How Star Wars has Marked my Coming of Age…at Every Age

Jason and Holly Didner from Jungle Gym Jam engage in a lightsaber duel on Star Wars Reads Day in October 2013.With the release of every Star Wars movie, there was a special way that each film spoke to me at those points in my development.

I was six years old the first time I was transported to that galaxy far, far away, to a movie that was then just known as Star Wars, but is now called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. That movie fueled my sense of pretend play with my brother Matt. We would fly our toy X-wing fighters on all kinds of missions until one-by-one, their wings would break off.  We’d improvise all kinds of new scenes between our action figures. I distinctly remember wrapping myself with a blanket and brandishing a Wiffle bat as Obi-Wan and then collapsing under that cloak after making the ultimate sacrifice for the Rebellion.

At age 9, I’d take in “The Empire Strikes Back” for the first time. As a student who struggled to focus attention on the task at hand but had a vague understanding of my natural talents, I experienced my share of achievements and made my share of excuses for the setbacks. I connected with Luke’s struggles and failures in front of his wise mentor Yoda.

Jason Didner instructing Holly on battling a remote with her lightsaber at Star Wars Reads Day at Montclair Public Library October 2013While the question hung in the air over the next three years over whether Darth Vader’s shocking revelation was truthful or a lie, our family moved from East Brunswick to Morristown. I was approaching the age of my Bar Mitzvah. What I believe I took away from Return of the Jedi, the completion of the original trilogy, was Luke’s repeated refusal to fight his father to the death and his assertion of his identity as a Jedi, even at the risk of his life. Darth Vader’s final act of compassion and sacrifice spoke to me as well. As an essentially non-violent kid, I took this conclusion as an affirmation that non-violence can be tremendous strength, not weakness or cowardice. Today, my daughter gets a kick out of dueling with me using pool-noodle lilghtsabers with duct-tape hilts as I admonish “You are unwise to lower your DEFENSES,” at which point I strike from above and she dutifully parries my attack.

My teens and college years would include an occasional re-watching of these classics in no particular order, as they came on HBO or if a roommate was watching a VHS tape, it would spontaneously become movie night. I felt those were occasions to bond with new friends over a shared youth experience.

I was a man of 29 when the prequels, namely Episode I: The Phantom Menace’s hype caught me in its tractor beam. Much was written about this upcoming film and I devoured it as quickly as I could, fascinated with imagining the state that galaxy in the decades before that famous civil war broke out. It was a particular thrill to see a vibrant, young Obi-wan as a Jedi-in-training exhibiting dazzling lightsaber skills against countless droids. I was also intrigued with the deceptive machinations that a certain politician from Naboo was devising as he appeared to be living a double life. As a politically active young adult, I believe I appreciated the political maneuvering in the film that others found frustrating or un-Star Wars-like. I believe I simply accepted this controversial film as a marker of where the beloved stories from my childhood all began.  Little did I know how my life would soon change in a profound way. Less than a month after Episode 1 came out, I’d meet Amy. We were married by the time the next prequel was released.

I remember our wedding day so clearly-a joyous celebration in front of our extended family and friends – a moment to publicly share our feelings with everyone who we felt close to – and the stark contrast to the secret wedding of Anakin and Padme in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. For me,  Anakin’s unrequited longing that suddenly became a mutual passion after some shared traumatic moments struck me as an image of doomed romances I’ve seen (and experienced) in real life. Seeing the city bar scene lay the early groundwork for Obi-Wan’s quick reactions in the cantina to protect Luke later in life was a satisfying callback.

Revenge of the Sith, the movie meant to connect the prequel trilogy to the events of our childhood memories from A New Hope, give us a concrete depiction of the moment we always imagined – the duel between the newly converted Darth Vader and his former master Obi-Wan. It was a solemn moment of reckoning. It’s the image that remains on my mind when I contemplate whether I would let my heart to go to the darkest place in the universe to protect my loved ones.  And would that change me into someone my loved ones could no longer accept. For the record, it makes no sense to me that Padme would die of sorrow at a young age without suicide or a disease that’s worsened by stress and grief (like the way cancer quickly consumed the life of Dayna Reeve after Christopher died). Within the workings of that galaxy far, far away, I’m more likely to believe that newly-crowned Emperor Palpatine sucked the life force out of Padme, much like Vader was able to remotely choke Imperial officers who failed to carry out his orders. The Emperor needed Padme, a senator who stood for peace and democracy, out of the way for his new dictatorship to go full steam ahead. He also needed to squash entirely the soft side of his newly-minted apprentice Darth Vader. What better way to do that than to bring an end to the very same loved one Anakin gave himself to the dark side to protect?

My overall experience of the prequel trilogy through my late 20s/early 30s was that it was different than the back stories that were in my head, but I accepted them as the back stories that creator George Lucas had been carrying in his imagination long before any of us would ever know what a landspeeder was. I learned through the experience of these prequels that other people have different stories to tell than I do.  During the period between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I created an album of heartfelt singer-songwriter meets rock-n-roll fare and I gave lots of live performances in support of that album. I had my own stories to tell and I felt motivated and compelled to tell them. I still do. Star Wars would remind me of the power of storytelling.

As I write this, I’m less than 24 hours away from witnessing The Force Awakens, a movie I’ve been aware of since the project was first announced about three years ago. My inner geek is going a bit berserk here, so bear with me. I’m eager for the new stories and the way they’ll be told – and the chance to catch up with the primary characters of those stories that informed my own childhood so much – played by the original actors. The most important new development in my life since the last prequel is that I’m a dad now and sharing this saga with a child who is now the same age as my brother was when we first witnessed the original film as a family. I’m interested in what this new generation of the saga will say to me as a parent and how its tale of a young woman coming into her power will serve my daughter as this trilogy unfolds over the next six years.

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