Disabilities Don’t Have to be Handicaps

In my neighborhood growing up, there lived a man in an iron lung. He was the victim of polio. His caregivers had positioned his iron lung in front of a large window so the man could look at the outside world. But that also meant that the outside world could look in upon him. And I did, every time we passed his house. I often thought about what it must be like to live like that—a captive to a large metal contraption. But I also thought about what it would be like to take care of someone like that. Neither had much appeal.

Our family had a tradition when I was young. We watched The Miracle Worker[i] every time it came on TV. At first, I thought the movie was about Hellen Keller. But as I watched it year after year, I soon realized the film was more about Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher. While the dramatic apex of the movie is when it finally clicks in Helen’s head that things have names, this scene was always my favorite:

Anne Sullivan knew the best thing she could do for Helen was to teach her to be her best self within the limits of her disability. Although Helen was blind and deaf, she could still learn how to behave. And so, the disabled and the caregiver became a team. Working together, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan achieved miracles.

This scene from the film Ray[ii] forcefully teaches a similar lesson—the best thing a teacher or caregiver can do is to help the disabled person learn to do as much as possible without help:

But being a caregiver for the disabled is not a bed of roses. Patience often runs thin. There is the longing to do something—anything—other than care for the disabled ward. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,[iii] Gilbert (played by Johnny Depp) has to care for his overweight mother, who hasn’t left the couch in their living room for years, and his little brother, who is mentally challenged (played by a young Leo DiCaprio). In this scene, Gilbert finally can’t take it anymore:

I am sure Gilbert’s feelings, if not his actions, are common among caregivers. Most avoid hitting their charges, but often, like the Southwest Airlines commercial, they “want to get away.”

But similar to Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, when caregivers and the disabled work together, the results can be extraordinary.

The rehabilitation of Alex Smith is one of those stories. Smith was a star quarterback at the University of Utah (my alma mater) and drafted first overall by the San Francisco Forty-niners. After a couple of trades, he was the starting quarterback for the Washington football team. On November 18, 2018, he suffered a compound spiral fracture—a break of his fibula and tibia from his ankle to his knee. Doctors put his leg back together with three plates and 28 pins and screws, but the open wound became infected with necrotizing fasciitis or flesh-eating bacteria. At Alex’s request, his doctors did everything they could to save his leg. He underwent eight operations in ten days.

But that was just the beginning.

With the Pentagon’s permission, Smith began his rehab at the Center for the Intrepid—a military rehabilitation facility specifically designed to help wounded warriors with injuries similar to Smith’s. The Center has helped hundreds of soldiers with lower leg injuries, most from blasts from land mines. The Center for the Intrepid has helped soldiers run again, with most returning to duty with their units.

The key to the center’s success? It has been the ability to instill in their patients an attitude of accomplishing anything there.

At age 36, after 17 surgeries and being away from the game for twenty months, doctors cleared Alex Smith to play again. Three plays into his first game back, All-pro Aaron Donald sacked Smith.

But Alex got back up.

Joe Alderete, Smith’s rehab doctor, watched that game by satellite while deployed in Iraq. He said, “I was so proud of Alex and all that he had achieved. I was totally blown away. I don’t know whether I wanted to cheer or throw up. It scared me to death. But I just loved watching Alex achieve.” Alex led the Washington football team to a 5-1 record and a playoff spot. His is a story of patients and caregivers achieving miracles—not just for Alex but the thousands of soldiers the Center for the Intrepid has helped.

The role of many caregivers is not as dramatic as what Joe Alderete and his staff did for Alex Smith. The film CODA[iv] was the darling of the most recent Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience and Jury awards. Apple TV shelled out $25 million to buy the rights to the movie—a record at any film festival. It was money well spent. In the movie, Ruby Rossi is the only hearing member of her family or a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). As such, Ruby’s role in the family is to act as the speaking voice and interpreter of the family, particularly in connection with their fishing business. These were relatively easy tasks compared to what many caregivers face when caring for people with disabilities.

But Ruby has her own dreams her family does not understand until they attend a high school choir concert, and this happens:

Ruby’s father sees, but more importantly, feels the emotions Ruby’s voice raises in others. And because of his love for his daughter, he is willing to free her to pursue her dreams even at a high personal cost to himself.  

I salute caregivers everywhere and those in their care who have been able to experience miracles. I especially honor those caregivers who are nonprofessionals but help their loved ones out of love. In these difficult times, I hope each of us can take care of ourselves and someone else if we can.

[i] The Miracle Worker:

  • Production Company: PlayFilm Productions
  • Director: Arthur Penn
  • Screenwriter: William Gibson (based on the book, “The Story of My Life” by Helen Keller)
  • Starring: Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke and Victor Jory
  • Release date: July 28, 1962

[ii] Ray:

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Bristol Bay Productions, and Anvil Films
  • Director: Taylor Hackford
  • Screenwriters: Taylor Hackford and James L. White
  • Starring: Jamie Fox, Regina King, and Kerry Wasshington
  • Release date: Ocotber 29, 2004

[iii] What’s Eating Gilbert Grape:

  • Production Company: Paramount Pictures
  • Director: Lasse Hallström
  • Screenwriter: Peter Hedges
  • Starring: Johnny Depp Leonardo DiCaprio, and Juliette Lewis
  • Release date: March 4, 1994

[iv] CODA:

  • Production Companies: Vendome Pictures, Pathé Films, and Picture Perfect Federation
  • Director: Sian Heder
  • Screenwriters: Sian Heder, Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carré de Malberg
  • Starring: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur
  • Release date: August 13, 2021

Friends For 50 Years and Counting

Last month I did something I had never done before: I attended my high school reunion. And it happened to be the 50-year reunion (yes, I’m that old). I don’t know why I had never attended a reunion before, as my graduating class has diligently held them in the past. I suppose it was because I lived out of state, and it was never convenient. Or perhaps it was because my wife was never interested in attending with me (and who could blame her or any other spouse that did not go to the same high school). But I think the absolute truth was I felt I had grown up and moved on.

Since graduating from high school, I have moved at least a dozen times and lived in at least six different cities, and at each stop along the way, I made good friends. I have maintained many of those friendships to this day. I am thankful for that, as a person can never have too many friends.

Then one day, a couple of years ago, an old high school buddy reached out to me. I had not talked to him in years, but it was like we had seen each other just yesterday. That got me thinking about my high school days and reminded me that I had some great friends back in the day. He told me about the upcoming reunion, and I decided, “Why not?” Or, as someone once said, “Old friends are best: where can you find a new friend that has stood by you as long as the old ones have?”

So, how do we make friends? It usually starts by doing things together and learning from each other. One of my favorite scenes from the film Forrest Gump[i] is a good illustration of how it works:

And like Jenny did with Forrest, friends overlook each others’ defects and shortcomings. I like the way someone said it: “There are a good many fools who call me a friend, and also a good many friends who call me a fool.” I am not sure about the first part of that, but the last part is accurate. And speaking of defects, in this scene from Wonder,[ii] it is hard to overlook Auggie’s deformed face. But that is just what Jack Will does:

But as we get older, we no longer share playgrounds and toys as much (or maybe we still do, but the toys get bigger). Then, our close friendships usually need to be built on more than just having someone to play with or with whom we share toys. The noted 17th-century French moralist La Rochefoucauld once said, “The pleasure found in friendship as in love comes more from the things we don’t know about others than from the things we know.” I don’t see it this way. Instead, I agree with this scene from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:[iii]

Although I don’t know the favorite color of most of my friends, I can say we have had some deep conversations, and those conversations have deepened our friendship.

“So, how did the reunion go?

I approached it with a bit of trepidation. I had hoped my wife would come with me, so if it got embarrassing being the wallflower in the corner, at least I would have someone to talk to. I had just about convinced her to join me, but she had Lasik surgery a few days before the reunion, and her doctor would not let her fly. In the end, I decided it would be fitting to show up at the reunion unaccompanied since I had trouble finding dates in high school.  

As I neared the country club hosting the event, I wondered how many classmates had peaked in high school, being all downhill from there. Then I realized I was the one with the bald head and who had put on a few pounds. But I would make up for my aging looks with fascinating stories of my successes after high school. At first, I thought I should follow the lead of Michele and Romy from the film Michele and Romy’s High School Reunion and make up a good story, but then, I doubted anyone would believe me if I claimed to have invented post-it notes. So I decided, in the end, to be myself and hope for the best. I just wished a few people remembered me.

