Sunday, 24 February 2013

Second Acts

I’m working my way through the whole of The Wire on a DVD box set. I know, I know, I’m ten years behind the times. But better late than never, and I’m loving it. 

In Season Two, D’Angelo Barksdale is on a long prison sentence for drug dealing. In a reading group discussion he quotes Scott Fitzgerald’s famous statement ‘There are no second acts in American lives’. D’Angelo reckons this means we only get one chance at living our lives[1]. Whatever role we find ourselves in is the role we are stuck with. We can try to change things, to break out and live differently, but we can’t do it. We are trapped. 

There is certainly no second act for D’Angelo, who is killed a few days later.  Nor for most of the characters in The Wire, whether drug dealers, trade unionists or police. Attempts to make big changes are invariably doomed to failure, death or disaster.   

It’s like a classical Greek drama, where human beings are playthings at the mercy of capricious, unpredictable gods.  We have the illusion of free will, but in reality our lives are predetermined, chosen for us and directed by forces beyond our control. So we’d better just accept our lot and make the best of a bad job.

Hang on a minute....

Well no, actually. No way. Absolutely not.

Great TV, great drama, but I refuse to accept this pessimistic view of the world.

We are persons with the capacity to lead our own lives. We are not passive victims of fate or circumstance. We have choices. We can do things differently.  Transformation is possible. Think Nelson Mandela.

Even if we’ve made a complete pig’s ear of our life up to this point, even if we’ve had a very rough deal until now, it is possible to turn things around.  We can have second (and even third and fourth) acts.

Last week Helen (not her real name) came to see me in my surgery. It was the first time we’d met for more than ten years, as she’d move away from our area for a while.  Back then she was dependent on alcohol and heroin, and had problems with hepatitis. She was heading rapidly downhill. But no longer. Helen’s off all that stuff now. She’s back in control of her life, caring for her teenage daughter and half way through a degree in sociology. 

For lots of people retirement is a great time to start over. Second act, third age - it’s the same thing. Once earning our living is no longer necessary we have a chance to try something we’ve always wanted to do. We can reinvent ourselves.

I wonder what I’ll do next.

What do you think?  Are we stuck with what we’ve got, or can we change things around? Have you had a second act?  Or are you planning one?


  1. I've changed my life so many times it's becoming 'normal' now! But yes, we definitely have a chance to change things around but you must do it sooner rather than later as unfortunately 'time waits for no man' or woman for that matter.

  2. I've been watching The Wire as well and really enjoying it (though some parts require a look away from the screen I find), not quite sure why it is so good, think it's probably the quality of the writing and simple way that it's shot.  I'm half way through season 5 so don't know what i will watch next - hard act to follow.  

           I was interested in your wellbecoming blog about it and agree with; don't believe in capricious gods or predeterminism that strips us of responsibility either.  I have no experience of Baltimore or any drugs scene but the programme did seem very plausible in what happened to it's characters, but that's likely just a reflection of how well it's put together.  Did a little googling to see how realistic or otherwise it might be.  I was mindful of where I was looking but couldn't find any government websites with easy to find or recent stats; so these numbers may be wrong.

           It does seem to be a city with a real crime problem. states Baltimore had a murder rate of 196 per 100 00 population in 2011 which is a huge number and one I was shocked at (US national average 31.3) - UK rate was 1.4 per 100 000 population). gave an annual risk of becoming a victim of violent crime in baltimore as 1 in 69 per annum; they also said there were 428 crimes per sq mile per year which is hard to comprehend.

           I did find some info on the Bureau of Justice Statistics (US goverment agency) from 1994 that said 1% of those released from prison after murdering someone, were arrested for another murder within 3 years of release; overall 68% of released prisoners were rearrested within 3 yrs of release - with 47% being convicted.  Robbers, burglars, car theves and those with illegal weapons stood a 70% chance of rearrest within the 36 months.  A study in maryland (quoted on said that Baltimore had a particularly high rate of youth offenders reoffending at 80%.  In the period 2002-7 they were an average of 30 under 17 yr olds murdered each year, with about the same amount being convicted or murder or attempted murder.

           Was interesting looking at this and made me think that perhaps the Wire gave a semi realistic feel of what happened to people in the crime/drugs/guns subculture.  I think the high levels of crime (esp where any violent crime is a major personal tragedy to numbers of people) and high reoffending rates suggest that many people choose to do truly bad things.  Wider Baltimore society may be responsible for not helping the poor and drug addicted, but the numbers suggest to me that many choose to offend.  In which case (I guess) they more need saving than being left to turn it around themselves.