Second String

“Give me a second. “

When I hear this I’m immediately thinking..

Okay, you need more time.  Whatever…

Great, now I’m getting pissed.  And don’t let the fact that I’m in a hurry and still waiting trouble you because obviously what you’re doing is far more important than what I want or need at this moment.  Which has already passed because you’re so damned selfish and slow.

Of course, perceptions are often wrong.  And even more often than that people get angry about the things over which they are confused, or that they misunderstand based on faulty information. Or even more likely an item or incident they use as an anger substitute for that thing over which they are really angry about (life? the banks? world/your own poverty?  the Kardashian family fame and fortune?). Those things that are too scary to really unleash anger on so  you (we? they?) misplace it to other, lesser-perceived misstatements.

Which brings us back to waiting and my original statement.

“Give me a second.”

No, I (or the ubiquitous they) was NOT trying to poach more time.  (And if only you had asked either of us directly we would have told you). What I was really saying –if you would have engaged me in conversation and really listened to and thought about my response before jumping to your talking/thinking point – was this:

Instead of your first or #1 selection, I’ll take what is considered your second –or #2 – any time.

Yeah I mean you, Ms. Maroney.

See, sometimes the best choice for what ails us in the moment, or in our times, or even on a specific creative project, is the person who is the SECOND-in-command, our SECOND (or maybe even third) choice — the RUNNER UP (or even worse) to  present day fame, fortune and eternal frolic.  Sometimes it takes that very person – the under the radar supporting player or archetypal contemporary day “Bridesmaid” (think Kristen Wiig) – to bring us through the muddy waters and to entertain us and make us laugh or cry, and, most importantly, to put everything back into plain talking perspective and for once and for all and, hopefully, forever, make everything clear.  Forget the bells and the whistles and the fairy dust of the first stringers.  As a famous auto company once advertised about #2’s – often what their status guarantees is they “TRY HARDER.”

And trying harder is what makes you #1 (or used to, at least)…in the first place.  It’s the necessary step along with way before you (we? they?) get complacent in star status.

The most famous #2 of the past week is a  likely yet unlikely choice: a just-about 70-year-old man with piano key teeth, not very good hair plugs, and all the subtlety of Kevin James trying to emulate Adrian Brody’s Oscar-winning star turn in “The Pianist.”  This person, perhaps THE most famous #2 in the world, is a guy we Americans like to call – wait for it –


Ole Blue Eyes

That’s right, the eye rolling, horse laughing, over gesticulating senior citizen on the national debate stage.  The guy some people thought was rude and other people thought was real.  The guy who, everyone agrees, was pretty much a poster child person for plain-talking populism of the quintessentially honest American kind that even the most uninformed among us could pretty much  – whether they agree with him or not – understand.

The perils of the #1 perch often don’t allow for that.  Or perhaps it’s what happens when one reaches #1 status that makes falling from the perch and, in turn, making one wrong move, seem even more perilous for the person that has indeed achieved it.  Or – to give a more musical example – maybe it’s the pressure of simply living up to the qualities that Debbie Harry longed to seduce in her famous #1 song.

Whatever IT is, Pres. Barack Obama, our #1, didn’t have IT when he debated several weeks prior, yet  he certainly did have it four years ago opposite his Republican opponent on the debate stage when he running for, but not yet, #1.  Mitt Romney hasn’t had it for the entire time he’s been #1 on the Republican presidential ticket but for some reason momentarily got it (in some people’s opinion, not necessarily mine), when he was #2 on the stage at the presidential debate with our current #1 American (Pres. Obama).

This is not to say #1’s are not truly the best overall and often don’t deserve to be top dog.  It only means that Mel Brooks’ adage of “it’s good to be king” is indeed all too true.  The cyclical version of fame, fortune and mere age ensures that there will always be a #2 worth watching – a person or moment that is second string now but will one day, through verve or sheer attrition and endurance (and sometimes through a faulty strategy of slightly guarded carefulness on the part of #1 that is thought necessary to maintain power) will temporarily and then perhaps even permanently cause the replacement of the top star.  That is the way of the world.  That is the historical and often necessary cycle of existence.

