Talking Metaphysics with Carl Sagan

"Billions and billions," is supposedly how Carl Sagan described the expansive number of galaxies suffused throughout our infinite universe. The catch phrase became synonymous with the popular scientist, who wanted to pique the public's interest in outer space and its mysteries.

Due to the simple reality of my birth date, the odds of me befriending Mr. Sagan before he passed onto his precious cosmos can also probably be summed up with his signature saying. My friend Michael, however, did have conversations with "Carl" about metaphysics. He also turned Sagan's novel, Contact, into one of my most beloved films. And so, I figure, being acquainted with the man who was entrusted with adapting Carl Sagan's one work of fiction into a screenplay, is surely something like knowing Carl once-removed.

Michael was in town this past week putting the finishing touches on the new Harry Potter movie (yes, he adapted that too), and he was kind enough to invite me to join him for dinner at the uber-trendy Asia De Cuba.

Michael himself is a sincere, insightful, understated individual, who dubs places like Asia "scary hip," and when he tells you earnestly that he put a lot of himself in the Harry character of this latest film, you say to yourself, "ahh, but of course, I see it." (I mean, really, don't you see it?)

Before our scary hip dinner (those spikes in my tofu did look formidable) we went to see Anton Chekhov's play, The Seagull, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and that nerdy guy from the British version of the office. It's set in the Russian countryside where the characters fish, wear threadbare overcoats, and shoot seagulls - nothing intimidatingly tony. But the crux of the story dealt with something far more daunting in my mind than entering even the poshest of scenes: the a career of writing. The process, the obsession, the art, the pseudo-art, the curse of success, the curse of failure, the quest for unattainable perfection; everything that goes into making scribbling a profession. It was fantastic.

I heard echoes from my internal dialogue in some of the characters' tirades. Especially in the character Trigorin's description of what it's like to be inside his head:

"Day and night I am obsessed by the same persistent thought: I must write, I must write, I must write. . . . never for one moment do I forget that there is an unfinished story waiting for me indoors. I see a cloud shaped like a grand piano. I think: I must mention somewhere in a story that a cloud went by, shaped like a grand piano . . . But as soon as the thing is published my heart sinks . . . I see every error . . . It is not what I meant it to be."

And seated next to Michael, the rest of what unfolded on stage meant more. Thanks to my apt company, watching something that so intimately dissected the psyche and struggles of a successful writer made it more personal and relevant; something like watching a person's biography with them, but in a more abstract archetypal fashion. He confirmed that Chekhov had captured the emotion and labor and characters that comprise a writer's world, particularly that of playwright, which is what Michael started out as before he delved into movies.

Early that next morning, I sat looking out the window of Kasey's apartment. It was raining softly; water droplets were sticking to the window like overgrown molecules. I felt like one of them. Felt like one of the the billions and billions of particles harmoniously making up the view. When I saw Contact for the first time, I didn't even know who Carl Sagan was, but I remember, so distinctly, "For Carl" appearing on the screen at the film's conclusion. For some reason, those words struck me as powerfully as the film itself had. Never did I think I would meet the man who penned them.

Carl would probably disagree with my rational for feeling awe at this, but I think it falls in line with his own reverent wonderment for the cosmic universe; how we're all here together, connected. And as I sat thinking through all of this, a cloud floated by. It looked something like a grand piano.

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