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Michael Cleverly: Cleverly or Not

Michael Cleverly
Aspen Times Weekly

The world population is 6,446,131,400. Our culture has always been fixated on an individual being the best, No. 1; second place is hardly worth mentioning.

If you come in second in an Olympic event that means you have done something better than 6,446,131,398 people are able to. There’s only one person on the planet capable of performing this act better than you, and usually by a margin so small that only the most sophisticated devices known to man can tell the difference. Yet, second-place finishers are forgotten by the time they get to the showers.

In the Olympics, all of the competitors that are ranked high enough for anyone to pay any attention to are supposed to have the stage presence of a movie star and media savvy of a career politician, even if they’re 15 years old and have spend 14 of those years cloistered in a gymnasium. If you don’t have the whole package, even being No. 1 may not be good enough. If you aren’t No. 1, you might as well have stayed home. As far as I know, silver and bronze medalists don’t make it onto Wheaties boxes, and they definitely don’t get a trip to Disneyland (actually a pretty decent reason to throw the game).

The pursuit of becoming No. 1 is so intense it drives athletes to illegally abuse controlled substances, jeopardizing their health and careers, and sometimes their freedom. I guess they do it principally for money, as the dough comes with the title “No. 1.” Of course this shouldn’t be confused with abusing controlled substances in the pursuit of fun, jeopardizing your health, career and freedom, with no ranking or cash forthcoming.

In our culture of superlatives, it’s no longer good enough to be a star ” one must be a superstar, stars are a dime a dozen. What’s so super about those supermodels? They look the same as the rest of the models to me. Sure, I can tell why they’re models, but where does the “super” come in? Can they fly, do they have X-ray vision, can they bench press locomotives? I don’t know, but I doubt it. It probably comes back to the money. They make more money than the others and that makes them “super,” and because they’re “super,” they make more money than the rest. Kind of a weird self-propagating thing.

There are some industries where “star” is the standard. Porn “stars”? Are they really all “stars,” every damn one of them? How many times have you been sitting with the family after dinner watching a porno film and said to yourself, “Is this really a ‘star’ performance”? It seems quite pedestrian to me. Why is this individual a “star”? Now I’ll give you porn “performer,” I’ll even give you porn “actor,” but are they all “stars? Some folks out there might want to consider this career advice: If you desperately want to be a star and have zero talent and even less desire to put in the endless amount of hard work required to be very good at something, this might be the game for you. You should be warned, though, that you probably won’t end up on a cereal box or in a parade at Disneyland … there really is no justice.

There are plenty of fields of endeavor that don’t rank the people in the pile, top to bottom. You don’t see “best” author, or “top” sculptor, or No. 1 ranked oboist in the world. They can count the number of books sold and someone can be bestselling author ” this week. They can keep track of how much someone’s sculptures sell for ” “highest price paid for a sculpture by a living artist” ” but once again that’s just about the money. You can be principal oboist in the most prestigious orchestra, but that doesn’t give you some kind of No. 1 ranking. Even people who make their living in those areas will admit that money and real merit don’t necessarily have a whole lot to do with each other.

Bestseller lists come from bookstores and the papers print them so people who don’t read reviews can get some idea of what they should be reading, in order to be trendy. This “bestseller” stuff should never, ever be confused with worthy books or important authors. People think you’re smart just because you read instead of watch TV. So if you read books that are on the bestseller list you must be smart. If one were to consistently read bestsellers, I think you’d conclude that readers are no smarter than the TV viewers who made “Lavern and Shirley” the “No. 1” show for several years. Until they started making movies out of his books, I never saw Cormac McCarthy on the bestseller lists; Annie Proulx, maybe, but few of the most serious authors are found on them. I don’t think anyone will ever bother to try to make a case for Dan Brown or Stephen King being our greatest writers. Richest, maybe.

Very few of the truly serious artists, writers and musicians that I’ve known give a moment’s thought to the idea of being “the best”; those who did I considered assholes.

So in our culture of superlatives, some people will continue to strive to be nothing short of No. 1 out of 6,446,131,400, and the rest of us will remain unranked and never notice.


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