I realized my worst fears while standing in the check-in line. A woman I knew well in high school and even took to a Bread concert (the 70’s soft rock group) walked up behind me. “Hi, Kathy,” I said. “How are you after all these years?” She had no idea who I was. After I watched her stammer for a few moments, I said, “I’m Warren Ludlow. Remember me?” And then recognition showed in her face. And suddenly, it was like old times again.

Thank goodness for the nametags that included our high school graduation photos.

I knew I would enjoy seeing my close circle of friends. Like my good friend before them, we picked things up immediately. But as I reminisced with them, I learned a few things I never knew before. For example, one friend had won a battle with cancer. Another had sold his restaurant shortly after I had left the state and spent most of his career running a car rental agency. And in retirement, what does he do? He drives for Uber, of course. And another, I met his wife for the first time and learned that they never had any children and never wanted any.

But what surprised me the most was my interaction with so many of my other classmates. I had many (who were good friends but not my closest ones) come up to me, happy to see me and talk about old times. One woman approached me and asked if I remembered her. I did immediately. We then discovered we had no classes together in high school. Instead, we were classmates in fourth grade.

I laughed with the man I had sat next to in choir for two years when I reminded him how a cute, petite blonde moved into our school district and joined our choir. As she entered the room for the first time, this friend leaned over and whispered, “I’m going to marry that girl someday.” And he did. They are still together after 50 years. And we laughed even louder when he told me he still drives the Pontiac GTO he had in high school.

There were some melancholy moments as well. At the beginning of the event, a classmate read the names of almost 70 classmates who had already died. We all thought we would live forever in high school, but hearing that list reminded me just how fragile life could be.

I got a hug from my old girlfriend (we dated for almost a year after high school graduation).  She was my first real love, and I was sure I would marry her one day. But at the time, I was not ready for marriage. She admitted her insecurities led her to dump me and date a man seven years older who was prepared to settle down. She knew it was a mistake from the beginning, but she moved ahead anyway. Their marriage lasted about 15 years. And I wondered for a moment what might have been, but soon realized it was the right decision for both of us. She remarried and seemed happy, and I have enjoyed marital bliss for 46 years.

And then I learned of a missed opportunity (one of many, I’m sure). A woman approached me and gave me a hug (two hugs in one night! That might be a personal record!). She then said, “I just came over to let you know I had a big crush on you in high school.” “Oh, stop,” I said. “No, you didn’t.” but she insisted that she did. I still find that unbelievable. This woman was good-looking, popular (she was a student body officer), and intelligent. I short, she was way out of my league.

I then reminded her that we were both on the planning committee for the junior prom. As we had decorated the cafeteria for the dance, I asked who she was going with. She said no one had asked her. She then asked who I was taking. I told her no one. I had the golden opportunity to get a last-minute date with a classy lady, and I blew it. I said nothing. And I had regretted it long after that. If I had only known she had a crush on me, it could have been the start of a beautiful relationship. But then again, it never would have lasted. She became a biker (not a cyclist) in her adult years and spent much of her time riding her Harley across the country. I could never picture myself doing that—even with her.

One of the saddest things about the reunion is that two of my best friends in high school didn’t come. It has been decades since I have had any contact with either of them. I miss them, and now, I don’t even know how to reach them. But I promised myself I would do my best to renew those friendships as well.

I am not the same person I was 50 years ago, and neither are my friends. But they remain my friends. So, unlike my original feeling, I have moved, but I haven’t moved on—at least not from my friends. For that, I am exceedingly grateful. And as I think about my friends of 50 years ago, I realize now just how much they shaped my life. In short, I agree with Thomas Aquinas, who said,There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”

[i] Forrest Gump:

  • Production Company: Paramount Pictures
  • Director: Robert Zemeckis
  • Screenwriter: Eric Roth (based on the book by Winston Groom)
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and Gary Sinise
  • Release date: November 11, 1994

[ii] Wonder:

  • Production Companies: Liongate, Participant, Walden Media
  • Director: Stephen Chbosky
  • Screenwriters: Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne
  • Starring: Jacob Tremlay, Owen Wilson, and Julia Roberts
  • Release date: November 17, 2017

[iii] The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:

  • Production Companies:  Colorforce and Lionsgate
  • Director: Francis Lawrence
  • Screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (based on the novel by Suzanne Collins)
  • Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hensworth
  • Release date: November 22,  2013

Going for the Gold

I love the Olympics and am not ashamed to admit it. I have been extra excited about this year’s summer games because I had to wait an additional year to watch them. And although we are only about halfway through them, the games have been worth the wait. So here are some of my thoughts on this year’s Olympics so far, with, of course, a few movies sprinkled in.

One of my favorite things about the Olympics is I become a fan of sports I would never watch (or even care about) if they weren’t part of the Olympic competition. I mean, outside the Olympics, when was the last time you watched foil fencing, or badminton, or archery? For me, at least, the answer would be, well, never. But every four years, I will watch horses dance in the equestrian competition and cheer for the athletes playing rugby, even though I don’t understand most of the rules. And who knew the U.S. was an international power in skeet shooting, winning gold in both the men’s and women’s events, or that Japan would take gold in both men’s and women’s skateboarding? Calling it women’s skateboarding might be a stretch as the medal winners were ages 13, 16, and 13, who barely beat out the “elderly” American, age 34.

 So, what makes the Olympics must-see TV? To me, it’s because you never know who might win. And although I always want the Americans to do well, I love it when an underdog surprises us. If I were a betting person, I would be wealthy if I had predicted Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui winning gold in the men’s 400-meter freestyle or Anasasija Zolotic in Women’s Taekwondo or Lee Kiefer in foil fencing. The wins by Zolotic and Kiefer were the first gold medals won by the U.S. in their respective sports in Olympic history. Hafnaoui ranked as the 100th best swimmer in the world just two years ago and was the last person to qualify for the Olympic finals.

As I watched some of these upsets, I thought of one of my favorite sports movies, Cool Runnings.[i] It portrays the story of the Jamaican bobsled team who almost pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. I mean, when was the last time it snowed in Jamaica, a country known for its swift sprinters? In 1987, after Derice Bannock failed to qualify for the 100-meter dash in the 1988 Summer Olympics, he kept his Olympic dreams alive by forming a bobsled team and entered the 1988 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, using an old, borrowed bobsled, the Jamaican team finished dead last after the first run. But they improved to eighth after the second run. And then this happened on their third run:

Although the Jamaican bobsled team failed to win a medal, they returned home as heroes. And that’s what makes the Olympic games so great. It isn’t just about winning. It’s more about following a dream and doing everything in your power to make that dream a reality. Sure, to even get to the Olympics, an athlete must have talent. But what often separates a medalist from the rest of the competitors is hard work.

Katie Ledecky is perhaps the most incredible woman swimmer of all time, winning two gold and two silver medals in these Olympics, giving her a total of seven Olympic gold medals to go along with her 15 world championships. And every time she entered the pool, the commentators commented on her grueling training regime. Which, of course, reminded me of another movie. The film Miracle[ii] tells the story of the U.S. ice hockey’s upset of the much more talented (and heavily favored) Russian team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Here is one of my favorite scenes:

Putting together talent, motivation, and hard work can be a winning combination. But even the best don’t always win. These Olympics showed us the U.S. women’s soccer team, Katie Ledecky, and Simone Biles are humans, after all. Going into these Olympics, the U.S. women’s soccer team remained undefeated in its last 45 international contests until Sweden pummeled the reigning Olympic champions 3 to 0. Of course, the U.S. women could still win the gold (they are currently playing in the semifinals), but it was a wake-up call to the perennial favorites.

Ledecky lost two races she had won easily in the previous Olympics to her Australian rival, Ariane Titmus. The 400 meter was the first time Ledecky had lost an individual Olympic final. So how did Ledecky react after the loss? With style and grace: “Certainly a tough race,” Ledecky said. “I think we delivered. You can’t get much better than that. Tremendous race, a lot of fun. I can’t be too disappointed with that. That was my second-best swim ever. I felt like I fought tooth and nail, and that’s all you can ask for.”