Buckle up…

So it stands to reason that during the reign of #1s, there are always times when the Big Kahuna will falter and one or more of us subjects would do best to listen, learn and be inspired by the musings of a #2 – or even #6, #7 or #8.  Second stringers don’t have as much to lose but often have a lot more to prove, which in turns gives them the motivation and energy to make the case or to pick up the baton (sports or creative) and win the race when the first stringers either graciously step outside or ask for a much needed helping hand they count on their #2s to provide.  What’s great about this is that it not only often works but more times than not, win or lose, makes the result more interesting and brings about the much needed evolvement and, eventual changes, of the future.

I see this every day with my students – who consistently surprise me with their work.  As a writing teacher, one learns to recognize obvious talent.  I mean, it doesn’t really take a genius to see that – only someone who is more than a casual observer.  But the moments teachers and audiences and, I’d venture to say, citizens of the state, live for are the surprising ones.  We get most excited by instances in which the second stringers, the ones not necessarily destined for greatness, rise up to surprise us in an area we thought they never could.  I see this every semester in creative work – people whose good ideas become realized into art that is more original than you ever thought it could be, not only surprisingly fresh but surprisingly great.  Watching an individual take a step out of the pack due solely to the application of their passion, desires and, above all, talent, is a moment that teachers, and audiences, and societies, do truly live for.

Mr. Biden’s robust debate performance, where he spewed the plain-talking, impolite frustration of most of the American public across the stage in Kentucky, (and for those not enthralled with our veep’s performance, perhaps the same could be said yikes! for Mr. Romney’s penultimate sugar high jabs in his first 2012 presidential matchup) is not limited to politics.  It often rears its head in all of the creative arts, in sports, in our friendships and even family lives.

Can film students, movie fans or anyone else in the public imagine the first string choice of Doris Day as the quintessential suburban seducer Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” instead of Anne Bancroft?  How about then “Magnum P.I.” TV megastar Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones instead of a now (but not then) film icon we call Harrison Ford?   The record shows that Mr. Ford and Ms. Bancroft were, to put it kindly, the #2 choices for their roles at the time but more than likely they were even further down on most people’s lists.


Chicago for years suffered with the ubiquitous title as America’s “second city” until some creative type in the Midwest wisely decided to own that derisive term (as all oppressed groups eventually do) and start a improvisational comedy troupe aptly titled “Second City.”  Ironically, this group became not only the best in the business but would then go on to be the primary supplier of performers and creative types behind perhaps the most enduring and iconic comedy troupes in the history of television – The Not Ready For Prime Time Players of “Saturday Night Live” – a show based out of what was and still is considered to be our #1 city – New York.

Live from.. Chicago?

It’s also easy to forget that Terrence McNally, the American playwright who has won four Tony Awards and countless nominations for work as diverse as “Love Valour Compassion,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” “Ragtime” and “The Full Monty” was once best known in the New York theatre community as merely a “famous #2” by dating playwriting royalty Edward Albee.  Or that Katy Sagal, America’s infamous Peg Bundy on “Married With Children” and the star of the cable hit “Sons of Anarchy” was early only renowned as one of three literal #2s when she served as a member of Bette Midler’s trio of backup singers, The Harlettes.

In sports I’m old enough to remember when 15 year old Michael Phelps swam in his first Olympics and won 0.0 medals, gold or otherwise, yet sharp enough to recall that after subsequent record-breaking Olympic gold in 2008, it took this year’s drop to #2 status in the first 2012 race of his fourth Olympics game for him to once again emerge as the #1 swimmer of gold more times than any one else in the entire competition.

This could be a drinking game and we could go on and on.  But perhaps the best example is another political figure of the times who recently won the Gallup poll for the tenth year in a row as – wait for it again – the most admired woman in the world – Hillary Clinton.

She knows it.

Talk about a #2 and then some.  First Lady (but really a #2?) of Arkansas.  First Lady (and not even a #2) of the United States and an object of derision for famously proclaiming she wasn’t interested in staying “in the kitchen and baking cookies.” Then even more publicly proclaimed an inexperienced interloper for trying (and then failing) to create a universal health care plan for all Americans under the direction of her husband, the then president.  Undaunted at being #2, Mrs. Clinton did her job, learned, stood in wait and took her lumps from a “vast right wing conspiracy” she inelegantly said was lying (some might say salivating) in wait for her husband.

