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  • How TV Producer Peter Engel Was Saved By The Bell

    “It was unbelievable,” marvels TV producer Peter Engel, when visiting the Saved By The Bell diner in Chicago. “It was almost like I stepped back in time. I was sitting in the famous Bell booth. That’s where I used to sit with the kids after rehearsal and give them notes.”



    The notes must have been brilliant, because the teen-oriented sitcom Peter created and produced, Saved By the Bell, is the stuff of TV legend. Even Peter’s credit (Executive Producer - Peter Engel) has become iconic (to his credit!).

    The original series, about an assorted group of impossibly good-looking high-school friends, ran from 1989-1993, and spawned a spinoff, TV movies, endless trivia questions and irrational fascination.  

    When the gang reunited on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon in 2015, the segment generated 35 million hits on YouTube and broke the Internet. 

    “I never thought anyone would see our show,” he admits about its humble debut, over a quarter century ago. “We did premiere in prime time in the summer of 1989. The critics brutalized us in New York, San Francisco and LA. But the tapings were like a Beatles’ concert. It was wonderful. The cast was magical. They never, ever missed, ever.”

    Peter credits much of that success to the charm and talent of the cast; in particular, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played the scheming, charming, practically sociopathic Zack Morris. “People thought [Mark-Paul] was Zack in real life, and he wasn’t,” Peter says. “He was a very serious-minded young man, and was very serious about his acting. He wasn’t Zack, and a lot of the crew would treat him like he was Zack. That’s why he was such a great actor, and he still is.”

    Although most older series have gotten lost in the digital-age shuffle, Bell continues to entertain new generations of kids on new screens and devices.

     “We’re selling more [Saved By The Bell ]T-shirts now than we did 25 years ago,” he says.  “Every month, I’m approving new artwork.”

    Peter has written a memoir, I Was Saved By The Bell, about the experiences the show has brought him – both as an entrepreneur and – eventually -- a player. He’s also a well-respected producer of many other television series, including NBC’s Last Comic Standing.

    Of Last Comic, Peter says, “Jay Mohr came to me with the idea. The original title was Comic House [to be filmed like Big Brother]. I was under contract to NBC and we sold it. That summer, while we were shooting the pilot, American Idol came on. So the network said, ‘do a national comedian search: the search for the funniest person in America.’ That was so much fun – because comics --, forget the money, the prizes – the thing they want most is exposure. Four hours of exposure, even if you don’t win. And five if you get to the final five or six.”

    In fact, Bell and Last Comic have something in common, thanks to Peter’s savvy knowledge of what translates well in television.

    “If you can make them laugh, you can make them cry,” he says. “Those are the best shows, with the best actors. They have you laughing, and before you know it, you’re crying. It’s emotion. The best shows are the ones that make you laugh and cry.”

    Saved By the Bell was played mostly for laughs, but all true fans remember the more tender moments, like when Jesse (Elizabeth Berkley) became hooked on caffeine pills, or the endlessly frustrating breakups and regroupings of Zack and Kelly (Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Tiffani-Amber Theissen).

    Zack and Kelly’s unified heart was repeatedly broken (not including reruns), but that’s nothing compared to the rejection and disappointment that Peter endured in real life.

     “You can’t ever give up,” he says. “I’ve had my heart broken so many times, both professionally and personally. But that’s how you come off the floor. That’s what makes successful people different.”

    Peter feels this goes for our country as well, just as we’re coming out of an especially difficult year.

    “We [as a country] always mess up, since George Washington,” he says. “We as a people always get back up. It’s how you get back up, not how you get knocked down.“

    The failed projects made Peter appreciate his huge successes.

    “There were so many shows that broke my heart,” he says. “If you don’t have those, you don’t fully appreciate when you have an enduring hit that impacted a whole generation. And more generations now.”

    Although Peter wrote a successful memoir and is responsible for one of the most adored shows in TV history, he doesn’t live in the past.

    “I don’t read yesterday’s newspaper,” he says, “but I think television today is doing stunning things. The problem is, there is so much clutter that [good TV] is hard to find. But with Netflix, you can have your opportunities when you want them. Television is doing tremendous things, and there’s so much of it.”

    Like all entrepreneurs, Peter’s dream of working in and creating television stayed secret at first. Often, when an idea is first announced, it is automatically met with skepticism.

