Lately I’ve been diving back into the world of Michael Mann, culminating in his masterpiece Heat. I want to comment on that film at some point, but I’m still collecting ideas, putting my thoughts together. I have also been watching the show Luck, which was on HBO a couple years back. It’s a show that centers around a racetrack and the personalities that surround are a part of that world. Mann was a producer and director of the pilot. The show was created by David Milch who is one of the most interesting minds and greatest writers in television. Deadwood, a show he created, is one of the high-water marks of television for me. It is as close to Shakespeare as we are likely to see in our time. I think anyone that wants to understand our country should visit that show. Anyway, while looking up information on Luck, I found this interview with both Milch and Mann. It is short but fascinating.
As many of you that read this blog can guess, I can be somewhat cynical. It’s very easy for me to see the dark side of things, and sometimes it takes me a minute to see the light. My band Shinyribs played HAAM benefit day here in Austin today. HAAM stands for Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. Basically musicians in Austin, who are often broke, get cheap clinic care. There is also an association that is part of HAAM called the SIMS foundation. It helps musicians with mental health care and addiction problems. I think that it is so amazing that the city of Austin, that bills itself as the live music capitol of the world, and makes a ton of money off of music, helps take care of its musicians. I know that I have personally benefited from HAAM many times. I still have to pay money to see a doctor and to get prescriptions, but the price is greatly reduced. It’s not true healthcare. It’s only valid at certain clinics and hospitals around Austin, but it’s literally a life saver.
Why should I, just because I decided to pick up an instrument at a young age, get treated so well. Sure bars, clubs, and other people associated with the music industry have made money off of me, probably far more off me than I have made myself. But let’s just face facts, I am flat out lucky to have this service. Why shouldn’t the waitress that brings you your food, or guy mowing the grass in your park, or the person that waits on you in the store be any less deserving? Not everyone can be a working musician in Austin. Not everyone can be a CEO or have a great job. We live in a capitalist country. There are going to be winners and losers in the capitalist game. Our society depends on that. We should just make sure that those who don’t make a lot of money can live with a certain amount of decency and dignity. They aren’t going to starve and if they need a doctor they can see one. It’s not really asking a lot is it? We need a safety net that looks out for the poor and the weak and the less fortunate.
I am extremely lucky right now. I bet if most of you that had health care right now were honest with yourself, you would probably admit there is a little luck involved in your story as well. You had good parents that sent you to a good school, you might have had a mentor that took special notice of you, or you might have just been born with genes that blessed you with intelligence or good looks. If you say that every single thing that you have ever gotten and achieved was through your own grit and hard work, that no one ever lent you a hand, or that fortune never smiled upon you, then I can only call one thing: bullshit.
I just wanted to make a correction that when I am referring to the city of Austin I mean it as a community. The government of Austin has nothing to do with HAAM or SIMS. They are funded by contributions through fundraising. I was trying to shed light on what a good community we have here in Austin. Even though Austin has changed a lot in the 8 years that I have been here, and even though it has lost some of its character and personality as it becomes more urbanized, it still has a sense of community that you do not often see in cities this size. Overall, it is a great place to live.
Some years ago the rapper Master P had a video in which he and his crew were astride a platinum tank. I thought at that point the human race had reached the furthest limits in a culture of worshipping wealth and consumerism. Once you have a platinum tank, how much further as a species can you go in that direction? It seems we sailed on past that point. We went over the waterfall and somehow just kept on going downstream.
There is nothing wrong with making money. I am in two rock n roll bands. Bands, if you are trying to run them so that you can survive, are businesses. If you have a product in any field that you believe in, and try to sell it at a fair price and run your business with some integrity, you are doing society a good service. You are creating jobs and providing people with services and goods that they desire.
What I’m talking about is the kind of hero worship of the wealthy that we see in this country. As if those people, just by the fact that they are rich, are deserving of some kind of acclaim. Reality TV is filled with people that certain people fawn over just because they have money and act outrageously. Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Donald Trump’s The Apprentice are two such vile places one can spend time. Those are easy targets.