That is the spirit of the Olympic games. You train hard; you give it your all, and with a bit of luck thrown in, you might win a medal. Then there is the opposite. In the 1994 U.S. Figuring Skating Championships, all eyes were on America’s two figure skating rivals, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. As Kerrigan headed toward the ice to perform her routine, a man attacked her, injuring her right knee. As a result, Kerrigan had to withdraw from the U.S. championships, and Harding won it. But the U.S. placed both skaters on its Olympic team. In the end, Harding finished eighth at those Olympics, while Kerrigan finished second. But the story was far from over. It turned out Tonya Harding and her ex-husband had hired the attacker, hoping to break Karrigan’s leg so she couldn’t compete in the winter games. Once the world learned who was behind the attack on Kerrigan’s knee, there was hell to pay. Here is the ending scene from the film I, Tonya,[iii] which chronicles all the events:  

We love our Olympic champions, but we want them to win with class, which brings us to Simone Biles.

Going into these Olympics, everyone who knew anything about gymnastics had already bestowed at least five more gold medals around Biles’ shoulders. And for 31 good reasons—her medal total in Olympic and world championships. But everyone watching could see something was not right as she performed in the qualifying round for the team all-around competition. Then, in the finals of that event, Biles did one vault (not the one she intended to do) and shocked the world by withdrawing. In attempting to explain her withdrawal, Biles initially said, “I know that [in] this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I came here and felt like I was still doing it for other people. So that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.” Biles was physically fine, but mentally, she determined she couldn’t go on.

And then the haters came out. Some called her a quitter; others portrayed her as selfish. Others claimed she couldn’t handle the pressure and argued she didn’t desire the title of gymnastics’ GOAT (greatest of all time), comparing her unfavorably to the likes of Michael Phelps or even Michael Jordan. But there is a big difference between Biles and Phelps or Jordan. If Jordan has a bad game, he scores fifteen instead of forty. If Phelps has an off day, he doesn’t win a race he was supposed to. But the stakes are much higher for a gymnast.

When I heard Biles had developed a case of the “twisties” (gymnast speak for losing your sense of where you are while in the air), I thought of Diane Ellingson. Ellingson was a three-time All-American gymnast at the University of Utah (my alma mater) who led her team to a national championship and became the Junior Olympic champion. But in a warm-up on the vault, she over-rotated and landed on her neck. The fall paralyzed her. And although she put the same effort into her rehabilitation as she did in her gymnastics, after five months, nothing changed, and she realized it never would. But, in the spirit of the best Olympic athletes, she said of her injury, “I will never be bitter towards gymnastics because I learned the greatest lessons in my life through the sport.”

With the enormous pressure on the shoulders of a reigning Olympic champion of the stature of Simone Biles, perhaps her withdrawal was her bravest performance of all. As The Dallas Morning News said in a recent editorial, “Most of us will never know what it is like to be held up as the greatest in the world at anything, much less something so intensely public and precarious as a sport where every twist and leap and vault is a risk not only for the body but for the spirit…. We don’t know what is next for Biles. What we know is that she is a young woman, not a god or an automation, and we should not expect her to be.”

Regardless of what happens next for Biles and the other outstanding athletes of these Olympic Games, they have proved to me once again, you don’t always have to win to be a winner.         

[i] Cool Runnings:

  • Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
  • Director: Jon Turteltaub
  • Screenwriters: Tommy Swerdlow and Lynn Siefert (based on the story by Lynn Siefert and Michael Ritchie)
  • Starring: John Candy, Leon, and Doug E. Doug
  • Release date: October 1, 1993

[ii] Miracle:

  • Production Companies: Pop Pop Productions, Determination Productions, and  Mayhem Pictures
  • Director: Gavin O’Connor
  • Screenwriter: Eric Guggenheim
  • Starring: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, and  Nathan West
  • Release date: Febraury 6, 2004

[iii] I, Tonya:

  • Production Companies: AI Film, Clubhouse Pictures (II), and Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office
  • Director: Craig Gillespie
  • Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
  • Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney
  • Release date: January 19, 2018

The Worst Kind of Groundhog Day

Both my parents lived long lives. My dad died at age 97, and my mom lived past 100. And both had well-functioning minds when they died. But my wife’s parents were not quite so lucky. While her dad died from an accident at 85, most of his siblings lived well into their 90s with minds fully intact. On my wife’s mother’s side, though, most died in their 70s with a mental or nervous disorder. All this has led my wife and me to joke that we will both live to be 100, but my wife will be crazy by age 70.

But dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are no laughing matters.

I recently watched the Oscar-nominated film, The Father,[i] for which Anthony Hopkins deservedly won the Best Actor award. This scene from the movie illustrates the confusion experienced by someone who is losing their short-term memory. But it also shows the difficulty family members have in dealing with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s. Do you put your loved one in a home? Do you hire in-home help? And what kind of strain does being their caregiver place on your other significant relationships?

Because of the brutal realities of dealing with mental illnesses associated with aging, my wife and I have made a pact with each other. If either of us come to the point where we are not physically able to wipe our own butts, or worse, don’t know that we are supposed to, the other will send the crazy one to a nursing home immediately, no questions asked, or better yet, help them peacefully move on to the next life. And so, we look for signs that we might be losing it, similar to this scene from Still Alice:[ii]

While I still remember where our bathrooms are, I often forget the names of people I have known for years or can’t find a particular word I want to use in a discussion. For example, not too long ago, I attended the funeral of a co-worker who died much too soon. At that funeral, I saw a person I had worked closely with for years, but I couldn’t remember his name, no matter how hard I tried. Even so, I carried on a conversation with him for at least ten minutes. It was not until I was driving home that I finally remembered his name.

My wife has had a few similar experiences lately, and it worried her to the point that we went to see our family physician about it. He administered a cognitive test designed to reveal indications of the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s. I am happy to report that she had a perfect score on the test. Judi Dench, playing Iris in the film, Iris,[iii] had a somewhat similar experience:

There is a difference between losing some age-related mental abilities and dementia or Alzheimer’s. One example of that I have often heard is, if you can’t remember where you put your car keys, it might be due to age-related loss of cognitive ability. But if you can’t remember what the keys are used for, you might have dementia or Alzheimer’s.

But dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is usually harder on the loved ones than on the sufferer. I enjoy watching romantic comedies like Groundhog Day and 50 First Dates, where every new day brings a loss of memory, and the significant other must come up with ways to help the person fall in love with them again every day. And somehow, those films always end happily. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about those with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Each new day brings the challenge of helping the sufferer remember who you are and why you are there. Check out this depressing scene from Away from Her:[iv]

More than 50 million people have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. And that number will most likely increase to 150 million by 2050. So, in short, either you have it, will get it, or have a family member who does.

If you have a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, you face some tough questions regarding their care. Remember, no two situations are alike, and what is best for one might not be best for another. But I believe there comes the point when it is best for all concerned to place the person with the disease in a memory care facility simply for safety reasons. For example, those with Alzheimer’s are known to wander outside when no one is watching them and end up who knows where. And since they don’t remember who you are anyway, is it wrong to put them in the care of professionals?

If you are like me and worry about maintaining your cognitive abilities for as long as possible, there are some things you can do.

  1. Get plenty of sleep. A good night’s rest flushes our brains of the plaque that builds up on our neurons, a significant correlation with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Reduce stress. Many studies on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have reached the same conclusion: stress significantly contributes to both conditions. But knowing what stress can do to us and doing something about it are two separate things, as most of us are unwilling to change our lifestyles in any meaningful way. But if you want to reduce your chances of developing dementia, find a way to simplify your life.  
  • Make more neurons. Our brains continue to make neurons even in our 90s. The more neurons your brain produces, the more resistant you will be to dementia and Alzheimer’s. We cannot simply command our brains to manufacture neurons. But there are activities we can do that help do just that:
  1. Maintain a healthy diet, including drinking lots of water.
  2. Exercise regularly,  even if it’s just walking around the block.
  3. Take time to play—dance, build something with your hands (perhaps a fort or castle with blocks with your grandkids), or engage in playful conversations with friends.
  4. Perform complex skills such as learning a new language or playing a musical instrument. While doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles uses your mind and so is helpful, studies show the real benefit to your brain comes only through complex learning.

After I retired, I decided to learn how to play the piano. I have been at it now for more than two years, and I am the first to admit that I am not particularly good at it. But every time I play a wrong note or cannot master the timing of a piece, I tell myself it doesn’t matter; I’m making neurons.

But I still haven’t garnered up enough courage to try Spanish. Maybe I’ll try that in my next decade of life.