    “That’s why I went to textile school,” he says. “I was embarrassed. I didn’t think my family, or anyone I knew, would take me seriously. And then I went to NYU Film School, and worked at NBC as a page. And ironically enough, that’s where I ended up.”

    Peter has advice for those who want to break into television, which is suddenly hotter than movies and hungry for content.

    “Movies are a directors’ medium,” he says. “Television is a writer’s and executive director’s medium. I tell people, the best way in is to write. No one cares who you are. If it’s on the page, it can be on the stage.”

    For entrepreneurs in general, Peter says, “You have to dream big, because big dreams are harder to accomplish than little ones. And you can’t let anyone steal your dreams. You can’t let anyone frighten you. And you have to never, ever give up. I had so many shows that coulda-shoulda-woulda, but didn’t. I say if you can make a living at anything that you love doing, you’ll have a great life.”

     

     

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  • The Attention Merchants: The Mad Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads

    Radio, TV, and now the web: it’s really only ever been about delivering audiences to advertisers. Sorry to break it to you – it’s not about how good your favorite show was last night. It never was.

    From the early days of radio, the idea – the only idea – was to create programming that fed consumers to advertisers. The sneaky trade off: the networks will give you free programming if only you will pay attention to a few words from our sponsors.

    It’s the same story now, but in the digital age, the task is harder than it’s ever been. The mad scramble is on – and deny this as you will, you’re just as gullible as the average radio listener in 1927. Even on the web, in exchange for free, you just have to put up with some increasingly intrusive ads.  

    Dr. Tim Wu’s book, The Attention Merchants: The Mad Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads, breaks down the history of our manipulation, how they do it, how we fight it, and who wins.

    Tim is a professor at Columbia University Law School and a director of the Pollak Center for the study of First Amendment Issues at Columbia Journalism School. He writes about free speech, private power, copyright, and antitrust. His previous book, The Master Switch, won wide recognition and various awards. 

    Here, Tim tells us how advertisers are working it so that they have your constant attention. We touch upon the effectiveness of ad blockers, the astonishing success of Facebook (and why they get it right), and exactly how many hours advertisers have to get at you.

    RON: Digital advertising reminds me of The Emperor’s New Clothes: everybody is drawn to it and a huge fuss is made over it, but ultimately, it’s a hoax; really doesn’t do anything for anybody.

    TIM: At one time, [digital] advertising seemed like manna from heaven, the answer to everything: free money just flows in, and everything on the Web is just going to float and work. No tradeoffs, no problems at all.

    But for the readers, there was a very determined resistance not to pay for anything. Part of this was about Web culture: it’s all free, it’s not about money.

    RON: So where are we now?

    TIM: It seems that we’ve hit the “hangover” moment. The publishers haven’t made much money here and never made much money. If there is any money, Google and Facebook have got it all.

    It’s like a lot of things. I don’t want to say it was a bubble, but promises that turned out not to be sustainable. For regular publishers, I don’t think it worked well. On the consumer side, we’ve gotten to this place where advertising really is intrusive. It burns your battery and your cell phone and your time.

    I think we’re in a bad place, and that’s why I wrote this book.

    RON: The original idea of Web advertising is that advertisers can target their prospects more precisely and accurately than ever before. Hard to argue with that. So what happened?

    TIM: What’s absurd is the promise of ad tech versus what it delivers -- the thought that consumers are going to like the ads now because it’s exactly what they wanted.

    I don’t really want to blame anyone; I just think we kind of have gotten here somehow. It’s not like the advertisers have an easy time. And it’s not like the publishers want to inflict advertisements on their readers. It’s just kind of where we have gotten to.

    I’m not trying to say a big “fuck you” to publishers; the publishers are getting screwed too. And the advertisers are not getting their audiences, so they are acting desperate.

    RON: One of the things you recommend in your book: let’s start from scratch. A radical idea, indeed.

    Tim: In some ways, it has happened; not totally from scratch, but some non-ad supported models have done really well. One of the reasons I think Netflix took off in the last five years is that, rather than close down 30 [ad] windows, you just watch one show, and then it’s over. There are no ads; it’s very intense and engaging and deep. Even HBO has been like that for a while.

    RON: So the conventional wisdom is not exactly correct. People have an attention span after all?

    TIM: People like watching 12 hours in a row of [a Netflix offering]. It’s not so much the attention span; it has to do with the way the material is presented. For the web, the medium depends on clicks. It’s actually become a very low-attention-span medium, one that depends on a different metric.

