like any kid, I watched a lot of cartoons during a mis-spent youth. Sure, they were in black and white (color TV was unobtainium for all but the rich back in the Pleistocene), but the message came through loud and clear – and to my ten year old eyes, that carrot-on-a-stick thing seemed an irresistibly brilliant idea. When I discovered a rusty old wheelchair down in the basement one fine summer day, a light bulb clicked on over my head. Being that my family lived out in the sticks with a barn full of animals, I had the ingredients to bring this cinematic fantasy to life, with one slight deviation from the cartoon blueprint: rather than use a carrot as the lure, I tied a fat handful of green alfalfa to a string at the end of a long pole. The propulsion system for my experiment was to be one of our wonderfully docile milk goats, and although goats will eat pretty much anything from work gloves to poison oak, this particular animal had a serious jones for sweet alfalfa.
My mind’s eye saw something right out of “Tom Sawyer,” with me seated in the wheelchair being drawn along a country road at a brisk pace by the goat as she followed the tantalizing scent of that eternally unattainable alfalfa. My plan -- as far as I'd thought it out -- called for me to make the goat aware of the aromatic green hay, at which point I would climb into the wheelchair and we’d be off. When I finally got bored trotting around the roads of our rural neighborhood, I’d let the goat eat the alfalfa as a reward for her service. In this gauzy Norman Rockwell vision, I saw a win/win scenario in which both the goat and I would get what we wanted.
What could possibly go wrong?
Unimpressed by the dazzling genius of my cartoon-inspired plan, the goat waited patiently as I tied the rope around her neck, then to the wheelchair. Ready for launch, I grabbed the long pole and swung the alfalfa bait out in front of her nose, certain that my triumph would soon be complete.
But as with so many of life’s more meaningful experiences, the fun stopped at the exact moment all my anticipatory preparation ended -- which is to say, the instant reality took charge. Much to my surprise, the goat’s ears flew up in sudden alarm, then she bolted down the road dragging the wheelchair behind, leaving me standing there holding a suddenly useless pole. I watched for what felt like a very long time as the tragic flaw in my plan became immediately apparent: rather than observe a delicious meal floating gently towards her waiting mouth, the goat perceived an unknown object hurtling through the sky directly at her head. Interpreting this as a potentially lethal threat, her golf-ball sized brain triggered an instant flight response -- and that goat was gone.
So was the wheelchair, now bouncing on its side across the rough pavement with a tremendous racket, the sudden drag jerking the rope tight around the goat's neck. Feeling something clawing at her throat and hearing all that noise behind her, the goat ran faster, desperately trying to escape whatever was chasing her – but the faster she ran, the louder the noise grew, and the more violent the squeezing of her throat.
It was then that I first encountered an entirely new concept: the positive feedback loop. Such feedback loops result when a cycle of events are set in motion such that each acts to reinforce and increase the magnitude of the others. Compound interest is beneficial form of positive feedback loop that can, over many years, generate great wealth for those smart enough to start saving early and often. But in the physical world, positive feedback loops often have extremely negative consequences -- absent some outside force of control, many real-world feedback loops end in disaster. Nuclear fission** is created through a positive feedback loop of unleashed neutrons in a rapidly accelerating crescendo culminating in the near-instantaneous release of energy we know as an atomic explosion: the mushroom cloud of death.
I ran after the terrified goat, who by now must have thought the hounds of Hell were hot on her heels. Thirty yards down the road, she veered off the road into the brush trying to escape her pursuer. She didn’t get far – the wheelchair caught in that dense brush like a boat anchor, and by the time I got there, she was down on her side, eyes wide, tongue out, bleating frantically in stark terror.
I felt awful. My brilliant plan – spawned by those cartoons – had nearly broken this poor goat’s neck, and came close to scaring her to death. I managed to calm her down, then freed her from wheelchair bondage and led her back to the barn for all the nice green alfalfa she could eat. The goat didn’t seem to suffer any discernible aftereffects from her not-so-excellent adventure, and being of a particularly social breed, didn’t hold a grudge against me.
In that, she was more forgiving than I’d have been, but all things considered, goats have better manners than most people anyway. She taught me a valuable lesson that day: that the world of cartoons is not to be mistaken for reality. A few years later, I started building home-made rockets down in the basement, and if I hadn’t already learned the difference between cinematic and physical reality, it's entirely possible that I'd have ended up strapping on a pair of rocket-powered roller skates like those from the Acme Corporation.
I’m sure that would have ended well... but I avoided the fate of Wile E. Coyote because I’d already learned my lesson the hard way: even though life may indeed resemble a cartoon at times, it isn’t.
Not even in Hollywood.
*Or doomed, depending how you look at it.
** The fission reaction in a nuclear power plant is controlled by cadmium rods that absorb those rampaging neutrons. To speed the reaction up and increase power, the rods are pulled out. To slow it down, they’re pushed back in.
On a darker note, some of the world’s more gloomy environmental scientists consider global warming to be an ongoing example of a positive feedback loop. As the warming oceans continue to melt the polar ice caps, huge areas of white ice (which reflects the sun’s rays) morph into dark water, which absorbs the sun’s energy. Less ice = more water = increased warming -- and eventually, no more ice caps. Those ice caps are the world’s cooling system, and once gone, the pace of warming will accelerate. Organic material long trapped in the frozen permafrost will decay as things warm up, releasing even more methane and carbon dioxide, two potent greenhouse gasses. Adding fuel to the fire, we humans will burn ever more fossil fuels in generating electricity to keep us cool in our warming world, thus releasing yet more of the heat-retaining gasses that started the problem in the first place.
It's not hard to see where this is headed -- and it's not a good place to be. If those scientists are right, we’re well and truly fucked. Even the mighty Iphone won’t have an app cool enough to save our sorry asses...