But then something funny, or perhaps eventual happened.   Her husband was no longer president and she decided to use her fame, smarts and nationwide experience to run for Senator in New York.  She not only won the #1 spot but became one of the most admired members of one of our most well-known “boys clubs.”  She then used her fame to try and become our Uber #1 in her own valiant run for president, only to be shunted down to #2 status by a guy with a weird name who had way less experience than she did – Barack Obama.   However, she barely had time to leave gracefully before our new #1 called her in to be a different kind of #1 (or is it #2, #3 #4 or even lower) – our Secretary of State and the defacto#1 face of foreign policy to all countries around the world.

In the end, it seems – everyone is #1 somewhere but usually #2 (or below) almost everywhere.  Human achievement does have its limits and the fact is very few of us make it into the hall of presidents or on an international awards stage.  But that doesn’t mean that, in more moments than most people realize, we all have the capability, if given the chance, to be as good or even better than any particular number on the right number of days if we keep at it and are given, or take, the chance.

That’s what Joe Biden accomplished last week.  And that’s why it’s important to keep pushing your rock uphill, downhill or sideways – no matter what your status or scoring is at any random moment in time.

And I said I didn’t like sports metaphors…

The Pedestal

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail,” Gore Vidal once famously said. A brilliant novelist, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, chronicler of history and curmudgeonly bon vivant, the 86-year old Vidal died this past week.  Yet his words rang as fresh and as true and, perhaps, as prescient as ever.

Watching any number of Olympic athletes under 30, and even 20, succeed to seemingly inhuman golden heights while others became runner up winners (silver and bronze) by not rising as high but still way above the rest of us, one couldn’t help but consider the weight and currency of one of our most renowned contemporary wordsmith’s most famous words and wonder – why do they feel so timelessly true about American culture in particular?

After an Olympic week of victorious thrills and agonizing defeats covered almost as grotesquely as the moment-by-moment commentary in “The Hunger Games” (but in our case it comes up to 8 hours after you learn the results of the actual races), I can come to no other conclusion than our American culture, or as it is referred to in electoral politics “American exceptionalism,” is in serious need of an attitude adjustment.  And I don’t say this lightly since the amount of attitude I have in need of adjustment can often cover the needs of an entire Olympic team from at least one small sovereign state.

The Patriotic Chair

Still, that doesn’t let the rest of you Americans, or the coverage of those who live here, off the hook or off the train of nastiness, pettiness, bitterness or envy.  What else can one think after watching 27 year old Michael Phelps being counted out as something akin to lazy and over the hill by much of the American zeitgeist after placing fourth in his first race in London and coming up one spot short of a medal?

The LA Times, among so may others, gleefully jumped on the bandwagon, immediately trumpeting in one headline story that “Without burning desire, Michael Phelps flames out.” Writer Bill Plaschke somehow managed an Olympic worthy feat of leaping into Phelps’ most inner psychological state only to further go on to describe the swimming phenom and his presence as “the weary flotsam of a shrugging hero.”  He also spent some time observing/predicting an over-the-hill guy who seems “less interested and confused with every lap.”

Certainly, we still live in a free enough country where Bill and his ilk are entitled to print their opinions as the pseudo facts they are, but if one is setting oneself up as a mind reader and predictor of the near future one also needs to deal with some pesky, soon-to-be facts.  Michael Phelps went on to win six more Olympic medals (four of them gold) and the most of any other US athlete in London in the next 7 days.  He would also go on to shatter several more World records and generally outswim teammate Ryan Lochte – the man the Times had dubbed the new golden boy in that same article.   Clearly, this didn’t seem to be an example of an athlete whose Olympic torch was “snuffed” rather than “passed,” as Plaschke wrote about Phelps.  But when we so enthusiastically move to bask in the glory of someone else’s failures  – especially failure of those whose success we find impossible to equal, or even more jealously, to fathom – that is what happens.


I think you know where you can kiss it.