    RON: In many ways, digital advertising is really no different from the very first forms of advertising, from over a century ago: a combination of snake oil (miracle cures) and delivering an audience (radio).

    TIM: I was fascinated by how much of early advertising was cure-driven: miracle cures. Even when I was growing up, I was taught that you have to drink orange juice, that it’s a miracle beverage. I was raised to believe that if you didn’t have orange juice every day, you could get sick.

    RON: Are we any smarter today?

    TIM: I don’t think any of that has changed. They say a sucker is born every minute. We’re all suckers. I’m a sucker. That’s part of being human. Who wants to age? Who wants to lose their hair? Who doesn’t want six-pack abs? We want magic potions. And I think that we are not really willing to completely accept that there are no magic potions.

    On the other hand, we are better at recognizing the hard sell. We have more of a reflex now. It takes a little bit more subtly to get to us. It’s part of human nature. We really want to believe.

    RON: So reinventing the Web…is this do-able? Would everybody be on board for this?

    TIM: The Web can reinvent itself the way television did. People thought that television was a write-off, done, expired. Now, television is making a fortune and, in many ways, better than it’s ever been. There is more money being spent on TV content than ever in its history. People who used to make movies make TV shows.

    Like anything else, the Web can have another golden age, or something new that comes along. The Web came along in our lifetime, cable TV came along in our lifetime. I’m a believer in rebirth. I like the movie Rocky. Get knocked down, and come back. I’m an optimist, even though I wrote a dark book. I believe in the infinite possibilities of redemption and coming back and starting something new and starting something better.

    RON: Any way you slice it, though, it’s harder than ever to get – and keep – people’s attention.

    TIM: The attention economy is a tough game to be in. Getting attention for your products is one thing, and that’s hard enough. If you need to be a part of the 168 hours that the population has to pay attention, that’s a tough situation. Think about how comptetive that has become. The biggest companies on [social media] have their own demands for doubling and tripling revenue. They need to capture more and more of that time, over and over and over again.

    RON: So then how in the world do the little guys –small business and entrepreneurs – keep up with the major-player attention merchants?

    TIM: I think there is a very important fact for entrepreneurs in the current environment: the amount of time people have is finite -- it’s 168 hours. Money is not infinite, but there is a much more dynamic supply of it. I don’t have any panacea for anyone. You’re in an outrageously competitive situation, because other businesses have just jumped into those 168 hours and want to grab every single one of them. Unless you think you can get in there in some way that you think no one else has, you need to realize the game you are playing.

    RON: What’s your take on ad blockers? Are they doing their job? Are they sending a message to The Man? Are they the first shots of the revolution?

    TIM: Ad blocker are fascinating. I think there is a business opportunity in trying to cater to people who want more control over their own attention. Ad blockers are a part of improving the Web. If you can come up with some way that lets people fight back against having their lives taken over and somehow give them the room they need, I think that’s an important opportunity.

    Ad blockers are very frustrating for advertisers, of course, and there is something not sustainable and rather juvenile about it. On the other hand, they are obviously expressing something. They are a symptom of how broken things are. People are so dissatisfied that they are employing their own aggressive techniques.

    RON: Which leads us to Facebook. Explain why it succeeded in getting and holding our attention, where so many other social media failed. And even Facebook faces business challenges.

    TIM: Facebook is under incredible pressure to increase their revenues. So I think you are going to see them become increasingly aggressive, to the degree that they will try to monetize everything they’ve got.

    Their greatest success is that they keep up with the form of media that is all about “you.” Basically, you are watching  yourself and how your friends react to you -- it’s just pure narcissism, how people are reacting to you. Facebook understood and captured this in a bottle – what people care about most is themselves.

    RON: So where do we go from here?

    TIM: More ways of getting inside your head: infiltrate almost every part of your life, and above all, remain essential. Facebook has done an incredible job of making itself essential for births, major life announcements. They somehow have completely woven themselves in. That’s really important to them. The key is: they are just there all the time. Life moments. They are controlling life’s moments and advertising to those moments.

    RON: Of course, advertising, no matter what, has to be appealing. No matter how many eyeballs, good advertising makes the pupils dilate.

    TIM: The holy grail of advertising for a long time has been advertising that goes down easy. You don’t really notice it. It may be something that you want to watch. Product placement has been around for a long time. There is always going to be an effort to find new ways for [advertising] to be natural and just fit in and not be obtrusive. I think it’s going to become more that way.