[i] The Father:

  • Production Companies: Les Films du Cru, Film4, and Orange Studio
  • Director: Florian Zeller
  • Screenwriters: Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller
  • Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Coleman, and Mark Gatiss
  • Release date: February 26, 2021

[ii] Still Alice:

  • Production Companies: Lutzus-Brown, Killer Films, and BSM Studios
  • Directors: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
  • Screenwriters: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (based on the book by Lisa Genova)
  • Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, and Kristen Stewart
  • Release date: February 20, 2015

[iii] Iris:

  • Production Companies: British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Fox Iris Productions, and Intermedia Films
  • Director: Richard Eyre
  • Screenwriters: Richard Eyre and Charles Wood (based on the books by John Bayley)
  • Starring: Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet
  • Release date: March 29, 2002

[iv] Away from Her:

  • Production Companies: Foundry Films, Capri Releases, and HanWay Films
  • Director: Sarah Polley
  • Screenwriter: Sarah Polley (based on the short story by Alice Munro)
  • Starring: Julie Christie, Michael Murphy, and Gorden Pinsent
  • Release date: May 25, 2007

Life is Full of Drama and Trauma

Few would disagree with me when I tell you that life can be hard sometimes. It is often filled with trauma, disappointment, and just bad luck. In the last few months, I have felt what I consider to be more than my share of stress due to various events largely beyond my control. I know, I know, life is not fair. But realizing that does little to relieve the pressure.

I don’t want to sound like a complainer. Even in the worst of times, my life is so much easier than most people’s. And I am grateful for that. And my minor complaints have helped me develop empathy for those much worse off than me.   

But stress is on my mind. One reason for that is June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) Awareness Month, an illness that seems to plague more and more of us as we learn more and more about it. At least eight percent of the population will experience PTSD at some point. Like other illnesses, it can affect anyone—male, female, rich, poor, famous, or unknown. For example, I recently read an article about Jimmy Stewart, who, of course, was a well-known actor starring in movies such as Shenandoah, Rear Window, and It’s a Wonderful Life (to name my three favorites). Stewart served as a fighter pilot during World War II. And the war was not kind to him. Stewart suffered from the guilt of bombing civilians over France and Germany, and once, he even bombed the wrong city by mistake. Perhaps even worse, in one particular battle, Stewart’s unit lost 13 planes and more than 130 fellow soldiers he knew well. In short, Stewart returned from World War II with a severe case of PTSD. But he never talked about it. Instead, he used his roles as an actor, especially as George Bailey in It’s Wonderful Life, to help relieve his mental stress.

We sometimes think of PTSD as a modern phenomenon, but it has been around as long as trauma has plagued humankind. During World War I, we called it “shell shock.” During World War II, we knew it as “battle fatigue.” But whatever we call it, the symptoms are the same:

  • Overwhelming guilt and shame
  • Anxiety, depression, and feelings of uselessness 
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts
  • Mood swings, difficulty sleeping and concentrating
  • Flashbacks, nightmares, and unwanted memories of the trauma
  • Withdrawal from family, friends, and activities once enjoyed.

We often associate PTSD with war, and rightfully so. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have an eleven to twenty percent chance of experiencing PTSD. That means between 209,000 and 380,000 veterans of those wars have or will develop PTSD. The Vietnam War was even worse, as studies have shown that 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans developed PTSD, or 810,000 of the 2.7 million who served there. And women soldiers are more likely to develop PTSD than their male counterparts. But regardless of gender, experiences in war often lead to PTSD.

The Oscar-winning movie, The Hurt Locker,[i] illustrates what it was like to be an explosives expert in Iraq:

I don’t know how anyone gets over experiences like that. The recent movie, Cherry,[ii] is another example of what war can do to a soldier’s psyche. To avoid too many spoilers, I am only posting the official trailer here:

Cherry falls in love with his college classmate, Emily, but Emily decides to end the relationship to study in Montreal. In reaction to the break-up, Cherry joins the Army as a medic. Cherry serves two years and returns from war suffering from PTSD. As the trailer hints, PTSD leads to drug addiction, which, in this case, leads to a life of crime. It is a hard movie to watch, but not atypical of the experiences of returning veterans. One study found that 74 percent of veterans who have PTSD also developed alcoholism and drug addiction issues.  

But you don’t have to be a veteran to experience PTSD. In this scene from Mystic River,[iii] three childhood friends carve their names in the wet cement of the sidewalk in their neighborhood, which leads to one of them being kidnapped and abused by a Catholic priest. And that traumatic experience leads to PTSD, which leads to murder:

In the film Reign Over Me,[iv] Alan Johnson (played by Don Cheadle) tries to help his friend Charlie Fineman (played by Adam Sandler) as Charlie battles PTSD over his wife’s and kids’ deaths during 9/11. But Fineman refuses to confront his demons by talking about them—typically one of the first steps to recovery—until this scene:

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it increased challenges related to PTSD. A recent study of 1773 healthcare workers and public service providers in Norway found that 28.9 percent of them had symptoms of PTSD. Those working directly with COVID-19 patients had significantly higher PTSD symptoms than those working indirectly with those patients. A Canadian study found that 40 percent of nurses working with COVID-19 patients had symptoms of PTSD. A worldwide survey of healthcare workers found that almost 22 percent had PTSD. Experts tell us, to help our healthcare workers, we need to provide them more social support. But such support is hard to come by with a pandemic requiring us to be isolated. So, if you know a healthcare worker, give them an elbow bump or, in some other way, let them know how much you appreciate them.

Therapy combined with antidepressants is the most common treatment for PTSD, as rarely can a person living with PTSD recover independently. Like Charlie Fineman in Reign Over Me, most people who have PTSD do not want to appear weak by acknowledging it. But that is usually the first step down the road to recovery. If you know someone who has PTSD, let them know that it takes a strong person to admit they need help and encourage them to get the help they need.

Fortunately, most people who experience trauma do not develop PTSD. And trauma can sometimes be positive, resulting in personal growth, or as psychologists call it, “post-traumatic growth.” Please don’t get me wrong; I do not wish trauma on anyone, but sometimes, as researchers have found, “great good can come from great suffering.”

In their book, The Power of Moments,[v] authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath, relying on the pioneering work of researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun, suggest five areas where good can come from suffering:

  • Look for small peaks: through trauma, some people have reported a greater capacity to enjoy the small things in life that they might have previously ignored.
  • Celebrate and honor relationships: The death of a loved one might bring out new appreciation for friends and other loved ones.
  • Acknowledge your strength: trauma will test our abilities to stretch and endure hardship. But we learn that we can do hard things.
  • Identify new possibilities: through trauma, we often find new paths and new passions.
  • Look for spiritual insight: trauma survivors often find comfort in spiritual practices and rituals, finding that a higher power helped them through the trauma.

If you know someone who is suffering from PTSD, encourage them to seek the help they need. All of us go through stressful times now and again. When you do (although I don’t wish trauma on anyone), try to look for those opportunities where great good can come from gr

[i] The Hurt Locker:

  • Production Companies: Voltage Pictures, Grosvenor Park, and Film Capital Europe Funds
  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Screenwriter: Mark Boal
  • Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty
  • Release date: July 31, 2009

[ii] Cherry:

  • Production Companies: The Hideaway Entertainment, AGBO, and Kasbah Films
  • Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
  • Screenwriters: Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg (based on the novel by Nico Walker)
  • Starring: Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, and Jack Reynor
  • Release date: March 12, 2021

[iii] Mystic River:

  • Production Companies: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, and NPV Entertainment
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane)
  • Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon
  • Release date: October 15, 2003

[iv] Reign Over Me:

  • Production Companies: Relativity Media, Madison 23, and Sunlight Productions
  • Director: Mike Binder
  • Screenwriter: Mike Binder
  • Starring: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, and Jada Pinkett Smith
  • Release date: March 23, 2007

[v] The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, published by Simon & Schuster, copyright 2017.

Humor: The Closest Distance Between Two People

Tomorrow (the first Sunday in May) is World Laughter Day. To commemorate that, I hope this post will create a laugh or two.

The title of this post comes from comedian and pianist Victor Borge. Growing up, I often watched him on TV with my family. We laughed a lot as we did. And Borge was right; nothing can bring two people closer than a shared laugh. Sadly, though, many of us have forgotten that.

My father-in-law, Don Harris, understood the importance of laughter in making and strengthening connections. Don never heard a joke he didn’t like (or repeated hundreds of times). He kept a pocket-sized notebook with entries in it numbered from 1 to 200. Next to each number was a keyword or phrase that reminded Don of a particular joke.

