[On Sundays, this blog explores topics beyond the world of careers and jobs.]
A Story of Hope
I recently saw my favorite movie of the year, Nebraska. This film by director Alexander Payne has it all: a great story, compelling characters, and unforgettable scenery. In some ways it’s a very simple story: An old man named Woody Grant thinks he has won a million dollars through a magazine promotion. He and his son David travel to Nebraska to claim the winnings. David understands that his father has not won the money, but he wants him to have the dignity that comes with belief and freedom.
Nebraska is a very funny movie with serious implications. No character in this movie leads a happy life. Woody’s sons have dead end jobs in Billings, Montana. Their cousins have no opportunity in rural Nebraska. The older characters repeatedly ponder lost opportunities and lost loves. Woody, a man of few words, embodies all of these character in his dreams of winning a million dollars. Beyond a few minor purchases, he doesn’t have any real use for the money. He wants it because there is nothing else in his life.
On the emotional level, Payne contrasts love of people and love of money. Where Woody and his family care for each other and view their history in Nebraska as one of human connections, many of the people in the small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, only see Woody as a potential ATM machine. His former business partner (brilliantly played by Stacy Keach) demands $10,000 as a repayment for loans made decades before. Other relatives ask for their share, only to be driven off by Woody’s wife who reminds them that her husband did far more for them than they did for him. His bumbling nephews steal his prize notification certificate, only to learn that their uncle’s dream is a joke.
Once Woody’s fantasy is revealed for what it is, the people who wanted his money begin to mock him. They have nothing in their lives, which makes their venom even more poisonous. In some way, this aspect of the film reflects a country that has given up on work and saving to put all of its hope into fantasies of risk and luck. Woody briefly became their hope, a winning lottery ticket. When that dream died, they attack with scorn built through years of hopelessness. Payne reflects this mood in scenes of a landscape that is both empty and hauntingly beautiful. He portrays the town of Hawthorne as if it were frozen in the 1970s.
Despite these dark moments and motifs, Nebraska is also a great reflection on love and hope. David is rock steady in supporting his father. He takes him on the journey to Nebraska despite the protests of his mother and older brother, two characters who are first portrayed as sour know-it-alls who want to put Woody in a home. However, as they encounter the people of Hawthorne, mother and son come to support Woody, which gives the film a richer emotional depth. I won’t describe the ending, but it fits in being both touching and plausible. While many critics have singled out Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody, which is fantastic, all of the actors capture their characters in a way that grips the audience, letting us share their dreams and nightmares. Nebraska takes us on a journey. At the end, we feel rewarded – as if we’d won the prize.
[On Sundays this blog explores life and work in “Sabbath.”]
One City – Three Americas
About a week ago I took my first trip to Las Vegas. Friends said it would be like nothing I had seen before, and they were right.
The strip, especially at night, is Disneyland for adults. People flow from casino to casino. Some are going to shows, and some are going to restaurants. The heart of the city, however, beats with the slot machines and gaming tables. This aspect of Las Vegas reflects post-Reagan America, a country that welcomes risks and says losers be damned. We know the house wins, but we play the game anyway. The person playing next to you is not your problem. Win or lose – you are alone.
My friends and I visited another aspect of the country when we went to Hoover Dam. We took a tour of the facility, which was interesting in several ways. The Dam is an engineering wonder, which was completed during the Great Depression. It represents the opposite of the strip: control, security, and shared resources. The water that the Dam holds in Lake Mead is not only used by Las Vegas. Its primary function is irrigation for farms in Southern California that are essential to the nation’s food supply. Before the Dam was built, the Colorado River would often flood and ruin crops. For me the Dam represents a country that builds for the future, a shared future.
We also took a tour to see the Grand Canyon. This version of America puts everything in perspective: man is small and pitiful in the face of nature. We can build skyscrapers and rockets that go to the moon. We could never do what nature has done in carving this wonder. This is the America that is too often being lost to our need to build and grow. In Kentucky and West Virginia, smaller wonders have been spoiled in the process called mountain top removal. In Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, we have fouled the oceans with oil spills. Thank god developers have found nothing of value in the Grand Canyon. . . yet.
I came away from Las Vegas with both fear and hope. My fear is that we are becoming a nation of risk takers who care little about our fellow citizens or the future. Gambling, which was once legal only in a few places, is now a national growth industry. Governors and mayors cry poor and look to casinos as alternatives to increased taxes. I see people who are obviously not wealthy buy $10 or $20 of lottery tickets, their hope for the future. This is the America where risk rules and the winners run the game. Still, I also came away from my trip to Las Vegas with some hope. If we can build Hoover Dam during the greatest financial crisis in the country’s history, we can wake up again and work together for the common good. We still have the Grand Canyon to inspire us to protect the planet and its wonders. We still have a chance – if we don’t gamble it away.
[“Sabbath” is Career Calling’s Sunday feature that looks at work we do outside of our jobs.]
We’re in the teeth of March Madness, the men’s NCAA basketball championship. Once upon a time, this was merely a sporting event. Now it is a national gambling fest. Many people play bracket pools in which the challenge is to pick the winner of each game. Others play “squares,” a game in which bettors win based on a game’s final score.
In a way, this two week period reflects how America has changed over the past few decades. Many states raise money through lotteries, instead of increasing taxes. Casinos are another way states generate revenue. America has replaced thousands of factories with blackjack tables, betting parlors, and slot machines. We’ve become a nation that likes to take chances and dream about hitting the jackpot.
A few months ago, I read a great book called Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, a financial analyst who has strong ideas about how we take chances and think about predictability. Taleb believes that experts in every field are too cocky about their ability to forecast the future. What happens instead is that a sudden, unexpected event takes place – a Black Swan – that reshapes how we live. Rather than expecting for things to be regular and steady, Taleb suggests that we recognize the power of randomness and prepare for the event that we don’t expect and can’t predict. The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan are a good example of a Black Swan. Beyond the great damage to the nation and people of Japan, this natural disaster will impact the world economy as Japan is a major exporter of electronics and auto parts.
How does one survive – even thrive – in a world of unexpected events? Taleb’s answer is “robustness.” Be prepared for the unexpected. Be ready to adjust your expectations and adapt to a new reality. The advent of computer technology would be an example of such change. People who could not learn to use a computer and related technologies like the Internet are severely limited in how they can work and even interact socially.
While events like September 11, stock market crashes, and natural disasters affect nations, we as individuals face Black Swans in events like job loss, divorce, health emergencies, and the death of a loved one. The psychological impact of such losses is always difficult. Previous generations, however, did have one advantage over our time. They could have some safety – robustness – in their savings, their ability to live frugally. They also lived in times when jobs were more stable and offered more security through pensions.
We have less certainty, less predictability. Rather than pensions, we have 401Ks, which people often have to cash out at a penalty if they lose jobs. Health insurance companies try to limit what they will pay for. Banks sell services that lead to penalties and foreclosure, rather than being the conservative institutions where people kept their money and took out loans that were kept by that bank. Experts convinced people to buy homes using risky mortgages. We’ve seen the result of that casino housing market. As a people and as individuals, we live much more at the whim of random forces with less ability to absorb their blows.
We are a nation of gamblers, winners and losers. To some degree, this has always been the case. From the Pilgrims to the latest immigrant to enter the country, people have been taking a chance on success in America. Now, however, fewer people are winning that bet. Over 20% of children in the U.S. live in poverty. New wealth has filtered more and more to those who already have the most. Many Americans don’t know how to adapt to this new world. The message of our culture can no longer be work hard and save. Instead, it’s buy a lottery ticket, or go to Vegas. Who knows? You could win. It’s possible.