    We’ve become more sensitive to the fact that we are being advertised to. They are trying to get more and more subtle. If we are talking about the future of advertising, there is no question that it’s going to be about “subtle.” Building things in nice and subtly, not blaring in your face.

    We do have ad blocking – people are trying to slam the door on ads whenever they can, like swatting a mosquito. If you have somebody trying hard to swat you, you have to be more microscopic, something that you don’t notice.

    You can’t come away from the history of advertising and not feel a little bit humbled. All of us are a little bit gullible. The more you think you’re not, the more you probably are. A lot of us are like, “oh, no, not me. Those are the old days. Advertising doesn’t affect me.”


     Click here to find out more about Tim and The Attention Merchants.

     

     

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  • KC Armstrong’s Internet radio station introduces you to the world’s most amazing people.

    “I believe that everyone has a story,” says KC Armstrong, a 20-year broadcast veteran who has launched an inspirational Internet radio station, WMAP, which rightfully stands for World’s Most Amazing People.

    “I interview people who are helping other people, or entrepreneurs who didn’t have anything given to them and they just worked their balls off, who made something of themselves,” he says of some of his intriguing, inspiring guests. “Also, people who help animals, doctors who help people…it’s all positive.”

    Add to that guest list the chief of the Maasai tribe. KC’s mom, Virginia, is a retired English teacher and journeys to Africa [Kenya] to teach, in classrooms with dirt floors. The chief, named Joe, often comes back to Long Island, and KC sits down with him for a one-on-one. You never know who is going to drop in, and who is going to inspire you.

    In this era of bad news, Internet trolls and general weary cynicism, WMAP is making quite a positive impression. KC, who many people remember as a cast member of Howard Stern’s terrestrial radio show back in the day, comes to this pursuit carrying some damn dramatic baggage.

    “I had a real bad drinking problem,” he says, “I had pancreatitis. I had been in and out of the hospital over 30 times. I had bled out one time and almost died.”

    Bad news, which led him to good news.

    “I don’t want to say that I had an epiphany,” he says, “but I realized that there are some really positive things you have to look for.”

    The Long Island native is now back home after a soul-searching journey across America, which included a few bad relationships and failed attempts to self-medicate. KC traveled through the dark side and survived. His show, and its content, reside decidedly on the sunny side of the street, and are heard worldwide.

    He says, “After I was fired from Howard – that was due to a pretty severe depression -- I went to go get some help at Newport Coast Recovery [Newport Beach, California]. I ended up staying out there for about eight years. I was living hand to mouth, and I was homeless at times. I got involved with some bad people and made some bad choices. I went to jail about three or four times. I ended up being arrested in Alaska. I followed a girl there. It was a very low time. I started drinking very heavily. Before I knew it, my pancreas was going.”

    Although KC figured his story was over at that point, the stars were aligning in the sky for him, despite his talented knack for self-destruction. With time, he found faith, and his voice again. But did the old KC sense of humor that we remember from K-ROCK evaporate in the process?

    “I’m still crazy,” he assures us. “It’s still me 24 hours.”

    He took one of his weaknesses – a failure to see the good in himself – and turned it into an asset.

    “I was always one to see the good in other people, but never in me,” he says. “Bringing out the best in other people, I feel that that’s what my role here is. I know I make a lot of people feel really good. And selfishly, it makes me feel good too.”

    As KC’s audience builds worldwide, and his inspirational interviews continue to spread good vibes, his jock/jocular persona is still comfortably reminiscent of his days working with The King of All Media.

    “I haven’t really talked to Howard in a while,” he says, “but I have nothing but good things to say about him. I now listen to myself 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I see myself doing a lot of things that he did. I learned so many things from him. The content situation is totally different -- everything is positive. I don’t put anybody down. I don’t do anything like that. But I often see in my cadence that I’ve learned so much from him.”

    Part of what he learned from Howard is total, non-negotiable honesty, at all times.

    “I’m always very honest with the audience,” he says, “and I let them know what’s going on. People seem to appreciate the honesty. People feel good after they get off the phone with me. I try to find something good in everybody, even if they don’t know it.”

    The project is not a podcast – it’s an Internet radio station, and a serious business. It never turns off. KC has learned that it’s heard regularly in at least 14 different countries, and counting. The average listener is listening for 47.2 minutes each time they tune in.