It’s a shame that we live at a time where we demand extreme immediate reactions to everything as if the full story has already been written before the final verdict (or in this case, swim) is in – and that, for the most part, the members of the media happily follow.  Though at one point it was the job of The Fourth Estate to attempt an unbiased version of current events – news, sports and entertainment – that is no longer the case.  The task is now to feast on the failure – moral, literal or otherwise – of others and the strategy is spin and prognostication instead of facts and informed analysis.  While the media bears some responsibility for following along for money, ratings and perceived relevancy (HBO’s new great show “The Newsroom” asks the question ‘what would happen if reporters chose to go against the popular grain?’), one has to question who else comprises the world we all live in.  Looking in the mirror that would be the reflection you see.  Meaning — they are spurred on by us – their audience.  We are the public that demands a certain kind of flesh-eating dramatization of the weak – especially after they’ve fallen from any sort of height.  One could argue that if we didn’t buy it en masse then perhaps the Fourth Estate wouldn’t serve it up to us so bloodily and consistently.

hours to build up, and one second to take down.

Which brings us to 16-year-old Gabby Douglas, the young American who just won two gold medals in London for best all around female gymnast and as a member of the best team of female gymnasts (while also becoming the first African American female in history to do so).  You would think there isn’t much you can say to bring down a teenager who personified grace under pressure (what were you doing at 16 years of age?), leaving home in Virginia Beach at 14 to move to an Iowa town where she was the only dark-skinned woman to train and study (and where, due to economic conditions, her visits with her Mom were limited to Skype).  But we, the quick-to-judge public, found a way.  Numerous comments and commentators in this country seemed particularly perturbed by Douglas – but not because of her athletic performance.  In many strokes of a pen that would certainly cause suffragette Susan B. Anthony to spin in her grave – Gabby Douglas was raked over the coals for no less than her – hair?

Yes – you heard it right – HER. HAIR.  Well, as they say – Whatever works.

Here’s a lovely example of one of our fellow Olympic watchers (from the Daily Beast):

“I love how she’s doing her thing and winning,’’ says 22-year-old Latisha Jenkins of Detroit to The Daily Beast. “But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She representing for black women everywhere.’

Want more?

“It’s taboo culturally to be seen in public with a kinky hairline and your ponytail is straight,” celeb hairstylist Larry Simms, who styles Mary J. Blige and Gabrielle Union, told the Daily Beast. “The textures don’t match her own hair and the added-on hair and that’s a problem. I think black girls in particular view her as a representation of themselves for the world to see. She just needs some Smooth and Shine gel and she’d be OK.’’


Let’s recap — this 16-year-old from Virginia Beach is now the first African-American woman, as well as the first person of color, to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around competition. She is also the first US gymnast in history to win both individual and team gold at the same Olympics.  But keeping human interest going is a tricky thing – especially when we’ve heard countless Olympic stories of sacrifice, real-life tales of rising from working class roots to the heights of fame and riches, and morality lessons of young people achieving what seems inhumanly possible.  However, tapping into the not too often enough mined sensibilities of Black woman and their hair – especially the hair of a Black woman who is newly famous – then wow, we’ve really got something. (And we haven’t even gotten into the idea of 13 and 14 year old female athlete’s de rigueur requirement to wear numerous shades of eye shadow to enhance some idea of camera-ready beauty).

Of course, the media and we in the public could be more responsible.  But this would also require some cooperation from the corporate powers-that-be to take a bit of the lead and not throw up roadblocks in reflecting some of society’s other wants and needs.

That doesn’t appear likely.  In fact, NBC has taken its boom in record ratings from London to interpret that its coverage is both wonderful and cutting edge and what it defines as a “new kind of American viewing.”  The network prefers this analysis rather than the truth – that NBC is just the only game in town that any sort of Olympics fan is able to watch.  The network’s hubris is like running unopposed in a presidential election, winning in a landslide and basking in the glow of being the popular favorite.  Funny – as a college political science major in 1970s America I was taught to easily recognize this kind of behavior in the victories of totalitarian elections in the third world and other types of countries.  Like when people like Saddam Hussein or Ahmadinejad run ostensibly unopposed.

Must have been the dismount.