Don became a substitute teacher after he retired as a full-time teacher. When he would substitute in a class for the first time, he would ask a student to pick a number from 1 to 200, and then Don would recite the joke corresponding to that number in his notebook.

Most of those jokes were real groaners like:

“A man had a dog who ate a ten-dollar bill, so he took his dog to the vet. The vet said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it; I know what to do. I’ll keep the dog overnight and call me tomorrow.” So the man went home and called the vet the next morning. “I’m calling about my dog,” the man said. “How is he?” The vet replied, “Sorry, no change yet.”

After many groans and a few chuckles, Don would shake his index finger at the class in his most serious expression. “Listen, students,” he warned. “Let’s get an understanding right now. If you don’t maintain order in this class, if you don’t diligently work on your assignments today, I’ve got 200 jokes in this little book of mine, and so help me, none of you will leave today until I’ve told you every single one of them.”

Not surprisingly, after such a warning, Don never had a discipline problem in any class he taught. And the kids loved him.

Behavioral scientists have found that the average four-year-old laughs 300 times a day. I believe that, as I recently babysat three of my grandchildren (ages 3 through 5), and they constantly laughed the whole time at just about anything. Dr. Seuss must have had my grandkids in mind when he wrote, “From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

Conversely, it takes the average forty-year-old two and a half months to laugh 300 times. Behavioral scientists sometimes refer to the lack of laughter among adults as the laughter cliff. We laugh a lot when we are young, but it drops off dramatically around the age of 23, or just about the time most of us enter the workforce. And we don’t start laughing again until after we retire.

Why don’t we laugh much as adults? Perhaps our lives are just too sad or challenging. But we should laugh every chance we get. Studies have shown, for example, that funerals, one of the most tragic events we could attend, are better for us if we laugh during them. People who laugh during funerals show 80 percent less anger and 35 percent less distress and feel significantly more optimistic about moving forward.

Humor works in business settings as well. Leaders with a sense of humor are more admired and motivating and cultivate trust. Studies show that people working for a boss with a sense of humor are 15 percent more satisfied with their jobs. And an amusing line at the end of a sales pitch increases a customer’s willingness to purchase by 18 percent.

Humor strengthens relationships and education, too. Couples who recall times when they laughed together (compared to those who recalled only happy moments but without laughter) are 23 percent more satisfied in their relationship. And students whose class material contained humor performed higher on final exams by 11 percent (and retained what they learned longer).

While I tend to prefer dramatic films over comedies, I am not afraid to laugh out loud at the movies. Here are four of my all-time favorite funny movie scenes.

In high school, my friends and I could quote verbatim the opening scenes from Young Frankenstein:[i] 

My in-laws love fart jokes and stories. I am more of a human anatomy kind of guy. So, here is a hilarious scene from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me[ii] about a particular part of the male anatomy:

Will Rogers once said, “Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.” But I like this from Max Eastman better, “It is the ability to take a joke, not make one, that proves you have a sense of humor.” In the film, Liar, Liar,[iii] Fletcher Reede (played by Jim Carey) must tell the truth for one entire day. He turns this potentially disastrous scene with his law firm partners into repeated laughs because the head partner can laugh at himself:

And speaking of being able to laugh at yourself, here is a scene from Roxanne,[iv] a modern retelling of the story of Cyrano De Bergerac, which is my all-time favorite hilarious movie scene:

I still laugh at that scene even though I have seen it dozens of times. I hope you did, too. But if not, perhaps you are a person psychologist and author Anne Wilson Schaef talked about: “I realize that humor isn’t for everyone. It’s only for people who want to have fun, enjoy life, and feel alive.” So enjoy life with a big, fat belly laugh, for as Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

[i] Young Frankenstein:

  • Production Companies: Gruskoff/Venture Films; Crossbow Productions; Jouer Limited
  • Director: Mel Brooks
  • Screenwriters: Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks
  • Starring: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman
  • Release date: Deember 15, 1974

[ii] Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me:

  • Production Companies: New Line Cinema, Gratitude, and  Moving Pictures (I)
  • Director: Jay Roach
  • Screenwriters: Mike Myers and Michael McCullers
  • Starring: Mike Myers, Heather Graham, and Michael York
  • Release date: June 1, 1999

[iii] Liar, Liar:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment
  • Director: Tom Shadyac
  • Screenwriters: Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur
  • Starring: Jim Carrey, Maura Tierney, and Amanda Donohoe
  • Release date: March 21, 1997

[iv] Roxanne:

  • Production Companies: Columbia Pictures Industries, IndieProd Company Productions, and L.A. Films
  • Director: Fred Schepisi
  • Screenwriter: Steve Martin (based on the play by Edmond Rostand)
  • Starring: Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, and Rick Rossovich
  • Release date: June 19, 1987

Discrimination Comes in All Colors

I was born and raised in Utah. As a young boy, I remember being proud that my state was where the two competitors constructing the transcontinental railroad, Union Pacific and Central Pacific, met up. It happened at Promontory (Point) Summit on May 10, 1869, and commemorated by the driving of a golden spike where the rails joined. Here is the iconic photo of the scene:

But sadly, something is missing from the photo. Authorities did not allow a single person of Chinese descent to be in the photograph, even though Chinese workers made up more than 80 percent of the Central Pacific workforce.

As a young boy, I had supported Union Pacific over Central Pacific. I suppose that was because our family watched Cecil B. Demille’s 1939 classic film, Union Pacific, whenever it came on TV. In my later years, I haven’t found a single movie (other than documentaries) that portrayed it from the Central Pacific viewpoint. But in season six of the AMC television series, Hell on Wheels, we finally get to see what life was like for those Chinese workers. In a perverse form of prejudice, few movies have told the story of Asian American discrimination compared to the plethora of films portraying it against African Americans.

According to the 1840 census, only four Chinese persons were living in the United States then. However, the 1849 California gold rush brought many Chinese workers to America, and by 1852, there were 20,000 of them. But the Chinese were not welcomed by American miners, who forcefully excluded them from the mines. So the Chinese turned to the Central Pacific Railroad for work. Between 1860 and 1870, nearly 30,000 Chinese immigrated to the U.S., bringing the total number to 63,000. Almost half of those worked for the railroad.

Stereotypes emerged for the Chinese that painted all Chinese women as prostitutes and all Chinese men as “Coolies,” a derogatory term similar to using the “N” word. And so, instead of encouraging Chinese immigration, politicians determined to keep them out. Such views led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which for the first time, excluded immigration solely based on a person’s ethnicity. The Act also prevented those Chinese already living in the United States from becoming U.S. citizens. And then, in 1917, Congress expanded the law to exclude all Asians.   

With the advent of World War II, the focus of our Asian prejudice moved from the Chinese to the Japanese. Concerned about their loyalty, the country incarcerated over 110,000 Japanese Americans in camps throughout the United States, despite two-thirds of them being born here. Half of them were children and often separated from their parents. One of those camps was in Topaz, Utah, but unlike the transcontinental railroad, growing up, no one talked much about that. Being one-sixteenth Japanese was enough to get you sent to one of those camps.

The film, American Pastime,[i] explores the injustices experienced by Japanese Americans during WWII at the internment camp at Topaz, Utah. Here is a collage of scenes from that movie:

Perhaps the better film about Japanese Americans during WWII is Under the Red Blood Sun.[ii] Here is the trailer for this movie:

Although the federal government removed Japanese Americans from their homes to internment camps during WWII, more than 12,000 second-generation Asian Americans (known as Nisei) enlisted. Four thousand of those formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Fighting in Europe, this segregated Asian-American unit became the most decorated infantry unit in U.S. military history.

But still, stereotypes and prejudice remained. Americans stereotyped Asian men as subservient laborers (think Hop Sing in the TV series Bonanza), and an Asian woman’s only role was to make a man happy (think Geisha girl). And like African Americans, most affluent and middle-class residential areas banned Asians from owning property through restrictive covenants.

In high school, my English class required me to read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, historical fiction about family life in a Chinese village in the early 20th century. Having read it 50 years ago, I cannot remember much about it. So, I decided to watch the 1937 movie. What impressed me most about the film? How few Asians there were in it. Despite being set in China, none of the leads were Chinese. And that was common for Hollywood. Mary Pickford, Peter Ustinov, Boris Karloff, Katharine Hepburn, Yul Bryner, Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, David Carradine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Cruise, Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone, and Scarlett Johansson are just some of the White actors who have played Asian roles, even as recent as 2017.