    “It’s crazy how it’s really blown up,” he says. “In 30 days, we’ve improved over 4000% with listenership. We’re heard in foreign countries, like Bangladesh. I’ve also signed a contract for a series of books [based on WMAP guests], which brings more clients and advertisers. The 17-18 hours a day I put in really paid off.”

    Like any other entrepreneur, KC is taking it one day at a time and learning as he goes.

    He says, “As an entrepreneur, you are going to have so many ideas that are just great, but you need that one idea where you don’t see any downside. It’s that idea that is going to make you work your ass off. There’s going to be a big learning curve. I didn’t know anything business wise. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned. If you really want something, you are going to hit some speed bumps along the way. It’s there for you. You can definitely do it. It’s just hard work. And it’s also treating people with respect. And doing what you say and saying what you do. Those things go a long way.”

    Of the current emotional temperature of our beleaguered culture, KC says, “Everything is so negative. We get so beaten up.” As an alternative, he suggests, “Turn on my channel.”

    KC is always looking for interesting guests with stories to tell, and who want their message to reach a broad audience. Find out more, get in touch with KC, and give a listen to WMAP here.

     

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  • Dermot Mulroney’s Other Career: Playing Music With Cranky George

    “If you can picture five busy guys with kids and other jobs, you can get why it would take that long,” says accomplished actor and musician Dermot Mulroney, talking about the long-awaited debut album from Cranky George: Fat Lot of Good.

    The wait: five years, but worth it.

    “It wasn’t for lack of interest or indifference,” Dermot explains. “We always knew we had something good, and wanted to do it right, and take the right amount of time.”

    The something they have is indeed good. Unique too. The folk-influenced, indie-rock Los Angeles band includes Dermot, a steadily working film/TV actor, and his brother, Kieran, both of whom are classically trained musicians (you may also remember Kieran as “Timmy” on the classic Seinfeld episode, who reprimanded George about “double-dipping the chip.”).

    The Mulroney bros are from a large Irish-American brood, originally based in Alexandria, VA – Dermot plays cello, mandolin and guitar; Kieran rocks the violin, ukulele, and tenor guitar.

    Co-founding the group is accordionist James Fearnley of The Pogues, the London-Irish folk-punk band (yep, you read that right, and it’s as cool as it sounds). Also on board is Brad Wood on bass; he produced records for The Bangles, Ben Lee, Pete Yorn and Veruca Salt. On percussion is Sebastian Sheehan Visconti, a sound designer and sound-effects editor who works on television series.

    Cutting an album is a new step; the band has been playing live in Los Angeles for a couple of years now, including awesome venues like Molly Malone’s in LA, which Cranky George calls its home base. No big – the shows are “just for fun.”  

    In breaking down what makes the band unique, Dermot attributes Kieran’s musical talent, among other things. He says, “Kieran plays violin, and he very much combines – in a way you rarely hear in rock and roll – or even in folk music—country, classical, Celtic, Appalachian all together, in sort of a classical music rock-and-roll violin. The one thing he brings to it that you rarely hear is his classical training. A lot of players may learn that way and then abandon it when it comes to playing in the band, but he brought it with him, which really defines our string sound. A lot of our melodic themes are really on the violin, so it really colors the album.”

    Regarding The Pogues’ James Fearnley, Dermot says, “I met him through his wife, a wonderful actress and dear friend [Danielle von Zerneck]: The English/Irish punk folk rocker fell in love with the beautiful American ingénue actress. I really began to listen to the Pogues after I met James. We became neighbors, and we had other musician friends, so we would do what we called a hootenanny. We would just cram people into my living room and play whatever we could think of.”

    Of the group’s influence, Dermot says, “The Pogues is one of the only bands where I know every word to every song. I’m a rabid fan. That was a very impacting sound in my life. To have a friend who is the greatest rock-and-roll accordion player who ever lived -- there just isn’t anybody else. His particular playing style is unusual for accordion players. You can hear accordion in other acts, but you won’t hear it played that way.”

    According to Dermot, Brad Wood is the conduit that made the album possible: “He’s a bass player who is also this phenomenal -- and frankly, famous -- record producer. That’s why we were able to do the project with such quality. We had the great fortune of being with Brad, who is top dog and really just outdid himself on Fat Lot of Good.”

    Dermot, who most all of us remember as the object of Julia Roberts’ affection in My Best Friend’s Wedding, doesn’t follow in the footsteps of actors who really, secretly want to sing and play. His film and television career spans decades, but of his musical career, he says, “I never pushed it forward, I never publicized it myself. I think it’s coming to people’s notice, and it will be interesting to see just how Cranky George does.”