Of course – you don’t need to take my heavy-handed words for NBC’s sense of self.  Here’s the take of NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus about the network’s ratings:

“I think what we’ve proven is that the American viewing public likes the way we tell the story and wants to gather in front of the television with their friends and family — even if they have the ability to watch it live either on television or digitally,” Lazarus said. “I inherently trust that decision is the right one and that people want to see these events.”

Lazarus does acknowledge complaints about the brand of this year’s Olympic coverage and NBC’s decision to run most of its key moments 8 hours after the results are widely known.   He heard the public complaints.  But much like presidential candidates who refuse to release a record of their taxes – he claims the rights of the public “to know” are really just limiting, and the federal decision once upon a time that the public really does own the airwaves and that NBC is just renting them, is a limited way to look at things.  Because, he reasons, in the end, one’s business model trumps everything.

“As programmers, we are charged to manage the business,” Lazarus reminds. “And this is a business,” he said. “It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want. We are charged with making smart decisions for our company, for our shareholders and to present the product the way we believe is best.”

With this logic of  “we will do what we want because we want to” – without any sense of what is fair, balanced or perhaps morally right for the people we serve – we reinforce a Culture of Id.  Not only in our decisions but also in saying what comes to our mind in a knee jerk fashion without much thought.  In other words, giving in to our lowest instincts of envy, greed and jealousy.  It might be human nature to be prideful – or strive to be the Olympic ratings/moneymaking best.  But to do so to the detriment of others – or worse when taking down people whose desires or successes or wants annoy or threaten you or your bottom line – is that really just another human story?

Well, it is what Vidal so wisely put to words and reasoned that we indeed are so many decades ago.  And judging from the last 10 days, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to change anytime soon.  Unless enough of us are willing to form our own elite team of change whose hope it is to rewrite the words of one of our masters.

Time to Pass the Torch

It strikes me as the height of irony that the Olympics are all about competing to be your best yet NBC’s coverage of the event is a monopoly that has allowed it to be its worst.

I thought this on Friday night as I sat watching the opening ceremonies “live” from London, a full half day after they happened –- which as it turned out was as quickly as any human being in Los Angeles (except those who work at NBC) could get them.

This would have been bad enough had the opening ceremony not gone on to include duds like:

  1. The real Queen of England and the real actor playing James Bond exchanging pleasantries in Buckingham Palace, followed by their (presumed?) stunt doubles jumping out of a helicopter into Olympic stadium.
  2. A floorshow featuring an odd pastiche of agrarian, industrialized and social media-ized Great Britain over the course of several centuries, interspersed with very brief verbal recitations by Kenneth Branagh and J.K. Rowling while hundreds of extras danced in period costumes to the point of distraction.
  3. And a finale of Paul McCartney singing a slightly off tune “Hey Jude” (why that of all his songs?) that made one wonder WWJLD (What would John Lennon Do?).  In answer to the latter I say something welcomingly naughty, but one can only IMAGINE on that score.

What is happening here??

Call me crazy ( or even “maybe” since its Olympic-related) but all this activity made me rethink if being a little desperate and hungry is a good thing (as opposed to starvation and “The Hunger Games”), and if perhaps a few rounds of good old, level-playing field, REAL competition in the world might not just be the better answer for at least some of the things that ail us.

These thoughts surprise me since I’m not much into sports and certainly don’t think unfettered, free-market capitalism is the answer to anything but 21st century greed.  Still, you have to wonder when a corporation like NBC is able to shell out $4.38 billion (yes, that’s a B!) in order to hold you captive to its whims, ratings or otherwise.  One could argue that for billions of dollars a corporation (who the US Supreme Court recently ruled is indeed human) has earned/bought the prerogative to do exactly as it pleases and, legally, one could argue that one is right.  Except – if you toss out legalities and use common sense – is it???  And is it wise for us?

The Olympics are about excellence, humanity (the non-corporate kind) and grit.  Yeah, there’s money and sponsorship and opportunity thrown into the mix but, when it comes down to it, you can’t prevent a superior athlete from a war-torn country from decimating another from a large, rich industrialized nation and thus prove his or her superiority for all the world to see.  In other words, at the end of the day it’s not about how much money you have but how good you are at what you do.

This is not the case for cash rich NBC or for the rest of us who choose to watch the show and, as fans, expect to at the very least see the real version of a live event we elected to watch.