In recognition of the valiant service of Asian Americans during WWII, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and passed the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which allowed Asian Americans to become U.S. citizens. But immigration of Asians prioritized doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists. Education became the American dream for these immigrants. And because of their success in America, Asian Americans became known as the “model minority.”

In the summer of 2000, I needed to relocate for a new job, meaning our daughter would start her junior high school year at a new school. It is never easy to move, and especially if you are a teenager. Since my daughter played competitive basketball and softball, we looked for a school that would welcome her to their teams. We met with one high school softball coach who asked us an interesting question: How important was it that my daughter graduate in the top ten percent of her class? If she did, any Texas state university or college would automatically accept her. My daughter was an excellent student, so I told the coach I was not worried about that, but why did she ask? The coach said it would be next to impossible for our daughter to graduate in the top ten percent if she participated in extracurricular activities such as sports. What? The coach explained the school had so many Asian Americans who put so much time and effort into studying that my daughter would not have enough hours in the day to compete with them scholastically and play sports, too.

Despite being the “model minority,” though, Asian Americans continue to face discrimination. Recently, a young man in Atlanta shot and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. As of yet, law enforcement has failed to classify the killings as hate crimes, even though the shooter’s logic followed the typical Asian woman stereotype of being a sex object. The massacre came on the heels of intense anti-Asian racism in America. Since the start of the pandemic last spring, there have been at least 3,795 reports of anti-Asian discrimination. President Trump did not help any by referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus and the Kung flu.

Because of the myth of Asian Americans being the “model minority,” we think they don’t experience discrimination. But Asian Americans are the most economically divided of any ethnic group of Americans. Some of that inequality must be due to bias—enough for President Biden to sign an executive order denouncing anti-Asian discrimination. 

So, what can we do about it?

About 40 years ago, the Mormon Church asked my wife’s parents to serve a mission without leaving their home in Salt  Lake City. Their assigned task was to help the Hmong refugees from Cambodia. By spending many hours with them, getting to know them personally, and understanding their culture, my in-laws grew to love these people. Their experience with the Hmongs reminded me of this scene from the film, Gran Torino,[iii] where Walt (played by Clint Eastwood) decides to get to know his next-door neighbors a little better:

If someone like Walt can learn to love Hmongs, and especially a Hmong teenager enough to leave him his most prized possession—his 1972 Gran Torino—there is hope for all of us.

Thinking back over my life, I realize I have known very few Asian Americans. In the neighborhood I grew up in, there was only one Japanese American family. Sadly, I looked down on them more because of their religion (one different than mine) than their ethnicity. And there was only two Asian Americans in my high school graduating class of over 500. But I grew to love Pacific Islanders when serving a church mission in Australia, and I have worked with several Asian Americans since then. One, in particular, was my best friend at work for several years until we both left for jobs elsewhere. I still regret that I have not kept in touch with him.

And although my experiences with Asian Americans are limited, my history with them teaches me that I have more in common with them than I have differences, for we all are part of humankind.

Let’s end racism now.  

[i] American Pastime:

  • Production Companies: American Pastime,  Rosy Bushes Productions, ShadowCatcher Entertainment
  • Director: Desmond Nakano
  • Screenwriter: Desmond Nakano and Tony Kayden
  • Starring: Aaron Yoo, Olesya Rulin, and Carleton Bluford
  • Release date: May 14, 2007

[ii] Under the Red-Blood Sun:

  • Production Companies: Red Sun Productions and Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
  • Director: Tim Savage
  • Screenwriter: Graham Salisbury
  • Starring: Kyler Ki Sakamoto, Kalama Epstein, and Dann Seki
  • Release date: September 14, 2014

[iii] Gran Tornino:

  • Production Companies: Matten Productions, Double Nickel Entertainment, and Gerber Pictures
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Screenwriter: Nick Schenk (based on the story by Dave Johannson)
  • Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, and Christopher Carley
  • Release date: January 9,  2009

A Cold Day In Hell

A cold day in hell? It was more like a week. Of course, I am talking about the devasting snow, ice, and freezing temperatures that hit most of Texas in mid-February. On Thursday, February 11, the precursor to disaster occurred when an icy freeway led to a 133-car pile-up on I-35W, leaving at least six persons dead and 65 others injured. Within hours of the crash, 26 fire department vehicles, 80 police cars, and 13 ambulances came to the scene. The cold then went from bad to worse. The temperature dipped below freezing in the afternoon of Saturday, February 13, and remained there until midday Friday, February 19. We reached the “low of the lows” temperature of three degrees on Tuesday, February 16, freezing our water everywhere, as this photo from The Dallas Morning News attests:

As if the frigid cold wasn’t terrible enough, Texas turned into a third-world country. Most of the state experienced power outages (affecting over 40 million persons), some for hours at a time and some for days. Temperatures inside some homes dipped into the forties. Pipes froze, and some exploded, flooding homes that were already forming icicles from indoor ceiling fans. Municipalities issued boil water notices, and bottled water and foodstuffs on grocery store shelves disappeared faster than toilet paper during a pandemic.

Inventive Texans tried almost anything to stay (or get) warm. In the dark, families huddled around gas fireplaces and gas stoves. Some built fires using any wood they could find, including furniture. We brought charcoal grills inside to cook on and to help warm us. It is little wonder that hospitals treated more than 300 carbon monoxide poisoning cases during the cold week in hell. And when all else failed, people layered-up their clothing and smothered themselves in blankets. And through it all, electricity rates soared in Texas’s deregulated system, with some consumers facing bills well over five thousand dollars (and at least one topping $17,000) for a week’s worth of unreliable electricity.

It all reminded me of this scene from the disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow:[i] 

People are genetically wired for survival, not selflessness. We are motivated by self-interest, greed, power, and self-preservation, and we act accordingly—until we don’t. When we witness gut-wrenching tragedy, severe unfairness, or even just bad luck, we forget our predispositions and come together to help, comfort, and support. And a week in the cold without power and water brought out the best in many of us.

Many people with hearts the size of Texas looked after those around them. They opened their homes as temporary living quarters, turned off broken water mains, provided needed transportation, shared meals, water, and clothing, and cleaned out destroyed drywall and other debris left from broken pipes. Nonprofits and churches, working together, sheltered the homeless and established warming centers for those without heat. And many opened their checkbooks to help. George Fuller, the mayor of my hometown, McKinney, Texas, personally delivered hot water to a newborn’s mother so she could make formula. “I boiled water and put it in a thermos and brought it to her. It was no big deal,” Fuller said. It was one of many house calls the mayor made. He helped deliver blankets, water, and food to McKinney residents with frozen pipes. And he returned with more hot water for the newborn.

It wasn’t just Texans. A New Jersey plumber and his brother-in-law apprentice loaded his truck with supplies and drove over two thousand miles to Houston to repair broken pipes. After ten days, he is still there and will be until everyone has running water again. What does he charge for his services? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. He sees his work as part of his calling to help those in need.

The film, The Impossible,[ii] tells the story of a family vacationing in Thailand in 2004, separated by a tsunami. Like those big-hearted Texans (and at least one New Jersey plumber), Thai villagers reached out to help a visitor they don’t even know:

My wife and I were fortunate; we never lost power or water, although, with insurance claims projected to surpass $19 billion, I see a premium increase or two in our future. Some of my adult children and their families were not so lucky. They experienced constant power outages and, in one case, a main water line burst (fortunately before it reached their house). To those that helped them and others around the country, I give, as Maria did (played by Naomi Watts in The Impossible), a heartfelt thank you.

But the week in cold hell brought out the worst in others, including some of our politicians. Senator Cruz took an ill-timed trip to Cancun, and Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, posted this, in part, on Facebook:

“No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim, it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service, owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a handout. If you don’t have electricity, you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe. If you have no water you deal with it and think outside the box to survive and supply your family with water. If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you [it’s] because your lazy[ness] is [the] direct result of your raising. Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic]!”

Senator Cruz soon apologized for his trip, and Mayor Boyd has since resigned.

But Boyd’s post raises an issue all Texans must now face. What is (or should be) the government’s role in our lives? If it is not to ensure the steady supply of water and electricity, especially since we pay for these services, I am unsure what is. But to what extent?  