    Of course, among actors, we've heard this song before, but Cranky George is not a rerun.

    “Let’s be honest, [many actors] try to make a go of it and it never really goes,” Dermot says. “It’s kind of a dumb cliché, or it feels that way to me, until I start playing with these guys. When I play with them, I don’t feel like one of those clichés. We come from a different source. I didn’t become a musician because I was an actor. I came at it from a different angle. Nobody out there is playing the music that we play.”

    Dermot’s musical training goes back to childhood, growing up in Alexandria, VA as the son of a tax attorney, and long before it even occurred to him to become an actor.

    “There were five kids,” he says, “and each played a string instrument. It sort of became just something that the Mulroney kids did. I’m third in line. By the time I was coming around, the cello was still available. It was part of our school program and just part of our lives. I’m sure I was vigorously encouraged to practice my instrument, but my memory is that I actually always wanted to. I was self-motivated as a kid.”

    Yeah, but the cello?

    “I was following the lead of my older brothers,” he explains. “It was just kind of what we did. It’s fun to play. You take it out of its case and you rosin your bow. It was fun as a kid to have my own instrument, and to carry it around and it had parts to maintain and to clean.”

    “My dad is an esteemed emeritus professor at Villanova,” he continues, “but he has almost no musical ability. He’s a heck of a whistler though. You can tell that he has an ear. My mother’s the same way. She’s in her mid-80s, and her voice quality is not what it once was – but she too has a real ear. We can trace our real musical talent to her mother -- my grandmother – who was one of those piano players who was self-taught, and could play anything; she could hear it once and play it. There is something for real in our family tree. It may have skipped my parents, though.”

    The musical influence also extended to the family’s record library.  

    “I may not be able to attribute our musical abilities to [my father], but I can certainly thank him for the musical influence,” Dermot says. “We were listening to Johnny Cash, Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan. My parents were sort of non-hippie ‘60s eastern intelligentsia -- opera and Irish tenors, like John McCormack. We even had an album with Spanish Civil War ballads and the Russian Men’s Army chorus.”

    While most of us were watching Dermot on movie and video screens since the 1980s, he was also playing live and building his musician’s cred. Through those years, he sharpened his musical chops with a former band called the Low & Sweet Orchestra.

    “I’ve played in all of these clubs, playing live,” he recalls. “We hit every venue in Los Angeles, from back in the ‘90s on: The Universal Amphitheater, The Troubadour, The El Ray, The Roxy, The House of Blues. I sometimes can’t believe the experience that I’ve had, combining acting/performance with live stage work."

    The offbeat sound of Cranky George may be a hard sell and not your typical mainstream, but Dermot welcomes the challenge.  

    “I’ve been in unconventional movies, and I’ve been in television shows that have a ‘new twist,’ and it’s not always the best thing,” he says. “It’s not always the thing that actually goes. Conventions exist for a reason. I’m testing this Cranky George because it will either be a great, groundbreaking thing, or people will miss it because it’s not something they already know.”

    Stay tuned, and listen in. Dermot will keep his day job, but continue to follow his passion at night.

    He says, “To keep music in my life this way, I’ll be always grateful.”

    Follow Cranky George on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and find out more about them at CrankyGeorge.com.

     

     

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  • Gideon Connelly Forges A New Path

    National Guard staff sergeant Gideon Connelly was only 21 when a motorcycle accident took his left leg. Nasty scene: the throttle jammed on his bike, and he lost control of it just as a car was coming around the corner. He (and the bike) flipped a few times, landing on the curb. The damage: his left foot was severed at the Achilles tendon, and his knee and right arm were snapped in half. He lost blood and consciousness. Taken to Walter Reed Hospital, he was given a choice: wait three years for his leg to possibly recuperate, or amputate now.

    That was in 2011. In 2016, he’s training to run with a prosthetic leg. His goal: to be part of the U.S. Olympics track-and-field team.

    In 2014, at the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, he ran the 200-meter dash in 29.4 seconds. At the Invictus Games in 2016, he ran 100 meters in 13.46 seconds, and 27.48 seconds in the 200-meter competition. At the 2016 Paralympic Nationals, he ran 12.9 seconds in 100 meters and in the 200-meter race, he ran 27.2 seconds.

