Saturday, January 15, 2011

Amazing where just three miles will take you.

In the spirit of “who would have expected THAT could happen?” I give you the following observation, that occurred to me, as most interesting ideas do, while I was logging in my 3 miles this morning on the treadmill.

The always watchable Groundhog Day was on a channel that appears to be the "All Groundhog Day Almost All of the Time Channel" and I stopped on it for a while. It was the party scene, where Phil Conners bestows a wedding gift on the newlyweds, Fred and Debbie Kaiser: tickets to Wrestlemania. They are overjoyed and thank Phil for keeping them together even though Debbie had expressed some doubts about the wedding.

As I hit the 1.2 mile mark and flipped though channels, I skipped the MAX channels since we don’t subscribe to that service. I noticed the always compelling Revolutionary Road was playing at some point today, and thought about one of the most interesting characters in it: John Givings. That guy was crazier than a fruit bat (thank you, Urban Dictionary) but you couldn't take your eyes off him during his brief, memorable scenes.

Which started me thinking about Boardwalk Empire, the biggest series HBO has introduced in years. Packed with characters we can’t decide whether we love or despise, Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden may well be crazier than a fish with t--s. (I LOVE U.D.!) He’s disturbing in so many ways and yet you have to feel compassion for him. At least I do.

Anyway, getting back to the subject at hand: who would have expected that Fred Kaiser would one day become Nelson Van Alden? Michael Shannon, playing a very minor role in 1993 in Groundhog Day, built a career, as many actors do, year after year, in theater after theater, in film after film, and nearly twenty years after his first Internet Movie Database credit, stars in one of cable television’s marquee shows of the season.

2. something miles ....

Which brings me to this, really. It’s a new year. Every January I kind of get into this “measurement” frame of mind and wonder if I’ve reached the place I imagined I would a year earlier; how many opportunities I may have missed over the past twelve months. How many I took that came my way. What brought me some joy; what didn't. As my lovely, brilliant friend Cindy asks: what to take with me and what to leave behind?

I used to take comfort in the fact that my zodiac sign indicated that I would achieve success “later in life” – but I’m getting there so hurry up already! - although now I can’t even count on that anymore since apparently I have a new sign. For God’s sake: if you can’t count on your astrological sign to help frame your life, what can you count on??! [Kidding – I have no interest in nor do I follow astrology.]

From there, I leap to a “what is success?” question and try to remind myself that in so many ways my life is blessed. So many ways.

So okay – I don’t have a syndication deal. I have – on a very good day – about one thousand people reading this blog and a bunch of people sharing columns through Facebook or email. I'm sincerely and deeply grateful for every bit of it and encouraged to continue doing whatever this is. Many of the people who contact me are lovely folks who take a moment to write to tell me how ill-informed, miserable and misogynistic I am. I prefer to think of myself as incrankulous (feeling incredulity and cranky simultaneously.)

Others are much more straightforward: "You're an idiot." Still others are kind and help me believe I’m not the last person on earth who looks askance at the world around us and wonders what the ---- happened.

The instant gratification that’s now standard has killed the work ethic - and the excellence - that used to be required for success. It takes a You Tube moment to get you a voice over deal for your golden voice. It apparently takes a national campaign for the second highest political office on this country to get your own travel show on a cable channel. It takes an MTV show about young people living at the shore to get you a book deal and allow you to create your “brand.” It takes a Twitter feed to share your father’s ideas on a regular basis to publish a book of them and develop a television show.

Here’s the thing. I’m not saying these people shouldn’t have “worked it” and come out of their fifteen minutes with the deals they have. I don’t support them but others do and whatever. I won’t buy Snookie’s book but she’ll sell plenty without my twenty bucks. I don’t watch Sarah Palin’s Alaska but plenty of people do. God bless.

But I am troubled by this: work hard, do it by the rules, try your best, strive for excellence, keep honing your skills, put yourself out there regularly in front of the right people, make connections, keep building your portfolio – that’s all so retro, isn’t it? So pointless. I have a feeling every single one of these ideas is going to make its way out of our lexicon.

I think about the voiceover / broadcasting professional who didn’t get the job because Ted Williams did. ( I appreciate that Williams turned his life around and respect that enormously. Achieving sobriety is awe-inspiring to me. I'm just wondering why, in his 2 + years of sobriety - he wasn't applying for jobs, and possibly working at a small station to start to rebuild his career. Why stand at the roadside hoping for a break? I guess that's another way to go with the job search.)

I think about the travel journalists who have educated themselves about the wilderness but don't even get an interview when Discovery produces a show about Alaska and needs a host.

I despair for the writer who has a fabulous manuscript languishing in an editor’s office because she doesn’t have a national cable show to back it up. For the hilarious writer who can’t get an appointment with an agent because he has only 10,000 Twitter followers.

And then there is someone like Susan Boyle. Like the others, she came out of nowhere and is now an international sensation but I give her this: at least she pursued her dream, albeit through a television talent show. The truth is, she knew she would never achieve success taking a conventional route. She was too old, too fat and too dowdy. She took a chance, and put herself out there in front of one of the more ruthless judges on the planet, and that’s what sets her apart for me.

But if You Tube, unsuccessful political campaigns, Twitter feeds and cable television are singularly shaping our national conversation and serving as the threshold for our culture, for our entertainment, and for our enlightenment, we’ve set the bar very low indeed. I get it: The people who produce the books and shows and commercials want success - NOW - and they're going to make the deals that get them headlines and money or, ideally, both. Calling them "risk averse" is putting it too mildly.

Honestly, is it me this time? Am I the only one who feels this way???

God knows. But all this to say: I salute Michael Shannon on his career and the long build that has resulted in his "overnight" success. I thank him for reminding me that hard work, tenacity, and talent sometimes – just sometimes – trump hype and headlines.

And that’ll do it. 3.1 miles.


Anonymous said...

Frankly, I feel Susan Boyle deserves the same credit you give to Michael Shannon. She did everything she could, within her very limited means, to strive for success - she auditioned many times, always without success, sang in choirs, entered many karaoke contests (she only won once in all her years), made two recordings, one of which she paid for herself. She had very limited funds, no resources and was not a traveller. But she worked it for years as best she could. And as you say - she never gave up.

renee said...

Thanks, Anon. I didn't know any details about how Susan Boyle pursued her dream other than her appearance on Britain's Got Talent.

You're right - her tenacity and attempts to get somewhere are admirable, especially as you say, given her limited means.

I keep getting stuck on the ridiculous notion that reward without effort has to feel kind of hollow, even to the people enjoying the reward. Maybe people would never admit that out loud and maybe every one of the people I'm incrankulous about would line up and tell me: You're wrong! I've worked VERY hard to get this! I've earned every bit of it.

Sorry. I'm not buying it.