Governor Abbott began by playing the blame game. He first pointed the finger at ERCOT (the manager of Texas’s power grid), even though it has almost no enforcement power over electric power generators. Then it was the renewable energy sources of wind and solar (even though solar generation increased during the week). And then gas wells and pipeline operators took their turn (about two-thirds of the wells or pipelines supplying power to electric generators froze up). In truth, there is plenty of blame to go around, including Texas’s Public Utilities Commission, which up until now, has had few fingers pointed at them.

Our typical response to these failures is, “There ought to be a law.” Perhaps that is the right response, but a law to do what? Most critical issues are more complicated than we like to believe. And Texas’s cold week in hell is no exception.

Texas has prided itself on its lack of government intrusion into our lives and businesses. Free markets, with the right incentives, will motivate companies and consumers to do the right thing. Or so we thought. We experienced similar, once-in-a-decade storms in 1989 and 2011 (although the recent storm was far worse). After 2011, the Texas legislature investigated what went wrong and issued guidelines on fixing it—primarily winterizing power generation facilities. But those guidelines were voluntary. The legislature thought power generators would be financially motivated to winterize their facilities (you can’t make money if you aren’t generating power). But few, if any, did so. I suspect the generators determined it was more cost-effective to save the cost of winterizing and risk losing a few days of revenue once every ten years. Did they guess wrong? It doesn’t look like it. For example, the parent company of TXU (Texas’s largest power provider) stated the one-time financial hit it will take from the recent storm could be as high as $900 million—no small sum. But compare that to its profits of $626 million in 2020 and $928 million in 2019.

But even if the power generators had winterized their equipment, I am not convinced that would have solved the problem because so many natural gas wells and pipelines failed, denying generators the energy needed to run their plants. And the incentives for oil and gas producers seemed to work the opposite way. The natural gas supplier’s inability to meet the demand caused spot prices to spike to over $1000 per BTU from under $5 before the storm. Or, as one local oil and gas company described it: it was “like hitting the jackpot.” And most oil and gas companies have hundreds, if not thousands, of wells, so if a few froze up, there were plenty more that did not and could take advantage of the price spike. Do we now have to add another law requiring power generators and oil and gas operators to winterize their facilities? Perhaps that is the right answer. And what about the electricity marketers who are now issuing outrageous bills to their customers? Is there a law out there for them as well? And what role do consumers play? Texas residents have enjoyed energy prices significantly below those charged in other states, and many believe that is the result of deregulation. If the Texas legislature requires power generators to weatherize their facilities, consumers will ultimately pay for it. Should they be able to say they want to keep their lower bills and risk losing power a few days every ten years? But don’t forget, at least 80 persons have died now due to hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other storm-related causes. I have no doubt the families affected by those deaths would prefer slightly higher utility bills.

I do not profess to have all the answers. I only wish to point out the complexities involved in every critical issue we face as a society. And quick reactions often bring unintended consequences. I hope our politicians take a thoughtful approach to this issue and don’t just react in the hopes they appear to the public to be doing something.

In closing, as I watched Texas’s power and water problems become politicized, I thought of this uplifting speech by President Whitmore (played by Bill Pullman) in the movie Independence Day:[iii]

I hope our government and business leaders can put away their petty differences and respond to this latest crisis, not by pointing fingers, but with thoughtful solutions after considering all of their ramifications to everyone.  

In the meantime, we have plenty of extra blankets if anyone needs one.     

[i] The Day After Tomorrow

  • Production Companies: Twentieth Fox, Centropolis Entertainment, and Lions Gate Films
  • Director: Roland Emmerich
  • Screenwriter: Roland Emmerich
  • Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Emmy Rossum
  • Release date: May 28, 2004

[ii] The Impossible:

  • Production Companies: Mediaset España, Summit Entertainment, and Apaches Entertainment
  • Director: J. A. Bayona
  • Screenwriters: Sergio G. Sánchez (based on the story by Mária Belón)
  • Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland
  • Release date: January 4, 20123

[iii] Independence Day:

  • Production Companies: Twentieth Fox and Centropolis Entertainment
  • Director: Roland Emmerich
  • Screenwriters: Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
  • Starring: Will Smith, Bull Pullman, and Jeff Goldblum
  • Release date: July 3, 1996

Using the Express Pass Through LIfe

Part of my family and some friends recently took a trip to Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. In total, there were 17 of us, ranging in ages from five to over 65. Despite our varying ages, we had a terrific time, and the excursion reminded me of two important life lessons. First, as ABBA would sing, “Money, money, money; it’s a rich man’s world.” And second, success is often dependent upon who you know.

You don’t have to be a genius to know that having money makes your life easier. I experience that every day I get in my car. North Texas is replete with toll roads. I read once that Collin County residents (where I live), on average, pay more in road tolls than anyone else in the nation. Over the last ten years, it seems every freeway in North Texas underwent construction to add express lanes, which you can only access if you are willing to pay the required toll. Can we still call them freeways? And the amount of the necessary toll depends on the amount of traffic. The more traffic there is, the higher the toll. So, as a driver, you are left with a choice: you can sit in heavy traffic and hope your road rage doesn’t take over, or you can pay the hefty toll, often reaching six dollars a pop. In short, if time is money, on North Texas roads, you need money to save time.

While most viewers consider the film Titanic[i] to be a love story, I see it also as a tragic example of the difference between the rich and the rest of us. The ship required the strict segregation of passengers by class, with the poorest relegated to its lowest bowels. Jack (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a poor artist in third class. When he saves Rose (played by Kate Winslet), a young woman in first-class, from a suicide attempt, Rose invites Jack to join her for dinner in first class the next night. Here is that dinner scene: 

Of course, the story ends in tragedy, as the once-thought unsinkable ship hits an iceberg. Jack dies while rescuing Rose. But just as tragic, only the first-class passengers are allowed in the lifeboats; third-class passengers are locked in their quarters below deck.

Money has become so important that some people are willing to go to extremes—even murder—to get a piece of the wealth pie. In Knives Out,[ii] a wealthy novelist leaves his entire estate to his caretaker rather than his family. Watch the family’s reaction when they hear the news: 

What do these movie scenes have to do with a trip to Orlando? At Universal Studios, we felt like the first-class passengers on the Titanic (at least before it sank!). A regular adult ticket to the park costs $165 for a single day. And if you want an express pass, too, that costs you an extra hundred bucks. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars for a single day’s entertainment per person is a hefty amount. A family of four, then, could end up paying over a thousand dollars. And that doesn’t include food, drinks or souvenirs. But we soon realized the express pass was the only way to go. Even with the park at only 35 percent capacity, you could wait almost an hour before you reached the front of the line for some rides. But with the express pass, you got to skip the line, so your hour wait turned into only several minutes. While the express passes made our trip much more enjoyable, I felt sorry for those who couldn’t afford one. But not that sad—for the fewer holders of express passes, the sooner we got on the rides. Having more economic resources than most at Universal Studios sure made our trip more comfortable and enjoyable.

I learned at a young age the importance of who you know. As I looked for a part-time job during my first year of college, I walked across the street to talk to my neighbor. He happened to be the Sr. Vice President of the Salt Lake City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. I asked him if there were any part-time jobs there. My timing was perfect; a place in the mailroom would become available in two weeks. He then told me to go to the bank and fill out an application. I went the next morning.

I told the HR director I was looking for a job there. He then handed me a one-page application that I completed and returned to him. He then said there were no positions available at that time, but he would keep my application on file if something became available. I replied that my neighbor—his boss—had sent me. His attitude immediately changed. He ripped up the one-page application, replaced it with a four-page application, and asked me when I could start. I was the same person with the same experience and qualifications before and after I mentioned my neighbor, but saying he sent me made all the difference.

Speaking of mailrooms, in The Secret of My Success,[iii] Brantley (played by Michael J. Fox) starts work in the mailroom for a Wall Street investment banking firm. But he has greater ambitions than that.  He then has this encounter with the wife of the head of the company:  

Although the boss’s wife is willing to use her influence to help Brantley succeed at the firm, he wants to earn it. But in the end, Brantley realizes he can’t do it without help. He uses the boss’s wife to introduce him to investors who will help Brantley takeover the investment banking firm. Sometimes, it’s all about who you know.