Despite Twitter, You Tube, Facebook and other streaming technology, NBC has figured out a way to block almost all immediacy of every match up and thus render its billion-dollar coverage pretty lackluster for world-wise consumers.  Yes, there is online streaming of each event but only if you are in front of your computer at the precise moment NBC’s cameras happen to be there in London time.  Otherwise, for the competitions geared to primetime (meaning all the ones you really want to watch), you have to wait 9-12 hours in order to raise NBC’s prime time ratings.

In need of a serious lift…

True, you can watch it some 9-12 hours later on your tv/tablet in high resolution and technically feel as if you’re there, both out front and backstage.  But that’s only technically – meaning high def, clear as glass pixel images.  What you might consider the best parts of the event STILL get cut or filtered by correspondents who you’d rather see serve as the actual bullseye in Olympic archery than pose as experts asking the questions you might never ask if given the opportunity to have been there live yourself half a day before.

For example, in its infinite wisdom, NBC chose to excise what was arguably one of the most emotionally moving segments of the opening ceremony – a haunting tribute to victims of the 2005 (7/7) terrorist bombings in London which occurred just a day after the city was chosen to broadcast this Olympics.  Instead, NBC decided American audiences couldn’t relate to worldwide terrorism and chose to run an interview by its new resident haircut Ryan Seacrest (who Deadline Hollywood’s Nikke Finke recently dubbed the “Viscount of Vapidity”) with uber Olympian Michael Phelps that could have won Olympic gold itself were they giving out medals in television blandness.

Am I sounding bitter and petty?  Then don’t take my word for it – judge for yourself.

The memorial tribute you missed

click for full video


click for full video

The Viscount of Vapidity barely distracting Michael Phelps on TODAY

(because all copies of the infamous Olympics interview has been removed from the Web)

Seacrest is an apt target of derision not because he’s uber successful and wealthy but because he is so clearly devoid of anything related to what the Olympics is really about – namely excellence and grit.  He is everything the Olympics isn’t.  As was NBC’s decision to use this interview instead of staying with one of the few planned emotional moments that director Danny Boyle (who also had little competition) created for the London ceremonies.   It makes one wonder whether the Olympic Gods actually decided to curse Phelps to fourth place and thus deny him a medal of any kind in his first race in London in retaliation.

Thanks Zeus!

Certainly this is life in the real world when everything, including all of us, are on the chopping block for a price.  But what the top 1% of the “job creators” need to know is that the changing platforms in world media will not allow them to gorge themselves with a diet of indulgent choices forever.  At some point, there is an Arab spring for everything – a “tipping point” where audiences turn off and, as they used to say in the sixties, “turn on” in ways their elders never imagined.  Ask the music industry.  Check in with the production heads at film studios.  Survey some of the smarter, more prescient business people in the world who make their money by inventing things and recognizing trends or potential needs.  You might want to even call some of the leading climate scientists who were being laughed at 10 or 20 years ago if the recent rash of heat waves across the country haven’t knocked out your phone service.

All of this is what makes the world a still somewhat pleasant, amusing and consistently wondrous place to live in.  There is indeed something called evolution, despite the very vocal minority of worldwide religious fundamentalists who to this day spend a lot of their capital (both financial and intellectual) trying to deny it.  Evolution is defined as “the development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.”  What that means is that try as one group might to make choices for you that you don’t want, eventually that one group will overreach and the world will change enough and evolve to something more complex that will accommodate the majority.

Oh I could puke.

There is no timetable on this, as much as one wishes there were.  But it will happen as sure as Seacrest will manage to annoy me sometime in the very near future (try today).  Because what it will come down to is a world that runs, and has always run on good old level-playing field, real competition – whether it be women’s volleyball, horse dressage or corporate indulgence (some might even go so far as to call it censorship) in any particular industry in any particular year.

Competition ain’t so bad!

The wisest among us, both individual humans and the corporate kind, will take the lead of the most practiced Olympic athlete at their peak performance and prepare for the race that will inevitably come.  The competition is long but ultimately there can only be one real winner.  Despite what we’re being sold.  Or told.   And both history, as well as evolution, have a way of making things right – or at least giving the least likely among us more of a fighting chance that we will run with.