    Throughout his post-accident ordeal, his eyes were on the prize: after the hospital, he wanted his old body back. He started lifting and running again. He had to learn how to use a prosthetic correctly, to get the energy return out of it. In Maryland, he went through two coaches, trying to learn technique, style, track workouts, and functional movement. As well, he was working a full-time job.

    Training for the games, he gives himself no slack or sympathy. He goes at it four hours a night, in the gym and on the track, often by himself. Of this ambition, he says, “I’m trying to grind, but I’m also trying to become both a better athlete and a better person.”

    Gideon was always driven. At age 20, in addition to being in the Maryland National Guard, he bartended and worked weekends at Home Depot. Those 70-hour work weeks – plus his military signing bonus -- gave him the dough to buy a house, a motorcycle and a car.

    “I forged my own path,” he says, “and got what I wanted.”

    His mother had left him with relatives when he was 14. He had been in and out of homes. No dad in the picture, but two uncles who were incredible role models, and very supportive.

    He was on his own again after finishing high school. He wasn’t a natural student, but the one thing he did love in school: running track. After his accident, he decided to strive for returning to the sport, but it wasn’t a straight and narrow path.

    “I went through a phase where I just wanted to give up,” he recalls, regarding his post-accident hospital stay, “but I was 21-years old, so I figured I still had a whole life ahead of me, and made the decision to keep pushing.”

    His Uncle Lonnie has a medical background and is a devout Catholic. He drove up to DC regularly from Baltimore to help with Gideon’s rehab, prayed with him, helping him navigate through the ordeal.

    He received a donated prosthetic running leg from a company named Ossur, which makes them. From there, he took off.

    When it came to rehabbing, Uncle Lonnie took him to New York, the best place in the world for walking (if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere). It’s there where Gideon learned how to use his prosthetic leg.

    The push led him to Tampa, Florida, where the Maryland native is still on active duty with the Guard, now as a chaplain’s assistant.

    “My job is teaching resiliency to others,” he says. “How to overcome, and how to embrace your positive side, even through your negative times and tragedies. That’s what I’m teaching in the military at this point. I’ll be doing speeches at yellow ribbon ceremonies, for post-deployment troops coming back from Iran and Afghanistan.”

    Funny how life throws in some surprises – a new life is created out of adversity and, frankly, a lack of a plan.

    “At first, I had no plans,” he admits. “I knew I wanted to run here [in Florida] and find a coach. Nobody in my family has ever moved away from Maryland. But I never gave up my military obligation. I moved from aircraft mechanic to chaplain’s assistant. I want to help others with counseling: financial, family, illness, injury, and loss.”

    The accident, ultimately, did him more good than harm. He says, “I was a self destructive person before -- vain and negative. I couldn’t change. I was into bodybuilding and competing, always into looks and aesthetics and always trying to be the best I could be. After the accident, I lost 95 pounds. I lost muscle. But that’s what I needed to bring out the real me, the person who helps others, the one who wants to be a good-hearted person.”

    His Catholic upbringing ultimately led him back to the path, but as a chaplain’s assistant, he’s open to all religions and ideologies. 

    “I just want to connect with you on a human level and guide you,” he says. “I just want you to know that I’m here for you.”

    He recalls, “I really wanted to change my direction in life. I want to be motivational, inspirational to others. Education is not my realm; going to school is not my realm. That’s not me. So what do I do?”

    Training, for one. He trains every day with Rey Robinson, a professional coach; and with a small team. On the side, he offers personal training.

    “I have to make sure that I train to the best of my ability and succeed,” he says. “Everybody has hiccups and problems along the road, but I block out all my problems, get out on the track, and push through it -- I give 100% and just push through it. I’m not living by anybody else’s rules at this point. I’m just living by my own rules. I’m trying to make a path for myself.”

    Along the way, he’s gaining quite a following on that road.

    “I’m not a preacher,” he says. “I won’t preach to the world about what I’ve done. The people who are inspired by me are never the people I reach out to and try to touch. Instead, they're the people who see what I do, what I give every day – those are the people who are inspired by me. Those are the people who come to me. They think the path that I’ve chosen is great, but not everybody can give up everything and pursue their dreams 100%. But I don’t want to be the person at 50 who says, ‘I wish I would have given that a shot.’ I don’t want to be a shoulda-woulda-coulda kind of guy.”


    Follow Gideon – and his race toward his goal -- on Facebook and Instagram @gideoncon

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