Disney World did not allow the use of fast passes while we were there, so we needed a different way to make it to the front of the ride lines. We took full advantage of who we knew. One of the children of the friends who came with us has a disability, which allowed them to get a disability pass that would permit them to go to the front of every line. And since my family was traveling with their group, Disney made the disability pass applicable to us, too. So, all 17 of us moved to the front of every ride every time. As I said, it’s sometimes all about who you know.

A trip to Disney World and Universal Studios are trivial examples of these two rules of life. But they apply in most situations. So, my advice to young people beginning adulthood? Find a career that will provide you a comfortable lifestyle (and permit you to drive in express lanes and buy express passes), and associate with people that will help you get ahead. That, along with hard work and a little luck, is my secret to success.

[i] Titanic:

  • Production Companies: Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, and Lightstorm Entertainment
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Screenwriter: James Cameron
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Billy Zane
  • Release date: December 19, 1997

[ii] Knives Out:

  • Production Companies: Lionsgate, Media Rights Capital (MRC), and T-Street
  • Director: Rian Johnson
  • Screenwriter: Rian Johnson
  • Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas
  • Release date: November 27, 2019

[iii] The Secret of My Success:

  • Production Companies: Rastar Pictures and Universal Pictures
  • Director: Herbert Ross
  • Screenwriters: Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr.
  • Starring: Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater, and Richard Jordan
  • Release date: April 10, 1987

Someday I’ll be Saturday Night

If you are a fan of 1990s music, you will recognize the title above as a Bon Jovi song. The best line from the song is, “I’m feelin’ like a Monday, but someday I’ll be Saturday night.” And who among us has not been feeling like a Monday lately? President-elect Joe Biden, right after deaths from COVID-19 in America passed 100,000, said it this way: “I think I know what you’re feeling. You feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest.”

The year 2020 might not be the worst in humankind’s history, but it is the worst most of us can remember. Here are just a few of the woes we have faced this year:

  • As of December 21, 2020, COVID-19 has infected almost 18 million Americans, killing nearly 318,000 of them.
  • The U.S. unemployment rate reached a staggering 14.7 percent in April and is currently at 6.7 percent, still almost double the level before the pandemic, with 885,000 Americans applying for unemployment just last week.
  • Wildfires in western states have destroyed more than 8.2 million acres, razing more than 10,000 homes and buildings and killing at least 37 people.
  • At least 1022 tornadoes occurred in the U.S. in 2020, killing at least 78 persons.
  • There have been 30 named hurricanes and tropical storms in 2020 (the yearly average is twelve), resulting in more than an estimated $20 billion in damages.
  • About 4 in 10 Americans report they have experienced food insecurity for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • 2020 brought the loss of icons such as Chadwick Boseman, Sean Connery, Chuck Yeager, Kobe Bryant, John Lewis, Charlie Pride, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
  • The killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other people of color resulted in demonstrations in every major city in the United States, some with looting and violence.
  • President Trump has challenged election results without any evidence, undermining confidence in our democratic processes.
  • Nearly 25 percent of Americans are experiencing symptoms of depression, three times the number before the pandemic began.
  • According to a study by Columbia University, the pandemic could increase homelessness by 45 percent, an increase of 250,000 from last year. 
  • 7.8 million Americans have fallen into poverty over the last five months, while 45 of the 50 largest companies in America have turned a profit since March, and American billionaires increased their wealth by 36 percent over that same period.

At times this year, feeling claustrophobic from being quarantined in my home from time to time, I have felt a little bit like one of the Jews in this scene from Schindler’s List:[i]

I realize the restrictions and minor inconveniences I have experienced this year are nothing compared to what the Jews in Europe experienced during World War II. Still, many of us have had similar feelings of hopelessness and despair.  

There is another Bon Jovi song I like to listen to when feelings of hopelessness and despair come over me: Keep the Faith. Here are a few of its lines:

Keep the faith, don’t let your love turn to hate

Keep the faith; you know you’re gonna live through the rain

Keep the faith, though you know it’s never too late

Keep the faith

I don’t believe Bon Jovi meant keeping the faith in only a religious sense. Keeping the faith means remaining patient with an optimistic attitude, knowing things will get better. Perhaps Chuck Nolan (played by Tom Hanks) in the film Cast Away, said it best: “I know what I have to do now, I’ve got to keep breathing because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”

Here’s a scene from Defiance,[ii] another fact-based World War II movie that helps us understand what can happen when we keep the faith:

Nothing is impossible when we keep the faith. Working together, with the strong taking care of the weak, we can create miracles.

I am often amazed at how humankind can accomplish extraordinary things against what seem to be overwhelming challenges. Sometimes, though, the smaller yet tricky difficulties of our everyday routines are harder to handle. How do we keep the faith to meet those challenges? The film, Evan Almighty,[iii] tells us one way:

We keep the faith through simple acts of random kindness. And those acts of kindness can change the world. And don’t forget to do the little dance.

Recently, I have been writing my personal history. It has given me the chance to look back at past experiences and how I dealt with them. My family and I have had our share of trials and tribulations—as every family does. As my father-in-law taught me, challenges in life are mandatory, but misery is not. In other words, the important thing is how we react and respond to those trials. And through them all, we have tried to keep the faith. Here are a few examples of challenges, large and small, our family has gone through and what we told ourselves to keep the faith: 

  • When your new bride starts crying at the altar, keep the faith. Even if they aren’t tears of joy, she might one day decide that you’re not so bad after all.
  • When you and your spouse have your first real fight, and she crawls under the bed to get away from you, keep the faith. It might be a tight squeeze, but there’s room for two under there, and it is as good a place as any to apologize.
  • When someone sideswipes your car on the way to a church meeting, keep the faith. Be grateful no one was hurt.
  • When your pregnant wife’s water breaks, but she’s not due for another three months, keep the faith. Doctors and nurses can perform miracles.
  • When someone hurts your feelings, knowingly or unknowingly, keep the faith. They might not even know they hurt your feelings and would be horrified if they did.         
  • When your teenager makes a choice that you feel will lead to pain and unhappiness, keep the faith. Believe it or not, teenagers mature and, like all of us, they learn more from their mistakes than their successes.
  • When you lose your job because of company downsizing but you believe you’re better qualified than others who kept their jobs, keep the faith. It might be you needed to learn humility and empathy for others before your dream job falls into your lap.
  • When one of your best friends moves away, leaving a significant hole in your life, keep the faith. Friendship can span thousands of miles.
  • When you repeatedly invite others to your house for dinner, but not one of them asks you to their home in return, keep the faith. The joy of serving others should be enough. And if it is not, maybe your acts had the wrong motivation.           
  • When you try and try to overcome a shortcoming and, just as you think you’re making progress, you have a significant setback, keep the faith. Overcoming a bad habit is never easy, and you can find great strength in even the striving.
  • When, as an act of service, you loan your car to a neighbor in need, only to have your car broken into and the car stereo stolen, keep the faith. That’s what insurance is for. Besides, it’s just worldly.
  • When a loved one dies unexpectedly, and you didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, keep the faith. You expressed your love for them many times in many ways throughout their life.
  • When you exercise regularly but still gain weight, keep the faith. The exercise did your insides good, regardless of how you look on the outside.
  • When you try to exercise faith in every footstep of life, but sand keeps getting in your shoes, keep the faith. It’s those grains of sand that slowly turn into pearls of wisdom.

Do you recognize similar experiences in your life? If so, keep the faith. Things will get better.

In closing, here are the first and last scenes of Love Actually,[iv] which reminds us that there is more love than hate in the world, and with that love, we can always keep the faith. And by keeping the faith, soon all our Mondays will become Saturday nights.

[i] Schindler’s List:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian (based on the book by Thomas Keneally)
  • Starring: Liam Neeson; Ralph Fienes; and Ben Kingsley
  • Release date: February 4, 1994

[ii] Defiance:

  • Production Companies: Paramount Vantage; Grosvenor Park Productions, and The Bedford Falls Company
  • Director: Edward Zwick
  • Screenwriters: Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick
  • Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell
  • Release date: January 16, 2009

[iii] Evan Almighty:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment, and Relativity Media
  • Director: Tom Shadyac
  • Screenwriter: Steve Oedekerk
  • Starring: Steve Carell, Margan Freeman, and Lauren Graham
  • Release date: June 22, 2007

[iv] Love Actually:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, StudioCanal, Working Title Films
  • Director: Richard Curtis
  • Screenwriter: Richard Curtis
  • Starring: Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Liam  Neeson
  • Release date: November 14, 2003