Ego. Yeah, I’ve got one. And so do most of you if you’re reading this. Those who deign to put something down on paper with the idea that others might want to turn their pages have plenty of ego. A healthy amount, shrinks might say. Good for me and good for you.
But then there’s that red line. We all know it. Have seen it crossed by others. Maybe even by ourselves. It’s that not-so-distinct demarcation between ego and egomania. Confidence and unchecked narcissism. It’s a cocaine-like Neverland of the mind where, if you live there for too long, you can lose yourself and never find your way back.
At least that’s the fear. So here’s my story about my dance along that ugly line.
It was just after college. I’d scored my first three-picture deal. Okay. So it wasn’t with a movie studio. It was with an educational film company out of San Diego. As a cinema student, I’d already made a couple of shorts for them. Student crews. Fast and loose. The cash was appreciated.
But this short film was going to be different. It had a real budget. Paid union actors. A professional crew. And it was going to be shot on location over three days. Sacramento, in fact. Just down I-80 from the stomping grounds of my youth.
Because I didn’t like the amateurish look of my earlier efforts, I wanted to hire a veteran cameraman I was acquainted with. He was nearly twice my age. I had the money as a line item. But did I have the balls? I’d been warned that the cameraman was a prickly prima donna. And more importantly, he’d eat me and spit me out like rancid chewing tobacco.
Still, I wanted the guy. I knew he’d make my film look like a million bucks. So I forged ahead. Made his deal. Flew him up north with the rest of the team, and sure enough, within the first hour on the set he’d decided to test me. Yet I chose to not be intimidated. I held my ground as director, earned his respect, and we celebrated a successful shoot in the hotel bar.
Then came the head rush.
I’m not sure what it was. The accomplishment of finishing my first pro effort on time and on budget, overcoming my own self doubts including that of my cameraman and crew, or the mix of pulling off my minor feat only miles from my small hometown—a zip code where so many had loudly derided me for having a dream.
Part of my post-production plan was to take the next few days off and, while my editor assembled the footage, get in a quick visit with my family. This began with a dinner with my sister Carrie. She’d kindly picked me up at my hotel and we drove to dinner. I recall being so damn dizzy—so impressed with myself at what I thought I’d accomplished—that I actually apologized to her in advance for having zero interest in whatever was new in her life. Between drinks and dessert, I relived for her the previous few days like a serial murderer remembers a fresh kill. I was clearly intoxicated on my own bullshit. And I didn’t care a lick.
Later that evening, I spent a little time with my mom and dad. I know this not because I recall much about it, but due to the fact that my parents remembered the brief hello and goodbye, later worrying that I was under the influence of some kind of contraband chemical. And they were right. The chemical was me–well, me and my not yet malignant narcissism.
Can’t connect with this? Think of a certain powerful TV star who went publicly off the rails. Everyone thought he was wrestling with an addiction. When asked what he was was injecting, he candidly retorted, “I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen.”
Still stewing in my own bitchenness, I was reminded that I needed to visit my eldest sister, Laurie. She and her husband had just had their very first child. I needed to do my duty as Uncle Awesome and drop in for a visit. I grabbed the keys to my mom’s Buick and made the short drive.
By now it near 10:00 p.m. on my wrap day. I was invited into their humble house. We sat and chatted about who knows what for five or so minutes before I was at last led into the nursery. I recall it was dark but for the low light from the hallway slicing across a very utilitarian crib. Warned that tiny Kristy, the my four-week-old niece would be sleeping, I crept forward to sneak a look at the baby.
I wasn’t expecting much. Just an infant. I’d seen plenty of ‘em. This one was my sister’s. I was prepared to quietly smile and express for her how beautiful her baby was. Why? Because that’s what people say. And once I’d said it, I’d be back on my way, ready to snort five more powdered lines of my own incorruptible fabulousness.
Then something happened. A lightning bolt moment the instant I gazed upon that tiny sleeping bundle of diaper and flesh. The two words which escaped my lips were odd, unsolicited, and without a pinch of forethought.
“That’s important,” I spoke.
I don’t remember my sister or brother-in-law looking upon me rather oddly. But they did. And so might you if it had been your beautiful infant you were so proud to show off.
No. The child I’d laid eyes upon wasn’t cute or beautiful or adorable or sweet or of suitable newborn glow to make me utter the pro forma awwwwwwwww. That’s because the moment was still about me and the non-stop self-narration that was ticking across my brain like a stock market ticker.
And with that, my bubble popped. I could practically feel the pin prick which caused the ever-inflating balloon that had been floating over my head to metaphorically burst.
In the singular micro-second, I felt the weight of humility return.
“Wow,” I kept saying.
But not wow you had a baby or wow I have a niece. It was more in the vein of wow, I’m such an ass.
In retrospect, I fully recognize that my short trip down Ego Boulevard was over a dumb little educational short, destined for nothing more than ignominious sixteen millimeter projections on classroom walls. Hardly an award-worthy feature film. Or a box office smash. Or a five-star review from the New York Times. Yet at that youngish age, a successful three-day shoot under difficult circumstances was all I required to think of myself as some kind of cinematic wunderkind.
Since those early days, I’ve had what some would call success. Not to mention plenty of reasons to pull the goalie on ego and get high on my inner Charlie Sheen. Yet I’d like to think that I haven’t because of that one blinding moment in a darkened nursery.
To this day I thank God for my little niece with a big meaning. I eventually nicknamed her Kristy Magnum. When I haven’t seen her in awhile, I like to throw my arms about her, squeeze, and remind myself of what’s important in this world.