We also seem to have hero worship for financial advisors like Suze Orman and Jim Cramer. These are people that sell us the empty dream of becoming rich without standing for anything.
I’ve seen several studies that show how wealth relates to happiness. The numbers vary slightly, but one such study claims that after $75,000 a year money ceases to affect your day to day happiness. You need to have enough money to pay your bills, have freedom from fear of want, and have a little extra money for fun. After that, money doesn’t necessarily make you any happier.
When people become wealthy, if they are not getting an inheritance, it is because of a combination of hard work and luck. The hard work shouldn’t be discounted, but neither should the luck. Luck is not something to worship. If you were born in the USA, instead of Somalia, you probably have a better chance of getting rich. That’s just one example.
Instead we should look up to those that have brought new ideas into the world, that have tried to make the world a better place, or that have made others happier. A great teacher, that has brought the light of knowledge to many students, is more deserving of our applause than some kind of rich mutant like Donald Trump.
Hopefully, some day there will be a new age of heroes. I’m looking for an age where we look up to people that have brought fire down from the mountaintop to us; a fire of peace, tolerance, and knowledge. I’m not counting on it, but I’m dreaming.
One thing that rings true to me as I get older is that there are few geniuses. When we are young we grow up thinking that those in power have some kind of secret knowledge that we don’t possess. I thought that they were smarter, better, and more wise than the average person. As you grow older those illusions are stripped away. There are very few Da Vincis and Jeffersons and true renaissance men or women in this world, those that excel at a wide variety of things.
I view the human brain as a muscle. Other than those one in a billion geniuses out there, most people of any intelligence spent time working out a certain series of mental muscles. A doctor spends their time working on the brain muscle that understands medicine. However, in focusing on working these muscles they very well might have let the brain muscles that are used for politics and music atrophy. A politician might understand the machinations of power, but that doesn’t mean they have spent time studying philosophy or flexing their empathy muscles. There are very men or women that we should put on a pedestal above us. There are just a lot of men and women that have spent time becoming experts at one or two things.
In this country we seem to view those that have success of some kind with a magic aura. I am very suspicious when there is talk of heroes and geniuses. Success is as much an indicator of luck as it is of hard work. My grandfather worked hard, six or seven days a week, as a factory’s electrical engineer while helping to raise eight kids. However, he never grew rich or famous. We are not responsible for the looks we are born with, the athletic abilities that we inherited, or the passions that seem to drive us. Often on top of being born with some kind of upper hand, those that are successful usually have mentors or parents that help them along the way. There might be other strokes of luck that help someone get to where they are. Bill Gates happened to live close to one of the only places that had computers to learn on.
I make my living right now as a musician. I had parents that exposed me to art and music, that bought me my first guitars, and that have supported me financially at times that I have needed it. I felt drawn to music for reasons that I can’t explain. I obsess over it in ways that someone else might feel compelled to obsess over biology or math. Yes I have worked hard, but I grew up in a household with two parents that worked hard. Did I learn it from them or is it just in my genes that when I feel passionate about something I can’t help but work on it? I moved to Austin to pursue music, an act that some people that I know felt was brave, although I’m sure some viewed it as foolish as well. My parents traveled a lot with me when I was a kid and we still go on trips to far away places. So going somewhere far away wasn’t really that much of a leap for me. I think that anyone that has accomplished anything other than day to day drudgery if even for just a couple years, if they are being honest, can look back and see where others helped them get where they are or see the benefits of their own genetic making.
When someone says that someone is successful with starry eyes, my only question to them is, “Are they a good person?” Kindness to others in the face of a world filled with absurdity is the only thing that really matters. If you are financially stable or doing something you love, you got lucky. Plain and simple. Be humble and remember to be kind. All luck runs out one day.